J is at this moment cleaning the kitchen. I deny it, but inside I feel quite strongly that the kitchen is my preserve. By and large I do the cooking and I do the washing up and clean the surfaces and I even wash the floor. When it needs it. I remember a piece by Mil Millington on cutting the lawn. When he’d finished and put the mower away and was closing in on a cold beer and a lie in the sun, his girlfriend leaned out the window and asked him if he was going to do the edges. He said no. She asked why not. And he said after only a moment’s thought - and this is Mil’s genius - “Because it’s easier not to.” Yesterday T was up, and J showed her the radio and asked what she thought and T said, “Chuck it, it’s disgusting.” This is the kitchen radio. It’s been the kitchen radio, not just in this kitchen but in our house before, for about twenty years. You know how your parents had things, wooden spoons is a good example, that were worn and coloured in such a way as to be unique, so that they, your mother’s wooden spoons for instance, represented all wooden spoondom, they were the right and proper and in fact only wooden spoons there were. I remember the first time I saw a new wooden spoon in a shop, pale, symmetrical, no patina; not a wooden spoon at all really, or at any rate still-born. And then one day you realise that your things are the same, worn to uniqueness by use and time. Like the kitchen radio. My attitude to health and safety in the kitchen is organic. All the work surfaces are clean, the bits that matter anyway, the hob and backplate and sink shiny, the walls white. But I know that at a scale smaller than the human eye can see, it’s a battleground. And I’m happy for it to be that way. Live and let live. Let them dispute among themselves, those microbial organisms. The danger comes, to my mind, when you set about the place with biocidal chemicals. Then only the evil survive. The radio - it’s right against the window, jammed against the bread bin, behind the old ice cream container we put the stuff for the compost in, and pretty close to the hob. And the thing about a radio is that it’s electronic, delicate, you can’t keep washing it and scrubbing it, water will get in through the knobs and levers. In the sitting room we have a hi-fi, all the shit, bi-wired speakers with aramid drivers and an amp like a slab of basalt. But you know those short moments when music takes you over with gorgeous happiness, for me those often happen on the kitchen radio, it’s the ambience, the warm light, the red wine, kids under the feet, stuff on the flame chuckling and gurgling. It’s an Aiwa, heavy black plastic under the glaze, green and purple trim, exquisite. We’ve had four or five radios since, and they sounded like cheap toys. And nothing was actually growing out of it. They didn’t throw it away, of course. They are generous and sensitive beings, not brutes. J has burnished it down to its carapace with OzKleen Kitchen Power and it still seems to work. And this afternoon I’m going to put a neat shelf up behind and above the kitchen door and it can live up there. I’m a bit worried about the damp, the kettle will be down below. But what I was going to do this afternoon was to change the whole archaic ballcock system on the toilet, the old one punctures new washers within a week of me putting them in and water runs down the outside wall though you can’t really see because of the wisteria so it’s not that vital. And jobs like that usually take about a week because of the mismatch between the old corroded fittings and the new polythene ones. So I'll put up a shelf for the radio instead.
We’re told that 40%of British adults think that Intelligent Design should be taught in schools. But then 40% of British adults, we are told, don’t have the literacy and numeracy skills of the average twelve year old - 49.999% of whom, according to Blair, Kelly & Associates, are "below average. Take these facts, divide by the square root of minus one, subtract the number you first thought of and, bearing in mind that Ruth Kelly “supports” Opus Dei and Tony Blair is some sort of muscular progressive protestant high church crypto-Catholic with a soft spot for Torquemadan activities, is it any wonder that on the staff of Ampleforth public school there were at one time at least five active and practising paedophiles?
I don’t know why I find some religious belief so contemptible, and not always the narrowest and most bigoted. Devout Catholics, orthodox Jews, though I have to confess I never knew any orthodox Jews, all the Jews I know revile orthodoxy, but I don’t mind these types so much, the people who take seriously the Pope and the Inquisition, now restyled the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, or the guys, an inappropriate term, who take to the streets shamelessly rigged out in antique East European fancy dress with sideburns curling to their waists, they’re OK, it’s just as if they have some chronic disease or affliction that you ignore, it’s part of them of course, inseparable from who they are, but then so is a person’s penis or vagina and in most social relationships one tends to be unaware of these aspects of individual identity, or reduce them to the vaguest generality. In a sense it’s like my friend who told me he was gay, though I didn’t catch on, while we were pissing in the African savannah together, it became, when I did catch on, something about him that was rather distant, we disagreed I remember about the music of Benjamin Britten, at the time I thought he just had arcane tastes, now I realise that he was talking about a commitment, a solidarity with a peculiar sensibility and way of life, so very like everybody else’s, the same sun in the same sky, and yet so very unlike, the sun a homosexual sun, the stars gay stars, just as Jews in their great history of persecution or Catholics in their Marian besottedness must still pass their days much as the rest of us, average people locked in the Monday to Friday plus weekends, in the average skull. In fact Bob managed to be both, gay and Catholic. And the thing about gays, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, is that that’s the way they are, they didn’t make the choice, they, men and women, became part of the world as Jews or Catholics or Muslims or homosexuals and will soon cease to be part of the world, absolutely, just as all but an infinitesimal fraction, an infinitesimal fraction of an infinitesimal fraction of humanity have absolutely ceased to be part of the world and only emerge into the present as untraceable particles in the ocean of human culture, of all the sounds and things, bricks and words, as if one could take a water molecule at one of the Ganga’s many mouths and by examining it trace its journey and its origin, or rather its initial transition across an arbitrary boundary between what in the universe is the river Ganga and what in the universe is not the river Ganga.
What happens when someone “reveals” or “announces” or says or lets slip or shouts out loud that they are gay? What is significant or relevant about it. Far more than what God thinks about it or people’s predilections for some kinds of sex and disapproval of others, it’s to do with marked forms. A marked form is the one that does for all. Duck means all ducks, drakes included. Drakes just mean drakes. Drake is the marked form. Cow is unmarked. Bull is marked. And we, human beings, have a built-in discrimination; Us, the unmarked form, and Them, the marked. Us is usually so unmarked that it is practically invisible, only perceivable in its contrast to the other - Jew, black, woman, gay. It’s no use pretending we don’t have these discriminatory categories; for one thing they have an up side; friend, colleague, mate, family. And outside each of these warm and positive collectives are the excluded. And since the pople inside are our best people, those outside are not so good, or inferior. No, no, not inferior, just....different. In sex, straight is the unmarked form, so very unmarked that it includes lots of gay people, discreet cross-dressers, heterosexuals who practice together every bodily conjunction there is as far as anatomy allows - practically everybody, in fact, as long as they are, well, straight. And gay is a marked form. Still a very marked form. And it’s useful politically and culturally, just its very markedness, for use by political rivals and the mighty operation that mediates our cultural foreground, background and middle ground; so that the Sun and the Daily Mail and all the broadcast news can say “...revealed that he was gay...” and allow whatever form of themness is at hand to accrete and do its dirty work as it may. Because themness is always worse than usness, however bad we may be. And we do it in our personal lives, or I do. A gay friend is very much us by definition, a friend, unmarked us. But let him or her offend you, or upset you, or hurt your feelings for a moment with a thoughtless betrayal or a spiteful joke, and you know what you do. You look for an excluded category, one that explains them, their behaviour, as other. It may only last a second, but it happens. It was interesting in that kids with Tourette Syndrome programme a few weeks ago, the girl who said, absolutely believably , “I’m not racist. Not at all. But I see a black person and immediately it comes into my head the worst thing I could say, and there’s nothing I can do, I say it. I shout it. Luckily,” she said, “my black friends know I’ve got Tourettes and understand and don’t hold it against me.” But it’s there, isn’t it, in all of us. What are we to make of the fact that Simon Hughes has revealed, or maybe admitted, that he has had gay relationships in the past? That he should front wildlife programmes in the land of his ancestors like Michael Portillo (who is ever so jolly and cuddly looking these days). That we can stop thinking of poor Lib-Dem Simon as a decent but slightly milk-and-water do-gooder and cast him more in the rollicking mold of George Melly, Simon Callow and Oscar Wilde? Probably not. Maybe we’re meant to think nothing specific at all. It was after all the announcement of a plain unvarnished fact. Just that unlike us - Rupert, Tony, Dave, Harry and William and the ABs of C & Y - poor Si is now very much marked.
Three quarters of the cast of Care`n`Coercion at Edinburgh. I wonder what happened to any of them. The guy in the middle did a superb comic tour de force, but I can't remember his second name, so I can't google him - if anybody recognises him I'd be interested. The dildo on the gun was a huge mistake, the director's, who in theory welcomed my input but in practice not. After the first night we walked round the stage quite fast for about half an hour, talking not shouting, reasoning, not coming to blows, quite. But I did get one point across. "That fucking gun the dildo's stuck on, it's got to go, the whole fucking point is that the dildo, it's introduced as a terrorist weapon but the audience have fucking forgotten that by the end of act one, haven't they, so when Deborah shoots him with the dildo - we've got a fucking great pyro for that haven't we - what do you think the point of that is? it's a fucking surprise, you know, a surprise, they're meant to jump out of their skins, so what do you fucking do? you go and stick the fucking dildo on a fucking automatic so that they know its a fucking gun. Just how stupid is that?" At my tactful best. But the gun went and the pyro, which exploded a bowl of fruit all over the stage, was no longer gratuitous.
Back in those days we used to drink Pimpao, Portuguese wine that cost a couple of (now = ten thousand eight hundred and eighty six) kwacha a demijohn. We bought it at Caruso's, the Portuguese baker down the North end of Cha-cha-cha road. Caruso's baked all day, so the smell always made you hungry - yeast fermenting and bread rising and baking wafting into the street is hard to imagine in an English winter in 2006, it has to be that soft warm before the rains. So we used to drink a lot of Pimpao, when we just had the one toddler who slept snug and warm in that little bunk between the back seat and the engine in a VW beetle (we were totally irresponsible back then) and one night I got out of bed and went for a pee and then into the bathroom to wash my hands still in a Pimpao haze and as I was drying them my vision sort of cleared and there was a pearl-spotted owlet sitting on the towel rail staring at me as owls do. Google in Pimpao now and all you get is Livros e Materiais Pedagógicos.
Historical dramas are usually rubbish, but The Virgin Queen was storming. It was good to see the nurse from The Singing Detective turn up as vitriolic Mary Tudor, her from Brassed Off, the one who brought tears to your eyes with Orange Juice, a lady in waiting, and as for Ann-Marie Duff from Shameless, she did Anne Boleyn’s daughter like a good’un. No costume drama, the first episode was a story of our times, with attack helicopters on the sound track and bleeding heads on spikes, about an English monarch wedded to the religious fundamentalist head of a foreign power, who dies screaming, giving birth to something that turns out to have been a lie.
Without any democratic process, the decision to build the next generation of nuclear reactors has been made. A democracy would debate such a vital and fatal matter (and of course a competent government might have started thinking about an energy policy in 1997). But instead of democracy we have the British system. Traditionally this used to be operated by mandarins in consort with the PM, bright but not too bright public school and Oxbridge chaps chosen in their teens, fast tracked though the civil service exams, still at it in their sixties. Now they have been superseded as policy makers by the Prime Minister's advisers. The Government who will decide on the next generation of nuclear reactors will be a cabal of powder-puff Stalinists at Downing street, into whose pearly ears BNFL has already been whispering.
That's it really. I usually take to the hills around midday, but it's raining, it's Friday, my legs are tired, the view of the hills is as in Outside, I wonder round with a camera, looking forward to wine and paella (peasant paella, haddock, beans, rosemary from outside the back door) - and tonight the Belcea Quartet live, Mozart and Bartok.
Infidelity is inevitable for those who make up stories. I don’t mean infidelity of the flesh, I can’t see that we’re any more or less liable to that than anyone else. The problem is that in stories we can have a fling with whoever we like. I’ve written stories about me and women I knew or half knew or almost knew or women who never existed. These stories are always fiction, they recount events that never happened. But the emotions, the general circumstances, they’re real enough, in the sense that you’d say, or you might say, yes exactly, I know the very thing you’re talking about there, it’s happened to me, just that, or to us, or at least I’ve imagined that it happened; in that sense what goes on between me and the woman in the story is real, so it looks like infidelity. And often the infidelity looks like fun; and as I never write stories about J I never have that kind of fling with her. Sure she comes into things that I write sometimes but, as she says about whether to wake me up when I’m lying on my back snoring, “I too have a code of practice”. I only write about our mutually constructed public selves. The emotional, social, conversational, ideological part of our lives, I never get near any of that. With the other women, the women in the stories, those are the places where things go on, because that’s how you do sex in stories. If you just do sex with arching backs and frantic cries, it’s a cut and paste job, no more sex in it than in a description of putting out the bin. It’s through unusual behaviour, strange discussion, collision and distortion of attitudes that I try to make the sex particular, with a little intensity I hope, that’s what I aim at, not grand passion, you have to leave that to the great novelists and playwrights, but the kind of intensity that overcomes us all from time to time at the high and low points of our lives which have little in common with the lives of Anna Karenin and Count Vronsky or Elizabeth Bennet and Mr Darcy. There are other aspects of life with a long term partner that make it unsuitable for story telling. The main one is its complication. Partners do tend to share large parts of their lives, both inside their heads and in each other’s company, so they have to deal to an extent with the whole other person and as there is no such thing as wholeness, the other person is bits of many people, many voices, many attitudes and emotions and styles of behaviour all bundled together in the physical environs of one body with sometimes more and sometimes less success at seamless integration, and we ourselves are the same sort of loose bundle; for one loose bundle of this sort to try to manipulate another with the deftness and economy demanded by the story would be doomed, only the novel can follow the unravelling skeins, and then only to a limited extent, we do after all carry infinity within us, I mean as an objective assessment of the universe, not any twaddle about souls. Nevertheless here is a story about my partner, J, to show what that love is, as distinct from what goes on between me and the women in the stories.
But this is where it already becomes impossible. You cannot write another person, particularly a partner. Relatively, you know so much about them, and yet you cannot presume to know any one thing. They will immediately assert themselves, demolishing the pattern that forms beyond the words, a pattern that if not gazed at directly seems like life, like the reality of being a human being, just like the reality of being a human being, if not gazed at directly, seems something like a pattern, something durable and coherent; which indeed it is in that there is a huge consistency of getting up, going to school or work, eating meals, forming friendships, marriages, there’s a limitless flow of music, films, paintings, poems, novels, sports, religions, governments and industries; there is a stability out there; but if we now, this moment, gaze at the reality of life, the reality of being a human being, and put it to the test with the fact that that reality might at any moment stop - a minute blood clot, a meteoric impact that sets the earth’s core quaking - if we confront ourselves with the knowledge that the reality of being a human being can and always does go out like a light, or like a last ember, that that’s all it was, a finite process in that other universe the skull; then the most confident of us might realise that what we conjure up is no more than the pattern that seems to form beyond the words if we do not gaze too intently at our attempt to write another person, an actual person, one almost conjoined. The story:
“Man, like I said, you have to lighten up. Christ’s sake man, most of the trouble that comes in this world, it’s from crazy people poking what doesn’t need to be poked to see if it bites. I tell you as a friend, leave it alone. You can stare at a mark on the wall, you see a monster from a horror movie. I’ll tell you, Grandson of mine, wouldn’t go down the stairs by himself because of a shadow on the wall. I showed him how it was his own shadow.'Yeah,' he said, `but why has it got a snout?'” Django laughed softly. “'Why has it got a snout?'” And I could see it had, like the wolf in the story, trees and stuff outside, the wind, it was moving just a bit, and I put my hand there to show him it was only a shadow but part of me understood full well that he wasn’t having any of it, it may have been a shadow but it still had a snout, so I stopped telling him to grow up and be a brave boy and I went down the stairs with him.” He kind of tailed off, eyes distant. Patrul knew Django lacked the intellectual discipline to follow an argument to its conclusion. “So what’s your point?” He shrugged. “Doesn’t mean there aren’t real wolves.” Django held the curtain that was flapping in the cool breeze and looked outside the window, into the night, then looked at his friend with pity. “No there aren’t,” he said. “There aren’t wolves. More coffee?”
Frontpage header of the Guardian, Polly Toynbee: "The hounding of Ruth Kelly sickens me". I haven't read the article inside yet but I think Polly Toynbee is confusing categories here. There is an exhaustive and very necessary debate to be had about paedophilia, sex offenders, schools, power, aberrant behaviour, morality, anthropology and other related things. Peter Preston added to that debate , though after an energetic debate with J over breakfast I'm not sure he was right in his conclusions. But Ruth Kelly? This woman is a signed up Blairist, whether by inclination or coercion doesn't matter. She is arguing in favour of the education white paper. She is arguing for our schools to be handed over, while we still pay for them, to ideologues, bigots, and possibly worse. She is also a supporter if not a member of Opus Dei (I'm not sure women can be full members - as far as I can make out they can only be used for cooking and cleaning). Ruth Kelly seems to be in every way the perfect model for a Blairist post-democracy clone. Hounding? Extirpation of everything she publicly stands for, though of course not the human being herself, would be a good start.
I won’t go through it, you already know too well that deep sinking stab of hopelessness that traverses the entrails and goes on down to the pit of CyberHell when everything ceases to work, on day five, seemingly terminally, for the twenty-seventh time. Settting up a wireless network, that is. But I did talk to a lot of pleasant American teenagers on the helpline, which reminded me that they do not all behave like Friends of Tony. A bit of the Now Show on BBC Radio4 suggested it is OK and funny to be almost racistly anti-American. The sketch was about the new ending to Pride and Prejudice; focus group Americans were to be rewarded for taking part with “three buckets of fizzy lard;” and anyway “what’s the point of testing anything on Americans, unless maybe the ebola virus and cattle prods?” OK, part of me is quite happy about this vaccine against our servility to American culture (people in the UCI in baseball caps eating buckets of popcorn and drinking buckets of Pepsi - mix them together and you get fizzy lard with bits in, after all) and our submission to American political command. But it’s no good. The Americans we have to deal with, as well as the ones we may be related to or have as our friends, are not obese morons. We fool ourselves if we think they are. It is after all Tiny Tony Torture and the vacant blobs filling the space formerly occupied by Labour Members of Parliament who are selling off QinetiQ, formerly the MOD defense research department, to the American Carlyle Group. That’s not the Americans’ fault. No doubt they can only stare in grateful wonder at the compliance of our little Quisling leader (I know T Blair is a six foot something sex god, it’s his moral and intellectual stature that’s so diminutive). But I do wish, to get back to the computer network, that the lads at D-Link would pronounce router right. In English we have two words, rout and route, and the gateway of a network does the second. If, in my case, only sporadically.
Dr Zen thinks I’m wrong (to madness close allied) and has substantial reasons for doing so. I’ll try to answer his main points. But before that, in a nutshell, what is it I’m saying? That in human beings, the processes of thinking, seeing, imagining, creating and a long list of like processes, are not the operations of the mind, which is not a thing or a place but a generic term for a whole jumble of concepts, (a bit like soul, really). Rather thinking &c refers to a process of interaction between the human brain and an enormous amount of stuff, as yet unspecified, that can have actual and material form, as in written or spoken language or a brick or anything at all which has been in and out of a human brain at least once; but as importantly has virtual existence (you can’t get an actual brick in and out of a human brain in any way useful to the brain, or the brick). This stuff, everything that has been through a human brain at least once, (this is the crucial bit) is an evolutionary system, analogous to biological life and like it in some ways (natural selection applies, for instance), but very different in other ways (like language, which is a substantial part of its environment, this stuff does not have a discrete and stable form - if all human beings died on this instant, there’d still be lot of language about, in all recorded media including writing, it would just be inert. Likewise the reifications of this stuff, for example two lipglosses, a hair band, an eye pencil, would go on existing, but they would no longer evolve). Human culture is an evolutionary form. Two environments are necessary for its evolution; the human brain, and the external universe. That’s it, really. OK, Dr Zen says I’m wrong because I confuse the achievements of physical culture with those of mental culture. We’ll put achievements aside as a complicating issue. Clearly there is such a thing as physical culture - everywhere you look, everything you touch. But mental culture, what is that? Certain concepts fade or mutate very slowly. Millions of people still think they have a soul, generally only one each nowadays, though there was a time when cutting edge theory suggested three. But nonetheless ideas and traditions (quite large galaxies of the stuff I’m talking about so vaguely) evolve; in the same way that something didn’t have wings, then it did. Something walked the earth, then it didn’t. So, the mind, and mental - what we speak of in natural language as “the mind” does not exist in its archaic sense, as an abstract or transcendent place where “I” and “my consciousness” hang out; and hasn’t, I don’t think, since Locke. What is left is the brain and its processes on one side and, discrete but totally dependent on the brain as a breeding environment, this stuff - culture, tradition, geometry, the art of love. Mental culture? Either a tautology or a res non entia. So in that long period - at least tens of thousands of years - between when the homo sapiens brain had evolved into its modern form, and the sudden emergence of human culture at an ever accelerating rate, what was Woman (it was proably she. Hunting men tended to just click) thinking? A lot, according to Dr Zen. According to me, very little. Because the stuff, the complex traditions necessary to generate anything like what we call “thought”, had not yet evolved. But once it started, just as complex biological life, the stuff proliferated and mutated like the clappers. Back a bit. If there was a mind, what would it be like? A museum? A library? An encyclopaedia? All these three dimensional places are inert and stable. A library contains the whole contents of that library in the right place in their shelves except the books people take out, scribble in or move. But the brain is not like that at all. Take a complex tradition, that of lipstick manufacture and use. How could you or I deal with that? We could perform it, write down all we know about it, discuss it. But we would never contain it, as a gallery contains pictures. We could rehearse it subjectively, that’s the nearest we can get. But the experience is fleeting, as if it were a ribbon which only has realisation as it moves through the workspace, fading into the dark behind, invisible beyond. A practical aspect of this is writing down ideas as they occur, otherwise they are gone. You could say that abstract words, like virtue, are elements of “mental culture”. But I don’t find that so. To me virtue is empty without the generation of an analogue of material culture. I either see it as a written word, a rather garish logo in fact, or as a marble statue, Calpurnia probably. What an abstract word is is an address for a location which is partly process yet to be generated, cued with clues for other complex traditions. Cue virtue with Sade or Mother Theresa, Jerry Falwell or Arundathi Roy, and different things come up. Finally, and rightly, Dr Zen asks me what evidence I have. None. The evidence for evolution is in the fossil record. The evidence for this is in the workings of the brain about which, though our knowledge is increasing at a huge rate, we still know little. So it is of necessity a hypothesis, to be tested against what else we know. I can see nothing which contradicts it at the moment. And - and here somebody can immediately show me wrong - I know of no other hypothesis for the emergence of the peculiar aspect of humanity that distinguishes us from all other animals, which even begins to make sense.
We got these in Jaiselmer. Vinod took us down a narrow alley, a cow, and crapping time, kids shitting in the gutter, then through a passageway into a house. A woman came out of a door with her hair uncovered, saw us and turned back, covering her head. We went upstairs to a big room and the three silversmith brothers. The chief was interested in J’s gold bead necklace, where had she got it, what was its history. He borrowed it and photgraphed it in detail with his phone. It was the filligree work he was interested in. The silver filigree shoulder bag is J’s. You could keep a small handkerchief in it and maybe a key. It was made by the silversmiths’ grandfather, and the photo doesn’t show how fine and complex the work is. It is unambiguously lovely, a masterpiece. I chose the bowl. I knew it wasn’t jade, the guy told me it was malachite and he seemed uninterested in it, as against the amber and silver bowls he wanted to sell. But in my mind it had already become an antiquity, I could see it in a glass case in the Silk Road exhibition at the British Museum. It was pretty filthy, and maybe it had lain in the sands of the Thar desert for centuries. Anyway I like that combination of green silver and red. Later I read about the fake antiques industry in Iraq, and now I think the bowl is a fake - though a fake what I’m not sure - the semi-precious stones are just reddish pebbles, the malachite has cracks in it and the silver maybe isn’t even silver. It’s like a five dollar Rolex. Except that five dollar Rolexes are really good. They ask rude questions about five thousand dollar Rolexes. My bowl doesn’t ask those sorts of questions. Even so, trash as it may be, it still has something about it.
Chloe talked of memes... I like memes. I am of the opinion that everything we think and every thought we put into action is not whatever it is we think it is but part of a kind of thing that we have no word for yet, something like a life form, something that has evolved symbiotically with humanity. So I see a lot of the world rather differently to other people. This should mean I am mad. But unless I’m very mad indeed, beyond paranoia, so that my world is so illusory that I don’t notice the universal contradiction between all the sane people and myself, then I am actually fairly sane, and that’s how people treat me. This is maybe because the way I see the world doesn’t mean I behave any differently from the way I would if I saw all human thought and culture, each book and brick, camel saddle, large hadron collider, mosque, lipstick, as something generated ab initio by the human mind. To see all human culture, everything that has been in and out of the human brain at least once, as an evolved and evolving quasi- [definitely quasi-] life form doesn’t mean that I act any differently to the way I would if I saw it how everybody else sees it - which is something, to be honest, I’m not clear about. As “brain product”, perhaps. James Lovelock makes clear that an apparently intelligent system which appears to have insight and motive, need have neither. He gives the example of a planet that through its evolved life forms mediates the radiation of its sun. The evolved life forms are two species of flower, one with white petals, one with black. If the sun heats the planet too much, the white flowers open and reflect the light back into space. As the planet cools, the white flowers begin to close and the black flowers to open, absorbing radiation and warming the planet. As the surface warms, the white flowers begin to open again and the black to close. And so on. So my peculiar belief is this, that for tens of thousands of years in our evolutionary past homo sapiens had the brain capacity for what we do now.* But nothing happened. And how should it? Our brain capacity is uniquely equipped for vast and complex traditions of knowledge. But without those vast and complex systems of knowledge, how were we to think? Clearly, we thought more than just Uggg! But it was much nearer to Uggg! than to the way we think now. So nothing happened. And nothing went on happening for a long time. Then, relatively suddenly and quickly, something took place, in and crucially between two or more brains, and it began to evolve. Whatever it was, it existed in the world, as speech, as a painting, a recipe, but it could only reproduce and multiply in human brains. And it had dynamics of its own. That is why today little is subjectable to logic or reason. Did Ioannes Paulus PP. II Karol Wojtyla cure four-year-old Heron Badillo who was suffering from otherwise terminal leukaemia? One would think not. But this miracle is not only a testable fact, it is also a something else that we don’t yet quite have a word for, ceaselessly and mindlessly working, just as much as the avian flu virus is ceaselessly and mindlessly working, for its place in the world. I suspect that this idea is so obvious and so like the way things are that, though now nobody looks at things this way, in a couple of generations everybody will, and will always have done.
*This bit is fairly orthodox. “To judge from brain size, the main reliable clue, the advanced cognitive capacity[in h. sap] preceded the first complex traditions by a few tens of thousands of years at least. Perhaps there was a final cognitive modernization not reflected in brain size under the influence of coevolution with complex traditions.” Peter J. Richerson and Robert Boyd, University of California
I used to have a Tom Simpson-style cotton cycling cap with a red patch above the brim. When I wore it, robins used to get close and stare at me a lot. J had to give her laptop back before we went to India. She’s getting a new one but in the meantime there’s been a bit of territorial tension and a few Lorenz moments around our desktop. It was in Konrad Lorenz’s On Aggression that I read about robins being so enraged by the red of each other’s breasts that courtship always teeters on the edge of extreme physical violence, and mating has to be mediated by an oxymoronic frenzy of placatory behaviour. Mistakes are made. I’m always knocking dogs, and I am ambivalent about them, but there was a bit of canine behaviour that Lorenz observed that I wish the Great Invaders (Milosevic, Blair, Hussein, Bush, Galtieri &c) might adopt. Lorenz was watching a pair of Alsatians running up and down a fence, their snouts inches apart, barking, yammering, snarling, slavering, snapping. They’d run up to the corner nearest to their respective homes, then down towards the other end, turn and rush back up again. But, he noticed, at the far end, some way from the houses, the fence just stopped. The dogs were going further down each time. What would happen when the fence ran out and they were really face to face? Bloodshed, victory and humiliation, almost certainly. One run they stopped just short of the hiatus. The next, and they were there, tooth to tooth, no intervening mesh. They froze for an instant, then simultaneously turned and rushed back up the fence again, snapping, yammering, slavering.
I saw a Humvee, or its wanka non-military equivalent, for the first time last week. It was in Richmond, Surrey (there's aRichmond up here too) and it was even huger, uglier, stupider than I had imagined. A stretch limo is a hideous thing, but a Humvee is hideous squared, an engineering monster stretched out of all functional proportion in not just one dimension but two. The reinforcing required merely to keep its belly off the ground must equal the weight of a European saloon. The skill required to use the full performance of even a modest car, a Ford Focus say, is beyond at a guess ninety nine percent of the population, who are good at max acceleration and braking between traffic lights or sitting in virtual stillness at one fifty kph on motorways but become correctly cautious on bends. The rest of the performance of a modern car is metaphor, and there’s nothing wrong with that. My summer road bike is titanium, Campagnolo, Ksirium, Look carbon, skn, with a 53-11 top gear, and most of that is metaphor too, for the fiction of myself that is one of my main occupations in life. Metaphor is what we humans do. Dogs aren’t much into metaphor, and no known dogs could have built the Basilica in Ravenna. Nonetheless I think we need to ask what the ninety five percent of the peculiar potential performance of a Humvee in Richmond that the owner can’t actually employ is in metaphorical terms. My most admired vehicle of the moment is what I think is a `chhakda`. According to Pavan K Varma “the contraption, which puts together a Bullet motorcycle, the wheels of a Fiat car and a diesel pump used to draw water, can carry up to thirty passengers and run for 35 kilometres on a litre of diesel. Only recently recognised by the authorities as legal, the `vehicle` has now interested buyers in East Africa and Bangladesh.” I may have got it wrong and this may not be a chhakda, but whatever it is it is clearly welded by hand and for the operators is only around 0.001 per cent metaphor.
Mark Ravenhill writes "As storytellers today, we're drawn to what's wrong with the world. But what if it were possible to create complex, significant work that explored the possibility of a kind of paradise?" I'm not usually stuck for words, or even thoughts, but I feel like I'm a student again faced with an exam question that means nothing. I don't mean Ravenhill's question means nothing, it is among the most important we could ask. But we are not so good at imagining paradises. Which are enclosed gardens, scented trees with flowers and fruits like jewels, paths and fountains and singing birds, bulbuls or nightingales, and dancing boys or girls, but even those who came closest to creating such paradises, in Asia in the huge efflorescence of wealth in the millennium between Seven and Seventeen Hundred, Harun el Rashid, Shah Jahan, theirs were only intimations of paradise, of a perfect - what? something between contentment and ecstasy maybe, somewhere around bliss. Though bliss sounds a bit unengaged, stupefied. Surely some action is required. Drugs, dancing, falling in love are the nearest we get to whatever it is - in a garden, preferably, scented trees with flowers and fruit like jewels &c. But always, in almost every moment of life, there are intrusions and interruptions, and the demands of the world. Shah Jahan suffered from terrible constipation; the Abode of Bliss, like the Duchy of Cornwall, helped pay for itself by the sale of roses and musk mallow. That's maybe as close as we could get to any but the most transient paradise. And unluckily we do not have Shah Jahan's resources. Anyway, Mark Ravenhill isn't talking about life, he's talking about stories, human-created paradises in the skull, and he's asking where we can find them, if we can find them. I thought in the empty space (but I meant vacuum energy*) of the opposites of things that don't have actual opposites - like `criminal` or `hypermarket` or `beggar` (to be one, not to see one). But I'm not sure there are such places, or that they can be put into words.
*Vacuum energy, as I understand it, is the irreducible energy of empty space at about the Planck scale, from which all things that you could call things come.
True or false? Things with opposites have to be qualities, like bad, or some emotional states, like happy [but not angry], or scalars or vectors, hot, down? - I know nothing, no philosophy, rubbish at maths, and anyway what I really wonder about are the things that have no opposites: criminal, lover, aficionado of the bullfight, magician, murderer, milky breast, hypermarket, dream, America. Maybe it's within the empty space of these opposites that the stories we have to tell still lie. Nomad?
Happy New Year everybody. Ben, 6, much into Warcraft, Runescape and Bionicles, suddenly came out of a period of reflection on such matters at lunch - seasonal chatter had fleetingly crossed his screen - to ask if mistletoe was a body part.