Thinking Blue Guitars

Slogans stifle thought.

Month: June, 2009

Michael Jackson: Community

Odd Phenomenon

Odd Phenomenon

What are we mourning when we mourn for ‘Michael Jackson’? The most obvious answer would be the musical artist who died three days ago in LA. He was (once) the master of pop music and dance, an almost divinely gifted performer who reached manhood more biologically than emotionally, and whose private life was notoriously turbulent. We mourn for the man who was born on August 29th 1958, and who died almost fifty-one years later.

But is that all we mourn? Those who grew up listening to his music religiously, be that in the nightclubs of downtown 80s LA, in suburban bedrooms in Oxford, or on duvet-veiled pirate radios in the USSR: these people may be mourning the loss of their youths. They are no longer teenagers, their dreams of moving to the country or of escaping the country, of fleeing the City or of making it big in the City, have now turned to dust in their hands. All that remains of a time which bathed in the soft light of potential are a few bars of ‘Bad’ and a nostalgic moonwalk over a grubby kitchen floor. When ‘Michael Jackson’ lived, so, in a subconscious sense, did that potential. But when his heart stopped, their worlds, which had ceased to pulse for many years without their ever realising it, resounded with the sound of missing beats.

Community of Followers

Community of Followers

But is that, too, all we mourn? ‘Michael Jackson’ was not a man; he was a global phenomenon. He was an invisible network; like Coca-Cola or McDonald’s, but with less signs and more moves, he penetrated almost every planet upon earth. The child from the slum in Karachi had nothing in common with the Hispanic cleaner of a New York office, but when they hummed the tune to ‘Billie Jean’ on different sides of the world, the Zeitgeist hummed it with them and united them – if only for a moment. In the age of the high-rise tenement block, suburban prisons known as ‘homes’, gated residences, barrios, and crumbling terraces, ‘Michael Jackson’ was a mystical aura which conjoined a community of followers.

‘Michael Jackson’ was what right communal love looks like in a world that’s wrong. We mourn the absence of the right world; we weep hysterically for the fallen brothers that we never had. So let us now work towards transforming that illusory, narcissistic, but nonetheless righteous, visceral dismay into a real community of real brothers and real sisters.

Workers of the world, moonwalk!

Quote of the Day: Adorno

Emoticon

Emoticon

“If the immanent quality of a type of thinking, the strength manifested in it, the resistance, the imagination, the unity of critique with its opposite – if all of this is not an index veri [index of truth], it is at least an indication. Even if it were a fact, it could not be the truth that Carnap and Mieses are truer than Kant and Hegel.”

- Theodor Adorno – Negative Dialectics

Emoticons

Adorno

Adorno

Emoticons are the virtual manifestation of our actual emotions. They are simultaneously signs of our unwitting subjection and the relics-to-be of a non-subjected subjectivity. As we insert them into an internet chat or an e-mail, we can almost physically sense their limiting effect upon our self-expression; the nuanced gamut of our emotional repertoire is forced, like so much cheap stuffing, into these fabricated grimaces. Our intuitive resistance to this is the negative form of utopia. And yet they do not lie. They foretell of an era in which absolute originality is no longer the measure of success, since the eccentric individual only becomes necessary on a backdrop of uniform dreariness: the power of the celebrity is the impotence of the populace. Emoticons are the meeting place of the living dead and the not-yet-born.

(Written in the spirit of Adorno’s Minima Moralia…this one’s for fans of Theodor! Apologies to those who don’t know or like his work…i.e. most people.)

Simone Weil: Pride

Simone Weil

Simone Weil

A few years ago I invited a friend of mine to my birthday party. I’d regularly attended events he’d invited me to, either as company or moral support or whatever. He agreed to come, but an hour or so before the party was due to begin he called me to say that he was ill and that he’d have to give it a miss. Now, it just so happened that I knew for a fact that on this same evening his girlfriend had been given the night off work; moreover, I’d seen him just the day before and he’d been on top form. I told him it was fine – no worries. But the second I put the phone down I began with the abuse: “Lying bastard.” (Notice that his dishonesty was never doubted.)

Two days later the lads and I were due to go out to watch a gig which a friend of ours was playing at a local bar. I received a text message that morning from the guy who’d missed the party, saying ‘Sorry I couldn’t make it on Saturday. How was it in the end?’ I was still annoyed. I wasn’t going to be taken for a fool! So I suggested to my girlfriend that I send a text message back with something like: ‘Yeah, was ok. I guess you won’t be coming out tonight because of your illness.’ Two can play at that old game. My girlfriend suggested I was being pathetic; I suggested I wasn’t. This guy thought he could just lie to me and that I would accept it!

Philosopher, Mystic, Agitator

Philosopher, Mystic, Agitator

In the end, however, I never sent the message. But the dynamics of the situation still haunt me. I knew he was lying, and he probably knew that I knew – but I needed him to know! I needed him to feel that I knew, that I wasn’t some gullible loser. I needed him, in some sense, to be reduced, to become smaller than me. So, I was surprised, then, when I read the following in a book by Simone Weil:

“To harm a person is to receive something from him. What? What have we gained (and will have to be repaid) when we have done harm? We have gained in importance. We have expanded. We have filled an emptiness in ourselves by creating one in somebody else.”[1]

Of course, my friend’s not coming to my birthday party was trivial and understandable (not to mention that I’d done the same thing to other people on many occasions!), but it produced in me a tiny wound: I’d been cheated in some way, I’d been abandoned and left alone. But this tiniest of wounds made me want to expand until my magnitude engulfed him, until he felt the emptiness he’d made me feel. So what should I have done? Just said nothing and accepted it, or something more dramatic? I leave you with these words of Simone Weil, ones I don’t think I shall ever live up to:

“It is impossible to forgive whoever has done us harm, if that harm has lowered us. We have to think that it has not lowered us, but has revealed our true level.”


[1] Simone Weil, Gravity and Grace, trans. Arthur Wills, p. 50.

Single Man Seeks Megan Fox Look-Alike

All over the internet, and in newspapers throughout much of the world, there are thousands upon thousands of ‘singles adverts’. You know the type of thing; they usually go something like ‘Divorced 50-year old man with Peter Kay eyes and John Smiths s.o.h. seeks 18-19 year-old university student – preferably Charlotte Church-look-alike – for penetrating conversations down the Pig & Whistle’. Unlike this example, they are usually full of vague adjectives: funny, sexy, kind, generous, open-minded, intellectual, caring etc. On the surface, they appear completely unsurprising, but they hide a bizarre fact about love.

Let’s say that one of those adverts is placed by a 30-year old woman who lists five qualities to describe her ideal man: ’30-45 years old, athletic build, tender, a lover of music, and someone who’s great with kids.’ Now, just imagine how many guys there are throughout the world who conform to those qualities – there must be hundreds of thousands of them! Does that mean that the lady who placed the ad would love every single one of them? Of course it doesn’t! Now, partly, that’s because some of them will possess those qualities along with other attributes that she finds a turn-off – they might be obsessed with playing Fifa or with blog-writing, for example. But even if we narrow down the list by assuming the existence of even just a few hundred guys who would match a vast list of such desirable characteristics, what is it that distinguishes the man (or men) she loves from those she doesn’t love?

This is a common conundrum. Don’t we all feel that sense of pointlessness when someone asks us what it is that we love about our partners? I could list so many things, but none of them seem to capture exactly what it is that makes my girlfriend so special! And that’s because a person is not a list of attributes. A person is both more and less than any list of words you could use to describe them. They are like the beautiful darkness in constellations, so that even those with similar stars perform them in totally different rhythms and dimensions.

And this leads to something I really don’t know the answer to, but please respond if you do: is this what we mean when we talk about the soul?

Bond, James Bond

Its true, I am!

It's true, I am!

There is a classic scene in many spy films and novels during which, face to face with his nemesis, and surrounded by onlookers, the protagonist is asked: “So, Mr. Bond, what is it that you do exactly?” The protagonist – in this case, Bond – then replies: “Why, I’m a spy!” at which point all those in the room, including himself, break into raucous laughter at such a preposterous declaration. (Is my memory faulty, or does this not happen in the main poker scene in Casino Royale?) The irony, of course, is that he’s told the truth. The truth has the appearance of a fiction.

Only humans, in this respect, can be spies. There are, of course, many animals – like the killdeer, for instance – who can feign injury in order to protect their young by luring away a predator, or to attract prey. But this is simply a case of doing something false, behind which there is a ‘truth’. No animal, unlike Bond, can emit a truth which has the appearance of a falsity. That is the unique and dubious gift of ‘00’s around the world, and, more generally, of humankind.

(Inspired by several passages throughout the work of Slavoj Žižek)

On Flirting

Althussers Ideological State Apparatuses? Dont even get me started, love!

"Ideological State Apparatuses? Don't even get me started, love!"

If reality really is only a series of immediate, empirically measurable phenomena, then how do we account for that most perilous and complex of human activities: flirting? Flirting is a process of reading another person and interpreting reality. It’s a whole series of shunting and shifting, toe-dipping and testing of waters, advances and retreats (most of which are invisible). It is plagued by questions of hermeneutics: ‘Why is she touching her hair like that – what does it mean?’, ‘Why is he looking at me and smirking slightly – what does it signify?’, ‘Did he look at me for one second too long on purpose, or is he just slightly autistic?’. Flirting is one of the supreme arenas of empirical, factual incertitude.

What is flirting, anyway? How do we know when an act of flirtation has taken place? What appears to one person as a completely neutral act – the shaking of a bracelet, or the licking of a lip – might seem to another to be a clear signal that the game is on! In terms of the second example, a bio-chemist could reel off myriad facts about the chemical constitution of saliva, or the digestive capacities of enzymes; an industrial cosmetics manufacturer could explicate the molecular nature of the lip gloss; and a speech therapist could explain the oral muscles involved in the action of lip-licking; none of them, however, could tell you definitively whether the lady in question happened to be feeling particularly parched, or whether she was insinuating that if I continued to regale her with the minutiae of Althusser’s theory of ideology then my reward would be an act of fellatio.

And this is serious stuff. I’m sure we’ve all experienced – especially as teenagers – the pre-first kiss abyss. My lover and I, standing beneath the midnight stars in a run-down park, with empty bottles of White Lightning scattered at our feet: who dares to make the move, who has the audacity to make the leap of faith? Scientific rationalism breaks down here. This is the moment where the objective laws of material reality cease to matter – literally. It is the moment of sheer potentiality, one which threatens to explode in a million directions all at once. If I try to kiss her, will she kiss me back, pounce on me, scream for help, or slap me? Will I be celebrated as a bold and virile Casanova, or will I be decried as an attempted rapist? There is nothing certain about the act of flirting.

In that respect, it is not a million miles from the act of faith.

Night Couple

Night Couple

Beyond Truth

Aristotle chilling with Plato

Plato chilling with Aristotle

In yesterday’s post I touched briefly upon how the Kantian ethics of duty has distorted our thinking on morality. Today, I shall focus on the ways in which it might even be said to have infiltrated our thinking about truth.

In a valuable recent exchange with a few ardent atheists, I came across a classic argument that runs something like this: people turn to religion because it makes them feel better about themselves and their lives, and, even though sometimes this mindset can actually lead people to do better in real life, what atheists are concerned with is not ‘feeling good’ but the ‘truth’. Now, in yesterday’s post I outlined both why Christianity in particular cannot be said to be a ‘feel-good’ religion (it has a crucified Jew at its core!), and I also observed that the fact that Christianity may well succeed in making people feel better about their lives is not necessarily a bad thing (bizarre that that even needs to be said). But here the argument is slightly different.

The underlying logic of the atheist thesis is thus: people who turn to religion feel good about themselves therefore it cannot be true. Now, even ignoring the fact that the first half of this proposition is patently false, and that ‘religion’ in the abstract is senseless, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the logical connector (‘therefore’) is illogical. It is a confusion of categories. Since when has it been a pre-requisite of truth that it make you feel miserable? Traditionally, and in everyday practice, truth can be defined via the Aristotelian concept of adequatio: ‘saying of what is that it is, and of what is not that it is not.’ It is a supposedly perfect equivalence between mind and world. Of course, philosophically, this is highly problematic, but even if we accept this workaday definition it is obvious that whether or not one feels good regarding a particular truth has nothing to do with its veracity. I may feel sadistically delighted that I’ve just dropped a meat cleaver on my bare foot, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true and that I need immediate surgery.

The most boring genius in history?

The most boring genius in history?

But even this doesn’t get us very far, for it still relies on Kant’s archetypally bourgeois separation of pure reason, practical reason (ethics), and aesthetic judgement. In fact, the ‘moment of truth’ in the atheist’s logical short-circuit is that it attempts – in spite of itself – to reunite rationality and the sentient body. In medieval scholastic thinking, the tripartite Kantian scheme would have been almost literally unthinkable. ‘Reason’ was a way of life – a way of moving, loving, thinking, feeling and praying in harmony with the world – not something you confined to a white-washed lab and a textbook. So, even if at the level of content the atheist argument that feeling good equates to falsehood is totally wrong, at the level of form their unintentional attempt to unify body and mind is spot on.

When it comes to faith, the ‘adequation’ concept of truth is, ironically, inadequate. It remains trapped within the realm of bourgeois alienation. This form of ‘truth’, removed from the lived context of human community with its squabbles and fracas, its murders and lovers, its sweethearts and heart-attacks, is like a small squib of a phantom at one’s command. Facts and figures I can dominate; I am their lord. But to critically and willingly submit myself, through making sacrifices and putting myself at the service of those in need, that is something over which I have no mastery. In the messy, difficult and tangled web of human relations, truths of the Kantian kind remain important, but they can only get you so far. At best, you will remain unchanged – just like the world around you – but, as compensation, you will have an army of dates and theses at your command. (This, of course, is perfect for the capitalist status quo, which spreads injustice like disease.) But the real truth is a holistic totality of lived, empirical and imaginative worlds, and the forms of loving human interaction that can arise within it. If that doesn’t sound like what we traditionally mean by ‘truth’, then all the better: truth is, ultimately, beyond truth.

Contra the Atheists: In Defence of Joy and Losers

Painting by Blake

'Sconfitta' by Blake

Common perceptions of Christians may well include the following: they are gullible, scarily amicable,  sexually unadventurous, irrational, zealous, happy-clappy, generally very boring, teetotal, cheesy, disconnected from reality, hypocritical, and in need of a heart-warming fable that they can believe in in order to feel better about their pathetic selves and less afraid of death. Now, if we’re honest, much of that is often true. After all, the Church is not meant to be a gathering-place of perfect human beings, but rather a communion of losers and failures – or, to put it as Eagleton once did, the shit of the earth. Jesus was, of course, contrary to what right-wing American zealots might argue, history’s all-time greatest loser.

What I want to focus on in this post is the last of these stereotypes: that Christians seek refuge from the real world in a cosy, cockle-warming tale. Those who think like this (and I was once a most vociferous proponent) generally tend to view themselves as enlightened, rational beings who have the fortitude to see reality for what it really is, not through any rose-tinted spectacles. Their world is one guided by ‘science’, by which I mean their faith in the capacity of practising scientists to solve the mysteries of human existence and to explain presently inexplicable phenomena. History, in general, is perceived to be an endless march of linear progress which is roughly in line with scientific and technological advancements, and the transcendent never much exceeds a hazy agnosticism. As for death, that’s the end: the great abyss.

With such a gloomy and unimaginative horizon, is it any wonder that certain people turn to Christianity? Atheists get Darwin. Not bad, all things considered, but Christians get Darwin and flame-engulfed angels! Atheists get an abyss, but Christians get – more terrifyingly – a bodily resurrection of all humans who must then give an account of themselves before the source of all being…who died for them! You couldn’t even write this shit! So, whilst it is, of course, true that many people take shelter in the Church so as to feel better about their lives, we might well want to stop to ask why this is such a bad thing. It’s rather like the whole ‘altruism versus egoism’ debate: did I help this little old lady with her shopping because I really wanted to help her, or did I do so because really I wanted to feel good about myself? Why couldn’t it be both?! Helping an old lady is good and doing good makes one feel good. Our popular conceptions of morality have been corrupted by the sadistic Kantian concept of duty: doing good must make us feel bad. Absurd!

Beatrice Addressing Dante by Blake

Beatrice Addressing Dante by Blake

No, Christianity is not for fools (well, it is but it isn’t, if you catch my drift). It is all very well for atheists to spout on about ‘proof’ and ‘science’ and ‘ideology’, but when it comes to the crunch it is secularists who are often (not always) the most gullible and least critical thinkers. It is totally acceptable for an atheist to invoke the dominant ideology of scientific rationalism – the great ‘opium of the people’ of our age – without having any specialist scientific knowledge whatsoever, whereas a Christian is forced to fight her intellectual corner in terms of science, history, theology, philosophy, etc. An atheist is under no obligation (other than worldly law) to accept responsibility for the state of the world or for the wrong of a particular situation; all they have to do is bemoan it, and go on reproducing the status quo which gave rise to it. A Christian, on the other hand, must accept that for all wrong that exists in the world, she is personally responsible; moreover, as if that weren’t enough already, she must do all in her power to ‘make God possible’ in no matter how dire a context. That Christians often don’t (à la moi) is not always a sign of their hypocrisy (although with me it sometimes is), but rather of their humanity.

Of course, many atheists are wonderful people who do wonderful things (the socialists the greatest amongst them), and they’re often a damn sight better than most Christians: give me Dawkins the Banal over Bush the Destroyer any day. But at the heart of Christianity is a political prisoner who was mutilated and then crucified by an imperial regime. It doesn’t get much more ‘real’ than that. Now, many atheists appreciate the horror and evil of the world – they are absolute realists – and for that I applaud them, but Christians know the darkness too. The difference for them is that they know a second, more potent, darkness – darker than the most infernal obscurity. So dark, in fact, that it is known to them as light. For them, death and evil have been conquered: to remind them that, despite this fact, we must still do all we can here on earth to stay true to that message is absolutely legitimate and necessary; but to deny them joy by claiming that it is only happy-clappy claptrap is nothing but the purest bourgeois ideology.

Derrida: the Never-Ending Story

Genius

Genius

When is a book finished? The obvious answer is when you’ve reached the last full stop of the last page. And there’s nothing wrong with that answer: it makes perfect sense on a day-to-day basis. But since literary theorists constitute a significant percentage of the global academic workforce, they have to complicate things a little or else they’d be out of a job.

Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), who was actually an Algerian-born French philosopher but who was co-opted almost immediately by a lagging literary community, was different from the majority of that workforce, in that he actually had some exciting and original things to say.  In an essay he wrote in 1963, entitled ‘Force and Signification’,[1] he touches briefly upon what he calls ‘theological simultaneity’. Now, in order to understand this, imagine a novel that ends where it begins (one could do worse than Coelho’s utterly banal The Alchemist). The scholars against which Derrida was writing (the structuralists), but to a vast extent we, too, today, would undoubtedly wax lyrical about the ‘circular’ structure of the plot. But Derrida poses two important questions:

Fountain of Eternal Youth

Fountain of Eternal Youth

  1. Where is this circle? Where does it exist?
  2. How can a whole book be present at one moment?

Reading is a temporal process. As we read, the book is never present in its entirety; indeed, a mere sentence isn’t even present all at once. (Just go back and read that last sentence: how could anyone ‘hold the whole sentence in their minds’? No sooner have we read ‘As we read’ than it disappears to make way for ‘a book’, and so on.) So those who speak of a ‘circle’ are under the impression that they can contain the whole book in their minds in one go, which is a lie. This is what Derrida means by ‘theological simultaneity’: these critics make a Platonic god of the physical object; ‘simultaneity is the myth of a total reading or description, promoted to the status of a regulatory ideal’ (p. 29). It spatializes time.

So how is this relevant to normal life? Well, at a trivial level, it means that a book is never finished. Technically, a book can never even start. Don’t be fooled by the tome you hold between your hands: you might think you control it, but it contains mysterious powers which evade you. You can tear a book, or drown it, or burn it, but meaning itself is the great Houdini which no page or talk of circles could ever circumscribe. Like Bob Dylan, there where you think you’ve pinned him down is precisely where he’s not.

And this, amongst many other reasons, is why Derrida is so politically potent. Any totalitarian regime is the social equivalent of ‘theological simultaneity’, claiming to be now, and always and everywhere, like an all-conserving, unchangeable myth. But what Derrida has shown, far better than I have managed to express here, is that this myth is, indeed, but a myth. Such regimes claim to have found the fountain of eternal youth, but in the deep of night they jolt awake, cold and panting, because their dreams are haunted by the man who got there first: Derrida. He poisoned that fountain with time, and différance, and age.


[1] Jacques Derrida, Writing and Difference, trans. Alan Bass (London: Routledge, 1978), pp. 1-35.

Penis Rings: You May! Why Sex Doesn’t Matter

May I? Yes, you may!

May I? Yes, you may!

We are obsessed with sex. It’s everywhere. You can’t turn your head but suck a breast, cock an eye but glimpse a cleavage, change the channel but catch the dying groans of someone else’s ecstasy. In fact, if you come across the latter then you might well be watching Durex’s much-publicised advert for what it describes as ‘pleasure gel’. Durex used to be a company that made condoms, pure and simple. Today, however, it is a £40m brand, a promoter of such exoticisms as vibrators, penis rings, oils and lubricants, and – most importantly – a symptom of where we stand ideologically in terms of sex.

Now, there are two ways of approaching this phenomenon, and both – I hope – avoid the common errors of, on the one hand, predictable conservative fundamentalism (sex is sinful…blah blah blah) and, on the other hand, the orgiastic mantra of an ‘18 to 30s’ holiday. The first approach derives from Slavoj Žižek, a Slovenian Marxist psychoanalyst, who has been described as the ‘Elvis Presley of cultural theory’. Throughout his work he stresses that whereas in traditional psychoanalysis the superego was effectively the ‘No!’ of the father, that which forbids (“Can I do this?” squeaks the meek child “NO!” booms the castrating father), today’s superego might be said to be the polar opposite: ‘You may!’ Now, superficially, that seems fairly harmless: ‘What a nice superego! It’ll let me do whatever I want! I can drink and whore till my heart’s content!’ The downside, however, is that ‘You may!’ is a command, and all commands have a nasty side, something in them which is excessive. Suddenly, what seemed like permission to drink becomes a command: ‘You WILL drink excessively and you WILL enjoy it!’ Who hasn’t experienced a night out where, after drinking so much you vomited, you then felt compelled to go on drinking, since that’s ‘fun’? The same goes for sex today. Just because we are a post-hippie, everything-goes generation does not mean that we are a flourishing one. Being free to have sex where, when and with whom we like often transforms maliciously into the Durex implicit imperative ‘I must have sex and it must be good, or else.’

Unfortunately, Bernini never read my blog.

Unfortunately, Bernini never read my blog.

Given that that is the current state of play, the second approach to the problem has the potential to be fairly radical, and it comes from my favourite of unlikeliest sources: the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams. He observes that, despite the fuss that the Church has made historically over sex and sexuality, if you consider the New Testament carefully then you’ll see that sex just isn’t that important. Here is a quote from an essay he wrote over ten years ago, but which has recently been making the rounds on several theology blogs (Ben Myers’s and Halden’s in particular):

“What is baffling and sometimes outrageous to the modern reader is just this assumption that, in certain circumstances, sex can’t matter that much. And I want to suggest that the most important contribution the New Testament can make to our present understanding of sexuality may be precisely in this unwelcome and rather chilling message. We come to the New Testament eagerly looking for answers, and we meet a blank or quizzical face: why is that the all-important problem? Not all human goods are possible all the time, and it would be a disaster to think that there was some experience without which nothing else made sense. Only if sexual intimacy is seen as the last hiding-place of real transcendence, to borrow a phrase from the American novelist, Walker Percy, could we assume that it mattered above all else.”[1]

In other words, precisely because we live in an age obsessed with sex and sexuality, we tend to stake almost everything on those terms. What we forget, and what the New Testament suggests, is that sex just isn’t important. Indeed, in a follow-up post, Halden provocatively concludes that “If Christ is truly the fullness and definition of authentic humanity, we must say categorically that marriage, sex, and parenthood tell us nothing whatsoever of ultimate significance about humanness”. And in this day and age, that is in no small way shocking.


[1] Rowan Williams, “Forbidden Fruit”, in Martyn Percy (ed.), Sexuality and Spirituality in Perspective (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1997), pp.25-26

An Adornian Homage to Bob Dylan

Ceci n'est pas Bob Dylan

A stag entered the garden – I saw it from the kitchen window – and it seemed to know my name. I went outside to greet it, but when I arrived it wasn’t there anymore. It had moved into the forest where it was dark and cold. The trees were old and moved in ever-growing circles.

Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is – do you, Mr Jones?

Three suitors went to win the heart of a princess locked in a tower. They climbed her hair, entered the window, and had to persuade her with their words who loved her most. The first knight, dressed in chainmail and visor, had composed a poem in which he compared her eyes to the stars, her face to the moon, and her lips to a deep, red rose. The second knight had written a speech. More than the highest mountain, the lowest valley, the deepest sea, and the furthest star: that was how much he loved her. The third knight handed her a note. As soon as she began to open it he ran and leapt out of the window to his death. She opened the aged and crumpled piece of paper. It was blank.

Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is – do you, Mr Jones?

Robin Hood and the Sheriff of Nottingham competed in an archery match. The Sheriff shot first, aimed high and pulled hard: the arrow went soaring through the air and landed at the heart of the bull’s-eye. He roared with satisfaction. Robin shot second, but just as he was taking aim a court jester (a dwarf) approached him and whispered something in his ear. Robin unleashed: the arrow went soaring through the air, the wind forcing it to swirl left and right, right and left. Finally, it landed: on the very edge of the target. The crowd cheered: Robin had won.

Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is – do you, Mr Jones?

A businessman approached me and offered to show me the contents of his briefcase. Since I had nothing better to do, and nowhere else to go, I accepted. His briefcase was enormous, and as he opened it it sounded like the lowering of a drawbridge. Out of the case stepped another businessman, and he too had a briefcase, and he too offered to open it. As he did so, the first businessman came and stood beside me, enthralled by the contents of the second man’s briefcase. This time it sounded like the opening of electric doors. The three of us stood and watched as a third businessman stepped out, also holding a briefcase. The new arrival immediately opened his own case, which made no sound at all. As soon as it was fully open, a woman stepped out ringing bells. The three men were afraid of the sound and ran away.

Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is – do you, Mr Jones?

God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost were sat in a saloon in the Wild West. Chewing tobacco, frequently spitting black globules onto the sawdust floor, they pondered their cards. Just as Jesus was about to make his move, the Devil stormed into the saloon. ‘Come on outta here! It’s high noon, damn you!’ Jesus chewed slowly, pondered his cards some more, and then spat into a tin bucket. ‘I said get the hell outside, Messiah! It’s now or never, I’m warning you!’ Jesus turned his head slowly. He looked the Devil square in the eyes. He said nothing. The Father and the Holy Ghost just kept on chewing.

Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is – do you, Mr Jones?

She wrote my name in the sand. She spent seven long hours with a piece of driftwood, just carving the letters of my name. The sun reached its highest point, and started its slow decline. The lower it got, the quicker the waves came in. At the end of the seven hours, she asked me what I thought. I didn’t get chance to say, because the breakers crashed into the hollow ciphers, shifting their shapes.

Something is happening here, but you don’t know what it is – do you, Mr Jones?

When we first got married, he asked me my favourite colour. ‘Red.’ Favourite film? ‘Don’t have one.’ Favourite song? ‘Don’t have one’. Favourite meal? ‘Spaghetti bolognaise.’ Favourite shape? If I’d have said ‘Square’, I’d have been lying. If I’d have said ‘Circle’, I’d have been lying. If I’d have said ‘Spiral’, I’d have been telling the truth as far as I knew it to be true. So I said ‘Triangle, darling, because I know it’s your favourite too.’

Rowan Williams’s Radical Christian Mission

Rowan Williams

Rowan Williams

Last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, gave a lecture on Christian mission. What, you might be thinking, could Rowan Williams and Christian mission ever, even after having smoked the world’s beefiest bifter, have to do with me? Well, here goes a shot in the dark…

To begin with it might help if we turn to that bastion of lexical resourcefulness, Dictionary.com, for a simple definition of ‘mission’ in the Christian context: ‘a group of persons sent by a church to carry on religious work, esp. evangelization in foreign lands, and often to establish schools, hospitals, etc.’ In general, even such a neutral description of Christian missionary work as this one can conjure grim spectres of rapacious colonial expeditions in the minds of most enlightened liberals. Having no expertise in the history of such expeditions myself, I’m far from qualified to comment on the justification of these conceptual ghouls. Nonetheless, the stereotype of Christian mission which exists in the minds of secular westerners might look something like this: the white, male, Christian from North-Western Europe arrives in Africa with a fleet of war-ships, over-brimming with brainless, God-fearing mercenaries; he approaches the terrified locals (whom he refers to as ‘savages’) who had been leading lives of perfect contentment up until this point, and stands on the beach proclaiming that he has come to release them from the bondage of ignorance and wishes to shine the light of the irrepressible one true God into their lives; when the locals fail to demonstrate immediate enthusiasm at this mysterious interruption into their hallowed ways, the Christian missionary calls in the mercenaries who butcher, rape and torture at will until the terrified inhabitants of the African wilderness acquiesce and give themselves up to Christ; the said missionary then tears out the heart of one of the corpses, hoists it aloft, and as the blood drips down upon his celestial features he bellows: “The truth of the Lord is written on the hearts of all men!”

In what sense, then, can Christian mission still have any relevance whatsoever to anything at all? I’ll try to keep it brief. Rowan Williams concentrates primarily on the biblical passage of Matthew 10 (the Bible, incidentally, for those of you who never read it – like me 50% of the time – is a disturbing, if invigorating, read):

These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. As you go proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’ Cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons. You have received without payment; give without payment. Take no gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, or two tunics, or sandals, or a staff; for labourers deserve their food’.

Here’s what Rowan Williams gets from this:

  1. Jesus’ instruction to go to the ‘lost sheep of Israel’ implies that missionaries should only go there where they feel God has, in some sense, already ‘tilled the field’, somewhere where God has already prepared the way, i.e. don’t just jump on a plane with your Gideons and invade any old Amazonian patch, but rather think about where you might be needed or – dare I say it? – welcomed. (‘Start where God has started’.)
  2. ‘As you go proclaim the good news, ‘The kingdom of heaven has come near.’’ Rowan Williams reads this as an extension of the first point; when a missionary goes somewhere where they believe God is opening doors, one of the first things they should say is precisely that – God is already here amongst you at work. It seems to me as if one might draw a comparison with Plato’s ‘anamnesis’ or ‘unforgetting’: you help those to whom you go to unforget that God is always already at work amongst them. (Hang in there, all ye atheists – the main point hasn’t been broached yet.)
  3. But then what should missionaries do? Essentially, Rowan seems to think, it’s a question of changing and release: ‘Mission is release from sickness, from death, literally, from isolation (leprosy), from the demonic and the destructive forces that suck human beings down into darkness both inside and outside. Mission is crucially about tangible change, visible release, a release that at the individual level is the release from guilt and fear in respect of God which at the public and corporate level is a release from despair and oppression, from poverty and inhumanity.’ Ultimately, it is what he calls ‘Christ-shaped change’. And here we approach the main event.

It is worth quoting a whole passage from the Archbishop’s lecture:

And I put it that way so that we can remind ourselves that the change we speak of, where mission is concerned, is not simply or primarily a change of opinions or even of beliefs. First of all, it’s a change in the whole environment, a change in the world you live in. Not for nothing does St Paul speak of new creation. Not new things going on inside your head; not new concepts but a new world, a world whose newness is shown in that manifest release that’s going on in the lives of people and communities. Where do we start? Where God has started. What do we say? God is nearer that you think. What do we do? We seek to bring Christ-shaped change.

Now, as a pseudo-intellectual with Marxist proclivities, this strikes me as deeply radical. Mission is not ‘primarily a change of opinions or even of beliefs.’ This goes against all bourgeois thinking on faith. For bourgeois society, faith is something you do in your spare time: it’s a private, internal affair. (This presupposition is, of course, the upshot of the public-private divide which capitalist society exacerbates to borderline schizophrenic proportions.) But what Rowan Williams is saying is something else: mission is not about going to a farflung country and commanding a local people to tick off a checklist of the Nicene Creed, all the time leaving the external environment exactly the same as it was before. It’s about new creation, building a new worldscape, which means material newness as well as psychological novelty. Because faith, despite what many seem to think, is not just a private affair: it is lived out in reality and it recognises no public-private divide. In this sense, it has definite resonances with socialism. (It is no co-incidence that Rowan Williams is often associated with traditional leftist thinking; he was once arrested for scaling a fence during a protest organised by the Committee for Nuclear Disarmament).

Indeed, the next part of Matthew 10 simply compounds this idea of creation: ‘You have received without payment; give without payment.’ Contrary to diabolical theories of creation, orthodox theology teaches that God had absolutely no reason to create the world, but did so, rather, out of a sheer superabundance of love. (Fortunately, shareholders play no part in the Trinity, and so the triune Father, Son and Holy Spirit were blessedly free of the utilitarianism of the Alan Sugars of this world.) Likewise, Christian missionaries have freely received and so they must freely give: there is no exchange value which haunts this transaction; businesswise the figures just don’t add up. If God created the world for no reason but love, then mission is all about gratitude for that free gift.

Now, gratitude is difficult to demonstrate to whichever brothers and sisters you anticipate serving if you arrive with a fleet of stealth bombers. That might be how oil merchants like to spread their gospel – by inscribing its falsehood onto the blown-up limbs of children – but it is not recommended for followers of Christ. Rather, as Rowan Williams puts it rather succinctly: ‘Mission travels light.’ Further on, he expands:

‘we have to be very careful not to close doors by the way we plan: that is, we need to be led by the sense of where God is actively opening doors and put the initiative and energy there in the trust that somehow that action will generate the resources we need – ‘For the labourers deserve their food’.’

It seems to me that this, too, is an extension of the radical nature of mission I’ve accentuated so far. It’s not about planning a military operation, where to strike, and what we want to get out of it. Rather, it’s a case of heeding local communities, listening to what they need and helping them to bring that about. By serving a community, by putting yourself and your resources at their disposal, your deeds speak the words of the Gospel.

So, whether or not one is Christian, or socialist, or a Christian socialist, it is not unthinkable that the most unfashionable of men with the most outrageously unkempt of eyebrows, can, in a lecture on something as obscure and superficially irrelevant as Christian mission, give us a few pointers on where we’re going wrong, and how we might better live together.

Review: David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions

It’s not long since Terry Eagleton informed us that reading Richard Dawkins on theology is like encountering someone who has read only the Book of British Birds and who then feels qualified to hold forth for over five hundred pages on biology. Indeed, fans of Eagleton’s ‘acerbic wit’, a quality which has become to ‘Eagleton’ what ‘yellow’ is to ‘submarine’ or ‘finger lickin’ good’ to ‘KFC’, are in for a treat with David Bentley Hart’s latest publication: Atheist Delusions. In delectable prose, the likes of which is exceedingly rare within the confines of the rhetorically deaf academic community (besides Comrade Eagleton’s, of course), Hart flays and scourges Dawkins and his ilk, whom he refers to under the endearingly archaic collective putdown: ‘gadflies’. Contrasting them with their far superior forbears – Celsus, for example, or, more recently, Nietzsche – Hart often appears decidedly disappointed that history has deigned to offer him such philosophically infantile and imaginatively vapid opponents. If at times he appears to teeter dangerously too far on the wrong side of ‘condescending’, then at others the sheer force of his erudition, so rhythmically and articulately performed, do more than enough to convince us that he has every right to be!

The majority of the book is taken up with methodically demolishing, one by one, the popular myths that are peddled about the role of Christianity in human history. Such myths include the following: that ‘religion’ (Hart rightly observes that ‘religion’ means nothing in itself, since no one advocates ‘religion’ per se, but rather a particular manifestation of it), or, more precisely, Christianity, has been responsible for the most despicable atrocities ever to have stained the annals of time; that Christianity is always and everywhere opposed to ‘scientific truth’; that it was the Enlightenment that rescued mankind from the yoke of Christian darkness, rekindling humanity’s moral and intellectual flames after centuries of obscurity under irrational faith; and so on. Several chapters begin with quotations from popular literature on Christian history which are then shown to be based on false assumptions, dubious historical sources, or downright ignorance.

All of this is not to say, however, that Hart naively celebrates a Church that has only and could only ever bring good into the world. He is far too astute and honest for such intellectual child’s play. No, rather, what it comes down to most often is this: whether or not, throughout history, someone was a Christian or a pagan, by the sheer fact that he or she was also ‘human’ (yet another category that Christianity pretty much invented), they were necessarily potential monsters. Supposed lovers of Christ were often just as susceptible to brutality as were their heathen counterparts, but not more so, and quite likely less so.

That said, however, Hart is not backward in coming forwards: where Christianity deserves credit, he is sure to give it in abundance. Take the overarching celebration of the book, for example: the Christian Revolution. Unlike what he deems to be false revolutions, those violent and explosive outbursts that fundamentally change nothing, the Christian Revolution changed everything. Our consciences, as he rightly observes, are historically conditioned. That little voice in the mind demanding us to welcome strangers, to feed the hungry, and to heal the sick, no matter if they are one of ‘our kind’ or not, is not something that has existed eternally. It has come to be through the slow, gradual, but ultimately tectonic, shift in Western human morality that began with a Jewish political prisoner who was executed by an imperial regime, and who, three days later, was resurrected. Hart demonstrates time and again that, where a Christian community was present, there was to be found the sick tended to, orphans cared for, the hungry fed, and the downtrodden uplifted.

But perhaps the most powerful chapters of the book are those concerning modern conceptions of freedom and the fate of Christianity in the modern world. For Hart, to be entirely modern (which, he points out, very few of us are) is to believe in nothing. Not just figuratively, but literally: to believe in nothingness itself. We are the great nihilists:

[we] place our trust in an original absence underlying all of reality, a fertile void in which all things are possible, from which arises no impediment to our wills, and before which we may consequently choose to make of ourselves what we choose. We trust, that is to say, that there is no substantial criterion by which to judge our choices that stands higher than the unquestioned good of free choice itself, and that therefore all judgement is in some sense an infringement upon our freedom. This is our primal ideology.

Moreover, the logical (and metaphysical) consequence of modernity’s consumerist nihilism is the following one: ‘if the will determines itself principally in and through the choices it makes, then it too, at some very deep level, must also be nothing: simply a pure movement of spontaneity, motive without motive, absolute potentiality, giving birth to itself.’ Suddenly, the ruling elite’s current obsession with choice (‘Choose your school!’ ‘Choose your hospital!’ ‘Choose your dildo!’) comes to sound a little more ominous than its civilized façade might admit.

Yet, despite the implicit nihilistic metaphysics of modernity, and despite his initial triumphalist rampages through the ranks of Hitchens, Harris, Dawkins and Dennett, David Bentley Hart ends on a note of lament. Far from foreseeing an inevitable resurgence of Christian faith in the West, one which would carry on the work of the Christian Revolution before it was co-opted by the temporal state of Constantine, Hart envisages its steady decline, as Fortune’s Wheel revolves once more. If in one sense Christianity permeates everything we are – right down to our knee-jerk ethical reactions in our everyday lives – then in another sense it is disappearing, and something new is gradually taking its place. ‘If the principles that give an idea life are no longer present, then that idea loses its organic environment and will, unless some other ideological organism can absorb it, perish.’ And if that happens, he warns, the likes of Dawkins and Hitchens, even in their darkest hours, could not imagine what a West purged of all Christian presuppositions would look like. It is time, he notes, mournfully, that Christians prepare themselves once more for the desert.

9/11 – A Defence of Logic

(Originally written a year ago)

Last night I had a conversation with friends on politics and cultural theory. The subject matter drifted towards the 9/11 terrorist attacks, whereupon I proposed a view that struck me as fairly self-evident: 9/11 did not happen in a historical vacuum; whilst it was a deeply horrific act which was morally unjustifiable, it was also a logical response to and reaction against, amongst other things, US imperialistic foreign policy. Having expressed this view, my friends, whom up to this point I had considered to be generally likeminded, castigated me for having described the attacks as ‘reasonable’ and ‘logical’. Shocked by their immediate reactions, I took heart in the idea that in defining my terms a little more precisely I might make myself clear. ‘Reasonable’, they rightly pointed out, has a semantic tinge of ‘justifiable’, or ‘emotionally valid’. Henceforth, I tried to stick to the cold light of ‘logic’,[1] but unfortunately their disagreement went deeper than terminology: their fundamental belief was that in insisting that the 9/11 terrorist attacks were a logical reaction to a very particular historical and socio-economic context, I was somehow endorsing the attacks. The purpose of this article is to combat such reactionary folly, and let us be absolutely clear about this: folly is precisely what it is.

Indeed, Terry Eagleton has shown that by invoking the ‘explanation is exculpation’ mantra, you actually de-ethicize terrorist acts:

In the so-called war against terror, ‘evil’ is used to foreclose the possibility of historical explanation…In the disparagement of rational analysis which it suggests, it reflects something of the fundamentalism it confronts. Explanation is thought to be exculpation. Reasons become excuses. Terrorist assault is just a surreal sort of madness, like someone turning up at a meeting of the finance committee dressed as a tortoise. Like the sublime, it lies beyond all rational configuration…On this somewhat obtuse theory, to explain why someone behaves as they do is to demonstrate that they could not have acted otherwise, thus absolving them of responsibility.

The truth is that unless you act for a reason, your action is irrational and you are probably absolved of blame for it. A being who was truly independent of all conditioning would not be able to act purposefully at all, any more than an angel could mow the lawn. Acting for a reason involves creatively interpreting the forces which bear in upon us, rather than allowing them to smack us around like snooker balls; and such interpretation involves a degree of freedom. It is inadvisable to caricature your enemy as crazy or spurred on by bestial passion, since morally speaking this lets him off the hook. You must decide whether you are going to see him as evil or mad. Unless we can propose some reasons for why people act as they do, we are not speaking of specifically human behaviour at all, and questions of innocence or guilt become accordingly irrelevant. Moral action must be purposive action: we would not call tripping over a stone morally reprehensible, or wax morally indignant over a rumble in the gut. Reasons may be morally repugnant, but actions without them cannot be.[2]

He who begins as a liberal transforms himself, through his denunciation of the proposed act of comprehension, into the very fundamentalist his flawed politics attempts to refute.

Beyond the realm of logic, there are further manifestations of such reversals. In order to understand them, we must first understand one or two unique characteristics of the current historical epoch. Frederic Jameson points out in his Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism that one of the results of multinational capitalism is that we are no longer able to create effective ‘cognitive maps’. What he means by this is that in less capitalistically developed or in pre-capitalist society people used to be able to carry around in their minds the totality of which they were a part as an articulated ensemble: a cognitive map in which they could visualise their place in the world. Today, it has become increasingly common and increasingly impossible to imagine our real place in the world. Take the term ‘post-industrial’, for example, which is used by many First World commentators to describe our current historical epoch; what they forget – or choose to forget – is that just because industrial production has gradually disappeared from the West does not alter the fact that it’s now moved to places like Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Indonesia. (Indeed, one might be tempted to argue that the first step towards becoming genuinely geo-politically conscious would be to take a look at the labels in one’s clothes and have a think about how they got there.) In other words, part of the problem with my friends’ argument is that it willingly forecloses the possibility of producing a cognitive map in which global interactions and our place within them would make sense. For them, these attacks come from literally nowhere: their perpetrators are ahistorical phantoms from outer space.

Related to this is a second problem. Slavoj Žižek makes a distinction between subjective and objective violence.[3] By subjective violence he means violent acts committed by concrete individuals or groups of individuals who are clearly identifiable agents. Objective violence, by contrast, is systemic, and is no longer attributable to single agents and their ‘evil’ intentions. The mistake that most people make is to use the latter as a neutral background in front of which to view the former. He gives as an example the outbreaks of violence in pre-revolutionary Russia, whereby the liberals simply could not understand the reason behind these seemingly irrational outbursts. What they failed to perceive was that their ‘neutral background’ of imperial Russia, the socio-economic formation on which their relative prosperity was founded, was itself an objective, systemic violence which gave rise to these outbreaks. The same holds true for 9/11. If you perceive those aeroplanes launching themselves into the Twin Towers as a subjective act of violence on a neutral background, then you cannot hope to understand it. If, however, you realise that your intellectual safety blanket – the ‘neutral background’ of US foreign policy and multinational capitalism – is in fact a profoundly violent system, then you have more hope of understanding where these attacks came from and why.

Indeed, it never ceases to amaze me how blind liberals actually are. They are the political equivalent of small children; they haven’t quite grown out of the habit of seeing their nation (usually Britain or the US) as ultimately good. “Yes,” they say, “we know the ruling powers make mistakes, we know they are capable of horrible things, but deep down Daddy loves us.” Well, know this, my child: Daddy doesn’t love you. Daddy loves himself. But if you ever want to kick your habit of subliminal paternal affection, might I suggest a less violent substitute: Noam Chomsky. Unlike the majority of post-9/11 muddleheaded commentators, just seven days after the attacks Chomsky gave a brief, carefully worded radio account of why they had happened.[4] Here are the principal reasons:

  • First we must remember that Bin Laden was a Saudi-Arabian millionaire who rose to prominence as an Islamic military leader in the war to drive the Russians out of Afghanistan. He was one of many religious fundamentalists recruited, armed, and financed by the CIA and their allies in Pakistani intelligence with the aim of carrying out maximum carnage on the Soviets.
  • Once the Russians had been driven out, these soldiers then joined the Muslim forces in the Balkans: the US did not object, since this enhanced its particular geo-political aims at the time.
  • Bin Laden and his “Afghanis” turned against the US in 1990 when the Americans established a permanent base in Saudi-Arabia – from his point of view, it was a counterpart to the Russian occupation of Afghanistan, but far more significant because of Saudi Arabia’s special status as the guardian of the holiest shrines.
  • Remember, however, that Bin Laden loathes the corrupt and repressive regimes of the region – especially that of Saudi Arabia – which he views as ‘un-Islamic’. Bin Laden despises the US’s longstanding support for these regimes.
  • He also despises the US for their constant support of Israel’s brutal military occupation, now in its 42nd year: Washington’s decisive diplomatic, military, and economic intervention in support of the killings, the harsh and destructive siege over many years, the daily humiliation to which Palestinians are subjected, the gross violation of the Geneva Conventions, and other actions that are recognized as crimes throughout most of the world, apart from the US, which has prime responsibility for them.
  • Bin Laden also contrasted these crimes against humanity with the US-British decade long assault against the civilian population of Iraq, which caused hundreds of thousands of deaths and ultimately strengthened Saddam Hussein – who was a friend of the US and Britain during the period of his worst atrocities, including the gassing of Kurds.
  • The US supported anti-democratic regimes throughout the region and imposed barriers against economic development by propping up oppressive regimes. It is not surprising, then, that among the great majority of people suffering deep poverty and oppression bitterness was rife and led to fury and despair. It is from this source that arise suicide bombers.
  • Finally, Bin Laden was praying for large-scale attacks on Muslim states by the West because he knew – correctly, in hindsight – the result would be that fanatics would flock to his cause.

This was the runway from which those aeroplanes took off, not some ahistorical black hole. Not to understand this is to render yourself impotent in the task of preventing more innocent people from being butchered. Well-meaning liberals are subjectively lovely people, but if they refuse to accept that 9/11 was a logical act, thereby divesting themselves of the need to seek its true causes, then at the objective level they mirror the violence that the 9/11 terrorists committed at the subjective level.


[1] They’ve since informed me that this ‘cold light’ was more of a ‘heated inebriation’ on my part, so for that I apologise.

[2] Terry Eagleton, Holy Terror (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005), pp. 116-117.

[3] Slavoj Žižek, Violence (London: Profile Books, 2008)

[4] What follows is not verbatim citation, but nonetheless draws heavily on Chomsky’s wording. The transcript can be found here: http://www.counterpunch.org/chomskyintv.html

Auden’s Sonnets

W. H. Auden perceived in the sonnet the incarnation of lopsided equilibrium. The sonnet is split by nature, and its two halves are unequal; yet this imbalance is the source of its creative potential. What Auden does in his two major sonnet sequences, ‘In Time Of War’ and ‘The Quest’, is to exploit this immanent structural wound and to seek therein its resolution. It is no wonder, then, that the latter sequence should appear in a work entitled The Double Man. Somehow, it would seem, the fissured sonnet form is bound up for Auden with his perception of man’s duality. Given the limited space of this essay, it is to ‘The Quest’ that most attention shall be paid, since it is in this sequence of poems that Auden most profoundly articulates the sonnet’s essence.

Not one major Auden scholar has noticed that the opening sonnet of ‘The Quest’ is, among other things, a reflection on the sonnet form.[1] ‘The Door’ is indeed Kafkaesque, just as it clearly draws on Alice’s barrier to the wonderland, but it is also symbolic of the sonnet. Out of it step ‘Enigmas, executioners, and rules’:[2] the sonnet was twinned at birth with the enigma of the Golden Mean and Fibonacci numerology;[3] one of its most pioneering English exponents, Henry Howard, was wrongly executed for treason by Henry VIII; and it is one of the most rule-bound poetic forms in existence. Likewise, ‘Great persons eye it in the twilight for/ A past it might so carelessly let in’ (p. 99). The sonnet’s history is so deeply inscribed into its form that the poets (‘Great persons’) who choose to wield it cannot subject it to their individual whims; there will always exist a superabundant residue of their predecessors. And this temporal obsession of the octave then gives way to a spatial exploration in the sestet:

We pile our all against it when afraid,

And beat upon its panels when we die:

By happening to be open once, it made

Enormous Alice see a wonderland

That waited for her in the sunshine, and,

Simply by being tiny, made her cry.            (p. 99)

Like a claustrophobe, the less adroit verse practitioner, who finds the narrow confines of the sonnet stifling, panics and consequently ‘piles [his] all against’ the potentially restricting form. The dead, moreover, ‘beat upon its panels’: the sonnet can be used as a prosodic sarcophagus, whose metrical beats become the pulse of the deceased they enshrine. Finally, ‘Enormous Alice’, the human creator, espies in this segmented quatorzain a ‘wonderland’, a space which encloses some mysterious essence of the temporal and spatial nature of human existence. The wonderland is ‘tiny,’ just like the sonnet form, and it remains only partially accessible, there but not there. It is also worth noting that ‘The Door’ is a hybrid of the English and Italian sonnet, fusing rima baciata (rima chiusa) with rima alternata. What this opening poem does, then, is to appropriate a typical feature of the sonnet form – the blason – and use it methodically and metaphorically to catalogue the essential traits of the very form in which it is written.

But if Auden here consciously aligns himself with earlier exponents of the form, then he also wittingly challenges them. In order better to understand this, one must turn to sonnet XIII of ‘In Time of War’. It is located roughly at the centre of the sequence, uniting a broad history of man and his consciousness with a series of more historically specific sonnets upon the Sino-Japanese war. It opens with a translation of Rilke’s ‘Rühmen, das ists!’ (Die Sonette an Orpheus, I. vii), and its octaval structure (‘Certainly…But…’) mirrors Rilke’s ‘dennoch preisen’ (Die Sonette an Orpheus, II, xxiii).[4] In terms of Auden’s thinking on both the sonnet form and on the dual nature of man during the late 1930s, this sonnet could be said to be its embodiment. The volta appears at line 5, whereas at line 9, where one traditionally expects the turn, there is the following: ‘History opposes its grief to our buoyant song’ (p. 71). In other words, for a balanced rhetorical progression of the ideas articulated in the first quatrain, as a reader expects from a second quatrain of rime baciata, Auden substitutes the transformation which should only appear four lines later; at the opening of the sestet, on the other hand, the site where tradition locates antithesis, he inscribes balance. By manipulating expectations of the sonnet form, the poem enacts at the formal level the idea contained in its matter. The ‘buoyant song’ is this sonnet, propped up by the ‘history’ of the sonnet tradition, and it is necessarily impossible to experience one in isolation of the other. In more complex terms, sonnet XIII captures Auden’s overarching philosophy of healed rift, of simultaneously entertaining mutually contradictory possibilities. If the structure of this particular sonnet is ‘Certainly…But…’, then this could be said of the structure of the sonnet form tout court. It is the poetic form of innate contradiction; it opposes the Positive Way of the octave, where a thesis is logically developed, to the Negative Way of the sestet, in which it is undermined in some way. Indeed, much of ‘The Quest’ is a warning against pursuing either of these paths exclusively: in ‘The Presumptuous’, for example, people pursue the ethics of the octave in perceiving only the monumental, and by ignoring that which raised up the monument in the first place; the ascetic desert fathers of ‘The Adventurers’, on the other hand, ‘went the Negative Way toward the Dry’ (p. 108), they focussed so intensely on the sestet’s antithetical deeps that they became ensnared and forgot the positive purpose which had led them there in the first place. Ultimately, then, unifying contradictory entities seems to be at the heart of ‘The Quest’.

This is the point at which Auden ceases his exploitation of the sonnet form for its philosophical virtues. While the sonnet does indeed uphold at least two antithetical dimensions, traditionally it also ends in resolution. The type of resolution which Auden seeks, however, is not closure, but ‘opening’ (‘The Garden’, p. 110; l. 1). His archetypal Hero, apart from delighting ‘in details and routine’ (‘The Hero’, p. 108; l. 11), which are hallmarks of the sonnet form, ‘was always glad to[…]/ Pour liquids from large bottles into small,/ Or look at clouds through bits of coloured glass.’ (ll. 12-14). According to John Fuller, the last two lines represent respectively the objective practice of taxonomy and the subjective nature of points of view; in a verse form which traditionally achieves resolution, Auden suggests that the ‘novelist must transcend both attitudes by absorbing them’, thereby enabling him to ‘reach his strange Christian conclusion beyond the self-destructive scenario of dualism.’[5] Auden has found a way of keeping the door open. The solution is to become Rilke’s Orpheus: ‘Erst in dem Doppelbereich/ werden die Stimmen/ ewig und mild.’[6] One must inhabit the Doppelbereich, the double realm. Like Orpheus, who descended to the land of shades and subsequently returned, man’s conscious foreknowledge of his own death renders him dual.[7] His duality is embodied in the ‘longed-for answer’: ‘but’ (‘The Waters’, p. 109; l. 14). This single word incarnates being and non-being, thesis and antithesis; it denies the illusory finality, ‘the angler’s lie’ (l. 6), with which men attempt to plug the temporal holes of their being. Humans are the ratio-animalistic form of the ‘but’, in opposition to themselves, and in a state of constant becoming. And yet, there is a certain way of living, that of Auden’s Double Man, and within Rilke’s double realm, which overcomes these fissures to enable the attainment of the wonderland.

The octave of the final sonnet of ‘The Quest’ opens thus: ‘Within these gates all opening begins’ (‘The Garden’, p. 110; l. 1); while the sestet commences ‘All journeys die here’ (l. 9). The restrictive sonnet form pens in the poet, just as it simultaneously releases her. Likewise, it is here that the inherent ‘journey’ of human beings – their ineluctable state of becoming – must die. Don Paterson succinctly summarises Rilke’s similar conclusions when he says that for a human to sing is to unite ‘the time-based events of our words by recalling them back into the presence of one another through the repetition of their sounds.’[8] The exacting rhyme schemes of the sonnet, then, defy time’s passing; they create the sense of the infinite within the finite: they are paradise regained. It is for this that Rilke wrote:

Wir, gerecht nur, wo wir dennoch preisen,
weil wir, ach, der Ast sind und das Eisen
und das Süße reifender Gefahr.[9]

To ‘praise nevertheless’ is to re-enter into that ‘perfect circle time can draw on stone’ (‘The Garden’, l. 6). It heals the wound of becoming and transmutes into pure being. And in the final line, the very point at which a sonnet should resolve itself, one reads the following: the gaunt and great ‘felt their centre of volition shifted.’ Finality is not here, it is elsewhere; the sonnet form can simulate this realm inaccessible to man, one devoid of nullity, but man’s only means of approaching it is through a will which is not his own. The good sonneteer, like the good human, Auden seems to suggest, is she who is neither active nor passive, but who simply tries to hold in equilibrium all subjective and objective entities. The crux is never herself, but she becomes akin to one by praising nevertheless.

In short, Auden made a quite deliberate decision to align his work with previous exponents of the sonnet form. He made the sonnet articulate itself by employing certain of its attributes to express others. And in exploiting its dialectical nature he tried, ultimately, to redeem it. If the sonnet tradition dictates the necessity of resolution and closure, Auden, like his forebear Rilke, turned this resolution on its head: in order fully to purge the sonnet, and oneself, of the agonizing temporal nullity of becoming, one must first become the glorifying void in which all things are held in eternal balance.


[1] By ‘major Auden scholar’ I mean, among others: Edward Mendelson, John Fuller, Anthony Hecht, Rainer Emig, and Arthur Kirsch. For their respective principal works, please see the Bibliography.

[2] W. H. Auden, ‘The Door’, in Selected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), p. 99. All further references are to this edition and will be given parenthetically in the body of the essay.

[3] Phillis Levin, ed., The Penguin Book of the Sonnet (London: Penguin, 2001), pp. xlii-xliii.

[4] John Fuller, W. H. Auden: A Commentary (London: Faber and Faber, 2007), p. 237. Edward Mendelson makes the same observation in his Early Auden, (London: Faber and Faber, 1981), p. 351. For all further discussion of Rilke in the original German, however, I am indebted to the aid of Julia Kröger, who provided me with word by word translations (into French) of selected passages, enabling me to perceive crucial links between the ‘Santa Claus of loneliness’ (‘New Year Letter’) and his English counterpart. Rilke’s sonnets can be accessed here: http://gutenberg.spiegel.de/rilke/orpheus/orph.htm.

[5] John Fuller, Commentary, pp. 342-343. Whilst here it is specifically novelists of whom Auden is speaking, the idea applies to all writers in general: ‘Most writers, except the supreme masters who transcend all systems of classification are either Alices or Mabels.’ W. H. Auden, Selected Essays (London: Faber and Faber, 1962), p. 30.

[6] Rilke, Die Sonette an Orpheus, I, ix. Don Paterson, in Orpheus (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), p. 11, renders these lines ‘Only in the double realm/ is the voice both infinite/ and assuaged.’

[7] Paterson says as much in his afterword, ibid., p. 68.

[8] Paterson, p. 69.

[9] Rilke, Die Sonette an Orpheus, II, xxiii. Paterson has: ‘Only when singing are we just and true -/ for then we are at once the axe, the bough/ and the sweet and ripening danger in between.’ Paterson, p. 53.

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