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Showing posts from 2010

A Slightly Marxist Reading of Forster's 'Maurice'

A somewhat bizarre conjunction of reading recently: Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment (a book I was supposed to read, possibily in full, for my MA, but never actually appear to have finished) and E.M. Forster's unpublished 'gay' novel, Maurice.

One thing about Adorno's aesthetics that I like is the focus on the unresolvable, the non-identical and the rift as the critical privilege of an artwork: hence, the motif of tension. For Adorno, whilst formal flawlessness is one of the great dreams of (bourgeois) art, were it to be actually achieved one would end up with a text or work that conservatively counter-signed the world 'as it is'. It is precisely because artworks cannot construct seamless worlds that we realise our world is itself not seamless.

Maurice, being a novel with a triad of lovers, involves a very obvious internal tension between two loves. The affair that Maurice begins with Clive Durham at Cambridge ends when the latter decides he…

We Prove Mysterious By This Love

Had a very interesting discussion with an ex-student on John Donne which sent me back to perhaps my favourite collection of poetry (Songs and Sonnets), and I can't help but feel I've stolen some of her ideas: so consider this little piece to have a ghostly co-author, which is kind of appropriate, given its conclusions. What I argue here is not dissimilar to what I have thought before on Donne (e.g. here), but maybe is more systematic.

The Elizabethan love sonnet tradition thrived on rhetoricising the physical: on translating the body, and its sensations, into heightened images. The Renaissance blazon - with its eyes like suns and lips like coral - created a stylised vocabulary of amatory passion which, driven by hyperbole, inevitably ended up hardened into formulae. Even by Shakespeare's time ('her eyes are nothing like sun') poets were turning against these images, representing a counter-beauty that claimed to be beautiful precisely because of its realism.
As my stu…

De Quincey, Labyrinth, Modernity

I just want to briefly touch on one section of Thomas de Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater which affected me quite powerfully the first time I read it, and continues to intrigue me. It concerns Ann, a young prostitute who had aided De Quincey in a time of sickness and for whom he had returned to the city some months after:
Meantime, what had become of poor Ann? For her I have reserved my concluding words. According to our agreement, I sought her daily, and waited for her every night, so long as I stayed in London, at the corner of Titchfield Street. I inquired for her of every one who was likely to know her, and during the last hours of my stay in London I put into activity every means of tracing her that my knowledge of London suggested and the limited extent of my power made possible. The street where she had lodged I knew, but not the house; and I remembered at last some account which she had given me of ill-treatment from her landlord, which made it probable that…

Keats and Belatedness

I have a difficult history with John Keats, perhaps ever since my undergraduate essay on him at Oxford was met with the beautifully faint praise that 'this would have been a first-class the 1960s'. The first chapter of my doctorate was on Keats, and it was then abandoned as I decided to focus on Coleridge alone. Undeterred, at the moment I am trying to work on something about Keats and Robert Southey which will analyse prayer, emotion and 'Greek religion'.

I'm also lecturing on his Odes at NUI Maynooth this week, and it's in this context that I've become increasingly intrigued by the motif of belatedness. From 'Ode on Melancholy', with its transitory sensations that carry sorrow and loss as their obverse sides ('Beauty that must die'), to the 'Ode to Psyche' with its 'latest-born' goddess, 'too late for antique vows / Too, too late for the fond believing lyre', there is a sense that Keats's Odes are al…

Blake/Barbauld: Apocalypse and History

As an humanities academic living in the time of the Browne Report, and living in Ireland at a time of economic cataclysm (a recent newspaper leader here felt the need to argue that the Republic is not 'the worst country in the world'), I think I am becoming almost immune to apocalyptic rhetoric. The sense that things are senseless, that things are collapsing with untold velocity, demands a trope and the rich discourse of apocalypse steps forward, as it has done on frequent occasions before in history.
The strange thing - and the thing I want to explore here - is that apocalypse is generally invoked not to express historical chaos, but to explain historical chaos - to, in fact, restore the linearity and intelligibility of history at junctures of instability and violence. It is a meta-historical concept, not an anti-historical one: things fall apart for a reason. After all, the fury and disaster of the Christian apocalypse (from which the Western tradition takes its cue) is the…

Notes on Jacobi: Reason and its Exits

Just been reading the German Romantic philosopher, Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi - perhaps most famous, if at all, in a distorted and misinterpreted form as a fideist and irrationalist; a purely religious counterpuncher, hurling himself in the name of Christianity against the heart of Enlightenment reason. Either that, or he blurs into the chain of minor philosophers between Kant and Hegel, notably only because his name does not begin with Sch- (Schelling, Schlegel, Schleiermacher...)

On the other hand, I've found him interesting: not only because he is on the same page as Coleridge in many ways, but because I think he actually mounts a fairly radical and intelligent critique of rationality and its limits. Two things I wanted to reflect on:
1. Jacobi, in a way you don't see very often in the philosophical tradition, understands that acts of reason are set within lived experience. In 'Concerning the Doctrine of Spinoza', he claims that 'philosophy cannot create its mat…

The Red Stuff

I tend to use my summers to hit seriously long texts that I would probably never get through otherwise. 2008 was Being and Time. Last year, it was The Phenomenology of Perception by Merleau-Ponty (see my posts here, here, and, oh!, here). This summer, I finished Marx's Capital, or at least volume one: still a thousand pages, and the only bit that was actually published. As someone who has more or less consistently considered himself left-wing, it's obviously taken me quite a while to work out how to even begin to respond to the text.
One thing that I did think about long and hard was the way that the critique of political economy had an impassioned substrate: an unwavering and highly-evidenced attack - sometimes satirical, sometimes moralistic, always fierce - on the conditions of factory workers. The epic sweep of chapter 10 on the 'working day' is the brutal empirical proof, for Marx, of the theories of commodity and surplus-value he has worked out in the measured abs…

Romola and the 'Feminist Bildungsroman'

To me George Eliot is the supreme English novelist, with only Woolf rivalling her in my affections. Whilst on the one hand mastering realism with the perfectly constructed Middlemarch, her other late novels are also wonderfully ambitious, experimental in content if not form, taking her Victorian readers into strange territories such as Jewish Zionism (Daniel Deronda) and the intellectual world of Renaissance Florence (Romola).

Romola, having sat on various shelves for literally nine years, was my latest read. It is the story of a Greek man, Tito Melema, who becomes embroiled in and corrupted by both Florentine politics and his own narcissistic ambition. It is also the story of his wife, Romola, the daughter of a humanist scholar and acolyte of the revolutionary monk Savonarola. Like Middlemarch, a loveless and corrosive marriage comes to take centre-stage, with the meticulously researched world of fifteenth-century Italy as the backdrop. Although not a feminist novel in any unqualifi…

The murderer should not triumph... (Note)

This was meant to be a double tangent in the previous post, but it was taking up too much room. So I'll place it here.
1. If injustice appears to be irreducible within our horizons, it counsels us to consider asymmetry when we are judging situations. I generally wince at the occasional instances of special pleading that can lead well-meaning people to minimise offences and outrages committed by oppressed groups, and exaggerate those carried out by the powerful, but it is true that all acts have contexts, and the way that acts occur within asymmetric contexts are important.
2. If injustice appears to be irreducible within our horizons, we must attend to material relations of power and oppression, and possession and dispossession. Sometimes, 'identity politics' can adopt an idealistic humanism and make it seem as if all this is a matter of representation: as if when people let their prejudices drop away and saw women, ethnic minorities, non-heterosexuals 'correctly' an…

The murderer should not triumph over his innocent victim

I'm going to start with a deliberately contentious statement: all politics should be religious, or, at least, all radical or emancipatory politics should be religious.
This doesn't come, I'm happy to say, from any sudden road-to-Damascus (Tennessee) conversion to the Fox News inspired worldview of right-wing US fundamentalism, but rather from J├╝rgen Moltmann's dialogue with Frankfurt School Critical Theory in the wonderful The Crucified God.* (Incidentally, follow the Frankfurt School link - what a wonderful picture!)
Now, the core assumption here is twofold. Firstly, that suffering is intolerable (hence the quotation, from Horkheimer, which entitles this post). Secondly, that suffering is impossible to abolish: as Horkheimer suggests, secular history cannot erase injustice. Recently, I've been coming to think more and more that there is an irreducible asymmetry between the powerful and the powerless which must stand at the centre of ethics: exploitation seems intrin…


I've been reading a lot of eighteenth-century sermons. Too much theology from a period which is not exactly a rich seam of theological innovation does tend to do odd things, and thus I found when I was reading an account of providence in relationship to prayer by William Leechman. Somewhat strangely, a domino effect ensued, and created a genuine panic about what I actually believed about free-will. This actually suspended my reading in the British Library for a good 45 minutes. In general, I've been content to follow Donald Davidson's anomalous monism - itself derived from a certain Kantianism - that contends that mental events, including volition, intention and 'freedom', are inassimilable to the lawlike explanations of physical science.
Yet, I think something deeper is going on, which I want to explore here - Davidson's (and Kant's) accounts work for me so well partially because they present freedom as an experience of paradox (or a paradox within experien…

Dawkins, Knowledge, Gadamer

I saw Richard Dawkins' More4 documentaryFaith Schools Menance last night. Two things straight off. I'm not really in favour of faith schools, although I doubt that they do a lot of the things Dawkins says that they do. Secondly, there was plenty to critique directly about the documentary's logic: from the ironically emotive use of music (sinister whenever religion was discussed, uplifting whenever science was discussed) to the ropy use of an extreme and overdetermined example in Belfast sectarianism to supposedly characterise the nature of religion as a whole (a basic error of induction, I'd say). However, I'm more interested here in thinking about what constitutes knowledge.
We can start from the letter he writes to his daughter, mentioned prominently in the programme. (Incidentally, if you give this a read, I find it impossible to believe that Dawkins genuinely holds that this letter is an exemplar of letting his daughter keep an open mind, given it has very disti…

From the Millennium Bridge / The Sublime

The defining account of the sublime is that given in Immanuel Kant's Critique of the Power of Judgement. Archetypally, it is a critical encounter with the immensity of nature, either in its epic scale (the mathematical sublime) or its incalculable power (the dynamic sublime). As Burke and others had already posited, terror experienced at a mediate distance (near enough to affect, far enough to elude one's actual annihilation) created a certain kind of aesthetic affect.
However, Kant's account created an added twist and ambiguity: as he emphasises, it is not actually the scope or violence of nature which is itself sublime, but rather the consciousness of man [sic] in the face of such liminal experiences. Sublimity passes from stone to flesh: although we may not be able to quite encompass a cloud-strewn Alpine precipice, we can encompass our failing-to-encompass and indeed come up with conceptions important to Kant's Enlightened project. Conceptions such as (to sketch a…