Wednesday, March 17, 2021

Public intellectuals and the phantasy "middle class"

This was something I wrote some 15 years ago, but seems just as relevant today. It was occasioned by David Aaronovitch's credulity re the "official" reasons for the Iraq war: 



In cases like Aaronovitch, there is a certain earnest investment in the game that seems at times to go beyond that of the actual players. They, the 'public intellectuals', have neither the cynical reckoning of the politician nor the cynical disbelief of the disenfranchised. What they appear not to countenance is that there is the selling of policy on the one hand, and the actual conception and planning of that policy on the other, and that these two may differ radically. Such suggestions are typically dismissed as ‘crude’ or vulgar (as if their own earnest literalism was a badge of maturity.

In the case of those who are ex-radicals, such ‘crude’ analyses remind them, no doubt, of the kind of arguments they used to advance in their elapsed youth, and must, on that account, be disowned all the more forcefully. There is a routine assumption, it’s grains of truth hardened into doctrine, that the opinions you form when practically caught up in the world - Home, Job, Family etc - are automatically more mature and nuanced than when, less socially and financially secure, you looked at the world askance.

It seems to me that the ‘cynical’ view of politics, far from being the badge of a phantasy middle-class, is a popular one, the view of those who are at ten removes from the spectacle, the disenfranchised. The journos and scribblers, the academics hauled before the Newsnight cameras, on the other hand, feel close enough to the spectacle, the game, to believe that they might just be players. They are in sight of the crumbs from the table rather than being excluded from the feast.

But back to the phantasy and real ‘middle class’, one last time. It’s clear that much pro-war opinion came from the middle class intelligentsia, journalists and scribes of one sort or another - not that they choose to see themselves that way, or to see their own opinion as a mere expression of their class or as the mental sublimate of their fancy diet. Indeed, as others have pointed out, if the dinner-party chatterati label names anyone, it names Blairite Islingtonians. (Similarly, the pro-war bloggers were academics, journalists, disgruntled sub-editors and so on). Anti-war positions, on the other hand, could be heard –among countless other places - in many a local working class pub, and it would be as meaningful referring to these as ‘pub orthodoxies’ as ‘bruschetta orthodoxies’ (i.e. equally meaningless), except this would backfire rhetorically and appear snooty.

So it is no accident, that in the face of genuinely popular opposition to the war, extending through all classes of the population, and despite commonly expressed cynicism regarding the official justifications, those same journos and scribblers chose to invent instead an infantile pantomime of stock characters, and to throw stones at the phantoms of their own brains.


Tuesday, March 16, 2021

My Sad Heart Slobbers at the Poop

Such a hard day today. I have to crawl through each minute. And each minute infinitely divisible. If only time was space and I could walk over to the end of the day and sleep.

I’d like to lay down in bed, and to
 be no more than the single sensation of a cheek resting on a pillow. But what’s in my head is a line, a half-line I’ve been trying to remember. Something like “my sad heart drools at the poop” but of course it can’t be that. It makes no sense. I’m picking at it, like something stuck in the teeth, and it has that same quality, which is to say that part of you enjoys the picking, the piece of sauerkraut or whatever it is just too stubbornly wedged to come out. It seems like you’re almost there but no. You roll your tongue over it, and over the rough edges of the tooth. You try and hook it with a fingernail. All the time enjoying the sensation. The ragged bit of vegetable, its different textures. Hard at the bottom, thin and slimy at the top. And when it pops out things will return to normal. But you’ll be disappointed. So, you don’t quite want to return to normal. You don’t quite want it to pop out. ­­­­­

Well, it’s the same kind of thing with this line. I could google it but that’s too easy. I want to keep picking. When I remember it there will be a kind of release of air. It will be something obvious or familiar. The mystery will disappear. The nagging proximity. It will suddenly be unimaginable that I forgot the line. I won’t be able to rewind. My torn heart screams at the poop. My heart collapses, it staggers, it sleeps. At the poop. A poop like a poop deck? It must be that. I’m trying out all kinds of combination, no matter how stupid. I think it might be “slobbers” in any case. My cursed heart slobbers at the poop. My mad heart, my dead heart? My foolish heart – no, too 1950’s. My tired heart slobbers at the poop. Actually, the slobbering heart, that’s definite, I think. But it sounds like a translated phrase to me. A bad translation.  Probably there are others. Bursts, slavers, sweats, swaggers. How and why does a sad heart slobber? It’s too comical, too ugly. Or maybe that’s the point. The ugly, comical reality of life, removed from the lyric envelope. The poetic vessels discarded; the naked slippery heart revealed. Meaty and robotic without its lyric corset.

When I do remember it, I would like to write it out, over and over again, like Nicholson in the Shining. I can see why he did it, I think. Page after page of the same sentence, the same line. Pushing on. Pushing out. It’s as if you want to row away from land, to some empty water, and the only way to get there is with the aid of a single line, repeated and repeated, until you ‘ve exhausted it of its meaning, and exhausted simultaneously yourself. You’ve removed it and yourself to such an extent that you’ve lost sight of land. Both of you exhausted and far from land, which is where you want to be, far from the world and its cries and attacks. Far from the world and constant violence. And that one line, or its repetition - with each repetition like the stroke of an oar - is your means of transport. All alone on the rocking ocean. Gently rocking and calm, gently rocking and quiet. The sad silent heart. The great grey silent sea. “My sad heart slobbers at the poop.”


Saturday, March 13, 2021

Puppets, Dolls, Marionettes, Golems

Town of alleys and worn steps, ghosts and towers and morning mists. Down a narrow and scaffolded lane, I found an old beer hall. Long wooden tables and a single golden beer pump. I ate a meal of carp, potatoes and bread. This was before the concert. A puppet concert of Gluck’s Orpheus and Eurydice. An image: the winged lyre tapping Orpheus on the shoulder while he looks away, made indifferent to both nature and music by the premature death of his bride. But also a different poignancy: These fragile puppets jerked into life by levers, pulleys, strings and hands, dancing to piteous music.  Their fragile existence a kind of trick, something borrowed from the puppeteers yet somehow separate. The brief illusion of life granted to wooden shapes. 

I thought of the story of the golem, which Marika told me about. A man made of clay by the Rabbi. You make a clay puppet from virgin earth, and walk with it in a circle pronouncing the individual letters of God’s unpronounceable name. To make it move on its own, you write the word “Emet” (Truth) on its forehead or place in its mouth a piece of paper inscribed likewise with a mystical word. I thought also of the great Czech filmmaker Švankmajer: objects brought to erratic life, clay rising into form and motion. I thought of dolls, haunted by a life they never quite possess, and marionettes cursed with motion, and other uncanny simulacra. And this is where children live, right here. The toys they make speak and move. How is matter granted soul and how does soul slip into matter. This is what obsesses the child, over and over again.  

I remember as a small boy, I would creep downstairs at dawn, before my parents were up, and play a game I called Things. This name “things” was important. A “thing” is always rather nameless and rather formless. And for that reason, perhaps always something threatening. This game, I barely recall, was about taking any object in the room, and firstly treating it as a Thing, that is to say, stripping it of its name and purpose. Making it naked. As a thing it could be given a name and a personality. Tickled into life. Quickly these would become autonomous, these things. They would speak with a voice both distant and nearer than near. Imagine, I fantasise, if only my parents had secretly recorded these games, there is nothing I would rather watch. For I’m sure these things would travel toward me from their remote recorded time and space. These things, so intimate and so cold, disappearing back into objects as my parents woke up. 

These toys we children play with, these dolls, these objects. We are half aware they are incomplete, lacking, dependent. And that is why we love them. For after all, the same is true of us.  

Wednesday, March 10, 2021


I clung to Prague too long, and ate too many potato pancakes. One day, as I gazed out of the window, Ryberg’s long face seemed to hang from a tree in the garden. And every day thereafter. Eventually it went slack but continued speaking. Hanging there like a giant colourless bat. I felt I had been deceived all along. Him and the bicycle rider conspiring. I would not return to live in Prague after all. 

Let me explain. After my week in Prague, I was saying goodbye to the Old Town Square. I was almost in tears. Then, suddenly, an extraordinary and unwelcome coincidence. I bumped into Ryberg, who I had known at University. He had a long face like a bison. His verbal delivery was slow and accompanied by a puzzled and disappointed expression. His thesis had been on Money in Modern Literature, a crucial topic no doubt. It was a shame that such a topic had fallen into the hands of Ryberg. Well, not for him obviously, who garnered lots of interest for this “timely intervention”. So off he went, Ryberg, riding his “Money and Modern Literature” horse from seminar to seminar, accruing in the process a considerable reputation. And here he was in Prague, with tenure. He had a job at the Central university He’d learned to speak Czech. He was on his way to a ceremony, dressed in a gown. I spoke to him briefly, then watched him disappear down a narrow lane near the clock tower.

I was convinced that this unlikely encounter, this address from Chance itself, was a sign that I should move to Prague, and live in this beautiful city. Of course, there was also a more ominous sign, the bicycle rider who had nearly knocked me down on my final night. But perhaps he was some satanic curve ball to deflect me from my purpose. So it was that when I returned to London I clung onto Prague, as it were, listening to Janacek, and reading the Letters to Milena, and making potato pancakes and drinking Budvar, and a nip of Becherovka before bed, visiting the Czech centre in West Hampstead. Determined not to relinquish Prague. The sad, dark labyrinth of its history. A city that had often been the victim of history but had dug its claws in and survived them all, the invaders. I would pretend, reading late at night, listening to From the House of the Dead, that my modest desk lamp was a street light on Golden Lane near the castle, making legible with its warm glow the ancient burnished cobbles.

There was also a flow of letters. In a café called Blatouch I spoke with an old Czech woman, Marika. She had returned to the city in 1948, after living briefly in exile in London. I read to her my Kafka ballad. She told me a story about transgressive love between a Hapsburg prince and a Jewish woman. Their love was prohibited by politics and religion, and so they met secretly in the form of a rosemary sprig and a rose bush, intertwined beneath the bridge, translated out of themselves only in order to deepen their word-free intimacy. After I returned to London, she would send me letters, with literal translations of Prague ballads and folk songs. I would try and turn them into poems. They were uncanny and beautifully mortal. And even through the wall of translation I could hear the same enchanting melody as I heard in Janacek, and in the Baroque puppet show.

I know I know I know

That I will surely go

Into that earth that calls me still

To step into my grave so chill.


My head will slowly turn

To cold and hollow bone

Darkness holds me in its jaws

Then swallows up my soul

The same enchantment. Enchantment. Stare at the word a long time and also listen to it. That was it. That was Prague. That was what the name Prague stood for. The word enchantment nestled in Prague and blushed with contentment. We find it also in Kafka of course. The siren song to which you submit. The dark concentric magic emanating from and returning to the untranslatable secret places, the cellars and attics and stairwells. The spell, but cast by no person. You agree to undergo something unplanned, to be translated into something other-than-yourself. 

But yes, I lingered with all this too long, my fantasy of relocation. It made me sick. And so, one day, I went into the garden when the landlady was out, and I cut down the branch from which Ryberg’s face was hanging. I flung it over the fence into the neighbour’s garden which was unused and completely overgrown with foliage, doubtless a home to rats and foxes. I went back to my room and watched the light shine through where the branch had been. I finished the final song from my correspondent:

On that Prague Bridge there

springs a sprig of rosemary.

no one ever notices it

nonetheless it grows

Wednesday, March 03, 2021

A Street Cleaner in Trastevere

A fantasy: To live in Trastevere as a street cleaner. Quietly collecting the litter, the empty bottles. Sweeping the cobbles at dawn in the light of the rising sun. the flotsam and jetsam of the night before. The broom brushing the silence. The gradual percolation of sounds, as people begin their day. Stopping at the Bar Calisto, the broom and cart resting lazily outside against the wall. A few words exchanged with the barista. Then returning to the maze of streets. Passing each morning the same cafes and restaurants, the noise of blinds opening, door steps  scrubbed. To others my presence is as reassuring as the fountain, the stalls, the playground. My skin slowly tanned, a soft rusty brown like the stone of the buildings. My face continuous with the walls and cobbles. I’ve taken on their colour and warmth. A fantasy of being pure background. Of being both invisible and integral. All the disparate awakenings joined together by me, their witness. Me, the gatherer of nods and greetings, my face, by body a sign that yes the day has returned, that time’s machine is working. I get out of bed before dawn and cast my gaze over the city, from my high and tiny studio apartment. I am somewhere between an emperor and a stray dog. Awake very early but finished by 3..

After work I sit outside at the café table. Occasionally someone comes and sits down. We play cards. They tell me about their day. Some problem or cause for celebration. Their daughter’s wedding. The behaviour of tourists. What the area was like then they were a child. It used to have it’s own dialect. They, the people of Trastevere, were a distinct tribe almost. They tell me about the offal restaurant in Testaccio. I mostly listen. An ancient croaky old lady smoking and chuckling. A chef on a break. The old man who cannot speak but who writes down notes with a shaky spotted hand. They speak to me because others speak to me. Almost as if through me they speak to those others, to the collective. I am a kind of pit stop. A place to post stories, to be heard, a safety deposit box. A joiner of dots. They are friendly, yes, but not friends. I am happy with this. I couldn’t be happier.

I go to bed very early of course, around 9. I read for an hour. Mostly philosophy books. An interval of pure privacy. When I turn the light off there is a kind of warm contentment that curls up with me. Some memory will bubble up from below and I’ll hold it until I drift off.

Day after day I live this mundane, simple glorious life. Day after day

Would I like this to come true? Of course not. But I would like to continue to picture it, to envisage it. To return to it in my dreams.

People do not understand that fantasies are not things you would like to do, but things you like to roll around in your imagination. To bring a fantasy into reality is not a completion but a violation.

Monday, March 01, 2021

Dreams and Desire: the Act of Reaching.

It has always been very difficult for me to retrieve much from my dreams. Sometimes of course it is easy. I’ve drunk too much wine, for example. Then the dream is like oil on water, vivid and on the surface. Mere effluvium, all intact and on the same plane. There is something obscene about such dreams. They are a kind of surfeit. But that aside, often one has not the content of the dream but it’s flavour or perhaps an action, or the shape of an action. The act of reaching for example. That is all that’s left. One cannot recall what was reached for, or who was reaching, nor what came before or after the act of reaching. Only reaching itself, winnowed almost to an abstraction.

How marvellous in fact this is. To have retrieved this bodiless movement. To return to all-the-way-awake with this abstracted treasure in your pyjama pocket. You try and creep up on it, this act of reaching, very carefully, and from different angles. Like a hunter. You try and put it from your mind so that you might ambush it, perhaps descending in a parachute. That can occasionally work. Then the whole scenario suddenly recomposes itself. But rarely. Very rarely. Almost never. In fact, no, never.

Mostly, as you advance it retreats, like the proverbial rainbow, as if it were only an optical effect. This is close to the truth. Your own movements alter the object. Not that it is quite an object, this act of reaching. It is not only the act of reaching but the feeling attached to it. In the dream there is no distinction, between the act of reaching and what it feels like. And therefore, it cannot survive its transition into waking life where we cannot ever quite dissolve this distinction. Dreams slip through the demarcations we operate with in waking life. Not accidentally but perhaps by design. They are precursors to poetry.  That is why what seems self-evident in a dream is absurd to a mind washed up on the shore of wakefulness.

None of this accounts for the great halo of significance that surrounds this act of reaching, or whatever it is we bring back from the darkness. For they are souvenirs of our desire. 

People talk about the escape from everyday life, but less often the escape into everyday life. Everyday life is stressful of course, but it runs by itself, ready-made routines, opinions, activities: all defined and organised in advance. We flee out desires and escape into these preordained things. We make decisions but inside it's bigger decisions, formats, expectations. We decide the location of our yearly holiday, but not the expectation of the holiday and its role and function in our life, which is also part of a collective life

In dreams we approach the magnetism of our desires, the reality of what we want. If we can bring something back, it glows not with a meaning but with the heat and magnitude of our desire. 

Friday, February 26, 2021

Part of Me Thinks I Died in Budapest [short autofiction]

Part of me thinks I died in Budapest. We were on our way to that restaurant on the first night. G_ didn’t want to use the subway. So we tried to cross the road. It was a wide dual carriageway. To our left was an artillery of dazzling headlights, paused. We ventured into the road, and suddenly they raced forward. We could only see the headlights, not the vehicles, like a single many headed silver machine, clearing its throat and then lunging with brutal speed. I pulled G_S sleeve and yelled “quick”. We ran back. We were on the pavement. But surely we’d been too far out. I could not see how we’d got back in time. I couldn’t remember. It was a jump cut. There was no way to account for it. We walked through the subway, ambushed by the smell of urine. An improbable small kiosk selling cigarettes. How were we intact. It puzzled me for the rest of the evening. Over dinner where we ate deer and drank Hungarian wine. 

The following day we went on the funicular to the castle. We shot arrows. I was unerringly on target. And then the small tavern with the incredible goulash and dumplings. In the afternoon, steeping in the steam baths, beneath the ochre and beige domes, with pot-bellied codgers playing chess in their speedos. I’ve never had a cold since then. Café Centrale, the very image of the Central European cafe, with its great windows and formal waiters and mezzanine full of literati. The pigmentation of the upholstery so velvet-deep and vivid. On the way back to the airport the great blizzard over from Russia. We got out just in time.

People sometimes report remarkable experiences and say they “didn’t want it to end.” But “Not wanting it to end” is not at all the same as being one with the moment. Quite the opposite. Not wanting it to end is to be aware of its transience. To experience it as something brief even whilst it takes place. No, to be at one with the moment is to be in a state where your experience has no outside. It is not “appreciated” or “relished” or anything else. There is no relisher, no appreciator. No part of you with a point of view on your own experience. It is self-satisfaction without the self.

Since my death in Budapest, my experience has often had this quality.

On the hilltop at Fiesole. Looking out over Florence. Me and G__. Flushed with wine. The outlines fell from things. The invisible outlines that we don’t notice until they loosen and drop. Like a fan when it switches off. Only then do you realise it was on.  The outlines that divide one thing from another. And also the invisible nicks in the progress of time, the audible "clicks" from moment to moment. All fell away. Suddenly, the great resplendent continuum. 

Remember little Arno, when he was a small baby, he’d sleep in the crook of my arm. I could feel the pulse of his strawberry heart, the insides that seemed too near the skin. Nestling and nuzzling like a cub. The great unannullable river. The sweet sleeping face like Trust. We were both, him and I, the pigment from which the moment was composed. It had no other existence. 

Is this how it is for the dead?