Monthly Archives: May 2009


Humboldt calls the sign’s freedom volubility. I am (inwardly) voluble, because I cannot anchor my discourse: the signs turn ‘in free wheeling’. If I could constrain the sign, submit it to some sanction, I could find rest at last. If only we could put our minds in plaster casts, like our legs! But I cannot keep from thinking, from speaking; no director is there to interrupt the interior movie I keep making of myself, someone to shout, Cut! Volubility is a kind of specific human misery: I am language-mad: no one listens to me, no one looks at me, but (like Schubert’s organ-grinder) I go on talking, turning my hurdy-gurdy.

— Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse (trans. R. Howard)

Shown up

X feels shown up, he tells me, as if his whole life has been declared invalid. As if he’s being shown everything he’s done is wrong. They’ve seen through me, he says, they’ve seen through my façade and they know I’m a fraud. I’m not even close to the real thing, he says, whatever that is. And everybody knows, he says, even myself. Boohoo, he says. He needs a do-over, he says, a mulligan. What makes him feel this way? he asks me. Is it himself? Is it me? Maybe, he says, or maybe it’s God, or the Devil, or the Unknowable. Maybe someone’s cursed him, he says, cursed him with fraudulence. What’s he not living up to? Can I find a girl for him? he asks. They’re probably right, he says, he probably just needs to get laid. But I’m the worst one to ask, he says.


He’s ruined it, X tells me, he’s ruined everything. He’s ruined his life. But he can’t even ruin his life right, the way he imagines a ruined life, with grace and poise. It’s his feelings, he says, they’re all over the place. How can he repress his feelings? he asks. How can he learn from the English? he asks.

Why are you so silent?

He’s disappointed me somehow, hasn’t he? X asks me. Then why am I so silent? he asks. It’s time to blow the lid off this silence of mine, he tells me. I’m full of shit, he says. Come off it, he says, you’re no better than me. At least I’m honest. Why are you so silent, was it something I said? He thinks he understands, he says, he’d do the same, it’s no wonder, but he wants to hear me say it. Say it, he says.


But in what sense can we say that those two times, the past and the future, exist, when the past no longer is and the future is not yet? Yet if the present were always present and did not go by into the past, it would not be time at all, but eternity. If, therefore, the present (if it is to be time at all) only comes into existence because it is in transition toward the past, how can we say that even the present is? For the cause of its being is that it shall cease to be.

— Augustine, Confessions (quoted here)


X doesn’t think he’d mind prison too much, he tells me, at least not solitary confinement. His room is like a prison as it is, he says, this room he carries about inside him. He’s already in prison, he says, all he does is sit here. Sometimes he walks around, feeds himself, evacuates. It sounds melodramatic, he shrugs, like everything I say, but hey, I didn’t choose it. He doesn’t think he’d mind isolation much, he says, the walls wouldn’t make much difference and the seasons mean nothing to him. The interrogators wouldn’t know what to do with him, with their stupid games, he says. They’d just think I was arrogant and try to break me down, he says. Whoever heard of such a creature! he says. An abomination, he says, that’s what he is.

Bad habits

One such is the need to ponder every living thing with which I am confronted. The slightest encounter arouses in me the most peculiar urge to think. […] I am possibly a somewhat high-strung person, but I am also a precise one. I feel even the most trifling losses, in certain matters I am meticulously conscientious and only occasionally am I obliged, for better or worse, to command myself: Forget this! A single word can thrust me into the most monstrous and tempestuous confusion, and then I find myself utterly possessed by thoughts of this apparently minuscule and insignificant thing, while the present in all its glory has become incomprehensible to me. These moments constitute a bad habit.

— Robert Walser (quoted here)

In the middle way

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it. And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate — but there is no competition —
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.

— T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets


X tells me he becomes more of a problem to himself every day. He shouldn’t think so much, he says, especially about himself. Isn’t that what they’d say? he asks. He’ll lead himself into perdition, like his own demonic double, taking his own hand. Perdition, what a thought! he says. But it makes sense, he says, we can only lead ourselves into perdition, we have to be willing to be led by ourselves. Maybe they’re right, he says, maybe he shouldn’t think about himself so much. Maybe he should get a dog, maybe that would help.

A challenge and an embarrassment

Modernism is still a challenge, and an embarrassment. We all know — and by “we” I mean all the writers, reviewers, editors and publishers who make up the literary scene in England today — we all know Modernism happened, and that it marked a decisive moment in Western culture; but most of us prefer not to know.

If we acknowledge that it happened, we say that it was a long time ago and is of no concern to us today. But how else are we to respond? One way was typified for me by a lecture I once heard given by a Professor of Philosophy, Patrick Corbett. Corbett was a huge man, and as he spoke he prowled round the lectern, kicking at the wainscoting and the floor. The lecture went something like this:

“Kierkegaard! Hunh! Marx! Hunh! Dostoevsky! Hunh! Nietzsche! Hunh! Kafka! Hunh! Nothing that a good walk on the Downs wouldn’t have put right!” In other words these pathetic ninnies were all suffering from over-sensitivity mingled with self-regard; what they had to say was the result of their cosseted upbringing and a bit of exercise and fresh air was all that was needed to bring them to their senses. This, of course, is the view of a large section of the British public today, given courage to voice it by, for example, Philip Larkin and Kingsley Amis, whose epistolary exchanges (“all these cheerless creeps between 1900 and 1930 — Ginny Woolf and Dai Lawrence and Morgy Forster”) are exactly on a par with Corbett’s lecture.

— Gabriel Josipovici, ‘Fail Again, Fail Better’