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Love's Comedy - I [Dec. 6th, 2012|04:02 pm]
I saw Ibsen's Love's Comedy at the Orange Tree Theatre two days ago. This is supposed to be an "early, flawed work"? This is supposed to be an artist still finding his voice? Well, if that's true, then I can't wait to watch A Doll's House or An Enemy of the People, because I loved this to bits. Maybe it's the age. Maybe it's the situation. Maybe two years from now, in another place and time, I will wonder why I sat through those three hours, enthralled like I've rarely been before. Maybe I'll wonder about that in a couple of months, even. But be that as it may, that night, for me at least, Falk and Svanhild spoke in the authentic voice of truth.

A word about the Orange Tree Theatre. I cursed heartily when I discovered, on the day, that it is in Richmond, in Zone 4, the last stop on the District Line (and what's more, annoyingly close, on the map, to Ealing Broadway, so you can't see one without seeing the other). A one hour tube journey from Piccadilly, and I half-considered not going at all, in the night and the bitter cold, given that this play wasn't supposed to be "all that good", given that I'd get back to Victoria Coach Station at 11 30, or something. But thank fate, I went. The theatre itself was the first pleasant surprise - a circular arrangement of seats, three levels deep, and no stage - it was essentially like the quintessential fireside evening - sit around in a circle, and watch people perform within it - almost Indian, to put it extremely crudely. And that was at least part of what made the experience wonderful - being right next to the actors all the time, close enough to notice their most subtle movements and gestures, their expressions, even the beginning of tears in Svanhild's eyes. (Yes, by the end of the evening, I was entirely in love with both Svanhild - both the character, and the actress - what a performance! You can call me "Falk" henceforth).

And what made the play so special? I think it's exactly the same thing that made Kundera's Life is Elsewhere so special, the first time I read it. It is that Ibsen knows - he knows exactly what it is to be young, to dream, to see poetry in everything, to rage against convention and the world, to ponder and ponder about time, permanence, fleetingness and flux, to be in love and create a world, to be in pain and destroy it - he knows it all, and he finds the most perfect expression for it. And it isn't simply that he knows it all - this isn't Shelley writing within the blaze of romanticism, but rather, from the outside - as someone who understands the illusions that we create for ourselves, and is determined to show them to us as illusions, bare and exposed, without the legitimising covering of romanticism - as illusions, with all their beauty and all their futility. Is this a comedy? As much or as little as The Merchant of Venice is a comedy. Yes, there is laughter. But the laughter is not the laughter of watching Falstaff get his comeuppance in The Merry Wives of Windsor, or hearing Dogberry's malapropisms in Twelfth Night. It is the laughter of O my daughter, O my ducats, that follows upon the frigid gravitas of "Hath not a Jew eyes?" It is a laughter that, paradoxical as it may sound, is born out of sadness, a certain kind of sadness in The Merchant of Venice, and a different kind of sadness in Love's Comedy.

At one level, I understand perfectly, this play is about the subjugation of women. And that is probably the most dated aspect of it. Some of Falk's specific diatribes against convention, when it is on the subject of marriage, don't make too much sense in 2012 - at least, not to me, fortunate enough to have been born in a liberal family in a liberal age. So I'll pass lightly over that, and on to the other central conflict of the play - this brilliant tension between carpe diem live-in-the-moment on the one hand, and certainty and stability on the other.

The theme is set in the opening scene, in Falk's first poem.

I will live in song and gladness,—
       Then, when every bloom is shed,
     Sweep together, scarce in sadness,
       All that glory, wan and dead:
     Fling the gates wide! Bruise and batter,
       Tear and trample, hoof and tusk;
     I have plucked the flower, what matter
       Who devours the withered husk!

Immediately after that, Falk claims that if he had control over the dictionary for one hour, he would expunge the word "next" from the lexicon, because we ruin our lives, we ruin our moments by thinking of what is to come next. We then learn that back in the day, when Stiver was in love, he wrote reams of poetry in office hours, but hasn't written a word since he became engaged with the woman he loved. So the two intertwined themes are established at the beginning - the moment is what matters, and social convention is utterly destructive - to that, and to everything else.  

Falk then comes up with the classical romanticist desire of finding a woman to be his muse, one who will inspire him to write great poetry.

Let blindness veil the sunlight from mine eyes,
I'll chant the splendour of the sunlit skies!
Just for a season let me beg or borrow
A great, a crushing, a stupendous sorrow,
And soon you'll hear my hymns of gladness rise!
But best, Miss Jay, to nerve my wings for flight,
Find me a maid to be my life, my light—
For that incitement long to heaven I've pleaded;
But hitherto, worse luck, it hasn't heeded.

And so, the introduction of the third theme, that is also hopelessly intertwined with the other two - poetry, and how it is simply indispensable to youth and love. At this point, Svanhild enters, and her very first lines are redolent of tragedy:

I'll pray that such may be your destiny.
But, when it finds you—bear it like a man.

And then, replying to Falk when he wonders whether her faith in prayer will be adequate to provide him what he has always unsuccessfully asked for: 

Wait till sorrow comes,
And all your being's springtide chills and numbs,
Wait till it gnaws and rends you, soon and late,
Then tell me if my faith is adequate.

And there you have it. Live by romanticism and, by Lermontov, you will die by it! Falk doesn't answer, but suddenly, there is a sense of foreboding, and a sense of the inevitable. In a sense, we know what is going to come. Falk will fall in love, he will write poetry, he will live his life like it was a poem, he will live in every moment for the moment, but he will be utterly unable to carry the logic through to its conclusion. Like Faust, he will want the moment to last as long as it can, and in wanting that, he will betray himself and his own professed ideals, and that... well, you know what that will bring.

Falk and Svanhild's first conversation is a brilliant exploration of the stifling forces of convention upon free spirits. Falk comments upon her mythical name. To which:

Is it so grim?

            No, lovely as a song,
But for our age too great and stern and strong,
How can a modern demoiselle fill out
The ideal that heroic name expresses?
No, no, discard it with your outworn dresses.

You mean the mythical princess, no doubt—

Who, guiltless, died beneath the horse's feet.

But now such acts are clearly obsolete.
No, no, I'll mount his saddle! There's my place!
How often have I dreamt, in pensive ease,
He bore me, buoyant, through the world apace,
His mane a flag of freedom in the breeze!

Yes, the old tale. In "pensive ease" no mortal
Is stopped by thwarting bar or cullis'd portal;
Fearless we cleave the ether without bound;
In practice, tho', we shrewdly hug the ground;
For all love life and, having choice, will choose it;
And no man dares to leap where he may lose it.

Yes! show me but the end, I'll spurn the shore;
But let the end be worth the leaping for!
A Ballarat beyond the desert sands—
Else each will stay exactly where he stands.  

By this time, I think, despite the foreboding of her first words, we're convinced that this is going, to put it crudely, somewhere. This is exacerbated by the sharp tension between the thoughts of Falk and Svanhild, and the rest of the people in the country house - encapsulated, for instance, in this brilliant exchange between Falk and the recently engaged Lind:

LIND [seizing FALK's hand].
My friend, I walk in rapt intoxication!

Hold! As a plighted man you are a member
Of Rapture's Temperance-association.
Observe it's rules;—no orgies here, remember!  

And in Falk's commentary on the priest, and in Svanhild's yearning reply:

FALK [looking after STRAWMAN who appears at the window].
       He was once so brilliant and strong;
Warred with the world to win his mistress; passed
For Custom's doughtiest iconoclast;
And pored forth love in paeans of glad song—!
Look at him now! In solemn robes and wraps,
A two-legged drama on his own collapse!
And she, the limp-skirt slattern, with the shoes
Heel-trodden, that squeak and clatter in her traces,
This is the winged maid who was his Muse
And escort to the kingdom of the graces!
Of all that fire this puff of smoke's the end!
Sic transit gloria amoris, friend.

Yes, it is wretched, wretched past compare.
I know of no one's lot that I would share.

And you're convinced of it when Falk proposes his we-two-against-the-world ideal. This is the classically romantic story, heading for a classically romantic climax. But here's the surprise. Svanhild doesn't want to be a muse, after all. 

         Yes, free, for freedom's all-in-all
Is absolutely to fulfil our Call.
And you by heaven were destined, I know well,
To be my bulwark against beauty's spell.
I, like my falcon namesake, have to swing
Against the wind, if I would reach the sky!
You are the breeze I must be breasted by,
You, only you, put vigour in my wing:
Be mine, be mine, until the world shall take you,
When leaves are falling, then our paths shall part.
Sing unto me the treasures of your heart,
And for each song another song I'll make you;
So may you pass into the lamplit glow
Of age, as forests fade without a throe.

SVANHILD [with suppressed bitterness].
I cannot thank you, for your words betray
The meaning of your kind solicitude.
You eye me as a boy a sallow, good
To cut and play the flute on for a day.

Yes, better than to linger in the swamp
Till autumn choke it with her grey mists damp!
You must! you shall! To me you must present
What God to you so bountifully lent.
I speak in song what you in dreams have meant.
See yonder bird I innocently slew,
Her warbling was Song's book of books for you.
O, yield your music as she yielded hers!
My life shall be that music set to verse!

And when you know me, when my songs are flown,
And my last requiem chanted from the bough,—
What then?

FALK [observing her].
           What then? Ah, well, remember now!
                       [Pointing to the garden.

SVANHILD [gently].
Yes, I remember you can drive a stone.

FALK [with a scornful laugh].
This is your vaunted soul of freedom therefore!
All daring, if it had an end to dare for!
I've shown you one; now, once for all, your yea
Or nay.

        You know the answer I must make you:
I never can accept you in your way.

FALK [coldly, breaking off].
Then there's an end of it; the world may take you!

number of things at play here. The most important being, probably, that Falk is throwing down the gauntlet. I don't make any promises that this will last, he's saying, but if you want the moment - then it is here. He's virtually admitting that there will come a time when Svanhild will become quotidian and ordinary to him, no longer the inspiration or the muse, no longer his poetry or his song - and that is simply... the way it is. But of course, what Falk entirely fails to see, and what Svanhild understands perfectly, is the other side to it. She says:

Are you content the fields of air to tread
Hanging your poet's life upon a thread
That at my pleasure I can slip and sever?

And then again:

Mind well this day, and heed it, and beware;
Trust to your own wings only for your flight,
Sure, if they do not break, that they will bear.
The paper poem for the desk is fit,
That which is lived alone has life in it;
That only has the wings that scale the height;
Choose now between them, poet: be, or write!

The interplay of ideas is spectacular. For here's the old theme back again, the warning: if you choose to live your life in a poem, and the poem depends upon something temporal, fleeting and inconstant, then there will be nothing for you once the poem ends. And at this point of the play, although Falk is minded to accept the advice, we certainly aren't. We'd rather that he lives the poem, even though it must be extinguished in a blaze of fire, and be reduced to dust and ash.   

(to be contd.) 



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Michelmas [Dec. 2nd, 2012|06:12 pm]
A crazy Michelmas is over. Eight weeks of madness.

Of MPhil-ing with Dworkin, Marmor, Greenberg and... Gadamer, E.H. Carr, Thomas Kuhn, Searle and Austin as well!

Of Adrian Briggs' dry precision and astounding mastery of his subject, and of a ninety-one year old Tony Honore still teaching causation.

Of Byron lectures in the English Faculty and Virgil orations in Examination Schools.

Of a delightful elderly Professor teaching Athenian democracy and the plays of Aristophanes in either a sub-fusc or a tweed coat, another delivering Marlowe in the most commanding tone of voice that I've heard in Oxford, and a young lecturer arguing about Foucault and Bakhtin and defamiliarisation and Stanley Fish in the Classical Studies centre.

Of John Gardner talking moral luck, Greek tragedy, The Dark Knight and "jokes Ronnie Dworkin used to tell on the bus."

Of discovering Milan Kundera's anti-romanticist modernism, Lermontov's bleak romanticism and C.P. Cavafy's brooding poetry. 

Of soul-sapping runs with an NCAA athlete to Port Meadow, of bike rides down the Thames Path, all the way to Blenheim and to Abingdon in the grey, misty dawn, of afternoon strolls with a new friend upon a flooded Addison's Walk in Magdalen, and another random stroll all the way to Green Templeton College at 1 AM, in sub-zero temperatures, talking about all kinds of things, just because, goddammit, life doesn't make any sense, so why should we try to make sense of it?

Of long afternoons in Blackwell's with a copy of Byron and now, a copy of the Aeneid

Of Nottingham, Winchester and Stratford-upon-Avon, by Shakespeare's grave.

Of SWSS Meetings, of Israel, Palestine and Gaza, of standing up in the MCR and arguing for a Palesting Solidarity Motion, and feeling, after a long time, the blood running crazily in my veins.

Of fencing, football and... an abortive attempt at picking up archery.

Of much else. Of so much else.

I remember, back in the old Law School days, I used to end yearly-summings up with a "Phew!" and a  "Please let this be a quiet year now, at last." Needless to say, it never worked out that way. I did think that the time was now, at last - after six years of turmoil and tumult, the MPhil would be the year of quietness, of books, of silence and peace, of nothing more. A year off, in the true sense, before plunging back into the world. How wrong I was. It is like the case of Lermontov's famous sailboat - the sailboat that disdains the quiet sea and seeks out the storm for itself, because its only solace is in the midst of the hurricane. That, as they say, is life. Sigue corriendo, to quote my old friend, the Captain, the Fraud, the You Can Call Me Kher. We're always running, aren't we?

* *

The writing life is back. Two years ago, I finished a draft of a half-political half-soft-science-fiction novel, tentatively titled Requiem, and it has lain on my desktop since, untouched, because... life was elsewhere. Life is back here now, though. I'm trying to get into some kind of schedule - the idea is to wake up at 6 AM, and write from 6 to 9, so the day isn't disrupted. So far though, I wake up at 9, and write from 9 to 12, and so the day - inevitably - is disrupted. It will come soon, hopefully. But I am recalling, at last, how profoundly thrilling the writing life is - the ideas, the struggle, the search for the word and the phrase, the structuring, the dialogue with one's characters, and so much more. Those three hours - they're like Faustian moments of eternity - you wish every one of them could last forever, and it is perfectly understandable if you would make a bargain with Mephistopheles for it.

* *

Lately, I saw the Oxford Troubadours perform at Holywell Manor, again. I finished reading Faust. And I still have to think about those two books of essays by Kundera. More on that, soon.   
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Pirates of Penzance [Nov. 25th, 2012|04:32 am]
Ever since I read The Secret of the Unicorn as a wide-eyed kid of five, I've been an absolute sucker for pirate stories. I used to play at pirates in my drawing room with my childhood school-friends (our ship always sank, and I used to get away by using a pillow for a raft), and I swear by all four of the Pirates of the Caribbean series (yes, yes, I know, it all went downhill after the first one - I don't care what you say).

So when I saw a poster for Pirates of Penzance stuck up just opposite the Balliol lodge, I formed a vague intention to go see it. 7 30, and today was the last performance. I looked out of the library window at 7. It was pitch black, and raining hard. I had just gotten into some kind of writing rhythm - having taken up my eternally unfinished science fiction novel again after two years. I had only the faintest idea of the work of Gilbert and Sullivan, the Wikipedia entry wasn't exactly alluring, an OxStu review was lukewarm, and it was, after all, a student production. I could feel the vague intention dissolving into indifference. I pinged Karpet and Akanksha on GTalk, wondering if they knew anything about this. K had only heard a couple of tracks, and A knew as much as I did. But they both said, just go, take a chance. And I looked out of my window again. 7 15. A fifteen minute walk to Magdalen in the rain, since I'd forgotten my bike.

Just go, dammit. Take a chance. A random punt. One winger and a prayer, as they say in football. Isn't that how we've lived all our life? 

So I went. And had one of the best evenings of my life.

Gilbert and Sullivan are bloody brilliant. In The Pirates of Penzance, I heard the laughter of Rabelais, the savage mockery of Quixote, the irony of Don Juan and the gentle humour of Wodehouse. It is like an ironic rendering of Byron's The Corsair. The basic plot could serve as a Spanish tragedy - crime, revenge, the conflict between duty and love - but in every line, every word, every note, there is such delightful irony. Duty is mocked. Love is treated like the canard that it is. Revenge is laughed at. The idea of the grand, the noble, the tragic, the majestic - in a word, the essence of romanticism - is taken apart with forensic precision. And yet - this is what I found most interesting - it rarely (apart from, arguably, "I am the Model of a Modern Major-General") descends into farce. Somehow, despite the fun and the dancing and the laughter, seriousness lurks in the background, as though the very irony is meant to remind us of the constant presence of tragedy in our world, keeping us aware at all times that it could, at any moment, transform into The Corsair. The Opera moved throughout, I felt, in this strange, ambiguous zone of light and shadow, never committing itself to unbridled revelry, never entirely embracing the comic. It felt, almost - and I know this is a hideous way of putting it - as though Aeschylus was trying to write Aristophanes.

And then there are echoes, echoes and undertones that go deeper. The pirate King says to Frederic: "I don't think much of our profession, but compared with respectability, it is comparatively honest." This line could be right out of Mark Twain, something picked out of The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg, or The Stolen White Element. You laugh when the pirate King delivers the line in his inimitable way, but then the laughter ceases and something else lingers, and you begin to think. And it's reinforced by the song he sings immediately afterwards, taking swipes at the "sanctimonious part" played by all who would be pillars of society, and the crimes committed by divinely ordained monarchs. The comedy has suddenly turned into a critique. And there's something similar, I felt, with Frederic's denouncement of Ruth - I laughed wildly when they were delivering those hilarious lines: "Upon my innocence you play// I'm not the one to plot so// Your face is lined, your hair is grey// It's gradually got so" - but there's no doubt that Frederic's callous behaviour here, dismissing Ruth solely on the basis of her age and her looks - entirely prevents us from taking his love affair with Mabel even remotely seriously, because he's made it abundantly clear that for him, beauty is skin-deep. And in this way, the central love affair of the story inverts itself and becomes, in a sense, a comment and a mockery of the romanticists' sanctification of love, love as the ideal and the eternal. What makes it even better is that Frederic and Mabel do speak to each other in language that could have been written by Southey, or one of the other gushing Romantics - "Did ever maiden close/ Her eyes on waking sadness/ To dream of such exceeding gladness?" But the context has already de-romanticised it to such an extent, that even these lines, solemn and majestic in themselves, become only funny. The same thing happens when Frederic is forced to rejoin the pirates - he and Mabel create a touching scene of parting - verse that could have come from the pen of Tennyson - and then shatter it completely when Frederic says, "In 1940, I will be of age.." You're reminded of the tragic for a brief moment, before laughter comes again, and yet, that original sense remains, and doesn't disappear entirely. 

But sometimes, the laughter isn't so quick or prompt to come. General Stanley sings alone at night, a song about how the poplars and the brook both fall in love with the breeze, and then:

GEN. Yet, the breeze is but a rover,
When he wings away,
Brook and poplar mourn a lover
Sighing, "Well-a-day!"
MEN. Well-a-day!
GEN. Ah! the doing and undoing,
That the rogue could tell!
When the breeze is out a-wooing,
Who can woo so well?

There is no laughter here, but depth and seriousness, and it's hardly undone by his daughters rushing in after the song is completed (if they had wanted to break this particular emotion, they would have had them interrupt). And it's moments like these that create the shadows in which the opera moves, that uncertain zone, that disorients you at times, so that even when you're laughing, you're wondering if you really should be, whether there isn't something you're missing after all, whether there isn't more than a hint of sadness to this. 

At this point, I will follow the example of the opera, and move from seriousness to quoting in full one part of the song of the Major-General, since it is an absolutely brilliant parody on the idea of the Renaissance man. 

I know our mythic history, King Arthur's and Sir Caradoc's;
I answer hard acrostics, I've a pretty taste for paradox,
I quote in elegiacs all the crimes of Heliogabalus,
In conics I can floor peculiarities parabolous;
I can tell undoubted Raphaels from Gerard Dows and Zoffanies,
I know the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes!
Then I can hum a fugue of which I've heard the music's din afore,
And whistle all the airs from that infernal nonsense Pinafore.
Then I can write a washing bill in Babylonic cuneiform,
And tell you every detail of Caractacus's uniform:
In short, in matters vegetable, animal, and mineral,
I am the very model of a modern Major-General.

Sheer genius. In choice of language and theme, the parody is perfect - history, poetry, logic, mathematics, art, drama, music, language and the art of war - the complete attributes of the Renaissance man - mocked to scorn - along with a self-effacing self-reference thrown in (Pinafore was also a G&S opera). 

And what of the Policemen's role? I cannot describe quite how madly, riotously, divinely hilarious it was. I was quite literally rolling in the aisles, laughing almost hysterically and thumping our cushioned seat. Such a madly irreverent mockery of the police, of the ideals of soldierhood, of that old chant, "death or glory". Cowardly policemen-soldiers who don't want danger and have no wish to die. In All Quiet on the Western Front, they are the supreme subjects of pity and tragedy. In Pirates of Penzance, they draw unrestrained laughter. I cannot resist, again, quoting in full, but quoting doesn't even begin to capture the scene, because a lot of its impact lay in the acting, the facial expressions, and the coordination. Nonetheless: 

When the foeman bares his steel,
Tarantara! tarantara!
We uncomfortable feel,
And we find the wisest thing,
Tarantara! tarantara!
Is to slap our chests and sing,
For when threatened with emeutes,
Tarantara! tarantara!
And your heart is in your boots,
There is nothing brings it round
Like the trumpet's martial sound,
Like the trumpet's martial sound
ALL. Tarantara! tarantara!, etc.

MABEL. Go, ye heroes, go to glory,
Though you die in combat gory,
Ye shall live in song and story.
Go to immortality!
Go to death, and go to slaughter;
Die, and every Cornish daughter
With her tears your grave shall water.
Go, ye heroes, go and die!

GIRLS. Go, ye heroes, go and die!


Though to us it's evident,
Tarantara! tarantara!
These attentions are well meant,
Such expressions don't appear,
Tarantara! tarantara!
Calculated men to cheer,
Who are going to meet their fate
In a highly nervous state.
Tarantara! tarantara! tarantara!
Still to us it's evident
These attentions are well meant.
Tarantara! tarantara! tarantara!

EDITH. Go and do your best endeavour,
And before all links we sever,
We will say farewell for ever.
Go to glory and the grave!

GIRLS. Go to glory and the grave!
For your foes are fierce and ruthless,
False, unmerciful, and truthless;
Young and tender, old and toothless,
All in vain their mercy crave.

SERG. We observe too great a stress,
On the risks that on us press,
And of reference a lack
To our chance of coming back.
Still, perhaps it would be wise
Not to carp or criticise,
For it's very evident
These attentions are well meant.

POLICE. Yes, it's very evident 
These attentions are well meant, etc.

Bonkers. And the ending, which I will not reveal here for spoiling the whole thing completely, is an apt summation in terms of its inversions and ironies. 

And a note of seriousness, to end. There was a beautifully touching gesture to round off a very well performed show. A vote of thanks, and two in particular caught my attention. The first was to Magdalen College, that had provided the venue and the infrastructure to make this student performance possible. And the second to a someone - he was there among us in the audience - who had designed all the costumes for free.

Too often, over the last year and a half, with all its number-locked doors and its constant battel reminders and its predatory recruiting and the constant buzz about sponsorship and funding and its beautiful, wonderful libraries where you cannot go without a Bod Card (and thus, certification of having paid your money to be here), Oxford has resembled, far too much for my liking, a commercial enterprise. Yet tonight, briefly, as I walked back in the rain down Longwall Street, that impression dissolved, and I felt, if only for a few moments, that I had lived an evening in the Oxford of my dreams, the city of dreaming spires, where Hugh Latimer spoke of lighting a candle that would never be put out, where Mathew Arnold wrote Cromwell, where Tolkien and Lewis strolled down Addison's Walk at midnight, and so much more.

Just a simple evening watching a Gilbert and Sullivan opera, but two beautiful hours in Oxford.     

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Moments [Nov. 15th, 2012|06:55 pm]
I stand up quietly. Dimly, I can hear the buzz of conversation at Blackwell's Cafe, but I don't register anything. All morning, I have been reading Kundera's Testaments Betrayed, and my thoughts are full with Rabelais, Rushdie, Kafka, and of course, Kundera himself, and his limpid prose. But now, I have a lunch appointment at Balliol, and I must leave. Quietly, I thread my way through the chaotic arrangements of chairs and tables, towards the exit. As I pause, on the way out, to take a drink of water from the jug, my eye chances to light upon the table to my right, and the book that is lying upon it. It is Kundera's Immortality, and below that is Kundera's The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

I still have Testaments Betrayed in my hand. I hold it up to the stranger who sits at the table, and say, "It seems like we're reading the same person." He takes a glance at the book. A delighted look steals into his eye. He laughs freely, and says, "Oh yes. He's very good." I smile back, lightly, and stress, "Oh, he's very, very good." But then, curses be, I am getting late for my lunch appointment, and I must leave, and there is no time to ask him whether he has read Life is Elsewhere.

And as I walk out of Blackwell's, I am recalling a very similar incident, years ago, a lifetime ago, a summer night in 2008, standing outside the Law School mess, and saying to one, my breath catching in my throat with sudden surprise and joy, "The third ruffian! You got that from The Red Sea Sharks, didn't you? You're a Tintin fan too!" I remember his smile, the beginning of a beautiful friendship. And I remember our sudden laughter that rose and vanished into the night, but left something behind, a something that, for a while, chased the possibility of sadness away.

Moments, the moments that we live for.    
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Thoughts on Kundera - I [Nov. 13th, 2012|06:40 am]
"Life is elsewhere, the students have written on the walls of the Sorbonne. Yes, he knows that very well, it is why he is leaving London for Ireland, where the people are rebelling. His name is Percy Bysse Shelley, he is twenty years old, he is a poet, and he is bringing with him hundreds of copies of leaflets and proclamations that are to serve him as visas for entry into real life.

Because real life is elsewhere. The students are tearing up the cobblestones, overturning cars, building barricade; their irruption into the world is beautiful and noisy, illuminated by flames and greeted by explosions of tear-gas grenades. How much more painful was the lot of Rimbaud, who dreamed about the barricades of the Paris Commune and never got to it from Cherleville. But in 1968 thousands of Rimbauds have their own barricades, behind which they stand and refuse any compromise with the former masters of the world. The emancipation of mankind will be total, or it will not exist.

But only a kilometre from there, on the other bank of the Seine, the former masters of the world continue to live their lives, and the din of the Latin Quarter reaches them as something far away. Dream is reality, the students wrote on the walls, but it seems that the opposite was true: that reality (the barricades, the trees cut down, the red flags) was a dream." 


In the last five hours, I have read Milan Kundera's Life is Elsewhere cover to cover. I hardly know where to begin describing it, for it seems to me that no descriptions can even begin to do justice to its power, its complexity, its wisdom and its sadness. This is a book about poetry, about revolution, about their inevitable entanglement, about words and the power of words to create images that can exalt and destroy, about love, longing, rejection and heartbreak, about coming of age, about ideals and absolutes, about everything. Wit and pathos mix with irony and tragedy; and at the final shattering climax, I found myself filled with a profound sense of sorrow and loss, but also, most inexplicably, smiling at something I could not understand... at beauty, perhaps. And for those five hours, I was enraptured, and time ceased to exist. 

It's difficult to summarise the book, because it has a multiplicity of themes, and each of those themes are so inextricably intertwined with each other, that one cannot be described without describing all the others. One of the central themes, for instance, is the protagonist Jaromil's belief in the absolute and self-effacing character of love. Yet, one cannot explain this without also explaining how this metamorphoses into, and then is itself coloured by, the absoluteness of the ideal that marks any youth-driven revolution; love and revolution are mixed up inextricably, as the scene where the poets debate about the nature of love in pre-revolution society, amply demonstrates. And one must also then go into the role of poetry, and again, how poetry influences and is influenced by, revolution. Indeed, you could sum up this book by describing it as a critique of Shelley's famous "Poets are the ultimate legislators of the world" - but that would be incomplete. One could sum it up as a critique of the Romanticist idea, something that is echoed by all the major characters in the novel, something that starts as a platitude and ends as the ultimate tragedy: "When it comes to love, there is no such thing as compromise. When you're in love you must give everything" - but that would be incomplete as well. It is difficult to sum up this book, to grasp it, as it were, from any one angle. And I haven't even touched upon the account of the mother-son relationship that forms a cornerstone of the book, as well as its treatment of the complex issue of learning love as one grows up.

Well, briefly, the book is about the life of a young poet, Jaromil, in the backdrop of the Czech Communist Revolution of 1949. It is no Darkness at Noon or 1984 - the concentration camps and the show trials and the political purges are there, certainly, but they are there in the relative background. We are never allowed to forget them, but at the same time, there is no doubting that the principal point of the narrative is to tell the story of Jaromil, his life, his poetry, his loves, his relationship with his mother, his part in the revolution, and the connections between all these. Jaromil's life is dominated by his mother. He is Rimbaud. He suffers from self-pride to the point of insecurity. He is Lermontov. He wants to change the world with his poetry, and he chafes at his own inactivity, his imprisonment in a "house of mirrors". He is Shelley. But it's not just about Jaromil's life - his life is the vehicle that Kundera uses to ask those age-old, critical questions: what is the role of the poet - and thus, more broadly - art, in society? Why do the ideals of revolution always destroy that which they seek to preserve and exalt? And of course, that ultimate question: what, after all, is love, and what part does it play in our lives? And at the end, there is as much ambiguity as there is in the beginning. We have to work out the answers for ourselves, and the book leaves us with the disquieting feeling that there may be no answers, or that the answers might point us to a direction we dare not go. 


He is ironic without ever descending into cynicism - and at the same time, piercingly witty. Consider:

"... he found himself face to face with the blond classmate, who fixed her big blue eyes on him; her lips were no longer moving, no longer singing the song about the canary, which Xavier had thought would never end. Ah, what naivete, he reflected, to believe in the existence of a song that never ends! As if everything here in this world, from the very beginning, has been anything other than betrayal! Fortified by this thought, he took a look at the blond girl's eyes and knew that he must not take part in the rigged game in which the ephemeral passes for the eternal and the small for the big, that he must not take part in the rigged game called love. So he turned on his heels and went back into the little washroom in which the stocky Czech schoolteacher was again planted in front of Xavier's schoolmate, her hands on his hips."

Two things, I think, rescue this passage from depressing cynicism. The first is that Xavier himself is unreal - he is a creation of Jaromil's. And secondly, these comments on the futility of love are sandwiched between two moments of high farce - the discovery of a teacher and a student kissing in the bathroom, and the deliberate return to that same spot. So, putting this in context, one gets the feeling that it's not really about the impossibility of love, but in a sudden inversion, Kundera's mocking the solemn declarations of the impossibility of love. 

This kind of... uhm, defamiliarisation occurs regularly throughout the book. It's there when Jaromil's attempts to make love fail for various reasons on various occasions, and when he finally does achieve it, it is through the strangest anticlimax imaginable. It's there when Kundera consciously juxtaposes eras and poets together, switching from Rimbaud in one line to Lermontov in the next, and to Jaromil in the third - and then back to Shelley in the last - and even as he does so, he juxtaposes the themes, showing, again, their inevitable intermingling. The effect cannot be described without directly quoting:

"He looked at the girl as her last words died away; yes, that's how it was; during all that time when he was tormented by solitude, when he was desperately taking part in meetings and processions, when he kept running on and on, his life as an adult had already been prepared for him here: this basement room with walls stained by dampness had been patiently waiting for him; this room and this ordinary woman whose body had finally linked him in a complete physical way to the crowd. 

The more I make love, the more I want to make a revolution - the more I make a revolution, the more I want to make love, a Sorbonne wall proclaims, and Jaromil entered the redhead's body a second time. Adulthood is total, or it doesn't exist. This time he made love to her long and marvelously.

And Percy Bysshe Shelley, who like Jaromil had a girlish face and looked younger than his age, ran through the streets of Dublin, he ran on and on because he knew that life was elsewhere. And Rimbaud, too, kept running endlessly, to Stuttgart, to Milan, to Marseilles, to Aden, to Harar, and then back to Marseilles, but by then he had only one leg, and it is hard to run on one leg.

Again he slid out of the girl's body, and as he lay stretched out beside her, it seemed to him that he was not resting after two long acts of love but after months of running."

Notice, of course, that there are three very different acts of running that are being described and juxtaposed here. Jaromil is running to find love and adulthood. Shelley is running to change the world through revolution. And Rimbaud, well, it's difficult to sum that up in a line! But the whole beauty of Kundera's writing is how, in that one metaphor, the conditions of all three come together, and can be viewed through the lens of a single prism, since at bottom, they are essentially, the same.

For it is Kundera's case that poets inhabit a house of mirrors; they forever long to belong to the world, the world of action and of enterprise, but cannot; and so they construct their own worlds through their poetry where, because everything is their own creation, there is nothing to condemn them, nothing to hold them to account and expose them if they come up short. But it is precisely in this that their sorrow lies, because they're always longing to - and trying to - ride the wave on the cusp of the epoch. So, Kundera, quoting the poetry of Frantisek Halas (Banished from the land of dreams...) and Vladimir Mayakovsky, says: Only a true poet can speak of the immense longing not to be a poet, the longing to leave that house of mirrors where deafening silence reigns. The poet is always trying to go into the world, but the best he can do is show himself to the world; so, Kundera writes, in another remarkable juxtaposition: 

"The processions had already passed the reviewing stand in Wenceslas Square, improvised bands had appeared on the street corners, and blue-shirted young people were starting to dance. Everyone was fraternizing here with both friends and strangers, but Percy Shelley is unhappy, the poet Shelley is alone.

He's been in Dublin for several weeks, he's passed out hundreds of leaflets, the police already know him well, but he hasn't succeeded in befriending a single Irish person. Life is elsewhere, or it is nowhere.

If only there were barricades and the sound of gunfire! Jaromil thinks that formal processions are merely ephemeral imitations of great revolutionary demonstrations, that they lack substance, that they slip through your fingers. 

And suddenly he imagines the girl imprisoned in the cashier's cage, and he is assailed by a horrible longing; he sees himself breaking the store window with a hammer, pushing away the women shoppers, opening the cashier's cage, and carrying off the liberated dark-haired girl under the amazed eye of the gawking onlookers.

And then he imagines that they are walking side by side through crowded streets, lovingly pressed against each other. And all at once the dance whirling around them is no longer a dance but barricades yet again, we are in 1848, and in 1870, and in 1945, and we are in Paris, Warsaw, Budapest, Prague and Vienna, and these yet again are the eternal crowds crossing through history, leaping from one barricade to another, and he leaps with them, holding the beloved woman by the hand...

* * 

(to be contd.

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Reading Freud - I [Nov. 11th, 2012|10:29 pm]
I've been reading Civilisation and its Discontents since morning - and thinking much. There is a wealth of ideas there, densely packed into ninety-five pages of small font. Freud doesn't waste words - there is no verbiage or superfluity. Most importantly, he reads well - something that Gadamer and Heidegger, the last two philosophers I've turned my hand to, completely fail at. 

I'm not entirely convinced by the beginning. Freud asks that eternal question about the source and power of religious sentiment, and quotes Romain Rolland's idea of the "oceanic feeling". I'm not persuaded by his characterisation of what, precisely, the oceanic feeling means - Freud thinks that Rolland is referring to a feeling of being connected with the rest of the world (an escape from loneliness, perhaps?). But if we're to go by the rest of what Rolland says - he refers to the sensations of eternity and limitlessness - then I think we can see that he isn't really talking about being connected - he's talking about the need to believe in the existence of something higher and wiser than oneself, something that gives existence a meaning and purpose. So, not an escape from solitude, but an escape from the conviction that existence is futile, an escape from the fate of Sisyphus. 

Freud casts doubt on the argument by pointing to the obvious truth - our sense of self (the ego) sharply distinguishes itself from the world (object). (Here is an example of how little gems of wisdom are littered throughout the pages of the book. In the middle of the discussion, Freud says: "There is only one state - admittedly an unusual state, but which cannot be stigmatised as pathological - in which he does not do this. At the height of being in love the boundary between ego and object threatens to melt away. Against all the evidence of his senses, a man declares that 'I' and 'you' are one, and is prepared to behave as it were a fact.") But then he points out that the distinction is very hazy in our infancy, and it is only as we grow older that our mind sharpens it for us. He goes on to argue, then, that for a substantial number of people, it could be that this "primary ego-feeling" persists as they grow up, and it is in order to satisfy this need that religion comes in. But he only states the argument to reject it. He rejects it because he cannot find the "strong need" that is required to make this feeling a source of energy. Instead, he says: "The derivation of religious needs from the infant's helplessness and the longing for the rather aroused by it seem to me incontrovertible, especially since the feeling is not simply prolonged from childhood days, but is permanently sustained by fear of the superior power of Fate. I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father's protection." I find this utterly compelling, especially because it reminds me of two of my favourite pieces: Kant's What Is Enlightenment? and Dostoevsky's parable of the Grand Inquisitor in Karamazov. Recall that Kant's basic argument is that the Enlightenment's role is to rid human beings of their overpowering need for a "tutor", a guide, someone who can make their decisions for them. The parallel with the father is obvious. And of course, the Grand Inquisitor turns this into an ethical principle - who are you, he asks god, to come down here and seek to take our authority away from us, when under our rule the people are spared the agony of thinking and deciding for themselves? 

(To be contd.)
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Bloody Poetry [Nov. 11th, 2012|07:56 pm]
I went to the theatre last night, to watch Bloody Poetry - an account of the tangled lives of Lord Byron, Shelley, Mary Shelley and Claire Clairmont. The first half, set in the famous summer of 1816, in Byron's swiss villa, was excellent. The second half, that dealt with Harriet's suicide, Mary Shelley's miscarriage, the death of Claire and Byron's daughter, Shelley's drowning, and other such uplifting subjects, was abject. That is not because I bear an animus towards tragedy in general - but I do bear a strong animus towards badly written and shoddily performed tragedy. Having the ghost of Harriet coming back to haunt Shelley, for instance, was an execrable bit of theatre - this isn't Julius Caesar, for heaven's sake! 

Nonetheless, there were some very good parts. Byron's character, in particular, was brilliantly painted and performed. In the opening scene, he meets Shelley, Mary and Claire, and invites them to dinner, promising them fish and meat. Mary says, "Bysse is a vegetarian." Byron screws up his nose and retorts, "Not another damned Wordsworth!" I laughed out loud at that point, and people started at me. It was irresistible - I have, after all, spent the last five weeks in Byron lectures getting it drilled into me, through prose and verse, how much Byron despised the Lake Poets, and especially Southey and Wordsworth (O Southey, Southey, cease thy varied song!) And then at one point he claimed that Shakespeare's immortal line, crawling between heaven and earth had always been - paradoxically - comforting to him. I thought immediately of that brilliant, beautiful line in Manfred - "half-dust, half-deity", and the ultimate grief of the Byronic hero - that man is forever conceiving of a perfection he knows he can never achieve. Yes, the characterisation was brilliant, and these are just two examples. Byron came alive on the stage yesterday. He was there, that strange, magical, unfathomable personage, that brilliant and incomprehensible hybrid of the tragic and the ironic, passion and Rabelaisian disdain for all things serious. And I think it was beautifully summed up towards the end in his cry of anguish: "The world is bloody... why torture ourselves with shadows?" I could imagine him saying it, the real Byron, the Byron of the ottava rima and Childe Harold, the Byron who fought and died in Greece. Because the same person who could say this, actually said, in his last poem, weary, disillusioned and yet, as always, supremely ironic: "If thou regrets't thy Youth, why live?/ The land of honourable Death/ Is here: - up to the Field, and give/ Away thy breath!​"  

There were, actually, moments of supreme pathos, and dark irony. Such as Byron asking Shelley, "Are you a good sailor?", and Shelley nodding in response (he was, of course, drowned in a boating accident). And there was a magnificent depiction of the clash of philosophies and worldviews that were debated in the villa, and which, in turn, was a mere microcosm of the same debates that were taking place throughout Europe: the worth and value of romanticism, the fight against injustice, the idea of freedom and constraint, and the meaning of love. So when Shelley says, "We haunt ourselves with the ghosts of what could be if we were truly free," you know immediately, the man who is talking: the man who, as a youth, was expelled from University College, Oxford, for writing The Necessity of Atheism, the man who wrote, Men of England and The Masque of Anarchy, passionate, strident and ultimately tragically ineffective - ultimately, the man about whom Matthew Arnold wrote, with complete accuracy: "an ineffectual angel beating his luminous wings in the void." Shelley, too, in that line, came alive. And then again, love is the lineament of gratified desire - this entire idea that the carnal isn't the sinful and the soiled, it isn't something, as Christian doctrine teaches, that you must overcome if you're to really love, love in the high and pure sense. The idea that the carnal is actually what gives rise to and defines love, and that it can be every bit as beautiful as the spiritual.

Yes, it was all there: Byron raging against romanticism and the old theme or returning to the imaginary medieval utopia, Shelley preaching radicalism, and numerous little tid-bits and references thrown in about John Murray, the English reading audience, the Italians, and so on. And it was summed up, at the very end, after all the heartbreak and the pain, by Byron himself, something, I think, that defines both his poetry and in part, Shelley's (Adonais, especially): "we learn in suffering what we teach in song.
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One last time [Nov. 8th, 2012|10:26 pm]

My one still point in the centre of the storm.

The one thing that remains intelligible in an incomprehensible world. 

First and ever constant love. 

And this visit drained everything and then some. I understand now that after this, I cannot go back. So, this is goodbye. A farewell to Wolvercote. You've been my best and only real friend at Oxford. 

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The Show Must Go On [Nov. 8th, 2012|08:08 am]
Camus. The Myth of Sisyphus. The eternal question. When we come face-to-face with the unintelligibility of the world, the imminence of death, and the ultimate futility of existence, why don't we just kill ourselves? When we realise the unattainability of being able to reduce the world into axioms of rationality, when we come to understand that we are all, after all, bit-part players in the great theatre of the absurd, how can life retain meaning? Not in Plato and his divine forms, nor in Kierkegaard and his god. Camus' solution, which seems utterly meaningless to me, is to accept it, and by acceptance, conquer it. Sisyphus is somehow supposed to tell himself "all is well" when he's marching down that hill, and Camus would have us imagine that he is happy. For an essay that spends its greater volume expounding on the absurd, the pseudo-solution is perhaps the most absurd part. 

Dostoevsky got it partly right. "Pain and suffering are always inevitable for a large intelligence and a deep heart. The really great men must, I think, have great sadness on earth." But I don't think you need to have a large intelligence or a deep heart or be really great. The sadness comes out of the very activity of thinking. In the act of thinking, you understand that "man's greatest tragedy is that he can conceive of a perfection which he cannot attain." Yes, Byron saw it clearly. Childe Harold can scale the mountains and travel the world, but he carries the agony of rational existence with him. Manfred can surpass Faust in plumbing the secrets of heaven and hell, but he cannot live with the bitterness of his own mortality. There is no solution. Sisyphus is not happy. He goes on because he must. And so do we all. 

Heigh-ho. That was a nice and cheery post, wasn't it? 

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Half-term at Oxford [Nov. 3rd, 2012|04:37 am]

“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn't quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn't make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

I suppose it's the sheer power of the image that compelled immediate and complete assent, the first time I read it. Yet the longer I thought about it, the more it seemed to me to be advocating a philosophy of conservatism, of cowardice, and ultimately, a philosophy that located value in popular success. Few can, of course, reject it completely; but I think there's value in getting rid of this image of assured calamity in the absence of a narrow focus, this obsession with expertise and usefulness, this summary dismissal of poor old Jack-of-all-trades. 

And so, my days in the first half of Michelmas term, with the ending of fourth week today, have been scattered, random, incoherent and utterly delightful. I shuttle from the Law Faculty to the English Faculty to Examination Schools to the Centre for Byzantine and Classical Studies, a few times a day. I take a look at lecture lists in the morning, and end up at whichever place catches my fancy that day. If it fulfills its promise, I stick with it for another week. If it disappoints, I go to some place else. My study table now has sheaves of steadily mounting handouts, climbing to form the shape of a medium-sized book. They range from lectures on Byron to Athenian Democracy during the Peloponnesian War; from Marlowe to Virgil; from Roman history to literary theory; from Plato's Republic to the style and character of Achilles' speeches in Book 9 of The Iliad. Is there a common theme, or to use the Aussie lawyer's favourite word, a synergy between all this? Not that I can see. Is it a colossal waste of time, time that would be better spent doing appropriately lawyer-ly things and working on positioning myself for my future career? Probably. Will it ever be of any use? I do not know. I do not think so. 

But this much I know. I know that few things can match the thrill of hearing Nicolas Halmi quote - and then go on to explain - Byron's Manfred or Don Juan, his face suffused with the glow of scholarly enthusiasm, and his clear love for the great Romantic evident in his eyes and his voice. As I sit in the lecture, turning the pages of the hand-out, my eyes falling upon verses that I read before, that appealed to me in a strange, inexplicable and utterly compelling way many years go, I understand, suddenly and at last, why they gripped me in the way they did; and all at once, I understand the genius of the expression "half-dust, half-deity", and Manfred's world opens up before me, a world of depth, profundity and a wealth of thoughts, ideas, emotions and feelings to immerse oneself in. And I go that evening to Blackwell's, and purchase an unnecessarily large and unwieldy copy of Lord Byron: The Major Works.

I know that few experiences can match sitting in the cavernous South Schools, with classical portraits on its walls and its many-domed ceiling, and listening to Dr L. Morgan who, having made it his life's mission to convince us that The Aenid is the single greatest work of literature that the West has ever produced, is doing a bloody good job of it. Arma uirumque cano, he booms, and the strange language sounds so beautiful to the ear, that I am seized with a sudden, mad yearning to learn Latin. Arms and the man I sing, he goes on to explain, and then locates the entire scheme of the Aenid, its place in the epic tradition, and Virgil's complex relationship with Homer, all in that single half-line. We expand then, and we learn about Homer in Rome, we learn about Ennius, of Callimachus, of gods and myth, or topos - all converging in the figure of Virgil and the text of the Aenid. We see Rome, and Greece, and epic, and mythology, literature, poetry, culture - a birds-eye view, sketchy of course, and superficial for want of time, but tantalising, like the morning fog over the valley that reveals but the half-visible towers of the fairy castle, promising so much more by what it conceals. I read the Aenid when I was 19, an Allan Mandelbaum translation in blank verse. I know now that I actually read nothing.   

I know that I would not be anywhere on Friday at 12 15 PM, than at the Centre for Classical and Byzantine Studies, in the Literary Theory seminar, hearing Classics graduates debate Catullus 85 and Sappo 31, and then myself engage in discussing Shklovsky and the defamiliarists, Barthes and Foucault and Bakhtin, only vague names all these years, but now brought into sharp relief by following the seminar's reading list, week by week. The concept of authorship, the promise and the pitfalls of intertextuality, parody and polyglossia - it's still all a lot of Greek to me, but there are moments of blinding, ludic clarity, of sudden and certain understanding, and in those moments, God's in his heaven and all's right with the world.

And there are others, of course, those which I do not look forward to as ardently as Byron or Virgil or Lit Theory, but which form integral parts of my day nonetheless. There is the Marlowe lecture, play by play, going deep into text, context, form, motifs, everything. And there is Athenian democracy, taken by an elderly gentleman who is entirely unable to lecture without his sub-fusc and his lectern, where we investigate a whole range of sources - Aristophanes' comedies to Thucydides and Xenophon, edicts and inscriptions to records of speeches, and so on, to understand the nature of democracy in classical Athens.

These are the five I've been to, week after week, loved every moment, drunk in every word. There have been disappointments, naturally. Roman history of the beginnings of the Empire was didactic and dry, nothing that you wouldn't get from a textbook. Roman history 264 - 146 BC was more interesting, but still, too much detail that simply couldn't grip a layman like me, interested though I am. Pre-classical Greek history was a fascinating class, but for me, just a bit too far removed from it all. The Plato Reading Group's discussion of the Timmeus went over my head entirely, especially when they pulled out their Greek texts and began quoting! Plato's Republic spent an hour discussing one part of Book 1, and I did not go back. Comedy was too general, Metaphor too abstract, and Iliad too technical (for me). Not that any of these lectures were bad - far from it - they were extremely good, but the day has only so many hours. 

I do not look for method in this madness - there is none. Nor is there any logic in the one-hour morning runs with an NCAA athlete, that leave me half-dead and gasping for breach, my legs screaming in agony. But we've run along the Thames as the Sun comes up, and the mist rises above the silver-grey water like a dream, and the waters of the lake in Port Meadow shimmer in the first light of the morning, and all the world could be a beautiful landscape painting. And on a morning, I found myself on a bike, riding four miles down a narrow bend of the Thames, just the river and the alders drooping over it, at times forming little passageways that would be perfectly at home in Middle-Earth, arches of leaves over still water, and mist beyond, all under an iron sky. And without quite knowing where I was going, riding with the sun, I arrived in Woodstock, ye olde English towne, with a farmer's market and a Chaucer Lane, and the towers of Blenheim Palace rising around the bend. A journey that was begun with no plan and no destination, but came through beautiful things to a beautiful place; I don't know about the beautiful place, but my life certainly feels as though it's passing through many beautiful things right now; and they are imprinted powerfully upon my memory, to be carefully filed away and taken out again when the time comes for remembrance of these strange, mad, wonderful days.  

And I've given a free rein, at last, to the Tolkien-Eddison-Morris epic fantasy obsessive in me, getting up at 6 30 in the morning to go shoot arrows with insanely complicated recurve bows at the archery range (I'm not very good), and making another trip that evening to don a vest, a jacket, a gauntlet and a mask, and take up the foils for a spot of fencing (I think I'm a little better than I am at archery). And then at 8 PM on Friday evenings at Christchurch, there are Tolkien Society Meetings, a small, communal group with lots of food, book-readings, parodic enactments, and general fun all around.

And in the middle of it all, yes, I am trying to work on a thesis in legal philosophy, breaking my head against JL Austin and John Searle, trying to comprehend Marmor and Greenberg (again!) and (joy!) reading and thinking about Dworkin every day. Perhaps I am not spending as much time upon this as I ought. But I'm trying, and no doubt, with time, the balance will come. And even if doesn't, this whole "priorities" business is darned overrated anyway.

And so, Sylvia Plath, you can pick your single fruit and enjoy it. But I'm going to bounce around the tree, grabbing at whatever I can, taking a bite here, a nibble there, tasting every flavour I possibly can until I fall off the tree. Because, as Heinlein said, to close with another quote:

"A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects."

I am no renaissance man, nor can I be one - it is a sight too late in the day for Greek and Latin and all that sort of thing. But life's fascinating right now, I'm perfectly happy being a Jack-of-a-few-trades, and tomorrow morning, it's off to Nottingham, with only a book of Byron for company, and especially sans laptop. To Robin Hood land for a day. 


PS. Moares, if you read this, I do still play football. :P But it's difficult to get up in the morning if it's not for the floodlights and crowd and the Captain and the magic-heartbreak-madness of PFL. You see, I remember. How can I not? Good luck for this year's campaign.  
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