29.9.07

Math

On the other hand, Pynchon launches himself into numerous lectures on great-power politics of the day, lectures that would suffocate an audience at a hundred paces. Let a character say, “But you’re itching to be filled in, I can see that,” and the author scurries to the library table to pot some history (he’s suspected of relying on the famous eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica for his facts, but his reading is far richer and more mutinous). The more he writes, the more stiff-necked the movements of armies and politicians; though these are Astaire waltzes compared to the global wars in mathematics:

“And that’s what has kept driving Cantor back into the Nervenklinik,” added Humfried, “and he was only worrying about line-segments. But out here in the four-dimensional space-and-time of Dr. Minkowski, inside the tiniest ‘interval,’ as small as you care to make it, within each tiny hypervolume of Kontinuum—there likewise must be always hidden an infinite number of other points—and if we define a ‘world’ as a very large and finite set of points, then there must be worlds. Universes!”

If this sort of thing gives you goose bumps, there are more than enough passages in Against the Day about zeta functions and the Riemann hypothesis to gratify you, as well as any of your relatives who happen by (like a gas, the math expands to fill the space available). Pynchon is perhaps the only novelist who could have written that “all mathematics . . . leads to some kind of human suffering.” After the publication of V., he was supposedly turned down for graduate work in math at Berkeley. He avenges that humiliation here.

28.9.07

18)


18) From my window I can see across the street. Into a girl’s bedroom.
Perhaps 19, red hair and undressing - - her bra doesn’t match her panties - - a thumb hooked gauchely in a hairband, she towels her hair mirrorwise. If I was a gentleman I’d turn away. One never does.

19) It was not curiosity that killed the cat, but the car. Let’s be accurate. [...]

21) I am writing part of my thesis in verse
——The man, the legend

Everything Is Callous

or: Art is Callous because Life is

Elegant variation shades into ironical euphemism, which shades into dandaical detachment. Flaubert, in despair at the Franco- Prussian war, and trying to maintain the primacy of art, commented that in the long run, perhaps the only function of such carnage was to provide writers with a few fine scenes. So here, the function of the octogenarian Breton woman who hangs herself, or the 75-year-old man who dies of a stroke on the bowling lawn (‘While his ball was still rolling he was no more’), or the 70-year-old who drops dead of sunstroke (‘Quickly his dog Fido ate his head’) is to provide a sophisticated Parisian with a witty paragraph. [...] [A] bomb became a ‘delightful kettle’ and the manner in which it killed six people showed ‘intimate charm’ (we are not far from
Stockhausen’s quickly retracted description of the World Trade Center attacks as ‘the greatest artwork ever made’).

Julian Barnes, LRB 4 October

27.9.07

Politics

It may be that I'm frazzled on caffeine and no sleep, but I think I just heard the marchingband whod spent the last week parping Tory bugles fingers red with paint — in full-throated Socialist singalong. How their temples must've burnt for lying.

Well, no. This is image politics. Some BBC chuffer let go a lovely example: there are aides to Gordon Brown, he said, who are urging an early poll because they're scared his honeymoon lease has all too short a date. Act now, seize mandate, change Britain and fuck the other side
(the toff, and his mate the toff) over the cliff.

Now I like to see a Tory shafted as much as the next champagne lefty. I couldn't however help the semi-drunk sense of disorientation I got whenever I contemplated this remark. If Gordon isn't sure the vows will stick beyond the first fortnight's bedevilled loving (tickle me with pledges for a fairer NHS! suck my have-a-go hero!), then he either believes his will make a poor government (ie, political weather will deteriorate so gravely that his crack team will emerge looking bad however they respond), or assumes that our perception of him as voters has little or no relation to what success in office he
s determined to realise. For why call a poll, Mr Brown, if you are not confident the country, after the two or so years youre electorally authorised to lead it, would be in as robust a state as you'd promise on campaign, say, tomorrow?

I would like to note in passing that
have-a-go hero is a clumsy phrase for what it defines; clearly in its popularity consists its poetry. The words alliterate and rhyme.

Brown is not the path of this excursion. (I am a political ignoramus.) My inspiration has rather been Oliver Kamm, a fellow blogger whose website is devoid of comments not because it has no visitors, like this one, but because he doesn’t invite them
that I presume would make for the anarchy of Cif, or Wikipedia, which on many occasions he has branded ‘anti-intellectual’.* Kamm is a clever man, for his independence persuasive in argument, enviably well-read, and a stylist of mandarin brutality. (He has a weakness for namecalling: I don’t see that it follows from Mark Steel’s membership of the Socialist Workers’ Party that he is a supporter of the Islamist war effort. If you asked him he would say he was not. Many Labour backbenchers, even Ministers, disagree with policies their party espouses.) I know little of his biography, but a reference in passing to Julian Glover suggested he had read PPE, which made his banking career and historical erudition testament of polymathy. His most important opinion is his backing, as soi-disant leftwinger, of the Iraq War. It is this opinion over which I want to cast an eye.

My own opinion of Iraq is not important, because I have never been there, have no relationship with any Iraqi and have read exactly one relevant book. It’s enough to say I’m emotionally against it and rationally unconcluded (for at a guess twenty more years). Mr Kamm’s matters because it is one of the few to remain on the pro-war side that is attentively reasoned as it is vigorously expressed. I even sent fanmail a couple days ago to tell him something similar, so you’ll imagine I was pleased when it was announced he would be debating Iraq at the Labour Conference, for a ‘fringe debate’ organised by Newsnight. I duly tuned in.

Kamm was the weakest debater on the panel, both in presentation and content. In what little the editors left of his remarks he spoke with an air of scrupulosity, a nervousness, that impugned his arguments before he’d finished them — if Paxman let him. On TV bravado appears as relaxed confidence and careful humility a cowed kind of diffidence. But fault of presentation is easily forgiven if the speaker’s words are thoughtful: Mr Kamm’s, in this case, offended me. It is the foible of pro-war commentators (labelled ‘neoconservatives’, with passable accuracy) to portray themselves as unillusioned, as realist with the self-possession or courage to admit to themselves the full gravity of Islamist jihad. We know that many Americans were not realistic, or had illusions, about the situation on the ground in the country they were to invade. We know that many commentators argued and are still arguing for an illusory Iraq War, one which was not prosecuted by those men who had illusions about the situation on the ground, who were in the circumstances always going to show the venality and make the mistakes and commit the blunders they did; in this regard they are na├»ve. We, or I, did not know before that it was possible to invoke an illusion, thinking oneself unillusioned, to justify this war. Mr Kamm in his concluding words resorted exactly to that. I paraphrase of necessity, but his point was: If we hadn’t invaded x would have happened, so the invasion was right. This fairly disgusts me, since one of my life’s principles is that as the future is unknowable, so is the counterfactual past. Absolutely. To seek morally to account for the deaths of perhaps hundreds of thousands of innocent people and thousands of troops by a jerrybuilt utilitarian calculus of suffering whose complement** exists only in the mind of the calculator is
itself corrupt, and morally wrong.

I end this post angrier than I started. I suppose it’s upsetting that a writer whose intelligence, in his recent hiatus, I missed more than I’d suspected, could so abase himself in defence of a position to which he has committed his reputation and almost his dignity. After anger, to Geoffrey Hill I
ll give consoling final say.

Offertorium: December 2002

For rain-sprigged yew trees, blockish as they guard
admonitory sparse berries, atrorubent
stone holt of darkness, no, of claustral light:

for late distortions lodged by first mistakes;
for all departing, as our selves, from time;
for random justice held with things half-known,

with restitution if things come to that.

*Yes, Mr Kamm, but if you want expert contributors you have either to pay them, or remain small-fry as Citizendium: the only way to build an internet encyclopedia as popular and as comprehensive as this is to open contribution at first to everyone. The prose is dire, but Nature has shown that it is accurate; why are not ‘anti-intellectual’ costs — and if these are real you have to assume Wikipedia’s ethos will become the world’s default ethos of knowledge, if it wasn’t before — underwritten by educative and other benefits, and why is not its success evidence of its usefulness doing duties for which the scholarly encyclopedias were neither intended nor designed? I take the cost-benefit method of reckoning value from your own reflections on morality; you seem to judge whether an act is good by your calculation of how it has affected the world’s balance of suffering.

**I don
t know the noun. This is my best guess.

25.9.07

Upstart Poems


On Reading A Treatise of Civil Power


Actually you don’t have a shitting clue,
Old timer. Geoffrey, heckling busybody,
What do you know about the Internet?

Or Macro Economics? Or pop music?
Reality has moved fast, and you haven’t.
Come off it! What did you expect? Who cares

About the semi-masticated wordplays
Of a pensioner in a University bubble?
Civil power is about money. MONEY.

Who were you kidding? Everyone else KNOWS,
Fucksake, except your suck-up coterie
Of scholars. Get a job, Geoffrey! Jog on – –

FABER & FABER

Our FABER, who art in London, hallowed
Be thy trademark. Thy profits come, thy contracts
Be honoured, in New York as well as Moscow.

Give us this day our daily press release,
Forgive us our novels, as we forgive
Those who novel against us. Lead us not

Into Crime, but deliver us from Romance.
For thine is the distribution, the adverts,
And all royalties. Forever and ever. Amen.
by Paul Abbott

Email on Twelfth Night

(1. 15/4)

also re initial speech of 12th Night ('notwithstanding thy capacity') - do you follow the Folio punct or Rowe's emendation? editors I think are wrong in preferring Rowe.

(2. 16/4)

As for 12 N: the difference is clear, isn't it. The Folio punctuation means that the next sentence, 'Naught enters there' etc, is explanatory, and in appostion to the preceding, rather gnomic statement :- 'notwithstanding Love's vast capacity, it receives like the sea. That is, everything is devalued by it'. Whereas in Rowe's punctuation the logic is shifted to a long concessive clause 'although love's as capacious as the sea, [yet] it degrades everything'. I guess editors refer to Juliet's 'My bounty is as boundless as the sea, / My love as deep; the more I give to thee / The more I have, for both are infinite'. But that is expressing a much simpler and more innocent idea, in comparison to the jaded 12 N's take on high-fantastical love.

So which do I prefer? The Folio version is more uncompromising, isn't it; and the medial stop is dramatic. Rowe is more logical.

I don't think you'll think this is significant - but the Folio edition of Twelfth Night probably derives from a playhouse text, rather than foul papers: it has signs of Viola's part being changed from a part for a boy who can sing (see I.ii.58), to the songs being transferred to Feste. The punctuation in all printed texts was freely changed by the compositors: the MS of Hand D of Sir Thomas More (our only Shk dramatic MS) has virtually no punctuation. But the compositor who set the first page of 12M was Compositor B. who had a free hand with his texts punctuated heavily. So it is probably his punctuation we are appreciating.

(3. 22/4)

exact folio punct:

O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou,
That, notwithstanding thy capacity,
Receiveth as the sea, nought enters there,
Of what validity, and pitch so e'er,
But falls into abatement, and low price
Even in a minute: so full of shapes is fancy,
That it alone, is high fantastical.

every line but one is punctuated medially - is this usual? the effect is to impose ungainly caesurae where the pentameter's natural caesura does not want emphasis ('validity, and pitch') while giving support to the idea that after 'sea' there is not so heavy a stop, as I first read. Editors emend to

That notwithstanding thy capacity
Receiveth as the sea, nought...

making notwith-sea one clause, where the folio's comma has suggested (they think misleadingly) that 'receiveth' refers back to the spirit of love rather than to the spirit of love's 'capacity'. My problem with this is What's quick and fresh about having everything which enters you fall into abatement & low price, and why 'notwithstanding' if love's capacity is just, essentially, big? Where's the point of notwithstanding between having large capacity and having everything of whatever value which enters you fall to abatement etc.? Why would love's 'capacity', if sealike, be thought usually to mitigate against the falling to abatement of things which enter it (& in this case, because of 'notwithstanding', to have failed)? The Oxford man explains 'notwithstanding' by a contrast between the sea, which always transforms (he ropes in 'sea-change'), and love, which always depreciates. But the contrast is his own: in WS there is no counterpart to love's capacity which supposedly is transforming like the sea, and I can illustrate by paraphrase. The Oxford version would run: 'O love, how quick & fresh you are that, notwithstanding your sealike transforming capacity, nothing enters it but depreciates.' What's the point of mentioning or asserting love's potential for sealike transformation, according to Oxford neutral either way (tho seas tend to erode & to hasten decay; I don't see how that contrasts usefully with falling to abatement), when you are just going to say that 'nothing' that enters there but falls to low price in a minute? The Oxford 'notwithstanding' has no weight or force, because to say that love's capacity is always depreciating cannot function with 'thy capacity receiveth as the sea' in a 'despite' relationship; if love's capacity is always depreciating, it -never- receiveth as the sea, and there is no 'notwithstanding' (which would imply the continued existence of a contrary state of affairs, the substance of the 'despite') to be written about.

All this is glossing instinct, since anyway 'capacity receiveth' is bloody stupid & the subject of 'receiveth' is clearly 'the spirit of love'. I reckon that's what led critics awry: the distance between 'receiveth' & its true subject, & the grammatical jolt it causes. My punctuation would run:

O spirit of love, how quick and fresh art thou
That, notwithstanding thy capacity,
Receiveth as the sea. Nought enters there ...

Love is so quick & fresh that despite its holding power it like the sea keeps swallowing & swallowing, which results in the abatement of everything it swallows; thereby love, 'full of shapes' (reality/truth fallen into the abatement of imagination), becomes itself quickly & freshly 'fantastical' - rather as the sea, if it absorbed enough pollution, would go black. So that's my reading: sorry it's overlong, but he's inexhaustible as you know.

24.9.07

An Obscure Planet

There's a Ballard story where an alien intelligence surveys
a future earth, finding abundant trace of civilisation, a huge,
still functioning computer network, and no people. It transpires
that we downloaded ourselves into computers because
we preferred living as virtual selves, but exhibited such violent
behaviour there the computers, which had become sentient,
decided for the good of the planet and their own protection
they would lock us in. All of us. Now the question I think
is posed here, but which Ballard does not realise is posed, is
Are the computers here behaving amorally or morally?

2.9.07

The Potter Code

'All was well', the closing words of J.K. Rowling's magical bonanza, can by trifling adjustment be made to read ALL I SELL.

All I sell.

I am not sure this has not been remarked on previously. But, children, go figure. Go do the goddamn math.