Lost domain – Rouen revisited

SELBY WHITTINGHAM takes a Proustian and Ruskinian trip through his and France’s past

Rouen at last, after an interval of more than twenty-five years! Again it was August, and again the rain was sheeting down upon the glass dome of the railway station. The first time, a gawky ‘teenager’, …” So began my mother’s account of her return in 1950 to where she had once stayed with a rich bourgeois family.

Her first visit had been not long after the death of Proust, who once visited Rouen Cathedral in an attempt to find the little figure on the Portail des Libraires which Ruskin had admired. I have never got to the end of Remembrance of Things Past, but have had a number of Proustian friends, among them two who each had a parent who had known the author. One of those helped Proust translate Ruskin’s Bible of Amiens into English.

In addition to the fact of my accompanying my mother, when I was aged just nine, on her return, my becoming a Ruskinian – a bridge between my interests in the Gothic and Turner – encouraged me later to love Rouen, and now to indulge in what is partly my own memory of the past, as Ruskin did in his Praeterita, in which he named Rouen as the first of “the three centres of my life’s thought”.

Rouen Cathedral, c. 1912. Pierre Dumont

My mother, Barbara Whittingham-Jones, would have been sixteen in 1923, the probable date of her holiday. She had spent most of her life in a Lincolnshire rectory, but her father in 1919 transferred to a parish in Liverpool, from where my grandmother came.

The family she was sent to stay with lived at the Château du Grésil between Grand-Couronne, an increasingly industrialised suburb of Rouen, and Moulineaux, from where came the British Molyneux family – to which the famous diarist Thomas Creevey belonged, being almost certainly an illegitimate son of the Earl of Sefton. The château is set back from the Avenue de Caen on Route D3, for some decades now threatened by an encroaching housing estate (named after a Paris Communard), though still backed by the historic Forest of Rouvray, where William the Conqueror is said to have had the idea of invading England.

Had the family acquired the house only recently? An advertisement in Le Gaulois: littéraire et politique on27 August 1920 reads: “PETIT CHATEAU HENRI-IV … GRÉSIL … A GRAND-COURONNE (Seine-Inférieure), avec très jolie vue, chauffage central, eau, l’arc de 4 hectares [=c.10 acres] entouré de murs. Prix 175,000 francs. S’adresser sur place à M. LAURENT VILLÉGIATUR”. The only early record which I have found says: “au château du Grésil, la chapelle Sainte-Catherine bénie le 5 juillet 1734”. The layout of buildings both of the very small château estate (Grand Grésil) and of the even smaller one immediately to the west (Petit Grésil) remained the same as in a map of 1816, but then isolated from other habitations.

Alterations were made over the years, some recorded in the postcards that exist. One in use by 1905 shows the house from the end of the drive, on which stands a horse with its groom, with to the right the old tower of Petit Grésil. That located it in “Environs de Moulineaux”, but another dated 1914, giving a close-up view, places it in Grand-Couronne. Both show tall chimneys which were later removed. A card produced by Shell soon after 1972 (who owned the house by then, using it to accommodate engineers) shows the house covered in creeper, which doubtless had grown since the outbreak of the war in 1939. My vague memory of it in 1950 is of a place that had run wild.

My mother read history (a lifelong love) and law (for practical reasons) at Newnham College, Cambridge, being called to the bar at Gray’s Inn in 1931, aged just 24. She later became a Conservative activist (trying unsuccessfully to get elected as a councillor in a Labour ward of Liverpool) and a prominent anti-appeasement campaigner. She was living in Malaya on the outbreak of war, where she married my father, Henry R. Oppenheim, in 1940. She joined the WAAF, and then became a war correspondent after her return to England. (She and I had escaped from Singapore on the last ship home in 1942; my father later escaped in a small boat with the controversial Australian general Henry Gordon Bennett, whom he portrayed as being in a state of hysteria, while his troops had all become drunk.) Apart from her war reportage, she published on subjects ranging from Indonesia and Malaya to the history of Liverpool. Most of these now are of only specialised interest, but her article about her return trip to the château, which appeared in the January 1951 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine under the title of ‘The Adopted Son’, remains by contrast very fresh and readable.

That ‘Son’ was Benito, an Argentinian by birth. He became a favourite of his adoptive la Mère, and was also adored by my mother. In my mother’s case that may have been due to the contrast with her own mother, who could be critical and satirical. La Mêre had two other contrasting children, the pale Pierre with her first husband, and the swarthier Julietta with her second, a French diplomat at Buenos Aires. The family also consisted of the benign grand-mère, her sister the querulous tante and the second (or third?) husband, who spent weekdays at his office in Paris, avoided mass on Sundays and died soon after. There was no mention of the family in the 1950 telephone directory, but a 1936 census seems to indicate that la Mère was then head of the household, Suzanne Jourjon, born at Lille in 1883. With her were a domestique and a cook and Angelito Rodriguez, born in 1900 at Morón (a district in Buenos Aires), with Argentinian nationality and described as “régisseur” or director. I shall however continue to call the latter Benito – or ‘To, as my mother referred to him.

 “We had the run,” wrote my mother, “of the park, the orchard, and the kitchen-garden. The temptations of the orchard were irresistible. Those greengages! Large, lustrous, and yellow-gold … Immediately below the château lay the ‘field’, an unfenced sward girt by the circular drive, where the cows were tethered, tended by the lodge-keeper, Marie. Above the château loomed the forest, with its muted, velvet-carpet, its long green lanes.” The latter included the Route Forestière du Grésil some distance back from the house. The daily life was rural and simple. The local curé, “Le Grosgros”, came for a delicious lunch on Mondays, fondling La Mère’s plump forearm to the annoyance of Julietta. The latter with my mother one cold night walked through the forest to his presbytery, where they were treated to tiny glasses of Benedictine.

The Gros Horloge at Rouen, Normandy c.1832. Joseph Mallord William Turner

On Tuesdays Rouen was visited by train, calling at the fashionable patisserie and salon de thé founded in 1825, Maison Périer, 68 rue du Gros-Horloge – today, the facade little altered, the premises of the Parfumerie Nocibé. The clock tower was painted by a succession of English artists in the 1820s and 30s, mostly from the opposite direction, looking towards the cathedral with the bell tower on the right, the viewpoint taken c.1832 by Turner, who repeatedly visited Rouen, and by most later artists. But there is one by Gustave Henri Marchetti of 1920, with the bell tower on the left and the Maison Périer in the foreground on the right, the street filled by people in the dress of the time – as also in a photograph preserved by my mother on the front page of the Sunday Times of 8 July 1956, before the street was levelled and pedestrianised. At school about the same year my aged classics teacher brought from his stock of postcards one showing the clock tower, asking me if I knew where that was! In blogs about Rouen, people still recall the patisserie as a popular and chic rendezvous up until the 1970s.

The Gros Horloge, c. 1920. Gustave Henri Marchetti

We revisited the patisserie too in 1950, walking from the blackened and closed cathedral. An old assistant had not seen la Mère since before the war. Nothing daunted, we dashed to the modern bus station to catch the autocar, which after breaking down deposited us by the château entrance. The house was in a sorry state, the salon destroyed by a shell, other rooms bare except for the bedroom of la Mère, who had died the previous April, and which Benito had kept untouched during the war. In the neglected orchard Benito gave me the largest apple I have ever seen. Talleyrand once wrote “He who has not lived in the eighteenth century before the Revolution does not know the sweetness of life”. What would he have said on seeing the château, and Rouen, in 1950?

Rouen Cathedral, 1946, W. Carl Berger

Our unannounced visit resulted, after recognition, in warm greetings and exchanges of memories. One was of a struggle over a gun between Pierre and Julietta which caused a bullet to graze my mother’s ear and splinter the panel of a door in the hall. Benito (or ‘To, as my mother called him) pointed to the replacement panel which had been made at the time.

One of the walks Julietta and my mother used to take through the forest was to a clearing with a Franco-Prussian War monument of two or three French soldiers reeling beneath the swords or bayonets of Prussians in spiked helmets. Some years after her visit my mother was at Heidelberg, where she met a handsome and fascist Prussian student, whom she now called Conrad von Hunziker, and who, in a neat ending to her story, brutally occupied the château in 1940.

The Latin charm of Benito, combined with the fact that my mother’s great-uncle and two of his sons had lived in Buenos Aires, then a major trading partner of Britain, may have sparked in her a desire to see that city. According to my grandmother, the invitation to stay with the family was due to a business connection between it and my great-grandfather, a manufacturer and exporter of paint. Again according to my grandmother, who, so my grandfather said, liked sometimes to embroider her stories, my mother, accompanied Randolph Churchill on a trip to South America to report on an upheaval there, but arrived after it had ended (probably the 1932-5 Chaco War between Bolivia and Paraguay). Randolph arrived at Buenos Aires on 7 June, being ordered by his father to return home “forthwith” to deal with a libel case. He got back on 2 July, the day when my mother’s surviving journal begins.

On 23 September, for a meeting at Penny Lane in Liverpool, she borrowed her aunt’s large Austin (both going strong over 35 years later), commenting, “Had she [her aunt] known that the car of a liberal-pacifist-vegetarian was to be used for a Churchill–Tory-platform, how she’d have writhed.” The following year a spoof advertisement, showing such a car with my mother at the wheel and Randolph beside her, heralded the “New Randy-Jones … Two Lung Power – Free Squealing – Double Ball Bearing … any colour except orange.” Orange was both the Labour colour and stood for the ultra-Protestants in the city.

Randolph had split the Tory vote by standing as an independent in a still remembered Liverpool by-election in January 1935. How he and my mother got thrown together was partly due to their joint attacks on the local Conservative caucus, controlled by Sir Thomas White – hence the suit for libel, which had been instigated by White. Both Winston and Randolph occasionally said they were not Conservatives, but Whigs. In her various writings on Liverpool politics, my mother described the seven different political clubs of a century earlier supporting a whole gamut of opinions, the Conservatives opposing their corporation fellows sporting the colour red, as she did. She was drawn to the more liberal end of Conservatism and later may have voted Labour and Liberal in turn, being studiously vague because of her attachment to the historic secrecy of the ballot and a love of mystification. Winston Churchill became a radical Liberal before returning to the Conservative fold with the help of White’s predecessor, Sir Archibald Salvidge, an Orange sympathiser, who established Liverpool as a Conservative city on the foundation of the support of working class Protestants and exclusion of Catholics – which my mother opposed, looking back to the time when Canning was a Liverpool MP supporting Catholic emancipation. Moreover, my Anglican grandfather was damned as “a rather ritualistic local vicar” by the Independent Alderman, Revd Harry Dixon Longbottom, a sort of precursor of the Revd Ian Paisley.

Her teenage holiday additionally made my mother a lifelong Francophile. When I reached the same age as she had been in 1923, she spotted a small advertisement on the front page of The Times. This sought an exchange with the eldest son of the advertiser, a former mayor of Angers, which duly occurred, instilling in me too a deep love of France.

The Chateau today

Twenty-five years later on holiday, I searched in vain, to the exasperation of my wife, the location of the Château du Grésil and the landmarks I had passed en route in the autocar from Rouen in 1950. The château is not named on modern maps, but can be found just to the left of the Rue Eugène Pottier (1816-87, the Communard revolutionary), on a circular drive joined to a straight one from Route D3. In the archives there are online maps one of 1813 and another later, undated one. These show two small estates: Hameau du Grand Grésil and, just to the west, Hameau du Petit Grésil, the latter presumably the one with the tower seen in later photos. The layout of the buildings in each estate was the same and conforms to what exist today. Later maps of 1961 also exist.

Monsieur Benito had died in 1972, fourteen years after my mother’s death. His true identity until now remained hidden, as my mother wanted to respect the family’s privacy and besides, as already remarked, enjoyed occasional mystification. He had told her that he had adopted the grandson of Marie the lodge keeper, born illegitimately in the same year as myself. That boy was one of those who first greeted us in 1950.

Many Britons still visit Rouen, thanks to the persistent hold its history and fabric have on our national imagination – a legacy of Monet, Turner, Ruskin, Proust and less happy wartime memories. But it cannot feel as personal for many of these visitors as it does to me – a place suffused not just with artistic significance, but memories of my own boyhood, and always the powerful presence of my mother. The Cathedral may have been restored, some old town streets can still be seen, and even the Château still stands – but it all feels increasingly distant, a domain as lost as Alain-Fournier’s ‘Les Sablonnières’ – a France, and a Europe, increasingly emptied of an ineffable “sweetness of life”.

Further reading

Ian Warrell, Turner on the Seine, Tate Gallery, pp.162-91

 J.Morlent, Voyage Historique et Pittoresque du Havre à Rouen sur la Seine, en Bateau à Vapeur, 1829 (copy owned by Turner)

 John Murray, Hand-Book for Travellers in France, being a Guide to Normandy etc., 3rd ed. Revised, John Murray 1848 (copy owned by Ruskin)

 The Traveller’s Handbook for Normandy & Brittany, Thos. Cook & Son, 1923

 J.G.Links, The Ruskins in Normandy: A Tour in 1848 with Murray’s Hand-book, John Murray 1968

 Géraldine Lefebvre, Léon Monet, frère de l’artiste et collectionneur, Musée du Luxembourg, Paris, 15 March-16 July 2023

 Churchill Archive, Churchill College, Cambridge

 Paul Nuttall, ‘Whiteballed’: Randolph Churchill, The Conservative Union and the Liverpool Conservative Party, 1935, 2020

 Josh Ireland, Churchill & Son, 2021

 Randolph Churchill, The Young Unpretender. Essays by his friends collected and introduced by Kay Halle, 1971. (Michael Foot recalled attending one of Randolph’s meetings in the Wavertree by-election, when Randolph cried “And who is responsible for putting Liverpool where she is today?” prompting a voice from the back of the hall, “Blackburn Rovers!”)

 Anita Leslie [sister of the unconventional Irish baronet, Shane Leslie, 1916-2016, Légion d’honneur 2015], Cousin Randolph: Life of Randolph Churchill, Hutchinson 1985

Arturo Bray (1898-1974), Armas y Letras (Memorias), 3 vols, 1981 etc

Spruille Braden, Diplomats and Demagogues, New York 1971

Joyce’s sense of history

Jacques-Emile Blanche 1861-1942. Portrait of James Joyce
MICHAEL YOST explores Joyce’s life, work, and theory of art

Homer’s Odyssey begins thus: “ἄνδρα μοι ἔννεπε, μοῦσα, πολύτροπον…” or, in translation: “The man, to me, sing, O Muse, many-sided. . .”His word “polutropon” has been rendered as referring to a man “of twists and turns,” “of many devices” and, more recently and bathetically, “complicated.”  But in whichever translation one prefers, I could think of no better passage of literature with which to introduce James Augustine Aloysius Joyce.

Joyce himself interwove the warp of his artistic identity around the woof of several imaginary literary identities; most famously, Odysseus and Hamlet. Yet no matter whether we look through the world of Joyce’s creation through the eyes of Leopold Bloom, Joyce’s mock-heroic man of twists and turns, or watch Stephen Dedalus wrestle with his mother’s ghost, we are always looking through Joyce’s eyes. He never removes all of his masks. But neither does he ever seem to be wearing one. To read him is to be immersed in a delicate stream of emotional, physiological and mental observations that seems to belie the real intricacies of his craftsmanship. The intended effect is minutely historical; we are reading the collected and transfigured experiences of the author. Whenever we read Joyce, we are, in a sense, reading history. Or rather, we are reading personal historical experience that has been atomically restructured into story and myth.

It is no secret that Joyce was deeply interested in setting up a place for himself in the literary history of Europe, but he was also driven to arrange and rearrange his own history within it. If, as T. S. Eliot put it, Joyce makes use of a “mythological method,” he does so only to frame personal or individual history as myth, if we accept myth to be, very broadly, a story told about somebody that is really a story about everybody. For example, we see Joyce’s proclivity towards the grand, operatic gesture in the very titles of his works: Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, Ulysses, The Exiles, and last, and certainly least read, Finnegans Wake.

Just as Dubliners is not merely a collection of vignettes, but a series of symbolic miniatures that, taken either together or individually, make up Joyce’s obsessively rendered critique of Ireland’s capital, so Portrait is not merely an autobiographical künstlerroman, but a depiction of the journey every true artist must undergo, if we abide by Joyce’s definition of the term as “a priest of the eternal imagination” (which he obviously thought applied perfectly to himself. If, as Joyce said to Marie Jolas (wife and collaborator with Eugene Jolas of transition fame), “In Ireland Catholicism is black magic,” then the real hero of Stephen Hero was, by contrast, attempting to practice something like literary white magic. When we reach Ulysses, we see Joyce’s method a little more clearly. Here he emerges as an architectonic creator on par with the mythical Dedalus or the historical Dante. Joyce’s choice of names (Dedalus and Ulysses or Stephen and Finnegan) conjure up not only notion of sojourning, craft, deceit, and labyrinthine cunning, but also of heroism, martyrdom, and the possibility of resurrection and return. We know from the beginning that Joyce is attempting something on a grand scale; an epic, but also something in which the multifaceted and constantly changing specie of perception and imagination can subsist, like an illuminated text from the Book of Kells, of which Joyce said:

In all the places I have been to, Rome, Zurich, Trieste, I have taken it about with me, and have pored over its workmanship for hours. It is the most purely Irish thing we have, and some of the big initial letters which swing right across a page have the essential quality of a chapter of Ulysses. Indeed, you can compare much of my work to the intricate illuminations.[i]

This method of transposing history into a superstructure of myth, (or, as we shall see later, of aesthetic philosophy) is also evident when we consider Joyce’s practice as a craftsman.

We can discern a repeating pattern in Joyce’s compositional method. First he creates a text, or texts, in which he musters his characters. He develops this to a greater or lesser extent, then abandons it, having since (with his characters now in situ) re-conceived it. He then newly develops the re-imagined version, occasionally cannibalising the earlier texts in the process. Thus we have A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man emerging from the fragments of Stephen Hero, Ulysses emerging from the fragments of a sequel to A Portrait, from Giacomo Joyce, and from a planned but unwritten Dubliners story (also called Ulysses).  His big books are, in a sense, a two-step process, a single step being too high a climb. The ur-works are like enzymes precipitating his creativity. [ii]

Such a statement ought to convince us of the sheer systematic effort with which Joyce crafted his work. We must also see on reading him, that one of his models, if not in style, yet in structure, is the Summa Theologica, insofar as the project of a systematic philosopher such as Aquinas is to create a whole out of parts, in which, to use a quotation from Schiller, “quietly and unceasingly he directs the greatest force upon the smallest point.” In such a system, the influence and weight of the whole is felt in each part, and the whole is itself a work of consummate artistry in which each part is ordered toward the achievement and weight of the whole. As Joyce himself wrote of Finnegan’s Wake: “every word can be justified.” But what, in the ultimate sense, is this justification? As I suggested earlier, it is nothing more or less than history itself.

In Dubliners, for example, the role of history is obvious. Joyce wished to bring Ireland to an examination of conscience. As he wrote to Grant Richards, a London publisher who would have the care of Dubliners, in 1906:

My intention was to write a chapter of the moral history of my country and I chose Dublin for the scene because that city seemed to me the centre of paralysis. I have tried to present it to the indifferent public under four of its aspects: childhood, adolescence, Maturity, and public life. The stories are arranged in this order.

They were, he said, written “in a style of scrupulous meanness” with a complete commitment to representing exactly what he had seen. . . The Irish, he declared, needed to look at themselves.” [iii] History, in this case, is directed towards a kind of national confession, in which the repressed, unrepresented, subterranean evils of the subject’s psyche are made known in all their filth-bespattered amplitude. However, we should not imagine that Joyce did not re-arrange his experiences with an eye towards his own artistic goals. Such a merely documentary ‘realism’ would be far from him, as his later works show. In any case, in Joyce’s infamous correspondence with his wife, we see a similar desire to simultaneously hide and to disclose what Joyce, prior to his apostasy, would have known as sin. This confessional turn, which Joyce uses to wallow in sensuous and often disgusting detail, is a paradoxical counterpart to the ‘matter-of-factness’ that is the basis of Joyce’s fantasia.

But this sense of degradation is also, clearly, a projection. It was not the only projection that Joyce would make of himself and his inner states upon an unsuspecting world. A single reading of Exiles serves to confirm for the reader Joyce’s irritating, pompous, hyper-romantic level of self-concern. The main character is a nearly un-veiled version of Joyce, as the other characters are thinly veiled versions of Nora Barnacle, his son Giorgio, and other associates. It is a failure in the same way that Portrait is a success: in a way, we never step beyond the realm of Joyce’s imagination. In the same way, Joyce incorporates and re-schematizes Dublin in Ulysses, famously claiming that he wanted to write the book so that it could be used to rebuild the city if need be. Christ said he would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days; Joyce fragments, coalesces, warps and congeals Dublin in the space of one. Here, history is the substance, the prima materia of artistic creation. It was to be so always with Joyce.

Yet Joyce, even in his lyric poetry, reaches towards the impersonal control of a creative demiurge. But although in Portrait, one sees a picture of Joyce-as-Stephen, his tongue as sharp as a sword, and his mind full to the brim of syllogisms, distinctions, and all the rest of the furniture of his Jesuitical-Scholastic education; by the time he re-appears in Ulysses, he is embarking on a screaming bender with Buck Mulligan. Likewise, from the time after he proclaimed his emancipation from Ireland, Catholicism, and his family, Joyce’s life as an exile was in a continual state of shipwreck. Much like his father John Joyce, James was a drunk, a narcissist, a pervert, and a spendthrift, frequenting brothels and regularly eschewing the responsibilities of a husband, father, son, and brother. He was an arrogant dandy, iconoclastic, cynical, and boorish, who “loved obscene words, ‘savoring them like candy.’[iv]” He contracted venereal diseases that may have caused the deterioration of his eyesight. After his marriage to Nora, he worried (rightly) about his potential for abusive behaviour, the kind which we see again and again in the fathers and husbands of Dubliners. By this time, Joyce’s utterly sottish father had once attempted to strangle his long-suffering, highly religious mother, only to be wrestled ignominiously to the floor by John Stanislaus, Joyce’s younger brother, who would, at great personal cost, bear Joyce’s financial burdens for much of Joyce’s life. It takes very little effort to see to what degree Joyce’s obsessions, sins, and failings were bound up with those elements of himself that he believed to be most important: his vocation as an artist, his apostasy, his devotion to his own freedom, et al. He suffered much, at his own hands and at those of others. But whether it was self-inflicted or not, it was all, in a sense, a martyrdom.

Adolf Hoffmeister. James Joyce, 1966

On the theoretical side, this failure of The Exiles comes, in part, from an inability on the artist’s part to live up to his own aesthetic theory. An understanding of the course of Joyce’s career, taken alongside the aesthetic theory advanced in Portrait, shows us while Exiles was attempted, but also why it failed, and why Ulysses and Finnegans Wake followed.  In Portrait, Stephen holds forth on his advancement of Thomistic aesthetic statements with the perverse and bestial Lynch: “Aquinas says ad pulchritudinem tria requiruntur, integritas, consonantia, claritas. I translate it so: Three things are needed for beauty, wholeness, harmony, and radiance.”  These, according to Stephen, correspond to the order of knowing. In his terms, we apprehend something in its “wholeness” when we see it as a unity, as one thing which is distinct from others. We apprehend the “harmony” of a thing when we grasp the nature of its internal order in what Stephen terms “the rhythm of its structure.” We grasp that “it is a thing.” We “apprehend it as complex. . . made up of its parts, the result of its parts and their sum. . .” At the third step, we reach what Aquinas terms “claritas.”

Here, Stephen brings to our attention the fact that he has chosen to translate this word in a certain way:

It baffled me for a long time. It would lead you to believe that he had in mind. . . the supreme quality of beauty being a light from some other world, the idea of which the matter is but the shadow, the reality of which it is but the symbol. I thought he might mean that claritas is the artistic discovery and representation of the divine purpose in anything or a force of generalization which would make the esthetic image a universal one, make it outshine its proper conditions.[v]

In other words, a certain aesthetic philosophy threatens to become, for the newly fledged Stephen Dedalus, an aesthetic theology. It is a crucial moment for the “thoughtenchanted” boy. “But that,” he concludes, “is literary talk.” By this he means, with an echo of Ibsen trembling in the vibrations of his voice, that it is unreal. Rather, he returns, “You see that it is that thing which it is and no other thing. The radiance of which he speaks in the scholastic quidditas, the whatness of a thing. This supreme quality is felt by the artist when the esthetic image is first conceived in his imagination.[vi]” Rather than a transcendental, ‘Platonic’, theological aesthetic, Joyce, through Stephen, yokes his brand of Thomism to the wagon of materialist realism, rejecting outright the link between species and their genera, between universals and particulars, and between his art and God. In other words: non serviam. The affirmation of the term “quidditas,” usually referring to the formal qualities that a thing shares with others, should not fool anyone. Here, Stephen quite clearly uses the word to mean something closer to another scholastic term: “haecceitas,” which refers to the material, rather than the formal distinction between beings that might otherwise be members of one species. It is this obsession with a thing’s material particularity that plainly marks Joyce’s artistic concerns and style.

But Stephen quickly passes over into a consideration of the three genres of literature: lyric, epic, and dramatic insofar as they correspond to the three qualities of beauty:

…the lyrical form, the form wherein the artist presents his image in immediate relation to himself; the epical form, the form wherein he presents his image in mediate relation to himself and to others; the dramatic form, the form wherein he presents his image in immediate relation to others.

It is worthy of note that Joyce himself composed or attempted to compose in each of these three genres. Chamber Music, his first collection of poems, was published in 1907, but had been distilled and arranged from a mass of verse written while Joyce was still in Dublin. In that same year, Joyce began adapting Stephen Hero into Portrait,and was still trying, as he would until 1914, to find a publisher who would take Dubliners without major changes. The original title of his first novel, Stephen Hero, gives a suggestion of ambitions towards the epic, as per the English ballad Turpin Hero. If we accept the Joycean definition of “epical”, we see that Portrait does define Joyce’s relationship with himself relative to others within this work. That might be said, in fact, to be the burden of the novel. But of course, Portrait begins with the bedtime story being told to Stephen in the third person, and ends with fragments of Stephen’s diary, written in the first person. By the time we reach Finnegans Wake, Joyce has truly disappeared, “like the God of creation. . . within or behind or beyond or above his handiwork, invisible, refined out of existence, indifferent, paring his fingernails.[vii]” But the material is the same: Joyce’s impressions, his fragmentary sensations and observations, his literary tics and typical menagerie of references to Shakespeare, the Tridentine Mass, and the Irish mythos. But as Joyce himself claims: the more the artist approaches the “claritas” in which the “quiddity” of his art is known to his reader, the more he himself retreats, though his image remains. His fiat creates, transforms, the flux into a thing. Here is the ultimate use of history: not simply to rearrange the past, but to re-present it, and to draw our attention more closely to its reality, and to the quiddity of things; to define them, and to reveal them for what they are. To return for a moment to Stephen’s earlier interpretation of claritas as the radiance of quiddity: it should be clear now that for Joyce, words are imitative of language, not symbolic of them. Because things are nothing more or less than themselves, words must be nothing more than themselves, or at least, their imitative objects. Consider Stephen’s attention to the onomatopoeic qualities of the word “suck.”

Suck was a queer word. The fellow called Simon Moonan that name because Simon Moonan used to tie the prefect’s false sleeves behind his back and the prefect used to let on to be angry. But the sound was ugly. Once he had washed his hands in the lavatory of the Wicklow Hotel and his father pulled the stopper up by the chain after and the dirty water went down through the hole in the basin. And when it had all gone down slowly the hole in the basin had made a sound like that: suck. Only louder.

The word “suck” is not defined. It is felt. And herein lies an artistic challenge for Joyce. A word has no meaning beyond itself, as an object has no meaning beyond itself. There are no genera for Joyce, only species, and thus every object and experience become, ultimately, a thing unto themselves; the single member of a species of one, as St. Thomas says, for very different reasons, of the angels in paradise. Here we reach, perhaps, the place where Joyce’s aesthetic begins to devour itself in contradictions. Joyce has written works and passages of works that are truly unique in literature, and seem likely to remain so. He has created beauty. But he attempted to express things that were, perhaps, uncommunicable when he attempted to ground words almost utterly in the material, accidental eccentricities, of the ever-changing river of history, rather than on the formal, natural, essential qualities that are, in themselves, knowable. He may well have ended, not falling to the earth on burning wings, but rather trapped in a labyrinth of his own design.


Joyce, James, Ulysses, Modern Library Edition, Random House Inc., New York, 1992

Joyce, James, The Portable James Joyce, Penguin Books, London, 1976

Joyce, James, Finn’s Hotel, Ithys Press, 2013

Bowker, Gordon, James Joyce: A New Biography, Farrar, Straus, & Giroux, New York, 2012

Ellmann, Richard, James Joyce, Oxford University Press, USA, 1983

[i] James Joyce to Arthur Power, Ellmann, Richard, James Joyce, Oxford University Press, USA, 1983, p.545

[ii] From Danis Rose’s preface to Finn’s Hotel (Ithys Press, 2013)

[iii] Ibid

[iv] Ibid, p. 234.

[v] Joyce, James, The Portable James Joyce, Penguin Books, London, 1976, pg. 480

[vi] Ibid, p. 480-481

[vii] Joyce, James, The Portable James Joyce, Penguin Books, London, 1976, p. 483

Last flowers of Bloom

Harold Bloom
STODDARD MARTIN remembers a dedicated litterateur’s late works

One can hardly think but with affection of Harold Bloom, addict of the Word, historic lover of literature, and coiner of the phrase “anxiety of influence” among other more recondite tags.

It would be invidious not to feel that affection when considering his final books, compendious and repetitive though they may be, composed or compiled as they were during bouts of convalescence between the illnesses that led to his corporeal silence in 2019, aged eighty-nine. It is likely that more words from the indefatigable commentator may be stored up yet to come, editing angels and publishing deities willing. The prospect is daunting, to some perhaps dismaying, for after seven decades of pronouncements, more Bloom may seem less.

Of the supreme enunciator of literary rankings in recent times – “probably the most famous literary critic in the English-speaking world” of his day – posterity might require for a tidy canon. But tidy Bloom is not. In his 2019 book Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism, the idealiser of Falstaff and his perceived form of “heroic vitalism”[1] tacitly put faith in excess. Bloom’s object, insofar as it ever went beyond an exuberant autodidact’s self-revelations, was to provoke more than to instruct (Possessed, p12 – all subsequent page numbers refer to this book). “I am a Nietzschean,” he declares in the last of his provisional last words (p79) after a lifetime of enthusiasm for the philosopher’s kindred spirits, such as W. B. Yeats. Thus at the end, like the author of Ecce Homo when approaching fatal dispersion into madness, Bloom eerily claims: “Something in me speaks for multitudes around the globe.” (p11)

“Oh my brothers!” is Zarathustra’s refrain, and Bloom never tired of projecting that he was carrying on a dialogue with colleagues and students, whether at Cornell, Yale or Cambridge where a boy from a Yiddish-speaking immigrant family earned degrees, or at the same or similarly distinguished institutions where a publicity-loving adult would ultimately profess. First person plural is the mode. Bloom’s method as critic was conversational, sometimes ingratiating, especially in books where he might indulge in a lifetime’s penchant for having the last word. Why argue with him? Listen. Admire. Reflect. Then, perhaps, carry on a silent conversation of one’s own in the watches of night – those insomniac hours in which, as he tells us, Bloom had his most fertile ideas and, when not idealizing, lay awake reciting favourite works to the shades – incanting, as if a religious at prayer.

This is the milieu. And it determines content. Bloom’s canon finally includes, from the beginning, what he considers to be the great literary passages of “the Hebrew Bible” (Old Testament), for as he says, beyond having become Sterling Professor of Humanities at Yale, Charles Eliot Norton Professor at Harvard, recipient of the American Academy of Arts and Letters Gold Medal for Belles Lettres and Criticism, etc., he is “a literary and religious critic” (emphasis mine), whose “tradition is dying” and whose dying wish is “to rally a saving remnant”(p11). Again, a note of Nietzschean messianism, if perhaps with a hint of the disingenuous tendency of that other heroic vitalist (“the Fat Knight”) to humour and guff, “nimble believing and disbelieving”.

The lifelong lover of Shakespeare ascribes these qualities to Hamlet, whom he sees as “his own Falstaff… a consciousness so enormous that it contains all of human self-otherseeing” (p112). It might be a description of what Bloom aspired to be himself; it is also what he finds lacking in the Hebrew God – Yahweh, a dislikable presence for him at almost every turn, despite his Jewish roots. Here the old Bloom, whose early literary critical self started with Shelley, returns to youthful insurgency. Something is wrong in the heavens, as it was for the renegade Romantic: Prometheus punished by Jupiter is dealing with a false God or at least a faulty one – there is better beyond, in the pleroma. Gnosticism is in the air, and Bloom inhales it, lauding the work of his late “mentor” Gershom Scholem and concentrating passing attention on Scholem’s special study, the Kabbalah. “I have spent part of a lifetime,” Bloom states, “trying to work out a pragmatic relationship between Kabbalah and literary criticism” (p20). The provisionality implied here is matched by an achievement that is opaque and fragmentary. Bloom links Kabbalah and poetry both to “heretical subversions of orthodoxy”, “salvation by transgression”, “the frontier between the sacred and the profane” and no requirement to complete the Great Work but no freedom to desist in the attempt (pps23-5).

A Christian attempt to unravel Kabbalism, by the 16th/17th century thinker Heinrich Khunrath

From here it is small distance to Blake, Whitman and others of Bloom’s un-Leavisite “great tradition”, grounded in English literature fundamentally not only on Shakespeare but more portentously on Milton’s Satan. However – and here is an essential, perhaps under-recognised element in Bloom – heresy is only a pretext for a new/old orthodoxy and God. For Bloom’s ultimate standard is breadth and depth of vision, a vastness of sensibility and inclusion, reminding one perhaps of what a critic once complained of in the French symboliste Mallarmé: a sense that anything less than the all-embracing might be presumptuous[2].

Bloom, in short, disliking the Yahweh of tradition, sets out in effect to descry a truer God – humane, non-vindictive, invisible but glimpsed beyond Demogorgon up in starrier heavens. Like Shelley’s Prometheus being liberated from his bonds, the tireless yet mortally ill individual must rely on a bevy of maidens to help him complete the job – seven female assistants are named at the start of Possessed by Memory. This could be interpreted as Kabbalistic in the sense of Bloom’s contention that the proper mystical Yahweh can only function with aid from the Moon Queen or female spirit that resides in Malkuth, foundational pod of the Sefiroth [EDITOR’S NOTE: The Sefiroth are ten attributes of emotion, intellect or will in Kabbalistic esotericism]; it might also bring to mind accusations of “inappropriate” attention to female students that marked the professor’s later years.

Be that as it may, the inclusions in his excursion towards a summatory roundup of values betray composition by many hands: sketches, bits of lectures, notes from seminars are the basis, even in one case a funeral address. The authorial scholar gives way to the genial teacher, whose mission is foremost to enthuse. Possessed is designed to tell us why a dying man has recalled this passage or that poem and what is outstanding about it. It is a trawl, a last judgement on the canonical, as per a decent God’s instincts. And why not? Many an ailing scholar would love to engage in such a pastime, and Bloom’s range is such that he is almost always engaging at it – almost being the lively interlocutor’s operative word. In difference lies interest, in qualifications glided over or simply not made, in enthusiasms too grandly stated.

The Fat Knight Falstaff, for Bloom an exemplar of ‘heroic vitalism’

Falstaff, for instance, is not for this reader the exemplar that he is for Bloom, nor do the plays in which he appears seem the Bard’s best. Bloom has little time for the Marlovian in Shakespeare, speaks dismissively of Hotspur, and ignores the coruscating soliloquies of that supreme Machiavel, Richard. He is intriguing about the bastard Faulconbridge in the oft-neglected King John, but says little of comedies which now may strike the ear as warm-ups for Blackadder. As to Milton, he admits with Dr Johnson that few read him with pleasure (p176); re Johnson himself, he forgives eccentric pomposities. Bloom is of a generation of American Jewish scholars who began in awe of English literary tradition. He does not rate the deviations of Pound and Eliot towards Europe, attention to Dante excepted. The superior art of Baudelaire earns from him no more than an aside in a discussion of Swinburne (p301).

Walt Whitman, whom Bloom considered the greatest American poet

Much else is missing. Where for instance is Wilde, save in apt citation of a quote from ‘The Critic as Artist’ as the book’s epigraph? As for Wilde’s countryman Yeats: is he quite understood? In these summatory pages, how much space does old Bloom accord to a signal figure of his youth? His trajectory now, whatever it was in journeyman days and however much he may remain haunted by Shakespeare and Shelley, is towards fellow Americans – those who, unlike Eliot and Pound, did not “beat out [their] exile” but stayed home to “make [their] pact”, to borrow from the latter, Whitman-as-internationalist, as Bloom resolutely won’t. The god who stands at the head of American poetic tradition is for Bloom the seminal incantor – psalmic “transumptor” – of Leaves of Grass. Whitman the untidy, the vastly inclusive proto-Zarathustran – in him the professor finds a lodestone more congenial than in an Irishman whose attention to craft moved George Moore to depict him coming down to lunch at Coole Park to report to Lady Gregory that his morning’s work had consisted of removing a comma which he later restored[3]. Whitman’s incontinence, like Falstaff’s, if wilder, exposes another facet of “heroic vitalist” genius chez dying Bloom. Might we conclude that, in the light of his disintegration, a coherence strained for in youth seems no longer essential – analogous to how for the late Turner a glimmer of sun through vague clouds became preferable as subject to the detail of ship and sail? One suspects it to be partly the case. Bloom alludes en passant to Yeats’ “Byzantium poems”, but the exactitude of “hammered gold and gold enamelling” is hardly seen as a destiny. Bloom may live on as critic or at least enthuser: penning fifty-odd books suggests aspiration to transcendence beyond mere bodily existence. But if he lives on, Bloom is liable to do so as the critic permissive rather than the critic precise.

Again, why not? The third of four parts of Possessed by Memory begins to judder and creak as it extends Anglo tradition to snippets from the canonical Browning and Meredith; but the fourth part, commencing with its long devotion to Whitman, moves to some eye-opening appreciations, not only of the predictable Stevens, Williams and Crane, but more appealingly of the less obvious Edward Arlington Robinson and Conrad Aiken among others. With Aiken, comparison to his Harvard classmate Eliot leads to a fuller understanding of why Bloom felt antipathy for the most celebrated Anglo-American voice of the past century. That said, Bloom’s account of Aiken’s work falls short of full praise, and his explanation for why Aikens failed to reach “the eminence” of “Robert Frost and Wallace Stevens, Thomas Stearns Eliot and Hart Crane” seems partly to tell against itself – “Associative rhetoric was both Aiken’s mode and, sadly, his weakness. He did not try to make it new but to augment the foundations by relying upon the major poets of the Romantic tradition.” (p393)

Might this not be a description of Bloom’s own approach as critic? Might one even go so far as to see it as either a veil drawn over a latent, counter-canonical preference for poets of Aikens’ pitch or a subconscious admission of Bloom’s own less than supreme rank as critic? These are not idle questions. Somerset Maugham once famously quipped that his status as writer was in the first rank of the second rate. The false modesty hardly strained to disguise a popular novelist’s healthy antipathy for experimental modernists whom a cognoscenti lionized, but the common reader found unreadable: Woolf, Joyce and so on. Bloom, when set alongside the Derrida-ists, Deconstructionists, Structuralists and such fashionable ‘critics’ of his epoch, might strike one analogously as among the first rank of the middle-brow.

John Ashbery, by David Shankbone. Wikimedia Commons

Like Maugham in The Summing Up, Bloom laces his learned observations with recollection. His remarks on one of two women included in a 500-page book, May Swenson, pivot on their meetings at a café in Greenwich Village in the 1960s. His discussion of the original and vitalist ex-soldier Richard Eberhardt stems from a lecture tour at the University of Florida, where Eberhardt frightened him with the campus alligator. Bloom’s account of the master of negation, Weldon Kees, begins with an encounter at a jazz club in Harlem. Longer pieces on lesser-knowns such as Archie Randolph Ammons or Alvin Feinman are founded on yet closer association, as is the inclusion on John Ashbery, with whom Bloom’s “friendship has been continuous these sixty years… I have just phoned him at the Whittier Rehabilitation Center where he is recovering rather slowly from double pneumonia” (p431). Illness and age are constant companions in these last works, not notably cheerful ones, rather ones with whom Bloom struggles manfully to come to terms, never quite achieving reconciliation with, let alone joy in, observation of their processes – intrinsic to life, after all, thus a subset of the “heroic vital”. Bloom resists falling back into angry, non-accepting “rage, rage against the dying of the light”; rather he strives to win from these ultimate confrontations a revitalised urgency and heightened appreciation. He can still read, or be read to, and hear. He can still idealize and recite in the watches of night. Most of all he can remember. Which brings us to the ‘coda’ of the book, Proustianly entitled “In Search of Lost Time”.

Before one arrives there, one must be reconciled with Bloom’s subjectivity. One has to accept that his judgments have often to do with where he could most comfortably locate himself; that his “we” posits a community both transitory and presumptuous; that his lordly opinions, such as that Hart Crane is the great American poet after Whitman and Dickinson, may pass as gospel without being convincingly preached; that he gives himself grace to make errors and to speculate beyond what accords with known facts; that he settles scores on occasion – against Saul Bellow,  for instance (p416) – and will not always refrain from resorting to guff.

What, say, is the sense of a sentence such as “His consciousness was a plenum that could have created a heterocosm, where space and sun might have made another world” (p430)? From here it is not far to complain of Bloom’s cherished inventions such as “self-othering” or “transumptive”. But let it pass. Bloom is a character in his literary universe. He is too Shakespearean not to put a high, perhaps excessive, value on personality. That he has a big one has been part of his “body of fate”, to use a Yeats term; Bloom has embraced and cultivated it, and created a space for it to exist in and flourish and suffer. Irritating this may be, but one can also be glad for it. Bloom himself becomes a standard, not just what he says: a brand, an embodiment of forces to reckon with, if not revere – something of a god. Apotheosis may not be a fate he has worked for entirely nakedly, but he has certainly flirted with it often, notwithstanding the trademark baggy garb of being “human, all-too-human”.

God incarnate in Bloom? Will He live on as Holy Ghost? Close to his physical end, Bloom muses: “When we die, our own survival will be the extent to which we have changed the lives of those who come after us… I have to consider how little I know of time to come. Doubtless it is better that way. Foretelling can be destructive.” (p507) His coda to Possessed begins in this way to evince a becoming humility. Before sojourning with Proust, he recalls Saint Augustine’s conversations with his mother about God’s eternal light. The aptness is to what Bloom characterises as Proust’s “sublime lucidity”, which transcends Jewish and Christian roots to be “closer to Hindu philosophy”. While admitting that Proust probably never read the Bhagavad-Gita, Bloom invokes it.

Marcel Proust, for Bloom a kind of Gnostic seeker

Shortly afterwards, he qualifies a roving meditation by confessing, “I have the realisation or fantasy that simultaneously I know everything and nothing” (p481). This precedes recollection of moments of “sudden radiance” in early childhood, which “seem now to be heretical intimations of a lost gnosis” (p487). Proust’s similar epiphanies, Bloom muses, may stem from “worship of an unknown God who is yet knowable” (p492); in any case, the novelist’s truth “is compounded of perception, involuntary memory, impressionism, a search for spiritual meaning, and a kind of aesthetic mysticism” (p497). Is this not Bloom’s “truth” in a mirror? The presiding return of “childlike vision” is for him, as for Proust, “allied to phantasmagoria and to the world of dreams… modified delirium” (p501). Here one might end, or with association of “the survival of the inner self with a world founded upon benignity” (p503), or with a largeness that “could be at once atheist and mystic” (p505). But Bloom actually concludes by reverting to Dr Johnson, whose wisdom allows for ebb as well as a flow that chez Proust is continuous. Bloom has indeed already undercut his paean to In Search of Lost Time by stating that he would choose Richardson’s Clarissa in preference to it. Why? Because the heroine and her rapist lover are “more vital”.

One trusts this no more than one might accept Mozart’s sympathy to be with the survivors rather than with the deposed libertine at the end of Don Giovanni. Bloom’s coda, brave as it is in conveying what remains at the approach of his earthly dissolution, conveys one back towards his penultimate book, which occupies a more preliminary stage in the process and thus may constitute a more reliable summing-up of a career of concentrated literary contemplation.

W B Years in 1908

The book is less given to reminiscence and enthusiasm, though some is ever present. There are no chapters devoted to lesser talents such as John Wheelwright, James Merrill, Jay Macpherson or Amy Clampit, with whom Bloom ends his pre-coda trawl in Possessed. Among those, notably Merrill, Bloom remains ready to deviate back to consideration of his traditional greats: he cites phone calls “in which we explored W. B. Yeats’s A Vision, the Gnostic religion, and the relation of Yeats to Shelley and to Blake” (p449). Reader, take note. Bloom subsumes the Irish poet here to two English Romantics whom he has consistently ranked as the foremost. He glides from A Vision to Scholem’s topic as if Yeats’s mystico-historic text were self-evidently Gnostic. He considers the matter no further except to say “I suspect that Yeats would not have taken to James Merrill’s poetry” (p453), then somewhat conversely he postulates that in Merrrill’s poetry “the Byzantium of William Butler Yeats hovers and is deftly evaded” (p456). Deftly seems a loaded adverb, not least in a context where the Irish poet’s full name is iterated, as it is in most other scattered allusions to him throughout this book. Why? Shelley almost never requires “Percy Bysshe”. Is there some other Yeats that Bloom fears we may think of, or is there some more telling nuance at play??

Looking at this penultimate work, so boldly entitled Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles: the Power of the Reader’s Mind over a Universe of Death, and among chapters Bloom devotes to the usual titans – Shakespeare, Milton, Blake, Wordsworth, Shelley, Byron, Keats, Browning, Tennyson, Whitman, Frost, Stevens, Crane, Freud (eccentrically) and Dante (again, lone continental) – we find “William Butler Yeats and D. H. Lawrence: Start with the Shadow”. The title seems tricksy – it matters little: tags chez Bloom and others of his generation of academics often do. What does matter is the shadow of doubt that pervades. Bloom invokes an American favourite to contrast “three modes of mastery. In Lawrence it is chthonic. In Yeats it is occult. In Stevens it is massive acceptance of things as they are.” (p474) Proceeding to quote from one of the American’s poems, Bloom wonders if it is not “a critique by Stevens of the endless series of questing wanderers in Yeats” (p476). Endless series? “William Butler Yeats,” we are told (entire name again) “had the good fortune and the vital temperament to refuse any despair of his own quest” (p479). Are we to infer that a less “occult” sensibility should have despaired? Later, in parsing “All Souls” Night”, Bloom informs us that “the magnificence of gesture, metric, diction overcomes what could be judged sheer silliness” (p483); later still, in relation to Yeats’s alleged “pagan purpose”, we are told that “The force of his diction and metric brushes argument aside” (p485). “Devoted readers of Yeats learn that for him God and Death are one,” Bloom states, “a Gnostic formulation” (p486). This is of course arguable and reflects what Bloom is finally obliged to confess: “More than ever I have a mixed response.” (p490). He lauds “Adam’s Curse” in part to question the quality of what comes after; and when he reaches “Under Ben Bulben”, he decries a “farrago… much of it of a badness not to believed” (p497).

Old Bloom clearly had a problem with old Yeats. From a concluding phrase one might take it that he continued to rate or anyway grapple with the Irish master mainly out of an older loyalty: “The daemon in Yeats, as he acknowledged, was Shelley” (p499). This is arguable too and, at best, partial. But then, as I have indicated, partiality is characteristic of critic Bloom, in age as in youth. He is, to repeat his claim, a Nietzschean, as he fancies it: a “provoker”. A windbag like his beloved “Fat Knight”, he is more than a touch averse to fine concision. He is also no dedicated traveller in realms of magic and dream, however insomniac his nights may have been. Baudelaire comments somewhere that it would be impossible for a poet not to contain a critic but it would be prodigious for a critic to contain a poet. Harold Bloom adored poetry: of that there is no doubt. What may be lacking in him – one leaves it to weigh up – is a thoroughgoing sense of the poetic.

Harold Bloom bibliography (partial)

  • Shelley’s Mythmaking, 1959
  • The Visionary Company: A Reading of English Romantic Poetry, 1961
  • Blake’s Apocalypse: A Study in Poetic Argument, 1963
  • Yeats, 1970
  • The Ringers in the Tower: Studies in Romantic Tradition, 1971
  • The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry 1997
  • A Map of Misreading, 1975
  • Kabbalah and Criticism. 1975
  • Poetry and Repression: Revisionism from Blake to Stevens, 1976
  • Figures of Capable Imagination, 1976
  • Wallace Stevens: The Poems of our Climate, 1977
  • Deconstruction and Criticism, 1980
  • The Flight to Lucifer: A Gnostic Fantasy, 1980
  • Agon: Towards a Theory of Revisionism, 1982
  • The Breaking of the Vessels, 1982
  • The Poetics of Influence: New and Selected Criticism, 1988
  • Ruin the Sacred Truths: Poetry and Belief from the Bible to the Present, 1989
  • The Book of J: Translated from the Hebrew by David Rosenberg; Interpreted by Harold Bloom, 1990
  • The American Religion: The Emergence of the Post-Christian Nation, 1992
  • The Western Canon: The Books and School of the Ages, 1994
  • Omens of Millennium: The Gnosis of Angels, Dreams, and Resurrection. New York: Riverhead Books, 1996.
  • Shakespeare: The Invention of the Human, 1998
  • How to Read and Why, 2000
  • Stories and Poems for Extremely Intelligent Children of All Ages, 2001
  • El futur de la imaginació (The Future of the Imagination), 2002
  • Genius: A Mosaic of One Hundred Exemplary Creative Minds, 2003
  • Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, 2003
  • The Best Poems of the English Language: From Chaucer Through Frost, 2004
  • Where Shall Wisdom Be Found?, 2004
  • Jesus and Yahweh: The Names Divine, 2005
  • American Religious Poems: An Anthology By Harold Bloom, 2006
  • Fallen Angels, 2007
  • Till I End My Song: A Gathering of Last Poems, 2010
  • The Anatomy of Influence: Literature as a Way of Life, 2011
  • The Shadow of a Great Rock: A Literary Appreciation of The King James Bible, 2011
  • The Daemon Knows: Literary Greatness and the American Sublime, 2015
  • Falstaff: Give Me Life, 2017
  • Cleopatra: I Am Fire and Air, 2017
  • Lear: The Great Image of Authority, 2018
  • Iago: The Strategies of Evil, 2018
  • Macbeth: A Dagger of the Mind, 2019
  • Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism, 2019 
  • Take Arms Against a Sea of Troubles: The Power of the Reader’s Mind Over a Universe of Death, 2020
  • The Bright Book of Life: Novels to Read and Re-read, 2020

[1] Possessed by Memory: The Inward Light of Criticism (Vintage, 2019), p. 101. Further references by page number.

[2] See my Wagner to the Waste Land (Macmillan, 1982), 122.

[3] Moore notoriously settled a number of old scores in his memoir, Hail and Farewell.

The enigmas of Erskine Childers

Image: Gary Woods
CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD remembers a gifted novelist and nationalist contrarian

The era either side of the First World War was a golden age for the spy novel. Perhaps there’s nothing like a really cataclysmic global shock to get the creative juices flowing. In July 1914, Arthur Conan Doyle put Sherlock Holmes aside long enough to publish a story with the unambiguous title of ‘Danger!’, a cautionary tale of the British Isles being starved into submission by an enemy submarine blockade – and in at least some accounts one that proved spectacularly counter-productive, in that it spurred the Kaiser and his naval chiefs to do exactly what Doyle had warned of. The following year, John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps mixed jingoism and Germanophobia in a topical yarn involving a sinister anarchist gang, a man with part of his finger missing, and an extended chase scene through the Scottish highlands.  Somerset Maugham went one further and actually became a wartime spy, an experience he later put to good use in his celebrated Ashenden series.

But perhaps the pick of the literary crop was 1903’s The Riddle of the Sands, by the Anglo-Irish writer, soldier, politician and latterly radical nationalist Erskine Childers. It had the lot. If some destructive process were to mysteriously eliminate the world’s entire spy-thriller library, only The Riddle remaining, we could surely reconstruct from it every outline of the basic formula, every essential character and flavour contributing to the genre. In essence, the novel mixes some gentle satire about the graded snobberies of the Edwardian class system (at least a generation ahead of its time in that respect alone) with a lively seafaring adventure involving a couple of topping British chaps going after German spies in the Baltic. It’s not only a riveting tale in itself, but so cogent in its account of the decrepit state of Britain’s maritime defenses that it prompted the Admiralty to hurriedly install a series of new coastal gun batteries, and The Times to call the author ‘a hero’ as a result; an ironic and perhaps poignant tribute in the light of what ultimately happened. Childers’s book was an instant bestseller, and still ticks over today. No less a judge than Ken Follett has called it ‘the first modern thriller.’ If you want a really gripping read, with plenty of white-knuckle action, some energetically sustained period idiom, and the sort of mass of technical description and verifiable detail later found in the James Bond series, The Riddle is for you.

Jenny Agutter in the 1979 film of The Riddle of the Sands

Curiously enough, about the one person seemingly unmoved by the book’s success was Childers himself, something of an odd bird, by all accounts, even by literary standards. Aged 33 at the time of The Riddle’s publication, he never wrote another novel, instead concentrating on dry military manuals and increasingly strident political tracts. To call Childers a man of humanising contradictions is an understatement. On the one hand, he served the Crown as a wartime intelligence and aerial reconnaissance officer, greatly distinguishing himself in the 1915 Gallipoli campaign. On the other, he was busy on the side smuggling German-bought guns to supply the Home Rule nationalists in Ireland, running the weapons onto a moonlit beach north of Dublin on his racing yacht Asgard, accompanied by his wife Molly and a small crew. It was almost like a scene out of The Riddle, with the critical distinction that instead of sounding the alarm about German ambitions, Childers was in the curious position of serving the King while transporting arms from the Kaiser intended for a revolution behind the lines.

The 1916 Easter Rising that saw the deaths of 485 men, women and children, among them a number of swiftly enacted judicial executions, in a week of rioting around Dublin seems to have finally clarified any remaining questions of allegiance in Childers’s mind. ‘I am daily witness to the prostitution of the British Army I served to fulfill the many aims I loathed and combated,’ he wrote. ‘I am Anglo-Irish by birth. Now I am identifying myself wholly with Ireland.’

Having cemented his establishment credentials by winning the Distinguished Service Cross for his work at Gallipoli, Childers settled down to live as a sort of proto-hippy on a farm in County Wicklow, extolling the virtues of vegetarianism, enjoying an occasional toot of cocaine and, it’s said, a degree of freedom from the traditional monogamous ideal, while sending his three young sons to a progressive school where they would be taught nothing about religion until they were old enough to decide for themselves.

The war over, Childers was a victim of the worldwide Spanish Flu pandemic, and barely survived. This was apparently another significant, or decisive, turning-point in his evolution from popular middlebrow author to radical activist. At least one of his biographers has speculated that he suffered a psychological breakdown during the winter of 1919-20 as a result, with a subsequent ‘addiction to danger that amounted almost to a death-wish.’ The following May, Childers published Military Rule in Ireland, a stinging attack on British policy, and followed it by a series of articles in the weekly Irish Bulletin tearing the Liberal prime minister David Lloyd George to shreds. Childers was secretary to the delegation that negotiated a treaty with Westminster in December 1921, providing for effective Home Rule a year later. Following that, the proposal went, the Dublin government would act as a self-sufficient dominion of the British Empire, much like Canada or Australia. Lloyd George wrote in his diary of a ‘sullen’ Childers, seething with ‘compressed wrath’ that his attempts to bring about total and immediate Irish independence had failed. Winston Churchill went one further, calling him a ‘murderous renegade’, and a ‘strange being, actuated by a deadly hatred for the land of his birth.’

The Anglo-Irish Treaty spurred Childers, and others of his persuasion, to take direct action in the face of what they saw as a sellout to London. After a further series of articles in the perhaps provocatively titled War News, one morning in early November 1922 the now middle-aged and frail Childers set off by bicycle from his current home in County Kerry on the 200-mile journey to confer with Eamon De Valera and his fellow rebels in Dublin. There might almost be a certain wry comedy to the scene, which you could imagine, say, Alec Guinness later portraying on film, but for its consequences. Childers was soon arrested by British troops along the way, and found to be in possession of a small .32 calibre pistol, which may or may not have been in working order, in violation of the recently passed Emergency Powers Resolution.

The subsequent judicial proceedings were swift. Childers was indeed taken to Dublin, if under radically different circumstances than he would have wished, where he was put on trial a week later. The proceedings ended on 18 November 1922, after the defendant had refused to recognise the legitimacy of the British Military Tribunal convened for the event. The possession of the pistol was enough to condemn him to death. Childers lodged an appeal against the sentence, and this was heard the next day by a civil magistrate who said he lacked jurisdiction because of the ongoing paramilitary disturbances in the area. ‘The prisoner disputes the authority of the Tribunal and comes to this Court for protection,’ the judge wrote, ‘but its answer must be that its jurisdiction is ousted by the state of war that he himself has helped to produce.’

Early on the morning of 24 November 1922, Childers, now a stooped, gaunt-looking man of 52, was led into a tin-roofed shed used as a firing range on the Beggars Bush barracks in Dublin, where a row of twelve soldiers was waiting for him in front of an open coffin. Perhaps nothing in the life of this brilliant, troubled and sometimes perverse figure became him like the leaving it. After shaking the hand of each member of the firing squad, his final words were: ‘Take a step or two forwards, lads, it will be easier that way.’ A few hours earlier, Childers’s 16-year-old son – also named Erskine, and a future President of Ireland – had been allowed to briefly visit his father in his cell. The condemned man made him promise two things: that he would forgive every minister in the provisional government who was responsible for his death, and that if he ever went into politics he was never to seek to capitalise on his execution. The younger Childers did as he was asked, and in later years sometimes produced a scrap of paper on which his father had written his last testament: ‘I die loving England, and passionately pray that she may change completely and passionately towards Ireland.’

“A tune beyond us, yet ourselves”: the mystic heart of sport

Rembrandt, “The Golf Player”, 1654
BRENDAN MCNAMEE finds uplift in athleticism

In The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy Arthur Dent makes the startling discovery that white mice, rather than being the objects of experiments carried out by humans, were in fact carrying out an experiment on humans. I wonder if a similar principle might be applied to sport.

Take premiership football as an example. Passions run high. The passion, on the parts of both players and spectators, is primarily for victory. The players receive a huge ego (and cash) boost, and from the fans’ point of view, a win for their team is, by some mysterious process of osmosis, a win for themselves. This lust for victory is so intense that the other source of sporting joy, the quality of the game itself, is often relegated to a secondary position – acknowledged, of course, but seen essentially as a means to an end. This, I would contend, is topsy-turvy. The lust for victory should serve the game, and not the other way around – and this order of things reflects a wider truth about life itself.

“Eternity,” wrote William Blake, “is in love with the productions of time” (eternity here being understood as a state of timelessness, rather than an endless expanse of time). A game of football is a production of time, painstakingly worked out and evolved. But for what purpose?

Two teams are pitched in combat. Naturally, each wants to best the other. This ego-based desire is an intense drive, the need to control which necessitates strict rules which the participants, in their lust for conquest, forever strain against. But from the tension created by this drive and this straining (provided the leash is not broken) can come something that transcends the desires of individuals to achieve personal glory, and this something is what inspires that small and secret part of the sports fan which doesn’t really care who comes out on top. These are moments that justify sport, at its best, being called ‘poetry in motion’ – moments of sheer grace that stop the breath and remain forever etched in the memory, long after the identity of the victor has been forgotten.

These moments are the white mice in the equation, Blake’s glimpses of eternity. The participants imagine that they hone their skills and put in punishing hours of practice and follow rigidly prescribed dietary regimes in order to emerge victorious from the contest. They imagine that those sublime moments of grace (which come, if they come at all, only after such gruelling preparation) are simply a means to victory. And seen from their own personal points of view, they are. Their dreams, we may be sure, are of the glory and adulation that will follow victory. Avid young fans may be enthralled by the skills their heroes display, but they too dream of one day holding aloft the Cup at the end of the contest.  

But there is one crucial difference between the dreams of glory that spur on a team and its fans, and those so memorable moments of grace. It is a difference that, I hope, justifies the use of such a lofty and ethereal term as ‘eternity’ in such a down-to-earth context.

The difference is this: the dreams of glory can be trained for, planned for, worked towards; the moments of grace are spontaneous eruptions, deaf and blind to the plans and schemes of ordinary mortals. To employ the mystical phraseology of Meister Eckhart, it is the difference between attachment and detachment. Eckhart establishes a link between attachment and temporality: “A man attached to things is stretched between a ‘before’ and an ‘after’, or between past and future. He lives in duration, while detachment dwells in ‘this present now.’ A detached man lives in the instant” (Schürmann).

George Best in 1976. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

A footballer lives mostly in duration, in the world of plans and projects. The scheme is: project, realise, possess: train for the game, play the game, win the game. If this plan is adhered to, all the way to the end, few tears will be shed if it is achieved without poetry.

But some will. Despite our saturation in the egoism of winning, there is still a quiet voice that longs for what Wallace Stevens calls in ‘The Blue Guitar,’ “a tune beyond us, yet ourselves.” For magic, in effect. We imagine that we invent these conflicts in order to win at them and so stroke our egos, but perhaps they are really invented to allow that magic into the world. Pragmatism is of course vital. In a football match, a player has to be fit and ready for the contest. Such readiness is no guarantee that a sublime moment of genius will emerge, but it more than likely won’t if he is not. And the ego is equally important. Both teams must desperately want to win, otherwise you end up with, at best, a high-class kickabout.

So why refer to these moments as detachment when they so clearly cannot be detached from the time-bound structures through which they come into being? Are they not serving the ultimate purpose of winning the match in the same way as all the other elements of the game such as training, tactics, effort, will, etc? True, they can end up serving it, but seen from the true sports lover’s point of view, this is merely accidental, a by-product. Winning in sport is one kind of joy that needs the corresponding sorrow of losing simply to exist. You can’t have winners without losers; they are two sides of the same coin. Heraclitus’s intriguing aphorism, “Gods and mortals, dying each other’s life, living each other’s death” (Yeats) can find some traction here. The conflict on one level, the time-bound level, is between two teams, but on another, the detached level, it is between gods and mortals. And this conflict is both necessary and creative because the two levels are inextricably intertwined. The gods need the mortals because it is only through media – the game – constructed by mortals that their magic can take form. When that magic occurs, there is a sense in which mortals, as time-bound ego-driven creatures, momentarily cease to exist. Mortals need the gods because without them, they would die of tedium. And indeed, it may be said that, when immersed in our time-bound ego-driven selves, the gods are dead. The gods within us are dead.

In today’s world this vital balance between soul and ego is in danger of collapse, and modern professional football provides a stark demonstration of this. A telling instance of this disruption can be seen in the changing perceptions of the Premiership versus the FA Cup. There was a time when the FA Cup Final was the sporting highlight of the year. Now, it is generally accepted that the Premiership is paramount. This is a significant shift. In the FA Cup, everything rode on one game. There were no second chances (I hear echoes of Robert De Niro’s character in The Deer Hunter with his rather mystic insistence that, in hunting deer, you get only “one shot”). Such an arrangement facilitates a level of concentration and will needed to bring out the best in players, and thus possibly bring about that eclipsing of time that extreme heights of tension can facilitate. In the Premiership, by contrast, a team could conceivably crawl through the season playing pretty dismal football, ‘parking the bus’ at every opportunity (as indeed, one recent Premiership manager was frequently accused of doing), and still come out on top. (For non-fans, ‘parking the bus’ means scoring a goal and immediately throwing everything back into defence, effectively putting up a wall in front of your own goal.)

Imagine a situation where, say, Chelsea and Manchester City reach the final game in the Premiership and Chelsea are one point ahead of City at the top of the table. On the final day, they are playing on different grounds. Being a point ahead, Chelsea can afford to lose their match, but only provided City also lose theirs. Let’s say they have an off-day and play a rubbish game, and lose. Naturally, the fans are devastated. But wait! News come through on their phones that City have also lost, thereby granting Chelsea the title. The fans immediately erupt in joy – having just watched their team play a rubbish game and lose. Are they football fans or accountants?

Roger Federer. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Accountancy appears also to be playing a part in the debate currently raging in the tennis world about who is the GOAT (Greatest Of All Time): Roger Federer, Raphael Nadal or Novak Djokovic. Nadal has streaked ahead in the numbers game with twenty-two Grand Slam titles, as opposed to a mere (mere?) twenty to Federer and twenty-one to Djokovic. Djokovic, being the youngest of the three, will no doubt catch up (Federer has just retired from professional tennis), but for the view of sport that I’m putting forward here, such numbers are irrelevant (although not to the players themselves, I’m sure). From that angle Federer is the clear winner in this contest, as anyone who has seen him in his glory days would surely agree. Even this writer, with only a spectator’s interest in actual sport (as opposed to philosophically musing about it), could sense something unearthly about his play. David Foster Wallace once wrote an essay called ‘Roger Federer as a Religious Experience.’ I doubt you’ll ever find essays like that being written about Nadal or Djokovic, well-oiled and highly efficient tennis machines that they are.

Mention of The Deer Hunter above calls to mind some other echoes of this idea in the field of the Hollywood movie. Robert Rossen’s 1962 film, The Hustler, features a pool shark called “Fast” Eddie Felson. At one point in the film he tries to explain to his girlfriend the true nature of his passion. It has nothing to do with the money, or with being seen to be the best. These are quantifiable objectives, un-transformable phenomena of the everyday world. What really inspires him, he says, are those rare moments when the pool cue seems to become an extension of his arm, when he can do no wrong, when everything – himself, the game, the world – simply become one, indivisible process, a living work of art.

Bringing religious terminology to the matter, there is the 1981 film about Olympic runners, Chariots of Fire. One of the athletes is a devout Christian who postpones a trip to the Far East, where he is to work as a missionary, in order to take part in the games. When his equally devout wife chides him for this selfish, unchristian attitude, he replies, “God made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure”.  Eternity opens a chink in the armour of time, and Blake’s “love” is made manifest. Or, to put it in more down-to-earth terms, skill and spontaneity join hands and, momentarily, dancer and dance are one.

But these are ‘mere’ fictional examples, you might say. (I put ‘mere’ in quotation marks to highlight an idea best expressed by Alan Watts and directly relevant to this essay: “There is no more telling symptom of the confusion of modern thought than the very suggestion that poetry or mythology can be ‘mere’”.)  Do real athletes feel anything similar? Actually, if a googling of inspirational quotes from top athletes is any yardstick, they mostly don’t. A trawl of over a hundred such quotes threw up less than half a dozen that gave any hint at all of an awareness that something in sport might possibly be more valuable than winning. The vast bulk are on the theme of never giving up, striving, first is everything, second is nowhere, etc, etc. Even when they extol losing it’s only to harden you up for future successes. And I recall a televised interview with Andy Murray some years ago when he was asked if he enjoyed his tennis. After some hesitation, he replied: “I enjoy winning.” (I’ve since heard him say that he does enjoy his tennis but I suspect the PR people have got to him: “Never be negative, Andy! Never be negative!”)  

But not all athletes share this acquisitive mania. The racing driver, Mario Andretti, has a comment that echoes to some extent the line from Chariots of Fire quoted above, though shorn of any religious connotations: “If you have everything under control, you’re not moving fast enough.” The tennis player, Arthur Ashe, is hovering around the heart of the matter with this comment: “You are never really playing an opponent. You are playing yourself, your own highest standards, and when you reach your limits, that is real joy.” And the American gymnast, Mary Lou Retton, has gifted us this pithy comment: “A trophy carries dust. Memories last forever.” (Incidentally, the fact that such remarks are so rare only bolsters my argument that this way of looking at sport is sadly, and increasingly, undervalued.)

It’s intriguing, I think, that the quote approaching closest to a sense of the mystic heart of sport should come from a gymnast. Gymnastics shares with my two fictional examples of pool and running the distinction of being one of the rare sports that one effectively plays alone. There are competitions, of course, but that horizontal element of the game is thoroughly earthbound – egos competing with one another (as Arthur Ashe recognises). The other, vertical, element is where the player’s mind, the player’s body and the sport itself come together like three notes forming a chord. It’s as if the gods had a committee meeting one day and said, “This rough-and-tumble of contact sports allows the ego too much dominance. Our voices are rarely heard. We need to finesse the idea.” And so they came up with pool and running and gymnastics – all sports requiring deep levels of silence, deep enough for, now and then, the music of the spheres to be heard. And, in a moment of true inspiration, they also came up with golf.

Golf! do I hear you say? That symbol of suburban complacency and silly jumpers? But that’s to see it only from the outside. In a wonderful essay on golf, ‘Tips on a Trip,’ John Updike, having run through and dismissed all the secondary definitions and purposes of golf – a hobby, a profession, a pleasure, a walk in the country – finally reveals it to be “a trip”:

 A non-chemical hallucinogen, golf breaks the human body into components so strangely elongated and so tenuously linked, yet with anxious little bunches of hyper-consciousness and undue effort bulging here and there, along with rotating blind patches and a sort of cartilaginous euphoria – golf so transforms one’s somatic sense, in short, that truth itself seems about to break through the exacerbated and as it were debunked fabric of mundane reality.

That final phrase – “truth itself seems about to break through the exacerbated and as it were debunked fabric of mundane reality” – catches the essence of what I’m calling here the mystic heart of sport. And it’s by no means confined to professionals.

Updike tells two intriguing golf stories in his essay. The first is of how he went to a professional coach one time in order to improve his play. The coach gave him some simple advice about the placing of his feet. “That’s all?” Updike asks. “That’s all,” the coach says. Sceptical, but determined to try it out, Updike follows the coach’s instruction – and finds that his game improves immensely. But here’s the intriguing part: he feels thoroughly dissatisfied. The game seems now to be confined to his feet and it’s as if the rest of his body has been anaesthetised: “I couldn’t internalise it . . . All richness had fled the game”. And so he returns to his old losing ways, but feels better for it. I would have found this story baffling had it not reminded me of a poker player I once knew who told me that he could spend a night playing poker and come out with a loss, but still feel better than on many another night when he’d emerge a winner. The result is not the point. The point is what happens within.

Updike’s second story is of how he once accidentally hit a perfect shot. He goes on to explain: “In this mystical experience, some deep golf revelation was doubtless offered me, but I have never been able to grasp it, or to duplicate the shot”. And that’s the point: such magical moments cannot be replicated. They cannot be quantified and put into manuals. They happen. They are gifts, moments when “the tyranny of causality is suspended, and men are free”. “If I knew where poems come from” the Irish poet Michael Longley once said, “I’d go there.” Sports people must often feel much the same.

The scientifically-minded might be inclined to dismiss any such airy talk of mystical experience by pointing to the correlations of such phenomena with various activities going on within the brain. It’s all got to do with jumping neurons and synapses, they’ll say. But this kind of “nothing buttery,” as the philosopher Mary Midgely calls it, in which we declare emergent realities to be “nothing but” the things in which we perceive them (a painting is “nothing but” smears of pigment on a canvas; music is “nothing but” differently pitched vibrations in the air), can be just as easily turned on its head so that instead of saying, “nothing but,” we can say, “not only but also.” A painting is not only smears of pigment on a canvas, but also a deeply enriching and mysterious experience. The experience may correlate with certain neural activities which can be quantified, but that fact alone does nothing to give you any sense of the experience itself.

This “dipsomania for the factual,” as Robert Musil calls it, echoes the conflict being discussed in this essay. You can’t blame science, of course, for devoting itself to the factual – that’s its job – but scientism, the conviction that only the factual can give us any real truth, is the malignant growth of a useful tool into a dogma. When it comes to permeate society, as it does today, something valuable is lost. In sport, this loss is disguised by the fact that such overwhelming concentration on winning – fuelled by ego and greed, both quantifiable entities – improve sporting standards immeasurably, but what becomes ever rarer in this over-heated atmosphere is the “eerie effortlessness of a good shot” (Updike), to put it at its simplest. Roger Federer making top class opponents appear lead-footed, David Gower hitting a boundary with the careless grace of a man brushing off a fly, George Best weaving through five defenders as if he was bodiless – there’s a hint of immortality in such moments. “There is a certain part of all of us that lives outside of time,” Milan Kundera’s narrator says in his novel, Immortality (4), when he is startled by the sight of a timeless girlish gesture emerging from the body of a timeworn elderly woman. It is that part, I believe, that is reflected back to us in moments of sporting genius, and sounds a deep resonant bell within.

Robert Musil tried to knit together these two elements of the phenomenon – the ethereal and the down-to-earth, the mystical and the scientific. Ulrich, the hero of The Man Without Qualities, gets set upon by three thugs in the street one night. As an ex-solder himself, he responds vigorously, but they get the better of him in the end. As he picks himself up, he is rescued by a woman in a passing coach, to whom he proceeds to expound upon the experience in his usual forensic fashion.

Of course he now launched into a lively defence of his experience, which was not, as he explained to the motherly beauty, to be judged solely by its outcome. The fascination of such a fight, he said, was the rare chance it offered in civilian life to perform so many varied, vigorous, yet precisely coordinated movements in response to barely perceptible signals at a speed that made conscious control quite impossible. Which is why, as every athlete knows, training must stop several days before a contest, for no other reason than that the muscles and nerves must be given time to work out the final coordination among themselves, leaving the will, purpose and consciousness out of it and without any say in the matter. . . If by some unlucky chance the merest ray of reflection hits this darkness, the whole effort is invariably doomed.

So far, so rational, you might say, and nothing there that any sports psychologist would find fault with. They call it being ‘in the zone.’ But Ulrich, as much a mystic as he is a scientist, goes on:

Basically, he now maintained, this experience of almost total ecstasy or transcendence of the conscious mind is akin to experiences now lost but known in the past to the mystics of all religions, which makes it a kind of contemporary substitution for an eternal human need. Even if it is not a very good substitute it is better than nothing, and boxing or similar kinds of sport that organise this principle into a rational system are therefore a species of theology. . .

Broadening the idea out to include spectators as well as participants, it may be no accident that the words ‘happen’ and ‘happy’ have the same root: ‘hap’. A great sporting event is a happening, an event, because of its anticipated elements of spontaneity, its vibrant potentiality, the anticipated, longed-for lifting of the soul out of the mundane treadmill of linear time. For many, these are moments of the greatest, most intense happiness, when life is lived – if only by proxy – on the edge. It’s why people climb mountains and skydive. But the exhilaration that follows success comes at the price of risking the hollow emptiness of defeat, and winners and losers alike might do well to heed Ulrich’s words in the passage quoted above: the experience is “not to be judged solely by its outcome.” The Yorkshire writer John Braine once compared success to strawberries: enjoy them while they’re in season, he said, but don’t imagine you can live on them (trophies carry dust).

What you can live on (what all sports fans live on, in fact) is the anticipation of success, the hope. Whether it’s anticipation of the outcome of a single game or a broader anticipation stretching over a whole season (and containing a host of smaller anticipations along the way), that tension is like a taut string creating a music all its own. But unless you’re some kind of Zen master, the problem is that you can’t really separate wanting to win from actually winning. Or losing. The pleasure of all that anticipation hinges on the actual outcome, though the outcome is really not the point; the real point (from the gods’ point of view) is the anticipation itself, the tension, the thrill of following all those “varied, vigorous and precisely coordinated movements in response to barely perceptible signals.” The gods don’t care a whit about us as individuals. We’re expendable, mere channels for what Yeats called “the passions,” and sports are what he called “forms created by passion to unite us to ourselves”. It’s an irresolvable paradox (except perhaps in fiction): in order for the passions to reach their height, the carriers of the passion have to remain unaware of their true source, and be conned into believing that the momentary egoistic thrill of winning is what it’s really all about.

Richard Attenborough, playing the commander who organises the mass break-out in The Great Escape, intuits a similar truth at the end of the film, after being captured by the Germans. Talking to his friend (minutes before they are both machined-gunned to death), and not sounding at all downbeat about the capture, he says, “D’you know, Andy, all this, Tom, Dick, Harry [the three tunnels they’d spent months secretly digging], it’s kept me alive.” He realises that getting re-captured (and hence failing to win the match, as it were) matters less than the steady throb of hope and anticipation that filled up all the time leading to the escape. And if the escape had been successful, or if the Germans had not been so unsporting as to kill him, and he’d lived to tell the story to his grandchildren, it would surely be the planning, the tactics, the secrecy, the tension of the escape preparations that would fill his memory, rather than the fact the attempt itself resulted in either success or failure, those “two imposters,” as Rudyard Kipling has famously called them.

Hermann Broch’s complex modernist novel, The Death of Virgil, dealing with a poet from two thousand years ago, is about as far from modern sport as you could hope to get. Yet Virgil’s central dilemma echoes the tension I’ve been speaking of here between the timebound (quantifiable results) and the eternal (spontaneous happenings, potentiality), or between the professional and the inspired amateur.

On the eve of his death, Virgil wants to burn his greatest work, The Aeneid, because he believes he has betrayed the essence of his gift, which was not so much the actual manuscript of the work as the dynamic creativity that brought it into being. He calls the actual work, an artefact that belongs to the world of time, “un-art”: “Oh, in his own life, in his own work, he had known the seduction of un-art, the seduction of all substitution which put the thing created in the place of that which creates, the game in the place of communion, the fixed thing in the place of the ever-vital principle, beauty in the place of truth” (italics added).

Virgil’s “un-art” is the statistics-obsessed nature of modern professional sport where winning is all, and this attitude is, I would contend, a betrayal of the soul of sport, even though, paradoxically, that very betrayal is largely responsible for the incredibly high standard that much modern sport exhibits. But the high standards themselves can be something of a red herring, from the participants’ point of view, if not the spectators. Spontaneity is too unpredictable and there is too much money at stake. A certain minimum standard is, of course, necessary, but magic was as likely to appear on a mud-caked football field of the seventies, when players happily juxtaposed professional games with copious amounts of beer and burgers, as on today’s pristine green carpets, when they are all slaves to strict dietary regimes. George Best was no ascetic! And to return for a moment to the tennis world, any future contenders for the number of Grand Slams won by Nadal and Djokovic will have to follow similarly rigid training and finely-tuned technical regimes, most likely at the cost of any natural spontaneity that they may have had to begin with. Future Federers will have no hope of competing, though I’m guessing that they would be the spectators’ favourites.

Echoes of this inner conflict can be found even beyond the confines of sport and art. If we call the necessary treadmill of linear time ‘order’ (in sport, tactics, set pieces, rigid team formations etc) and sublime moments of rapture ‘chaos’ (sport’s unpredictable ‘poetry in motion’), then the essential creative tension between the two might be summed up in an elegant formula: order minus chaos equals death; chaos minus order equals madness. Imagine a high-stakes football match with no rules! And if Virgil had got his way about burning The Aeneid, no echo of that creative genius would ever inspire another soul. The physicist David Bohm put the idea like this: “If you had absolute creativity – absolute novelty with no past – then nothing would ever exist because it would all vanish at the very moment of creation” (Weber). Modern science sees this creative tension, or something vaguely similar to it, as constituting the very source of the universe’s existence. Richard Holloway provides a succinct encapsulation of the idea:

It is the precise balance of two great forces that creates the right conditions for life to exist. The expansive force of the Big Bang spreads the universe out, while the contractive force of gravity pulls it back together. If the gravitational force [order] were too high, the universe would appear, but in a microsecond gravity would pull everything back into a Big Crunch. If the expansion rate were too high [chaos], then the universe would stretch at such a rate that gravity would be unable to form the stars and galaxies from whose dust carbon-based life evolved. [. . .] These delicate adjustments do not only refer to the earliest instance, but to the continuing history of the world and its detailed processes.

One of those detailed processes is the phenomenon of sport.

The philosopher E.M. Cioran has written, “History divides itself in two: a former time when people felt pulled towards the vibrant nothingness of divinity and now, when the nothingness of the world is empty of divine spirit”. It may be that in our ultra-secular, numbers-obsessed Western world, whose oppressive nothingness the advertisers keep us distracted from, sport occasionally affords one opportunity to touch, or to witness, the sublime heights that were once the province of religion. But it appears to be a losing battle. The white mice may have to think up another concept.


Blake, William. Complete Writings. Ed. Geoffrey Keynes. Oxford: OUP, 1966.

Broch, Hermann. The Death of Virgil. Trans. Jean Starr Untermeyer. 1945. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983.

Cioran, E. M. Tears and Saints. Trans. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Holloway, Richard. Looking in the Distance: The Human Search for Meaning. Edinburgh: Canongate, 2004.

Hudson, Hugh. Chariots of Fire. Screenplay by Colin Welland. 20th Century Fox, 2004.

Kundera, Milan. Immortality. London: Faber and Faber, 1991.

Musil, Robert. The Man Without Qualities. Trans. Sophie Wilkins. London: Picador, 1997.

Schürmann, Reiner. Wandering Joy: Meister Eckhart’s Mystical Philosophy. Great Barrington, MA: Lindisfarne Books, 2001.

Stevens, Wallace. Selected Poems. London: Faber and Faber, 1953.

Sturges, John. The Great Escape. Screenplay by James Clavell and W. R. Burnett. The Mirisch Company, 1963.

Updike, John. Picked Up Pieces. 1977. New York: Ballantine Books, 1986.

Watts, Alan. Myth and Ritual in Christianity. 1954. London: Thames and Hudson, 1981.

Weber, Renee. Dialogues With Scientists and Sages: The Search for Unity. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1986.

Yeats, W. B. A Vision. 1937. Rev. ed. 1962. London: Macmillan, 1962.

Art-icles of war

Photo: Ivan Radic. Wikimedia Commons
Artivism – The Battle for Museums in the Era of Postmodernism
Alexander Adams, Societas – Imprint Academic, pp 215, £14.95
GUY WALKER welcomes a spirited sortie onto the cultural battlefield

One function of placing fine paintings in ornate gold frames or sculptures on marble plinths is to demonstrate the special status accorded to fine art in human affairs. These objects earn this status by virtue of their ability to furnish us with some of the most sophisticated pleasures in the hierarchy of human pleasure. The treatment of the pulling down of statues from their plinths to serve baser ends (rather than for reasons of historical guilt) is, therefore, a cultural matter. As a result, it is in no way demeaning to say that the latest book by artist and art critic, Alexander Adams, fires an impressive salvo in what have become known as ‘Culture Wars’.

‘Artivism’ is the pressing of art and resources for art into the grubbier service of political protest and campaigning. It is also the displacement of fine art by what is no more than political activism. This is antithetical to the uplifting precepts of Emmanuel Kant, whose ‘Categorical Imperative’ made human beings ends in themselves in his ‘Kingdom of Ends’, never to be used as mere means to ends. The ability to produce representative art is a pleasure-giving end of this kind, one which appeals to deep human needs rather than shallow political outlooks. The greatest artists of the past understood this intuitively, and underwent long technical apprenticeships in order to fulfil this role properly.

Adams’ survey of the phenomenon and origins of artivism is comprehensive in its breadth. Although the book begins with the Athenian Parthenon and references Leonardo and Michelangelo, he finds the real philosophical origins of it in the rational Enlightenment begun by Bacon and Descartes. Their mathematical and “scientific method….encouraged the collection of data”. This led directly to Jeremy Bentham’s anti-Kantian, utilitarian approach which emphasised the best mathematically calculated ‘outcomes’ for the largest number above all things; there are echoes here of the impersonal big data approach and equality by outcome or ‘equity’ that plague modernity. Adams underscores an essentially conservative allegiance later, in his conclusion, by writing “….every institution established ( or substantially reshaped) according to Enlightenment liberalism has fallen to progressive subversion.”

Rather than Kant, Adams uses other big guns to underpin his art-for-art’s sake, pro-formalism, pro-connoisseurship, pro-objectivity and pro-canon thesis – first, Benedetto Croce,
“[Art] has its own object, the Beautiful, that stands independently on equal terms with the other three (Logic, Economics and Morality). […] true poetry must have no utilitarian, moral, or philosophical agenda.”

Equally weighty support comes from George Orwell:
“…many writers about 1939 were discovering that you cannot really sacrifice your intellectual integrity for the sake of a political creed – or at least you cannot do so and remain a writer.”

Goya’s images of war might be “if not a cry for passivism, a call for pity and restraint”, but they only survived to be in the canon (if one remains) in the twenty-first century by placing artistic execution above political executions that could have been recorded by a plethora of lesser artists.

The author studies the aetiology of the disease of ‘cultural entryism’ that demotes fine art and promotes activism, that has colonised our public museums. This occurred in stages. First was the movement, demanded by Enlightenment universalist and utilitarian principles, from private, monastery or university-owned art collections to public libraries, galleries and museums: “The modern state encroached on the functions of monarchy, aristocracy and church, so noblesse oblige was replaced by the duty of an enlightened bourgeoisie, industrialists and landed gentry.”

This inevitably led to a symbiotic relationship between corporate business and the state, incarnated in bodies such as the Arts Council of England (ACE) and the American National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), and the emergence of a variously located ‘managerial elite’ whose progressive, Whiggish ideas involve a desire for “..homogenisation, globalisation, technocracy, atomisation and planned economies…”. To these can be added a desire for increased immigration and anti-capitalism. Once in control this elite effected a “territory grab of resources earmarked for art without any consideration for the wishes of the public…” and it is these resources that are used to commission and fund artivism.

Having explored this historical pathology and its philosophical origins, Adams unpicks economic and psychological strands. The funding of artivism by public bodies and corporations has created an underclass of artistically emasculated ‘artists’ subject to “no aesthetic competency threshold” and reduced to a kind of dependent serfdom. Some are real artists reduced to penury and dependency, others have no talent at all. Adams encourages pity for these latter“…a generation of non-artists (produced by universities) doomed to redundancy, deliberately left unskilled, chockful of abstruse theory and puffed up with self-regard, for whom the art world (and wider society) has no use whatsoever. Where else could these graduates have gravitated to except artivist quasi-social work?”

In the face of this, a return of old-style patronage of artists by wealthy patrons which guaranteed that only the excellent survived and thrived while the untalented withered from the field, might be welcomed, to put this deluded underclass out of the misery of its unrealistic artistic aspirations. It might also remove a “client class” of minorities cynically and exploitatively created by “…corporations wishing to improve their images, pressure groups wishing to make an impact, charities needing to disburse sums periodically and state agencies with annual budgets to be allocated.”

Psychologically, Adams detects a vengeful totalitarian predilection within the ‘managerial elite’ who run the arts show. In a further echo of a modernity where the BBC uses our licence fees to admonish and sermonise us on our lack of virtue, this elite uses tax pounds and dollars extracted from the populace to remind them how despicable they are. This is one of the abounding ironies and paradoxes Adams indicates. He also shows how potentially dangerous activist renegades are tamed by the “ruling class” to the extent that they become establishment “foot soldiers” – and how foreign artivist migration advocates are often in conflict with the wishes of the local populations they visit. The managerial elite use the tactic of making us pay for our own humiliation as a “power play” intended to reinforce and signal the subjugation of the populace, the desire for which may derive from the “Dark Triad (narcissism, Machiavellianism and psychopathy)”. It’s that sombre and that pathological for Adams. As in much climate activism, a profound anti-humanism is in play, as well as a depersonalisation where ‘collectives’ refers to persons as ‘bodies’ and ‘voices.’

This is an excellent publication doing fine work in identifying, naming and recording a phenomenon which Adams describes as “a predatory pike released into a carp pool” and “an invasive species”. If I have any quibbles, they are as follows.

He makes it clear in the body of the book that real “artistic merit” and “artistic endeavour” must trump everything in the art world and complains, for example, that “Feminists state that all art must be political because there is no division between art and politics.” Orwell and Croce seem to back this up. However, the beginning of the book is a little confusing on this point. He writes, “Drawing lines between art, artivism and political action is not always possible. This ambiguity (and precedents set up by art of older eras) allows overt political action cloaked as artivism to enter the area we set aside for public arts, allowing artivism to assume the status and resources of art.”

He illustrates this ambiguity with examples of artistic resources being used in the creation of the “political statement” of the Parthenon and the lending of their talents by Leonardo and Michelangelo to the political projects of their patrons. He also cites the socialist content of Millais’ and Courbet’s work. A writer and critic of Adams’ undoubted firepower should be able to make the fine but real distinctions between the passing contemporary content and the brilliant artistic execution that makes it survive amongst a welter of similar material or between artivism – and also between an artist lending his talent in return for remuneration to projects that aren’t his, and prototype artivism. He seems to make exactly this distinction in the rest of the book.

He raises a very interesting idea early on:

There is more than a touch of the religious rite about artivism. The activist- shaman-priestess prescribes the place and time of communion, her assistants prepare the space and provide necessary materials. The tribe gathers to attend the publicly announced rite, respectfully assisting by witnessing and participating as directed.

My regret is that he didn’t pursue this line later in the book. He writes very well, but there is a strange stylistic tic whereby he frequently omits the definite article as in “…but it is worth bearing in mind that progressive artivism of today is complementary to….” This sometimes gives a clunkiness to the prose.

Stuckist demonstration. Photo: WIkimedia Commons

But excellences by far outweigh the quibbles. I could add to the former a welcome practical prescription for resisting artivism in the chapter of that name, under the headings of “1, Ethics, 2. Exclusion, 3. Defunding, 4. Reduction, 5. Education, 6. Enforcement”, and the pages devoted to the true dissidents known as the ‘Stuckists’ after Tracy Emin’s derogatory term. I also enjoyed the pace-changing of the entertaining and colourful insertion of Case Studies between chapters, especially the swingeing take-down of Banksy.

The book ends on a pessimistic note. Adams feels our arts establishment has an “inherent foundational flaw” deriving from its roots in the Enlightenment’s rationalism. He suggests, root and branch: “…maybe it would be better to lose trust in that system.” One senses, perhaps, a longing for the more Darwinian days of the Renaissance.

Kafka: oracle and artist

Franz Kafka, Der Denker

The Aphorisms of Franz Kafka

Franz Kafka, Reiner Stach (ed.), Shelley Frisch (trans.), Princeton University Press, 2022, hb, 230pp + XXII, 9 mono illus., £20/$24.95

Franz Kafka: The Drawings

Pavel Schmidt, Andreas Kilcher (ed.), Kurt Beals (trans.), Yale University Press, 2022, hb, 368pp, 240 col. illus., £35/$50
ALEXANDER ADAMS sees different sides to an arch-dystopian

While he was writing The Trial, a novel that remained unfinished and unpublished during the author’s lifetime, Franz Kafka would read aloud chapters to his friends. Closest friend and Kafka’s future biographer Max Brod recalled that as Kafka read, he would be convulsed with laughter. The novel commonly considered the epitome of existential despair and implacable authoritarianism, was viewed by its creator as a black comedy. Franz Kafka (1883-1924) is seen as the prophet of the totalitarian modern society operating through a labyrinthine bureaucracy. It is easy to overlook Kafka’s sense of humour, penchant for absurdity and taste for farce. What continues to attract readers is the brilliance of his ideas and the visionary quality of images. Kafka’s fondness for the paradox and ironical gives even his bleakest work a touch of levity.

Two new books present Kafka at his most playful and wry – also at his most oracular and obscure. The Drawings reproduces all surviving drawings by the author. The Aphorisms publishes Kafka’s most impenetrable and oracular pronouncements.  

Kafka’s drawings have been one of the great unknowns of his output. Although a few (showing stylised, simplified single figures) had been reproduced in Brod’s biography and on the cover of a few editions of the 1950s, exactly how extensive and how various his drawings were was unclear. Not least, the obscurity came from the fact Kafka destroyed almost all his own drawings and only a few survived in letters and scraps that Brod preserved from the time they were law students together in Prague. Brod was enthusiastic about the drawings and attempted to interest publishers in hiring his friend as an illustrator, to no avail. After Kafka’s death, Brod published a few drawings then went cold on a proposed exhibition and substantial catalogue. The drawings disappeared into obscurity. Brod had given them to his partner-secretary, Esther Hoffe. After Brod’s death in 1968, the Kafka manuscripts and drawings were shuffled between a Zurich bank vault and Hoffe’s Tel Aviv apartment.

Publishers and scholars were antagonised by Hoffe’s unwillingness to make the manuscripts accessible. (In 1983, she would not let a publisher into her apartment, saying that it would cost him the equivalent of $150,000 even to see the drawings. The publisher demurred and departed. No book was published.) When her daughters continued the obstruction after her death, the Israeli state took legal action to claim possession of Kafka’s manuscripts. The state argued that the sheets were being kept in humid and dirty conditions and in danger of deteriorating; there was the threat of the works disappearing into hands of private collectors. In 2019 the state won, the Hoffe sisters lost possession of the manuscripts, and the National Library of Israel acquired relics of a Jewish titan of culture.

With the newly available originals accessible, plus all the other few Kafka drawings in other collections photographed, The Drawings presents all of Kafka’s surviving drawings. Essays cover aspects of Kafka’s drawing and the history of the manuscripts; a catalogue raisonné documents 163 pages of drawings.

Kafka took art classes, attended lectures on art history and visited museums. He personally knew some artists. Long after his university course on art history, he remained interested in differing art styles, including Renaissance art, Expressionism and Japanese colour wood-block prints. Kafka claimed that art education had ruined his ability to draw and that whatever he had done in terms of drawing had been achieved despite that constraint. Most of Kafka’s drawings are caricatures and fantasy cartoon figures, in exaggerated clothing and adopting parodic positions. On the evidence of comparative illustrations in The Drawings, it seems Kafka was an admirer of cartoons published in the German and Bohemian presses.

Around 1901, when Kafka was 18, he began a small sketchbook. He filled it with drawings, mainly of figures. As many of the personages are walking and seen in profile, they invite the comparison with a parade (or promenade) of eccentrics. There are curving jockeys riding improbable horses, angular men slumped at desks, striding gentlemen with walking sticks. Strong ink lines and solid black bodies are influenced by line-block illustrations, common to journals and books of that era. Kafka seems not have specific plans or projects in mind for his drawings; the figures are drawn at random on the pages, in every orientation, out of order and without accompanying writing.

There are similar ink figures in his letters, also reproduced. Figures appear in diary pages, often relating to the subjects of the day’s entry. On separate sheets of writing paper, portraits (including self-portraits) were drawn in pencil from life and photographs. These reveal Kafka’s art training. They are lightly worked fragments, with no settings indicated, but have realistic shading and the proportions are faithful to life, except where deliberately exaggerated. In artistic terms, they are slight and unfinished but the best of them have a magnetic pull to them – not least a self-portrait with haunted eyes. He did little drawing after 1908, with the majority of surviving drawings dating from his youth.

Kafka, Self-Portrait. Photo: Ardon Bar-Hama. Wikimedia Commons

Did Kafka take his drawings seriously? Fairly so, on this evidence. Although he was self-effacing and reluctant to publish or exhibit them, Kafka took care over making them. He developed forceful images that were crisp and striking. Overall, in The Drawings we find Kafka at his most playful and relaxed; the best of the drawings are really fine and we might wish that more drawings of this type had been saved from Kafka’s wastepaper basket by Brod. Kafka might have been amused at a scholarly cataloguing of his drawings, doodles and elaborate crossings-out.

The Aphorisms collects 108 statements by Kafka, written over the winter of 1917-8, which he copied out into two small exercise books. At the time he was staying with his sister Ottilie in a village called Zürau. On sick leave from his office job, he was attempting to stem the progress of pulmonary tuberculosis by escaping the smoke of Prague, eating well and doing some farm work for exercise.

Part religious parables, part philosophical propositions, part distilled observations, entirely literature, the aphorisms still baffle even the most serious readers of Kafka. “From a certain point on, there is no turning back. This is the point that needs to be reached.” “Like a path in autumn: no sooner has it been swept clean than it is once more covered with dry leaves.” The most famous is, “A cage went in search of a bird.” These are the shortest, but none run longer than half a page. The final sentence of the collection is unusually pungent and vivid. “The world will offer itself to you to be unmasked; it cannot do otherwise; it will writhe before you in ecstasy.”

The aphorisms are gnomic and elusive. The reader gets the impression that he is being told something true and important, but also something unclear, even deliberately obscured. Although these sayings have been published before (sometimes incorporated into collections of short stories), they are the probably the least read of his works. As the editor notes,

In comparison with Kafka’s other writings, his aphorisms have been overlooked by researchers and even more by his general readership. The aphorisms, like everything Kafka wrote, require interpretation, but in contrast to his fictional prose, for example The Trial, they do not reward the reader with the sensory and aesthetic pleasure of a story.

This new edition supplies commentary written by Reiner Stach (author of an excellent recent biography), with English translation by Shelley Frisch, who did a fine job on Stach’s biography. There has been no shortage of complicated interpretations of the aphorisms; wisely, Stach avoids committing himself. Commentaries include Kafka’s original draft, so we can note the revisions and follow the author’s thinking a little. Rather than offer explanations, Stach’s commentaries relate the aphorisms to comparable phrases or ideas from writings by Kafka and mention what he was known to have read at the time.

The aphorisms are as tricky to decipher as anything Kafka wrote. If you fancy giving yourself food for thought, then The Aphorisms are ideal. If you prefer something playful, then The Drawings is for you. Both publications serve to broaden our knowledge of one the greatest authors of European literature. What would expand that knowledge even more would be a first translation of the new German editions of Kafka’s letters, including texts inaccessible to non-German readers. When will Princeton University Press commission Shelley Frisch to translate Kafka’s letters into English?

Diary of an organ-playing nobody

Credit: Shutterstock
R. J. STOVE reflects on life as an antipodean performer on the King of Instruments

‘“What?”, said [piano manufacturer] Herr Stein. “A man like you …  wants to play on an instrument which has no sweetness, no expression, no piano, no forte, but is always the same?” “That does not matter,” I replied. “In my eyes and ears, the organ is the King of Instruments”.’ (Mozart)

Disheartening to report, Bismarck never uttered the epigram so often attributed to him: ‘Laws are like sausages: it is better not to see them being made.’ But each time I undertake a commercial recording – and I have undertaken three such now, all devoted to organ music – I am painfully reminded of this misattributed quotation.

Because if you contemplate classical music in recorded form (as the vast majority of journalists discussing it do contemplate it) through a haze of aestheticism, assuming that nothing ever happens in front of the microphone without the loftiest and most disinterested of motives, then the best cure for such kumbaya soft-headedness is actually to make recordings yourself. The procedure is death to entitlement culture, death to the near-enough-is-good-enough mindset, and death to all romanticist whimsies about artistic ‘inspiration.’

Among didactic processes, only an obligatory course in obstetrics would strip away more illusions from the novice, and strip them away faster, than recording production does. I cannot help musing over how much polysyllabic Marxist verbiage Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno would have spared us – how much Teutonic vamping about ‘the aura of mechanical reproduction’ and ‘bourgeois commodification of ritual’ they would have eschewed – if they had experienced for themselves, which they did not, the perils of needing to perform as flawlessly as possible within seconds of a producer turning a red light on. Not to mention the still greater perils of needing to keep one’s temper each time a producer is obliged to halt a take because of extraneous noise issuing from (i) seagulls overhead, (ii) a helicopter overhead, (iii) a passing ambulance siren, (iv) revving-up from a motorcyclist, or most frequently (v) all of the above.

A producer of classical recordings, if he (and, whether we like it or not, it remains a male-dominated profession) wishes to survive, has to be part surgeon, part electronic engineer, part Cecil B. De Mille, part Grand Inquisitor, part concierge, part therapist, and all musician. His role entails some of the attributes perceptible in the great symphonic conductors: notably an X-ray ear which can descry faults in even the most imposing wash of sound. When an orchestra gives its all in the mightiest of Respighian climaxes, the producer must be able to detect the third oboist who, amid the hubbub, mistakenly played an F sharp instead of the score’s indicated F natural: and to call out that oboist – politely, one trusts; rudely, if trust be impossible – over the error.

Yet that is almost the least of what the producer needs to do. He requires a retentive memory not for various takes’ musical contents alone, but for various takes’ volume levels. Should consecutive takes differ from each other in this regard, or in regard to the venue’s atmosphere (known among the cognoscenti as ‘atmos’ for short), he has to minimise those differences. No surprise that, even before the compulsory post-production chores, his copies of the sheet-music will have become so scribbled-over in red Texta as to resemble Jackson Pollock’s action-paintings. 

Physical strength is a prerequisite as well. Especially if confronted with an unfamiliar site, he will be expected to lug prodigious quantities of cords, plugs, microphones, power sockets, monitor speakers, and computer hardware from his vehicle, before he assembles them: only to carry out the whole boring process in reverse when the session concludes. In this assembling and disassembling, he cannot and must not be rushed. It is hard for even the most arrogant performer to demand, with a clear conscience, additional haste from someone who can accidentally electrocute the entire dramatis personae if an exposed cable proves insufficiently earthed or a wire has worn through its sheath.

Therefore it is understandable that for every thousand good classical musicians out there, scarcely a single good classical recording producer can be traced. The best ones – they have included Walter Legge, Brian Culverhouse, and John Culshaw among the dead, and my own brilliant producer Thomas Grubb among the living – can charge whatever fees they like. Although COVID might have decluttered their timetables, it has not reduced (nor should it reduce) their invoices. Sir George Martin, at a period when the Beatles’ fame had yet to transcend Liverpudlian city limits, produced many a classical recording for EMI. He entertainingly recounted this function’s more bizarre aspects in his 1977 memoir All You Need Is Ears.           

Nevertheless, whilst the good classical recording producer is as rare a bird as a left-handed red-headed Christadelphian, the good classical recording producer who can skilfully capture organ music is analogous to a left-handed red-headed Christadelphian who can do five hundred consecutive push-ups. With an orchestra or a chamber ensemble, after all, a producer has the luxury of operating in a more or less conventional studio. The designers of that studio will have taken some pains to soundproof it. In that studio he will be visible, albeit behind his desk, for at least some of the time to at least some of the musicians involved. He can rely on none of these advantages when recording organ music.

For as all organists – but all too few non-organists – know, pipe organs are not just musical instruments. They are, by definition, musical instruments ensconced in particular buildings, and habitually irremovable therefrom through any methods less radical than Semtex.

Many church instruments are installed in such a way as to force the organist to play with his back turned not only to the altar, but to the producer. Rear-view mirrors at the organ console possess limited efficacy. (During my own most recent sessions – cooped up as I unavoidably was in the loft – the worst thing which I could have done was the thing which all halfway decent musicians, by default, do: constantly listening to fellow performers. Instead, I needed as a deliberate procedure to play well ahead of the beat, purely so the final product’s hearers would have the aural impression of my keeping time with the five singers. All five, for balance-mandated rather than COVID-mandated reasons, remained invisible to me in the nave below. It took a crucial half-second for the organ sound to reach them from the loft’s phalanx of pipes.)

Whether a pipe organ be sacred or secular, its tuning will be always expensive. Rapid tuning is downright impossible. In a climate as manic as Melbourne’s, where two consecutive days will often enough be respectively 32 degrees or 14 degrees (not to mention vice versa), even the best-built instrument can unexpectedly acquire several out-of-tune pipes: without fail, the pipes most suitable to the music’s content. Ten times more worrying is the organist’s greatest dread: a cipher, whereby a particular keyboard note or pedal-board note sounds and cannot be switched off. Imagine the most persistent ambulance or police-car ululation which you have ever heard; then imagine such an ululation in an ecclesiastical context, when the nearest organ-tuner is unavailable through being hospitalized, or on holidays, or repairing an instrument in a different church, or simply drunk.

But you have not yet supped full on organ-related horrors. The 1970s Anglo-Saxon mania for carpeting what had been perfectly acceptable wooden or stone floors ruins many a church’s acoustics. Beautifully manufactured though a pipe organ might be, ubiquitous carpet will frequently make it sound like a Casio burp-box vended below cost price on eBay. Even churches free from carpets are apt to be located on main roads, their architecture dating from an epoch where internal combustion engines were largely unimaginable. However impressive their stonework, they offer almost no insulation from modern traffic noise. Factor in the tendency of churches to support church schools, and the aural complications are aggravated threefold. If you have never attempted to record a beautifully soft, French impressionist organ prelude while shrieking infants gallivant in the playground during their lunch break, your personal acquaintance with existential anguish is automatically limited.

Given these and other nuisances, you could be pardoned for asking why anyone would wish to record organ music in the first place: let alone to record three CDs’ worth of it, as I have done, with a fourth CD currently awaiting issue. Speaking as a middle-rank Melbourne organist with twenty-one years of remunerated public playing behind me – neither enjoying the rarely-conferred benefits of sustained cathedral employment, nor suffering the griefs of the overworked tyro frantically having to pad out an exiguous résumé – I find myself caught in not one but three perfect storms.

First of these storms is, naturally, COVID. Useless, and redundant, for me to expatiate here upon the damage which Wuhan’s most renowned export has done to live classical music performance in general; live classical music performance in Australia especially; and live classical music performance in Melbourne above all. 

The second among these storms is one which foreigners will be able to predict with a little thought: Australian churches’ continuing sex abuse crisis, primarily (though not exclusively) afflicting Catholicism. Every dollar which dioceses are ordered to spend upon paying off an abuse victim’s lawyer, is a dollar which dioceses cannot spend upon professional musicians. Australia’s Catholic parishes were in demographic free-fall long before front-page headlines screamed about the pandemic.

As far back as 2011 – in other words, not solely pre-COVID but pre-abuse scandals too – 87% of Australia’s Catholics could not bestir themselves to attend Sunday Mass. We all know the only branches of Australian Christianity where the churches are full: the Pentecostal brigades, of which Hillsong is the most celebrated. Anyone gullible enough to believe that Pentecostal jamborees are likely to include organ-playing, or any musical contributions whatever except those supplied by sub-Hendrix guitarists and gyrating Taylor Swift wannabes needs (to borrow a felicitous, long-ago phrase from Esquire) not merely his head but his entire anatomy examined. 

One much-loved hymn tells us: ‘There is a happy land, far, far away.’ There are in fact several such happy lands where university posts can, and do, recompense organists for the uncertainties of ecclesiastical occupations. Unfortunately, these happy lands do not include my own. In any analysis of today’s antipodean academe, the third perfect storm afflicting organists can be at once recognised. Australia’s ever more shambolic federal government has added, to its widely-shared record of COVID-related ineptitude, a malice all its own when it comes to higher education.

The most vituperative surviving Khmer Rouge commissar, and the most frenziedly anti-intellectual Mississippi Klansman, might well blanch at the overt hatred towards humanities departments that routinely emanates from Scott Morrison and his Canberra colleagues. These legislators expend their hatred not specifically on left-wing and/or spendthrift humanities departments, but on humanities departments per se. For all their mismanagement when it comes to public health, they have demonstrated impressive populist cynicism on pedagogical issues. They discern the absolute monetary dependence upon the welfare state which has characterised Australian academe from its beginning; which is certain to characterise it until Judgement Day; and which has resisted four decades’ worth of libertarian think-tanks’ harangues about the private sector’s alleged enthusiasm for acting as Maecenas. More and more, the very concept of private universities for Australia is proving as mythical (indeed, in its bogus promises, almost as pernicious) as those other nostrums propounded by fantasising savants: The Classless Society; Sex With No Strings Attached; Exporting Democracy To The Third World; No-Fault Divorce; and – who can doubt the essential illegitimacy of this doctrine likewise? – COVID Zero.

Last year I had the privilege of an academic post, necessarily casual in nature, under Sydney University’s auspices. Having written earlier about the pleasure which I took in this post (and about how gratified I would be if the post continued into 2022, which perhaps it will), I obviously must not repeat myself here. But I would be crazy to nourish sanguine hopes that Australia will permit for me an academic – dare I even employ so ‘elitist’ a noun as the following? – ‘career.’ My sixtieth birthday fell shortly before last Christmas; and quite apart from my innate lack of youthful cred, it is hard to envisage any status less welcome to modish Human Resources departments than my own Google-aided identifiability as a white straight male Catholic.

No individual, therefore, will be more delighted than I to gain further academic emolument. Equally, no individual is less prone than I to take any such emolument for granted. My research background has been the opposite of fashionable: last year I completed my doctoral thesis on Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s organ output. In any contest between a candidate who has specialised in Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, versus a candidate who has specialised in transgendered rappers from Bali, no prizes are offered for guessing the probable victor.

This all explains, ultimately, why I find myself investing greater and greater sunk costs in the project – which is, I concede, a First World problem – of capturing my organ-playing on record. By so doing, I might (I repeat: might) convince university employment’s arbiters to overlook my chronological, ethnic, and religious disadvantages.

Going to the effort and expense of issuing no fewer than four CDs indicates, at least, exceptional dedication and single-mindedness. So, of course, does becoming a kamikaze pilot. Time will pronounce whether the former occupational choice supplies any better long-term prospects than did the latter.

Meanwhile, in defending my own gramophonic incontinence, I am tempted to quote Maurice Chevalier’s brusque retort to a question about how much happiness he experienced in old age. What (the straw-hatted Gallic divo inquired) is the alternative?

Deptford dreaming

Credit: Shutterstock
DEREK TURNER pays tribute to grittily resilient S.E.8

Aircraft always overhead, trains pulling in and out, traffic backed up along the New Cross Road, pulsating rap from open windows, plastic bottles in the gutter, pigeons with fungus-eaten toes, gang tags on gritty walls, smells of exhaust, fast food, sweat and the shower-gel of the highly made-up, high-heeled woman who just clicked by oblivious, while texting someone worth noticing somewhere worth noticing…

Drake, Blake, and Nelson look not down on us but rather out, over somewhere in the storied past before this unremarkable moment. A gilded galleon glints on the weathervane above them, a naval battle is taking place in the tympanum beneath their feet, and tritons uphold the front door.

Deptford’s Town Hall is a rare outpost of exuberance to find in an inner-suburban sea, a neo-baroque flourish built between 1903 and 1905 for the Metropolitan Borough of Deptford, with iconography reflecting the area’s long maritime history. It was never the most practical of buildings, but it has been increasingly inconvenient since the 1960s, when the Borough was eaten by the new Borough of Lewisham, which eventually sold it to Goldsmiths College. Today, its architecture is even more inconvenient – and the swaggering statues are worse than that, facing calls by ‘activists’ for their removal and erasure. They are too confident role-models for an era in English history that doesn’t much care for confidence – or even Englishness.

Drake could never have imagined such Angst-ridden arguments, as he waited aboard the Golden Hind alongside at Deptford on 4 April 1581, looking out for a very special visitor – Elizabeth I, come to honour his epic circumnavigation. Before evening, he would be Sir Francis, knighted aboard by the French Ambassador rather than the Queen, who however privately proud, could not be seen to endorse Drake’s more dubious activities. He was hitherto ensconced in an island nation’s mythology, an unmissable inclusion for the Town Hall architects seeking English ‘immortals’ to keep permanent watch above the New Cross Road. Blake could not have foreseen all this either, as he kept an anxious eye along the Thames corridor for the Dutch – and Nelson would certainly not have seen that signal.

The Golden Hind lay at Deptford (and stayed there until she fell to pieces) because Elizabeth’s father had established the King’s Yard – later, the Royal Naval Dockyard – there in 1513, on a convenient bend in the Thames, downstream from the crammed Pool of London, in the flatlands of the north Kent/Surrey borders. On 19 June 1549, the young Edward VI toured his father’s Yard, and was shown an after-supper spectacle, a mock-naval battle:

…a fort made upon a great lighter on the Thames … of which Mr. Winter was captain, with forty or fifty other soldiers … To the fort also appertained a galley …  Wherefore there came 4 pinnaces … which … with clods, squibs, canes of fire, darts … and bombards, assaulted the castle; and at length … burst the outer walls of the castle, beating them of the castle into the second ward, who after issued out and drove away the pinnaces, sinking one of them, out of which all the men in it … leaped out, and swam in the Thames. Then came th’ admiral of the navy and three pinnaces, and won the castle by assault, and burst the top of it down, and took the captain…

Deptford seen from Greenwich, early seventeenth century

Between 1513 and the Yard’s closure in 1869, hundreds of ships were built, fitted out or repaired at Deptford, making it an epicentre of English seapower on the edge of otherwise quiet countryside – a teeming townlet of hovels, smithies, stores, taverns and workshops, the headquarters of the navigational guild Trinity House, and grand houses of those who needed to be near to the Navy for reasons of duty or state. There were always secrets, troubles and valuables to be found at Deptford, locked up in statesmen’s offices or shipwrights’ desks, bonded in warehouses, guarded by marines, yarned about or perhaps passed over furtively in pubs, like the one in which Christopher Marlowe was stabbed to death by Francis Frezer in 1593, allegedly in a quarrel over the ‘recknynge’, although some think this was only a pretext, and the gay playwright was there on a secret mission for Elizabeth’s ‘spymaster,’ Sir Francis Walsingham. In 1993, we saw a tablet unveiled to him at St Nicholas Church, after a starry, strange dedication service during which Anthony Sher read from Tamburlaine the Great, Janet Suzman from Dido, Queen of Carthage, and Sam Wanamaker read Edward Blount’s 1598 reflections on his dead friend, while men dressed as nuns distributed leaflets about AIDS.

Christopher Marlowe

The Yard would remain a major strategic asset through the following century, when Blake knew the Yard, and after Restoration, Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn. Pepys came down here often on Admiralty business, busily commuting between here and his house in the City, his head full of practical reforms and quidnunc preoccupations. On 16 April 1661, for example, he diarized ‘Then we put off for Deptford, where we went aboard the Kings pleasure-boat that Commissioner Pett is making; and endeed it will be a most pretty thing.’

John Evelyn

John Evelyn lived in Deptford for forty years, fertilely for local legend. In 1658, a 58 feet long whale was killed off Deptford Strand, and another almost as big in 1699. In 1671, Evelyn came upon a highly skilled woodcarver in ‘an obscure place’ in Deptford, and was so impressed he introduced him to Christopher Wren and Charles II. Grinling Gibbons would go on to adorn some of the greatest houses of England.

Evelyn’s house was Sayes Court – a rambling brick house with a famous 100-acre garden, an experimental station and pleasure-ground for the romantic but also scientifically-minded author of Sylva (1664), one of the first and most influential books about forestry. Evelyn was devoted to his garden, and wrote copious maintenance and management notes under the title of Directions for the Gardiner at Says-Court, But which may be of Use for Other Gardens. A 1652 plan shows an elegant arrangement of ‘faire gravel walkes,’ fountains, grassy ‘plotts’, ‘long pourmenades’, box-hedged ‘par=terres’, an orchard and an evergreen thicket ‘for Birds private walkes, shades and Cabinetts’ – a haven of ‘choice flowers, and Simples,’ French walnuts and much else.

In 1696, Evelyn leased the house to Admiral Benbow, but found him a careless tenant. Worse came in 1698, when Evelyn, ‘asked’ by William III, allowed Czar Peter the Great and his entourage to rent Sayes Court while Peter was staying in England to study the latest shipbuilding techniques, as part of the modernizing monarch’s opening of a ‘window to the West.’ The towering, twenty-something Czar (he was 6 feet 7 inches tall) was none too careful with other people’s possessions. Evelyn’s servant reported to his master while the Czar was in residence, ‘There is a house full of people, and right nasty.’ Peter and his retinue trashed the house and garden, amongst other damage burning the bedding, using paintings for target practice, and crashing through an ilex hedge in a go-kart, causing the diarist to grumble on 9 June 1698:

To Deptford, to see how miserably the Czar had left my house, after three months making it his Court. I got Sir Christopher Wren, the King’s surveyor, and Mr London his gardener, to go and estimate the repairs, for which they allowed £150 in their report to the Treasury.

Sayes Court, John Evelyn’s house, in the early twentieth century

Evelyn’s painfully repaired paradise has gone, although there is a park on part of the site, with a twisted old mulberry tree on metal crutches (sadly, not one of his). Part of the house survived somehow, latterly as a workhouse, until the 20th century, by which time Deptford had long lost the Dockyard and most of its greenery, and become synonymous with urban deprivation. But other things have survived.

St. Nicholas’ Church – ‘I seemed to stand in a moralizing Georgian aquatint’. Credit: Derek Turner

The first time I saw St Nicholas’ Church, it was snowing, it was dark, and I seemed to be the only soul in all S.E.8. The cast-iron gates in the tall, thin eighteenth century brick walls were closed and locked, and there were no lights on inside the round-windowed church or charnel-house. Looming over, blacker than black, were the chunky medieval tower, the oldest building in Deptford, and overhanging yews – and straight in front, two great stone death’s heads surmounting the gateposts, with snow piled up on their laurel-wreathed craniums, the silence and whiteness accentuating the unfathomableness of their eye-sockets.

I seemed to stand in a moralizing Georgian aquatint, the churchly assemblage a cautionary note in the silent townscape, like a backdrop from The Rake’s Progress, or one of Rowlandson’s illustrations for The English Dance of Death – the ‘Horrid’ caperers that burst in upon the frightened Statesman, silence the Virago, wheel the Sot to his long louche home. Like the skeleton grinning madly in the Porter’s Chair, making that unfortunate operative recoil, the skulls of St Nicholas seemed to represent ‘What watchful Care the Portal keeps / A Porter He, who never sleeps.’

A sombre graveyard lies through those gates, most grass killed off by the yews, mud and mean needles giving acidic emphasis to the monuments to chandlers, merchants, shipwrights and John Evelyn’s beloved son, Richard, who died in January 1657 and is remembered searingly in the Diary:

[A]fter six fits of a quartan ague, with which it pleased God to visit him, dies my dear son, Richard, to our inexpressible grief and affliction, five years and three days only, but at that tender age a prodigy for wit and understanding; for beauty of body, a very angel; for endowment of mind, of incredible and rare hopes.

Evelyn probably hoped to see Richard again, because he was a believer in ghostly miracles, as suggested by a scrap of local lore he gave to the Royal Society, which ended up in John Aubrey’s Miscellanies:

…a Note under Mr. Smyth’s Hand [the Curate of Deptford] that in November 1679, as he was sick in bed of an Ague, came to him the Vision of a Master of Arts, with a white Wand in his Hand: And told him, that, if he did lie on his back three Hours, viz. from ten to one, that he should be rid of his Ague. He lay a good while on his back: but at last being weary he turned, and immediately the Ague attacqued him; afterwards, he strictly followed the Direction, and was perfectly cured. He was awake, and it was in the day-time.

Off-duty sailors too sleep under the yews, like Captain George Shelvocke, whose 1726 memoir A Voyage Round the World by Way of the Great South Sea included an incident that inspired one of English literature’s finest poems:

We all observed that we had not had the sight of one fish of any kind since we were come to the southward of the Straits of Le Maire, nor one sea-bird, except a disconsolate black albatross, who accompanied us for several days, hovering about us as if he had lost himself, till Hatley, my second captain … imagining from his colour that it might be some ill-omen, after some fruitless attempts, at length shot the albatross, not doubting, perhaps, that we should have a fair wind after it.

Instead, they experienced six weeks of constant bad weather – but the senseless killing of the bird did at least have one positive consequence decades later. In 1797, William Wordsworth, who had recently been reading Shelvocke’s book, mentioned the incident to Coleridge, who made it the central motif in Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Sunset over the Pepys Estate. Credit: Derek Turner

An even ancienter rime connected to Deptford comes from Chaucer – ‘Sey forth thy tale, and tarie nat the tyme; / Lo, Depeford! And it is half-way pryme.’ The New Cross Road was the main medieval road to Canterbury, sometimes as thronged with pilgrims as it is thronged now with the profane. The ‘depe ford’ was not over the Thames, but the Ravensbourne – supposedly named in reference to the raven flags flown by Sweyn Forkbeard’s fleet, which rampaged up here in 1013 – which flows ten miles up from Bromley to debouch into the more famous river.

Deptford Creek, 1988. Credit: Peter Marshall

Deptford Creek is still a tiny port, where Kentish coasters go in under the lifting bridge (disgusting drivers, delighting me) and come alongside to unload aggregates. The river almost empties at ebb tide, revealing shining mud and shopping trollies perched on by herons. Cranbrook Road, that runs along the Ravensbourne higher up, carries the folk-memory of even less likely avifauna – the cranes that once must have danced and nested among reeds beyond fields. Henry Williamson, author of Tarka the Otter, was a local, and wrote an eco-story about the poor polluted bourne (today’s Ravensbourne is greatly improved), linking a human down-and-out living on its slithery banks, with the last lesioned fish gasping in its filthy flood. Old quay walls host unusual species of crabs and plants, and a little upstream a fig tree, legacies of exotica trafficked through here over years. Earlier incarnations of the bridge were long strategically significant for forces advancing on London, like those of Wat Tyler in 1381, Jack Cade in 1450, and Thomas Wyatt in 1554 – and the scene of a battle on 22 June 1497, when Lord Audley and his Cornish rebels were easily defeated by the Earl of Oxford.

Late nineteenth century postcard of Deptford Broadway

Today’s Deptford has been gentrified – it has a Waitrose, even a Dance Studio – but in the early 1990s it was often cruelly distinctive, surrounded by areas with their own pathologies – Bermondsey, Elephant and Castle, Eltham, Kidbrooke, Millwall, Peckham. It was a little bit of East End that had somehow come south of the Thames. My flat had been built on a road that in the 1930s had been occupied by businesses like Brisbane Laboratories, producers of liquid paraffin and hospital disinfectants, and the Floetta Liquid Soap Co. Ltd., suggesting not only the noxious air quality of those times, but maybe the nature of today’s underlying earth. In summer, drunks lay prostrate in the High Street – I once saw a pitiable woman urinating onto the aghast A2 at midday – and there were high levels of crime. A man pulled a knife on me in a park, luckily just swearing and running away when I – instinctively, stupidly – declined to hand over my wallet. More serious criminals featured frequently in the pages of the South London Press, perpetrators of carried-through muggings, ‘steaming’ attacks on the old slam-door commuter trains (gangs would pass through carriages and demand valuables at blade-point, leaping exultantly out and through the ticket barriers at the next station), and even fatal drive-by shootings. This was an area with some terrible memories – desperate poverty and squalor which long after infused the lurid novels of local boy Edgar Wallace, and which in the 1990s was still in evidence – the 1944 V2 bombing of Woolworth’s opposite Deptford Town Hall, in which 168 were killed – the never-explained 1981 New Cross Fire, in which thirteen teenagers died.

Deptford Power Station, being demolished. Credit: Derek Turner

But there were also striking survivals, like the trilby and tie-wearing rag-and-bone man who surreally drove his pony and trap along the frantic A2, stabling his animal down a cobbled lane just behind Deptford High Street. Another cobbled street called The Stowage led to ‘The Light’ – Deptford Power Station, then recently closed, but whose chimney still stood gaunt landmark above SE8 – between scrap yards patrolled by Alsatian dogs that would throw themselves savagely at the corrugated iron fences when they heard you passing. Staff said the basement of No. 2 Turbine-Generator was haunted by those who had died on the gibbets alongside the dry dock. 

Watergate Street. ‘There were alleyways where you could get right down to the water’s edge.’ Credit: Derek Turner

Not far off were the surviving Georgian gates to the Victualling Yard, with their classical frieze decorated with bucrania (cows’ skulls linked by floral swags), an allusion to Greek and Roman ritual sacrifices. Suitably close was the site of grosser sacrifices, the hugely, horribly busy Foreign Cattle Market of the Victorian and Edwardian periods. In 1907 alone, 184,971 cattle and 49,350 sheep passed through the Market, many to die in the attached slaughterhouses with their notoriously heavy drinking ‘gut girls’ (who could have blamed these women for drinking to forget their days?) There were alleyways where you could get right down to the water’s edge, with cattle (or maybe whale!) bones visible at low tide, amongst dark and viscous sludge. Elements of these animals must have passed across the well-scrubbed surfaces of Wellbeloved’s, a family butcher which had carried on the same business in the same premises since 1828, and only closed in 2021.

St. Paul’s Church, ‘pearl in the heart of Deptford.’ Credit: Shutterstock

Albury Street had grand Georgian doorcases, plaster cherubim with dimpled knees holding up lead canopies over old sea captains’ houses. Nearby was St Paul’s church, John Betjeman’s ‘pearl in the heart of Deptford,’ an eighteenth century beauty built by Thomas Archer, famous for St John’s, Smith Square. Charles Burney, who was vicar and organist here between 1811 and 1817, was a son of the eponymous and celebrated music historian. He was also brother to James, who travelled with Captain Cook, and Fanny, author of Evelina. He also ran an academy for the sons of local naval officers, so severe that he provoked a rebellion by pupils, who barricaded themselves into the school and beat him with sticks when he burst down the door. In less choleric moments, Burney was a renowned classicist, collector of books and ephemera (who sold his collection to the British Museum for an impressive £13,500), and royal chaplain.

There were some of the oldest surviving shops in London, including a tailor where smirking men made vinegarish comments about the people passing outside as they measured lapels and inside legs, in a 1650s cubbyhole made even darker by racks of tweeds, and 1970s photos of hirsute men wearing flared trousers made of alarming cloths. There was even the last smithy in SE8, where I had burglar bars made by a hatchet-faced and taciturn man in a tiny forge smelling of hand-rolled cigarettes and hot steel. This tiny iron underworld felt at one with all the other outdated crucibles of identity, from shipbuilding and milling to imperial imports and industrial oils – all of them contrasting with, yet also oddly complementing, the elegant churches and stories of Tudor, Stuart and Georgian derring-do.

Outside grand Victorian villas on Lewisham Way stands Deptford’s 1930s war memorial, a stele with a stone flame on top, and a staring-down soldier, his rifle pointing to the ground – an irrelevantly outdated symbol, yet at whose feet every year the red poppies are renewed. All things combine, come together as symbols of a suburb past and present – a place that has changed, is always changing, but where even now old memory has not been entirely erased.

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.’ Academia.edu.

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. (theparisreview.org.)

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

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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)