I Just Prefer ‘Xanthic’ to ‘Yellow’

Over at The Atlantic, we have Hitchens:


How is Mrs. Columbo?

on Edmund Burke:


Now that’s dignity. Chubby dignity.

This I enjoyed because it quotes huge chunks of Burke: after too long reading journalism, web stutters, and the novels of our decadent age, those huge, complicated, well-ordered sentences were a thrill.

Not so enjoyable is that it takes the Conor Cruise O’Brien line on everyone’s favourite c. 18th mick on the make.

And of course, Hitchens is bothersome. I’m still a fan of his style, because/although it’s got the tang of bright, slightly facile Oxford tutorial essay prose (always the temptation to grade his work): but politically, he’s been a frustration. Obviously he went the wrong way on the war, and then there’s his contribution to the current cult of Orwell.

I’ve only had time for a brief glance over The Betrayal of Dissent (from the very, very good folk at Pluto), but it looks both good and useful. Orwell’s a problematic influence on contemporary political literature: he’s used as some kind of touchstone for ‘decent’ left liberalism, with Aaronvitch and Hitchens both imputing Communist zombifaction to anyone who doesn’t support their (bullshit alert level: deep brown) brave and independent stands against left-wing herd mentality.

Another major problem with this is that everyone gets on their fucking high horse, and discounts the opinion of any mid-century author who failed to shout abuse at both Stalin and Hitler.

That problem’s also there in that whole miserable dullness about Orwell. Allegories are shit and boring (see future post, to be called ‘Allegories are Shit and Boring’), one of the worst diseases of the English protestant imagination. And then there’s that bloody essay which gets trotted out every time someone wants to argue for dulling down the language. It seems a guide on how to cripple style: he wants to cut the legs from under luxuriance, redundancy, flair, and fun, many of which are virtues that help us fight a rationalised, ugly world.


W.H. Smith’s: Begone Abomination!

Rowling won the WH Smith People’s Choice Book Award: Ali, Pratchett, and Michael Moore also took prizes. Best news is probably Geoff Dyer picking up the travel prize for Yoga For People Who Can’t Be Bothered To Do It.

No huge beef about the prize: there were complaints, but I’m not that fussed myself: it was a popular vote, and Potter conquered. Inevitable, but no need to rehash the Good and Bad of the Potternaut.

(I see that ‘Potternaut’ can be read as a formation implying ‘someone journeying through the Harry Potter books, in fashion similar to those who travel in space’, or ‘a gargantuan behemoth that tramples all before it.’ Please take with the latter sense dominant.)

Probably not worth mentioning, only it’s press day, I’m knotty, stressed and tired, and I need a punchbag. So, it’s time for a semi-coherent rant about that piss-stain fouling your High Street – W! H! Smith’s!

Firstly, they behave as though they don’t have a responsibility in the world. Their shops, in the 1980s, were the only places to get hold of print in a lot of smaller towns: growing up in the provinces a lot of people had to get their books from Smith’s, and this’d be fine if they didn’t spend the 80s and 90s sinking into swinishness: there was heavy attrition of their better sections, poetry getting smaller and smaller, fewer literary novels, and more drek clogging up shelf-space; that space was eroded, too, eaten away by equally half-arsed selections of CDs, Software, DVDs. The small-town auto-didact always had the library, but was being let down if he wanted to shop.

Plus there’s that ugly puritanical streak: keeping their shelves clean, not allowing anything too ugly up there, scaredy-cat refusal to stock Private Eye and a ton of other good stuff. Self-appointed guardians of the miserable cramped mind of middle England.

The situation got better as Waterstone’s grew: a lot more towns got a bookshop with a wide range of stock. Then Smith’s took them over. Oh Dear. Farewell to independent buying, enthusiastic staff, and a book-loving CEO. Hello to the 3-for-2 homogenous parody of choice. Now you can’t take even stock into their Costa Coffee Shops. Nice going! Sever that bond of trust! Treat us as though you hate us, and we will hate you.

They like to screw trade as well as public. I’ve never heard anything but a litany of hate when any independent publisher has discussed a distribution deal made with WHS. Huge cut of the cover price, iffy return counts, just a real theatre of horrors.

I’m being a bore, so I’ll stop. But that made me feel a little better.

I think it’s illegal to suggest that it’s right to steal from Smith’s. Why must the law be so tiresome?

Congratulations to Dyer!

So, In Summary, I Should Be in Charge of Everything

Throughout history, some books have changed the world. They have transformed the way we see ourselves – and each other. They have inspired debate, dissent, war and revolution. They have enlightened, outraged, provoked and comforted. They have enriched lives – and destroyed them. Now Penguin brings you the works of the great thinkers, pioneers, radicals and visionaries whose ideas shook civilization, and helped make us who we are.

I hear James Earl Jones reading that.

This was meant to be short. I saw that Steve, Andrew and, most thoroughly, Mark had commented on Penguin’s ‘Great Ideas’ series, and thought I’d leave the topic alone (I’m not having people say that if they jumped off a cliff, I would too. I’d probably blog it, though. I mean it’d be worth mentioning, surely, three british lit bloggers all jumping off a cliff together? Either some co-incidence, or a very strange event. I guess I’d be a suspect. But why would I do it? It’s not like there’s money or power or sex in this game. I’d feel pretty sad, even though I’ve only really exchanged emails with them.)

But then I looked at looked at the list, and a few things nagged at me, and I wrote them down, and it got out of hand. Here we go.

1)Why does the Swift look like a nineteenth century circus poster? Did the designer fall asleep on the design history train and wake up a hundred years north of his stop? And why are they including a defence of the Anglican Church and biblical authority in this series? Both of those are terrible ideas.

2)There’s the problem with some of these books. I’m second to none in my love for Swift: I believe there is no better prose writer; Gulliver’s Travels is my favourite book; and I am committed to keeping alive the Swiftian tradition of confused relationships with women. Regulars also know my passion for Hazlitt. However, I don’t really see that either of these really fit in a series dedicated to great ideas. Penguin put a chunk of ‘The Fight’ on the webpage for the Hazlitt collection. ‘The Fight’ is an essay that I like a lot, so I think I can give you a fair summary of the great idea which drives it: ‘bare knuckle boxing is a hoot and a half’. Now this, as Penguin’s Press release says, is truly one of those ideas that ‘have enriched lives – and destroyed them’; but I’m unconvinced reissuing the essay is going to make a huge difference in an age of ten-ounce gloves and eight counts.

To return to the topic in hand. This isn’t the place for Swift. It’d be better to represent the deftest thinker Britain’s given the world, David Hume. His Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion would be perfect for this series:

Look round this universe. What an immense profusion of beings, animated and organized, sensible and active! You admire this prodigious variety and fecundity. But inspect a little more narrowly these living existences, the only beings worth regarding. How hostile and destructive to each other! How insufficient all of them for their own happiness! How contemptible or odious to the spectator! The whole presents nothing but the idea of a blind nature, impregnated by a great vivifying principle, and pouring forth from her lap, without discernment or parental care, her maimed and abortive children.

We should wonder that Hume wrote this without living to see a world where Hollyoaks is transmitted six days of the week.

They’re out of copyright, Penguin, out of copyright! And I know a man who’d edit them for seventy quid.

Call it fifty, cash in hand.

3)Why is the Montaigne called ‘On Friendship’? It’s taking its name from I.28, ‘De L’AmitÈ’; in the Penguin edition of the Essays, as translated by M.A. Screech, that’s ‘On Affectionate Relationships’. Unless there’s been a revision (possible – my edition’s a decade old), they’ve changed the title back to something a little catchier. Here’s a section of Screech’s introduction to the essay:

[I]n Renaissance French amitÈ includes many affectionate relationships, ranging from a father’s love for his child (or for his brain-child) to the friendly services of a doctor or lawyer, to that conjugal love felt by Montaigne for his wife, and to that rarest of lasting friendships which David shared with Jonathan, Roland with Oliver, or Montaigne with La BoÎtie[…]

He goes on to explain this definition of amitÈ at length. By refusing to take an easy, conventional option, he’s attempting to be scrupulous and accurate; he’s doing us a fine service by helping us to reach Montaigne. If you change the title back, you’re undoing that work. You’re taking great ideas and turning them into aromatherapy on paper.

(And a casual reservation: there’s a lot of Montaigne. Depending on how you select 128 pages of him you’ll either have a clear-sighted & honest analysis of man that shines down to the bottom of our follies and complexities; or you’ll screw it up and lay out a buffet of whimsy & empty Stoic nobility. I hope Penguin have gone for the former, but I’m skeptical).

(And look, I know Hazlitt’s isn’t just singing the praises of scrapping; that, besides being lord of all sports writing, fresh and excited, it’s an amazing buzz round the ideas of ‘fancy’, immediacy, and nature. Let me have my fun. We’re going to be here for a while, and if I can’t be stupid, I’ll get bored. You wouldn’t like me when I’m bored. In fact, I bet you don’t like me now. Forgive me. It’s the coffee talking.)

4)Augustine’s Confessions! Glad to see Penguin are doing something to counter the Manichaeans’ wicked attempts to corrupt our children. Again, wtf? Augustine does have all the ideas you could want; and those ideas are among the most important in Western history. However, if you want to dig in that deep dark hole, you really ought to be reading the City of God. That’s the problem with the list – a lot of worthwhile ideas resist this kind of commodified consumption. You can’t sit down for an hour or two, romp through his sinful days, and ‘get’ Augustine; not, at least, so as to say or know anything interesting about his work. It’s a virtue of books that they take time to read: it lets them grow into you.

5)Ditto Gibbon. I’ve been back with the Funky Monkey recently, enjoying The Amazing Adventures of Genseric, King of the Vandals (his working title for Volume IV) and I was thinking yesterday how he doesn’t quite work in selection: the enormity of the thing, and the potential for immersion can’t, by definition, be compressed. Even beyond the prose and the flow of the narrative, the variety of it is necessary: to get the feel of the whole you need the portraits, cultural surveys, and theological excursus (‘Persian Theology, Two Principles’). Though he’s never dull (I wouldn’t be dull if I had that prose style), there’s a special excitement that comes when he’s been laying out the later stages of a reign for a while, and you just know that he’s about to do a big, elegant summation that offers a poised ethical critique and deadly political analysis. God I love Gibbon. Anyway, as I was saying, it only works questionably in extraction.

I got through that a description of a long work of history without using ‘sweep’. Gold Star from the anti-clichÈ squad.

6)If you’re going to extract, then Schopenhauer does make more sense. I don’t know what Penguin have chosen, but as he’s an aphorist of genius, it’s likely that someone picking up this book will take a crack at the longer works; it’s a progression that makes sense. I don’t think that’s the case with the many of the other authors, Nietzsche excepted.

I can’t resist. Let’s get the Schopen’ in!

A quick test of the assertion that enjoyment outweighs pain in this world, or that they are at any rate balanced, would be to compare the feelings of an animal engaged in eating another animal with those of the animal being eaten.

One more:

If you want to discover your true opinion of anybody, observe the impression made on you by the first sight of a letter from him.

I think that one might seem shallow, or facile: but it’s oddly, usefully true.

7)The Classical (or rather Latin) choices are shocking. You can fit Heraclitus into one of these £3.99 editions, and have space left for plenty more Pre-Socratics; or you can grab some Plato; or go for something Epicurean. We, though, get Seneca and Marcus Fucking Aurelius. Why such conservative choices? Are they looking to catch some crumbs from the table of The fucking Prophet? Isn’t it a little late for a Gladiator tie-in? Would letting the wild boys off the leash cut into Penguin’s (I’m guessing) £8.99 editions of the Pre-Socratics?

8)Thomas a Kempis. I’m honestly seeing fucking red with this one. You have the history of thought to deal with – all of it, from all over the world, and all of time, and you choose a mystic shill for the religion of slaves and children. Again, if you’ve got to pick Christians, pick the good ones: Penguin have Hannay’s translations of Kierkegaard. However, the point is that the list has too much of that shit already: you could put the Tao Te Ching in here, or Chuang Tzu. Would that be bad? Slightly less conservative decision, and a useful attempt to reclaim them from the new age scum. You could put in the Analects, or, as John Sutherland suggests, Mao’s Red Book, a real world-changer. No. Penguin instead go for Thomas A fucking Kempis.

The website for the series mentions twice that this is the book that Bill Clinton turned to during the Lewinsky scandal (or ‘Monicagate’ as they believe it’s called). Why are they telling me this? Are they suggesting that if I read The Imitation of Christ I’ll learn how to pacify a weakened left through liberal rhetoric while, with savage pragmatism, implenting policies designed to sate the blood-lust of the Christian right?

It’s a bad sign, that reference to Clinton. Andrew at 3am suggests the list gives ‘fifty quid bloke’ a way to impress girls; I think it’s even worse – some chunk of the selection is meant to give Captains of Industry something to mull over while they’re munching on babies.

(Not that I’m sure ‘Captains of Industry’ still exist. I think of Captains of Industry as getting married to Ballet Dancers. Maybe it’s just businessmen marrying models now.)

I have not time to explain why my objections to TAK are different to to my problem with the Confessions when both are christian. Make something up.

9)I’m frankly sick of myself at this point. So just quickly, without fact-checking, I think Penguin publish a bit of Foucault, Lacan’s Four Fundamental Concepts. some Arendt – really a pretty okay list for the Twentieth Century. What do we get? Darling of the sell-outs and dullards, Orwell. Orwell! The very name is like a bell-end.

10)Everyone’s already pointed to the Continuum Impacts series. It’s frustrating that there’s no complete list of titles up, but it does look good. The world’s needed cheap theory for a while: the fact that a slim Derrida can hurt you for seventeen pounds is an important and infrequently discussed fact. Once you’re cut off from a university library that money barrier essentially acts as a class wall: only the clerics have access to the sacred texts.

Enough! Or too much!

On reflection, the latter.

Kabalah with Britney and Madonna

It's the tree of life.

Hi Li’l Britney

Hi Madonna. Why are we here today?

A good question Missy. Its time for you to be initiated into the secrets of the Qabalah.

The Qabalah? Isn’t that weird Jewish stuff?

Britney! I hope you respect the Jews.

I do. I love all the people of the world. Why can’t we have peace?

Perhaps the Kabalah can help us answer that question.


Really. Let’s start at the beginning. Kabalah more or less means ‘tradition’, and is a bundle of teachings that’s been passed down from generation to generation by word of mouth.

I didn’t like that mouth thing we did. It made me feel dirty.

Don’t worry dear. You’ll like it more when you grow up.

So it’s a Jewish tradition, like passover, or neurosis?

Yes. However, gentiles have taken parts of the tradition for themselves. The hermetic humanism of the Florentine renai…


Some people in the 15th century believed in God, and Jesus, but they tried to think about more mysterious things. They wanted to know how the universe was engineered, and how its nastiness can be made better.

So no more kittens have to die?

That’s right. They wanted to see into soul of man, the little universe, and into the soul of the universe, man writ large. They used tools from all sorts of traditions to explore this. They looked at Greek myths, and mathematics, and Roman architecture, and alchemy, and they looked at what the Jews believed.


Yes, it was rather. Now, this flourished for a while, and then went underground. The mob, and the narrow-minded priests thought that it was witchcraft, when they were really trying to find out about life, and restore a world that was in a fallen state. Was that fair?

No, that makes me sad.

No-one ever really forgot. Scholars kept the learning alive, and those who really wanted to know could know.

Cool! Will you teach it to me?

That’s what we’re here for, sweetie. Now, look at the picture.

I’m looking.

See how there are basically three columns?


On the left, you have form. On the right force. they meet and integrate in the middle.

Hit me one more time?

Form is the shape and order of things – the roundness of a ball, the logical structure of language, the laws of society. Force is the energy that fills these things – mass, or will. Reality happens through their interaction.

That’s deep! I bet Christina’s never had a thought this deep.

No, nor Mandy Moore either. My early rivals, such as Cyndi Lauper, have never really contemplated these issues adequately. Even I was studiously ignorant in my early days.

So what do the little circles mean?

Those are the sepiroth. They represent stages or states in the form and force relationship. Imagine total reality, the moment, as a lightning bolt that zips down through them, top to bottom.

I don’t understand.

We’ll start at the beginning. Look at the one at the top.

Kether? Who’s that in the picture?

That’s me!

Omigod! You were soooo cute!

Ah… never as cute as you. But look, I was just undifferentiated energy then. I was just potential, nothing real: but I had the universe that was me within me. It’s hard to be clear about this – the tree is tricky to talk about when we’re this high up. But that’s Kether, our first principle. Now look at Hokhma.

What are you doing there?

We’re looking at me singing Holiday and Borderline. The tree isn’t going to represent my career chronologically, but it’ll be useful for a little bit. We want to see my pure energy – I think I’ve released better singles than these, but they’re my first blast of power, the force of me coming out. Simple energy, as yet unshaped into the world that the world knows as me.

So that might be some demos I cut after the Mickey Mouse club?

Yes, I suppose so. It’s difficult to conceive of your prehistory though. ‘Baby’ feels so complete.

Thanks! Is it Binah next?

It is. Here you see me in the Papa don’t Preach video.

And that’s because…

It’s a song about pregnancy, and Binah is the womb of reality, the place where form has potential for existence. It waits for Hokhma to impregnate it with energy and make a reality. That leads us straight down to Chesed, and the world proper. You’ll see that the illustration is from my American Life single. It’s there for a couple of reasons – it was one of my reinventions, of course, but do you see how I’m dressed as a revolutionary? How radical politics is part of me here?

I’m not really allowed to talk about politics. I love my country.

This is the sephira of revolution, change, and the energy needed to cause revolution. It gives inspiration, and a vision beyond oneself. A Napoleon is driven by the impulses of Chesed, or a Lenin.

I love the Beatles. My mom cried when George died.

Its complement is Gevurah, across from it. You’ll see the image is from I’m Breathless.

Pardon me?

The soundtrack to Dick Tracy?

I’m sorry. It’s not ringing a bell.

Hmph. Never mind. I’ve chosen the image to represent order – it’s an image of justice and restraint. Gevurah is about limits and conservation, it’s the principle that keeps things as they are. Dick Tracy is a detective, a force of law; and my single, Hanky Panky was all about punishment, spanking. Chesed and Gevurah are at odds and in balance. It’s difficult to explain to you my sweet, perhaps because you’re not yet a woman of grand experie…

Is it like when you reinvent yourself as a more adult performer, perhaps with a sexy r’n’b edge, but you have to make sure that you don’t alienate your core demographic?

You are a fine pupil, Britney, wise beyond your years.

Thanks! This stuff is so cool. So What’s that in the midd – ohmigod I love that album!!!

That is The Immaculate Collection, my greatest hits volume one. It is chosen to represent Tipheret, the great work, and the integrated individual. Here we’re coming down to the level of a person. If they’re ascending, they can perfect themselves, and thereby lose themselves. My Magnum Opus is The Immaculate Collection. It’s the thing that has allowed me to transcend, and I recognise it as the room that’s at the centre of me.

You’re so deep Madonna.

Yes, Britney, I am. This is a complex sephira, and one that must be studied at length. You will have to find your own great work.

I have a clothes line coming out this Fall.

Perhaps that is your destiny, rosebud, perhaps… Let us move on! We are on the level where Netzach and Hod are paired.

Netzach is your dirty album. I don’t like your dirty album

Not even a little?

I sometimes get a little tingle when I think about it.

Listen to that tingle! That’s why Erotica is here. We want to represent lust, will, drive and hunger, the raw materials of creativity. This is the drive of the individual.

Which makes Hod restraint?

Almost – It’s language, reason, and order. That’s why my new book, The English Roses, is there. Many of the lessons that one can learn from intense study of these esoteric materials are contained within – but it stands here mainly for language and the rational, the structures that contain our urges.

That makes sense. It’s like the little voice that tells me not to let Fred touch me.

Listen to that voice.

Yesod and malkhut?

Our final two. Yesod is the world seen magically. It’s about the connections in life, the relationships under the surface. There’s a correspondence between air, the East, the suit of swords, Thoth, the colour yellow, the angel Raphael,an octahedron, and Spring. This is revealed in Yesod, and Yesod is where we can manipulate the world by these means. I have used the magical sephira of yesod to make Missy Elliott like me; I have used it to make people print the picture of our kiss; and I will use it to rule the music world once again. It is where ‘Into the Groove’ and ‘Hollywood’ come together, and where our mystic union actually took place.

Woah. That’s kind of creepy.

But also cool.

Yeah. So what’s next?

Malkhut is the world, the fully differentiated world of plain old objects. It’s quotidian reality as the mass of humans understand it, poor fools, the unmagical combinations of matter that we see around us. Transcending this gives us our power.

So that picture’s from…

Material Girl.

Uh. I get it. What’s next?

Enough for now, my sweet. In my next lesson, I’ll teach you to reach enlightenment by ascending the tree.I will also explain the Klippoth, the empty shells that are the vicious side of the Sepiroth. I shall be using my Movie career to illustrate.

O.K. See you next time Madonna!

See you next time, Britney!

Mostly cribbed from the learned Kabalists at Digital Brilliance.