Archive for May, 2006


May 26, 2006

We came across the origin of Pasquino – the speaking statue of Piazza di Pasquino, in Rome – in Florence, on our recent Tuscan holiday.

In Loggia dei Lanzi, in Piazza della Signoria (in Florence), and also inside the Palazzo Pitti, there are copies of the ancient speaking statue in Rome.

Here's how Pasquino looked before the ravages of time… (and the Visigoths).

MLW pointed out to me today that Pasquino has his own verb: Pasquinade



May 24, 2006

In the last couple of months I’ve been mixing up my intellectual pursuits (such as they are) with some pleasantly pulpy indulgence in Star Trek stories and Robotech TV Manga. What this really amounts to is plain and simple nostalgia: I loved both shows as a child.

I’ve been reading a chunk of the original Star Trek episodes, adapted as short stories by James Blish (a Golden Age sci-fi author for whom I have the same sort of affection as I do for those seasoned actors who walk the line between A- and B-grade movie careers – e.g. Jurgen Prochnow). Blish is a good writer, I think, because he mixes into readable stories the detailed drudgery of choreographed fight scenes, details of uniform design etc. and the abstract and utopian idea that arch over each episode like a flimsy but glittering rainbow.

The Macross Saga is the first series of Robotech, which ran to two more increasingly abstract and bizarre series (as Manga does), and the only series that I watched in its entirety as a child, and now I’ve watched it again, in much contracted form, as an adult. It’s definitely made for children, and I think mostly what I enjoyed about watching it as an adult was what it revealed about my childish self.

But that’s not what I wanted to post about – just setting the scene here.

What I’ve found most interesting of all has been the concurrence of what I perceive to be a shared subject, hiding behind the veils of scenery and action set pieces, of nuclear holocaust. And what’s most interesting to me is that the creators of the two series represent, in very very general terms, the two sides of the only nuclear holocaust our world has seen – America for Star Trek, and Japan for Robotech.

Now, before I go any further, I want to disclaim all responsibility for my own thinking here, and then I’ll be able to move on unhindered – meaning, I’m aware that there is a LOT more to this subject and these perspectives than the inkling I will derive from my two examples, and I don’t think I’m being particularly clever and I know this is all much bigger than me, but I wanted to share my thoughts nonetheless.

So. In an episode of The Macross Saga called Force of Arms, after years of war, the invading alien armada finally folds out of hyperspace and surrounds the earth with approximately five million (yup – count ’em) warships. Earth, to put it mildly, is buggered. The armada proceeds to bombard the surface of the entire earth with its staggering weapons. Life on earth is wiped out. The orange lines of the enemy lasers fire incessantly and before our eyes the cities of earth are devoured in fire. Then the fields and mountains and rivers are obliterated until only gray, cratered earth remains, looking much like the dead surface of the moon. The whole earth – all life, pretty much – gone.

I was struck as an adult, as I was not as a child, by the sheer horror of what was being depicted. And I thought, as earlier episodes had begun to lead me to suspect, that a people who had experienced having nuclear bloody bombs dropped on them somehow had the credentials to create this scene. And I also thought that perhaps it’s that experience, locked in their collective memory, that facilitated the depiction of a complete holocaust in what seemed (in the context of the series) such an off-hand manner. Throughout the series, there is untold death and destruction, but it is never addressed; which is not to say it goes unmentioned, but rather to say that the characters seems to expect and be largely unphased by large scale slaughter. In other words, that this episode of Robotech actually expressed something of the culture of those who have received a nuclear bomb.

Children’s TV, huh. Whatcha gonna do.

And then I read a Star Trek story called A Taste of Armageddon that seemed (most likely in the light of my feelings described above) to express something of the culture of those who have dropped a nuclear bomb.

Beaming to the surface [of Eminiar VII] with a landing party, Kirk and Spock are met by a young woman, Mea 3, who tells them that Eminiar VII has been at war with its neighboring planet, Vendikar, for over 500 years. Mea 3 takes them to the council chambers where they find banks of computers. Eminiar’s head council Anan 7 informs them that the two planets have learned to avoid the complete devastation of war because computers are used. When a “hit” is scored by one of the planets, the people declared “dead” willingly walk into antimatter chambers and are vaporized.

To preserve their respective cultures, argues Anan 7, the two planets must wage bloodless war. Kirk is alarmed to find that Mea 3 accepts the need for her and her people to step into the chamber and be vaporised; if the war agreement is violated, then real war would ensue, and their culture would be destroyed. So, to preserve the wonders of their world, they are willing to sacrifice themselves.

Kirk argues that real war – horrible and destructive – is the experience that is needed for peace to become your goal. Without war, there is no will to make peace. Kirk and Spock eventually save the day by destroying the computers and forcing the two planets’ people to either experience war in its full horror, or to make peace to avoid this horror.

To my mind, for all its melodrama, this episode is expressing powerful cultural emotions. These people have engineered this situation to preserve the beauty of their world, enable progress to continue uninterrupted, and to repress the physical pain of war. An illusion of Arcadia. Keeping the monsters well fed but docile. And along comes Kirk with his dose of reality that is driven by an urge for peace.

I feel I’m not explaining this very well but I’m not sure how to elicit what I mean. If you think of Star Trek as American and closer to WWII than we are now, and you therefore think of this story as having the mind set of people recovering from dropping the bomb, you can perhaps discern that an urgent desire to preserve and to make peace that must be sustained or provoked by destruction and death is a sort of hymn to the predicament of having dropped the bomb.

Do you see? This, I think, is what make Star Trek so interesting – the way it taps into an subliminal sea of thought and emotion and grandeur and human squalor. Showing us our dreams and our nightmares in a digestible format.


May 15, 2006

I lie on my bed at night and on weekend mornings, reading. I read on the train, standing pressed up against bodies I do not know, on the way to work, and again on the train on the way home. I walk, in the evenings, from the station to my front door with a book in my hands, my head occasionally lifting to be sure that I am walking straight, or not about to collide with somebody, another unknown body. My reading habits seem to draw me to other bodies, by some sort of gravitational pull. I read and read and read. I read so much that I am unable to find the time or the will to write. Each new book teaches me something new about writing, something I know I need to learn in my reading and thinking and imagining before I can ever learn it in my writing. This is a cruel impasse, that the love and practice of reading should both inspire and inhibit the desire to write. And now, even my writing is about reading.


May 15, 2006

They say I am going to die. Aren’t we all? I ask in return.

I stepped up onto the raised dais and looked out into the raked darkness before me; I imagined this darkness was rolling toward me, a cloud of lethal black gas, a wave of thick and airless oil. So this is life, I thought. This is light. God help me.

"I stand before this assembly," I began, "as a broken man." Silence. A cough.

I continue. "I stand before you today as a man who is no longer himself. I have travelled to another world, have passed through its bloodstream, and have returned bearing its stain. Indeed, I stand before you as an alien, an anomaly, an insurgent."

sung to the tune of…

May 15, 2006

Dear, I thought I’d drop a line. The weather’s cool. The folks are fine. I’m in bed each night at nine. Yesterday we had some rain but all in all I can’t complain. Was it dusty on the train? Write to the Browns just as soon as you’re able: they came around to call. And I burned a hole in the diningroom table. Now let me think . . . I guess that’s all. Nothing else for me to say and so I’ll close, but by the way, everybody’s thinking of you.


P.S. I love you.

I Mention This

May 15, 2006

From The Medusa Frequency, by Russell Hoban:

Often in my researches I’ve come across old books of a specialist nature in which the author, usually a retired wingcommander, expresses in a modest foreword the hope that the little volume may be a vade mecum for the model steam engineer, coarse angler, sado-masochist or whatever. I feel that way about these pages: I hope that this little volume may be a vade mecum not so much for the specialist as for others like me – the general struggler and straggler, the person for whom the whole sweep of consciousness is [sometimes] too much. Here I am reminded of the words of H.P. Lovecraft: The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.

Barnes on Flaubert

May 7, 2006

There is an excellent essay from Julian Barnes, Flaubert, C’est Moi, on Flaubert’s Bouvard et Pécuchet and a new biography of Flaubert at The New York Review of Books.

I am yet to read B et P but I have enjoyed the Dictionary of Accepted Ideas that forms an appendix to the novel. See my post what do you know about Archimedes?

Barnes describes the novel:

Bouvard et Pécuchet, by contrast, a work of the highest artistic purpose, is an encyclopedia of human endeavor with a directly opposite take—”the Baedeker of futility,” as Cyril Connolly called it. The novel is an exasperated assertion that human resourcefulness is usually directed at foolish projects, and human ingenuity an excuse for gross self-satisfaction. And though Bouvard et Pécuchet will never be as popular as Madame Bovary or L’Éducation sentimentale (it has at least overhauled Salammbô, currently way out of fashion), it is still stubbornly being read—and Mark Polizzotti’s supple and sprightly translation will doubtless find it a happy few more.

Stubbornness, indeed, pervades and surrounds this novel. It is about stubbornness — the indefatigable attempt by two retired Parisian clerks to master and subdue the whole of human knowledge, a task in which they persevere despite constant failure and discouragement. It represents a decades-long act of authorial stubbornness, a commitment made in the face of Flaubert’s own doubts and several friends’ wise discouragements. It is aesthetically stubborn in its constant refusal to grant readers the narrative flow they traditionally crave. And it requires a stubborn reader, one willing to suspend normal expectations and able to confront both repetitious effects and a vomitorium of predigested book-learning.

Now, that makes me want to read the novel very much – I like dense, encyclopaedic books that teach me lots of things I didn’t know. For me, the best recommendation is

The novel’s resistance to easy reading must have been as much part of its appeal to modernism as its curious flatness of tone and its radical innovation of form. At last — the novel was allowed to be difficult, allowed actively to deter certain readers, and to tack a vast appendix of data and pseudodata on the end of something that was half hyperrealism, half tract. Thus Pound thought Bouvard et Pécuchet inaugurated “a new form which had no precedents”; while, according to Cyril Connolly, it was Joyce’s favorite novel.

forgotten gestures

May 3, 2006

My train book at the moment is Staying On by Paul Scott. In true Douglas Adams style, this, it transpires, is the fifth book in the Raj quartet. It also won the Booker prize in 1977.

One of the protagonists is Mrs Lucy Smalley, wife of Colonel ‘Tusker’ Smalley, and employer of Ibrahim. Here are two short excerpts from a scene where she and Ibrahim negotiate the hiring of a new gardener or mali.

She was playing with the beads, telling them off, calculating by means of a handy abacus slung around her withered old neck the cost of a new mali

We see this gesture through Ibrahim’s eyes and the analogy is appropriate because the key issue in hiring a new gardener, for both characters, is the cost; however, the gesture is not one of counting so much as that of distraction.

She chortled again. Ibrahim laughed. She had one hand near her throat, the other on her hip. Now she gave a full throated laugh, then tapped him on the arm.

Here it is the placement of the hands that interests me. The hands perform the primary gesture and the rest of the body adjusts into the secondary gesture, a certain stance.

Why I find both these descriptions interesting is because they remind me of my paternal grandmother – Granny Anne. She held her long string of pearls in that way, and struck that stance of hand to throat and other hand to hip.

And what struck me about this resonance is that these are gestures that belong to women of her generation and that, amongst women of my generation, they are essentially lost. I think my mother and my aunt – their generation – still perform an echo of these gestures, but they don’t own them in the same way. Perhaps the ownership is stronger when you also have a blue rinse hairdo.


May 1, 2006

From A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, by James Joyce:

His heart trembled; his breath came faster and a wild spirit passed over his limbs as though he was soaring sunward. His heart trembled in an ecstasy and his soul was in flight. His soul was soaring in an air beyond the world and the body he knew was purified in a breath and delivered of incertitude and made radiant and commingled with the element of the spirit. An ecstasy of flight made radiant his eyes and and wild his breath and tremulous and wild and radiant his windswept limbs… His throat ached with a desire to cry aloud, the cry of a hawk or eagle on high, to cry piercingly of his deliverance to the winds… An instant of wild flight had delivered him and the cry of triumph which his lips withheld cleft his brain.