Starting a new subject with a reader is more difficult than picking up an introductory text written with novices in mind. It does, however, have the advantage of offering a full technical vocabulary, and introducing significant writers in the discipline through their own words.
Sadly, the ‘own words’ of cultural theorists (up to Part 3) seem to be quite remarkably dreary – an uglification of English which is hard to forgive, and there are 450 pages still to go. Some of the content is moderately interesting, but Oh! if only we could have it better said! One honourable but momentary exception: Laclau and Mouffe describing their critics as ‘fading epigones’. I had to look ‘epigone’ up in Chambers, and joyed in it, a word at once compendious and splendidly disdainful. Then it was back to uglification for fifteen pages.
This is going to be a long, long, long, long, long, long read.
lxviii : Read about a hopeless case
Richard Savage was obviously a disaster of a man.
His claims to be a neglected (indeed persecuted) illegitimate child of the Countess of Macclesfield and Earl Rivers seem to have been accepted whole by Samuel Johnson, though posterity sees a possible case of fraud and blackmail. Even allowing the dubious circumstances of his birth, it is painful to read of Savage’s appalling behaviour to his friends and acquaintances, and his extraordinary fecklessness.
Johnson treads a complicated path through his personal knowledge of Savage’s worst behaviour; a delicate hint or two of his own attempts to support Savage; his affection for Savage as his own charming friend; his awareness of other friends’ attempts to help; and his tenderness towards Savage’s failure to cope with life, which amounted almost to a disability. I walked with Johnson through concern, disgust, pity, contempt, regret, and, like Savage’s friends, at last you can only throw your hands in the air, and declare him beyond helping.
But I couldn’t quite join Johnson in his tenderness towards this utterly selfish and infuriating man; which is why I love Samuel Johnson, especially in the middle of the night.
There was something curiously sad about reading The complete robot, though I am puzzled to pin it down. Perhaps it is seeing Asimov’s lifetime of robot stories compressed into one slightly dog-eared volume. The stories are arranged thematically (‘Some immobile robots’, ‘Powell and Donovan’ etc.) so there is no sense of an arc or chronology in the writing, yet time weighs on the volume. Perhaps it is sad to be reminded how thin some of the stories are, how long ago the Golden Age happened, how much more challenging and entertaining the tales were when I was fourteen. Maybe this is the last time I will read them.Margaret Oliphant’s Autobiography is mis-named, consisting only of four fragments, written at wide intervals and with purposes which changed as her life altered. The fragments have the immediacy (almost) of a diary, unhomogenised for publication, and often raw with grief or self-knowledge. The letters, of course, were written to be seen by at least one pair of eyes, yet again are created in the immediacy of a particular moment and purpose. Her family life included much loss, disappointment and sadness, and her editor (who was also an adopted daughter) describes the relief with which Margaret Oliphant turned from life when informed that her final illness would be mortal.
And yet the vigour of her literary production was enormous. I’ve read scarcely any of her journalism and none of her non-fiction works, and only a small proportion of the fiction. Those novels I have read are not the easy romantic crowd-pleasers one would expect from a Victorian hack writer, though they are often flawed. On the contrary: Oliphant was capable of a moral complexity at least as challenging as anything to be found in her contemporaries, and sometimes tougher than almost anything I’ve ever read. (She could also be exceedingly witty.) Most of her readers seem to agree that Miss Marjoribanks is the masterpiece, and certainly for me it’s pure joy from cover to cover.
A woman of so much drive and talent, but so religious, so conventional and with so few pretensions, was always going to be a puzzle to the Victorians, and I suspect she remains a stumbling block now, in spite of a developing cloud of critics and apologists. Sometimes I think I’ll try one of the modern biographies; but then again, perhaps I’ll just let her continue to speak for herself.
It’s hot. And I’m not very good at hot. After trying to keep going yesterday, I slept eleven hours out of eighteen, so I’ve taken the hint. Productive work has tailed off to minimal, and tosh rules. I always feel some residual guilt at finding tales of murder diverting, but for the next day or two this is going to be the schedule.
Oh – and did I mention the whiff of death by the back door? Luckily only a minor whiff, so I trust it is only a minor corpse. Perhaps it accounts for the blowfly plague, though the timing seems off. Can’t find the body yet, so I do hope that mummification will be swift.
Reading time has been rather gobbled up.
I may have selected this based on a subconscious connection with grass and the breaking of impenetrable sod:
Somehow I have managed to miss reading it down all the years; meeting as an adult, it raised quite a few questions. One concerns the apparently reckless way the father takes his family off on a dangerous journey. We have gone soft now. Or perhaps it didn’t seem as dangerous, when any life was dangerous – even staying tucked into the most secure and prosperous home could not protect you from the epidemics of infectious disease which cut swathes through many a family. Or perhaps pressure of poverty was strong enough to drive the migrants on. Then there’s the way Ingalls apparently makes the decisions without input from his wife (ah the good old days – ‘she for god in him’ etc.) And worst, of course, are the passages dealing with the native Americans. Ingalls is portrayed as liberal, humane, but assumes that the western country is his to take because the inhabitants “weren’t using it”, and he is furious when, having illegally moved into Indian reservation land, he and other settlers were required to leave “their” farms. Ugly.
Then there is this delicate little sippet of a book.
Ah, the pure sensory pleasure of its satiny dust jacket, the smooth crispness of the coated paper, the careful balance of text and image, the reposeful colours, the spine coherent without wilful springiness, the clean smell rising from every page turn. This made it quite difficult to concentrate on the actual subject matter, but it too was charming in its miscellany of science, technology, art and history, and although the coverage is very slight, there’s a further reading list handy at the back.
One phrase, though originally intended to be satirical, spoke truth to me as an observer: Thomas Tomkis in 1615 characterised a telescope as “an engine to catch starres”. Out in the darkness with the Dob, that’s just what it feels like.
Demanding day alternately digging in overgrown veg patch and digging in thickets of theology.
(Puts head down on laptop and becomes comatose.)
I’ve just had an ill-omened poem in seventeen lines.
Hmm. Seems you can’t use italics in a blog post title. Please take them as read between * and *.
See? They are even on the cover.
It’s a long time since I was so comprehensively annoyed by typography. The excessive use of inverted commas sometimes makes it difficult to tell if they are random noise or indicate a genuine quotation. And then there are the italicised words plopped without apparent purpose into every sentence. And the capitals. Add to this the authorial voice, at once matey and preachy…. all so distracting that I found it almost impossible to grasp the content. Whatever happened to formal prose? I wish he had had a strong-minded editor.
I developed a technique for following the argument, in the end. This consisted of hopping briskly from one quotation to another, like stepping from tussock to tussock in a bog. Luckily the quotations were numerous and often full, so I read a certain amount of Buber, Tracy, Arendt, Schillebeeckx, Derrida, and such, and the merest modicum of Veling.
The prose came alive once, though. Veling gives an account of a time when he attempted to actually apply his practical theology in a tricky social situation. “No miracle of peace occurred”, he notes sadly. Yep. Ain’t that the truth.
They have reached W now. Hurray!
In another vein, I found this little treasure.
I expect everyone else knows about Tan, but I didn’t. Grandpa’s story had great charm, and Night of the turtle rescue was brief and bold (and tough). But I think my favourite was Distant rain, about the reciprocal gravity of unread poems; close to my heart.