Monday, May 25, 2020

On Common Sense and Coronavirus

Once when I was a teacher (at an American university), staff were sent an email asking that we “make clear to your students that attendance is compulsory.” Apparently, some students had complained, on receiving a low grade, that they had not been told that it was necessary to actually come to class. I wrote at the time:

The whole edifice of common sense can no longer be taken for granted. The more litigious American society becomes the more this edifice will be eroded… A vast legal superstructure, wordily detailing the bleeding obvious will gradually come to occupy the set of silent rules that had previously regulated - but also enabled - human interaction.

It is difficult, in the English-speaking world, to extract this phrase, “common sense”, from the ideological and political uses to which it is put. Recent examples aside, it’s typically contrasted with intellectual abstraction and employed as a tool of anti-intellectualism. “British common sense,” invariably “robust”, is used in opposition to anything sounding vaguely intellectual or in opposition to bureaucratic measures, especially if originating in “Brussels” of course. Yet there is no reason to think that “common sense” is more prevalent in Britain than elsewhere. There may even be reason to think that it’s less, given that "health and safety" regulations increasingly encroach on areas that, in other countries, are left to judgement and trust.


Not long before the lockdown my family went on a trip to Italy. We stayed in the walled town of Lucca, between Pisa and Florence. The walls are around twelve meters high and extend round the whole town. Many people walk or run on the path that runs along the top of the wall. We were walking along this path when we came to a playground. We took our two boys, 4 and 17 months to play and run about. The playground is itself only a few metres from the edge of the wall and the sheer twelve metre drop. There were a few signs here and there, but no fence or barrier. We remember saying that this would surely be unthinkable in England from a “health and safety” point of view. Where we might expect to find such regulations, there was instead trust, or, if you like, a reliance on “common sense”.

I wonder to what extent this “common sense” depends on or relates to a sense of the common – of shared space, a shared situation, a shared conversation. The idea that we are all involved in a common project. Not a “goal orientated” project, but the project known as life. We are all, equally, participants, commentators, different of course but sharing a common situation, a common set of circumstances or problems.

Again in Italy. We were in a café and our four-year-old was kneeling on a plastic chair with his hands gripping the back. It tipped forward and he fell to the floor. It was like a stone falling in a pond, creating ripples of conversation and exclamations on the adjacent tables. He got up and laughed and the laughter was immediately echoed. It was a laugh, part of the generality of human laughter, a common currency. His fall from the chair was, in other words, immediately a public event. It did not occur in the bubble of “our business” and then awkwardly spill out into the circumference of other people’s bubbles. The bubbles were never there. There was never a question that it was part of the shared conversation, the common project.

I’ve experienced and read lots of instances here in England of people not really taking the lockdown rules seriously, including people being verbally abused for wearing face masks. There’s a certain “it’s all nonsense” hostility you encounter here in certain quarters, or a brusque indifference. And in response to something on twitter, I wondered to what extent this indifference or hostility, as manifest in behaviour, was present in European countries like Greece, Italy, Spain and so on. The replies (yes, anecdotal) seemed to bear out the idea that there is, in these other countries, a stronger sense of “we’re all in this together”, in a way that involves an element of sacrifice and solidarity, and a part suspension of everyday life. I don’t think it’s a question of political conformity. No one can reasonably accuse the Greeks or Spanish of being politically subservient. But I wonder if it’s easier to implement and observe the rules, the universal imperatives, where there’s already a sense of the “common project”, of the collective, a “sense of the common”.

The measures taken to limit and contain the virus are viewed by some as a pretext for political repression. No doubt they will be used as such by a Tory government. Yet they are also an invitation to participate in a collective activity to save lives. In Greece or Spain and elsewhere there was a recognition that - in this instance - to respect the rules is to respect life. a universal imperative without exemptions. Legally it is, finally, unenforceable and has to rely on a sense of public duty, of people not exempting themselves or treating it as a spectacle happening to others. A pandemic allows us to see the varying degrees to which certain political systems and cultures are able to rise to that non-national challenge. Johnson's empty rhetorical reference to "British common sense" was a last-ditch appeal to an exceptionalism already refuted by events. 

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Walter Benjamin: Allegory, Modernism and Yeats



Allegory, in Benjamin, is applied to the field of seventeenth century German Baroque Drama, or Trauerspiel, wherein allegorical figures are literally centre stage. By the seventeenth century, both pagan and Christian symbolism has been endlessly reinterpreted by subsequent forms of life. Thus:

the plurality of pagan and Christian cosmologies that had been amassed in history and preserved in those authoritative texts  in which truth was believed to reside” led to a [..] , a multiplicity of meanings: […] The apparent arbitrariness of meanings had the effect of compelling allegorists to choose a variant that represented intended meanings of their own – thus allegory became a correspondingly arbitrary aesthetic device.

Baroque drama comes at a time when the detritus of various traditions, stockpiled, at what was thought to be the End of History, were re-invested with meaning by the allegorist’s fancy. The allegorist exercised sovereign power in the realm of dead objects and remaindered symbolic materials. Half claiming to uncover secret or hidden meanings, half aware that the meanings had been conferred by his or own executive decision.

The reason why Benjamin’s text, dealing with (to most readers in the English-speaking world) arcane and unknown plays and documents, has exercised such fascination for some is, I think, twofold. Firstly, Benjamin’s book is itself a prime example of Modernist writing, perhaps deliberately obscure, circuitous, bristling with difficulty and offering itself as an object – recalcitrant and cross-grained – of interpretation. We might place it in the same category as Joyce’s Ulysses or Heidegger’s Being and time. Written in a highly idiosyncratic style which seems also the signature and indirect portrait of an individual, inviting and spawning imitation from the academic world that belatedly recognised it. On the other hand it is clear that in focusing so intently on obscure 17th Century texts, Benjamin was simultaneously explicating Modernism itself, and using the Trauerspiel as the light from the past to illuminate Modernism without directly mentioning it.

For Modernism, or a strain of it, is precisely this practice of amassing the fragments of past traditions, regarded now as a kind of “stockpile” unplugged from their specific context, benefiting from their aura or ghost-lights of significance, but at the same time playfully constructing some new thing from these ruins and remnants, and delighting in the authorial power to create that new meaning.

There are doubtless obvious and varied examples of this, from Eliot to Pound and Joyce. But I’d like to pause at a very particular example from Yeats, where this duality can be seen very clearly.


The central symbol in Yeats’s early poetry is the Rose. Yeats choses what is perhaps the most over-written symbol in Western tradition. It’s worth noting first of all that the Rose is a textbook illustration of Benjamin’s point about Pagan symbols appropriated by Christianity. The Rose had “had long been the flower of Venus and so of sexual license.”

“Identified with woman from earliest times and the classical attribute of the goddess of earthly love, the pagan queen of flowers reappears quite naturally as the chief symbol of the Christian queen of heaven.”
 “The red rose was still more commonly conceived of as the flower of martyrdom… The flower of martyrs was the flower as well of the supreme martyr of Christianity. As a sign of Christ’s passion, the redness of the rose was again associated with blood, while the surrounding thorns signified the crown of thorns. At the same time the Resurrection that followed the Passion was figured in the splendour of the rose in bloom.”
We find it also in Dante:
At the end of his Comedy Dante, guided now by Saint Bernard, contemplates an enormous rose, bathed in radiance and attended by angelic bees. [29:] This white flower with yellow centre seems a garden of concentric petals within which Beatrice, the Virgin, and all the redeemed occupy suitable chairs. Penultimate, that rose is the most impressive and the most efficacious of “shadowy prefaces,” as Dante calls them, to his ultimate vision of circles and light.

In the 17th Century (the period Benjamin is writing about) the Rose is appropriated by the esoteric Rosicrucian movement (who Benjamin also alludes to) as its central symbol:

Sufficiently vague, the Rosicrucian flower had certain advantages over its Catholic counterpart. It was free of the more specific doctrinal associations of the Catholic symbol, yet at the same time could give supernatural validity to the poet’s highest imaginings.

What the Rosicrucians (and later Yeats) do with the Rose, is to divorce the validity of the religious icon from Doctrine. For the Rosicrucians, the validity of the Rose, its nimbus of authority, its meaningful density and occult power may have appeared in Doctrinal form but are anterior to it. The Rosicrucians purport to reveal a true or concealed meaning whilst of course inventing a new one, an invention claiming a (bogus) ancient licence but resting ultimately on nothing.

Yeats will later add his own Irish gloss to the symbol:
Rose – The rose is a favourite symbol with the Irish poets, and has given a name to several poems both Gaelic and English, and is used in love poems, in addresses to Ireland like Mr Aubrey de Vere’s poem telling how “the little black rose shall be red at last,” and in religious poems, like the old Gaelic one which speaks of “the Rose of Friday,” meaning the Rose of Austerity.
These successive re-drawings significance, over many years, point simultaneously to two different interpretations: 
1.  The Rose is the font of its various “meanings”. The accretions of meaning are so many attempts to represent some essence which finally eludes us, and whose power comes from the fact that it is ultimately elusive and unnameable. It is “Far off, most secret, and inviolate
2.  There is no original meaning. The Rose is a plastic signifier that can be made to mean almost anything whatsoever, and this meaning will simply derive from the peremptory naming power of the poet.

These two understandings of the Rose, as an essence eluding its symbolisation and as a pliable sign open to manipulation correspond to two subjective positions:

1.      The subject is a passive supplicant, supine before a Thing which is utterly opaque and overwhelming, its ‘deep’ magnetism, recurrently eluding his grasp.
2.      The subject actively invests with meaning what is an “inert” and conventional item of poetic machinery, emptied of intrinsic meaning. 

The early Yeats tends towards the former two positions (1 and 1). But even in the early Yeats there is a hesitation between, as it were, invoking (ie whatever the Rose represents) and inventing. Both in his poetry and in his activity within the secret societies, there is the same duality: summoning some hidden meaning or spirit, whilst also suspecting that the whole thing is the poet or adept’s conjuring trick. Is the poet choreographed by an occult hand or is he the choreographer? But the ambivalence we find in the early Yeats, but also in much Modernism, has to do with authority. Is authority being lent by Tradition, albeit a secret one, or is it being created by the peremptory force of poetic magic. 


In German Baroque Drama, in Modernism, and in Yeats, this ambivalence is embedded already in history - the subject of the next post. 

Monday, May 18, 2020

Walter Benjamin: Marxism, Allegory and Modernism

In an earlier post, I quoted Theodor Adorno’s dictum that lyric poetry can be read as a “sundial telling the time of history”.

The challenge for Marxist and other historicist methods of literary criticism has always been to think through the relation between history on the one hand and literary forms on the other. Content was always an easier ride. How does this text represent a particular historical event, or a particular class? What are the biases and assumptions that the author brings to bear on what he or she represents? All that is important. But it’s necessary also to show that literary forms themselves do not simply develop out of other forms, independently, but are part of history in the larger sense and bear its imprint. Not only that, but the particular innovations that a writer introduces, the idiosyncrasies of style, are responses to a larger historical situation, or at least presuppose a certain historically specific form of life. Of course, the writer has literary precursors or “influences” but the writer chooses these precursors under the weight and pressure of the time.

When Walter Benjamin was on his way to Marxism (and it’s debatable whether he ever arrived) he wrote a dense and esoteric study of German Baroque Drama, the Trauerspiel. The central motif of the study is a brilliantly eccentric definition of Allegory, as the revelation of history and the historical sense within a specific literary form. 


Allegory for Benjamin presupposes that a sign has broken away from its meaning, that there has been a leakage of significance. The initial meaning has leaked away and therefore the sign or symbol is assigned a different meaning by the allegorist. The example that Benjamin gives is Pagan symbols taken over and recoded by Christian allegorists:

The pantheon of ancient gods, “disconnected from the life-contexts out of which they sprang”, became “dead figures”, standing arbitrarily for the philosophical ideas they has once embodied as living symbols.

Venus/ Aphrodite, for example, once the natural symbol that raised human Eros to the level of divine love, lived on as “Dame World”, the profane allegorical emblem of earthly passion.

Thus, allegorical materials are signs and symbols that have fallen outside their place within a definite Symbolic support system (here, the old pagan world). No longer plugged into their living context, these ruined signs can now be overwritten by a different Symbolic Order (Christianity).

But if Christian allegory is an attempt to recode and ‘contain’ the old gods, their dangerous potency is never entirely extinguished. The exorcism of allegorical re-writing is never complete. Something has escaped, and the allegorist senses this. The x which has escaped nags at the mind of the allegorist, filling him with a creeping awareness of repressed forces. Thus, a purely aesthetic veneration for the old and defeated culture coexists with an intimation of its still unquiet daemonic power. Allegory is always haunted.

This is perhaps why the allegorist, as Benjamin puts it “comes away empty handed”. When confronted by the ruined signs of an older form of life, the allegorist recognises that they signify without confidently knowing what. All historical objects - a jug from the seventeenth century, some medieval chasuble, even the embossing on a volume of Yeats’s early poems - all have this quality to varying degrees. We can see that they have significance – it’s like a nimbus surrounding them – but the absent and inaccessible meaning haunts us. And this nimbus without content is the sure index of a form of life which we are now unable to restore or enter into.

Thus, Allegory recognises a ‘jagged line of demarcation between sign (eg the Pagan objects) and meaning (their true original significance within a particular life-word)’.  What underwrites allegorical signs is the assumption that Meaning – whether that of God or some Other – has withdrawn, leaving only a rubble of cyphers and enigmatic objects. And this leads on the one hand to a sense of melancholy, a preoccupation with the lost inaccessible object, with the labour of interpretation, endlessly deferred, required to bring it into daylight. It involves, it brings with it, an awareness of lost forms of life, the limitations of our own temporal horizon, the time lag between sign and meaning. As a form, allegory is marked by the presence of history itself. For history is, among other things, the process whereby certain form of life, and their symbolic supports- which seem like nature - are drained of their significance and re-written by later and victorious forms of life, later forms of life always ghosted by what they have failed to assimilate. This is, I think, a central theme of modernity. 
Wittgenstein:“the earlier culture will become a heap of rubble and finally a heap of ashes; but spirits will hover over the ashes.”
There is however, a counterpoint to all this. To recap: the Pagan world leaves in its wake idols, ritualistic objects, symbols of worship, which Christianity, far from discarding, seizes and re-uses, presiding over these dead gods - in all their recalcitrant otherness and antique dignity - with a sovereign interpretative and destructive power. Although the allegorist frequently purports to be discovering some deeper or real meaning, what he or she ends up drawing attention to is the ability of the allegorist to assign meaning, almost arbitrarily. Emptied of their initial meaning, the old signs and symbols are – as Benjamin puts it - “surrendered unconditionally into the allegorist’s power”. Meaning no longer resides with the object but with the power of the allegorist.

Thus: on the one hand, an attitude of pensive immersion, a serial movement of sign to sign in search of lost or buried significance; on the other, a heightened awareness of the power to invest and assign meaning, often with wilful caprice.

It is this combination which seems to me the defining feature of a certain strain of modernism, in both literature and philosophy [to be continued]. 

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Yeats and the Voice

“The human voice can apprehend itself as the sounding of the soul itself.” (Hegel)

There is of course a long-standing tradition identifying the voice with the soul, the soul as present in the voice, and the voice – neither quite matter or spirit - as the immediate manifestation of the soul. There is a related - inextricable perhaps - tradition, amply documented, of seeing writing as something secondary and external.

Now it said about Yeats that “From the beginning, he wrote verses meant to be spoken and heard, not written and read.” His written verse aspired to the condition of the voice.

But however true this may be, it is also true, firstly, that Yeats displays a fascination with writing and the materiality of the book, with book design, fonts, iconography. The early books he produces are like grimoires, the poems supported by arcane footnotes deferring sense and demanding the labour of exegesis. 

Secondly the voice in Yeats is not only something to which his poetry aspires. It is a theme and a problematic object within the poems themselves. The presence of voices is one of the defining and salient features of the early Yeats: the disembodied voice, the voice out of nowhere. This voice without body, without obvious speaker, is sometimes called the acousmatic voice. It is typically an uncanny voice, nagging at the conscious mind with intimations of the repressed, forgotten or disavowed. Alternatively, it is a voice that intervenes from outside the frame, as it were, that commands or enacts.

There are both types of voice in the early Yeats. And they may well be related. On the one hand the voice of melancholy: sighs and murmurs floating on the wind or exhaled from the earth, barely audible and bearing the freight of lost significance. One the other, a voice of annunciation – declaring, intervening in some decisive way, prophesising. Occasionally, the one flips over into the other:

I wander by the edge
Of this desolate lake
Where wind cries in the sedge:
Until the axle break
That keeps the stars in their round,
And hands hurl in the deep
The banners of East and West,
And the girdle of light is unbound,
Your breast will not lie by the breast
Of your beloved in sleep.

“Wind” is of course a bearer of or prelude to the voice. The title of Yeats’s early volume, The Wind Among the Reeds hints at the relation, never straightforward, often uneasy, between the voice – and-or spirit - and the instrument of writing, the graphic mark.

Wind works like a voice but without speech, like “pure” voice, a voice cleared of content, it seems to announce something without speaking: “A violent gust of wind made the roof shake and burst the door open”. If it’s a prelude to speech, it can also be a ghost of speech; not the annunciatory note, but the traces of a spirit expired, the almost inaudible words that blow from the sod over the grave in one of Yeats’s short stories.

To some extent, Yeats vacillates between the melancholy ghost voice, the moan, the inaudible cry, and the stentorian voice of annunciation. But increasingly, the voice of annunciation, typically italicised rather than quoted, becomes the primary object of fascination.

This voice, a voice heralded by and nearly-synonymous with the wind, represents the voice that Yeats ends up appropriating for himself. The role performed by the wind in the early poems, a voice that comes from nowhere, suddenly and decisively, to warn or declare, is exactly, so to speak, Yeats’ own voice in the middle and late poems. In the early poems it is a voice, typically signified by italics, which “intervenes” toward the end of the poem and retroactively changes or defines the meaning of what has preceded it. But what Yeats first embodies and-or experiences as a voice outside him becomes the position of enunciation that he takes up himself. The middle and late poems are full of acts of annunciation, naming, declaring (“I declare this tower is my symbol”). The voice as object becomes the voice of the subject, but always with the sense that it might once again become an external thing,  and therefore has to be commanded by an act of will (“words obey my call”). 


Monday, May 11, 2020

The Dead and Philosophy



The philosopher is someone who believes he has returned from the dead, rightly or wrongly, and who returns to the dead in full consciousness. (Deleuze)For philosophers are beings who have passed through a death, who are born from it, and go towards another death, perhaps the same one. (Deleuze)

Deleuze’s image is an idiosyncratic one. It is difficult to imagine J.L. Austin, for example sharing this idea of the philosopher as a figure in transit between two deaths, and for whom death is a condition of his or her possibility. And it is not only death but the dead, as in classical mythology, perhaps, the great numberless collectivity of the Dead.

Thought, for Deleuze, is brought in to being by an encounter with its outside, the presence of something which is not-thought, which is recalcitrant to thought. Something initially unthinkable. Death is perhaps the most immediate form of that Outside that gives rise to thought. An Outside that is also intimate, the death that is present in all of us. It is present in the finitude that organises our experience in the form of hope, expectation, boredom, impatience. All forms of temporal experience are death’s clues and pointers in so far as they are structured by this implicit finitude.

The Dead, conceived as a collectivity are a way of giving body to that Outside. They live on the Outside. Beyond or at the rim and barrier of our experience. If death is present in our finitude, then so too are the Dead present.

There is something covertly utopian about this idea of the Dead, the vast congregation, assembled on the opposite shore. The great collective. For we are not talking about the war dead of a particular nation, invoked for nationalist purposes. The “Fenian dead” invoked by Padraig Pearse to rouse his militia, and countless other examples. If we put aside these uses of the dead, then the Dead have no nationality. They have their own country apart, and the only other country, which they do not oppose, which they do not envy or resent or set themselves against in any way, is the country of the living.

When you pass over to the country of the Dead, you also leave behind your symbolic vestments and investments. In some perverse sense, you enter the human community. This is one point of intersection between philosophers and the Dead. If the Dead no longer have anything at stake in the social order – pragmatic interests, concerns about status, symbolic and actual capital, then this should also be the position of the philosopher. For the philosopher is or should be someone who has removed himself, albeit not entirely, from the symbolic community of which he or she had been part. Its laws, habitual practices, its customs masked as nature. Deleuze again [on Spinoza]: 
[The] full meaning of the philosopher’s solitude becomes apparent. He cannot integrate into any milieu; he is not suited to any of them.The philosopher can reside in various states, he can frequent various milieus, but he does so in the manner of a hermit, a shadow, a traveller, or boarding house lodger.
He or she is a kind of supernumerary figure. 

What is called life is always, of course, implicated in a cultural and social order. Life cannot, or except at a great price, flourish or express itself outside the codes and conditions of this cultural and social order. Nonetheless, life is never synonymous with those codes and conditions. There is always a surplus, a surplus vitality. Perhaps, then, it is this surplus which passes over into the country of the Dead, when the symbolic integuments are shed. Perhaps it is this surplus to which the philosopher - the Deleuzian philosopher - is also attuned.

Friday, May 08, 2020

Storytelling: Berger, Sontag and Beckett.


This is the kind of thing you used to see on television. A dialogue, a genuine dialogue between Susan Sontag and John Berger on storytelling, on the nature of fiction and much else. That such a program is today inconceivable is itself a whole essay, an essay of lamentation or attack, or both at once. But I wanted to think about an exchange that happens around 18 minutes in. Berger proposes that every story “has its own subjectivity”, a subjectivity which is not that of the writer (or storyteller) or the protagonist or the reader, but an “amalgam” of the three. This, perhaps, is the “event” of fiction, the emergence from the three substances of a semi-miraculous fourth substance, a tremulous subjectivity which moves through and over the text, a creature of our reading, a thing that vanishes when the “collaboration” (Berger’s phrase) ends.

The transience of this subjectivity and its fragility might tempt us to compare it to a ghost, or something ghost like. But a ghost is typically a trace of something that has been. The subjectivity that Berger speaks of, if we agree with him (Sontag doesn’t), is born and lives with the text, or the act of storytelling.

We disappear into it, yet we are part of the amalgam.

I wonder who has written about this subjectivity - impersonal, or transpersonal, unattached to a body, a flare over the marshes - and what significance it has in terms of subjectivity more generally?
__

Berger’s idea that there is a kind of subjectivity – more than a Voice but less than a person – born with the text, with the story, existing only on that particular “surface”, makes me think of Samuel Beckett. 

In Beckett, we have speakers who are, as it were, aware of this. Beings which exist only on stage or only on the page, out of nowhere, and find themselves existing on stage, on the page, surprised sometimes, to be thrown there with meagre resources. It is a "subjectivity" that knows what it is made of. 

Wednesday, May 06, 2020

The Desire not to be English

Alan Bennet:

“22 August. There are different ways of being English, one of which is not to want to be English at all. I doubt if anyone French is ever ashamed of being French – however deplorable the government might be. Disaffected though he or she may be, to be French is still the best thing in the world.”

It is curious, this peculiarly English desire not to be English, to escape not just England but being English. Admittedly, it is only a small minority, usually artists and writers. But I wonder what it consists of. Martin Amis is an example. He’d rather not be English, he famously said, and cited the continuing existence of the royal family and the public’s obsession with celebrity. Bennett himself once confessed he was ashamed to be English at the time of the Iraq war. There is a kind of shame on behalf of the Others, the Others who support the war, defer to Royalty and the ruling class, read the tabloids, consistently elect a Conservative government etc. One is exempt from these things but experiences shame nonetheless.

If one genuinely is exempt from these things, which are traits of the Others, then we might ask a naïve question. If one is generally happy with one’s tastes, habits, relationships, desires, then what does it matter whether one is English or not? Is it not an external classification? What makes this classification so adhesive? Is it perhaps based only on a misunderstanding of that tricky word "being"? If Amis is a republican, and a man of letters; if Bennett is vocally opposed to the war, if I am a socialist, then why am I implicated in or by what the Others do?

It is in part a discomfort with the way one is perceived by the non-English, the disfiguring gaze of non-English others, who see you inevitably through the filter of the general category. It is in some sense also you they are talking about when they laugh at English emotional repression, monoglot insularity, political conformism, comically misplaced exceptionalism. In feeling shame, one has already identified with the gaze of these Others, and become a kind of ambassador apologising on the English’s behalf.

This apologetic shame may itself be “very English,” as perhaps is (as Bennett intimates) this desire not to be English itself, the stubborn and problematic self-dislike, the futile grumbling against the unchangeable fact of birth and upbringing, as if it were a fatal malady, an inescapable curse.


John Berger, over the years, cited a number of reasons for leaving England and moving to a village in the French Alps, but one of them was that the English found him “a bit too intense”. I wonder if, in the imaginations of the writers and artists who have left,  "English” is in part a codeword for this intensive deficit. And the desire to be not English is in effect a desire to experience the world in a qualitatively different way, a way incompatible with staying in England.
There is the suspicion that to be English is not to be replete with a national character, with a living culture that one can then reject, but a recognition that these things are absent:

“The English, of any people in the universe,” wrote Hume “have the least of a national character, unless this very singularity may pass for such.” If pressed, and asked in what their national character resides, they will reply in clichés, such as “fish and chips” or “the Queen” or “a sense of fair play”, tourist gimmicks, shells of received wisdom, the signs and shows of a national character which does not exist.

If this is right, or nearly, then perhaps the desire to be not English is not simply symmetrical with a desire not to be French, to use Bennett’s example. Not the recognition of a set of positive values, a sufficiency of culture, but the heady sense of an absence, an insufficiency, and an imperative to reinvent oneself.