“Silence is not the contrary of the Word but its guardian”

From “Lieber’s Lament”, Chapter 6, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., George Steiner:


As it is written in the learned Nathaniel of Mainz: there shall come upon the earth in the time of night a man surpassing eloquent. All that is God’s, hallowed be His name, must have its counterpart, its backside of evil and negation. So it is with the Word, with the gift of speech that is the glory of man and distinguishes him everlastingly from the silence or animal noises of creation. When he made the Word, God made possible also its contrary. Silence is not the contrary of the Word but its guardian. No, He created on the night-side a language a speech for hell. Whose words mean hatred and vomit of life


See the Domnach Airgid (or Domhnach Airgid) in Dublin

A while back I blogged about the Domhnach Airgid, an artefact in the National Museum which is a shrine for a manuscript of the Gospels. It turns out that the actual manuscript itself is on view this week in the library of the Royal Irish Academy:


“Thinking about the immortality of the crab”

Via the Wikipedia page devoted to Miguel de Unamono, I came across this  wonderfully evocative Spanish idiom: 


Thinking about the immortality of the crab (SpanishPensar en la inmortalidad del cangrejo) is a Spanish idiom about daydreaming. The phrase is usually a humorous way of saying that one was not sitting idly, but engaged constructively in contemplation or letting one’s mind wander

The wikipedia page also features two poems entitled Immortalidad del cangrejo, one by Unamuno:

El más profundo problema:
el de la inmortalidad
del cangrejo, que tiene alma,
Una almita de verdad …

Que si el cangrejo se muere
todo en su totalidad
con él nos morimos todos
por toda la eternidad


translated (on the same wikipedia page) as:


The deepest problem:
of the immortality of the crab,
is that a soul it has,
a little soul in fact …

That if the crab dies
entirely in its totality
with it we all die
for all of eternity


The other is by the Mexican poet José Emilio Pacheco:

Y de inmortalidades sólo creo
en la tuya, cangrejo amigo.
Te aplastan,
te echan en agua hirviendo,
inundan tu casa.
Pero la represión y la tortura
de nada sirven, de nada.

No tú, cangrejo ínfimo,
caparazón mortal de tu individuo, ser transitorio,
carne fugaz que en nuestros dientes se quiebra;
no tú sino tu especie eterna: los otros:
el cangrejo inmortal
toma la playa.




Of all the immortalities, I believe in
only yours, friend crab.
People break into your body,
plop you into boiling water,
flush you out of house and home.
But torture and affliction
Make no apparent end of you. No…

Not you, poor despicable crab –
brief tenant in this mortal carapace
of your individuality; fleeting creature
of flesh that quails between our teeth;
Not you but others of your eternal species:
infinite crab:
take over the beach.


Contemplative Music 1 : Arvo Part, Kathleen Ferrier & Bill Evans

It’s the Feast of the Annunciation (usually in March, but because of a clash with Palm Sunday moved to today) so Arvo Part’s Magnificat is appropriate today… and the music here is appropriate any day.

The Immortal Jukebox

And breathe!

To initiate the contemplative mood I turn to the contemporary Estonian Composer, Arvo Part with his luminous, liminal setting of Mary’s eternal prayer, ‘The Magnificat’.

Part has been labelled a Minimalist and a retro Medievalist.

I prefer to think of him as having the gift to make time past, time present and time future bloom before us through his music.

When Kathleen Ferrier recorded, ‘Das Lied von der Erde’ the shadow of death was looming over her.

This is music making of the very highest order.

Here Kathleen Ferrier does not so much perform a song as become the song.

The rare emotional reach of her extraordinary voice bringing flesh and spirit to Mahler’s masterwork touches something very deep and unnameable within humanity.

Bill Evans was the supreme lyric poet of the piano.

Listening to Bill’s unique sense of musical time and weight I find my spirit awakened…

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The amnesia of our age: the lonely passion of Brian Moore

When I became aware of “serious” literature in the late 80s/early 90s, Brian Moore was quite a substantial figure – repeatedly nominated for the Booker Prize, his books made into films such as The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne and Black Robe.

While reading about the Belfast Blitz of 15th April 1941, I came across Moore’s reminiscences of that night, and also that wartime Belfast was the setting for his novel The Emperor of Ice Cream.

I also came across this piece, The Second Death of Brian Moore by Patrick Hicks. Hicks was the last person to interview Moore (on the phone)

Hicks recounts finding an absence of Moore online, when preparing for a class:

Moore abandoned Northern Ireland after World War II and moved to North America where he went on to write 20 novels and win a slew of awards. Before his death in 1999 he was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic. The guy was prolific — he produced a novel every other year — and he was totally devoted to his art. But as I search the internet for him, he’s almost nowhere to be seen. It’s like Brian Moore has suffered a second death.

To be fair, I didn’t really notice his absence on the internet until I was prepping for class the other day. I thought it might be nice for my students to see a TV interview with him. But I found nothing. Radio interview? Nothing. How about a webpage devoted to his life and his powerful novels? Again, almost nothing.

Even though he did plenty of radio and television interviews, I’m beginning to realize that his death in 1999 meant that no one thought to digitize these interviews and put them on the web. He died before the internet took off and it became the warehouse of information and entertainment we know it to be. Not being on the web nowadays means that you don’t quite exist, and as I thought about this electronic absence, I began to feel like he was dying all over again.

Hicks also describes salvaging some of Moore’s childhood home from demolition:

While living in Belfast in the early-1990s, I heard that his childhood home was all but destroyed. Apparently the IRA was using it as a sniper’s nest to pick off British soldiers, so it was torn down. When I arrived, it was surrounded by a metal fence—only the kitchen floor remained. I’d heard that everything was going to be smothered under a thick layer of asphalt to make way for a parking lot, so I decided to take a chunk of the floor. Why not? Why not preserve something of literary history?

That’s when I heard the click-click of a round being chambered into a machine gun. I looked up and saw a British soldier aiming his weapon at me. My chest was in his crosshairs.

“What’re you doing here?” he barked.

I raised my hands with part of Moore’s childhood in my fist and explained. The soldier shook his head and told me to bugger off. “This is a restricted area. See that fence? Get out of here.”

And I did get out. Quickish, I might add.

To the best of my knowledge, the only part of Moore’s childhood home in Belfast is now in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It’s a paperweight on my desk. As a matter of fact, it’s sitting under the monitor as I type this very sentence.

I have written before about the illusion that all knowledge is online. Hicks describes the same thing:

It’s also a good reminder for me that the internet doesn’t house everything. We’d like to think it does, but it has plenty of gaps, holes, and missing pieces. One of these sizable holes, at least for me, happens whenever I search for “Brian Moore novelist” and I don’t see any videos or radio links. His obituaries pop up, but that’s about all.

Maybe that’s why I wrote this. Maybe I wanted to do something that would bring new readers towards him. He’s worth your time. I promise.

Aside from a couple of short stories, I have not read Moore. I have always wanted to read Black Robe and find his dual Canadian-Irish identity interesting. I am going to take Hicks’ advice; and also remember that there are plenty of missing pieces online.

What do you want? (or, You Are What You Want)

From Gil Bailie‘s “God’s Gamble: The Gravitational Power of Crucified Love”:

“In any case, they were hardly prepared for a colloquy with the Lamb of God, the one poised to take away the sin of the world. Not wanting to make complete fools of themselves, perhaps they tried to quickly formulate questions that might at least appear to be worthy of so exalted a figure, serious questions about the Law, for instance, the weightier and more imponderable the better. In our mind’s eye we can imagine them hastily rehearsing the enigmatic puzzles they think commensurate with this man’s stature in John’s eyes. But suddenly something quite shocking happens: Jesus turns to them, and before they can get a word out, he says: “What do you want?” (Jn. 1:38).

There are many ways this question might be verbally inflected, each decisive for assessing its implications for the two men who stood for a moment speechless before Jesus. “What do you want?” “What do you want?” “What do you want?” However inflected and whatever its nuances, in the hands of the most theological evangelist, the question resounds with universal meaning, and we ourselves should ponder it further. What do we want?”

It can hardly be dismissed as merely fortuitous that the first words spoken by Jesus in the most theological and in many respects the most historically reliable of the gospels are: “What do you want?” It would not be too much to say that Jesus came into the world to help humanity come to grips with that question. We spend much or all of our lives wanting, punctuated only momentarily by fleeting moments of satisfaction, rarely pondering the implications of this gigantic fact of our existence or realizing that it is what defines our species. Other creatures don’t want as humans do; they don’t desire. They try to satisfy instinctual appetites: hunger, sexual release, exhaustion, survival.

Wanting is not what defines them as it does us. Even the mimeticism of our pre-human primate ancestors is constrained by appetite and/or limited to the immediately obtainable. We want. But what do we want? A magazine cartoon comes to mind, one depicting a small child surrounded by toys and clearly pampered by parents who are anxious to satisfy every wish of the child, who nevertheless is obviously bored by the resulting largess.

Noticing the child’s sullen dissatisfaction, the exasperated mother asks: “Well, what do you want?” To which the child, somewhat confused by the question, replies: “I want… I want… I want to want!” As Dante among others testifies, we are desire. We are creatures who have inexhaustible and insatiable wants. In truth, man’s discrete wants or desires are but kaleidoscopic refractions of the single desire to which his teeming desiderata of longings must be properly ordered if he is to flourish and find fulfillment.

Writes the Stanford neurobiologist, William Hurlbut: “Desire is essential to having a mental life at all. In California we used to say ‘you are what you eat.’ It is, perhaps, more true to say ‘you are what you want.’ Desires, more than pleasures, define and sum up personal identity.

Widespread and unconvincing assertions to the contrary notwithstanding, desire today is weak and altogether tenuous, the more tenuous the more fickle, the more fickle the less any object is desired and the more necessarily dramatized is the desire for it. Though testimonials to desire are everywhere to be found, they betoken its attenuation, not its vibrancy. The word, like so many others, has been debased as fast as have the moral constraints that once protected it from debasement. Much that passes for desire today is so ephemeral and evanescent that it must be acted upon posthaste before it dissipates or is replaced by yet another mimetic enticement. Such feeble desires are quickly recycled, each giving rise, phoenix-like, to yet another effervescent faux desire.

Girard has shown that as mimetic desire moves from model to model, with each new mediator the subject surrenders some of its psychological coherence and ontological weight. In advanced stages of this mimetic promiscuity, such as we find in Western post-modernity, the halfhearted impulses that pass for desire are likely to grow more fickle, more impatient, and more in need of external stimulants and pharmacological enhancements. All the more must such evanescent desires be flamboyantly exhibited and promptly—if perfunctorily—acted upo

From “Sleep”, Haruki Murakami

It’ been a while since I blogged about the literature of sleep which was formerly a recurrent theme here. So here is the opening of a Haruki Murakami story call simply “Sleep”:

This is my seventeenth straight day without sleep.

I’m not talking about insomnia. I know what insomnia is. I had something like it in college―something like it because I’m not sure that what I had then was exactly the same as what people refer to as insomnia. I suppose a doctor could have told me. But I didn’t see a doctor. I knew it wouldn’t do any good. Not that I had any reason to think so. Call it woman’s intuition―I just felt they couldn’t help me. So I didn’t see a doctor, and I didn’t say anything to my parents or friends, because I knew that that was exactly what they would tell me to do.

Back then, my “something like insomnia” went on for a month. I never really got to sleep that entire time. I’d go to bed at night and say to myself, “All right now, time for some sleep.” That was all it took to wake me up. It was instantaneous – like a conditioned reflex. The harder I worked at sleeping, the wider awake I became. I tried alcohol, I tried sleeping pills, but they had absolutely no effect.

Finally, as the sky began to grow light in the morning, I’d feel that I might be drifting off. But this wasn’t sleep. My fingertips were just barely brushing against the outermost edge of sleep. And all the while my mind was wide-awake. I would feel a hint of drowsiness, but my mind was there, in its own room, on the other side of a transparent wall, watching me. My physical self was drifting through the feeble morning light, and all the while I could feel my mind staring, breathing, close beside it. I was both a body on the verge of sleep and a mind determined to stay awake.

This incomplete drowsiness would continue on and off all day. My head was always foggy. I couldn’t get an accurate fix on the things around me―their distance or mass or tenure. The drowsiness would overtake me at regular, wavelike intervals: on the subway, in the classroom, at the dinner table. My mind would slip away from my body. The world would sway soundlessly. I would drop things. My pencil or my purse or my fork would clatter to the floor. All I wanted was to throw myself down and sleep. But I couldn’t. The wakefulness was always there beside me. I could feel its chilling shadow. It was the shadow of myself. Weird, I would think as the drowsiness overtook me, I’m in my own shadow. I would walk and eat and talk to people inside my drowsiness. And the strangest thing was that no one noticed. I lost fifteen pounds that month, and no one noticed. No one in my family, not one of my friends or classmates realized that I was going through life asleep.

It was literally true: I was going through life asleep. My body had no more feeling than a drowned corpse. My very existence, my life in the world, seemed like a hallucination. A strong wind would make me think my body was about to be blown to the end of the earth, to some land I had never seen or heard of, where my mind and body would separate forever. “Hold tight,” I would tell myself, but there was nothing for me to hold on to.

And then, when night came, the intense wakefulness would return. I was powerless to resist it. I was locked in its core by an enormous force. All I could do was stay awake until morning, eyes wide open in the dark. I couldn’t even think. As I lay there, listening to the clock tick off the seconds, I did nothing but stare at the darkness as it slowly deepened and slowly diminished.

And then one day it ended, without warning, without any external cause. I started to lose consciousness at the breakfast table. I stood up without saying anything. I may have knocked something off the table. I think someone spoke to me. But I can’t be sure. I staggered to my room, crawled into bed in my clothes, and fell fast asleep. I stayed that way for twenty-seven hours. My mother became alarmed and tried to shake me out of it. She actually slapped my cheek. But I went on sleeping for twenty-seven hours without a break. And when I finally did awaken, I was my old self again. Probably.

I have no idea why I became an insomniac then nor why the condition suddenly cured itself. It was like a thick, black cloud brought from somewhere by the wind, a cloud crammed full of ominous things I have no knowledge of. No one knows where such a thing comes from or where it goes. I can only be sure that it did descend on me for a time, and then departed.