Thursday, 27 June 2013


What would it be like to live in a world without persons? Some psychologists seem to know; for them it is a world of brains that do whatever it was supposed that persons did, whatever they are. This inscrutability about persons brings to one’s attention the philosophical conundrum: do you prefer the intelligible falsity to the mysterious? That is not to accept that psychology could achieve much or perhaps all of its research findings even if individual psychologists all held different metaphysical views. Dualists, monists, panpsychists, Spinozists might all be able to work their trade in the brain without conflict. Ingenious T.E.s will prove me wrong but that is the current position in reality as politicians say.

David Chalmers has a nice crisp video:

Reading about John Locke and his ‘idea’. What is it? It seems to me that only persons can have ideas, brain events are not ideas but if they weren’t present neither would ideas be.

Coleridge has a nice footnote/conspectus on the ‘idea’:

I here use the word idea in Mr. Hume's sense on account of its general currency amongst the English metaphysicians; though against my own judgment, for I believe that the vague use of this word has been the cause of much error and more confusion. The word, idea, in its original sense as used by Pindar, Aristophanes, and in the Gospel of St. Matthew, represented the visual abstraction of a distant object, when we see the whole without distinguishing its parts. Plato adopted it as a technical term, and as the antithesis to eidolon, or sensuous image; the transient and perishable emblem, or mental word, of the idea. Ideas themselves he considered as mysterious powers, living, seminal, formative, and exempt from time. In this sense the word Idea became the property of the Platonic school; and it seldom occurs in Aristotle, without some such phrase annexed to it, as according to Plato, or as Plato says. Our English writers to the end of the reign of Charles II or somewhat later, employed it either in the original sense, or Platonically, or in a sense nearly correspondent to our present use of the substantive, Ideal; always however opposing it, more or less to image, whether of present or absent objects. The reader will not be displeased with the following interesting exemplification from Bishop Jeremy Taylor. "St. Lewis the King sent Ivo Bishop of Chartres on an embassy, and he told, that he met a grave and stately matron on the way with a censer of fire in one band, and a vessel of water in the other; and observing her to have a melancholy, religious, and phantastic deportment and look, he asked her what those symbols meant, and what she meant to do with her fire and water; she answered, My purpose is with the fire to burn paradise, and with my water to quench the flames of hell, that men may serve God purely for the love of God. But we rarely meet with such spirits which love virtue so metaphysically as to abstract her from all sensible compositions, and love the purity of the idea." Des Cartes having introduced into his philosophy the fanciful hypothesis of material ideas, or certain configurations of the brain, which were as so many moulds to the influxes of the external world,—Locke adopted the term, but extended its signification to whatever is the immediate object of the mind's attention or consciousness. Hume, distinguishing those representations which are accompanied with a sense of a present object from those reproduced by the mind itself, designated the former by impressions, and confined the word idea to ,the latter.]
(Chap.VII Biographia Literaria)

Saturday, 22 June 2013

Science Fiction and Women in Philosophy

It’s an impression I have and I may be absolutely wrong that the interest in Science Fiction which is predominantly male is predictive of an interest in Philosophy as a subject particularly Philosophy as it is now presented. I refer to the Thought Experiment obsession. Make your name with a killer T.E. seems to be a goal. In the broadest sense of the term the culture that obtains in Philosophy departments is not of very great quality. Here are people who affect to ponder great thoughts and they read China Mieville and the like. Not many women want to spend time in this environment and they’re right.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell

Memory Harbour: Jack B. Yeats

A Summer book is what we have in Ireland in lieu of a Summer but I remember once when the season kept its promise camping on a hill overlooking Coney Ireland. At night the light that guarded the channel winked from the Metal Man who points to the safe channel. Every morning after my swim I would listen to the reading of My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell on the radio. I must have first turned it on by accident as this sort of memoir I would then have regarded as too light.

Gerry may well be a better writer than Larry even though he wrote for money to finance a zoo project. The beauty that infuses his writing comes not from the love of writing but the love of the experience that he recounts and the knowledge and close observation of his younger self immersed in the flora and fauna of Corfu where he and his family lived for 5 years. The moral of this is: forget the writing, make your soul and the writing will take care of itself.

His first sight of Corfu at the age of 10:

The sea lifted smooth blue muscles of wave as it stirred in the dawn-light, and the foam of our wake spread gently behind us like a white peacock's tail, glinting with bubbles. The sky was pale and stained with yellow on the eastern horizon. Ahead lay a chocolate-brown smudge of land, huddled in mist, with a frill of foam at its base. This was Corfu, and we strained our eyes to make out the exact shapes of the mountains, to discover valleys, peaks, ravines, and beaches, but it remained a silhouette. Then suddenly the sun shifted over the horizon, and the sky turned the smooth enamelled blue of a jay's eye. The endless, meticulous curves of the sea flamed for an instant and then changed to a deep royal purple flecked with green. The mist lifted in quick, lithe ribbons, and before us lay the island, the mountains as though sleeping beneath a crumpled blanket of brown, the folds stained with the green of olive-groves. Along the shore curved beaches as white as tusks among tottering cities of brilliant gold, red, and white rocks. We rounded the northern cape, a smooth shoulder of rust-red cliff carved into a series of giant caves. The dark waves lifted our wake and carried it gently towards them, and then, at their very mouths, it crumpled and hissed thirstily among the rocks. Rounding the cape, we left the mountains, and the island sloped gently down, blurred with the silver and green iridescence of olives, with here and there an admonishing finger of black cypress against the sky. The shallow sea in the bays was butterfly blue, and even above the sound of the ship's engines we could hear, faintly ringing from the shore like a chorus of tiny voices, the shrill, triumphant cries of the cicadas.

It is not just the zoological but also the human specimens that Durrell renders, there are the members of his family and his various tutors who are often pals of Larry's. Dr. Theodore Stephanides is one. A reading of his Wikipedia entry will show how fortunate Gerry was to have met him.
Theodore Stephanides

He goes for French lessons to the Belgian consul:

He was a sweet little man, whose most striking attribute was a magnificent three-pointed beard and carefully waxed moustache. He took his job rather seriously, and was always dressed as though he were on the verge of rushing off to some important official function, in a black cut-away coat, striped trousers, fawn spats over brightly polished shoes, an immense cravat like a silk waterfall, held in place by a plain gold pin, and a tall and gleaming top hat that completed the ensemble. One could see him at any hour of the day, clad like this, picking his way down the dirty, narrow alleys, stepping daintily among the puddles, drawing himself back against the wall with a magnificently courteous gesture to allow a donkey to pass, and tapping it coyly on the rump with his malacca cane. The people of the town did not find his garb at all unusual. They thought that he was an Englishman, and as all Englishmen were lords it was not only right but necessary that they should wear the correct uniform.

The consul is a great cat lover who during their lessons is always springing to the open window with a powerful air rifle and despatching the horribly emaciated and diseased cats of the quarter.

He was, in fact, performing a very necessary and humane service, as anyone who had seen the cats would agree. So my lessons in French were being continuously interrupted while the consul leapt to the window to send yet another cat to a happier hunting ground. After the report of the gun there would be a moment's silence, in respect for the dead, and then the consul would blow his nose violently, sigh tragically, and we would plunge once more into the tangled labyrinth of French verbs.

It's very likely that there is no one who hasn't already read this book but if you haven't banish dull weather and enhance the sunny with this evocation of beautiful Corfu.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

The Koran

Very curious: if one sought for "discrepancies of national taste," here surely were the most eminent instance of that! We also can read the Koran; our Translation of it, by Sale, is known to be a very fair one. I must say, it is as toilsome reading as I ever undertook. A wearisome confused jumble, crude, incondite; endless iterations, long-windedness, entanglement; most crude, incondite;—insupportable stupidity, in short! Nothing but a sense of duty could carry any European through the Koran. We read in it, as we might in the State-Paper Office, unreadable masses of lumber, that perhaps we may get some glimpses of a remarkable man. It is true we have it under disadvantages: the Arabs see more method in it than we. Mahomet's followers found the Koran lying all in fractions, as it had been written down at first promulgation; much of it, they say, on shoulder-blades of mutton, flung pell-mell into a chest: and they published it, without any discoverable order as to time or otherwise;—merely trying, as would seem, and this not very strictly, to put the longest chapters first. The real beginning of it, in that way, lies almost at the end: for the earliest portions were the shortest. Read in its historical sequence it perhaps would not be so bad. Much of it, too, they say, is rhythmic; a kind of wild chanting song, in the original. This may be a great point; much perhaps has been lost in the Translation here. Yet with every allowance, one feels it difficult to see how any mortal ever could consider this Koran as a Book written in Heaven, too good for the Earth; as a well-written book, or indeed as a book at all; and not a bewildered rhapsody; written, so far as writing goes, as badly as almost any book ever was! So much for national discrepancies, and the standard of taste.

Norman O. Brown writing in his essay The Apocalypse of Islam agrees with Carlyle (Heroes)and instead of leaving it with a shrug and saying the faithful Arabic speaker must have more a sense of the poetry than we ferengi, maintains that this is just the point - it should not make ostensible sense. There is no understanding it. He finds his thesis proven by the selection of Sura 18 (The Cave) for the regular Friday reading. This is a farrago of fragments of myth and legend drawn from all extant sources distorted as are the elements of mundane events in the dream. What came ye into the desert to seek? Narrative? Brown depreciates the only sura in the Koran that has a story that is slightly sequential Joseph, sura 12.

The strict sect of the Kharidjis, on this point and on others the voice of rigorous Islamic consistency, condemned sura 12 on the ground that narrative has no place in revelation.

Not that Islam has no stories. The Sufi teaching stories are superb. Idries Shah has made several collections of them. However the Koran is like all the core texts of religion; it’s about presence. Everything will perish save His face (28:88). To put it in Bergsonian terms, it’s as though through the rolled up duration of a single life universal history manifested itself but fragmented beyond narrative. Says Brown again:

The miraculous character of the Koran is self-evident in the immediate effect of its style, its idjaz, literally “the rendering incapable, powerless”; the overwhelming experience of manifest transcendence, compelling surrender to a new world vision.

The formal constraint of meter is what makes the poet break past the usual cliché, in the Koran you are obliged to make the sense out of indications and power, in short to become the sense. First there are the 7 Sleepers, of Ephesus perhaps, who are in the cave dormant, dreaming history with their dog, the friend to man or was it 5 and the dog, or 4 and the dog:

(Some) will say; They were three, their dog the fourth, and some say Five, their dog the sixth, guessing at random; and (some) say; Seven, and their dog eighth. Say (O Muhammad): My Lord is best aware of their number. None knoweth them save a few. So contend not concerning them except with an outward contending, and ask not any of them to pronounce concerning them.

O.K., sure or is this a stricture against pedantry and an ironic injunction?

Then from nowhere Moses turns up, then Alexander the Great, then Gog and Magog. The latter must have a copper wall erected against them. Carlyle was right, this is not a book, this is God lying back on the couch while Mohammed is saying ‘very interesting’and ‘how does that make you feel’. I mean this is a book that reads you, you do not read it; comprehended as it is in what the Bible calls your reins or what old Jimmy used to call ‘me water’, as in ‘I feel it in me wather’. Your liver was then the organ of deepest apprehension not this flighty romantic organ, the heart.

One of my abiding memories is of lying in bed in the Al Arab Hotel just inside the Damascus Gate listening to the cry of the muezzein in the early morning; beautiful singing and more than that: controlled steady yearning.

Muezzein at Medina

Friday, 14 June 2013

The Return of The Golden Cobra and Lynne Truss who must be obeyed.

Jeff whom I know was talking to Charlie at the till. I said to them:
Jeff,you should cut out the middleman and sell your books directly to me.

Jeff must be reviewing mystical publications for some outlet or other in the States, he's originally from there. I come across them in Charlie's and buy them. There's no mistaking his flourish of an autograph and his deplorable habit of underlining with a felt-tip pen. May I reveal that his underlining is generally to the front of the book. Definitely review copies.

One of the books which came to my stickier paw was The Voyage and the Messenger by Henry Corbin (pub. by North Atlantic Books, Berkeley in 1998) which I have mentioned here before and will again but what interests me today is the note from the translator (Joseph Rowe) at the front of the book. It is an early and perfect example of what Ed Feser calls the pc-whipped a somewhat invidious epithet perhaps. Besides there's no such thing.

Translation note: the exclusive use of the masculine gender as a universal personal pronoun is no longer accepted as good usage in contemporary English. Although we respect the spirit of this contemporary usage, we have been faced with the problem of faithfulness to Henry Corbin's language, which is not only in the style of a different era, but a different linguistic context: in French, the feminine gender is also often used as a universal personal pronoun, so that the situation is more balanced. Although we have taken care to avoid masculine pronouns when not required, there are some passages where it is unavoidable. We ask the reader to bear this in mind, if the language in these passages seems outdated or insensitive.

In felt-tip below and also underlined is the single Puleeze

Cf. Golden Cobra
in which commentor ktismatics mentions that the French 'on' has crept into his daughters usage through her years in France. I imagine that the translator eliminated those as an example of vile personalism or even the closed consciousness of solipsism.

And while we're about it, that colon after 'context'. Why? The sense and meaning of linguistic content and in French cling together so there's no need not to have a full stop. It's not like Lynne Truss's example in her delightful Eats Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Tom locked himself in the shed: England lost to Argentina A full stop after 'shed' would leave too much of a disjunction and a lack of connection between the self locking and the event which precipitated it. There is no such disjunction between 'linguistic' and 'French'.

Fancy a cup of cocoa Eric? And can I tempt you to a ginger biccy?

Wednesday, 12 June 2013

Exodus, the Jebusites and Dinas Vawr

How are we to meet God? It is the core teaching of all the major traditions that the fanum of the heart is the place of conversation with the divine. This was the case before those traditions solidified into doctrines and became confessional.  What is here is there, what is not here is nowhere is the Tantric saying. If it is real it is present and attainable. We suspect that its very omnipresence is what allows the Real to be unnoticed and our many schemes to gain the attention of God signify our lack of faith in basic presence.

The illusion of distance is supported and the advaitins would say established and maintained by the subject/object division. To begin with there is nothing we can do about that and per the Tantric insight that too is part of the actuality of the Divine. Meeting with the divine is both personal and impersonal and because the personal is the nearest to us that is the starting point. Take Exodus: 3 which is the universal form of the encounter, the template as it were. Of course the bush should burn away and be consumed unless it were preserved as a symbol of the energy that sustains existing things and never ceases. If it ever ceased the cosmos would wink out of existence, it would have no being not even as a chimera. In a simple and direct way this a manifestation through the material of the power that transfigures it.

But did that really happen says the wise physicist, fire burns, fire reduces. Perhaps but not as much as the physicist however he may prate about the economy of nature and her laws never being flouted. What about the promising of the home of the Jebusites and others to the Israelites, an early marker for the latter day expropriation and extirpation. I prefer to assimilate the conduct of tribes to the conduct of gangs and their turf wars. Different rules of engagement applied then which were generally accepted. cf. The War Song of Dinas Vawr

The War-song of Dinas Vawr

The mountain sheep are sweeter,
But the valley sheep are fatter;
We therefore deemed it meeter
To carry off the latter.
We made an expedition;
We met a host, and quelled it;
We forced a strong position,
And killed the men who held it.

On Dyfed's richest valley,
Where herds of kine were browsing,
We made a mighty sally,
To furnish our carousing.
Fierce warriors rushed to meet us;
We met them, and o'erthrew them:
They struggled hard to beat us;
But we conquered them, and slew them.

As we drove our prize at leisure,
The king marched forth to catch us:
His rage surpassed all measure,
But his people could not match us.
He fled to his hall-pillars;
And, ere our force we led off,
Some sacked his house and cellars,
While others cut his head off.

We there, in strife bewild'ring,
Spilt blood enough to swim in:
We orphaned many children,
And widowed many women.
The eagles and the ravens
We glutted with our foemen;
The heroes and the cravens,
The spearmen and the bowmen.

We brought away from battle,
And much their land bemoaned them,
Two thousand head of cattle,
And the head of him who owned them:
Ednyfed, king of Dyfed,
His head was borne before us;
His wine and beasts supplied our feasts,
And his overthrow, our chorus.


Things were different then, everyone had a Gott mit uns belt and even if you were defeated it was a sign that details of your sacrifice were awry.

The primal encounter is given in the key of the culture of the time so retroactive assessment must accept this. The personal is the personal of the time.

Monday, 10 June 2013

O’Hussey’s Ode To The Maguire by James Clarence Mangan

For fakery there was none to excel Mangan and much of his ‘after’ poetry was no more than the febrile fumes of the alembic of his mind and the swirling aftershocks of his doping. Shane MacGowan regards him as his pattern saint. He stumbles into poetry.

Notice the Gaelic alliteration and opposing epithets, 'pale bright’ and the interjections, I think, meseems, I scarce know. James Joyce arch mocker and giber apes him in The Citizen episode of Ulysses.

Find more of his work at Mangan


O’Hussey’s Ode To The Maguire

James Clarence Mangan

Where is my chief, my master, this bleak night, mavrone?
O cold, cold, miserably cold is this bleak night for Hugh!
Its showery, arrowy, speary sleet pierceth one thro’ and thro’,
Pierceth one to the very bone.

Rolls real thunder? Or was that red vivid light
Only a meteor? I scarce know; but through the midnight dim
The pitiless ice-wind streams. Except the hate that persecutes him,
Nothing hath crueler venomy might.

An awful, a tremendous night is this, meseems!
The flood-gates of the rivers of heaven, I think, have been burst wide;
Down from the overcharged clouds, like to headlong ocean’s tide,
Descends grey rain in roaring streams.

Tho’ he were even a wolf ranging the round green woods,
Tho’ he were even a pleasant salmon in the unchainable sea,
Tho’ he were a wild mountain eagle, he could scarce bear, he,
This sharp sore sleet, these howling floods.

O mournful is my soul this night for Hugh Maguire!
Darkly as in a dream he strays. Before him and behind
Triumphs the tyrannous anger of the wounding wind,
The wounding wind that burns as fire.

It is my bitter grief, it cuts me to the heart
That in the country of Clan Darry this should be his fate!
O woe is me, where is he? Wandering, houseless, desolate,
Alone, without or guide or chart!

Medreams I see just now his face, the strawberry-bright,
Uplifted to the blackened heavens, while the tempestuous winds
Blow fiercely over and round him, and the smiting sleetshower blinds
The hero of Galang to-night!

Large, large affliction unto me and mine it is
That one of his majestic bearing, his fair stately form,
Should thus be tortured and o’erborne; that this unsparing storm
Should wreak its wrath on head like his!

That his great hand, so oft the avenger of the oppressed,
Should this chill churlish night, perchance, be paralysed by frost;
While through some icicle-hung thicket, as one lorn and lost,
He walks and wanders without rest.

The tempest-driven torrent deluges the mead,
It overflows the low banks of the rivulets and ponds;
The lawns and pasture-grounds lie locked in icy bonds,
So that the cattle cannot feed.

The pale-bright margins of the streams are seen by none;
Rushes and sweeps along the untamable flood on every side;
It penetrates and fills the cottagers’ dwellings far and wide;
Water and land are blent in one.

Through some dark woods, ’mid bones of monsters, Hugh now strays,
As he confronts the storm with anguished heart, but manly brow,
O what a sword-wound to that tender heart of his, were now
A backward glance at peaceful days!

But other thoughts are his, thoughts that can still inspire
With joy and onward-bounding hope the bosom of MacNee;
Thoughts of his warriors charging like bright billows of the sea,
Borne on the wind’s wings, flashing fire!

And tho’ frost glaze to-night the clear dew of his eyes,
And white ice-gauntlets glove his noble fine fair fingers o’er,
A warm dress is to him that lightning-garb he ever wore,
The lightning of his soul, not skies.


Hugh marched forth to fight: I grieved to see him so depart.
And lo ! to-night he wanders frozen, rain-drenched, sad betrayed;
But the memory of the lime-white mansions his right hand hath laid
In ashes, warms the hero’s heart!

Friday, 7 June 2013

Short note on American Pastoral by Philip Roth

Some synchronicity to report. A Jack Russell type puppy came our way, a tiny little chap but with the rudiments of the breed's vertical take-off. What shall we call him? My wife came up with Skip which those of you who have read American Pastoral will know was the high school nickname of Nathan Zuckerman the alter ego of the author Philip Roth. She hasn't read the book so it seemed auspicious.

As a book it had its moments but for me it has a flaw at the centre which I can't overlook unless I am completely mistaken about the import of what Roth/Zuckerman states on page 87:

In earnest, right then and there, while swaying with Joy to that out-of- date music, I began to try to work out for myself what exactly had shaped a destiny unlike any imagined for the famous Weequahic three-letterman back when this music and it sentimental exhortation was right to the point, when the Swede, his neighbourhood, his city, and his country were in their exuberant heyday, at the peak of confidence, inflated with every illusion born of hope.

It seems to me that most of the subsequent events of the novel are extrapolations from a very limited set of known facts about Swede, Dawn and Merry. This is not just unreliable narration but fantasy refracted through the mind of Skip who keeps twisting our buttons as he explains everything. He is the Morris County explainer. The story then is, in Jungian terms, hijacked by the active imagination of Skip.

The alienating narrator is a device that I have never warmed to. Give me diaries, letters, recounting and discovery. I have always relied on the kindness of trove.

Addendum 8/6/13:
Before I read a book I rarely read a review because I fear that spoilers may occur and plot points that ought to unfold may be revealed out of turn. It was interesting to see when I had a look at Michael Wood's review in the New York Times that he took the same critical approach as myself.
Woods on American Pastoral

He mentions page 89 as the entry into active imagination and one feels that his giving of a plot summary is a way of avoiding a negative review. You might turn up in a later novel as Woodsky.

Levi Asher in his sublime blog characterises Roth as kvetching Uncle Phil:
Uncle Phil

Wednesday, 5 June 2013


James Mill who eventually became head of India Office and wrote a history of India never visited the country. He had the panoptic view and from his base at the centre of the web of power that radiated from London saw all the pink corners of the world which were many and all bringing spoils and tribute. Carlyle who came from a poor family must have seen Mill Pere & Fis as comfy and cosy arsed. No wonder his naturally scornful temperament was stirred to take positions which were rebarbative in the extreme. Set aside for the moment the 'Negro Question', leave it writhing in the wallpaper of the 19th. Century along with Progressives such as Charlotte Perkins Gilman; and let the question be put: Was he right about heroes?

It seems to me, and maybe my cogs aren't meshing on this, that our age of individualism has a hunger for the hero. Look at the Obama phenomenon and his reception by the bien pensant progressive element. I got myself into trouble by suggesting that he was actually of mixed race and culturally white but I said it was a proof of the log cabin to the White House theorem when one considered that his grandfather was the first man in his village to wear trousers. That's in the biography which my affronted interlocutor hadn't read. You have to hit the outré while it's hot. It was a Carlylean moment.

I'm reading the lecture on 'Mahomet' in On Heroes and Hero-Worship by Carlyle. His remarks on the puzzling nature of the Koran are profound and echoed by Norman O Brown in an essay The Apocalypse of Islam which is available on line. T.C. is an admirer of Mahomet (sic) and his thesis about heroes seems true enough to make us very afraid. More anon.