Chapter Five – An age of wood

This is Part Five of LIAM GUILAR’S almost completed epic of Britain. Part One was published in Long Poem Magazine #25 Spring 2021, and Chapters TwoThree and Four in The Brazen Head. For more information about Hengist, Vortigern and the Legendary History, visit

The story so far. Mid Fifth Century; Hengist and his brother Horsa have sailed to Britain where they have been taken on as mercenaries by Vortigern, the newly appointed leader of the Province. Their immediate, shared problem is an army of Picts. In the long term, Hengist’s desire to establish a kingdom must bring him into conflict with the Britons. He is scheming to ensure the conflict will be fought on his terms. Vortigern’s desire to save the Province will bring him into conflict with Hengist, but also with Vortimer, his eldest son and those Britons who resent his even-handed rule, while happily benefitting from it. The story of Thongcaester in this chapter marks the continual shift in the Legendary History between possible history and the world of folk tales.

Snap shot of Hengist

‘Fuck me’, said Horsa,

‘that’s a lot of paint.’

The Pictish horde, a festering

howl of painted bodies, surging

towards the silent lines,

stopping, stepping back,

closer each time,

building the rhythm

of their final charge.

‘We should pray now to Woden, god of all battles?’

‘If you wish’, replies Hengist. ‘I’m betting on our Roman.’

No speeching, no boasting,

no threats of discipline.

Vortigern had explained what needed to be done,

trusting his soldiers would do it.

And wonder of wonder, they trust him.

Hengist admires the choice of ground.

The limited front negates the Pict’s numerical superiority.

The lack of slope, conventionally a disadvantage,

leaves the cavalry who loiter on the flanks

an open field to move across.

The pitch perfect voice steeling the ranks.

In an avalanche of noise, the Picts attack.

‘Hold your lines!’ says the voice.

The Picts shatter like glass hurled against a wall. 

Brothers in Arms

After they destroyed the Picts

and massacred the survivors,

after they hunted raiders in the west,

after the spoils had been divided.

‘You’re staring at your spear,’ said Hengist, ‘is something wrong?’

‘It would look better’, says his brother, ‘with his head on it.‘

Hengist smiles. ‘The Picts and Scotti, they are worthy enemies?’

Horsa thinks about it, nods, ‘Bold fighters, yes, strong warriors.’

‘In every battle that we’ve fought’, says Hengist, tiptoeing,

‘we’ve been outnumbered but we’ve held the field,

yet lost so few in doing so?’ Horsa, still imagining his spear

adorned with Vortigern’s head, nods, admitting this is true.

‘We gave him our word that we will serve.’

‘Was it still our word in their birdy babble?

We told our people we would find a home.

How is this home if we don’t give the orders?’

‘Everyone but god takes orders.

Fifty of the best fighters these islands have seen

are sparrow fart in a thunderstorm

if we inherit his enemies and turn

his former friends into our foes.

Either we finish off his enemies

and slaughter all his friends

so you can decorate your spear.

Or we serve him well,

bait our trap and when he’s caught

the hired hand becomes the master’s equal

and our grandsons give the orders.’

‘So we’re sending for my niece?’

‘Soon’, says Hengist, ‘soon,

I’ll be sending for my daughter.’

Vortigern lectures his eldest son on recent history

‘Four hundred years the legion kept us soft.

They broke the tribes, removed

their expertise with point and edge.

Head hunters once, we worried about status,

cultivated roses, practised Latin,

patronised the makers of Mosaic floors.

The legions kept the peace and fought the Empire’s wars.

They were the turtle’s shell and we the soft

delicious flesh barbarians dreamt

of feasting on. Now the legions have gone over

and left us on our own. The forts are empty,

the watchtowers home to nesting birds.

The weapons we kept hidden, heirlooms,

are a language we’ve forgotten how to speak.

Time washed us up, defenceless and alone,

like a turtle stranded on its back.

Now the predators are moving in.

Until we train an army, we hire muscle.’

‘These men are pagans, father.

What kind of world will you build with their help?

We should exterminate them all

and build God’s kingdom on their bones.’

‘Oh child, your Jesus loves us all?

He cares and is compassionate?

He is a just and loving God?

Did your mother deserve her fate? 

What terrible crime could she commit

to earn such terror and such pain?

Do you believe the Gods are even handed?

Prayer will not drive the raiders back.’

‘You favour them.

I have no land. I have no income.

I have no household of my own.

They point at me and say,

There goes Vortimer nithing.

His father does not trust him.’

‘What is there in what I’ve done

suggests I do not trust you?’

‘You will not let me fight beside you.

You are keeping me from glory.’

‘There is no glory fighting pirates.

I want you to gather Britons

who are willing to fight.

I want you to help Gloucester train them.’

‘Help him? I am your son.’

‘And you have no experience,

no skill, no proven aptitude.

What do you know of training fighting men?

Survival depends on our success.

This is not a time for-self-appointed experts.

Do this and I shall give you land:

and income for your household.’

‘And should I refuse to second Gloucester?’

Vortigern, saying nothing, leaves.

Snap shot of Hengist #2

Gods roll their dice, or fortune cranks her wheel.

You choose your metaphor to regulate the chaos.

Despite the fragile palisade and ditch,

it’s just another village; the usual beehive huts,

wattle fences, pigs, angry dogs. Hardworking adults.

Dirty children looking up to see the sky collapse.

It’s in Vortigern’s path, where and when it needs to be.

Held by some sad fool who calls himself a King,

who thought he could defy the call to Lincoln.

A stash of weapons and some looted goods

are all excuse he needs to make this place a name

to go before the army to infect his enemies with fear

and curdle resolution. The name will mean,

terrifying cruelty; it will translate annihilation.

Warriors slipped off the leash are happy to oblige.

Vortimer sits on the hillside, with two bound captives.

They will carry the news. They will spread the virus.

Horrified, he had protested to his father:

‘You’re letting pagans murder Christians.’

‘Treason is a crime that must be punished,

regardless of the gods they claim to serve.’

Hengist, bloodless, arriving with Keredic.

‘He has a wife and daughter.’ The irrelevance

confusing father and son into baffled silence.

‘He wants to know if the King is married?’

‘My mother is with God and all his saints.

She worshipped Christ.’ ‘Where was He then

when I buried what was left of her?’

‘Raiders? Saxons?’ ‘Britons,

scratching at old tribal sores.

She wasn’t British.’ Hengist bows.

‘He says he’s sorry for your loss.’

Sincere, but qualified,

even in translation.


Success following success, the age of stone

gives way to wood. See Vortigern the King,

now seated on his wooden throne,

in a wooden hall, smoke filled and dim.

The shadows threaten. The council has dissolved,

he is the one the people look to for solutions

But they remember their grandfathers despised the younger man.

Those who were punished forget how they had sinned.

The sons of those rewarded forget their loyal fathers bled

to earn the lands and titles they inherited.

Vortigern can hear death sharpening her scythe,

scraping in his dreams, the endless ‘help me’.

The whining of the privileged, the weeping of the poor,

silenced as Hengist went down on one knee.

‘Lord’, he said, ‘we have served you well.

We have wives, children, but no home.

We have kept the promises we made.

I ask for land to settle as our own.’

Vortigern, touching the coin he wears,

‘You will dig a ditch and build a palisade.

You will invite your family and your allies

you will forget the promises you made.’

‘We gave our oath that we would serve.

We served, we all bled, many died.

I do not ask for much.’ ’Good dog’,

I’ll give you land,’ Vortimer replied.

The understudy claiming the performance.

He is stepping out to claim the light.

The assembly shoals. Some out of curiosity,

some keen to see the son and father fight.

The King, enthroned, watching,

inscrutable. His silence a surprise.

Gloucester tugging the boy’s sleeve,

whispering, ‘My lord this is unwise.’

‘If it is my land’, this to his father,

‘then I can give it to your dog without your leave.

He only needs enough space for a kennel.

I will give you’, and he pauses,

like a comedian anticipating his applause,

‘as much as you can cover with a flayed bull’s hide.’

Hengist, ignoring insult and insulting laughter,

listening to Keredic, asks: ‘Covered by?

Repeat his promise, but contained in.’

No one notices the switch of verbs.

‘Now make him swear, on all that he holds holy,

that he will give to me as much land

as can be contained within a flayed bull’s hide.’

This nit picking, detracting from his moment,

infuriating Vortimer: ‘I swear by God

and all his saints, by Holy Mother Church,

upon my mother’s grave and on

God’s wounded hands and feet and side

I will give this heathen as much land

as can be contained within a flayed bull’s hide

and freely give him leave, to host as many

as can stand or sit and shit in it.’

Smirking applause from the sycophants,

who may live long enough to learn that Hengist

should not be underestimated.

Or insulted. Nor should Vortigern.

Adolf picking at his cloak

won’t look at anyone.

Hengist, his brother, and their retinue

trailing a growing entourage of British Lords

who thought the joke too good to miss,

wander through Vortimer’s possessions

with a calculated insolence

that worried only Gloucester.

Until they found a hill, wrapped in a river bend,

with steep slopes falling to the water

a fresh spring, clear views, a wood nearby.

While the others camped and drank,

and waited for the punch line to the joke,

the brothers sauntered down the river to the sea.

When they returned they flayed a bull,

to Vortimer’s confusion gave the hide

to the most skilled of all their leather workers,

who sharpened his knives,

and cutting the thinnest of lines,

made a single, long, unbroken thong.

As the onlookers grew silent,

Hengist marked out his new property.

Saxons were soon digging a ditch

building a palisade, hauling timber,

hammering together a fine high hall

for fire and feast and fellowship

and huts, for families, for the ale maker,

a smithy with a forge, wattle fences for the kine.

With a speed the Britons would ascribe to magic,

the Saxons to their own hard work and skill,

the hill was cleared and Hengist’s new home built.

He called it Thongcaester, lest Vortimer forget.

It was not as big as Pevensey or Porchester.

but big enough. Then he sent for his wife

and his sons and his daughter.

Before the wedding

There’s thunder in the east.

Gloucester walks with Vortigern

through the ruins of a villa

and the flicking of the first drops

of a welcome summer shower.

Given jobs that he does well,

Adolf has been generously rewarded,

the benefits of obedience

outweighing the temptation to rebel.

The journey here, past ruined temples,

ruined homes, strung together 

by ruined roads reminding Vortigern of Ovid.

So much changes; so little stays the same.

But he is wary of bad metaphors.

Landscapes are not people. 

Gloucester is a stouter version

of the up and coming man

most likely to succeed.

Translating his personal ambitions

to devotion to the public cause;

the restoration of the Council,

the unification of the Province.

But hard to tell if he has changed

or if his new clothes are just old clothes

dyed and cut a different way.

‘The Boys?’[i]

‘Are not a problem, yet.’

‘They blame you for their brother’s death.’

‘His retinue got drunk and slaughtered everyone.’

‘A retinue of Picts that you had trained.

‘He sent me away.

When he realised

I‘d stand beside the Council.

When he couldn’t pay,

they killed him.’

‘They claim it was a ruse

to make the Picts afraid,

to force them to rebel.

Because you wanted to be King.’

‘And then I killed them all?

I cleaned up the mess, remember?’

‘To cover up your crime.’

‘That’s not what happened.

What other news?’

‘Hengist’s wife and daughter have arrived.’

A silent Vortigern admires the broken wall

where a rose bush has grown wild.

‘He’s going to pitch her at you.

At this great feast in his new hall.’

What would the owner of this rose

think of the incomers

who built their cooking fires

upon his mosaic floor?

‘We pay him for his service: he’s our servant.

I marry his daughter: he becomes our ally.

My father in law. Our equal.’

‘If you turn her down, he’ll revolt.

The word is fifty keels have landed.’

‘Seventeen. I had them counted.’

‘Seventeen or fifty. Fifty Picts did Constantine.’

The tide rolls in.

There is no dam, dyke, ditch

will keep it back.

What’s seventeen keels,

each day twice as many land

scattering incomers along the coasts

families moving inland

some intent on mayhem

others looking to settle.

If we do not find a way

to make them part of us

they will make us irrelevant.

Take the title, become the title.

The obligations of the office

before personal desire?

‘He will expect a Morning Gift.’

‘Then give him Thanet. It’s already his.

It’s not like she’s deformed,

or old. They say she’s stunning.

You get to break her in.

Teach her a trick or two.’

Golden hair incongruous

against the bishop’s bony knees.

‘I’m marrying a woman or a horse?’

His awkward attempts at blokiness rebuffed

Gloucester withdraws, hurt and baffled,

like a puppy that’s been kicked.

Vortigern watched as summer rain

streamed off the roof. Someone

loved this garden. I had a wife.

The daughter of a Roman General

who had no time for flowers.

She liked things, pretty things.

She married me to guarantee

the hard bright pretty things

and we could have grown old

in comfortable indifference.

Take the title, be the title.

Do what needs be done.

‘And the Church, and the British Lords?

When they hear their King is fornicating

with a heathen, when they see the pagan,

Hengist treated as their equal?’

‘What they think won’t matter when we’re safe.’

‘Outrage is a pastime for the lazy.

A wedding will be one more faggot

for the funeral pyre.

She converts before we marry.’

‘The Bishops won’t baptise a Saxon.’

‘How long would it take

to dunk her in a river

and mutter the usual spells?’

‘Marry the girl. Hengist won’t revolt.

When The Boys return, we’ll have an army.’

How beautiful a garden after rain.

The intensity of colour, the clarity of scent.

Gloucester’s red cloak shrinks into the dusk.

An army I can trust? Unlike the one you’re training?

The word is Gloucester, you’re talking to The Boys.

If you make me choose,

I’d rather stand by Hengist than against him.

Vortigern returns to the rose bush.

Sweet smell of sadness and regret

after the rain, with the light fading.

[i] The sons of Constantine the King, who fled to Britany after their father and eldest brother were assassinated.

The dark back of time – deconstruction in literature and religion

The Good and Evil Angels, by William Blake
BRENDAN MCNAMEE says that deconstruction is as old as its opposite

Eternity is in love with the productions of time

William Blake, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell.

Deconstruction is a modern cliché, but it is something much older and more substantive than a passing academic fad. Since it came to prominence in the sixties and seventies the word has been bandied about in general parlance, losing most of its meaning in the process.

It usually indicates a process of taking something apart and not much more than that, so you have films like Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry, which consists merely of a character’s evisceration, and restaurants serving desserts called deconstructed cheesecake, which consists of little more than components of cheesecake separated on a plate.

More seriously, it’s often seen as a destructive rejection of cherished beliefs and certainties. But that word ‘certainties’ is the hinge. Certainties have a way of subtly devolving from life-enhancing structures to stifling and destructive oppressions. An attractive form can hide a rotting interior. Many people instinctively recognise this. If cherished lines from widely beloved poets and musicians are an indication of this recognition then Leonard Cohen’s most oft-quoted line, ‘There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in,’ from his song ‘Anthem’, indicates that deconstruction, as I will read it here, is already subconsciously understood and valued by many. Letting the light in on airless, out-dated structures and practices: that’s the essence of deconstruction.

In this essay, I shall look at deconstruction through a variety of literary quotations, ranging from Heraclitus to Heaney, which show that the practice has been around for as long as philosophy itself, and that it is, and always has been, an integral and vital part of both art and religion. I read it, in fact, as a modern secular form of mysticism, what the American academic John D. Caputo calls ‘religion without religion’ (The Prayers and Tears of Jacques Derrida: Religion Without Religion).  Caputo and Jacques Derrida, the putative originator of deconstruction, will be my main (actually, my only) links to the practice of deconstruction as it is understood in academia. My focus will be on how it manifests in the world beyond. In the second part of the essay I will attempt to show how deconstruction can be seen at work in widely disparate instances of literature and film.


Without consciousness, there is, to all intents and purposes, no world. On that basis, it can be asserted that all time is contained in the present, the past as memory, the future as anticipation. The present consists of two elements, consciousness and nature, the world within and the world without, subject and object. The world without we call ‘actuality’, all the stuff that makes up the visible universe. We see it through this mirror called consciousness. The stuff changes all the time; the mirror remains the same (that is, the phenomenon of consciousness underlies the individual manifestations of that consciousness through sentient beings in time). Consciousness, then, is another word for eternity.

Wherever there is consciousness, it is always now. But because it only knows itself by its productions, the stuff of actuality, the productions themselves come to be considered paramount, come to be thought of as reality itself. And they are necessary. Crops must be planted, cities built, cultures and laws devised. Structure reigns. But with time these structures become stifling, burdensome, tedious – the weight of tradition, the boredom of habit. The mirror becomes fogged. Deconstruction is the wiping of the mirror. Deconstruction is eternity gasping for breath.

Vladimir Nabokov

When asked whether he believed in God, Vladimir Nabokov said, ‘I know more than I can express in words, and the little I can express would not have been expressed, had I not known more’ (Strong Opinions, p45).

Is this what lies at the heart of deconstruction? A sense that the world as it is described in language is missing some vital element, some element that cannot be captured in language, but the vague awareness of which is what largely drives that described world of language? As the theologian Paul Tillich puts it, ‘It is the riddle and the depth of all expression that it both reveals and hides at the same time’ (Art, Creativity, and the Sacred, p221). Derrida echoes that idea in these words: ‘We are dispossessed of the longed-for presence in the gesture of language by which we attempt to seize it’ (Acts of Literature, p78). Poetic language could be seen as both a lament at this dispossession and a desperate attempt to overcome it all in one.

You can extrapolate from Nabokov’s sentence to life itself: ‘I am more than I can express in words, and the little that I can express could not be expressed, were I not more.’ That ‘more’ is what divides the world between materialists and idealists. For materialists, the world we see around us is quite fascinating enough; for idealists there is something essential missing. For idealists (believers and non-believers alike), that indefinable ‘more’ is what keeps the ship afloat. Like a string on a well-tuned guitar it keeps life at a tension, a tension necessary to create the music of life itself. ‘The harmony past knowing sounds more deeply than the known,’ as Heraclitus has said (Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus, p31). Isn’t this why we make art? As Steve Toltz puts it, ‘We make art because being alive is a hostage situation in which our abductors are silent and we cannot even intuit their demands’ (Quicksand, p16).

Take Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Where, or what, would Beckett’s tramps be without Godot to wait for? They wouldn’t be anywhere. They wouldn’t be. The essence of Godot is his non-arrival, just as – perhaps – the essence of God is his unknowability, his unattainability, and, almost certainly, his non-existence. By his non-existence I mean that God may simply be the idea of God. As Henri de Lubac put it, ‘We do not have desire for God; we are that desire. It is imprinted on our created nature’ (Mystery of the Supernatural pps176-77). Just as Godot is needed to keep the tramps on stage, so is the idea of God (or whatever unattainable ideal one substitutes for God) needed to keep us all trudging through the wastes of time. (Absence pervades presence, may indeed be the larger part of presence, much in the way that dark energy may be the larger part of the universe, even though it cannot be detected.)

More optimistically, the idea may be what’s needed to transform those wastes of time into something more like a garden. True religion, like true art, is alchemy. The effect of great art, regardless of what actual events are being portrayed, is exhilaration. In this sense, all great artists are mystics, and art is the most accessible form of mysticism we have, and one of the most effective ‘mirror-cleaners’ we have. Likewise, religion. Seen in this light, both art and religion are forms of deconstruction. Seen in another light, of course – when form overrides mystery, when significance declines into meaning – they are very much in need of deconstruction.

In his book, Deconstruction in a Nutshell, John D. Caputo calls deconstruction love. Love itself cannot be deconstructed because it is not a thing, it is not static. Love happens. How many stories there are that demonstrate this by showing love as a disruptive force: love across the race divide, the class divide, the cultural divide, always disrupting accepted ‘truths’ of life, which of course are not truths at all but merely comfort blankets masquerading as truths. Love underlies all social and cultural expressions of it, which are just that: expressions of an intangible reality, but not the thing itself (much like consciousness and the productions of time).

There’s a scene in a recent sitcom, called Hold the Sunset, which subtly illustrates this idea. John Cleese plays a crusty old codger with a reputation for sarcasm. One of his neighbours, often the butt of his jokes, is a dog lover. One day, the Cleese character encounters this neighbour out walking accompanied only by the dog’s leash. A brief conversation conveys the information that the dog has died, but the neighbour hasn’t quite got over it yet and it comforts him to walk with the leash. Cleese makes some sympathetic comment about this, which the man, knowing Cleese’s general outlook, takes to be mockery, but Cleese hastens to reassure him that it isn’t, that he understands fully the man’s actions, that love is love, whatever the nature or character of the recipient. Finally, the neighbour gets his point and says, ‘You mean, love can’t tell the difference.’

Love can’t tell the difference. In that sense, love doesn’t actually exist until it finds a recipient, just as deconstruction is not a ‘thing,’ and doesn’t actually exist until it has some established ‘truth’ to work on. Just as eternity doesn’t exist until it finds an expression through the productions of time. You can’t have a mirror without a dark back, and vice versa. Perhaps the same thing is meant when people say God is love. God doesn’t exist – or not for us, anyway – until he is manifested in the world. Manifested as the world?  

There is an old Sufi legend about a certain Arab who died and left seventeen camels, which he bequeathed to his three sons in the following proportions: to the oldest a half; to the second a third; to the youngest a ninth. The three sons were disputing violently about the proper division of the camels when a stranger rode up to them from the desert and asked them the cause of their anger. When they had explained it to him he said: ‘But this is very simple. I shall give you my camel; so now you have eighteen instead of seventeen, and the sum is easily done. The eldest will take nine, the second six and the youngest two.’ When the three sons had each taken the camels allotted to him, they found that one was left over. ‘And therefore,’ said the stranger, ‘I can now take my own camel back again, and yet leave you with no further cause of dispute.’

This expresses the same idea as Blake’s aphorism, cited at the start. Time is where we live, the land of the tangible (camels and churches, governments, games, art, everything), but all of these productions, all these things, only make sense in light of an intangible force lying behind them. Deconstruction is the attempt to keep that mysterious force in play, to keep that crack open without which life would become stale and airless. In the absence of deconstruction, when there is too much order, too much rigidity, something snaps: ‘Tedium is the worst pain. The mind lays out the world in blocks and the hushed blood waits for revenge’ (Grendel, John Gardner, p109).

The mind lays out the world in blocks: this is a good definition of the world’s structures, whether cultural, social, literary, judicial or whatever. When they become set in their ways and fail to respond to changing circumstances or to the nuances of a situation’s contexts, as they invariably do due to human laziness and complacency, then boredom and discontent sets in. Eventually, something snaps. Modernism in its many forms – cultural, social, political – was perhaps the loudest snap of the twentieth century.

Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer once compiled an extensive list of opposing qualities, entities and concepts that he labelled hip/square, such as wild/practical, romantic/classic, instinct/logic, a question/an answer, self/society, associative/sequential and many more, all of which can be seen to be, in varying degrees, reflections of the chaos/order divide (Advertisements for Myself, pps346-48). The idea of deconstruction could be seen as the academic version of the corresponding societal movement that shook the sixties. Revolution was in the air. But it’s important not to forget the second member of the pairing. One of Mailer’s pairs of opposites, self/society, calls to mind a sentence from Machiavelli: ‘No stability without an institution; no progress without an individual.’You need some degree of stability or there would be no possibility of civilisation of any kind. So you need institutions (something Derrida was always at pains to stress). But you also need innovative individuals who insist on disrupting things when those institutions become stale or unworkable. And where would the innovative, deconstructing individuals be without institutions to work against? You can’t jump into the air without a ground to spring from.

Another, and perhaps more helpful, way of expressing the chaos/order divide is to call it a dynamic/static divide. In Lila: An Enquiry into Morals, Robert Pirsig proposed this as a more fundamental divide in life than the subject/object divide, which is the one that prevails in our current materialistic and common sense based world. And the deeper you delve into deconstruction, the more you find it corresponds to this division: the structures of the world, whether social, cultural, legal, literary, political, etc, all tend toward the static. Rules get laid down, they seem to work (they keep chaos at bay, they explain so much), so they are adopted with fervour and adhered to rigidly. Too rigidly. History is littered with the appalling results of this rigidity, this fundamentalism, mostly in the fields of politics and religion. Every effort to crack open such petrified structures is a form of deconstruction.

Theodore Adorno once described the relationship between empirical reality and works of art as a form of redemption: ‘Everything will be just as it is and yet wholly different’ (John Banville, Athena, p105). Everything will be as it is – that is, the structures of the world will not change in their essence, they will still be structures and continue to serve whatever purpose they were constructed to serve, but they will be wholly different because seen with different eyes, eyes that are open to potential, to nuance, to change. There will still be seventeen camels, but the brothers will have no cause for dispute because their eyes will be open to the possibility of an eighteenth camel, a possibility that, without having to exist in any material sense, redeems all that does so exist. Deconstruction then could be seen as a kind of open-ended, undefined faith.

John Banville

John Banville has written a radio play in which Isaac Newton, the inventor of the calculus (and also a devoted alchemist), says the following:

The calculus operates upon the premise of a closer and closer approach to infinity. Infinity, however, may not be approached. Infinity is, and there’s an end of it. Yet the calculus works . . .


The same might be said for language and reality. Language operates upon the premise of a closer and closer approach to reality. Reality, however, may not be approached. Reality is, and there’s an end of it. Yet language works . . . Up to a point, anyway. There is still that tantalising mystery that keeps escaping, that no word seems equal to. But a word had to be found, nonetheless, so we came up with the word God. Yes, that’ll do. God is the name of and cause of everything that is. That settles the question, right?

No, very rightly wrong, as Beckett would say. There is no answer. ‘God’ is just another deferral. The word might have been fine had it not been taken for an answer. ‘He should have had a name that sounded like a question,’ as Cees Nooteboom puts it (Rituals, p42). That would have put deconstruction at the heart of all that is. In the Hindu mythology Prajapati, Lord of the Creatures, has a secret name, Ka, which in Sanskrit means, ‘who?’ ‘Prajapati is the god who has no identity, who is the origin of all insoluble paradoxes’ (Roberto Calasso, Ardor, p8).


Consider these two statements, the first from the Spanish writer, Javier Cercas, the second from Clarice Lispector, the Ukranian-born, Brazilian writer sometimes referred to as the Brazilian Kafka:

‘Literature is always anti-literary.’ (The Blind Spot, p36)

‘There’s one thing I understand: writing has nothing to do with literature.’ (The Paris Review, interview)

Both these statements are saying the same thing, though this is disguised by the fact that the word ‘literature’ is used in opposing senses by each writer. Cercas’s ‘literature’ is Lispector’s ‘writing’ and Lispector’s ‘literature’ is Cercas’s ‘literary.’ Both statements are intuitive expressions of deconstruction. This is best explained by recourse to Robert Pirsig’s division of life into what he calls dynamic quality and static quality. Applied to literature, this is the division between pure creativity as it happens, and the result of that creativity as it appears in the world, what Annie Dillard has called ‘the creative process frozen with its product in its arms’ (Living by Fiction, p164).

Cercas is using the word ‘literature’ to refer to the creative process, and by ‘literary’ in the term anti-literary, he means the ‘business’ of literature, the criticisms, the essays, the classification into genres and literary periods, the endless chatter about books, very little of which can claim close kinship with the creative process itself (though some of it can: those readers who, unaware of what they should or should not approve of according to the official tastemakers, are genuinely enraptured by some work or other. Such readers, it could be said, are partaking in that very creative process itself. As Borges has put it, the man who reads a line of Shakespeare becomes Shakespeare. Mind you, that would have to be a man with a very fresh eye). And Lispector is echoing this sentiment. Her ‘writing’ is Cercas’s ‘literature.’  Dillard’s image is a nice one. The frozen product is the hardened lava at the foot of a volcano. The volcano itself has little interest in poring over the remains of its effusions at the foot of the hill. This is why you will often hear writers and artists expressing little interest in past work, however lauded it might be by their audiences. It’s the process itself that truly enraptures them. It also explains the even more common expression from artists that they often feel themselves to be mere conduits for some mysterious force that uses them to reveal itself in the world.[1]


‘You are neither here nor there,

A hurry through which known and strange things pass.’

Seamus Heaney, ‘Postscript’

‘There is an absence, real as presence.’

John Montague, ‘A Flowering Absence’

Wittgenstein began his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus with the sentence, ‘The world is all that is the case,’ and ended it with this one, ‘Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must be silent.’ Materialists have concentrated on the first sentence, and the detailed adumbrations that follow it; for idealists, on the other hand, the final sentence is the point where things begin to get interesting.  What is it that we cannot speak of? And if we cannot speak of it, how are we aware of it in the first place? Could it be that this mysterious non-entity is what creates everything that is the case (everything that can be spoken of) to begin with? Could that be the reason for its eternal presence (as an absence) in our minds? This is an established religious idea: the world is God’s mirror, which God needs in order to see himself. In order to be? Two of Christianity’s most mystical theologians, the fourteenth century German Dominician, Meister Eckhart and the ninth century Irish philosopher, John Scotus Eriugena, would seem to think so:

This is why I pray to God to rid me of God, for my essential being is above God in so far as we comprehend God as the principle of creatures. . . And if I myself were not, God would not be either; that God is God, of this I am the cause. If I were not, God would not be God

Eckhart, quoted in Dermot Moran, The Irish Mind, p91

It follows that we ought not to understand God and the creature as two things distinct from one another, but as one and the same. For both the creature, by subsisting, is in God; and God, by manifesting Himself, in a marvellous and ineffable manner creates Himself in the creature

Eriugena, ibid. p91

This can be put in less religiously-charged language. This is Alex Dubilet:

The infinite names not a transcendence that ruptures the self-sufficiency of the subject, but an immanent and impersonal process that precedes and exceeds the very difference between self and other. [. . . a hurry through which known and strange things pass] . . . subjective life is always already a deformation, a life made to suffer by being forced into itself

Lawrence Durrell puts the same idea like this: ‘People are not separate individuals as they think, they are variations on themes outside themselves’ (Constance, p378). Love is perhaps the strongest of those ‘themes’ and might go some way toward explaining the ever-yearning nature of humans. We are like Philip Larkin’s young steers, ‘always seeking purer water, / Not here but anywhere’ (‘Wires’). Or, perhaps, anywhere but here, here being the ‘subjective life’ that is ‘always already a deformation’ because it knows intuitively that this sense of separation, of individuality, is unnatural, or incomplete.


‘Deconstruction arises in response to an imperative that has to do with the ‘mystery’ of the impossible, not merely the ‘problem’ of the possible’ (Caputo, lix). The idea of mystery lies at the heart of literature. Take Jorge Luis Borges’ definition: ‘Literature can be defined by the sense of the imminence of a revelation which does not in fact occur’ (Selected Non-Fictions, p346). To a certain mindset, this might seem thoroughly pointless. If the revelation does not in fact occur, haven’t you just wasted your time? This attitude, sadly, is very much the prevailing one today, and partly explains, I think, why literature is in decline. Definiteness reigns, and facts are king. But Borges is talking about living within an atmosphere of mystery wherein every aspect of the world is charged with a mysterious significance. He clarifies this in a re-statement of the idea:

Music, states of happiness, mythology, faces worn by time, certain twilights and certain places, all want to tell us something, or have told us something we shouldn’t have lost, or are about to tell us something; that imminence of a revelation as yet unproduced is, perhaps, the aesthetic fact (ibid. p346).

If we are attuned to those ‘known and strange things’ spoken of by Seamus Heaney in the lines above, then we are deconstructionists by default. Those lines continue, ‘As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways / And catch the heart off guard and blow it open’ (‘Postscript’). That, I would say, is a good definition of deconstruction’s purpose – catching the heart off guard, and blowing it open.


‘These things never happened, but are always,’wrote Sallust on myth (Roberto Calasso, The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony, epigraph). Is myth itself a form of deconstruction? Myths are eternal truths underlying the more tangible realities of life, but they are unamenable to being captured in systems (unless mistaken as actual events). They are continually re-interpreted so that they continue to speak to peoples across a wide range of cultures. They never happened, so they can never take their assigned place in history; they inform all that does happen, giving it significance beyond the time in which actual events take place. ‘What has never anywhere come to pass, that alone never grows old,’ as Schiller has put it (Schopenhauer, p247). It’s been said about Shakespeare, for instance, that we don’t read Shakespeare, Shakespeare reads us. Shakespeare deconstructs us.

 ‘What has never anywhere come to pass, that alone never grows old.’ This is as good a definition of consciousness, or eternity, as one could ask for. The trouble with our normal understanding of consciousness is that, so thoroughly entwined is it with the stuff of life, we always think of it as consciousness of something. It is literally impossible to imagine consciousness alone (‘Consciousness-without-an-object’ is how one philosopher-mystic, Franklin Merrill-Wolff, describes the mystic state.) Try it and see. The nearest you can come is to imagine an empty space, but even this is ‘something.’ The problem appears to be that as long as you are consciously engaged in imagining, then you are imagining ‘something.’

Roberto Calasso

Hindu mythology can be helpful here. In Hinduism, brahman is ultimate reality. Roberto Calasso describes it thus:

But the brahman, whatever that might be, must necessarily be divided into two parts: the ‘unmanifest’ and the ‘manifest.’ The one is therefore always two. . . The brahman is the wild goose that ‘in rising from the water, it does not extract one foot. If it did, neither today nor tomorrow would exist.’ The water is the unmanifest brahman, the wild goose is the manifest brahman. (K, pps47-48)

The unmanifest brahman here would be consciousness alone, Merrill-Wolff’s consciousness-without-an-object; manifest brahman is the stuff of consciousness, the actual world we inhabit, the wild goose. But the wild goose, independent though it appears to be (and is, according to materialists), has one foot in the water, without which ‘neither today nor tomorrow would exist.’ Time itself, that is, arises from consciousness, the consciousness that is unmanifest, and can never be apprehended, because it is what is doing the apprehending, and what it apprehends is the wild goose, the actual world. So when Caputo talks about ‘the mystery of the impossible,’ this unmanifest aspect of reality is what I take him to mean. It stands apart from ‘the problem of the possible’ because the problem of the possible is the kind of problem that science and reason are equipped to deal with, the definable problems of the actual world. And, again as Caputo says, deconstruction (like art and religion) ‘arises in response to’ this mystery of the impossible. Derrida’s ‘trace,’ that mysterious intangible shadow he finds behind all language, is perhaps the wild goose’s dim awareness of the water from which it gains its life.

Deconstruction in film and literature

Purity is the malign inversion of innocence. Innocence is love of being, smiling acceptance of both celestial and earthly sustenance, ignorance of the infernal antithesis between purity and impurity. Satan has turned this spontaneous and as it were native saintliness into a caricature which resembles him and is the converse of its original. . . . Religious purification, political purges, preservation of racial purity – there are numerous variations on this atrocious theme, but all issue with monotonous regularity in countless crimes whose favourite instrument is fire, symbol of purity and symbol of hell.

Michel Tournier, The Erl-King, p. 70

If deconstruction is, as John D. Caputo has it, love, and, as Derrida says, ‘a response to a call,’ then the Bourne Trilogy can be seen as a subtle cinematic expression of deconstruction in action, and an instance of the power of love.

Jason Bourne is purity personified. He is a pure machine, trained to do one thing and not to let any extraneous factors, such as emotion or complexity, cloud that purpose. The purity derives from an idea. A noble idea. In this case, the idea of the American Way. Freedom. Democracy. It could just as easily be the idea of communism, or Aryan supremacy, or Islamic fundamentalism, or nationhood, anything, that is, with the power to capture people’s imaginations and inspire them to build an impregnable structure housing that idea. Nothing can be allowed to threaten or undermine this structure in any way. Soldiers must be trained to defend it. To be effective, such soldiers must never allow the muddle of human emotions to distract them from their purpose. Hence – ultimately – such soldiers as Jason Bourne. The shell protecting the purity of the purpose must be impenetrable.

But, thankfully, the shell is never impenetrable. There is a crack in everything. The pivotal moment of the Bourne Trilogy occurs towards the end of the first movie, The Bourne Identity, in a flashback scene wherein Bourne remembers the event that set him adrift on the ocean with two bullets in his back and a serious bout of amnesia. He is on a mission to execute an African leader on a ship. All prepared to pull the trigger on his sleeping victim, he suddenly finds himself looking into the clear innocent eyes of a five-year-old child – and the shell cracks. Something penetrates to the core, the core that perhaps attracted him to the purity of his cause in the first place. And this core is innocence in Tournier’s sense of the word, an instinctive recognition that life, in all its tumultuous variety and chaos, is the true value, and that to force this wondrous incorrigible plurality into a pre-conceived shape is the real sin. Trying to put order on the chaos of life is a natural and necessary human impulse, but it can go too far. When it does, life turns into death. In George Eliot’s words, ‘There is no general doctrine which is not capable of eating out our morality if unchecked by the deep-seated habit of direct fellow-feeling with individual fellow-men’ (Middlemarch).

In a word, Bourne is touched by love. And love is a force that will not be corralled into the neat paddock of ideology, whatever that ideology’s declared good intentions. This, I think, is what Caputo means when he calls deconstruction ‘love,’ and what Derrida means when he refers to it as ‘a response to a call’ (Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers: The Phenomenological Heritage, Richard Kearney , p118). Any idea can be deconstructed because ideas are essentially fictions to begin with, makeshift mental shacks erected to help us navigate the chaos of life. Love, by contrast, is not a construction (and if it is, it’s fake, self-delusion born of a deep need). Love is not a thing at all, but rather something that happens; a force with the power to disrupt all social, cultural and political structures, regardless of how reverently held they may be.

What happens to Bourne finds an echo in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, ‘The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.’ Like Bourne, the mariner is lost in darkness through an act of murder (the killing of an albatross), and, like Bourne, he too is blessed with an epiphany of sorts – in this case, the sighting of sea-snakes. He is struck by the beauty of the creatures, a beauty beyond the ability of any language to describe (‘No tongue / Their beauty might declare’), and thus beyond capture by any structure:

A spring of love gushed from my heart,

And I blessed them unaware:

Sure my kind saint took pity on me,

And I blessed them unaware

II. 282-87

‘Unaware’ is a key word in that quatrain (as Coleridge indicates by repeating it). It happens beneath the level of conscious thought, beneath the level at which mental structures are erected, and are thus immune from being deconstructed. Jason Bourne’s kind saint, the power of love itself, has stopped him in his tracks for just long enough to disrupt his planned assassination. The putative victim wakes up and takes a few shots at Bourne, who just manages to escape overboard, thus setting in motion a series of events that will in time become the flower of which this initial insight was the seed.

Over the course of three films, Bourne then spends his time getting to the root of the evil that has been done to him, and doing his best to put it right. The purity he fights is bluntly expressed by a CIA boss in a scene with Pamela Landy, a CIA controller trying to do the right thing by Bourne, in the third film. The boss has ordered that Nicki, the girl sent to talk to Bourne, be killed along with Bourne because he suspects she has gone over to the fugitive’s side. When Landy objects to this, saying, ‘If we start down this path, where does it end?,’ he snarls in reply, ‘It ends when we’ve won.’ The battle-cry of purists and fundamentalists the world over: It ends when we’ve won. When we’ve silenced or killed off all the opposition to our one pure way of life.

Pascal put the idea like this: ‘Man is neither angel nor beast, and unhappily whoever wants to act the angel, acts the beast’ (Pensées, p358). Deconstruction, seen in this light, is a way of guarding against the angel turning into the beast.

The ideal deconstructionist might be the character of Pamela Landy in the third Bourne film. She wants to take the risk of talking to Bourne though, for all she knows, he may well be the renegade assassin her superiors say he is. She certainly has no wish to destroy the institution of which she is a member, but she knows instinctively that it cannot function as a healthy body by simply following blind procedures without regard to other, and possibly dangerous, possibilities; without, in other words, being open to ‘the other.’ In a similar fashion, Derrida has no wish to destroy the philosophies which he deconstructs, but rather to let the fresh air of new thinking into them, in order to keep them alive. Deconstruction is a modern secular way of keeping the fresh air of the infinite blowing through the finite world.

Huckleberry Finn

If deconstruction is spontaneity in action, the law of the heart triumphing over the law of the land, or over the law of whatever social mores or cultural rigidities are currently in vogue, then Huckleberry Finn provides a perfect example.

Huck’s essential being is itself a form of deconstruction of all the social and cultural structures that he’s surrounded and mostly oppressed by, all flying under the banner of ‘sivilisation,’ but the idea is most clearly and sharply focused in the story of the journey down the Mississippi with the escaped slave, Jim. Huck is no intellectual, he fully accepts his society’s view of slaves, which is that they are owned in their entire inferior being by the whites, who have been given this duty of care by God. Slavery, far from being an evil, is God’s law. Huck accepts this. But on the journey down the river, he comes to know and like Jim as an individual human being, one much like himself, and he is tortured by the thought of giving him up to the authorities, something his rational mind tells himis the correct thing to do. The law of the heart (or wherever the seat is of these fleeting, spontaneous impulses) comes up against the law of the head.

This is deconstruction in action. In allowing his heart the victory in this particular battle, Huck is deconstructing a fundamental fixed point of his society’s belief system. This is not at all the same thing as Huck thinking the problem out intellectually and deciding that slavery per se was a bad thing. This would simply be pitting one intellectual position against another. It’s important that Huck ends his inner conflict, not by suddenly becoming enlightened about the evils of slavery, but by obeying the deeper truth he hears within himself, the one that can’t be pinned down in any statute book. Derrida posits justice as the deconstructive element in law. There may be no justice in the world, but the law – fixed statutes and penalties – is fired and inspired by the idea of justice (but too often perverted by the actions of Tournier’s Law: ‘Purity is the malign inversion of innocence’). ‘You’ll get justice in the next world,’ goes the opening line of William Gaddis’s novel, A Frolic of His Own, ‘in this world we have the law.’ With Huck and Jim, justice is the event that has disrupted the rigidity of the law, that event being the un-deconstructible human connection between them. That is, love.

‘no help for that’

At heart, the human being is a lack (we’re all waiting for Godot), and deconstruction is the intuitive awareness of that lack, and of the necessity of keeping a weather eye on the dangers of anything that promises to be ‘the answer.’ I doubt if Charles Bukowski has ever been accused of being a deconstructionist, but he did write this:

no help for that

there is a place in the heart that

will never be filled

a space

and even during the

best moments


the greatest


we will know it

we will know it

more than


there is a place in the heart that

will never be filled


we will wait



in that


What is this but Derrida’s longing for the impossible?

Three Colours: Blue

Julie, the protagonist of Krzysztof Kieslowski’s Three Colours: Blue loses her husband and child in a car accident and decides, as a way of alleviating the pain of this loss, to effectively shut down her life. She cuts all ties with friends and family, moves to a flat in the city and establishes a simple routine centred on the local cafe and the swimming baths. She puts her life on auto-pilot; safe, secure, swaddled in pain-free tedium. On a personal level, she echoes those fundamentalist religions and political systems that operate by strict rules and regulations and abhor all innovations and spontaneity.

But life will not have it. Slowly but surely she is drawn back into the flow. As the wife of a famous composer (and a composer herself) music had been her great love, and now, despite efforts to rid herself of this aspect of her past, it keeps stopping her in her tracks, pieces of a musical score suddenly banishing the mundanity around her. And people, too, will not be ignored. Her essential goodness and humanity (which will be made explicit towards the end of the film) is drawn out when she responds to the sounds of a man being attacked by thugs in the street outside her apartment. She doesn’t respond with enough vigour to do the poor man any good, but it’s a start – a start that creates a connection with a young woman living on the floor beneath. Then she refuses to sign a petition got up by the other residents who want to kick out this young woman whom they regard as a whore. As a result, the young woman becomes her friend. Bit by bit, she is drawn back into life – to the point where, finding out that her husband had been having an affair with a young lawyer, she goes to see the woman and, on hearing that she is pregnant, gives her a place to live – her old house (a beautiful chateau) which she had previously put up for sale. And she completes her husband’s final unfinished symphony in tandem with her husband’s assistant, with whom she embarks on an affair.

It’s a classic story arc in both literature and film: the stony heart, cut off from life through pain of one kind or another, gradually melted through contact with people, in effect, through the power of love. So what can it possibly have to do with deconstruction, or any of deconstruction’s extended family? As mentioned earlier, deconstruction is love, a response to a call. Love is the ultimate deconstructing power because it, alone, is not, and never can be, a construction of any kind. Rather, it is what infuses all other structures – families, institutions, philosophies – with their life. Julie has built herself a life which she believes will free her from pain, and love has deconstructed it, prevented it from degenerating into an empty shell. As if to underscore the point, the film ends with the famous words of St. Paul, set to the music she has composed: ‘If I have not love, I am become as hollow brass.’ An empty shell. Whether it’s a personal life, a religious organisation, a political system or a philosophy, without love at the heart of it, it’s worthless. St. Paul’s famous words, seen in this light, may well be western literature’s earliest deconstruction manifesto.

Pride and Prejudice

Possibly the most famous scene in Pride and Prejudice is the one where Darcy, fascinated despite himself by Elizabeth, dares to open a crack in his well-structured stuffy world in order to make her a proposal – and Elizabeth responds by blowing the walls down. She deconstructs his world in the best Derridean fashion: that is, she shatters his false, desiccated notions of propriety and decorum while leaving the solid structure supporting those notions intact (everything will be as it is yet wholly different). After all, she does want to live there.

Works Cited

Banville, John. Stardust. Radio monologues, BBC 3, 11/05/02.

───. Athena. London: Picador, 1993.

Borges, Jorge Luis. Selected Non-Fictions. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1999.

Calasso, Roberto. K. London: Vintage, 2006.

───. Ardor. London: Allen Lane, 2013.

───. The Marriage of Cadmus and Harmony. London: Vintage, 1994.

Caputo, John D. Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida. Fordham: Fordham University Press, 2021.

Cercas, Javier. The Blind Spot: An Essay on the Novel. London: Maclehose Press, 2018.

Derrida, Jacques. Acts of Literature. London: Routledge, 1992.

Dillard, Annie. Living by Fiction. New York: Harper Perennial, 1983.

Dubilet, Alex. ‘Speculation and Infinite Life: Hegel and Meister Eckhart on the Critique of Finitude.’

Durrell, Lawrence. Constance. London: Faber and Faber, 1982.

Eliot, George. Middlemarch. London: Everyman, 1991.

Gardner, John. Grendel. London: Picador, 1973.

Frye, Northrop. ‘Reconsidering Levels of Meaning,’ Christianity and Literature, 54.3 (Spring 2005), pp. 397-432.

Heaney, Seamus. Spirit Level. London: Faber and Faber, 1994.

Heraclitus. Fragments: The Collected Wisdom of Heraclitus. Trans. Brooks Haxton. New York: Viking Penguin, 2001.

Houellebecq, Michel. Public Enemies. London: Atlantic Books, 2011.

Imhof, Rudiger. ‘An Interview with John Banville: ‘My Readers, That Small Band, Deserve a Break.’’ Irish University Review 11.1 (1981): 5-12.

Kearney, Richard. Dialogues with Contemporary Continental Thinkers: The Phenomenological Heritage. Manchester: Manchester UP, 1984.

Larkin, Philip. Collected Poems. London: Faber and Faber, 1988.

Lispector, Clarice. The Paris Review. ‘Clarice Lispector: Madam of the Void,’ interview with Jose Castello, December 10, 2020. (

Lubac, Henri de. Mystery of the Supernatural. London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1967.

Mailer, Norman. Advertisements for Myself. London: Granada, 1972.

Moran, Dermot. ‘Nature, Man and God in the Philosophy of John Scotus Eriugena’ in R. Kearney, ed. The Irish Mind. Dublin and New Jersey: Wolfhound Press and Humanities Press, 1985. pp. 91-106; pp. 324-332.

Nabokov, Vladimir. Strong Opinions. New York: Vintage International, 1990.

Nooteboom, Cees. Rituals. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1985.

Pascal, Blaise. Pensees and Other Writings. Oxford: OUP, 2008.

Pirsig, Robert. Lila: An Enquiry Into Morals. London: Bantam Press, 1991.

Tillich, Paul. ‘Art and Ultimate Reality,’ in Diane Apostolos-Cappadona, ed. Art, Creativity, and the Sacred. New York: Crossroad, 1984. pp. 219-35.

Toltz, Steve. Quicksand. London: Sceptre, 2016.


[1] Some testimonies from artists on the subject: The French poet and novelist Michel Houellebecq has said: ‘It is as though – and I know this sounds irrational – it is as though the poem already existed, has existed for all eternity, and that all you have done is discover it’ (Public Enemies 247). John Banville had this to say on the creation of his novel, Kepler:

Always I begin with the shape. But let me make a distinction, a very important one. The form of say, Kepler, is in itself wholly synthetic, by which I mean that it is imposed from outside, yet by synthetic I do not mean false, or insincere. It is, this formal imposition, the means by which I attempt to show forth, in the Heideggerian sense, the intuitive shape of the particular work of art which is Kepler, and which was there, inviolate, before and after the book was written. (Imhof 6)

Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones has said this on the subject of song writing (I’m paraphrasing from a barely-remembered interview): ‘You don’t write songs, you sort of pluck them out of the ether. They’re there, all the time. You just have to find them.’ And speaking of such poets as Keats, Wordsworth and Eliot, Northrop Frye has claimed: ‘They’ve all said the same thing. The poet does not think of himself as making his poems. He thinks of himself as a place where poems happen. (Frye 408)

‘No Air Native, No Man Kindred’ – extract

Caino (bis) – Wilhelm von Gloeden (Wikimedia Commons)
This is Chapter 23 of GOMERY KIMBER‘s latest novel, No Air Native, No Man Kindred

August 1935. A young James Valentine pursues his cousin, Clarissa Wyvern, to Munich. Clarissa is the black sheep of the Wyvern clan, dishonouring the family name by joining the British Union of Fascists. She wants nothing less than to capture the heart of Adolf Hitler, in the belief that doing so will prevent war between England and Germany. But those closest to Hitler, such as occultist Professor Lustgarten, are certain she is a spy. It was Lustgarten who set Hitler on the path to dictatorship, and the Professor is determined that Clarissa will not ensnare the Fuehrer. But Lustgarten is distracted by the brilliant James Valentine, a young man of genius whose ambition is to become the foremost novelist of his generation. Lustgarten has a secret ambition of his own, nothing less than to become a god…


The Institute’s director lived in a secluded villa hidden amongst pine trees on the edge of the walled grounds.

It was hot and sultry when they arrived from the city in the early afternoon.  Lustgarten parked the Opel in front of the villa.  It was a rather ugly building, tall and narrow, with wooden beams and a steeply pitched roof, but its off-putting appearance was softened by the white roses climbing trellis work on either side of the front door.

Lustgarten led the way to a carved wooden gate, and James Valentine followed him round the side of the building and onto the terrace at the back of the house.  The French windows stood open.  They went inside.  On the dining-table was an arrangement of summer flowers in a vase.  The walls of the dining room were lined with glass-panelled bookcases on top of which were displayed a collection of primate skulls.  On a side table, James saw books – Ernst Juenger’s war memoir and a volume of pseudoarchaeology by Ignatius Donnelly.

‘Let me get you a drink,’ said Lustgarten.

‘Thank you.’


‘Yes, please.’

Valentine was thirsty and hot.  The prospect of a cold beer was delightful.

‘It is my housekeeper’s afternoon off,’ said Lustgarten, going through into the rear hallway which led to the kitchen.

‘You leave the doors open?’ said Valentine, following him.

‘Why not?  As you saw, the front gate is guarded.  This is a secure institution.  No unauthorised person can get in, or out.’

As he was speaking, Lustgarten removed bottles of Munich beer from the Linde refrigerator.  He was very tall with large feet, but as he went over to the dresser for the glasses he moved gracefully, like a dancer.

‘Here,’ he said, smiling at Valentine, offering him a glass and one of the bottles.

‘Wonderful,’ said Valentine, popping the porcelain cap.

He poured the iced beer into the glass, and as he waited for Professor Lustgarten to do likewise, he looked at the golden liquid foaming, and became quite enchanted with it.  He heard Lustgarten chuckle.

‘What?’ asked Valentine, looking at him.

‘You are like a child.  I am not being rude, it is merely an observation.  You have a poet’s sensibility, I think; or better yet, that of a mystic.’

‘I’d have to agree with you,’ said Valentine.

He was amused.  It was obvious that Lustgarten was taken with him.  At school, such an infatuation would have been called a ‘pash.’  Valentine had found it mildly ridiculous when it was a fifth former who had a passion for an angelic eleven-year-old, but the present situation struck him as even more absurd.  Lustgarten must have been over fifty, and he, Valentine, was no longer a pretty youth but a robust young man nearing twenty.  Was the Professor about to make a fool of himself?  Valentine hoped not.  He liked the man.  He was brilliantly accomplished and successful, even if he did have some strange ideas.  What could be more risible than falling for a man the way a man fell for a girl?

Lustgarten raised his glass.  ’Your very good health,’ he said, looking into Valentine’s eyes.

‘Cheers,’ said Valentine.  The beer was icy and refreshing, and Valentine almost groaned with pleasure after taking a draught.


‘I’ll say.’

‘Let me show you the experiment I mentioned,’ said Lustgarten, after a moment.

‘The planaria?  All right.’

Once again, Valentine followed the German into the hall.

‘Yes, they are interesting creatures,’ said Lustgarten.  ’Incredibly simple organisms, without brain or nervous system, they make for excellent laboratory subjects.  But I wondered, you see, how they could learn without a brain.  What I discovered is . . . well, let me show you.’

The laboratory was a large room with high windows at the front of the house.  It was warm in the room and Lustgarten crossed to the windows, raised the blinds, and opened them wide.  The flat worms were kept on a carved wooden bench at the back of the room.  Valentine examined the glass tubes in which they were housed.

‘They cannot survive without water,’ said Lustgarten, returning from the windows.  He pointed to one of the tubes.  ’Open the tap.’

‘Seems a bit unfair,’ objected Valentine, but he did as he was asked.

As soon as the water started to drain, the flatworms began to rush along the tube in search of water.  Quite soon they came to a fork in the tube.  One branch was of clear glass and therefore lighted, the other had been painted black.  It was the black tube that had been drained of water.

‘See what has happened?’ asked Lustgarten.

‘About half have found the water.’

‘Yes, that’s right.  But yesterday these same worms chose the water nine times out of ten.’

Valentine thought for a moment, considering the implications of this.  ’What you mean is, they aren’t stupid, but they’ve chosen the wrong tube deliberately?’

‘Exactly, even though choosing the wrong tube means no water, and death.’

‘Are you saying they’ve got bored?’

‘I am indeed, my young friend.  That is precisely what I’m saying.  They are bored to death.’


‘You see the implications of this experiment?’

‘If it is the same for humans, you mean?  Yes, I do.’

‘It is the same for human beings,’ Lustgarten insisted.  ’You said so yourself earlier at lunch when you spoke of the difficult beginnings of writers like Shaw and Dickens and H G Wells.  You said that this had made them artists of the first rank.’

‘Of course,’ said Valentine, delighted.  ’And you seem to have proved it, Professor.’

‘Not quite; not yet.  I have ordered new glassware for a further experiment to test the boredom hypothesis.  It will make the learning process more difficult.  If I am right, and I think I am, then only the very best of the planaria will be able to find the water, but because it is so difficult to do so they will not regress.  They will continue to find the water because they have had to put greater effort into learning how to do so, and therefore they will have achieved a higher degree of what you might call ‘imprinting,’ which I think is just another word for purpose.’

Valentine was excited.  ’This is marvellous,’ he said.  ’I can see why you made the experiment.  It has implications for the treatment of mental illness, hasn’t it?’

‘I think so,’ said Lustgarten.  ’So many of a psychiatrist’s patients suffer from what might be called discouragement, the feeling that life is empty, and, of course, so many of these people are members of the idle classes.  Depression is a symptom of an affluent society, as I am sure your father would agree.  I remember in August 1914 how cheerful everyone was.  It was a paradox.  We were going to war and might well be killed, but we were happy because we had a purpose, a difficult task upon which to concentrate our energies.’

Lustgarten was smiling distractedly.  Valentine looked at him in admiration.  Here in the flesh was one of Bernard Shaw’s ‘world-betterers.’

‘I’ll be sure to tell my father,’ he said.  ’In fact, I shall write to him this very afternoon.’

‘Why not this evening?’ suggested Lustgarten.  ’You aren’t about to hurry off?’

‘No,’ said Valentine, doubtfully.

‘Good.  Have another beer.’

‘But I haven’t finished this one.’

‘Drink up, drink up,’ ordered Lustgarten, cheerfully, heading for the door.  ’It is too hot in here.  I think we need to cool down.’

Puzzled, and once again amused that the older man was flirting with him, Valentine followed Lustgarten down the corridor, past the kitchen, and out the back door.  Beyond the terrace, the garden was laid to lawn, at the bottom of which was a wooden gate in an immaculately trimmed hedgerow, shadowed by tall pine trees.  It looked idyllic.

‘But tell me, James,’ Lustgarten was saying.  ’I may call you James?’

‘Of course.’

‘Tell me how you solved the problem.  Your father is a professor of medicine and so, presumably, if you’ll forgive me, your family is not impoverished.’

‘No, we aren’t poor.  But how do you know I’ve solved the problem, in any case?’

‘By examination, of course.  I have been observing you and thinking about what you’ve told me.  You say you are not a university student, you are merely here in Germany for a few months to study our language.  You have no profession, you are not a soldier, you are not in any sort of formal training.  Oh dear, I think to myself, the young man’s parents must despair of him, but then I make the observation that this youngster is no wastrel.  And the way he talks of men like Schopenhauer being second-rate, this shows some mental acuity, and a degree of self-confidence unusual in one so young.’

‘I think you are being too kind,’ said Valentine.  ’The natural conclusion must be that I am like most young men, arrogant, self-opinionated, and worthless.’

‘Oh no, not in this case.  My observations tell me otherwise!’

Valentine was prepared to be annoyed, but something told him that Lustgarten was not flattering him but speaking the truth.  By now they had reached the gate.  Like the gate at the front of the house it was carved and decorated with runes.  The handle was an iron ring which the professor turned while looking closely at Valentine’s expression.  Valentine inclined his head in acknowledgement.

‘All right,’ he said.  ’I solved the problem by taking a bed-sitting room near the British Museum.  My father wanted me to study medicine, but it didn’t interest me enough to make a career of it.  My mother on the other hand wanted me to go up to Cambridge and read English, which appealed to me slightly more.  However, I decided not to take the path of formal education.  It would have been too easy, that was my thinking.  I should have been given a generous allowance and taken up my rightful place as a prospective member of the governing class.  The idea repelled me.’

‘But why?’ asked Lustgarten.  They were still standing by the gate which was only partly open.

‘It’s difficult to explain.  Everyone I know takes life for granted.  Heidegger has a phrase which captures it entirely: the triviality of everydayness.  It is as if they are forgetful of existence.’

Lustgarten was nodding his long head in great seriousness.

‘Well, I’m not.  I don’t want to forget I exist, or rather, I cannot forget.  It’s like an itch I can’t scratch, and I can’t understand why everyone else doesn’t feel the same way.  How can you train for a career, even a worthy career like medicine, when there is this great unanswered question ignored by everyone around you?  No, I wanted purpose and meaning to my life.  I think if I’d taken the easy route to university, I would have ended up like the poor devils you and my father treat!  Sorry, I’m talking too much.’

‘Not at all, not at all.’

Valentine knew he wasn’t talking too much.  The problem was, the longer they stood there in the cool shadows by the gate, the more uncomfortable he became.  Lustgarten was standing close to him, and although Valentine was six foot three, the German appeared to tower over him.  Valentine wanted to move a step back but was determined not to do so.  The situation was becoming more ridiculous by the second, and he firmly decided that he would make an excuse and leave as soon as he reasonably could.

When Lustgarten asked, archly, ‘And what do you do in your bed-sitting room near the British Museum?’ for Valentine it was the final straw.

‘I write,’ he said, coldly.  ’Every day I cycle to the Reading Room at the Museum, and I write.  I write because I have the gift of finding words for divine truth.  I write because I am destined to be the greatest English author of the twentieth century.  Before I came to Germany, I sent a thirty-page letter to Bernard Shaw telling him I am his natural heir.’

Now it was Lustgarten’s turn to be amused.  He finally pushed open the gate and stepped through into the heat of a sun-lit wide-open space that contained a wooden changing hut and a swimming pool.

‘You think it funny?’ Valentine asked him.

‘No,’ said Lustgarten.  ’Please don’t be offended.  It was just your reaction that made me smile, not the grandeur of your life’s ambition.  That I can do nothing but applaud.  There are so many little people, and so few great men.  You have the makings of the latter.’

‘More flattery,’ said Valentine.

Lustgarten turned to face him.  ’Now you are going to tell me you have decided to leave,’ he observed, with a touch of mockery.  ’Believe me, you are quite safe.’

Valentine was angry.  It was an automatic reaction and one he had no intention of giving in to.  Annoyed, he said, ‘I suppose you have no swimming togs.’

Lustgarten began to take off his jacket.  ’On the contrary, you will find bathing shorts in the pavilion.’

‘Then I shall be quite safe.’

Lustgarten chuckled.  ’You will.  You have nothing to fear from me.’

And so, Valentine went into the pavilion, disrobed, put on swimmers, and dived cleanly into the pool, which is what he’d wanted to do as soon as he’d set eyes on it.  Lustgarten, also wearing trunks, came and joined him a minute later.  The Professor was wearing a white handkerchief tied around his head, and as the German raised a hand to shield his eyes from the sun, Valentine looked at him in surprise.  He wiped the water from his eyes and looked again.  It was remarkable.  For all the world, Lustgarten looked exactly like Bakst’s painting of Vaslav Nijinsky, at the Lido in Venice.  Lustgarten slipped into the water, and the moment passed.  Now that all that was visible was his head and the handkerchief, he looked almost prosaic, nothing like the dancer at all.

‘Ahhhh,’ said Lustgarten, with great pleasure.  ’How lucky I am to have the use of this pool.’

The water was sun-warmed, and both men luxuriated in its refreshing coolness, floating on their backs, and talking without constraint.  The comment about the pool had softened Valentine’s opinion of the Professor.

‘Do you know who you remind me of?’ James asked.



‘I am flattered.  I saw him dance in Paris once.  He was superb.’

‘Are you a dancer?’

‘Me?  Oh no.  In my youth, I climbed mountains.  I like to keep physically fit.  I swim, I use the gymnasium, and I row.  I also follow a special diet, eating no meat, only fish.  Now, do you know who you remind me of?’

James answered flippantly.  ’John Tanner?’

‘Oh no, greater than that: Wotan.  You remind me of Wotan.’

‘Wotan?’ James repeated, wondering if he had misheard.

‘Yes.  Haven’t you read Shaw’s book on Wagner?  He is mistaken in many respects, but he is correct in saying that Wotan is symbolic of the Godhead.  You remember what he said of those rare persons who in comparison to the dwarf Alberich might be called gods?’

‘Those whose aims extend beyond the satisfaction of mere bodily appetites and personal affections, you mean?’

Valentine thought that he had offended the older man, who now stood up in the shallows cupping a hand and looking up with a scowl at the brilliant sky.  ’What is it?’

Lustgarten made a growling noise at the back of his throat and violently washed his hand in the water.  ’Idiots!’ he said to himself.

Something floated past Valentine.  It was dark and sooty, and at first he thought it was a downy feather from a corvid.  It landed on the surface of the pool, and he examined it more closely: an oily smut.  Lustgarten was noisily climbing the ladder out of the pool.

‘Excuse me,’ he apologised, hurriedly.  ’I must go and telephone.’


‘It is forbidden to use the incinerator in the daytime or at weekends,’ he explained, picking up a towel and draping it around his muscular neck.  ’Against stupidity even the gods fight in vain!’

Valentine looked up at the sky.  It was spotted black by the smuts that floated on the gentle breeze across a serene ocean of white and blue.

It was half an hour before Lustgarten returned.  He was wearing a short towelling robe and carrying a camera.

‘I wondered where you’d got to,’ said Valentine.

‘My apologies.  Now, before you leave, I would like to take your photograph.  You don’t mind, do you?’

Valentine, who was drying off on a lounger, was surprised.  At lunch, Lustgarten had made the effort to get him to come alone to the Institute, and since they arrived he’d been intent on keeping Val there, so why the sudden change of heart?  For all his ambition and brilliance, in many ways James Valentine was an innocent.

‘Go ahead,’ he said.

Lustgarten raised the camera, focusing on him lying on the sunbed, and took the pictures.

Reluctantly, James got up.  The thought of returning to his lodgings was unappealing.  His room at the top of the house was hot and cramped.  At the villa, Lustgarten hurried upstairs to change, and Val took the opportunity to visit the downstairs lavatory.  When he came out, he noticed the door across the corridor.  It stood ajar at the bottom of a short flight of steps.  He was sure that earlier the door had been closed.  Curiosity aroused, he descended the steps, pushed it open a few inches and peered inside.  The basement room was lit by narrow horizontal windows shaded by blue blinds.  It was the strangely coloured light which had attracted his attention.

On a bench lay a leather apron and a horse crop, but it was the strange wooden structure against the wall which caught his eye.  He reached out a hand for the light switch.  The structure turned out to be a sort of box about six feet high, inside which was a wooden throne upholstered in plush purple cloth and decorated with runic designs.  The overall effect was somehow unsettling.  He narrowed his eyes, trying to figure out why, but no idea presented itself.  From upstairs came the sound of running water.

He glanced at himself in the mirror which hung on the wall above the bench.  There was a book half-hidden by the leather apron.  He looked at the title: it was a volume of de Sade.  There were other books arranged on a shelf beneath the mirror.  Deciding he ought to leave the room, he picked one at random and opened it.  What he saw repulsed him, and he snapped the illustrated volume closed.  But it occurred to him that he ought not be repulsed, and opened the book again, turning the pages until he found the photograph of the woman.  He read the description beneath.  The woman’s throat had been cut after she had been raped by Haarmann, the so-called ‘Vampire of Hamburg.’

Now that he had become used to the depiction of the gaping wound, he was able to think more clearly.  It was difficult to imagine that the woman had once been alive, and that she had met such a violent end.  The corpse did not seem real.  Once again, the familiar feeling of devastation came, a laying to waste of reality.

He returned the book to the shelf, thinking, why existence? Why something; why not nothing? Why am I here? There was the familiar feeling of imprisonment. But he knew that analysis was pointless, the intellect powerless before the problem.  It was infuriating.  He wanted to penetrate life, to see it from the outside.  There had to be a way to do it.  But if there was, he had yet to discover how.  If the intellect couldn’t help him, what could?  Emotion?  The body?  It seemed unlikely.  He was conscious that at lunch he’d been acting a role, pretending to be something he wasn’t, and he had lied to the Professor.

James had quarrelled so violently with his father over medical school that he’d been thrown out of the house, and it was only due to the kindness of his grandmother that he’d found somewhere to live.  He ought to have been happy.  He had got what he wanted.  A room of his own, books, a typewriter, enough money for food (his mother sent him a postal order fortnightly), but half the time he was bored and listless, incapable of creative writing, even of thinking.  It was quite ridiculous.  There was something fundamentally wrong with human beings.  To be free is nothing to us, but to become free everything.

That was when he became aware of the blue glow.  He concentrated on its source with a kind of relief: he had struggled with the devastation many times before, and its immensity had always defeated him.

The blue glow appeared to be coming from a wooden box that stood on a workbench at the other end of the room.  No longer worried about being discovered, he went over and examined it.  The box was decorated with runes.  He recognised only one with certainty – the life rune, Algiz, that looked like a stick man with raised arms.  The hooked cross immediately above the life rune was easily identifiable, to be seen everywhere in Germany.  He was about to lift the lid and discover the source of the blue glow when he heard footsteps in the passageway outside.  He moved away.  A moment later, Lustgarten’s head appeared round the door, and they looked at each other in the mirror.

‘There you are,’ said Lustgarten, amiably.  ’I wondered where you’d got to.’

‘The door was open,’ explained James.

‘I know, I opened it.  You suspect me of an ulterior motive, bringing you here?  Quite right.  You are a Wyvern like your cousin, Clarissa.  When I heard that name, I was determined to make your acquaintance.  Come along, I shall explain in the car.’

It was a twenty-minute journey back to town.  Lustgarten spoke without pause the whole way.  He spoke about his discovery of the very stuff of life, which he called Odinic energy, explaining that he had discovered it by considering Freud’s libido as a genuine physical phenomenon and not simply a metaphor.  He spoke of his investigations into the theories of Reichenbach and Mesmer; he spoke of his Odinic Energy Accumulator Apparatus, and of his search for a cure for cancer; but most of all, he spoke of his admiration for Valentine’s ancestor, Sir Edward Wyvern, alchemist of Bohemia.

‘In his work I have discovered some of the most advanced ideas about Odinic energy,’ said Lustgarten.  ’But there is something missing, something which he only alludes to, and which he never fully explains.  It is said that the Wyvern family have in their possession certain documents . . .’

Valentine at last understood.  By this time, they were in central Munich, and Lustgarten was parking the car near the railway station.

‘I have never heard of any such documents,’ said James, apologetically.

‘That is a pity,’ said Lustgarten.

‘I could enquire about them.  My uncle is something of an expert on Sir Edward.  He is writing a book about him.’

‘I know,’ said Lustgarten.  ’I have tried to contact him more than once, but he has not deigned to reply.’

‘I’m sorry,’ said James, automatically.

He noticed that Professor Lustgarten’s expression had changed.  No longer was he good humoured.  He looked defensive, almost resentful, as though on the verge of losing his temper.  Then Lustgarten laughed, and the air was cleared.

‘I have enjoyed our afternoon together,’ he said.

‘Me too,’ said James.  ’Thank you very much.’

‘Sex,’ said Lustgarten.

‘I beg your pardon?’

‘Sir Edward’s secret doctrine.  It is something to do with the sexual impulse.’


LEMUEL GULLIVER continues to indite his extraordinary adventures to GUY WALKER

Before Dawn we heaved Anchor and steered to the West in our Passage to the West-Indies but, for four Days, we were driven by a violent Storm eastwards towards the Coast of Africa. We lost a Man who fell from the Fore-mast into the Sea. When the Storm abated and the Wind slack’ned I took an Observation and computed that we werein the Latitude of 14 Degrees and 4 Minutes North and 20 Degrees Longitude West. The Vessel was staunch but there was some Damage to our Rudder which we repaired in a make-shift Manner with heavy Cordage. McRory, who knew the Region, was of the Opinion that we should seek the Island Nation of Obversia which he estimated to be in our Environs. He recommended a Visit to the Island for the Purpose of repairing our Rudder and also because he considered Obversia, and especially its reputed Grand Academy, which he had visited while with the Khiliast Navy, a Curiosity which might be a Diversion and an Occasion of Learning to me. He related that, being so close to Africa, the Island was populated by Blackamoors[1] of great Beauty and the most sable Complexion. He also discovered[2] to me that the Island had once, for a Century, been a Portugueze Out-post for which Reason the Portugueze Tongue was spoken there. For this Reason, although inhabited by Blackamoors, European Manners, Cloathes and Customs and a European Language were in Use amongst them. In Truth the Island rejoyced in all the Benefits of Mind and Spirit under which the Flowers of Christendom flourish which was an Anomaly to the Western Coast of the Continent of Africa[3]. I remarked to McCrory that I had a great Facility in learning Languages and I was sure that my Portugueze would be sufficient for me to be understood in Obversia.

The following Day the Island was descryed and, with a fair Wind, we steered with Ease towards the Harbour of the capital City which was known by the Citizens simply as Obversia City. As we drew near to the Port  we saw common Blackamoors on fishing Canoos practising their Trade with Nets. On marking[4] us they became greatly enlivened and began to steer back to the Port alongside us. As we came closer we saw Blackamoors and their Ladies on Pleasure-boats. I supposed from their Habit that they were Persons of Quality. They were dressed in fine European Cloathes and the Ladies carryed Parasols and other Effects of Luxury. They too became excited upon seeing us and directed their serving men to turn their Boats towards the Harbour-side. We made a Signal for a Pilot as there were some Shoals and Rocks near the Harbour Mouth and a Pilot-craft approached us. We apprehended that, counter to normal Use, the Obversian Pennant at the Stern of the Craft was flown at the nether Part of the Flag-pole instead of the superior Extream. The Officers, once aboard, to our Consternation, prostrated them selves before us tho’ we were much at a Loss to understand the Cause of this.

On disembarking on the Quay-side we were honoured by being met by a Party which included the Blackamoor King and Queen of Obversia in their royal Persons. They were accompanied by the Cavalry of the Body-guard stretched along the Quay-side and a liveryed military Band played beautiful Airs in Welcome of us. The King wore on his Head a light Helmet of Gold, adorned with Jewels, and he had a Sword encrusted on the Hilt and Scabbard with Diamonds. We could not forebear to Notice that he wore it suspended in such a Manner that the Hilt was towards the Ground with the Scabbard uppermost. His Queen and her Courtiers were magnificently clad with fine Gowns and Petticoats embroidered with Figures of Gold and Silver.

We were supplied with a Legate and were thrown into great Disquietude as all of the Obversian Nobility, including the King and Queen, gave strong Marks[5] of Rivalry with each other in the Degree of Pleasure they could express at our Coming and in the fawning Nature of their Greetings to us. I asked the Legate the Cause of this. He bowed deeply and removing his plumed Tricorn, he answered that the Obversian People of Quality wished to demonstrate how much they appreciated and were in Astonishment at the Miracle of Humans of a white Complexion shewing that they too could make Shift to build and navigate a Merchant-man. This in Spight of all the Disadvantages preventing such an Atchievement which Triumph they, therefore, wished to celebrate. I was curious as to how they had contrived to forget the Aptitudes of the Portugueze In-comers who had departed the Island only Decades before but kept my Counsel on this Affair. In Addition to this Enthusiasm the Citizens of the City showed Rivalry in their Eagerness to provide Billets for our Sailers in their Homes. I marked some of their Number coming to Blows at the Periphery of the Croud upon this Article. It was clear that they saw the Advent of white People they considered to be at a disadvantage by their Whiteness as an Opportunity for the Display of their Virtue, Solicitude and the Degree to which they could graciously descend[6] to us. We became sensible[7] that we were much prized by them as an Opportunity to Ostentation.

We were presented to the King and Queen and we were in great Surprize when they made the lowest of Reverences[8] to us. Before yet speaking any Words of Welcome the King instantly made a Discourse to us in a Manner, the abject Nature of which is not expected of a royal Personage and which, therefore, caused us a great Disturbance in our Minds. He beat his Breast, dishonoured himself and told us that it pained and grieved him sorely that the Continent from which he and his People hailed was guilty of manifold Crimes. He told us unbidden that Tribes from Africa of which we had not heard and which he named the Yoruba, the Igbo and the Fulani[9] had been known to traffic in slaves they had taken from other Tribes in Warfare. We wondred why he was treating of the Article of[10] Slavery but he continued that many Hundreds of Thousands of white Folk had been abducted for the Purpose of Slavery from the Shoars of Nations such as Ireland, the Nether-lands, Britain, Iceland, Greece and Italy for many Centuries by Pyrates and Corsairs from the Barbary Coast[11] of Northern Africa. Although none of his Kin or his Forbears had taken part in such Commerce and none of our Party’s Kin or Forbears had been affected by it he bore a terrible Burden of Guilt for his Continent. This was in Spight of our bearing no personal Grievance against him. Our Admiration[12] increased as we knew that Slavery had always been conducted without Scruple in every Empire on Earth including our own. His Regret at a Lack of Adherence by his Kin to an Ideal which, it seemed to us, had seldom been witnessed on Earth seemed a great Curiosity to us. In spite of it being past our Conception what had guided him to make such Disclosure to us we made a Semblance of accepting his Entreaties and those of his Queen graciously and smiling.

On completing these Acts of Prostration he promised obligingly that our Ship should be repaired in Dry-dock, our Provisions replenished and that there should be a Banquet in our Honour that Evening. He then asked me if there was any further Assistance or Entertainment he could provide for us. As McRory had mentioned the Fame of the Grand Academy of Obversia I took the Boldness to ask his Majesty if it might please him for us to be shown this august and renowned Institution. He could scarcely forebear to shew his Delight that we took such an Interest in Obversian Learning. He immediately consented and directed the Legate to accompany us on a Visit as soon as we had been refreshed with Victuals and Beverages provided by his Royal Kitchen. He told us that the Grand Academy of Obversia was one of the most illustrious places of Learning in Christendom and that it was founded on the finest European Traditions of Inquiry and Study established by Scholars of Distinction such as Aristotle, Aquinas, Duns Scotus, Albertus Magnus, Peter Abelard, Erasmus, Mercator, Bacon, Kepler, Newton and Des Cartes.

The Grand Academy of Obversia

After Noon we were raized on garlanded Litters and taken in Procession to the Gates of the Grand Academy. Here, to our Relief, the Crouds departed leaving us in Peace. Above the entrance Portal bearing the royal Crest was inscribed the motto QUIDQUID EST, FALSUS EST which was ascribed to a great Obversian poet named Epop. Through the Portal we could discern that the Academy was arranged in a Multitude of Colledges with fine Chapels, and Schools in the same Manner as Oxford or Cambridge. We spied conversing Scholars, young and old, in black Gowns taking their Leisure in the Paths in the Courts of the Colledges.

At the Entrance we were greeted by the Warden of the Grand Academy who was to be our Guide. This grand Personage wore gilded Robes of great Volume. McCrory spied that  his Eye-glasses were upside down on his Nose. He entreated us, before he led us on our Visit, to hear him as he set out for us the noble Principles on which his Academy was founded. We consented to his Entreaty upon which he proudly descanted for us on the Purpose of the Academy. This was, firstly, following Aristotle and Aquinas, to study profoundly and at length the Forms in which Nature was clothed and disposed according to the good Offices of the Creator. Having made such Discoveries which he gave the Appellation of The Coin of Nature it was the Travail and dedicated Industry of his devoted Scholars to find the Contrary to such Dispositions – this he named the Obverse of Nature.

He lamented to us the Discovery of an unfortunate Principle that he and his Scholars had encountered in their Enquiries. They had discovered that it was impossible to reverse Nature and find the Truth in its Contraries without depending on the prior existence of that Nature. Or, to express it differently, It was not possible for them to operate on No-thing at all in the Beginning and so they were obliged to operate on the Something that was, by Casualty[13], already provided for them. He boasted that, in the Face of such Adversity it was their Determination not to be defeated, but to struggle with Valor, by these Means, for the Publick Good.

In the Future their Hope was to be able to erase Nature and re-make it solely as the Product of their good Offices and their Science in place of those of the Almighty. He described this as the Principle of the Clean Slate or Tabula Rasa. This Principle, he hoped, might, in Time, permit them to take full Ownership of all Knowledge and all Being. He continued that, in this Undertaking, it was their Pleasure to replace the Will of the Almighty with their Will, an Aim, once achieved, which they would consider the greatest Triumph. He sighed and repined that, for the Moment, they had found them selves unable to dispense with the Inconvenience of original Nature.

The Grand Library

On Purpose to survey the first Stage in this Procedure he led us to the grand Library of the Academy where a Multitude of Scholars and Doctors studyed the Forms in which Nature, the Earth and human Beings were cloathed and embodied according to the Disciplines established by learned Men of the Past.

The Warden disclosed to us that, once the Substance of the Objects under Scrutiny had been established they took their Findings to the Chamber of Opticks out of a Design of finding what was their Opposite which is where he led us next.

The Chamber of Opticks

This was set in a large kind of a Room, containing a gently smoaking Fire ventilated with Bellows, and filled with Handicrafts[14] employed with polishing Lenses and silvered Glasses purchased at great Expense in the Low Countries. We also saw many Examples of the Apparatus known as the Camera Obscura.

We were fortunate enough to witness a young Scholar bring the detailed Diagrams of the internal Anatomy and outward Form of the Body of a human Female he had garnered in the Grand Library to the Chamber. He gave them to a Servant operating the Lenses, Mirrors and the Camera Obscura. The Servant set the Parchment Diagrams in Frames. He was soon able to direct his Apparatus in such a Manner as to project Images which reversed the Drawings so that the Left was on the Right and the Feet were where the Head is by Custom. The Scholar immediately set to sketching the up-ended and reversed Images. He divulged to us his Enthusiasm at finally arriving at the end of his Journey to see the Truth. He felt Pity for the un-schooled and ignorant who were deceived by the lying Appearance of Nature as she was and the shallow Belief that this was all there was. He continued in his Enterprise by using Optickal Contrivances which erased the Visage from the female Body so that she was no more than a Body with no Person inhabiting it. Another piece of Machinery erased her entirely from the projected Image of the Parchment.  To our Horror a final optickal Engine rendered the Female Body Male by removing the Dugs and appending a Beard and a male Organ of Encrease to her. We were in great Amazement at the Appetite for Perversity that this Scholar displayed. He told us of a Volume he was intending to publish in a short time, which would guarantee his Renown in the great Universities of Europe, upon the Obversian Method and which he hoped to name Definire se Contra Natura.

As we departed from the Chamber of Opticks we noticed a low Building into which a Stream of earnest young Scholars with scant Beards in the Coats of common Working-men were entering while another Stream of bemired Scholars issued from the other End. Two Chimneys, from which Smoak emerged stood above the Roof of the Building. There was also a Tower made of Wood with a great mounted Wheel, Cables, Pullies and Hoists. Waggons and Horses waited beneath the Tower. We enquired of the Warden what the Purpose of this Building was. He told us it was the Structure set above the Vertue Mines.

The Vertue Mines

We enquired of him in what these Mines consisted and he was pleased to tell us that, the raw Material of Conceptions for Re-appraisal had constantly to be dug out of the Ground in order to generate the Coins of Nature by Means of the Investigations that took place in the Grand Library. These could then be obverted in the Chamber of Opticks. For the Purpose of unearthing the Material in sufficient Quantity the young Scholars made excavations in the Mines. They had already made Discovery of things in Nature that were subjected to Study in the Library and obverted in the Chamber of Opticks such as “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female  created he them.”[15]which we had seen corrected in the Chamber of Opticks. He related that the Scholars had also mined un-formed Potential in Botany, Agri-culture, Architecture, and Military Engineering which were being driven to the Grand Library in Waggons as we spoke. The Miners had recently discovered a new Vein of Material which they had named History. They had brought to the Surface Practices and Institutions formerly regarded as of Benefit to Man-kind such as the Christian Church and the Effects of good Government. Here I durst ask the Warden in Point of the Appellation of the Vertue Mines. He assured me that this would become manifest as we proceeded on our Visit. Our next Visit did indeed satisfy my need of Understanding in this Respect.

The Schools of the Oeconomy of Vertue and Obversian Ethics and the Royal Mint

On the other Side of the Vertue Mines was a grand Edifice which seem’d a series of Buildings joyned together which the Warden informed us was the School of the Oeconomy[16] of Vertue combined with the Royal Mint and The School of Obversian Ethics. He was pleased to inform us these Buildings had been founded after the Revelations granted to certain Obversian Sages. It had been revealed to one that if the Truth lay on the Obverse of the Coin then what laid on the other Face must needs be a Lie. As telling Truth and Lies are moral Actions then this betokened that an entirely new System of Vice and Vertue might be established on the Foundation of such Coins.

Another esteemed Sage who began his Career as a Theologian but who later worked in the Treasury of Obversia had further been granted a Series of what he termed Epiphanys. In the first he grasped that if there were sufficient Coins of Vertue and Vice a whole new Currency of Ethics could be founded upon them. This caused him to found the School of Obversian Ethics.

The second Sage was sensible that moral Powers are the Commodity of greatest Value to Humans, which are, uniquely, the moral Creatures on the Earth. He had observed that they alone care about Reputation, Swine for example seldom being troubled by such Things, and that the Thirst for Righteousness and Justification is greatest in them. This being so it was revealed of a sudden to him, in his second Epiphany, that if a Nation were in Possession of enough of this Currency of Truth and Lies and, hence, of the Vertue attached to the Obverse Side of them it might be possible to convert this new Virtue into an Authority which affords moral Dominion. Supremacy in the moral Domain would be the true Supremacy. This Undertaking he imagined in the Guise of the Atchievement of the Transmuation of base Metal to Gold sought for so long by the Alchemists.

He made the Calculation that, to compleat the Venture, Obversia must needs claim Authority for their Ethics by boldly seizing the Hill of Legitimacy in the moral Domain from the other Nations that previously held it. This Annexation, what is more, had best be executed with a good Supply of the Fewel of a burning Indignation at the Manner whereof Human Kind has been fraudulently deceived into believing that the Coin of Nature is the Truth. Accompanied, thus, with the Indignation of a Jeremiah[17], it would be the more credible.

For this Reason the Nation that seized the high Hill of Legitimacy in such Matters and  the Authority to say what was right and wrong might rule all Nations. It would also permit them to declare their own unceasing and impregnable Goodness. In this Manner they could truly become Self-righteous and Justified by their own Proclamations. They hoped the Authority seized in this way might entail their Right to pronounce on the Vice of others and that they might be endowed with the Power to justify and condemn their Fellows. It was on these intellectual Foundations that he set the new School of the Oeconomy of Vertue. 

We could not forebear observing privately among our-selves that his Calculations were in a curious Contrast to the Teaching of the Customs of our Church which insists on our fallen Nature rather than our Self-proclaimed Goodness. We recalled to Mind that in our Dispensation it is only for Almighty God and his Son Jesus Christ to confer Righteousness on helpless Sinners. We were put in Mind of the Chief-priests and Pharisees who condemned our sovereign Lord.

The Warden continued that the Sage made the further Observation that if the new Currency might be sold abroad the Influence of Obversia would become great in the World. By Force of Confidence Obversia could set the golden Standard of what was good and evil in the World and arrive through several Gradations to the Superior Nation taking the Role of Instructor in Wisdom and Knowledge to all other Nations and Races who would be obliged to pay a Subaltern Court[18] to it. For this Reason the Royal Mint was established to stamp out new Currency. He and the King were hopeful that, in Time, the People of all Nations must clamour to be taught of this newly minted Currency of Vertue in their Grand Academy. As a Consequence, it was their earnest Hope that all former false Currencies would be debased. This would give Obversia Dominion over much of the Earth.

The School of Active Repudiation

As we drew near to this Institution we observed its Semblance to a Seminary. I descryed the Inscription Malum sit Bonum Meum carvedover the Lintel of the Entrance. The Warden happily imparted to us that, to improve the Likelihood of the Obversian Currency becoming dominant in the World, Doctors and Virtuosi in the School of Repudiation had bred up innumerable Examples of a type of zealous Jesuitical Scholar skilled in the beneficial Undermining and Repudiation of the Commonplaces foolishly accepted in the World as normal Currency. These Scholars were despatched into other Lands to prepare them for the Advent of Coin from the Obversian Mint as fore-running Propagators of correct Ideas in the like Manner in which the Church of Rome broadcasts its Faith from the Congregatio de Propaganda Fide. In their Mission, the Head of the School related to us, they counted them selves as performing a Role like that of John the Baptist who made streight the Way of the Lord[19] and prepared the People for his Truth. Each Scholar worked assiduously in a Cell in the School. As we passed the Cells, for our Benefit, the Warden proudly elicited the Exhibition of the Talents of several of the Scholars trained in these Aptitudes.

The first we encountered boasted to us that he was preparing the Repudiation of the Music of the West which he derived from a Coin stamped in the Royal Mint which had been entrusted to him. On the Reverse of the Coin was the Music of Europe. In much of Europe People mistakenly had some Imagination that Composers such as Cima, Scarlatti, Corelli, Lully, Purcell, Byrd and those of our Period such as Johann Bach and Antonio Vivaldi brought Delight to those who heard their Music and enabled the Worship of the Almighty. In egregious Folly such Compositions were considered the Height of the Excellence of Atchievement. It was his Mission to lead Europeans away from such Mis-conceptions and to shew them the true Malevolence in the Music, rejoycing in revealing Truth in Opposition for them on the Obverse of his Coin. It was his Contention that, because of the Susceptibility of the fairer Sex to the sweet Enchantments pretended as the Aim of Music the Men who, exclusively, were its Practitioners, were enabled in their disguising the real Aim of it behind a deceiving Veil and a Plot. For, in Truth, Music was a Fraudulence whose real Purpose was to beguile Women in to continued domestick Drudgery and Subservience.

A second Scholar in his Cell told us of the Eagerness of his Anticipation for the Commencement of his Mission in Europe. He had been vouchsafed a Coin on which the Truth about Time and Time-keeping had been inscribed. He would carry the good News that the Purpose of Time and the Keeping of Time with Time-pieces and Sun-dials was the Subjection of Citizens and other Races to the Tyranny of Europe. He would reveal to his Audience that their Predilection for Orderliness in Publick Affairs and in Commerce had acted as a Trojan Horse whereby they had been en-slaved by Monarchs and others charged with keeping good Order. For, in their Folly, they had accepted the Measuring of the Movements of the Stars, the Planets, the Earth, the Seasons and the Passage of the Light as chosen by iniquitous Europeans driven by the most pernicious Motives. The Cosmolabes, Pantocosms, Planispheres, Scaphes, Quadrants, Sextants, Octants, Alidades Armillery Spheres, Orrerys, Globes, Dioptras, Astrolabes, Pocket-glasses, Perspectives, Clepsydras, Torquetums, Triquetums, Telescopes, Meridian Circles and other Satanic Instruments used by Astronomers for these Purposes were all part of an occult Conspiracy whose Design was to keep People in Thrall. He had a Design to promise them that when such a Tyranny had been overthrown they would know true Contentment. There must be a Bonfire of these Instruments which had brought Nothing but Woe to human Kind. When all of this had been encompassed it would be assuredly to the Satisfaction of the Common Weals[20].

A third Scholar confided in our Party that his Destination was to be the new World of the Americas. He was pleased to relate that Projectors[21] working in the Grand Library had carried out a Study of  the Science of Mathematicks which had been taken to the Chamber of Opticks in the certain Knowledge that it must have been conceived in Iniquity. In the Chamber its Principles had mercifully been reversed and it was the new Incarnation that he had been entrusted with taking to the new World. The wicked Conceit[22] that Mathematicks is a Language which trades in publick Certainties that cannot be disputed or that there are Answers in the Discipline which are Right and others which are Wrong has been abandoned. Indeed, to insist on such Conceptions to young Children he regarded as an Oppression and a Tyranny on Citizens and their Children. The perpetuating of the Conception that it treats of Matters which can be commonly agreed in Publick as Objects that cannot be contradicted has been up-ended to the Benefit of all Nations. Discovered in the Grand Library, the Babylonians, Egyptians and Greeks such as Euclid and Archimedes have been designated as Reprobates and their Works have been proscribed for the Injury that they undoubtedly cause to human-Kind. The same has been decreed for the Mahometans who invented Al-gebra and those who carry on this villainous Trade close to our own Times such as Newton and Leibnitz have been revealed for the Deceivers and Corrupters of Youth that they are. It is suffered to be believed, tho’, that Newton brought some Advantage to us in his Study of Opticks. Otherwise, without these pernicious Influences it is sure that Societies must be able to thrive more successfully.

As we proceeded and were presented to more Scholars we marvelled at the Extent and Variety of their comprehensive Undertakings and the Profundity of the Enmity they felt for the Common-wealth in which they had been raised and the Extent to which they were devoted to repudiating it. A great Impression was made upon us by how studiously and comprehensively they employed the Methods of Study they had been tutored in according to the Instruction set down by the great Doctors whose works they encountered in the Grand Library. Their Zeal was an Occasion of great Admiration to us. We questioned in secret amongst our selves why it may be that these Scholars felt such active Hatred of Matters which we had considered as Advancements in our Societies.

We departed from the School of Repudiation and took some Refreshment with the Legate and the Warden in the Dwelling of the Latter. He was pleased to invite our Party to spend the Night in his Residence and, in the Morning we were shewn the School of Politickal Science.

The School of Politickal Science

The Doctors here had discovered in the Grand Library that the Human Polities that thrive in Nature and in History are conceived in two Matters. Firstly they have rescued Human-kind from the Predicament of constant War by establishing the Authority of Kings who can ensure the Rule of Law. Secondly, they have established, in England for example, Magna Carta, the Bill of Rights and a Constitution which act as a Bulwark against the Tyranny of Kings tempted to exceed their Power and as a Pledge of the Liberty of the Common Citizen.

In Obversian Reverse of these Achievements their Endeavour was to under-mine Authority and blame it for all the Ills that befall us. Their Legend was that all Aspects of Lacrimae Rerum[23] are always the Fault of the Government on which we depend and which protects us from our natural Condition of War. They also sought to malign those Regimes which had established a Tradition of Liberty and were an Example and a Beacon to other Nations for their being wicked and depraved in their Essence and Founding just as Adam and Eve were the Origin of our Woe in the Garden of Paradise.

The Master of the School of Politickal Science was especially delighted to enlarge upon one Principle of Government particular to Obversia of which he was manifestly proud on behalf of his Nation. This was the Obversian Principle of politickal Opposition whose Champion was a notable Member of Parliament by the Name of Sir Kirkley Streamer. Under a Necessity of conforming with Obversion the Party not in Government made it their chief Priority to avoid forming Policy on the Grounds of any independent Philosophy to which they adhered. Instead, they set to, like the Scholars in the Grand Library, studying the Policy of the Government. The Product of their Studies was then submitted to a Cabal of those skilled in the Art of Mathematicks. They would discover the mathematickal opposite to the Policy of the Government and this would immediately become the Policy of the Party not in Power. The Government would then be castigated with righteous Vehemence for not doing the diametrickal Opposite of what it was doing.

I further made bold to own [24] to the Warden that upon one Article I was confounded. I was not mercurial enough to discover nor were my Intellects [25] strong enough to conceive how it was that the King of Obversia, who commanded the Empire of Vertue in the ways made plain to us, could fall to grovel before us as he had on the Quay-side for the Wickedness of his Forbears. To us this appeared as a Confession of his Guilt. The Warden was pleased to make clear to us that this Display had been a Shew of the King’s great Vertue of Humility. This Vertue depended on the greatest Obversion of all, one that was known as The Royal Obversion. The King had made it his Endeavour to carry out a personal Study of Obversion and the Coining of Vertues it led to. In this Study he had happened on the Conception of Progress in Morals. He seized on the Opportunity this offered for defining himself compleatly in Opposition – or Obversion – to the Past. If the Coin of the Past was decreed entirely vicious then the other Side of the Coin was that the Obversian Present under his Reign was entirely good. This allowed him to grovel and make Penance for past Actions that he manifestly had no Part in while making a fine Exhibition of the Quality of his Humility in the Present. This was seen as Evidence of the great Genius of the King and he was much applauded for this Master-stroak. This Strife in the Comparison between the Present and the Past put me in Mind of a similar Struggle carried on in my own Country between the Ancients and the Moderns[26] where the Moderns falsely insisted that Sweetness and Light were the sole Preserve of present Authors schooled in modern Sciences.

I further enquired of the Warden whether the Royal Obversion might not be founded on an inherent Loathing of Man-kind and its History. The Warden was gratified by this Insight which he took as witness to my growing Understanding of what he named the Obversian Enlightenment. He agreed that such Loathing supplied the perfect Pretext for the Signalling and bragging him self of Humility of which the King and his Subjects were so desirous. It was a Contrivance – for truly the King felt no sincere Loathing for himself – which the whole Body Politick had greeted with Satisfaction at its Adroitness. He continued that in the final Building on our Tour we would see this Principle brought to Fruition in the most gratifying Manner.

The School of Performing Arts

The Legate who continued to accompany our Party, confided in us that one of the King’s Ministers in the Treasury had arrived at the Conclusion from Observation that the Obversian Monopoly on Vertue could be achieved by the minting of less costly and debased Counterfeit Coinage which used smaller Quantities of Gold and Silver. The King claimed his Authority in the World on the Perception of his Humility and other Vertues. However, this Perception had been secured at no personal Cost to him in Point of the unknown Victims of those Africans who had trafficked in Slaves a Century before. The King had no real Connexion to the Victims. The Advisor understood that the critical Necessity was the Force of Confidence in the Perception rather than the genuine Nature of the Currency of Vertue and for this Reason invented the Idea of a Bubble or Vertual Currency which would be of great Use in saving the Expense on the King’s Exchequer of real Vertue. Once the Principle of the Primacy of Perception was understood it was equally understood that it might be extended to a Range of other Vertues. McRory was bold to say to me that this was a Tradition that differed from the Scottish one that considered that a Man’s true Vertue and Vice lay in his Heart visible only to his Creator who can see all Things.

In the School of Performing Arts the Students were, therefore, being schooled in the Art of the Performance of Vertue with no Foundation in Reality. For this Reason we were shewn Students who enacted the Semblance of Humility by making Grimaces and by bowing and scraping before us in respectful Imitation of the King’s much admired Practice. We also witnessed Students who beat their Breasts, tore their Garments and lamented loudly the Pain they suffered upon witnessing the Woes of the Poor which were represented by Players[27] in Rags hired for the Purpose. They made great Advertisement of their Pity and Compassion and wiped away Tears with Kerchiefs made of fine Silk. Largely, it seemed to us that they were the Children of the Obversian Gentry. Others made a Fanfaronade[28] of their Zeal under the Colour of grieving for the Injustices of those oppressed by Tyrants in foreign Lands thousands of Miles away of whom they had read in the Volumes produced by Travellers and Writers of fantastickal Tales. There was a special Class in the Art of conveying Sincerity.

As another Day had almost come to an End the Warden invited us once more to return to his Lodgings for Sustenance and to take rest that Night. He told us that we would witness the crowning Example of Obversian Ingenuity of which he, the Legate and the King and Queen were justly proud the next Morning.

The Island of the Poor

In the Morning we were taken by Carriages to the opposing Side of the Island of Obversia. We arrived at a small Port and were embarked in Wherries[29] and were steered to an Island at little above a League from the Shoar. On departing we beheld Companies of Soldiers acting as Centrys posted in the Port and along the Coast to either Side for a considerable Distance and it was a Matter of Conjecture to us what their Purpose might be. In our Wherry we were accompanied by more Soldiers and by two Paynters of Portraits with their Assistants who carryed their Material for Painting and Easels. In other Craft there were also some Families of the Obversian Nobility accompanied by Valets and Ladies-in-waiting. As we neared the Coast of the Island we descryed more military Centrys along the Shoar facing their Fellows on the opposing Coast. We drew near to the Quay-side and the Wherrys’ Companies disembarked save the Sailers charged with steering them. At first we did not see any poor People. We marked that the small Landing-stage was fortified against the Interior of the Island and that, to visit the Island, we must needs pass through a large Gate set in a Bastion of stone mounted with Crenellations and watching Fusiliers with their Pieces charged[30].

Our Party mounted Carriages with the Legate, the Paynters and the noble Families and their Entourages and we were driven to the Interior accompanied by a detachment of Cavalry. We were able to distinguish that the Country was miserably wast. We drew near to a small Hamlet consisting of five or six Hovels in Ruins with smoaking Chimneys wherein some Families kept[31]. We could see a Knot of uncouth Children playing in the Dirt near a Dung-heap. We witnessed a Valet speak to some of the filthily bemired Children and their Mother. He offered them a Joynt of Mutton which the Mother secreted in her Hovel before she returned. One of the Painters next required the poor Family of Mother and Children to strike poses denoting their Indigence. The poorly clad Creatures assumed attitudes of Supplication. At this the Father of one of the noble Families stepped forward leading with him his Wife and his Children carrying Paniers of Bread and Fruit brought over with them from Obversia. He arranged his Family and him self in Attitudes of giving Succour to the poor Family, proffering Food to them. Tho’ one of the poor Children looked wild and cried at the Sight of the Bread it was not permitted that they might taste the Provender for that it might spoil the Composition. The Paynter’s Assistants set up an Easel and the Paynter fell to making Drawings for his Portrait of the wealthy Family giving their Alms. As the Painter was working we espied other Inhabitants at the Edge of the Hamlet, among them some of the Fathers dressed in Rags and half dead with Weariness. They carryed the Implements of Farming such as Hoes and Mattocks.

The Numbers of poor Islanders encreased by Gradation until there was a small Croud. I made bold to ask the Legate the Number of the Islanders. He told me it rose to an Estimate of five Thousand Souls. I enquired whence they derived and he was pleased to make plain to me that some were the Families of Debtors from Obversia while others were made up of Samples of poor People purchased by  Obversian Merchant-men and the Obversian Navy in foreign Lands on Promise of better Lives. As I was inquisitive on every Particular I further enquired of the Cause of their current Penury and Misery  and he was at Pains to explain that there was little natural Shelter and that the Soil on the Island was extremely thin on the Rock beneath and of a poor Quality so that it was barely possible to scrape a Living from it. For this Reason the Island people lived in an Abjection of Poverty. I further enquired if it was not true that, at a Distance of only one League, was the Bounty of Obversia with a Populace of thirty Thousands and excellent and plentiful Soil for Cultivation and the Grazing of Cattell[32] of all Kinds. He told me that this was indeed true. Obversia supplied all Manner of Luxury. When I asked him why, therefore, the Obversians did not suffer the Islanders to make their Passage to Obversia to live in greater Felicity he shewed him self greatly amused. He enlarged upon the Attempts that Islanders often made to take Boats to Obversia and how, due to the Vigilance of the Military Forces on the Coasts being sure to destroy all small Boats that were discovered, by holing them or setting them on Fire, successful Traverses of the Streight were rare. I confessed that I was in much Admiration why such unnecessary Efforts might be made when there was such Plenty on the larger Island. The Legate once more rallied[33] me upon my Question. He said it was manifest that I had still gained no Understanding through Custom of the Oeconomy of Obversia. He agreed that it was true that the Plight of the Islanders might be resolved with little Difficulty. The Obversians chose to maintain the poor Islanders in their mean Condition tho’ they could easily rescue them from it and bring them to encrease the Numbers of contented Citizens living in Plenty without overburthening the Realm. However, in Terms of the Oeconomy of Vertue, farming the Islanders for the Pretexts and Assistance they furnished for the Performance of Vertue was the most profitable Form of Industry in the Realm and the most useful Employment to which they might be put. That true Pity for such Creatures would be desirous of remedying their suffering by alleviating it was of small Concern as this was a Calculation for the Exchequer alone. Indeed he considered it a Mark of the Genius and Wisdom of the King and his Treasurers that the Maintenance of the Island at a Distance from Obversia betokened that no Drain on true Compassion was ever required as the Islanders might be easily forgotten on returning to Obversia. At this Juncture he revealed him self manifestly amused by our Innocence in these Matters. He continued that the Use of the Islanders for the Purpose of generating a fine Reputation for Charity was a most effective Manner of increasing the Authority of the Obversians and, thence, their Power. For this Reason the Island was a great Convenience to the Gentry and the Usefulness of the Islanders for this Purpose was greater than any Benefit they might bring as super-numerary Citizens. What is more the Opportunities that the Islanders supplied for the Performance of Vertue by Obversian People of Quality also sustained another profitable Industry in the Form of the Paynters who made a Record of the Charity of the Nobility for publick Display. The Islanders, maintained as they were, were a wonderful Advantage to Obversia.


I had several Men died in my Ship of Calentures, so that I was forced to get Recruits out of Barbados, and the Leeward Islands, where I touched by the Direction of the Merchants who employed me, which I had soon too much cause to repent; for I found after-wards that most of them had been Bucaneers………

[1] An archaic term for a black person now considered disparaging and offensive

[2] Revealed

[3] It is known that in the East of Africa the Christian Coptic church flourished

[4] Noticing

[5] Signs

[6] Condescend

[7] Aware

[8] Bows

[9] All tribes from what is modern day Nigeria

[10] Addressing the subject of

[11] The Coast of North Africa

[12] Astonishment

[13] Accident

[14] Labourers

[15] Genesis 1:27

[16] This word at this time generally meant rules for living but was slowly evolving into the modern sense of economy

[17] Prophet from the Old Testament notable for his denunciations of poor morals or Jeremiads

[18] To accept the role of inferiors paying tribute to Obversia as the superior nation

[19] Isaiah 40:3 and Mark 1:3

[20] Realms

[21] Men of Science

[22] Idea

[23] The tears in things – Human suffering

[24] Admit

[25] Intellectual capacity

[26] A battle in which Swift was fully engaged. It is thought that he invented the phrase Sweetness and Light

[27] Actors

[28] Noisy parade

[29] Sailing skiffs

[30] Muskets loaded

[31] Lived

[32] Livestock in general

[33] Made fun of

Turned off by the turned on decade

Growing Up: Sex in the Sixties

Peter Doggett, The Bodley Head, 400 pages, £25.00

KEN BELL finds a survey of Sixties sex is really about 2020s attitudes

In Annus Mirabilis, Philip Larkin reflects famously:

‘Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.’

Britain in 1960 was still a country that belonged to its past, and a time traveller from the 1930s would have felt very much at home there. However, Britain in 1970 had become a country that looked to the future with great optimism and really seemed to be casting off its uptight and censorious past. Cultural historian Peter Doggett’s Growing Up: Sex in the Sixties casts a jaundiced eye over the decade and argues that it was all very bad indeed. That is not to say that Doggett is a full-blown fan of Mary Whitehouse, but he does treat her with far more respect than she ever deserved.

The 1960s was a disruptive decade where the future collided violently with the past, and the future won hands-down. That victory owed a lot to the contraceptive pill that was introduced in 1961. If you want to know why the Sixties swung, much of it was due to the fact that young women could have sex without fear of their actions having untoward consequences. Doggett does not mention this crucial point, but seems to take the view that women were generally victims of the decade, rather than liberated by it.

Growing Up is divided into twelve chapters, and three of them are devoted to looking for, and finding very dubious evidence of, the growth of underage sex. Most of these chapters are concerned with Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Lolita, which was first published in the UK in 1959 by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, a publishing house not noted for pornography. The publication was controversial, but no attempt was made to prosecute the publishers; that had to wait until 1961 when Penguin was unsuccessfully prosecuted for publishing Lady Chatterley’s Lover.

Lolita was left alone because there are no sex scenes in it, unlike Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Both novels are fine literature, but Lolita is one of the greatest works of the twentieth century, and even the Director of Public Prosecutions wasn’t going to go up against a literary work, published in hardback by a major house, which had the support of most of the literary figures of the day. It is hardly Nabokov’s fault that the title of his novel became a code-word for underage sex. Had Lolita never been written then something else would have emerged to provide the key word that putative punters of such material would use to find what they were looking for.

The growth of underground pornography of all types in the sixties owed very little to Nabokov and a lot to another bit of disruptive technology, in this case the Xerox 914 photocopier that was introduced in 1959. It was a brute of a machine that weighed a hernia-inducing 648lbs, but it was a gift to the Soho publishing trade that until then had relied on Gestetner duplicating machines. The one-man aficionados of a particular kink also took advantage of the Xerox 914 to increase the output of their newsletters which they advertised in magazines such as Exchange & Mart. The machines were very expensive, but plenty of companies set up shop to cater for small businesses that needed photocopies and, in Soho especially, they were not too interested in what they copied so long as payments were made in cash.

From young girls, Doggett moves to young women, who are little more than the victims of men’s wickedness in his eyes. He has hunted down a series of nasty murders and assaults and presents these as somehow typifying the decade. Actually, far more typical of the period was women’s new power to control their own fertility thanks to the contraceptive pill, coupled with the liberation of Vidal Sassoon’s geometric haircut and the miniskirt. These things taken together gave young women the confidence to throw off their mothers’ iron perms and passion-killing corsets.

Homosexuals were also victims in this period, according to Doggett, who devotes far too much space to people who were peddling cures for that predilection. Yes, they existed, but by the end of the decade, homosexuality had not only been decriminalized, but pubs and nightclubs that were known to cater to a homosexual clientele were operating with only minimal interference from the police or the licensing magistrates.

Disruptive eras are untidy and often chaotic and the Sixties had all that, and more. Yet, by the end of the decade, Britain was groping towards a new consensus where adults felt much freer socially than they had at the start of the period. The author simply ignores the social liberation that became accepted after the decade, and concentrates only on the reactions to it during the era. In the end, his work is more about present day beliefs than the decade when suddenly everyone seemed to be getting it on.

‘Satyagraha’ – joy and rapture at the ENO

RICHARD DOVE reflects on Philip Glass’s timeless opera

In 1960s Lower Manhattan there was a very definite merging of culture and logistics.  If you had ordered a new wardrobe or dining table it was distinctly possible that the delivery men could be the two masters of emerging minimalism, Philip Glass and Steve Reich.  They both freelanced for a company called Low Rate Movers.  The art critic Robert Hughes needed a plumber to fix his dishwasher and was more than surprised when a smock-clad man with a shock of black hair and a bag of plumber’s tools showed up.  ‘But you’re Philip Glass! What are you doing here? You’re an artist.’  Glass explained that whilst he was an artist, he was also a plumber.

The music of Philip Glass now graces concert halls and opera houses around the world.  He is a prolific composer having forged a style of layered repetition and exquisite harmonies that beguiles many and upsets not a few.  As I walked to the Coliseum in central London, I passed a few plumbers’ vans.  I hoped that, in a wonderful act of circularity, at least one or two were heading to the latest production of Glass’s totemic opera, Satyagraha.  This was the last night, so it would be their last London opportunity for some time.

‘This is just wonderful.’  For my audience neighbour, it was her first Philip Glass experience.  ‘Well, you’ve got a lot of catching up to do’, I replied.  Glass’s astonishing avalanche of creativity has seen the creation of over thirty operas, thirteen symphonies, small ensemble pieces, concertos and countless film scores. 

Satyagraha was the return to business of the English National Opera after what it described as ‘an extended interval.’ The opera is, to use the ENO’s highly appropriate description, a ‘meditation’ on Gandhi’s early years in South Africa, a co-production with New York’s Metropolitan Opera with conductor Carolyn Kuan and director Phelim McDermott. It is sung in Sanskrit with words from the Bhagavad Gita and some of the headline translations were mostly obscured for us on the balcony and above. It did not matter.  It was an immersing mediation, and the plot was insignificant.  It is an emotional journey through Gandhi’s embrace of non-violent protest to change minds and politics.  The looping harmonies and spectacular staging created an embracing ambiance where you can pick and choose what you look at and how you interpret the narrative.  The result is, to use another ENO programme description, ‘mesmeric’.

Satyagraha is Sanskit for ‘truth force’ and the opera takes you and back and forth in Gandhi’s life as his philosophy of protest takes shape and consequence.   Sean Panikkar brought nuance and quiet strength to the role of Gandhi as he slowly walked the stage, his voice both tender and firm.  The huge, imposing corrugated iron wall set resonated a South Africa shantytown.  Meditation became a dream populated by Phelim McDermott’s vast puppets, the wicker emu being a particular highlight, and Julian Crouch’s soaring adaptable sets. The immense power of the voices of Verity Wingate and Felicity Buckland cut through the coughing and rustling (in my vicinity) and commanded attention. 

Satyagraha is the third of Glass’s so-called Portrait trilogy – Einstein on the Beach (which he staged largely with his own savings and had to drive a New York cab and deliver furniture to recover financially) and Akhnaten, the Egyptian Sun God which was also staged by Phelim McDermott in 2016.  None of the three operas have a lateral narrative, but wander through their subjects’ lives and experiences. The music is described as minimalist, but it is nothing of the sort. The motif of repetition masks constant change and highs and lows of emotion. It requires from the players and the conductor both technical and emotional engagement. As Glass himself says:

What you hear depends on how you focus your ear. We’re not talking about inventing a new language, but rather inventing new perceptions of existing languages. I don’t like using language to convey meaning. I’d rather use images and music.

For my neighbour, new to all this, it was a state of rapture despite often not knowing what was going on. She told me she worked at St Thomas’ Hospital and it was just joyful to be part of an audience again after an horrific eighteen months. Joy and rapture, not a bad way to spend a Thursday evening.

As I left the Opera House, I noticed the plumbers’ vans had disappeared.  Some domestic emergency interrupting Act 3?  The composer is close on 85 years old and yet his creativity is undiminished.  His Symphonies No 14 and 15 receive their world premieres next year as does a new ballet called ‘Alice’.   Clearly, the days of furniture moving and dishwasher repair are long gone.

Escaping from reality – ‘The French Dispatch’

GUY WALKER greatly enjoys a playful new film, but finds it ultimately insubstantial

Early on in The French Dispatch we encounter an imprisoned murderer who takes the art world by storm with an abstract nude painting of a female prison officer, with whom he manages to conduct an affair, secretly painted in his French prison. After his release he conducts an affair with the female reporter – named Berensen, thus echoing the name of the art historian Berenson – telling his story. The wall in the prison canteen on which he painted a series of abstract murals is, then, air-lifted to an art museum in Kansas after slow motion mayhem has unfolded between prisoners, prison staff and denizens of the art world. Next, a middle aged female American reporter reports on and has an affair with the boyish leader of a soixante-huitard revolution, naturally conducted via chess moves relayed through a loud hailer, before she encourages the lad to sleep with a female revolutionary who contradicts everything he proposes on principle. He is then electrocuted in an accident on a radio tower. Finally French Police Noir, Maigret and Tintin-style are comprehensively elided with French haute cuisine.

By now we are in no doubt that the movie is modern, it’s post-modern, it’s meta, full of cutesy kitsch, it appeals to the child in us and it wilfully and proudly obeys none of the rules or the unities and satisfies none of our expectations. There’s slow motion and freeze frame and switches from colour to black and white, from real life to cartoon. We are put in mind of the labyrinths of Jorge Luis Borges’ psyche, and Magical Realism takes a bow. It’s a complicated delight with an endless stream of puns, verbal and visual.
There is, therefore, also a Chef/Police Officer who, in a joke typical of the rapid-fire surrealist jokes that are sprinkled throughout, is called Nescaffier and is played by an American actor of Korean heritage. All of the stories are set in a fictional French town called Ennui-sur-Blasé which is actually parts of old Angoulême, the home of the French Comic-book Festival. The French Dispatch salutes in passing the art dealer Lord Duveen who enriched himself by satisfying the thirst of American millionaires for European art, the overweight and brilliant American writer on World War 2, boxing and French cuisine, AJ Liebling and Mavis Gallant, the Canadian chronicler of Paris in May ‘68 all of whom appeared in the famed New Yorker magazine as writers or subjects. It’s all very affectionate, charming and whimsical in the tradition of Amélie and The Budapest Hotel. The whole, pitched as ‘a  love letter to journalists’ is framed within the Foreign Bureau Magazine of the Liberty, Kansas Evening SunThe French Dispatch in which the stories appear in an obituary edition for the recently deceased editor and founder.
It’s studded with the stars, many of them current hot properties, who must make up most of Wes Anderson’s address book, many of them having appeared in his earlier films. All of the thespian brilliance and talent of Frances McDormand, Tilda Swinton, Timothée Chalomet, Bill Murray, Adrien Brody, Saoirse Ronan, Anjelica Houston, Edward Norton, Christoph Waltz, Willem Dafoe, Cécile de France, Rupert Friend, Léa Seydoux, Benicio del Toro, Henry Winkler, Elisabeth Moss, Owen Wilson, Bill Murray and even Jarvis Cocker is showcased and shop-windowed to great effect. And that’s only half of the cast!
So, what do we think about all of this? How do we respond to it? It’s the nature of contemporary art and that includes le septième art, even when it’s set in other periods and unfamiliar places and, as this film is, studiedly untethered from any connection with now, to tell us something about the time in which it was made and the modern consciousness that made it.
Whimsy and Magical Realism, although they entertain and tickle us, somehow fail to satisfy us at a profound level. This is, perhaps, because of what they really are. Our modern zeitgeist demands the abolition of intelligence, wit, irony and humour for fear that they undermine or, perish the thought, laugh at the witless totalitarianism of identity politics and correctness. This means, in practice, that a ban has effectively been imposed on the brilliance of Western wit to exercise itself to its full extent in relation to the real contemporary world. The result of this proscription is that European and American wit, a sad and forlorn refugee, has had to migrate into intellectual exile, retreating into a green screen cultural vacuum where it cannot be incriminated by association with anything linkable to the actual modern world. In this instance it is welcomed into a French world set somewhere between the 30s and the 70s (thus allowing the existence of anachronisms like big-hearted show-girls) that is no more than the figment of someone’s imagination and is incontrovertibly ‘detoxified’ by being totally over and hermetically sealed in that vacuum. It is given free rein to do its soubresauts and pirouettes on condition that none of them mean anything or make any comment on our times. Wit can obtain as long as it is defanged and not dangerous to the status quo. And this is the sad comment on our times that the film, unwittingly, makes……

Fernando Pessoa – shadow of a ghost

Pessoa: An Experimental Life

Richard Zenith, Allen Lane, 2021, 1,088pp, £40

ALEXANDER ADAMS applauds a comprehensive study of a complicated writer

If, after I die, they should want to write my biography,

There’s nothing simpler.

I’ve just two dates – of my birth, and of my death.

In between the one thing and the other all the days are mine. […]

– ‘lf, After I Die’, Fernando Pessoa writing as Alberto Caiero

He led a respectable life. He wore smart clothes to the office. He wrote and translated material, sometimes with a flourish that belied his extramural activities. He was courteous and a touch playful, a bachelor in his thirties. He was given to using spare time to write at his desk. At the end of the work day, he would put on his hat and raincoat and walk through the capital’s streets, thinking of his latest project. Perhaps he would go to his usual café, where he would see friends. They admired him as a writer, appreciating his abilities, chiding him for his perfectionism. He published a little but they knew he wrestled with larger work which was not made public, even to them. When he died he was mourned by his friends and his readers but they did not realise what a giant he had been. In time, he would come to define their whole nation.

This could be a description of Franz Kafka but it is not. American Richard Zenith is a leading authority on Fernando Pessoa. He has edited and translated Pessoa’s writing. Living in Lisbon, Zenith inhabits Pessoa’s home city, relic of a glorious age and scene of an inexorable decline. It is a testament to Zenith’s devotion and ingenuity that he has managed to produce a 1,000-page biography of a figure whom he describes as ‘fanatically private.’ There is no autobiography; there are few revealing letters; the most informative ones are the drafts and unsent (mostly unfinished) letters he kept. There were no direct descendants. There are three diaries with short factual entries that together cover a total of over half a year. Zenith describes the interviews and memoirs of those who knew Pessoa as uninformative – or at least informative on how reserved the subject was. Pessoa was well aware of this and seemed to have actively participated in this occlusion. He was much given to self-reflection and intimations of both immortality and obscurity.

Pessoa claimed to be descended of ‘a mixture of aristocrats and Jews’ although neither predominated nor were proximate to him. His family was largely agnostic (or non-practising) Catholics, more devoted to music than God, who earned a living serving the state. His maternal grandfather was a civil servant and his paternal grandfather was a senior general. Joaquim de Seabra Pessoa (1850-1893), the poet’s father, was a civil servant. He was an opera fanatic and (anonymously) wrote music criticism for a newspaper. In 1887, he wed Maria Madalena Nogueira (1861-1925), the Azorean-born daughter of a civil servant. She was intelligent, well-educated and a keen reader.

Fernando António Noguiera Pessoa (1888-1935) was born on 13 June 1888, in Lisbon. He was delicate, introverted and passionate about literature. He was a voracious reader and writer at a young age. He was encouraged by his cultured family. In 1893, his father died of tuberculosis. The following year, Pessoa’s infant brother died of a fever. In 1895, the widow Pessoa married João Miguel Rosa, another civil servant, this one a diplomat.

Rosa was appointed Portuguese Consul in Durban, South Africa; his new wife and stepson followed in 1896. They would stay (increasing the family with three surviving children) until 1905. They lived through the Boer War and saw rural refugees camped in Durban’s public spaces and outskirts. Pessoa’s schooling and first year of university were in English. The young Pessoa won prizes for English. Winning the Queen Victoria Memorial Prize in 1903 for an original essay (beating 898 other entrants) was one of his proudest achievements, something he cherished until his death. Although Pessoa’s English was fluent, it was unidiomatic and airy, influenced by his reading of Romantic and Victorian poetry, and the bookish Pessoa spent more time reading Carlyle and Keats than bantering on the school playing fields. Pessoa would use his English to good effect in later life and wrote verse and prose in both English and Portuguese.   


‘I am astounded whenever I finish anything. Astounded and distressed.’

– Pessoa writing as Bernardo Soares

When he was an adolescent, Pessoa began his own newspaper for his family, filling it with fictional news, jokes and poems. The authors were numerous and all pseudonyms. Over his lifetime, Pessoa published under multiple names and wrote under others, over 100 in all. The degree to which he actually inhabited these ‘heteronyms’ is debatable. It seems to have freed him creatively and allowed him licence to intellectually position himself outside of his life experience. There is the question of whether or not these Borgesian alter egos were part of a meta-fiction, additional to the text. Pessoa stated that these were the real authors of his writings. Each had a distinct style and character. Pessoa published verse under pen names Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis and Álvaro de Campos, as well as under his own name, plus others. Like Kafka, who is a useful point of comparison, Pessoa published a fair amount of creative writing and non-fiction prose during his lifetime, but left a sizeable unpublished legacy. In his lifetime, he was best known as a political and cultural commentator. Only in the last year of his life was his stature as a poet generally realised. His unpublished manuscripts were found in a wooden trunk after his death.

‘The trunk indeed existed, and some ten years after Pessoa’s death more than three hundred of the poems it contained found their way into a handsome edition of his poetry, with separate volumes for Alberto Caeiro, Ricardo Reis, Álvaro de Campos, and Fernando Pessoa himself. Since each of the three heteronyms boasted a large and exquisite body of work stylistically unlike the poetry of his fellow heteronyms or of Pessoa himself, one could say that Portugal’s four greatest poets from the twentieth century were Fernando Pessoa.’

Pessoa – and his alter egos – submitted poems, stories and criticism to publications in Portugal and Great Britain. Hungry for success and recognition – hence the decision to often write in English – Pessoa was afflicted with chronic doubt, lapses of confidence and changes of heart. In this biography and editions of Pessoa’s writing, the adjectives ‘unfinished’, ‘incomplete’ and ‘fragmentary’ are commonplace. One could conclude that Pessoa’s use of heteronymic personae is a double-edged sword. It permitted him freedom to develop diverse and distinct bodies of writing but it left him without a core body of writings. The decision to write short texts also allowed him the opportunity to drop projects unfinished without too much investment. Without the impetus to write a novel and publish it, Pessoa could afford to bounce between ideas. His only substantial book published in his lifetime was one year before his death and consisted of poems. Pessoa may have been temperamentally unsuited to write a novel but his propensity to write short, often and under different identities exacerbated his weaknesses of prevarication and detachment. His trunk was filled with unfinished plays, poems, stories, translations and letters.  

‘The human author of these books has no personality of his own. Whenever he feels a personality well up inside, he quickly realizes that this new being, though similar, is distinct from him – an intellectual son, perhaps, with inherited characteristics, but also with differences that make him someone else.’

It is possible that – with regard to the legion of heteronyms – readers will experience alternating intrigue and boredom. When Zenith devotes paragraphs to investigating the recurring signature of ‘Gaveston’ – remarking that this is the sole case of an alter ego appearing persistently over time in Pessoa’s jotting without being credited with a single text – how is one supposed to react? It is curious but is it a matter for curiosity for anyone other than a scholar who has spent countless hours poring over Pessoa’s manuscripts? It is a true fact and (presumably) a new fact, but does it mean anything and do we care? The principal heteronyms have bodies of work attached, some of it now published in English, but discussion of peripheral heteronyms (associated with mere jumbled fragments, inaccessible to all except researchers) is more distracting than illuminating.

Zenith diligently hunts down seeds of heteronyms in the writings of past authors, great and forgotten alike. Pessoa’s favourite authors included Thomas Carlyle, Poe, Keats, Milton, Ruskin, Wilde and Baudelaire. A less obvious influence was Max Nordau’s Entartung (Degeneration) (1892), a book identifying and condemning degeneracy. According to this account, it was Nordau’s passages on mania and mental degeneration that fascinated Pessoa most. His grandmother had suffered from severe and atypical dementia, diagnosed as intermittent. He was worried that he too might come to be afflicted. (One also thinks here of Lovecraft’s narrators fearing for their sanity. Lovecraft lost his father to madness, albeit tertiary syphilis, with which Lovecraft himself was not infected.) ‘Pessoa’s fascination, it turns out, was restricted to the relationship that the writer posited between exceptional intellectual or creative activity and psychological deviation from the norm.’

‘It surprises us that Pessoa could have been so enthralled by Nordau – a fluent, effectual writer who was well read but intellectually rigid, priggishly moralistic, and aesthetically reactionary.’

Not at all. Just as Zenith points out that Pessoa had to wait until the end of the twentieth century for a receptive audience for his meta-textually ludic fiction; so Zenith should not be surprised that Pessoa then and others now search for the link between (on one hand) decadence, social atomisation and destruction of tradition and (on the other) liberalism, progressivism and materialism. Pessoa himself was not a traditionalist, but he was eager to understand the causes of social and personal decline. Nordau, Otto Weininger, Herbert Spencer, (later) Oswald Spengler and others advanced ideas that vary in insight and plausibility, but any intelligent open mind would have found such material to be thought-provoking, even if ultimately it disfavoured those authors’ conclusions. Decadence is appealing to vanguardists and the elite but it has characteristics of both pathology and poison.  

Images from, with acknowledgements –


Pessoa used his inheritance to establish Ibis Press in 1909, which would be a commercial printer but also published advanced literature (including Pessoa’s books). It folded almost immediately, due to debt and tough competition. He burned through his inheritance accrued debt in under a year. This put him at odds with his family, then still in South Africa, especially when he requested they pay off his debts whilst at the same time refusing to get a job. The most he would do was provide translations of poems for a giant library of world classics in Portuguese.

In 1914 Pessoa wrote as Álvaro de Campos, Portugal’s first Futurist poet. With author-friend Mário de Sá-Carneiro, Pessoa would act as shadow editor for the avant-garde literary journal Opheu. The journal was published in 1915 and lasted only two issues. Influenced by the Futurist Manifestoes and the British Vorticist Blast, Orpheu caused a sensation. Its radical sensibilities, taboo subject matter (sex) and Cubist collages, ignited debate in Portuguese cultural circles. Who were these madmen? At least three of them were Pessoa. Sá-Carneiro fled to Paris, where he committed suicide after a period of debauchery.  

Pessoa described himself as elitist, nationalist, imperialist (Portugal at this time still had a substantial empire) and (nominally) a republican, although one disillusioned with the corruption of the republican government established in 1910. He antagonised republicans in a newspaper letter and he had to evade a gang that came to assault him. It was one of the few physical escapades of this normally timid man. He was unenthusiastic about the Great War and critical of Portugal’s entrance into direct hostilities against the Central Powers on the continent, reasoning that war in France against the Germans did not contribute to protecting and ruling colonies in Africa. Pessoa’s unformed aspiration was the foundation of an aristocratic republic of Portugal, led by great men. He himself had no political aspirations. Zenith never mentions Pessoa delivering a public speech or broadcast.

At this time, Pessoa became involved with esoterica, mysticism, magic and spirit reading, all complementing an established commitment to astrological predictions. He was in the habit of gauging planetary alignments when submitting manuscripts to London publishers. The publishers were uniformly unreceptive to his submissions and proposals, though his chapbooks of poems won praise for the author’s accomplishment. He dabbled in secret societies, but (as a lover of mystery stories) Pessoa seemed more stimulated by the intrigue than the reality.

In 1930, Pessoa was Aleister Crowley’s companion on a visit to Lisbon. Pessoa, a native of Lisbon, steeped in occult knowledge and fluent in Portuguese and English, was the ideal choice. Crowley’s reputation as an indefatigable fornicator, Satanist and drug fiend put Pessoa on edge before Crowley’s arrival by ship. Crowley wanted Pessoa to head the Portuguese chapter of his spiritualist society; Pessoa wanted Crowley to publish his writings in England. They both assumed the other was richer than he actually was, which entailed mutual disappointment. Crowley departed after staging a hoax suicide, which Pessoa partially corroborated. This is one of the most amusing passages in a biography that makes an intelligent and lively read.


‘I’m suffering from a headache and the universe.’

– Pessoa

In 1919, Pessoa started work at an import-export firm, using his knowledge of English and French. This was where (in 1920) he met the only woman he courted, Ophelia Queiroz.

Pessoa was averse to sexual intimacy. There is plenty of evidence in Pessoa’s writings of sexual attraction but also physical repulsion, perhaps linked to venereal disease. Love arises in the poems in an abstracted sense, derived from his reading. Zenith has good reason for assuming Pessoa died a virgin. Zenith also finds ample examples of misogyny in Pessoa’s writing and marginalia, provoked by fear (and disgust) regarding female libido. There are a number of sensitive and passionate homoerotic love poems ascribed to heteronyms, though Zenith (and others) do not believe this ever translated into carnal fulfilment.   

Ophelia was nineteen years old and employed to act as a secretary. Pessoa was thirty-two but youthfully unattached, respected by colleagues as a great poet yet one unaccountably unrewarded. She was strongly attracted to Pessoa. Pessoa kindled to the affection and they carried on a romance of trysts, walks and love letters. It was imbalanced, with Ophelia taking the lead and wanting commitment. Pessoa was too detached and cautious for the relationship to develop straightforwardly. Unusually for Pessoa, their letters survive and are quoted in this account. Ophelia is insistent and puzzled by Pessoa’s reticence. Pessoa is playful and affectionate but unwilling to translate that into an engagement. (Him writing as his heteronyms was an augury of a poor outcome.) The impasse led to estrangement, though they did resume writing over the period 1929-30. By temperament and choice, Pessoa was determined to remain unencumbered by the emotional or domestic burden of partnership. Ophelia married the year after the poet’s death.

Pessoa’s apparent support for homosexual men as men and as writers comes as no surprise considering the poems he wrote. Even if Pessoa was not himself homosexual, he displays empathy and must have gained some pleasure from imagining himself as a homosexual poet, modelled on Walt Whitman. He publicly defended two homosexual writers whose work was banned. This attitude aligns with the idea of an aristocratic elite heading a nation founded on excellence and spurning the distractions of materialistic progress. In Pessoa’s vague imaginings, it was priest-scholars rather than Spartan warriors. Women in politics was anathema to him.

In 1921, Pessoa planned to publish The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Portuguese. He did not do so. Instead, he wrote an essay about what he saw as the malign influence of Jews. ‘Without any perceptible animus toward Jews, writing as a calm analyst who happened to be informed by reactionary ideas, he noted that the three hundred members of the oligarchy allegedly plotting to overthrow the world order were not all Jews but were imbued by the spirit of what he called “sub-Judaism,” characterized by crass materialism and support of democracy and humanitarian causes.’ Later, he wrote about Jews in less charged terms, assigning to races ‘characteristics, however, [that] were neither genetic not altogether static; they depended on a complex web of historical, geographical, and sociological circumstances.’ Interesting lines of thought for an author who claimed Christianised Jews in his lineage to take.

Zenith criticises Pessoa for not being an egalitarian (while admitting that such an attitude was not incompatible with the poet’s outlook) and condemns Pessoa for wearing blackface as a prank (‘the inherent offensiveness of blackface’). What, a reader may wonder, is gained by wagging the measuring stick of American morality of 2021 at a Portuguese who grew up in Victorian-era colonial Africa? For the most part, such presumptions are not too intrusive.

Pessoa was both an artistic Modernist and a political reactionary; he was empathetic towards certain minority groups, indifferent towards others. He approved of the suppression of Communists and Socialists but was hostile towards Italian Fascism. (Perhaps he discerned within Fascism a core of Socialism.) Zenith thinks, ‘The “real Fernando Pessoa” was always someone else.’ I disagree. I see Pessoa as perfectly consistently himself in his apparent contradictions; he was honest enough to fully inhabit contradictory ideas. We have the concept of cognitive dissonance. However, there is no dissonance when there is no urge to harmonise contradictory ideas. Pessoa never believed he had to hold a consistent position. It seems he realised that a human being without contradictions is an impossibility.


‘An original, typically Portuguese literature cannot be Portuguese, because the typical Portuguese are never Portuguese’

– Pessoa 

In 1928, António de Oliveira Salazar (1889-1970) was appointed finance minister and he would remain the directing force in the technocratic Portuguese government until a brain aneurysm in 1968. He would see out the last two years of his life as only the nominal (rather than actual) head of government of Portugal. His dryness – a devout Catholic, private, personally reserved, not given to rhetorical excess – and his competence as a director of the state finances won him widespread support. Pessoa supported Salazar’s measures, which stabilised Portugal’s finances and curbed the hedonistic excesses of Lisbon’s nightlife.

Almost a decade after their split, Ophelia and Pessoa reconnected during 1929-30. They resumed their correspondence and meetings. Again, they fell into the old pattern of conflict. Ophelia wanted marriage and companionship; Pessoa wanted to write. She was worried about his heavy drinking. It would leave him severely ill in the summer of 1932. He evidently enjoyed the excitement and experience of being desired but perhaps he felt guilty for giving Ophelia (about whom he evidently strongly cared) false hope of matrimony. Maybe he suspected he was not a writer in love but a writer researching love.

His Mensagem (Message) (1934) collection of poems won a prize from the government for its contribution to patriotic renewal. Pessoa was ambivalent, appreciating the recognition and the cash, but wary of official honours. The following year, Pessoa opposed a bill to outlaw secret societies, specifically the Freemasons. Pessoa had an affinity for societies so he took the legislation personally and wrote in the press strongly opposing the law. It was a futile effort because the parliament would rubberstamp the legislation. In his last months, he turned definitively against the regime for restricting personal freedom, especially freedom of artistic expression. His anti-Salazar poems could not be printed, but they apparently were circulated in a limited form. Zenith discloses that in his last months, Pessoa was writing an essay against Italy’s invasion of Abyssinia. Also, he was weighing up the merits of equality and humanitarianism. Death – intestinal obstruction (or possibly pancreatitis) apparently caused by alcoholism – intervened. Pessoa died on 30 November 1935, in hospital.  


‘Everlasting remembrance, how briefly you endure!’

– Pessoa

Over the subsequent years, volumes of the erroneously titled Complete Works of Pessoa were published by colleagues, amounting to a fraction of the slew of 25,000 sheets. The verses can be a little abstract and diffuse but often deploy pleasing irony, cutting humour and mordant insights. The best poem by Pessoa I have read is one of the longer ones, 1928’s ‘Tobacconist’s’ (written under the heteronym Álvaro de Campos) – one of his most involved and most concrete poems, featuring the poet’s thoughts upon watching a tobacconist and his store from across the street. It combines melancholy, levity and grandiosity.

The only lengthy work of fiction that Pessoa brought close to completion was The Book of Disquiet, which is assigned to Bernardo Soares. It consists of over 500 entries written over 1913-35, and was only published in 1982. It comprised hundreds of pages in an envelope. (One is put in mind of B.S. Johnson’s The Unfortunates (1969). His famous ‘book in a box’ is composed of individual sheets and sheaves.) The ordering and transcription are debated and since the first publication there have been new editions, some dramatically different. One English edition has been edited and translated by Zenith. The entries range from single sentences to passages of many pages. They are meditative, alternately detached and intensely personal, forming what Pessoa called a ‘factless autobiography’. It has a detached quality, splenetic humour and despairing melancholy that presages existentialist literature and the internal monologues of Beckett.

In an age of Borgesian meta-narratives and Post-Modern playfulness – as well as a (sadly) reduced capacity to concentrate on more involved lengthy prose – The Book of Disquiet and Pessoa’s heteronymic transformations have found warm appreciation. There is no doubt he was a serious, world-class writer and richly deserves this handsome biography.

Zenith is adept at sketching the situation of Portugal during the Belle Époque, republican and Salazar periods. He knows his subject matter inside out and speaks the languages of his subject. On balance, Zenith’s assertion that Pessoa’s heteronymic alter egos (at least, the major ones) are genuinely felt expressions of different intellects with unique voices, and not gimmicks, carries weight and is eloquently argued, with evidence. Once one grants Zenith his ethical and political interjections, even the most negative of critics is left with mere cavils. The biography hits the rare sweet spot of being as comprehensive as one might wish for while not lingering too long on any point. The amount and depth of research is humbling. Pessoa: An Experimental Life is a grand achievement – thorough, thoughtful, insightful and generally sympathetic, it does what all the best literary biographies do: inspire us to seek out the writings of its subject.

Refighting the last war

The Armchair General: Can You Defeat the Nazis?

John Buckley, Century, £14.99

KEN BELL goes on the counterfactual offensive

Many historians like to say that counter-factualism is a waste of time, at least until the port has been around the table twice and then they tend to become as keen as the rest of us on the what if game. John Buckley’s The Armchair General is probably one of the best examples of counter-factualism I have seen in a long time, probably because he sticks as closely as possible to either what happened, or to what we think would have happened had things been slightly different.

Buckley takes eight major events from the Second World War and sets the scene for each of them in turn. Then, the reader has to make a choice from two options that are presented to him. Depending upon his choice, he then moves to another section of the book, where that scenario plays out and further options are offered.

Let’s take the aftermath of the Norway Debate in May 1940 as a case in point, as it is the first chapter in the book. Chamberlain has won the debate, but with a party that is badly split. Playing the role of David Margesson, the Tory Chief Whip, you take soundings and find that Winston Churchill and Lord Halifax are the two favourites to succeed him. Labour will not form a coalition under Chamberlain and lean towards Halifax, but will accept Churchill. Who do you recommend?

If you choose Halifax then the possibility of Italian mediation would probably have come into play. The war would end with a British defeat, but the army would have been allowed to leave the continent in good order and with all its equipment intact. Germany would probably have taken back the African colonies that she had lost in 1918 and possibly Malta would have gone to the Italians as a reward for their efforts at peace. All this would have amounted to a defeat, but not the end of the world, and a lot of people in Britain would have been happy enough to take the deal and ignore future events in Europe.

On the other hand, if you opt for Churchill, then your options can lead you to the actual historical outcome, but that is far from certain. The other option is based on the fact that Churchill was afraid that Halifax might have resigned as Foreign Secretary and taken Chamberlain with him to form a peace faction unless peace feelers went out. In reality that did not happen, but had Halifax threatened it unless he could at least explore the Italian option he would have probably got his way. In this version that is exactly what he does so we head towards a mediated peace brokered by Italy.

The really engaging aspect of this book is that by keeping to what we know about these events the younger students of history will be encouraged to see that historical outcomes are the result of the decisions that were taken by real men. Those men were often acting with unclear information against a backdrop of real pressure to come up with something.

It would have been very easy for Professor Buckley to fall into what I call the fantasy trap of the counter-factual game and go off with ludicrous flights of whimsy. Sir Winston Churchill as a writer did that with a piece that speculated on what might have happened had the Confederacy won the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. He started by allowing General Lee to abolish slavery in the new republic, an utterly risible thought. Buckley keeps to the conservative options at all times, which makes his work very credible indeed.

The Armchair General takes the reader from May 1940 to the dropping of the atomic bomb in 1945. Some chapters are more complicated than others, with the one devoted to the opening stages of Operation Barbarossa being a case in point. As part of the Soviet leadership do you remove Joe Stalin? If you keep him can Moscow be held? That section was one that I really enjoyed as the reader gets to play an NKVD officer, and I have always thought that I would have been rather good at that role.

The whole book is similarly great fun, based on solid research by a professional historian. I enjoyed every minute of it.

Punishing treatment

Bleeding for Jesus: John Smyth and the Cult of the Iwerne Camps

Andrew Graystone, Darton, Longman & Todd, £12.99

KEN BELL winces through a sad story of sadistic abuse and cover-up

John Smyth QC had a public image in the 1970s and 1980s as a conservative activist who worked with Mary Whitehouse in her failed campaigns to hold back the twentieth century. He lived near Winchester College, and was well-known there as a senior figure in the Iwerne Trust, which recruited young men to Evangelical Anglicanism. John and Anne Smith often entertained boys from the college at their home, and Smyth became known as a man who would openly discuss matters that troubled the budding Evangelicals. Masturbation was one, and the need for a man who has given himself to Christ to suffer for his sins was another.

You can see where this is going, and sure enough it made a marvellous cover for Smyth, a moralistic homoerotic sadist who used his position to take youths and young men to his garden shed, order them to strip naked before administering ferocious canings to their bare bottoms. As part of the ritual, Smyth was also naked, and lotion was helpfully kept on a side table which Smyth used to soothe the ravaged backsides before putting the victim into adult nappies so that the blood after a caning of up to several hundred strokes would not stain his trousers. Then the fellow would be sent off to the house, for a nice cup of tea from Anne, who would offer him a cushion to sit on. Smyth had thoughtfully soundproofed his shed and a small pennant was stuck in the garden as a sign to Anne not to approach.

On one level the story of John Smyth and his predilection for BDSM is yet another account of an older, upper-class, closeted homosexual getting his rocks off with younger men. There is no suggestion in Andrew Graystone’s account of anybody being coerced, and neither can Smyth be accused of paedophilia, as none of the submissive participants were pre-pubescent. However, it is always the cover-up that is important with these matters, and the concealment of Smyth’s activities involved rather a lot of people who did an excellent job of keeping a lid on the story for many years.

Smyth looked for participants amongst the older pupils at Winchester, which was an inspired choice as the school, according to Graystone, comes over as a closed world where what happens in the school stays in the school. The pupils speak what amounts to a cant tongue, where words that are really only known to the initiates are used; thus homework is called ‘toytown’ and bicycles are ‘bogles,’ to give just two examples. The whole institution seems to operate with its own ‘complex and arcane culture’ that had been handed down the generations with its original meanings probably long forgotten but which were adhered to religiously. New pupils were tested at the end of their first term on their grasp of the cant, and any who failed could often expect a dose of the cane to encourage further study.

His chairmanship of the Iwerne Trust allowed him to recruit volunteers for the rod from a wider field than just Winchester. The trust ran summer camps to provide intense religious training in Evangelicalism and entry was restricted to pupils at the elite public schools. The aim of the camps was to take tomorrow’s leaders of Britain and ensure that as many as possible became Evangelicals. John Smyth must have been in his element.

Eventually, of course, the complaints about Smyth’s activities began to mount, but incredibly enough, all the complainers did was contact the senior figures within the same Evangelical sub-section of Anglicanism that was part and parcel of the problem. A gaggle of fathers descended on Winchester College to demand that something be done, but at the same time they insisted that whatever was done had to happen quietly.

A report on Smyth was prepared in 1982, which runs to twenty-two short paragraphs, and sets out succinctly what he had been up to. This report was then hidden away and only shown to a few senior Evangelicals. Its author, Mark Ruston, was very concerned that Smyth’s activities may have been heretical. In particular, he believed that the canings strayed dangerously close to ‘a flirtation with Popery,’ owing to the obsession with ‘penance’ and it seems to have been that theological concern, rather than the BDSM dungeon that Smyth had created out of his garden shed that was the most troubling.

The headmaster of Winchester College banned Smyth from the premises, which mollified the fathers at least. The Evangelical capos concluded that Smyth was in error theologically, and that issue could be corrected quietly.  Smyth helped the process along by taking his collection of canes and nappies into the garden and making a bonfire out of them.

Finally, the Iwerne Trust arranged for Smyth and his family to move to Zimbabwe in 1984 with a special trust fund to cover his living expenses. There, he pretty much carried on as before only this time with African youths rather than English ones. Eventually, the heat became too much in that country, so he scampered off to South Africa and there continued in his old way until the local church expelled him. By 2018, with the story having finally broken, he very conveniently for all concerned died of a heart attack in Cape Town.

This fairly unpleasant tale is not really about Anglicanism or its Evangelical sub-section. It is actually the seemingly endless story of upper-class abuse, the sense of entitlement that those people have and the code of omerta that governs it all. By helping to break the story, Andrew Graystone has helped to shed some light into the activities, mores and attitudes of our country’s rulers and the state that exists for their benefit. That, finally, is a very good thing indeed.