Monday, February 17, 2020

Must Rereads

Those of us who bury ourselves in books are often unhappy creatures desperate to find consolation. We don't merely find it in fictional worlds, but also in reasons and explanations which help to order our chaotic thoughts and instincts, to loosen neurological knots, to reconcile contending passions.

At least, this is the intellectual explanation. The other, perhaps more truthful, explanation is that reading is an addiction. How many of us buy far more books than we have time for? How many of us flick through dozens of books in one evening, never settling, never content, always look for some new novelty, some new bit of knowledge? How many of us fetishise the book itself -- the paper, the foxing, the newspaper cuttings and shopping lists used as bookmarks, the cover, the leather (if we're so lucky), the inscriptions, the smell from the decades marinading in the damp houses of peculiar antiquarians?

I keep many books. Though I feel I must confess that most I keep for reasons other than the writing. I like certain editions, say, or I have fond memories of purchasing the book in some dreadfully unwelcoming bookshop. The genuine test of whether a book is worth keeping is whether or not one re-reads it. By this measure, I suspect I could cull my library to fifty books, if that (with the exception of some reference and textbooks). And I doubt this number would expand much over the rest of my life.

One often sees lists of 'Must Reads', but never 'Must Rereads'. Yet the former would provide a much more interesting and rewarding selection. It would be less vulnerable to fashion, a far more honest assessment of what books people actually find meaningful.

I'll give you my list in a moment. But I feel the need to write a quick preface. When I reflect on the books I love, I feel some guilt. There are many 'Great Books' I have read, and often found interesting, but am entirely unable to love. I see how much other people adore them, how much joy and insight they find, and my inability to understand this can almost feel as if there is a part of my soul missing. One particularly notable example is Dickens. I can see the beauty of his novels. I am attracted to their language. Yet I feel like I'm in some sort of dream where I'm trying to swim in the ocean, but for some reason I cannot penetrate the water's surface.

There are also books I adore which are not generally respected. Sometimes they are books dismissed as genre-fiction or even children's- or boy's-fiction. One example of the latter is Ivanhoe, one of my favourite stories, which even in its time was regarded as a sort of boy's adventure story, a costume drama, one of Scott's less probing works, and is now almost unread (with the exception of Tony Blair, who I believe claimed he kept it by his bedside, though that is not an endorsement I necessarily welcome). I love the story. I genuinely think it profound and full of virtue. (I will at some point write an essay about Scott, why he is of the 'great unreads', and what makes the Waverley novels so compelling.) But there is a part of me which feels guilty for loving this adventure story and being bored stiff by, say, Vanity Fair. One likes to pretend that things like literary stigma don't matter in the end, but truthfully most of us are vulnerable, at least to some extent, to a sense of intellectual inadequacy.

Anyway, off the top of my head here's my list of Must Rereads, in no particular order (and like on Desert Island Discs, it goes without saying that any Must Reread list includes the Bible and the Complete Works of Shakespeare):

Robert Burton -- The Anatomy of Melancholy
Samuel Johnson -- Rasselas
Samuel Johnson -- Essays
Samuel Johnson -- The Vanity of Human Wishes
James Boswell -- The Life of Samuel Johnson
Walter Scott -- Waverley Novels (not yet read them all)
Walter Scott -- Journal
Daniel Defoe -- Robinson Crusoe
G.K. Chesterton -- St Francis of Assisi
G.K. Chesterton -- The Judgement of Dr. Johnson
Jerome K. Jerome -- Three Men in a Boat
Miguel de Cervantes -- Don Quixote
Eugene Vodolazkin -- Laurus
St Augustine -- Confessions
John Kennedy Toole -- A Confederacy of Dunces
Tomasi di Lampedusa -- The Leopard
Tobias Smollett -- The Expedition of Humphry Clinker
M.R. James -- Short Stories
Simon Leys -- The Halls of Uselessness
C.S. Lewis -- Out of the Silent Planet
Aldous Huxley -- Brave New World
Lewis Carroll -- Alice in Wonderland
Daniel Defoe -- A Journal of the Plague Year
Charles Ives -- Memos
Malcolm Bradbury -- The History Man
The Analects of Confucius
Walter M. Miller -- A Canticle for Leibowitz
Vikram Seth -- An Equal Music
Jorge Luis Borges -- Short Stories

(One notable book series I may have to add is the Aubrey-Maturin novels, the first of which I have just read. I feel compelled to read them all, and I suspect I will end up rereading them too.)

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

James O'Brien asks an irrelevant question

I must confess that I do on occasion listen to James O'Brien's LBC programme. Possibly for the same reason that I read the Guardian every morning. He represents the predominant worldview, a worldview with which I have no natural sympathy, and so it seems especially important that I study it. O'Brien is an effective and persuasive political commentator. He nearly always finds a way to catch his enemies out (though he also has the rather craven habit of asking his allies superficial or 'prompting' questions, the sort of questions where the interviewee smiles and replies, 'I'm so glad you asked me that question, James...')

One question he often asks Leave supporters is, which EU law would you like to be rid of? This has proved extremely effective, and it suggests a lack of sense and judgement of those calling in than they cannot quickly and easily dismiss it for the fallacy that it is. Rather, they indulge his question, either speaking in empty political slogans or by describing the most obscure and ridiculously trivial of EU regulations. They all remind me of the miserable man in one of Chesterton's essays who (seemingly unknowingly) repeats all the empty opinions he has read in the newspaper -- in a 'blaze of catchwords' -- as if they were their own deeply-held beliefs.

Neither the listeners calling in nor Mr O'Brien realise that the question is irrelevant. There are many United Kingdom laws I oppose, but that does not mean I want to end parliament. It takes the most unjust and intolerable of laws to make people oppose a governmental institution. Most of the time people tolerate bad law, blunders, even corruption, so long as the political machinery keeps working and some good, at least, is done -- and moreover some bad is avoided. Opposition to the EU is down to a lack of faith in the process. It does not matter much whether the laws are good or bad; a majority of people don't care for or about the system that produces them.

It matters how a thing is done. It matters whether a shop is noisy and ugly, even if it supplies all the goods one might need. It matters how your boss treats you, even if he pays you well. It matters where your house is located, even if it's the most splendid and comfortable of houses.

People voted for the European Union because of various prejudices (and here I use the term in a non-pejorative sense as literally a pre-judgement, almost an instinct), and they are trying to justify their decision postjudicially, as it were, by the economic and empirical standards that their opponents have imposed. You would have had a hard time asking a Roundhead soldier or a proud Saxon which specific law(s) he opposed. The differences are deeper, necessarily rooted in generalities. The Brexit vote was a proxy vote for many things, an opportunity for those with various grievances to dissent. It never was about specific EU laws or regulations. It was about home, affections, tribes, loyalty, political fidelity -- things which you either 'get' or you don't. If you forced me to live with someone else's family, I may get to live in a mansion, I may be ten times better off, I may have more freedom, but nonetheless I would much rather return to my own family. It would be hard, if not impossible, to give an empirical reason for this, but that doesn't make it any less true. The only people who would not rather return to their own family are those who have fallen out with their family, or whose family is broken and even unloveable. Perhaps this is how many people feel about Britain. I may even sympathise with them. But what I think is wrong with Britain is also wrong with the EU, probably more so. And besides, it's very hard to change a institution as enormous and as fundamentally misguided as the EU. Britain is smaller, has the great fortune to be an island, and has a political tradition worth building upon. We will not be 'great again', but we can be a modest, decent and ordered nation if we alter our course.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

The Tyranny of Silliness

If one wades through the popular YouTube videos one will quickly notice a common theme: silliness. Each one features fast, jerky shots (usually with some sort of inane music in the background) of a person making a silly expression or gesture, and adopting a daft tone of voice, as if they were entertainers having a nervous breakdown on some dire children's television programme.

One can take random examples from the 'trending' section of YouTube to illustrate this:


When most people look at or listen to recordings from the 1940s, say, they think the people sound silly. The pitch of the male voice is too high, the enunciation too precise, the accent too plummy. Yet modern man and woman hears their own absurd, graceless speech and think it is normal. Of course, it is not so much silliness they identify in the voices from the 1940s, but rather their own discomfort. The old voices sound silly to moderns because those old voices were serious. They were learned, hierarchical, dignified, from a time which was far more serious. When moderns laugh at these voices it is a laughter to alleviate unease. Indeed, the tyranny of silliness we face is a result of the fear of the serious, the discomfort one might experience in the presence of seriousness and serious people, and therefore feeling entirely out of place. The brain spasms, and a trite phrase, 'yolo' or 'lols' perhaps, is ejaculated; the phone is removed from the trouser pocket or handbag, and the person exits the world and enters their unholy sanctuary of social media, comforted by its triviality and silliness, which requires nothing of them but laughter and likes.

Of course, while they are patently silly to many around them, they do not consider themselves silly. They have almost reverted to a semi-animal state where they are not fully self-conscious. One example of this phenomenon is pop music. In the typical pop music video, a person in daft clothing, spouting the most uninspired and crude lyric (which they think is meaningful), will bop about nonsensically, usually with a very glum look on their face. It is this glumness which is most revealing. They think they are serious, or at least the very least not silly. One of the most obvious features of most popular music (so obvious most people seemed to have missed it) is its complete lack of a sense of humour. It has gone through eras of flared trousers, psychedelic t-shirts, ripped jeans, tracksuits, oversized 'bling', pseudo-hooker outfits, mohawks, mullets, and worn it all with a straight face. The most frightening thing about the tyranny of silliness in which we live, is that the silliest people take themselves seriously, and moreover they are taken seriously by most others. The pop star is an idle, he or she is revered; any semi-literature, uninformed pronouncements made on a political or moral issue are considered to have weight.

As I wrote here, we really do live in an inverted age.

Friday, January 24, 2020

A wandering Harper, scorn'd and poor...

I recently bought a collection of Sir Walter Scott's poetry, and am in awe of the very first poem, The Lay of the Last Minstrel. One of Scott's remarkable qualities is his sympathetic descriptions of characters. Even his great fictional antagonists are hard to entirely hate. His most successful characters are often those unlike himself, usually low down in the social hierarchy: the wise mendicant Edie Olchitree, the servant Caleb Balderstone -- one of the great comic inventions, the swineherd Gurth and the jester Wamba. Of course, Scott was a Tory and in no way trying to undermine the social order; on the contrary, with his characters he was defending the idea of a social order and the virtues and even freedoms it allows for. He may have been sympathetic to its flaws, but it's clear he saw a social order as essential. I've heard it said that the Reform Bill is what finally caused him to give up the ghost. Rather an exaggeration, of course, but it contains an element of truth.

The description of the minstrel's performance before the Duchess is without a doubt one of the greatest descriptions of what it is like to be a solo performer: the nervousness, the thrill, the momentum, how the music comes through one almost mysteriously, so essential to us has this music become. The description is all the more astonishing for the fact that Scott confessed to having not much of an ear for music. From his memoir of his early life (found in Vol. I of Lockhart's Memoirs of the Life of Sir Walter Scott, 1839):
With music it was even worse than with painting. My mother was anxious we should at least learn Psalmody; but the incurable defects of my voice and ear soon drove my teacher to despair. It is only by long practice that I have acquired the power of selecting or distinguishing melodies; and although now few things delight or affect me more than a simple tune sung with feeling, yet I am sensible that even this pitch of musical taste has only been gained by attention and habit, and, as it were, by my feeling of the words being associated with the tune.
Anyway here is the description from the introduction of The Lay of the Last Minstrel:
And, would the noble Duchess deign
To listen to an old man's strain,
Though stiff his hand, his voice though weak,
He thought even yet, the sooth to speak,
That, if she loved the harp to hear,
He could make music to her ear.  
The humble boon was soon obtain'd;
The Aged Minstrel audience gain'd.
But, when he reach'd the room of state,
Where she, with all her ladies, sate,
Perchance he wished his boon denied:
For, when to tune his harp he tried,
His trembling hand had lost the ease,
Which marks security to please;
And scenes, long past, of joy and pain,
Came wildering o'er his aged brain--
He tried to tune his harp in vain!
The pitying Duchess praised its chime,
And gave him heart, and gave him time,
Till every string's according glee
Was blended into harmony.
And then, he said, he would full fain
He could recall an ancient strain,
He never thought to sing again.
It was not framed for village churls,
But for high dames and mighty carls;
He had play'd it to King Charles the Good,
When he kept court in Holyrood,
And much he wish'd yet fear'd to try
The long-forgotten melody.
Amid the strings his fingers stray'd,
And an uncertain warbling made,
And oft he shook his hoary head.
But when he caught the measure wild,
The old man raised his face, and smiled;
And lighten'd up his faded eye,
With all a poet's ecstasy!
In varying cadence, soft or strong,
He swept the sounding chords along:
The present scene, the future lot,
His toils, his wants, were all forgot:
Cold diffidence, and age's frost,
In the full tide of song were lost;
Each blank in faithless memory void,
The poet's glowing thought supplied;
And while his harp responsive rung,
'Twas thus the Latest Minstrel sung.

Sunday, January 12, 2020

Sir Roger Scruton has Died

For me, his writings on beauty and art were the most important. He put a name and a description to something I knew was lacking in my life. It felt like I finally awoke from the world when I discovered beauty. I will confess I do not have the discipline, and possibly not the intelligence, for Sir Roger's more philosophical works, but I cherish essays like this one on dancing:

All young people need to dance, and – unless social convention forbids it – they need to dance in ways that put their sexuality on display. Put a group of young people together in the presence of rhythmical music and they will begin to move in time to the music, and to use the music to coordinate their movements. They might arrange themselves face to face, body to body, throwing arms and legs about in imitative movements. Nowadays, however, those movements rarely involve dance steps; they are not learned but spontaneous; and the dancers tend to avoid contact with each other, since there is no agreed convention as to what form their contact should take. 
In order to set young people in motion in this way it is necessary to overcome their awkwardness. Their fear of conversation, lack of small talk, and generally clumsy manners, are the natural result of the education to which they have been exposed, which is directed to removing all ideas of elegance, distinction or grace from their behaviour, those old fashioned virtues being judged elitist and politically incorrect. But still, young people need to dance, and this result can be brought about, provided the music is loud enough to make conversation impossible, and provided the pulse is regular enough to jerk the body into reflex motion, like the legs of a galvanised frog. The best music for this purpose is not music produced by a band, since bands like to be appreciated and listened to, and will adapt what they play to the mood of their audience. The best music for the purpose is produced by a machine, perhaps only with the faintest hint that a human being had some part in its creation. Hence has arisen the new phenomenon of DJ music, in which the music is not created by the person who controls it but extracted from a variety of pre-packaged computer sounds, and used as a means to manipulate the movements of the crowd. Music becomes an instrument of crowd control, in the hands of a person whose position is justified by no talent that could conceivably excuse such a dangerous allocation of power. 
Once the young people have been jerked into motion in this way a vestigial desire for partnership is naturally aroused, since the music suggests sexual motions and sexual union. Hence they will tend to pair off, so as to pulsate face to face, not usually looking at each other and certainly not speaking, but acutely aware, nevertheless, of each other’s bodies, as things replete with movement and governed by the machine. Their bodies become sexual objects, voided of personality, since personality is a relational idea, and no relation exists on the dance floor except that between bodies. Hence, when this kind of dancing happens, it is very disturbing to see children or old people joining in: the first because it transgresses the boundaries of the sexually permissible, the second because it excites our sense of the undignified and the shameful. 
The spectacle I have described is related to dancing in something like the way a group speechlessly scoffing hamburgers in the street is related to a formal dinner party. It places a social void where our shared humanity has in the past been displayed, enjoyed and exalted, and it presents animal functions in the place of personal relations. Unfortunately, just as bad money drives out good, so does bad dancing drive out the older kind from any occasion where dancing is required. Weddings, hunt balls, village fĂȘtes, the May Balls of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges – all the places in which elegant and sociable forms of dancing would in the past have been fundamental to the meaning of the event – are now dominated by the DJ, and by the conversation-stopping music that has no virtue beyond its galvanising pulse.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

A Christmas Poem

This is a wonderful poem, one of my favourites. Chesterton finds a beautiful paradox at the heart of Christmas:

There fared a mother driven forth
Out of an inn to roam;
In the place where she was homeless
All men are at home.
The crazy stable close at hand,
With shaking timber and shifting sand,
Grew a stronger thing to abide and stand
Than the square stones of Rome.

For men are homesick in their homes,
And strangers under the sun,
And they lay their heads in a foreign land
Whenever the day is done.
Here we have battle and blazing eyes,
And chance and honour and high surprise,
But our homes are under miraculous skies
Where the yule tale was begun.

A child in a foul stable,
Where the beasts feed and foam;
Only where He was homeless
Are you and I at home;
We have hands that fashion and heads that know,
But our hearts we lost---how long ago!
In a place no chart nor ship can show
Under the sky's dome.

This world is wild as an old wife's tale,
And strange the plain things are,
The earth is enough and the air is enough
For our wonder and our war;
But our rest is as far as the fire-drake swings
And our peace is put in impossible things
Where clashed and thundered unthinkable wings
Round an incredible star.

To an open house in the evening
Home shall all men come,
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star,
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.

Monday, December 16, 2019

The Noble Horace

A thousand bright stars lit the sky. With each second the stars grew brighter and more present. They were not a uniform colour: Horace could see red, yellow, purple, white, amber -- he counted the colours eagerly.

The stars seemed to move across the sky. Horace was sure they were murmuring to him. But he was not a curious creature, and so explanations had never mattered to him. He was content to simply enjoy the spectacle.

Several years ago a large probe, about the size of a ten storey building, had landed on Horace’s planet. It had remained untouched until one day, in one of his long solitary walks, Horace stumbled upon it. The screen on the probe lit up and began to ask what even Horace realised were questions. Each question used a simple pictogram format, and Horace had little problem answering most of them.

But when it came to one question he was particularly confused. Having taken a camera survey of Horace, the probe displayed a pictorial representation of Horace’s species. A very small slider then appeared at the bottom of the screen -- too small for Horace to handle with any delicacy -- which enabled him to increase the number of Horaces on the screen. The intention behind the question was to determine a planet’s population size. The empire that sent the probe had never encountered planets with more than a few thousand sentient lives, and so they believed a planet’s entire population could be represented on a big enough screen.

But Horace did not know what it meant. He guessed it might refer to age. He was not quite sure of his age; it was one of the few things that had puzzled him. Indeed, he could not remember not existing. So he pulled the slider to the maximum possible setting.

The 'stars' that now lit up the sky were in fact spaceships -- a planetary invasion initiated in response to Horace’s answer to the probe. They believed they would be colonising the most populous planet ever discovered. It was to be a source of great imperial pride.

But as the ships entered the planet’s atmosphere they saw no evidence of cities or indeed any signs of civilisation. In fact, they saw little evidence of any life at all.

It was only as they approached the surface that they began to see a figure waving at them. He was easily as tall as a skyscraper and had a ridiculous, innocent smile.

It was Horace.

Once they had landed Horace was thrilled to welcome his little guests. He took care not to tread on them and spoke to them in a soft, caressing voice, but which nevertheless felt to the aliens like a very strong wind.

The invading force tried tried to anaesthetise Horace, shooting him with thousands of needles. But this only served to send Horace into a fit of giggles. Having failed to conquer by force, the commander of the fleet, Lupegoggicol the Goiteneidarous, tried what is the last resort for any empire: diplomacy. First, he spoke through some means of amplification; when that failed he tried projecting a holographic image of himself, but his gestures were meaningless to Horace, who ended up imitating the commander as if he were being taught some form of dance.

After spending several days touring the planet, the aliens concluded that Horace was the only sentient inhabitant. As far as Horace could remember he had always been the only inhabitant. There were many fish and a few species of insects which Horace would play with (and occasionally eat), and which were at least twice the size of the aliens. But there was only one Horace. Indeed, Horace was fascinated to see other intelligent creatures like himself, even if they were less than one-eightieth of his size.

The aliens soon left. They realised it would be impossible to bring civilisation to a planet of one person. And so Horace again stood there, with his happy, ridiculous smile, waving the aliens goodbye.

Must Rereads

Those of us who bury ourselves in books are often unhappy creatures desperate to find consolation. We don't merely find it in fictional ...