About Nowt

Martin Demant Frederiksen – An Anthropology of Nothing in Particular (Zero Books, 2018)

For a short while in my formative years I was deeply involved with a girl from what sociologists would call the underclass. Three generations of unemployment lived head-to-toe in the same battered and neglected council house. “Nothing” was a common refrain.

What you doing? Nothing. What do you think? I don’t think nothing. Why did you do that? Because I don’t give a fuck and I don’t believe in nothing. Through a haze of hashish and casual violence they had reached a twenty-first century approximation of Hassan-e Sabba.

Subsequent success in the world of academia trained me to identify this nihilistic mindset with an extreme mode of alienation. Philosophers cannot abide meaninglessness. Expressions of nothingness must be meaning in disguise.

It’s a comforting thought, not only as it keeps nothingness at bay, but also because it suggests that these people will all join the Glorious Socialist Revolution once the Oxbridge Marxists finally bring it about.

But what else are we to do with the organic nihilists of the world if not interpret them? In his new book, Martin Demant Frederiksen proposes a radical answer: take them at their word.

Instead of training a prurient eye upon the abjection and squalor of those who do not give a fuck, Frederiksen proposes nothingness as a recognizable mode of being. It is a valueless and directionless way of encountering the world, but it is nevertheless an encounter. Compared to other philosophies, it at least has the virtue of honesty and consistency.

Although Frederiksen does utilize the occasional philosopher to craft his arguments, he balances this with an anthropologist’s observation of real life (mostly in the form of pointless chats with acquaintances and drinking vodka). Part real observation, partly fictional condensations of lived experience; the form of the book is as wonderfully unfocused as its subject matter.

The writing is detached and casual. Frederiksen carries you along like a directionless wander on a balmy afternoon, passing around a bottle. It is as unpretentious as a work integrating Nietzsche, Boudieu and the Null Morpheme could possibly be, using a light touch which leaves questions open and ideas unfixed. It feels like the kind of loose talk you’d have in the early hours. A fitting approach.

So what happens when we believe that some people just do nothing? Well, nothing much. There is no heroic conclusion to the book. No moment where the angry young writer declares “…and therefore we must all do this!”. Instead you get a real anthropological sense of how some, perhaps many, people live… and that’s it.

As a joyless workaholic I personally could not live the way that Frederiksen’s characters live. My existence is instead dictated by my desperate bad faith, clawing at any and all bits of meaning that fall within reach. Yet this, somehow, made the book appealing to me, comforting almost.

I guess it’s nice to think that somewhere out there are people who are happy to watch twenty minutes of a movie they’ve seen before and then turn it off and have a nap even though it’s only 11am. It’s pleasant to read about people with nowhere to be. People who hold opinions that aren’t particularly strong and who have no interest in whether they are agreed with or not.

In summing up meaninglessness and packaging it in a form perfectly suited to the subject matter, Frederiksen has essentially captured a little bit of nothing between the covers of a book. I would recommend it both to those who want to feel nothing, and those who are simply tired of always being made to feel something.

You should definitely read this book. Or don’t. Whatever…

– Joe Darlington

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Hard Symbolism

Cristina Rivera Garza, The Iliac Crest. Sarah Booker, trans. (And Other Stories, 2018)

Magical realism has been around for a while now. Long enough to have its heroic founders, its Nobel Laureates, and its third-generation imitators. The like-Marqueses, like-Borgeses, and like-Carters seem to have turned the form into as much of a genre as are the like-Lovecrafts of horror and the like-Tolkeins of fantasy.

But at its core magical realism has always been a literary form. It seems to separate itself off from genre fiction, elevating the supernatural to a symbolic element. If magical realism is to survive as an innovative rather than derivative form then, I believe, it is this symbolical element that must be emphasized.

Garza’s newly translated novel, The Iliac Crest, is an excellent example of this symbolism elevating narrative in a new and exciting way. It uses magical realism as a way of making symbolic aspects physical; they come to life and walk around the page. Rather than magical realism, it might be better described as Hard Symbolism.

The narrative concerns our male protagonist, a doctor at a sanatorium where political dissidents are quietly silenced, defending his masculinity against the incursions of two women. These young revenants in black are alternately known as the Magpies, False One, the Betrayer or the Betrayed. They are in search of a lost manuscript by Amparo Dávila, a writer who has gone missing in a region infamous for its femicides.

The resulting story plays out as a contest for power, with the unnamed protagonist seeking to maintain his humanity in the face of the women’s accusations and the requirements of his job. Soon he finds that he’s trying to use his medical pacifiers – morphine, restraints – on the women… and that they conspire to use them on him.

As a narrative it wanders around far more than a ghost story would, although its atmosphere is unmistakably that of Gothic mystery. Instead of heart-racing progression, the unease lingers in each scene. The direction of travel is unclear and, as readers, we are left guessing as to where we are going to be led next. The Symbols, it seems, are leading us.

The translation by Sarah Booker is effective in reflecting Garza’s narrative in its prose. She uses long sentences, often with a baroque flavour to their grammar and word choice. What she can’t capture, as she explains in her translator’s note, is the play Garza makes of gendered referents. Spanish, as a highly gendered language, leaves many opportunities for disruption and ambiguity which English doesn’t. Booker nevertheless approximates these effects well by exploring the possibilities of first person.

The Iliac Crest is a fascinating book for these and other reasons. It exhibits the rare capacity to transcend its conceptual innovations and become a compellingly readable tale, all the while never downplaying its own innovations.

A reviewer has already compared it to David Lynch, although to me a more fitting comparison is Rex Warner and his quasi-allegorical tales. The story may be symbolic but, unlike Lynch, this isn’t necessarily its core focus. It is readable, immersive and concise.

I highly recommend the book for reading over a spooky weekend, ideally with a glass of red wine and the sound of ravens tapping at the window.

– Joe Darlington 

Piss and vinegar

Frederic Raphael – Against The Stream (Carcanet) 

Manchester. Cucumber sandwiches left out by Helen, but the bread was of a low standard. I turned to the business of F.

Carcanet are up to Volume 7 of this fellow Frederic Raphael’s published journals already, but I haven’t read any of it. So for me it’s a journey into a world both old and new, which dazzles with its light, but stings the eyes.

I can see why it is all being published. It’s the kind of detailed record-keeping a talented, expensively educated person undertakes, and he reflects on the times in which he is writing.

But F. is unremittingly bitchy, to understate the case greatly. He is The Genius in the world and all other humans are mere flies, irritants buzzing around, sometimes worth the comment, but those comments are nearly always intellectualised flyswats.

This volume opens with a colleague of F’s who, in his eyes, is a mere drudge, lucky to be promoted way beyond drudgery, and her partner is a sort of human turd. Each description of this man’s tastes, opinions and behaviour drips with revulsion.

George Steiner gets the rolled up newspaper THWACK merely for asking for a synopsis of some research, and not the whole thing.

In some ways this material is as important as that left by Mr Pepys, but instead of ‘it was washday for my wife, so I slammed her coney, and so to bed’, we get:

‘Eric Paice has recently retired as Chairman of the Writers’ Guild, depressed by the erosion of drama slots on the networks, he proposes to emigrate to the novel.’

Perhaps as a consequence of the ‘erosion of drama slots’, Ed Reardon’s Week has now occupied F’s mode of discourse almost completely. I half expected a cameo from Jaz Milvane and a scene where Raphael and Felix get trapped, completely pissed, in the revolving doors of the Connaught Hotel.

In some ways that scene is in Against The Stream, it is one modelled on a sequence from Will Hay’s Oh, Mr Porter!, where hapless fools are trapped on the windmill shouting ‘help!’ for far longer than it is funny.

F. predicts a rash of morbid books about the decline of ‘standards’ from people such as Paice, which is brilliant and prescient. But then he describes Paice, pipe smoker, in his mackintosh, as ‘splay-toothed, yellow faced, his eyes look out from a wince of narrowed lids.’

Clearly F. is a great writer, but ‘curmudgeonly’ doesn’t get near. He makes me watch people he thinks are idiots stuck on the relentless windmill of his life until I loathe him for it.

F. is the kind of egoist who also has an ego. There is a difference. There are people who are egoists, but who are not egotistical. F. is both and his ego is at war with itself as well as everything else.

He also has hair like the stuffing coming out of the peach seat of the old sofa left in the street outside, the transplanted eyes and eyebrows of Robert Maxwell and a false grimace of a smile absolutely in keeping with his psychology and its diarised output.

Clearly he will relish this picture of himself just as much as he routinely enjoys turning description into a form of character assassination.

The blurb actually tries to sell its author’s vitriol as virtue, with the bizarre analysis that his nastiness holds a mirror up to him. But sometimes a brilliant but nasty person is just a brilliant but nasty person. This double or triple take, or second guessing him as insecure, surely this is just for his analyst? And pity that person. Pity.

So I will say it and you can stop reading at this point if you want to: F is a brilliant but nasty person. A raconteur intellectual with a viper’s bite.

But the larger contours under all the details are those of the so-called British class ‘system’, and that is interesting, and that is worth looking at leeward, from the angle of 100 years hence, if there is a 100 years hence.

Here is proof that the upper-middles get away with blue murder and still think the world owes them a living. But if I tried that on I would probably end up living under a bridge. If I converted F’s journal content into my voice and milieu and had it published I’d be ostracised.

If you sift out the nastiness and ephemera, all that is left is a snobbish intellectual fetish, under which is class fetish.

From the mid-twentieth to the twenty-first century, we have so many British voices to preserve, Doreen Massey, Stuart Hall, Alan Sinfield. Clever, been right through it, but admirable in spirit, whatever their background.

In the end, no matter how interesting the glimpse into the Thatcher years, through this most brilliant of minds – and it clearly is – the double disclaimer and weird validation of a mirror held up to the author is bunk.

Perhaps the next volume will be called Pissing Off Beachy Head.

– F.R.

Cadenza

Scott Thurston, We Must Betray Our Potential (Red Ceilings Press, 2018)

Where exactly does poetry happen? On the page, stamped in with the ink? Maybe it lives in the wrists, or somewhere in the fingertips where notes are also stored to be released by guitar or flute. Maybe it’s “all subjective”… whatever that means.

Scott Thurston’s latest collection, We Must Betray Our Potential, is the product of a long exploration of poetry and movement. In particular, the art of modern dance. That gestural, ephemeral, suggestive form that can signify everything or nothing, depending on the viewer seems a natural partner for poetry, and yet work in this area is still rare, or undeveloped.

Poetry and dance both seem to emanate from somewhere deeply internal. Yet they both also depend upon a conscious cultivation of skill through long and rigorous training. Both embody art’s great contradiction. Natured nurture, nurtured nature.

Thurston’s poetry realises this. It holds a residue of movement in its eminently careful poetics:

the way you hold

in the biceps

that idea in your

spine letter number

head turns your

left achilles tendon

can’t look at

the sore city

without seeing ghosts

sunlit patch in the

wood with mazy

points

There is something reminiscent of Japanese calligraphic poetry in these brittle little columns of words. The kind of poetry in which the inscription is itself part of the form. Writing is cultivated as a movement as well as a semantic declaration. Both the written and its writing signify together.

These narrow columns are separated by justified blocks of prose-poetry. More descriptive; the solid blocks of text let us into the reflective process of dancing poetry. Muscles and bone are felt, as solid as practice rooms and views of the city. Politics too incurs, impressing on the world that impresses on the body. The collection’s title is one such reflection.

There then follows a second section that reminds me of cut-up poetry. The interplay of prose-poetry blocks and poetic columns is replaced by small bars of wordflow. They sit in the middle of each page like square stamps.

trade didn’t land setting mimesis

working blocked from circles in

alignment the small medicine body

My word processor won’t allow me to justify the text as neatly as it appears in the book itself. Imagine a rectangle of words. They seem to have landed in a perfect alignment, fresh from some movement invisible now to the reader. We aren’t present for the dance itself, but these are undeniably traces of a critical impact.

As with a carefully choreographed but experimental dance piece, there are moments in Thurston’s collection which strike the reader as opaque. I, for one, desired at times an explanation. But then I’d encounter a perfect little fragment – “I have hurt my arm; torn-open throat, lingua unfolded” – and be reminded that the pleasure here is in the impalpable spaces. The discernible moments within the indiscernible. Flickers of sublimity.

It’s a book that provokes, and rewards numerous readings. Red Ceilings Press have done an excellent job of presenting the work. As an object it is a perfect-bound little pocket-sized enigma that I found myself carrying around in a jacket pocket and bringing out in a snatched moment. New parts leapt out every time.

This collection feels like it’s something alive and, although the end of a long journey for the writer, it also seems like a changing thing for the reader. A thing of movement. I find it moves me. I find I am moving now, and I like it.

– Joe Darlington

Yin Minus Yang

Haruki Murakami – Men Without Women (Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen trans., Vintage, 2018)

I’m not exactly sure when I became one of the Men Without Women. I don’t recall a specific transformation. One arrives at it slowly. Barely notices it until, suddenly, it’s there. You’re one of them.

Murakami’s latest short story collection (published in Japan in 2014, the US in 2017, and now in the UK) concerns this strange breed in all of its many shapes. From Kafuku the solitary thespian, to Dr Tokai the bachelor with many fleeting partners, to the lovelorn, recently divorced Kino; all are men defined in some way by their lack of an other half. They are single, if not in terms of their relationships, at least in terms of their identity, their self-contained natures.

It is tempting to draw some easy moral from Murakami’s choice of subject matter. Urban living, as the great paradox dictates, isolates us from others. The internet too seems to have made love valueless through sheer overabundance. In oft-quoted statistics and polls, Japan leads the world in producing a “sexless” generation of young people who find dating a bore.

As the diversity of these stories shows, however, the idea that Men Without Women can be reduced to an anonymous mass of incel losers does an injustice to the variety of lives that are to be lived by unattached men. True, each story contains an undertone of sadness, but there is also hope and conviction.

Murakami’s writing is narrative-driven. This excuses the sometimes static language of the translations, as it is action and observation that bring his characters to life, not language itself. The eccentric Kitaru whose presence lies at the heart of the story “Yesterday”, for example, speaks, we are told, in a rough Kansai dialect; a dialect he has adopted after long study as he finds it more interesting than the popular Tokyo dialect in which he was raised. No attempt is made to provide an English language equivalent – it is the mere fact of his attempt that marks him out as an eccentric, pushing against the grain of linguistic standardization.

Kitaru has a girlfriend, but he feels too close to her emotionally to be interested in her physically. He sets her up with the protagonist of the story, Aki, whose more stereotypical and ritualized dating habits are the inspiration that Erika, the girlfriend, needs to finally leave Kitaru. Kitaru, as a Man Without Women, has his own life organized to best fit his personality. For Erika, a normal girl with conventional aspirations, the process of maturing depends upon her casting off the guy with the strong personality in favour of the flexible man who is willing to abide by social convention.

Social conventions lie at the core of each story. The Men Without Women are largely defined by a core stubbornness that keeps them from regular dating, or a happy marriage. The same stubbornness is seen at a distance in the corresponding world of Women Without Men. Kafuku’s chainsmoking driver who would rather sit in silence than make idle conversation. Scheherazade, the woman for whom sex is only foreplay compared to the thrill of telling stories about her former lovers. These women too are self-contained. Their universes too are solitary.

A notable thing about the collection is that, despite its focus, there are no men within it who are entirely without women as companions and lovers. The phenomenon Murukami is addressing is more complex. The Men Without Women and the Women Without Men are creatures defined by their intrinsic separateness even during moments of intimacy.

In some ways the people who Murukami is writing about are ideal adults. They have grown habitually independent, or non-dependent, free of reliance upon others. Dependency, by contrast, is a trait associated with emotional immaturity, with cloying sentimentality and with childishness. Yet, such is the paradox, the very independence of these characters also inevitably seems sad, lonely, and perhaps itself immature; indicative of an unwillingness to compromise and bend.

The final message is ultimately ambiguous. Murukami’s stories wander around a lot. Their structure is loose as if to accommodate his character’s obstinacy and unwillingness to follow a pre-ordained path. With the exception of “Samsa in Love” (a retelling of Kafka’s Metamorphosis that, although intriguing, is a poor fit with the rest of the stories), each tale is a slow unfolding of one or two characters. One is left with a sense of overall unity. Not just stories brought together, but a whole picture constructed of seven fragments.

This is my first time reading Murukami and I can understand why he is such a global phenomenon. The balance between the literary and the popular in his writing guarantees that you will read quickly and forget slowly. Much like the relationships of our solitary protagonists it will pass all too quickly, but the memories stick will with you long after.

– Joe Darlington

Not the Same Old Old

Gaius Valerius Catullus – The Book of Catullus (Carcanet, trans., Simon Smith)
Sextus Propertius – Poems (Carcanet, trans., Patrick Worsnip)

This Catullus translation, by Simon Smith, is incredible. It moves the material right out of the romanticised eroticism of the Roman love poets and into the real, colourful but dirty world of the Romans.

Catullus bangs on about who he’s fucking, animal, vegetable, mineral. It is very direct and the translation amplifies that directness by making it scan for our own time.

Here we have a world where for some the post- of gender was never a question, as long as they could get up it like a rat in a lead Roman bath house pipe.

But the raw sex is often a metaphor for swindling, monetarily, or in terms of reputation:

Oh Memmius, you really fucked me over,
buggered me completely and without concern.
So, the pair of you are stuck, as I see it,
long suffering a similar giant prick,
shafted.

Propertius rubbed up against Octavian – later Caesar Augustus – for rejecting marriage in verse. Ovid would be exiled by Augustus later.

Augustus switched to the old ‘family values’ rhetoric to try to make Rome respectable again. Propertius celebrated Cleopatra, where Augustus wanted that episode to be as over as Anthony: The Tories are much older than the Tories, you know.

A band I admire greatly, Bablicon, recorded a track called ‘Augustus Syphilis’, it plays in my head now.

I have no idea why I feel the need to leave that incidental thought in this review, but I do. And there it is. You could translate it as ‘AIDS to Family Values’.

The Catullus in this translation comes on as just as punk as that:

Nob of Knobs fucks. Fucking nob of knobs? That’s for sure
  the saying goes: If the roof fits, pot it.

Congratulations are due to Simon Smith. But despite surface similarities and a shared epoch, Catullus and Propertius are like oil and vinegar. The former accessible, the latter completely hidden under multiple masks.

Propertius provided a surface that has a very strange relationship with the self of the poet, and the audience – in any time – and rhetoric. It is now viewed as an almost ironic postmodern discourse, but that’s far too facile a reading.

Most people will know the name of Propertius via Ezra Pound’s ‘Homage to Sextus Propertius’, after which come a thousand thoroughly overcooked debates.

I’m not going to get into whether Pound’s translation is sloppy or modernist genius again, but this volume of Propertius shows how appropriate it was for Pound to pick Propertius, and not, say, Catullus.

The ‘I’ in Propertius is already completely unstable, it only takes a little push for it to crumble and slide down the hill. Pound was not just freely daubing the substance of an old masterpiece, he targeted that substance – honed in on it – and amplified it.

I would recommend getting both these books and reading them simultaneously. Together they provide a great lesson in different modes of poetical discourse, different approaches to translation, and a rich meditation on what it is to be – or not to be – contemporary.

But I have long held the opinion that today’s polite littérateurs are so inappropriate in their mode of discourse that they could be considered mentally unstable.

In these two poets – and in Smith’s translation – we might find two opposing rhetorical strategies via which we might begin all over again, in 2018. I believe it is possible to fuse them together proceed.

– Steve Hanson

Some Old Modern (part one)

William Carlos Williams – Collected Poems Volume 1: 1909-1939 (Carcanet)

William C. Williams. It’s a name to ponder. There’s a Sociologist called Mike Michael. Either he was named Michael Michael, or he changed it by deed poll.

Both explanations seem equally strange, but in a time when the lid of naming has blown off to the skies, just mentioning this feels old-fashioned.

It is the name of a poet though, William Carlos Williams, it is already formal, W-C-Ws.

Mirrored, singular in the first instance, plural in the second. This is appropriate, as Williams worked steadily up to 1939, at which point he broke through into a different version of the same poet.

There are two Williams’ existing at either side of the break, although this book gives the lie to that story somewhat, a story that clusters around the publication of Paterson after the war.

The key dimension of this book then is not the content – although the importance of that content for poetry cannot be understated – but the linear development of Williams’ craft.

If even mentioning the double Williams feels old-fashioned, prepare yourself for his very first published poems. Here is a taste:

O, prayers in the dark!
O, incense to Poseidon!
Calm in Atlantis.

Hmm. But Williams’ trajectory goes upwards quite steadily. Unlike, say Ginsberg, who admired Williams greatly, the development seems gradual for much of the climb.

Ginsberg’s Collected Poems tick over for a short while, then explode into time and space.

These poems move across thirty years of intensive testing and experiment, the development of craft, to a form that will displace Poseidon’s fishy vapour forever.

At the end of this phase the ground is then cleared for Ginsberg – whom he mentored – and other American poets to follow.

When the grand romantic themes are gone, imagism falls into place: Words deployed as a painter might. His second book was published in London, with assistance from Ezra Pound.

Across the many pages (579+) the evidence for Williams’ questing, testing, consolidating and rejecting intelligence is laid out and proven. Carcanet put the poems and books back in order of publication for this volume, rejecting Williams’ own revised 1951 collected early poems, in order to place the emphasis on his development as an artist.

It might be tempting to play down this volume, focusing on the Williams that comes after the break, like Coltrane after Love Supreme. But there is a very rich seam of poetry in this period, although I do gravitate to the latter stages of this volume.

The Descent of Winter, 1928, is worth the price of the volume alone. It is still unexploded, a powerful seam of poetic energy and form. It switches between prose and verse, the critical, poetic and fiction voices mesh.

The numbering alone is genius. A simultaneously short and vast masterpiece, like modernity itself, a painterly work full of dazzling grey light. It is under-explored and exemplary.

A section switches, like a rail, to ‘freight cars in the air’. In the air?! Those heavy things? But modernity was experienced on many levels, below your feet, above your head, and as light, a giddy gas high.

It calls in all the other work pushing at the edges from the decade before it, Cendrars, with his Profound Today from just five years before it, teeth replaced with the clacking typewriter, the roads and rails leave the ground and head into space.

I have no idea if Williams’ read Cendrars’ Profound Today, a Williams scholar might know, but they are in the same zone, and of Zone by Apollinaire, and those who know those pieces will know that is high praise.

Williams’ Introduction to The Descent of Winter comes in the middle. Like a cubist painting, it takes all the angles and recombines them in a kind of Rorschach blot.

Then at the end he proclaims that ‘There are no sagas now – only animals, engines: There’s that.’ Note the lack of trees.

This section seems like a final rejection of the conjuring of the gods in his first published work too, and that should give hope to all budding poets, although in its time it might be seen as a harbinger of the horror to come.

Read, look and learn. This is an essential book for anyone who is serious about poetry.

– Steve Hanson

Like a Wasp in a Jam Jar

John Sutherland – The Good Brexiteer’s Guide To English Lit (Reaktion, 2018)

Sutherland explains that Brexit is marked by its lack of depth. It has no thinkers. So he tries to put the syllabus back into Brexit with what he claims is a single undergraduate year’s worth of reading list and guidance relating to the current ‘geist‘.

Sutherland starts with the Danegold as a kind of Viking tribute or taxation, and Malory’s Death of Arthur, which contains a curt fuck-you to Papal (i.e ‘Johnny Foreigner’) tax collectors.

Then he moves on to Norman taxation and the Wakefield Mystery Plays as two fingers up to the corrupt squires. This rotten gentry is reincarnated in modern day cads such as the sadly still Sir Philip Green. The Brexiteer supposedly rises up against these awful, rotten ‘elites’ with a confused inconsistency and possibly a pinch of bleak antisemitism.

There’s something a bit 1066 and All That about Sutherland’s book, but it is infinitely funnier and richer. It is very accessible, but he demonstrates – without ever having to say it directly – that our cultural landscape is certifiably nuttier than a container ship full of Snickers. And now, with extra nuts.

Sutherland raids even the tiny details. He explores ‘Jack’ as a name loaded with Englishness. The giant is killed by Jack, the giant that ‘smells the blood of an Englishman’ and this fairy tale re-appears in King Lear, as Edgar recites it, pretending to be Poor Mad Tom. Then there’s Jack-be-nimble, the Jolly Jack Tar, Jack the Ripper, et al. Although Sutherland doesn’t explain why Jack is short for John, which makes absolutely no sense at all.

Yes, Sutherland takes you to the place where this thing that gets called ‘our culture’ seems either a bit mad, quite whiffy, or both. ‘English Literature’ always sounded a bit jingoistic already to me and when you learn that a lot of good Welsh stuff got nicked by the English – Sutherland doesn’t go into this, but he could have – you realise that it essentially is.

Brexit isn’t directly linked to specific bodies of literature, it is true, but it is linked to what I call ‘the tropescape’ – when talking to myself in my own head – a thin fleshy membrane that appears to connect any subject to its deeper structures. The tropescape is always there, and Nigel Farage knows how to call it forth with a single signifier, a photograph of himself in the papers wearing a Battle of Hastings tie, or a union jack hat.

John Crace coins ‘The Maybot’, Prime Minister Theresa May as a faulty droid, and it sticks. Here is the tropescape in action. On the other side of the political argument, May is characterised as steely Boudicca, defender of her people under attack from foreign influence. The tropescape is the mythical landscape at the other side of reality, accessed through the shibboleth of connotations in objects with meaning.

Sutherland explains the bizarre restoration of Boudicca in the nineteenth century, re-loaded with all kinds of meanings, and the obvious link now is the ‘repelling of foreign parasites’. In Boudicca’s times this meant the literally rapacious Roman Empire. Now, it is the terrible European Union with its savage imposition of slightly weaker vaccum cleaners.

What the EU has done to the European south goes way beyond electrical appliance regulation of course, but this never appears in the Brexiteer critique, as that would mean a leftist defence of border policing and refugee crises. However, Sutherland’s skill is to take the subject some distance into comedy, but not all the way, and to structure the results as a guide book. This is much more effective rhetoric than the blunt line I deployed at the start of this paragraph.

Sutherland claims to be scoring an own goal as a remain voter, giving the ‘Good Brexiteer’ a guide to literary heroes, but his secret mission is always near the surface, even if it only appears as a single periscope eye, occasionally winking.

These figures are given to the ‘Good Brexiteer’ as plain awful, or just stuffy. Here, have Larkin. Jane Austen is presented as English to the core: ‘Miss Austen was bottled up in England like a wasp in a jam jar’, he says. The odd historical Remainer is parachuted in, for instance Dickens is included as an anti-Brexiteer Francophile.

‘Get your damn clammy hands off Dickens’ he seems to be saying, and I’m right behind you John. Although Dickens did support, along with Carlyle and Ruskin, the Governor of Jamaica Edward Eyre, over the Morant Bay Rebellion. Eyre had slaves flogged and killed. But this just seems to prove Sutherland’s broad argument all the more, most British literature before post-colonial inclusiveness carries the whiff of amorality along with it, only to greater or lesser degrees.

Nigel Farage’s favourite book is The Thirty-Nine Steps and Sutherland skewers this book along with Rider Haggard’s awful racial superiority. Sutherland reminds us what a thoroughly loathsome Powellite Farage is. He describes him as genuinely witty, but also shines a light on his awful, grimy nationalism. That he does this and keeps us laughing and learning all the way through is beyond the merely commendable. The hidden agenda is human, measured and executed with humility and great humour.

But this is not just a throwaway holiday read: I think what bleeds out from under the later sections of the book – Rider Haggard, Buchan – is the Empire and its crisis in WWI. Here is Paul Gilroy’s ‘post-colonial melancholia’. This is the unconscious hangover of the Brexiteer and this is why fictions such as Haggard’s and Buchan’s could easily wrap around these mournful figures.

But what is interesting to me about this is that there is a double movement involved now, as people seem to simultaneously retrench into the island and bemoan the loss of expansionism and triumphalism in one.

There are far too many examples to cover here, Sutherland moves through the history of Eng. Lit. up to Martin Amis’s London Fields. He covers Dracula as the Vampiric Romanian at a time when tens of thousands of Romanian workers labour in London. The joy of this book is in exploring it and I don’t want to ruin that.

What Sutherland’s secret critique also seems to say is ‘look, even I can do your cultural rhetoric for you’, the stuff the Brexiteers don’t have the imagination for.

So he sets it up for them like a little toy train set, only to derail the whole thing with satire right in front of their eyes. It’s a kind of very long ‘duh!’ only using words such as ‘supranational’ and ‘galliambic’.

Maybe we shouldn’t be laughing. But Kafka once said something along the lines of ‘in the office always smile, it is the only good work done there’. I have shifted this advice away from the office and onto Brexit (how would Kafka have voted?)

To quote another so-called ‘literary’ figure Sutherland might have included in the Brexit canon, Steven Patrick Morrissey, ‘I can smile about it now but at the time it was terrible’: Sutherland has moved the subject on into humour; Brexit will still provide aftershock after aftershock, but I’m hanging out with the joker in the pack, it’s much more fun there.

– Steve Hanson

 

Words in White

James Harpur – The White Silhouette (Carcanet, 2018)

In the beginning was the Word; presumably a totality, and indivisible. Somewhere along the way it grew plural, and there’s been trouble ever since.

To the poets we have left the job of guiding us back to the One Big Word, although they have only its shattered remnants, the plural mess of verbiage, to work with. These little wordy things that point at objects and ideas can, if properly arranged, also point us beyond the material. It’s the job of all poetry, but spiritual poetry in particular.

James Harpur’s new collection, The White Silhouette, is a triumph of spiritual word-wielding. It is a mix of shorter, stand-alone pieces and two longer thematically-grouped suites: one about iconoclasm, one responding to the Book of Kells. All of them feature a delicacy of expression suited to the description of sensations ineffable;

Each poem is a coloured flare

A distress signal, an outflowing

Of myself, a camouflaged prayer

Dispatched towards the Cloud of Unknowing

The reference to the classic work of Middle English mysticism is particularly suitable. Just as the author of the Cloud was deeply skeptical of the blabrying fleshly tonge and its ability to talk of God, so Harpur seems to doubt humanity’s capacity for expressing things divine.

His narrative poem in response to the Book of Kells is obsessed with interpretation. The speaker travels to the place of its writing, to museums and finally to the British Library, all in hope of a divine encounter. Instead he finds the “bifurcated Kells / exhibited like musty lung / beneath glass – for glazed eyes”. A thing lacking immediacy. An object he must seek out, even as it sits before him.

We see the monks who first illuminated the Kells; their “vision opened by prayer”, expressing God in “each circle, arc and interlace”. The monks seem capable of clearer vision, of a simpler, perhaps more direct relationship to language. “Imagination is nothing but the recollection of the holy,” we are told. The aphorism puncturing ambiguous imagery like a sharp shock.

The same can be said of place names. Monaco, its “apartment blocks surg[ing] seaward / in a permanent standing ovation,” is a solid place to which the speaker of the Kells cycle can return. The masterpiece that opens the collection, “The Journey East”, is a pilgrimage through such solid place names. The landscape transformed by metaphor as the towns within are fixed in place.

The rhythm of Harpur’s lines are so masterfully controlled, one is borne along on his voice; calm, careful, and always drifting. Within this voice are variations. The Kells poems are suitably ornate. The poems about iconoclasm are suitably austere. The whole is tied together by a grace and humility that invites the reader to contemplate the space between words. Holy or not, these are poems for the spirit.

– Joe Darlington

Medicine for the Masses

John Bargh – Before You Know It: The Unconscious Reasons We Do What We Do (Touchstone Books)

I was dying to read this book: Before You Know It authored by Experimental Psychologist, John Bargh. However, I was cautious when the opening line read as follows:

“In college, I majored in psychology and minored in Led Zeppelin. Or maybe it was the other way around”…

Thankfully, I persevered, and although the Led Zep references did reoccur occasionally (making me kind of gag each time), it really did pay off. The project is a huge success. Bargh has done a wonderful job of pulling together such a wealth of research – a lot of which he performed — in such a narratologically pleasing, accessible, and insightful manner. He is likable, if at times he comes across sounding like a cringe-inducing dad. The book is deeply engaging in that it is so relatable and Bargh writes in a kind of welcoming, conversational while thoroughly informed tone. He cites countless experiments without sounding blandly reportive.

I must admit that my opinion isn’t exactly bias-free. I wrote a thesis regarding the application of neuroscientific theory to literature criticism and so I have been reading any and every book on neuroscience that I can get my hands on. Bargh’s ideology is right up my street – he even uses the same analogy for readdressing the way that we think that I used in my dissertation.

Bargh says, “learning to see what is hidden, we acquire a new set of eyes. Or maybe just a new pair of prescription glasses we hadn’t realised we’d needed.” My own work reads: “If our vision is blurry or our eyes strain we put on glasses so that we can see differently – better. If they don’t work we get a new prescription. If our vision changes we adapt the lenses. We don’t walk around with the same blurred views. Open up those windows. It’s about opening the closed mind.” This idea of developing fresh eyes really resonates with me, and I think it is one that could help a lot of people broaden their minds.

If Bargh’s literary capacity is sometimes swamped by the conceptual weight of what he is saying, this does not negate the validity of the concepts themselves. Like most social scientists he has a tendency to repeat himself until a point is at risk of losing its appeal. The concepts are sometimes lost in trailing sentence structures and unconvincing metaphors – for example, he describes a dream he had about an alligator turning over to reveal its soft underbelly as an analogy for turning his thinking upside-down. He talks about that alligator a lot. Forget the damn alligator.

For a book that so successfully conveys the subjective nature of the unconscious, it seems strange that it does not occur to Bargh that his alligator may only hold significance to him. It muddies the point and comes across as a candied technique to engage the reader. But, essentially, he is proving his own theories as he writes. Bargh’s recognition of the subjectivity of significance is well-evidence elsewhere.

I cannot help but apply Bargh’s research and proposed conclusions to my own life and my own subconscious reactions. I imagine that this is the point. Bargh explains that metaphors are rooted in neuro-physical responses — such as “cold-shoulder” and “warm person,” meaning that we actually feel the physical sensation which leads us to describe things in terms of temperature. I have come to suspect that the reason my temperature seems to swing from high to low at the drop of a hat has something to do with my emotional dysregulation.

What Bargh offers is medicine for the masses. One of my favourite parts of the book was the study revealing the ways in which fear motivates a lot of our important decisions and behaviours. Bargh says that “Under threat or fear people are less risk-taking and they resist change” and he shows us that we must not be afraid of change. He demonstrates how our memory “can be fooled by recent experience, but also by the fact that we pay selective attention to some things and not to others.” And perhaps most importantly, the book begs us to question our assumptions, to question in general. Bargh’s suggestions for lines of enquiry include:

“On any given day, how much of what we say, feel, and do is under our conscious control? More important, how much is not? And most crucial of all: if we understood how our unconscious worked – if we knew why we do what we do – could we finally, fundamentally know ourselves? Could insights into our hidden drivers unlock different ways of thinking, feeling, and acting? What might this mean for our lives?”

And one of my own:

Is it because I am depressed that I don’t like salad?

Bargh urges us to see that new ideas will only surface if we are amenable to them – that if you want to achieve something you must open up your mind to the possibility of doing so. I think that this ideology needs to be taught to people at an early age so that they can achieve a better level of control over their lives. The world might be a much better place if people were better educated about the processes of their own brains.

– Blair James