Sunday, September 11, 2016

On the road

I'm on the road. Blogging will start again in early Oct!

Friday, September 02, 2016

Peter Yates: "The Explorers"

Border of the Mud Desert near Desolation Camp, 1861. Painting by Ludwig Becker

[Image source: . State Library of Victoria, ID H16486.]

In the locale of “The Explorers” the hands on the clock don’t move, but the compass needle does.

Explorers moving through the vivid lands
Of moveless time: inebriated urge
Towards the dreamed Americas, the end
Where last magnetic rays of sunlight bend
Till vertical and horizontal merge
In final contact, touch of ungloved hands.

The axis in the mind projecting hope,
The folded mountains and the cobalt sea
Emerge; shadows of sunlight on the rock
Seduce the senses, wind the moveless clock,
Give birth to wishes, fears; the will to be
Immortal, and the twitching fingers grope.

The compass moves, glint of the Phoenix eye;
November and the melancholy wind,
Snow on the marbles tombs: elastic flesh
Expands, consumes; fakes with its fuse a flash –
The image, vivid, flickers in the mind,
The vibrant, beautiful, exciting lie.

These are the first three of twenty-nine stanzas. The stanza-form is, by Yates’ standards, simple; six five-stress lines rhyming abccba. There are only a few internal rhymes (tombs, consumes). There are harsh chatters of prolonged alliteration, like a burst of machine-gun fire. The “iambic” flow is a constant in all his poems. Each of these stanzas gathers a sense of purpose towards the middle, when the rhymes are closer together and we feel we’re “getting somewhere”, and then loses it, reaching its firm full stop with a feeling of dissatisfaction. The form makes each stanza seem self-contained and isolated from its fellows.  

Progression is by noun-phrases. Nouns are preceded by the definite article, though this is somewhat disguised by elision of particles (for example, in the first stanza we assume “the inebriated urge”, “the last magnetic rays”, “the touch of ungloved hands”). Nevertheless, the appears 155 times in “The Explorers”, and a/an just six times. What’s going on here? When we read “the vivid lands” our faces are held down, coerced by the poet’s imagination. But when we read (as above, in the third stanza) “a flash”, a familiar context is implied: we are referred to the world outside the poem in which we have seen other flashes; this is but one of them. Yates makes very sparing use of that context in his early poems. You might like to know that the next time we run across a, it is “a stifled cry”, and the next time “a shriek”. These three faint animal interjections are pitifully crushed by the engine of the poem.

“Snow on the marbles tombs” may be a misprint, but don’t be too sure; tombs may be a verb. Verbs have a tendency to seem like nouns in this moveless operation. Several stanzas (like the first) manage without any direct verb. But one verb – “move” – is insistent.

Again the compass moves; the visions pass
and burn like spectral fevers in the eye.
The thunder speaks, the fatal axis moves,
Recedes, slips off its safe and formal grooves
To where gigantic mirrors multiply
Only the total being of their glass.

O wanderers, betrayed by swamp and slime,
Receding from alacrity of youth
To move in lonely circuits of the brain
Down pensive passages, propelled by pain
In search of moments motionless with truth,
Adrift, lost in the wilderness of time.

Explorers moving through imagined space
Led by equator’s never ending line
In search of pyramids and plangent curves;
Creating new sensation with the nerves;
New instruments to heat the blood’s decline;
New formulas to hide the ego’s face.

Explorers sinking in bewildered blood
I watch you through my lenses, see you move
In search of final islands, and that place
Where lost and rigid parallels embrace
With kiss and crackle of electric love
The separate polarities of good.

Insensate time: clock without face or hands,
Revolting torso with the abstract eye
Made hideous by hate, I see you move
In moveless moments in which secret groove
Towards what formula or frozen lie
Only the lucid madman understands.      

                                                            (Stanzas 7-11)

What, then, moves? The explorers, the compass, the mind’s eye; the poet’s mind and the reader’s eye. 

They move through a dense thicket of repetitions, deterring progress. The poem does the opposite of providing a mimesis of journeying; it provides, instead, a non-progressing obstacle. There is nothing to drink; it is the explorer’s own need that inebriates.

But voyagers on gleaming parallels
Still reach towards the image in the mind... 

(Stanza 16)

“Gleaming” gives us a sense of relief. Like the “kiss and crackle of electric love”, it falsely suggests something drinkable, and also something speedy – the gleam, as it were, shoots ahead of the voyagers. But this is deceptive relief under a burning sun. Consider that arresting phrase in Stanza 2, “shadows of sunlight”.

“The Explorers” continues Yates’ long quarrel with thought, and is a toxic mindscape. Nothing is fixed there (we have already seen the November wind), and much else comes within its compass; including, with some reticence, war-time Britain.

            And in the towns, where death becomes an art...             (St 21)

But Yates keeps his focus on the tangle of the self:

Where being is itself the subtle crime                             (St 25)

His own mind, no doubt one of the hungry explorers too, snags on non-progressive images of futility:

And speedboats with no destination move
Tracing their foaming circles of false love                       (St 28)

So much for speed. Through much transmutation, Yates’ poems remain fixed on their object, and this idea is still lurking forty years later in the slow barge of the memorial to his wife:

Metaphor burns me with the edge of dreams.
Love holds in need, by net of names
The intricate and simple, grief and joy,
Green water rippled by a swan.

A hand, a shape, a scarf of hair -
Pure drunkenness of open air!
I follow where the dead have gone
The hidden path once printed with your name.

You wander in the dark
Beyond the comfort of my arms!

Through scalding tears of reverie
I watch the lion sun with blazing mane
Creep from his cloud, and slowly pace
The secret meadow where we used to lie –
He draws across your flickering lake
The Yew tree’s shadow like a sombre barge.

(In Memoriam E.Y.)

[Peter Yates was born in 1911. I hope it is fair to consider him (though such considerings always involve a falsifying diminution) as a poet of the forties. At any rate, his first two collections were published by Chatto in 1942 and 1943, and gained some attention. In many ways they will seem to be characteristic of the era (in Britain); “The Explorers” is from this period. One further collection appeared in 1951; he also published two verse plays, which were staged. Petal and Thorn, a low-key selection of old and new poems published by Peter Ward, appeared in 1983, and that’s what I’ve been reading. This is all I know about his career as a writer, but the inescapable impression is that he was talked about in the early forties as someone with “promise”, a “poet to watch” in the words of Stephen Spender. And then time went by and, gradually, he wasn’t. The blurbs carry less authority. If Graham Greene is only quoted as saying (of The Assassin) “in his minor characters and prose scenes Mr Yates shows himself a dramatist of great promise”, then one is bound to guess that Greene had serious reservations about the verse part of the play. The modest later poems were I imagine written for Yates himself.

There is a brief comment on his work on p. 192 of A. Trevor Tolley’s The Poetry of the Forties (1985).


“Peter Yates (1914 - ) was born of British parents in India and educated at Sevenoaks School and London University. Before the Second World War he lived a wandering life in America, Sumatra, and …” (Ian Hamilton, The Oxford Companion to Twentieth-Century Poetry in English, 1996). Unfortunately, my library doesn’t have a subscription, so I can’t read the full article. This sounds like our poet, though the date of birth doesn’t quite match my information.

There are online references to a Peter Yates Selected Poems titled The Garden Prospect and published by Jargon (in Kentucky) in 1980.  I think this might be a different poet (born in 1909 according to one online page).

The relatively well-known British architect Peter Yates (1920-1982) is someone else. So is the British director Peter Yates (1929-2011) (Bullitt, The Saint).

And I think it’s another Peter Yates again, a Californian, who wrote articles and books about contemporary music (e.g Twentieth Century Music, 1967) and organized important concert-series in LA. ]




Wednesday, August 31, 2016

C.S. Lewis: The Problem of Pain (1940)

The jacket of the Fount edition, as read by thousands of 1970s era Christian students

C.S. Lewis (1898-1963) was a many-sided author. His earliest publications, up to 1930, were tentative attempts at establishing a career as a poet; but clearly he had (to put it kindly) the wrong sort of talent. In1929 he experienced a conversion, gave up his militant atheism and adopted a forthright Christianity. His academic career was by now in full swing. The 1930s saw his first scholarly books, Rehabilitations (a collection of separate essays) and the formidable Allegory of Love (1936), which was very well received and established him near the head of his field, which was Medieval and Renaissance literature. The creative urge had not left him and he also produced an allegory of his own conversion called The Pilgrim’s Regress; this was a poor book, but he was to make up for that later when he covered much of the same ground in Surprised by Joy.

His great run of popular Christian books began with The Problem of Pain (1940). Scholarly work continued, including the magnificent English Literature in the Sixteenth Century (1954; the one book of his that I have never stopped reading, and probably never will)*. He also wrote a science fiction trilogy, and of course the popular Narnia books for children; and much else. All his work speaks in the same, instantly recognizable, voice; but there is some variation. During the war years, which also produced The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, and the Preface to ‘Paradise Lost’, there is an enviable boldness, even stridency, which must have made instant converts of many and angered many more.

To speak personally, I don’t care anything for the science fiction books with their thinly-disguised religious themes, and I don’t care deeply for the hastily-written Narnia series – The Voyage of the Dawn Treader and The Silver Chair are the ones I like best. His other fictions are not outstanding either. The excellent Screwtape Letters is best regarded as a series of colourful sermons. Even Till we have faces (1956) only really pleases me because it is at the opposite extreme from the stridency of the early 1940s**. Lewis learnt from his own experiences in an oddly child-like and definite way, and his books from the mid-1950s onward are the work of a wiser and humbler man: Reflections on the Psalms, The Four Loves, A Grief Observed etc.

His writing remained anathema to many progressives, though; they were scarcely able to compete with the immense though lightly-carried learning of books such as Studies in Words and The Discarded Image, but they took infuriated exception to a tone that implied on almost every page an utterly different outlook from their own. The fury was all the greater because the fundamental simplicity of his views allied to an outstanding limpidity and graciousness of expression produced a dangerously populist cocktail. They knew he would be listened to, and it didn’t seem fair. It is said that Lewis failed badly in his debate with a professional philosopher following the publication of Miracles. The perception of those who said so was that his cocksure cleverness went with a complete failure to understand the point of any twentieth-century intellectual or artistic movement; he could only make snide populist remarks like a journalist writing for the Daily Mail. It remains a disturbing paradox, the more so because (having been so deeply influenced by Lewis during my late teens and early twenties, when I was both a medievalist and a born-again Christian) I am afraid that I share a good many of his blindnesses, and am in some fundamental way arrested in an imaginary Lewisian world of values even though my conscious opinions were never conservative and are not now religious. (I should add that, though Lewis has been anthologised in collections of Conservative thought, I do not remember him ever pronouncing on a party-political matter; he seems to have been perfectly sincere in his professed lack of interest in topics of that sort. At the same time there’s no doubt who would have been most upset by his assaults on e.g. modern educationalists***.)

The Problem of Pain, at its best, can be illustrated from this passage about guilt from the chapter entitled “Human Wickedness”:

A recovery of the old sense of sin is essential to Christianity.... [Without it,] the result is almost bound to be a certain resentment against God as to one who is always making impossible demands and always inexplicably angry.... Why not live and let live? What call has He, of all beings, to be “angry”? It’s easy for Him to be good!

Now at the moment when a man feels real guilt – moments too rare in our lives – all these blasphemies vanish away. Much, we may feel, can be excused to human infirmities: but not this – this incredibly mean and ugly action which none of our friends would have done, which even such a thorough-going little rotter as X would have been ashamed of, which we would not for the world allow to be published. At such a moment we really do know that our character, as revealed in this action, is, and ought to be, hateful to all good men, and, if there are powers above man, to them. A God who did not regard this with unappeasable distaste would not be a good being. We cannot even wish for such a God...

In short, the “grandfather in Heaven” picture of God appeals only to those who have no sense of a living God at all, like myself. This seems to me a completely persuasive argument. Of course you can say that when someone feels guilty it often makes them feel better to be particularly self-condemnatory, taking comfort in their inner high-mindedness. But this says nothing about the truth of the insight. A real God must be, whatever else, inexorable.

The chapters on Hell and Heaven carry the same conviction. Lewis was immediately criticized for defending the doctrine of Hell, which was presumably an embarrassment to other propagators of the faith, but this criticism amounts to nothing. Anyone can see that hell does indeed exist in many places on earth, and therefore its metaphysical dimension poses no new difficulty. The Christian story makes no sense if there is no hell. How can anyone be moved by Good News unless things are seen to be bad? Why would anyone busy themselves with saving sinners unless there is something to save them from? Why is there a church entrusted with a mission if it is impossible for anyone to turn away from God? It is true that hellfire preaching and hellfire parenting had repulsively abused one element in that story, and laid the whole Christian system open to the most violent objections, but for churchmen to just go quiet about it was a trifling evasion, which merely demonstrated what most people already sensed, that if you wanted to learn the truth about anything it was no good asking a priest.

Here are some sentences from the chapter on Heaven.

You may think that there is another reason for our silence about heaven – namely, that we do not really desire it... There have been times when I think that we do not desire heaven; but more often I find myself wondering whether, in our heart of hearts, we have ever desired anything else... Are not all lifelong friendships born at the moment when at last you meet another human being who has some inkling (but faint and uncertain even in the best) of that something you were born desiring, and which, beneath the flux of other desires and in all the momentary silences between the louder passions, night and day, year by year, from childhood to old age, you are looking for, watching for, listening for? You have never had it. ... The thing I am speaking of is not an experience. You have experienced only the want of it. ... Always it has summoned you out of yourself. And if you will not go out of yourself to follow it, if you sit down and brood on the desire and attempt to cherish it, the desire itself will evade you. “The door into life generally opens behind us” and “the only wisdom” for one “haunted with the scent of unseen roses, is work.” This secret fire goes out when you use the bellows: bank it down with what seems unlikely fuel of dogma and ethics, turn your back on it and attend to your duties, and then it will blaze. The world is like a picture with a golden background, and we the figures in that picture. Until you step off the plane of the picture into the large dimensions of death you cannot see the gold. But we have reminders of it. To change our metaphor, the black-out is not quite complete. There are chinks. At times the daily scene looks big with its secret.

If I call this a great piece of literary criticism (e.g. of George Macdonald, whose words are quoted) I may seem to be unfairly limiting the kind of writing that it is. I don’t intend that. We tend to have a mental picture of primary writing (“literature”) that is in some way directly engaged with life, and then
of secondary writing (“criticism”, “commentary”, “review”) that stands lower in the hierarchy and only addresses itself to details of primary writing, so that engagement with life has become flickering and indirect. Unfortunately the grey bulk of any university library tends to confirm that hierarchy. But “literary criticism” as I mean it here (and Lewis is a prime example), if it moves away from the original writer’s words, does not thereby move further from life, but only sideways to get a different angle, and though further from one aspect of life nearer to another. In the same sense I might want to say that Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar is a great literary criticism of Plutarch.

But at the same time I do intend a limitation of my praise. Unquestionably the heaven suggested in this chapter is a heaven that can be believed in and can be wished for (its very definition, indeed, is that it is wished for). The limitation is that the kind of yearning evoked by Lewis is (I suspect rather than know) an experience that only a few people can instantly relate to. If it is, as one might immediately judge, really an inchoate desire to return to the womb, then that might make it more universal. But for it to seem like a possible hint of heaven one needs to conceive it in its developed manifestation. That what evokes the yearning in Lewis’ own examples (“the smell of cut wood in the workshop or the clap-clap of water against the boat’s side”) reflects Lewis’s own tastes and nationality and gender and interests is not an argument against it. But it appears to me that a yearning for the unrealizable is not an intrinsic part of human experience. I don’t know; I admit that, personally, I recognize what he’s talking about very well, but then, I share many of his backgrounds. Human experience is overwhelmingly various.

As an outline of Lewisian Christianity, then, the book seems to me a success. I shan’t bother much about local criticisms; the chapter on “Animal Pain” seems to me to depend on some quite extraordinary views about non-human life – one gathers that Lewis had no interest in nature****. But on the general subject that his book purports to treat, i.e. suffering, I think his success is very mediocre.

Lewis was writing when Europe was again at war. He had served in World War I, and had ample personal experience (not only in combat) of pain and suffering, but the book steers clear of evocation; as the quotations may show, it treats pain rather intellectually. If we are not religious philosophers, there is indeed something rather offensive about the expression, “The Problem of Pain”. You wouldn’t talk about “the problem of genocide”, or the “problem of starvation”, as if these things were all very well in their own way but posed one or two thorny issues for a believer. This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a theological issue, but I think that Lewis, clearly unwilling to deal with instances in detail, has actually failed to confront it. He thinks he can reduce e.g. Ivan Karamazov’s terrible denunciation in Dostoyevsky’s novel to a few bare logical assertions. But perhaps suffering cannot be reduced in that way. There are, if you want to put it that way, at least two “problems of pain”, one for the sufferer and one for the witness. In fact there are a million problems – they will not be “boiled down” in the way that Lewis hopes.

The natural and right human reactions to suffering are, for a sufferer, to endure it if possible; for a witness, to alleviate it if possible, or else to lament it. Lewis’s book may well have cheered sufferers and helped them to endure – in fact I’m sure it did, though he disclaims both the intention and the skill. But his argument proves far too much, and really leaves no room for lamentation, grief, horror or shock. One must be appalled at Ivan Karamazov’s accounts of  children being tortured; but how can God’s world contain what one must be appalled by? And what redemptive salvation is imaginable that can ever right these wrongs? It is a fundamental challenge to the Christian story of a good God.

An instance of where I think Lewis’ book is at its weakest is his argument against the additiveness of pain. He argues, basically, that in a waiting-room where two people have toothache, no-one is experiencing “2 x toothache”; the pain threshold of one individual sufferer is all the pain there ever can be. He actually uses this example of toothache, and I think you’ll agree that it tends to  trivialize the matter. People do not question the benevolence of God because of toothache. They question it when whole communities are ruined, when villages are burnt, when countries starve, when cities are sacked or when people are herded into a forest to dig their own graves.

Therefore we ask, Monarch of all that lives,
Firm in your heavenly throne,
While the destroying Fury gives
Our homes to ashes and our flesh to worms –
We ask, and ask: What does this mean to You?

(Euripides, The Women of Troy trans. Philip Vellacott)

It's quite true that each individual can suffer no more than the worst a soul can suffer. But we are more than individuals; the wholesale destruction of communities, families, cultures, ways of life, invoke feelings that are different from those in which a single person suffers torment.

Lewis, I think, was not much of a community person. His books are almost entirely free of patriotism or a sense of nationhood, which is rather refreshing. He was not close to his parents (his mother died when he was nine) and he had no children. As a scholar he had risen untrammelled out of Ulster, the place of his childhood, and he lived and breathed the fellowship of his colleagues; an excellent but rather anomalous kind of community. So perhaps it was not so hard for him to see all our attachments to local culture and local identity as things to be yielded up, being merely human and temporal constructs in the face of an overwhelming and universal vision of God.

Some of the shortcomings of his treatment of suffering must have become plain to him personally when, after the loss of his wife from cancer, he wrote A Grief Observed. The earlier book is in the end frivolous. In it he pretends to write about pain in order to give an athletic display of the strength and joyousness of his conviction. It was a calling-card.  


A C.S. Lewis sentence and its influence

I used to read C.S. Lewis incessantly when I was eighteen, and there are several sentences in C.S. Lewis’ works that have influenced me deeply. This is one of them:

The truly wide taste in reading is that which enables a man to find something for his needs on the sixpenny tray outside the secondhand bookshop.

In fact, like other deeply influential sentences that became part of my everyday mental furniture, I didn’t remember it particularly accurately. I remembered it, approximately, as “the real sign of a good reader is being able to find something to read on a railway station bookstall”. The variation isn’t really all that important, but my rewording glossed over any question of what is meant by “needs” in connection with reading. 

So far as this ideal of a good reader is concerned, its lifelong influence on me is pretty obvious, e.g. in the post you are reading now. I cultivated an interest in whatever books came to hand, and found after a while that I never really needed to go and buy new books; I preferred to loiter in the charity shops, since I was just as fulfilled by what I found there as by any imaginable alternative. (It also saved my purse and it appealed vaguely to ecological principles at the same time.)

This self-education in the books of the charity shop eventually provoked my notion of relativism. Since it was in fact possible, rather easily possible, to find something to read all the time, perhaps (I surmised) no book was really any better than any other; it was all about the reader. You could (I theorized) in principle harvest the same fruit from a worthless detective pap novel or a book of freezer recipes as from Julius Caesar and Leaves of Grass ; after all, wasn't the whole of culture encoded in the language and the moves made within any book? And what grounds had I to condemn what might seem dull or crude when I didn’t know the full context, when I didn’t write such books myself and wasn't part of their natural audience and didn’t even know what it’s like to write such books or read them in their intended context?

I don’t think Lewis would have approved that particular extension of his thought. He plainly believed in real values, and on his sixpenny tray he was certainly not envisaging freezer recipes. I think his example is carefully chosen, because he really thought ther was a lot more worth reading on the sixpenny tray (some Scott or Stevenson, for instance) than in fashionably abstruse shelves full of the Bloomsbury authors and modernism and other things he didn’t feel interested in grasping, like Wittgenstein. But I didn't absorb that part of the message. 

I didn’t remember the sentence accurately, and of course I didn’t remember its context either, at least not consciously. It comes from the chapter about “Affection” in The Four Loves (1960). Lewis remarks on the indiscriminate nature of affection and how (unlike the less humble loves) its objects are not selected; for their intelligence or sexiness, for example. We develop affection for someone because they just happen to be around. In that context he starts to talk about what it means to have a wide sympathy for other people; it isn’t demonstrated by having a large number of friends or lovers (because friends and lovers are chosen) but by a ready sympathy with people that you meet with but probably wouldn’t choose. That’s when the analogy with reading comes along. 

The whole chapter is good, but this is about me and the sentence. Forgetting the original context, I have extended the message I took away with me from the second-hand bookshop to other art-forms, nature, places, weather and people. It’s a seductive analogy but like all analogies it has falsity stitched into it. It all works very smoothly so long as you aren’t trying to accomplish anything. If things (or people) aren’t tools, why indeed should you get hung up about value? It sounds amiable, but is limited; of course the alternative sounds terrible – the way I’ve chosen to present it – people as tools! But reading books (and living with humans, too), these activities are diminished if they are just contemplative idylls, just about the mild pleasure of watching the clouds race and not about making things happen. I know this, but my nature didn’t want all that trouble; shrugged aside the unattractive risks of accusation or confrontation. That’s why I find the sentence a good example of what influence, too often, amounts to. You seize the little moment that fits how you already feel inclined to live. This is waking life, but it works in much the same way that dreams get composed out of materials that cohere because of multiple, stray, happy accidents. I was really influenced, but I had reasons for welcoming the influence.  

But still, Lewis was a great reader, so long as “great” means being open to wonder. A colleague remembered him, shortly before his death, enthusing boyishly about Les liaisons dangereuses; not a book you might have expected him to take to. “Why has no-one told me about this before?” he demanded. 



* I picked it up to check the date of publication – it happened to be already out of the shelves – and lost most of an evening reading the first chapter for the hundredth time. [Aside from its own merit, it also produced a fine pendant in the form of John Carey's essay "Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Prose", printed in English Poetry and Prose 1540-1674, ed. Christopher Ricks (Sphere History of Literature in the English Language, Vol. 2). Carey, and to some extent Ricks, are post-Lewis critics quite as much as they are post-Leavis critics, and Carey's essay consistently has Lewis in view; chiefly in his energetic assaults on works canonized by Lewis such as More's Dialogue of Comfort, Sidney's Arcadia and Hooker's Ecclesiastical Polity. Though Carey reaches quite opposite conclusions from his master, he reads these books in the same kind of way, as living repositories of values that must be earnestly proclaimed or torn down. When neither likes the book, they say merely the same things (Lyly's Euphuism), but Carey enjoys negative critique as much as Lewis did and he is prepared to sacrifice Bunyan altogether in order to spend a few pages ripping Walton's Lives to shreds; Carey on Bunyan would have taxed the author much more.]  

** It is fair to say that great swathes of Christian heartland do not agree with me. The impressive 140 reader reviews for Till We Have Faces on speak of it as a life-changing discovery. (The largest number of reader reviews that I have come across is 267 for Raymond Feist’s Magician: Apprentice.) [NB I wrote this in 2004. In 2016, Till We Have Faces has 526 reviews.] 

*** What Lewis did proclaim, at least when he was at his most unworldly, was essentially the Augustinian argument of De Civitate Dei. The nature of earthly government did not matter; one should be law-abiding, but what really mattered was the heavenly city. In principle this view implies political quietism; it lends no support to the idea that one kind of government is better than another. But in practice this means lending no support to political change, and in particular denying the aspirations of Marxist belief. A more developed political view grew out of studying Hooker and others for the “OHEL”. But the word “conservative”, even without a capital letter, creates a false idea of the kind of writer Lewis was – he was not a follower of ideas but a creator of them. It’s true that he often presented his views as if he was revering some tradition or orthodoxy, but this only reflects his myth-making temperament. His ideas were really a new development building on romanticism and in particular some of its nineteenth century offshoots (e.g. George Macdonald). For Lewis the ideas of the past were not a vague cloud of worthy sentiments, as for a conservative, but a dynamic intellectual conflict in which he eagerly participated as if it were all still alive (there are no “dead issues” in Lewis’s world). Wholesale acceptance or rejection of the past would have meant nothing to him; he grasped too much of the detail.  He defended what he cared about, and tended to re-invent it as he did it.

**** But he did, some years later, write a very powerful anti-vivisection essay; the grounds were philosophical and humanist.



Monday, August 22, 2016

Wild flowers from the fells - Jämtlanstriangeln Sylarna Summer 2016


Storulvån. The name of the river, and also the name of the adjacent Fjällstation, which was the start and finish of our four-day triangular jaunt in the fells (29/7/16 - 1/8/16).

As I struggled along with my too-heavy pack, I of course snapped a few common mountain plants; and here they are.

(During the actual walk my meditations mostly concerned the various dwarf willows we saw along the way, but in the end I never made time for in-depth willow study, there were too many other exciting things to do. I brought home a plastic bag of willow samples, and forgot to unbag them until they'd gone mouldy and had to be thrown away.)

Angelica archangelica

Angelica archangelica (Sw: Kvanne, En: Garden Angelica)

It's true we were only just above the tree-line at this point, but there remains an air of paradox about the sight of this sturdy vegetable in the open fell country. The places it frequents, however, are usually luscious spots on the edges of streams.

Its worldwide distribution is bizarre: a sort of line from the Himalayas and Urals through Russia and Scandinavia to the Faeroes, Iceland and Greenland: and nowhere else.

The above statement lumps together two different subspecies. The one famous as a candy, food and medicine, is this mountain plant, ssp. archangelica, sometimes known in Sweden as Fjällkvanne to distinguish it from the coastal ssp. littoralis (Strandkvanne), which is found only in Scandinavia and Iceland. [Neither are to be confused with the familiar woodland plant Wild Angelica (A. sylvestris) (see end of this post!).]

An extremely fragrant plant, attracting insects from a wide area around. Unfortunately I couldn't smell it at all;  it was far too early in our ramble for my uncertain sense of smell to have recovered from months of office air-conditioning!

The plant has been used locally as food, e.g. in Sami dishes (compare Oxyria digyna, below). The stems can even be eaten raw; they have a sweetish taste.

But its wider use in international cuisine began with its cultivation at the other end of Europe, in the marshy flatlands of Marais-Poitevin in W France. (Most sources say the cultivation began in 1602, following an outbreak of the plague, for which the plant was said to be a remedy.) One of its main uses today, aside from the familiar green candied angelica, is as flavouring of e.g. Vermouth, Dubonnet, Chartreuse and Bénédictine.

In the UK it has never been native (hence the English name) and it occurs only as an escape from cultivation; the London area is where you're most likely to find it.

Persicaria vivipara

Persicaria vivipara (Sw: Ormrot, En: Alpine Bistort). The plants hedge their bets reproduction-wise, with hopeful sexual flowers at the top, and more reliable bulbils further down.

It works: this plant grows nearly everywhere in Sweden. Sentimental attachment probably explains why I snapped this not particularly splendid specimen, and why the resulting photo moves me as it does.

It has a wide distribution all round the northern hemisphere, getting about as far north as it's possible for a plant to go (on the north coast of Greenland).

In the British Isles, however, P. vivipara is restricted to the mountains of C Scotland and a small area of the N Pennines.

The vernacular names reflect that. The Swedish name "Ormrot", which means "snake root", is homely and obviously of popular origin. Just as obviously, the English name "Alpine Bistort" comes from the botanical community.

At least those names are stable. On the other hand, the scientific name has proved a nightmare. In addition to Persicaria vivipara you'll also see it called Polygonum viviparum, Polygonum vivipara, and Bistorta vivipara. I'm still not really sure which name we're supposed to be using.

Ranunculus acris

Ranunculus acris (Sw: Smörblomma, En: Meadow Buttercup)

Surrounded by so many plants unknown in our daily lives, it was almost a surprise to spot the odd familiar species. One of them was Meadow Buttercup, here growing with Angelica archangelica. I also noticed lots of Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor).

Dryas octopetala

Dryas octopetala (Sw: Fjällsippa, En: Mountain Avens)

The Dryas leaves are the fresh green gribbly-edged ones. [The larger grey-green orbicular leaves are a dwarf willow that is so unmistakable that even  I  can recognize it, Salix reticulata (Sw: Nätvide, En: Net-veined Willow).]

Dryas octopetala characteristically grows on dry, calcareous ground from which the snow clears relatively early. This type of species-rich vegetation is known as  fjällsippshed / Dryas-heath. We only saw it in one place, beside a pretty beck on the ascent to Blåhammaren.

The Swedish name connects it with various with other showy wild plants such as Vitsippa (Wood-anemone), Mosippa (Pasque Flower), Blåsippa (Hepatica) and Gulsippa (Anemone ranunculoides). But this one is in the Rose family, not in the Buttercup family like the others.

Also native to the British Isles, mostly in NW Scotland and the Burren.

Dryas octopetala

Last sunset on hills - from Blåhammaren, about 23:00

Blåhammaren is the smallest and highest Fjällstation in Sweden (1086m - 3562 feet). We arrived two hours late for the famous three-course dinner, but they gave us our own sitting.

While the weary hikers were sleeping, or trying to sleep, in the packed sweaty dormitories, a dozen reindeer came to graze around the buildings, and the sunlight moved round the northern horizon. The next morning it was raining heavily.

Saxifraga aizoides

Saxifraga aizoides (Sw: Gullbräcka, En: Yellow Saxifrage). It can often look more spectacular than this: especially when you find the orange and yellow forms growing side by side. By streams and springs on calcareous substrate.

Throughout the fell region. Also found in the Highlands of Scotland, Lake District, and Benbulbin in Co. Sligo.

Carex saxatilis

Carex saxatilis (Sw: Glansstarr, En: Russet Sedge).

I can't believe I've never written about a sedge before, as my list of "Botanical Entries" (to the right of this blog) seems to affirm.

Anyway this handsome sedge is common throughout the fell region in wet places with calcareous substrates. Also found in the Scottish Highlands.

The Swedish name "Glansstarr" translates as "Lustrous Sedge" or "Splendid Sedge".

Pinguicula vulgaris

Pinguicula vulgaris (Sw: Tätört, En: Common Bladderwort)

The least bad of several attempts at photographing this single Bladderwort flower, while balancing on narrow planks across a marsh.

Not specifically a fell species, it grows in wet places almost everywhere in Sweden. In the British Isles it's common in the north-west but has disappeared from much of the south and east due to agricultural drainage of wetland.

Långfil is a local kind of fermented milk with a distinctive slimy or ropy texture. One way of starting the culture is rubbing the inside of the churn with the leaves of Bladderwort or Sundew. This leaves a substance (it's disputed whether it's the enzymes of these insectivorous plants, or the bacteria they attract) whose effect is to make the milk proteins form into long polysaccharide chains, hence the ropy texture (which you can get rid of by stirring it before eating it). This was a way of preserving the milk, much needed in the local transhumance culture of Jämtland, where people often spent months at a time pasturing cattle far from their homesteads.

Pedicularis sceptrum-carolinum

Pedicularis is a more significant genus up here than in the British Isles (and the Swedish name "spira" sounds much nicer than the English "lousewort").

This one is the biggest and most magnificent species, Pedicularis sceptrum-carolinum (Sw: Kung Karls spira, En: Moor-king Lousewort). Common on the edges of wet, boggy ground. Not found in the British Isles.

Lichens on stone

Typically decorative stones. I don't know anything about lichens, but the further north you go the better they get.

More lichens on stone

Hieracium alpinum growing among Alchemilla alpina

Hieracium alpinum (Sw: Fjällfibbla, En: Alpine Hawkweed)

I've made up the English name. Hawkweeds are a highly critical group and this may be better regarded as an aggregate group of microspecies (Hieracium sect. Alpina). Similar hawkweeds occur in C. Scotland. Whether they are the same species as any of the Scandinavian plants is a moot point.

Whatever, Fjällfibbla  in a general sense (whether it's one species or many) is highly recognizable up here and very common.

Alchemilla alpina (Sw: Fjälldaggkåpa, En: Alpine Lady's-mantle)

"Daggkåpa" means "dew-cape", so there is evidently some connection with the English name Lady's Mantle. I suppose these names were suggested by the pleated orbicular leaves of the lowland types (and perhaps, in the case of the Swedish name, the blob of rainwater that often collects in the middle). In the alpine species, however, these leaves are divided into finger-like leaflets.

Sedum rosea

Sedum rosea (SW: Rosenrot, EN: Roseroot). A common plant up here, and some of it was still in bloom. This one wasn't, but it looked really good in the rain.

Pedicularis lapponica

Pedicularis lapponica (Sw: Lappspira, En: Lapland Lousewort). One of my favourites, common throughout the fell region. Not found in the British Isles.

Photo taken just outside the Sylarna Fjällstation, where we stayed for two nights.

This was 1040m / 3412ft above sea level, but the Meadow Buttercup in the background was still hanging in there!

Oxyria digyna

Oxyria digyna (Sw: Fjällsyra, En: Mountain Sorrel) is a very small dock. Very common (one of the plants that grows highest, along with Ranunculus glacialis). The leaves, like those of lowland sorrel, have a fresh, sour taste. (It's added to reindeer milk to make the Sami dish "Juobmo".)

Silene acaulis

Silene acaulis (Sw: Fjällglim, En: Moss Campion).

"One of our few true cushion plants", wrote C.A.M. Lindman in Nordens Flora. This form of growth involves every stem being an identical length, so as to form a perfect defensive dome, cradling the warmth and repelling wind and snow. Each stem produces only a single flower.

When the flowers first appear they are salmon-pink, later becoming a pale violet, as here.

In Britain it's mainly a plant of NW Scotland, with outliers in the Lake District, Benbulbin and Snowdonia.

Bartsia alpina

Bartsia alpina (Sw: Svarthö, En: Alpine Bartsia).

Common in the Scandinavian fells, sometimes descending into the lowlands along river systems. Extremely local in Scotland and N England.  

A rather striking plant. "Svarthö" means "black hay", though I don't know if that's really the origin of the name,

The high fells: Tempeldalen, Sylarna

Veronica alpina

Veronica alpina (Sw: Fjällveronika, En: Alpine Speedwell).

This photo shows the flowers when they're closed. They close up whenever it rains, and up here that's most of the time. (It isn't heavy rain, just the sort of continuous light precipitation that you always get when you're up in the clouds.)

Grows throughout the Scandinavian fell region, in areas where the snow lies late. In the British Isles, restricted to a few mountains in central Scotland.

Ranunculus glacialis

Ranunculus glacialis (Sw: Isranunkel, Renblomma. En: Glacier Buttercup, Glacier Crowfoot).

This remarkable buttercup is the flowering plant that grows highest in the Scandinavian mountains. It's also the plant that grows nearest to the north pole (on the north coast of Greenland).  It's characteristically found on the lower edges of glaciers and permanent snow-patches, where there is a trickle of melt-water all summer. (On Sylarna there are three glaciers, though they're shrinking year by year.)

Occasionally a solitary plant turns up in a lowland river valley, growing from a seed that's been washed downstream.

When the flowers first open they are whitish, but rapidly darken to pink and magenta.

According to Lindman it's a favourite food of reindeer (hence "renblomma"). An unusual example of the normally-poisonous buttercup family providing pasturage!  (Though I've heard too that the root nodules of Lesser Celandine can be eaten.)

Ranunculus glacialis has never been recorded in the British Isles; not too surprising, as there's really no suitable environment for a plant that's as ice-loving as this one.

Ranunculus glacialis

This is close to the limit of higher plants. The other leaves in this photo are Oxyria digyna, Veronica alpina and Gnaphalium supinum (Sw: Fjällnoppa, En: Dwarf Cudweed). Above this,  it's nothing but moss, algae, lichens and bare rock.

Ranunculus glacialis

Ranunculus glacialis

In the high fells

Finally, a couple of shots from the return leg:

Arctostaphylos alpinus

Arctostaphylos alpinus (Sw: Ripbär,  En: Arctic Bearberry). At Spåime, on species-poor moorland. A specialist of places where the wind is too strong for snow to settle.

I wrote a separate post about this one:

Angelica sylvestris

Finally, as we descended in warm sunshine to the friendlier environs of Storulvån, I couldn't resist snapping this enthusiastic crowd of hoverflies on a just-opened umbel of the lowland Angelica species, Angelica sylvestris (Sw: Strätta, En: Wild Angelica).

We were back!

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Friday, August 19, 2016

The cook at Smolensk

In Book 10 Chapter 4 of War and Peace , the innkeeper Ferapontov's cook comes out into the street, curious about the noises of the cannon-balls. It is Smolensk, in August 1812.

The peasants aren't yet able to conceive the significance of these fireworks in the sky. Ferapontov's conversation is still about the rye harvest. Someone official told him that steps have been taken to prevent any trouble from the French, and he believes it.

While he berates his cook for her idleness, the projectiles are whining harmlessly overhead, but suddenly one of them stops whining and explodes in their street.

When bystanders recover from the flash and the shock, the cook is heard to be wailing monotonously: "Don't let me die, good people, don't let me die."

We don't hear much more about her, but it seems that a splinter from the shell has broken her thigh.

Remembering my friend in the office, who recently broke his femur in a cycling collision, and the complicated modern surgery required, and him being off work for more than a year...  well, breaking your thigh-bone is no joke.

And given that Smolensk on that sunny day is collapsing, within a couple of hours, into a chaos of refugees and fleeing soldiers, I don't have too much hope for that poor cook.


Tolstoy, like Zola in La Débâcle, and like Jonathan Littell, is continually preoccupied with the paradoxes of war: the baffling disparity between wartime experience and peacetime experience, the parallel existence of peace alongside war and the terrible transformation from one to the other.


The battle of Smolensk, painting by Peter von Hess

[Image source:]

This is where I am right now in War and Peace (I'm listening to the Librivox audiobook); with the carts of the refugees choked up in Smolensk, while the soldiers loot and burn buildings.

The cook is a very minor figure, one of hundreds or even thousands in this novel, but her slender story - the suddenness of this life-changing catastrophe, and yet the banality of its arrival - there's something very affecting about it.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that this is one of the only chapters in War and Peace to focus on the common people rather than on the ruling classes. Of course I love Pierre and Natasha and Prince Andrey too, but that love is a more complex thing. The cook is ... We know nothing about her... the cook is life itself, somehow.

[In hindsight, the cook's injury sounds the first note of a Book (i.e. Book Ten) that will end with the terrible bloodshed of Borodino.]


I might be the only person on earth to be reading War and Peace at the same time as reading Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones (2006). But the comparison has been made before.

The Kindly Ones (not to be confused with Anthony Powell's novel about the eve of WWII in England, or with Aeschylus's play, for that matter) is a fiction on a similar scale to Tolstoy's. It's an account of the Eastern Front from the perspective of an SS officer who took part in the Einsatzgruppen operations, among other things.

Littell, I think I remember reading, wrote some of his book while shut away in a humanitarian aid Agency in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s, as well as in other "troublespots" around the world. A non-fictional book that I'm currently reading, Tim Butcher's Blood River, gives some idea of the chaos, the violence and the atrocities in the Congo that perhaps went some way to provoking  Littell's astounding meditation on war and evil.

Littell's book, written in French, was a bestseller and a critical sensation in France. Its reception in the English-speaking world was more mixed; but surely that'll settle down. Reviewers in the English-speaking world didn't think much of Solzhenitsyn's August 1914 either; another brilliant war book to add to the three already mentioned.

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Thursday, August 18, 2016


Anne Berkeley: The Men from Praga (Salt, 2009)

I'm not sure how I ended up with this on my shelves, because it's quite remote from the kind of poetry book I normally read, but I must say that picking it up now and then gives me a lot of pleasure and a lot to think about.

The poem "Baudelaire's Pipe" consists of six rhymed sonnets, all of them more or less translations of Baudelaire's poem "La Pipe" from Fleurs du mal.

Here's the first:


my Abyssinian hip:
I'm an experienced pipe --
a real writer's smoke.

When his spirits ache
my chimney fires up
like a home where good soup
greets the ploughman from work.

I embrace
and rock him idle
in my gauzy blue cradle,

whispering peace
in fragrant loops
from my passionate lips.

As we read on, the translations layer one upon another, and thus the poem slowly turns the pipe over and over, uncovering its layers of colonialism, narcosis, well-earned relaxation, mastery and submission, housewives and prostitutes.


La Pipe

Je suis la pipe d'un auteur;
On voit, à contempler ma mine
D'Abyssinienne ou de Cafrine,
Que mon maître est un grand fumeur.

Quand il est comblé de douleur,
Je fume comme la chaumine
Où se prépare la cuisine
Pour le retour du laboureur.

J'enlace et je berce son âme
Dans le réseau mobile et bleu
Qui monte de ma bouche en feu,

Et je roule un puissant dictame
Qui charme son coeur et guérit
De ses fatigues son esprit.

None of Berkeley's translations treats Baudelaire's twelfth line quite literally. They translate "dictame" as "balm", "peace", "spell", etc.

Literally, it means "dittany". This in turn refers to one of several aromatic plants.

Origanum dictamnus

[Image source:, photograph by pella2011.]

Mainly, Baudelaire must have been thinking of Cretan Dittany (Origanum dictamnus, endemic to Crete), a valued herb used as an aphrodisiac, in witchcraft (e.g. as an incense from which spirits may materialize), in perfumery, and as a flavouring (e.g. of vermouth and absinthe).

He may also have known something about the Dittany, Fraxinelle or Burning Bush (Dictamnus albus)  of the wider Mediterranean region (including southern France), a shrub famous for its volatile oils which can actually ignite the air around it. A very appropriate metaphor for a pipe!

Dictamnus albus

[Image source:]

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