Skip to main content


Showing posts from August, 2012

The Beautiful

The way I was planning to start this blog has been, unlikely as it seems, stolen by the comedian David Mitchell. The difference he and I have been jointly pondering was sharper in the eighteenth century, when talk about the beautiful went under the identity of discourse about ‘taste’. The term ‘aesthetics’ didn’t really come into use, via the Germans, until slightly later. Yet we still use the metaphor of taste, as if we tear off a few pages of a novel and chew it in our mouth before delivering our aesthetic judgement. Someone is said to have good or bad taste. I have a taste for Mendelssohn and the angular post-rock stylings of Sonic Youth. The Flemish and Dutch realists are not to my taste, a fate shared by most graphic novels and fantasy fiction.
The metaphor of taste, as Mitchell's piece suggests, is an odd one. If someone dislikes sushi or cardamom, then in general we understand taste in a subjective way: personal, idiosyncratic and unarguable. One cannot convince and debate s…

The Good

In what does the 'good life' consist? What is life for, and what is its end (in the sense of an end versus a means)? This is one of the oldest questions in philosophy and art. We strive for all kinds of things every day - to eat, to have fun, to interact with people, to achieve goals, to earn money, to have new experiences - but is there a horizon that encompasses them all? Philosophy has argued and insisted over various answers to the question of 'the good'. Perhaps we should live for pleasure: is not 'being happy' the final point of our lives? But what if our pleasures hurt others, or ourselves? If we live according to the dictates of conventional morality, are our desires going to be inevitably be frustrated? (This question of the incompatibility of virtue and pleasure is one that has kept thinkers going from Plato's Republic to Freud.) However, even so, maybe the good demands we rein in our hedonistic instincts, even try to extinguish them? Aristotle fa…

The True

What is truth? That's a question that seems madly twisted back on itself, simply because the evidentness or obviousness of truth is so deeply embedded. It is foundational: it is to communication what gravity is to walking. In life, in talk, in writing and even within ourselves we often discuss and debate what is true and what is false - is Messi the greatest? does he/she like me? is cutting the deficit working? - but assume we all agree that we will recognise truth when enough arguments and facts have been marshalled. We don't often debate 'what is truth?', because the true underpins all our other debates. Yet, just as gravity can be analysed, so can truth. And perhaps precisely because so much, if not all, of our 'talk' relies on truth, talk about truth is vertiginous.

However, I think that if we look at some of more the ordinary expressions of 'true' then they give us a path forward. A line, curve or circle is said to be 'true', if it perfectl…

The True, The Good, The Beautiful

Why study literature? My possibly intelligent non-answer to this is that literature is a question itself, and that the study of literature is an incessant attempt to trace the windings of what Derrida calls 'this strange institution called literature' - this haunting half-presence which inhabits nearly every other kind of language.

My more reasonable answer is a hesitant: because it means something. Literature touches - and unsettles - our most fundamental values, and I sometimes think university courses can forgot this as they try to induct students into pre-existing schools, methodologies and debates. This is necessary, of course, but we might do well to remember there is always something vital and even quite simple underneath our determination to make first-years understand the difference between French and Anglo-American feminist theory or trace the course of the historicist turn in Romantic studies.

I have often musingly thought I'd like to return the teaching I do in…

The Other Darwin: In the Botanic Garden

If in a lightening storm, crouch besides one's horse and it shall be struck first by virtue of its greater height. By 1850, the British shall be travelling under the sea in huge, oak-ribbed glass submarines and propelled across the skies in steam flying machines. Plants are endowed with a sensorium and amber can be rubbed to create a kind of static electricity. Breast-feeding is in disturbing decline among English ladies. Towing icebergs into the tropics would create up to two centuries of milder climates in the north and cooler, refreshing weather in the equatorial regions. The science of the late eighteenth century, it is safe to say, is quite mad but brilliantly fascinating.

I have recently been reading the first part of Erasmus Darwin's 1791 poem The Botanic Garden, which is where we find pearls of scientific knowledge like those above (incidentally if perhaps inevitably, Darwin has something to say about pearls too - rejecting the theory that they are a shellfish disease …

Leaving Ireland

For once, a post that isn't scholarly at all, but merely an announcement. Seeing as it's been in the pipeline for a while, and most of my friends and colleagues already know, I thought I'd take the opportunity to say that - sadly - I won't be returning to lecture at NUI Maynooth next academic year. I'm excited to be taking up a lectureship at the University of Exeter which begins in September.

As any young academic will know, the long and often doubt-filled journey that winds through an MA, a PhD and (usually) a series of rather precarious fellowships and temporary contracts is all for a permanent position, and that is what I've been lucky enough to get at Exeter. I'll certainly miss Maynooth and Ireland generally and for any students reading this, I'd like to say thanks for the opportunity to teach you, farewell, and that I hope my lectures and/or seminars aided your study in some small way. Proudly, I can say that a number of my undergraduates have go…