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Monday, June 15, 2015

My forthcoming book, In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling, is to be published by Zero Books in September 2015. It is a critical study of the fate of the five physical senses (and the sixth non-physical one) in capitalist modernity.

Friday, April 05, 2013

From my forthcoming book, In The Realm of the Senses: A Materialist Theory of Seeing and Feeling, due from Zero Books in 2014:

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Sonnet 29

When in disgrace with Fortune and men's eyes
I all alone beweep my outcast state,
And trouble deaf heaven with my bootless cries,
And look upon myself and curse my fate,
Wishing me like to one more rich in hope,
Featured like him, like him with friends possessed,
Desiring this man's art, and that man's scope,
With what I most enjoy contented least;
Yet in these thoughts myself almost despising,
Haply I think on thee, and then my state
(Like to the lark at break of day arising)
From sullen earth sings hymns at heaven's gate.
For thy sweet love remembered such wealth brings
That then I scorn to change my state with kings.

When, submerged in sympathy for the self during a period when Fortune is not looking kindly on him, the poet's mood sickens almost to self-loathing, his thoughts turn to the lover. Then, from wailing at the deafness of the heavenly host, he becomes a celestial carol-singer, at which point the absence of elusive Fortune matters not. Not even kings are as richly endowed.

What speaks out of the 29th sonnet (and its companion piece, the 30th) is an acute sense of material impoverishment. Fortune, that notoriously inattentive floozy, has overlooked him while she has been busy bestowing favours and fancies elsewhere, to the extent that her understudy, Envy, has inveigled herself into the poet's home and set up camp. Others are 'more rich in hope' in the twin senses that they are more hopeful, but also that they have been blessed with the wherewithal to live more successful lives. Everywhere he looks there are people enjoying themselves, 'like him, like him', as the pivot of the sixth line has it, while he falls ruining at a heaven that has failed in its primary duty, to hear the unhappiness going on outside its walls.

And then something makes him think of the boy, and it all flows back into perspective. Or rather, the conventional perspective is itself thrown into lustrous disproportion. Vaughan Williams's lark ascending makes an unscheduled parenthetical appearance (recalling the contemporaneous adage that 'If the sky fall, we may hap to catch larks'), and suddenly the ululations of grief at heaven's entrance turn into melodious praise, doubtless to the relief of the door-staff, who aren't so deaf after all. The metaphor of love as wealth is as old as Gilgamesh, but serves here to remind the lover that being a king wouldn't now add an iota to the contentment he denied as recently as the eighth line.

In 'True Love', Joan Armatrading sings, 'Poverty can be romantic/ In black-and-white it looks like art/ Just as long as we're together/ I couldn't care less'. While commonly feeling that this is how it ought to be, we repeatedly fail in the duty of hope. When two together fail, the game is usually up. But if the face of one 'like him', rising absently in the dreaming mind, can burn the evidence of material failure to a cinder, then love, such as it is, is indeed true.

Hear Fingersnap's David McAlmont give a beautifully considered reading of Sonnet 29 here:

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Sonnet 65

Since brass, nor stone, nor earth, nor boundless sea,
But sad mortality o'ersways their power,
How with this rage shall beauty hold a plea,
Whose action is no stronger than a flower?
O how shall summer's honey breath hold out
Against the wrackful siege of batt'ring days,
When rocks impregnable are not so stout,
Nor gates of steel so strong, but time decays?
O fearful meditation; where, alack,
Shall Time's best jewel from Time's chest lie hid?
Or what strong hand can hold his swift foot back,
Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid?
O none, unless this miracle have might,
That in black ink my love may still shine bright.

Since there is nothing on earth that isn't subject to the sway of mortality, including the most elemental forces, youthful beauty in its fragility is hardly likely to endure. The idyllic summer days of happiness are likewise perishable, since time decays everything. In this sense, everything is in the possession of Time, including the lover's handsomeness, which has no more chance of hiding from its depredations than do rocks or steel. Nothing can stop Time's fleet-footed hurry, nor prevent it from reclaiming its own... unless the act of capturing the boy's beauty in written words has a chance of cheating it of the complete victory.

The controlling metaphors of sonnet 65 are first legal, and then military. In the opening four lines, beauty is under the 'sway', or legal jurisdiction, of mortality, so that it has no chance of 'holding a plea' in Time's court, and its judicial action is no stronger than either the flower, or indeed the poem's distinctly feeble fourth line.
Then suddenly we leave the courtroom for a scene of siege, where the passing days are battering rams that will break down beauty as easily as (surely more easily than) they do natural fortifications or steel gates. As in the 64th sonnet, to which the present one can be read as a companion piece, the realisation itself is fatal. 'This thought is as a death' in 64 becomes here the equally querulous 'O fearful meditation', prior to the poem's most troubling metaphor, the idea that the lover's beauty properly belongs in the sealed chest of Time, as its 'best jewel'. By the twelfth line, it has become once again the trophy, or 'spoil', of that indomitable military campaign that Time conducts, and always wins. Its wasting action is so 'fearful' precisely because it jealously holds on to what it considers its own, with the express purpose of ruining it. Time's chest might as well be the dog's manger of classical fable.
The only wager against this fate is the poet's self-reflection at the close, that in the very act of recording the boy's beauty for posterity, of writing it down 'in black ink', it may paradoxically continue to scintillate as brightly as it does at the moment the sonnet is written. If there is any way of joining the war against Time, it lies in the possible afterlife of the literary work, for all that such a thought wryly strikes the poet as hoping for a miracle.
Art is the last resort by which the perishable may be preserved against the onslaught of the days and years, and even that seems a matter of crossed fingers. The pathos of sonnets 64 and 65, their curdled fatalism, derives from the poet's inability to treasure what beauty there is while it exists, rather than looking onward to its inevitable decay, and so already surrendering the precious jewel to Time's own treasure-chest.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Sonnet 64

When I have seen by Time's fell hand defaced
The rich proud cost of outworn buried age,
When sometime lofty towers I see down razed
And brass eternal slave to mortal rage;
When I have seen the hungry ocean gain
Advantage on the kingdom of the shore,
And the firm soil win of the wat'ry main,
Increasing store with loss, and loss with store;
When I have seen such interchange of state,
Or state itself confounded to decay,
Ruin hath taught me thus to ruminate,
That time will come and take my love away.
This thought is as a death, which cannot choose
But weep to have that which it fears to lose.

The theme of the 64th sonnet is mortality, entropy, decay. The context is set by no fewer than ten lines of examples from the natural and political worlds. Everything falls away, into rot and ruin and desuetude and age.
Time's cruel hand is responsible for the disfigurements of age, when the richness of youth is obliterated in gradual wearing-out. Once-tall towers crumble away, supposedly durable brass is consumed by deadly tarnishing, and the ocean erodes the land, or else it drains away to dry land. These 'interchange[s] of state' all have the cumulative effect of loss, and are compounded by the fact that each state itself may as well be subject to decay as to entropic transformation (where 'state' has the supplementary meaning of the political state in which, like Hamlet, we can suspect something may be rotten).
The evidence of ruin is all around, so much so that the condition seems to seed the mental activity of rumination, where only the corruptible twin arches of an intercedent 'm' disguise the presence of more ruination. And what he ru(m)inates is love, which can't be any more immune to decay than anything else is. Whether the immediate cause be mortal illness or some other rival, Time will inevitably take the boy away.
A synthesis of ruining and ruminating produces the melancholy conclusion of the couplet: 'This thought is as a death'. Having the lover inevitably raises the possibility of one day losing him, so that joy always contains the seeds of a potential helpless sorrow. The thought has a deathly foreboding, but is also in itself the means of envisioning such a death.

One of the two partners in a relationship is always more fatalistic than the other. He foresees the end in every disagreement, in every disaffection, in every alienation of sympathy. To the common wisdom, he is the partner who 'thinks too much'. Shakespeare's lover is fully aware of the corrosive nature of such excess of thinking. The too-much-examined love is not worth living. But the implication is that all thinking about love is dangerous, as though love were at its most efficacious when simply inhabited like a building, or travelled through like air or water. To look objectively at it is to become aware of its mortality, where, for all its towering stature or brass-bound robustness now, it is as susceptible to the predation of Time as towers or brass.
In the 20th century, Coward ends a lyric of self-accusing fatalism thus:

I am no good at love
I betray it with little sins
For I feel the misery of the end
In the moment that it begins
And the bitterness of the last good-bye
Is the bitterness that wins.

In previous stanzas, he gets the tone of the love-affair wrong, or else poisons the atmosphere with unfounded jealousies. But it is here in the final lines that the most odious crime of the thinking lover emerges. He sees love's end at its very beginning, and the final moment of separation will be the prevailing mood of his memory of it. Nothing is stronger than loss, and nothing is more inevitable. The thought is not just of death, but is in itself a death.
How to love, and not think about it?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

We may be exercising the faculty for judgment even when we imagine we have no such inclination. The taste for entertainments of all kinds represents an opinion about the allure, or relative lack of it, in our daily lives. Firework displays, temporary funfairs, the arrival in town of the circus, not to mention the seductive influences of modern entertainment and communications media, attest to the inadequate paucity of the rest of life. Even where they seem tawdry, or wholly predictable, such diversions mark a welcome suspension of the common round, and thus a judgment upon it.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The world is 'everything that is the case,' says Wittgenstein. But might it be otherwise? Does this 'everything' include the possible other ways it might be? Or even just the existence of those other possibilities in the minds of individuals?

The whole must be the true, Hegel asserts. If we can grasp the whole picture, we will have grasped the truth. But in what sense is this 'whole' a normative concept? Is truth then no more than a fully comprehensive understanding of what already is? If so, in what sense does it differ from science? Opening our eyes on another pallidly unsatisfying day, are we to find comfort in the explanations of molecular biology and psychoanalysis? But this world goes on, and exceeds our understanding as it does so, and we turn inwards as before to find the reasons for our sense of lack.