Dylan Thomas, Poem in October, read by Dylan Thomas

It was my thirtieth year to heaven
Woke to my hearing from harbour and neighbour wood
And the mussel pooled and the heron
Priested shore
The morning beckon
With water praying and call of seagull and rook
And the knock of sailing boats on the webbed wall
Myself to set foot
That second
In the still sleeping town and set forth.

My birthday began with the water-
Birds and the birds of the winged trees flying my name
Above the farms and the white horses
And I rose
In a rainy autumn
And walked abroad in shower of all my days
High tide and the heron dived when I took the road
Over the border
And the gates
Of the town closed as the town awoke.

A springful of larks in a rolling
Cloud and the roadside bushes brimming with whistling
Blackbirds and the sun of October
Summery
On the hill’s shoulder,
Here were fond climates and sweet singers suddenly
Come in the morning where I wandered and listened
To the rain wringing
Wind blow cold
In the wood faraway under me.

Pale rain over the dwindling harbour
And over the sea wet church the size of a snail
With its horns through mist and the castle
Brown as owls
But all the gardens
Of spring and summer were blooming in the tall tales
Beyond the border and under the lark full cloud.
There could I marvel
My birthday
Away but the weather turned around.

It turned away from the blithe country
And down the other air and the blue altered sky
Streamed again a wonder of summer
With apples
Pears and red currants
And I saw in the turning so clearly a child’s
Forgotten mornings when he walked with his mother
Through the parables
Of sunlight
And the legends of the green chapels

And the twice told fields of infancy
That his tears burned my cheeks and his heart moved in mine.
These were the woods the river and the sea
Where a boy
In the listening
Summertime of the dead whispered the truth of his joy
To the trees and the stones and the fish in the tide.
And the mystery
Sang alive
Still in the water and singing birds.

And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun.
It was my thirtieth
Year to heaven stood there then in the summer noon
Though the town below lay leaved with October blood.
O may my heart’s truth
Still be sung
On this high hill in a year’s turning.

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Hore Abbey, Cashel

Hore Abbey, Cashel


Hore Abbey is literally overshadowed by theRock of Cashel. It is well worth taking the path down from the Rock to the considerably less touristed Abbey. There is a relative lack of interpretative material, to say the least, except for this interesting information, especially on what I suspect was a rather convenient dream:

 

The abbey is reached by paths via a field which was populated by cows (and cowpats) aplenty. One doubts a Royal Visit is imminent.
From above on the Rock it appears a somewhat slight structure, an impression quickly corrected closer to. An air of monumentality remains, all the more accentuated for the relative abandonment.

“it is astonishing that each morning we wake up sane – that is, relatively sane -after having passed through that zone of shades, those labyrinths of dreams”

Lately I’ve been rereading psychology books, and have felt singularly defrauded. All of them discuss the mechanisms of dreams or the subjects of dreams, but they do not mention, as I had hoped, that which is so astonishing, so strange – the fact of dreaming.

Thus, in a psychology book I admire greatly, The Mind of Man, Gustav Spiller states that dreams correspond to the lowest plane of mental activity – I would maintain that, at least for me, this is an error – and he speaks of the incoherence, the disconnectedness, of the fables of dreams. I would like to recall Paul Groussac and his fine essay, “Among Dreams,” in The Intellectual Voyage. Groussac writes that it is astonishing that each morning we wake up sane – that is, relatively sane – after having passed through that zone of shades, those labyrinths of dreams.

The study of dreams is particularly difficult, for we cannot examine dreams directly, we can only speak of the memory of dreams. And it is possible that the memory of dreams does not correspond exactly to the dreams themselves. A great writer of the eighteenth century, Sir Thomas Browne, believed that our memory of dreams is more impoverished than the splendour of reality. Others, in turn, believe that we improve our dreams. If we thin of the dream as a work of fiction – and I think it is – it may be that we continue to spin tales when we wake and later when we recount them.

  • Jorge Luis Borges, “Nightmares”, from Seven Nights

 

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From “The Secret Life of Trees: How They Live and Why They Matter”, Colin Tudge

Perhaps this is why we feel so drawn to trees. Groves of redwoods and beeches are often compared to the naves of great cathedrals: the silence; the green, filtered, numinous light. A single banyan, each with its multitude of trunks, is like a temple or a mosque – a living colonnade. But the metaphor should be the other way around. The cathedrals and mosques emulate the trees. The trees are innately holy. Christians with their one omnipotent God may take exception to such pagan musings; but the totaras and the kauris were sacred to the Maoris, and the banyan and bodhi and the star-flowered temple trees (and many, many others) to Hindus and Buddhist, and the roots of this reverence, one feels, run back not simply to the enlightenment of Buddha as he sat beneath a bo tree (in 528 BC, tradition has it), but to the birth of humanity.

But Christianity did give rise to modern science. The roots of science run far back in time and from all directions – from the Babylonians, the Greeks, many great Arab scholars in what Europeans call the Middle Ages, the Indians, the Chinese, the Jews, and the much underappreciated natural history of all hunter-gatherers and subsistence farmers everywhere. But it was the Christians  from the thirteenth century onwards, with an obvious climax in the seventeenth, who gave us science in a recognisably modern form. The birth of modern science is often portrayed by secular philosophers as the ‘triumph’ of ‘rationality’ over religious ‘superstition’. But it was much more subtle and interesting than that. The great founders of modern thinking – Galileo, Newton, Leibniz, Descartes, Robert Boyle, the naturalist John Ray – were all devout. For them (as Newton put the matter) science was the proper use of the God-given intellect, the better to appreciate the works of God. Pythagoras, five centuries before Christ, saw science (as he then construed it) as a divine pursuit. Galileo, Newton, Ray and the rest saw their researches as a form of reverence.

Review of Fugitive Minds, Antonio Melechi, Nthposition 2005

This review, unlike that of“Old Friends”, now seems rather dated. Not because of the book (which I would like to re-read) but the tone, simultneously bombastically magisterial in the opening paragraphs and tellingly naive (I have now heard of the normalisation of hearing voices – indeed it is more or less mainstream)

fugitive minds

 

There are two tendencies in popular science, particularly popular psychology and neuroscience. One could be called reductionistic. We are assailed by books claiming that “we” are “just” collections of neurons, or idiot machines to reproduce our DNA, or somesuch. Books touted to “explain”, finally and definitively, why we are the way we are. The other is the perpetually chippy and confrontational, content not merely to propound a sweeping explanation for everything but to dismiss as absurd, stupid or downright evil all alternatives.

The regrettable proliferation of inverted commas in the last above paragraph perhaps indicate how these books rub off my own taste and temperament rather than objective critical opinion, but it is a pity that popular science writers seem less and less keen simply to explain and illustrate, rather than hector and hold forth.

The fly jacket tries to set this up as Antonio Melechi versus the monstrous regiment of materialist biological psychologist and psychiatrists: he “argues that this materialist vision of the human mind and behaviour promises more than it can deliver.” This is true, but on one level misrepresents the book. Melechi is refreshingly undogmatic, and while his inclination is obviously to champion the importance of cultural factors in twilight states, this is no aggressive polemic. The emphasis is on the interplay of cultural and biological factors, and Melechi’s stress on the cultural side is not just a reflection of his own background but a corrective to the prevalent tendency to champion the biological side. But he is no blind foe of any application of biochemistry and neuroscience to psychology.

For instance, in the essay on Near Death Experiences, Melechi concludes that “many of the elements that are ‘universally’ characteristic of the NDE, from geometric forms to the ‘life review’, do not require metaphysical explanation; they are best explained in terms of a secret heritage called ‘the body.'” William James, far more than Freud, is the presiding spirit of these essays. In the introduction Melechi writes of James’ scorn for the 19th century materialists who eagerly diagnosed saints and mystics as epileptics and hysterics. This is Melechi’s attitude too, one that is properly sceptical of wild claims but never outright dismissive.

He writes, for instance, on the possible relationship between Lewis Carroll’s history of migraines and the genesis of Alice in Wonderland. The shrinking and expanding, the “curiouser and curiouser” phenomena that Alice encounters, all echo descriptions of a migraine aura. Yet Melechi is aware of the limits of this approach; writing on the temptation to see Jabberwocky as influenced by the migrainous jumbling of words, he deflates the idea by observing that the poem was intended as a parody of Anglo-Saxon.

One of the most fascinating chapters is on hearing voices. I was unfamiliar with the work of Marcus Romme, Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Maastricht (what would Europhobes make of that, I wonder), who campaigns for the normalisation of hearing voices, and the Princeton psychologist Julian Jaynes, whose idea of the “bicameral mind” is purported to underly the guidance by voices of the Old Testament Prophets, the heroes of the Iliad and Odyssey and other ancient texts. The later discussion of the work of John Mack, the Harvard psychiatrist of whom Melechi writes “of late, [he] has been increasingly impervious to criticism and debate. The Committee for Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal, which has been less than even-handed in its criticisms of Mack, should take some responsibility for his exile” should warn one of the dangers of accepting authorities whether they be tenured professor at Harvard or self-appointed police of the borders of science.

The book is not just concerned with psychopathology (or perceived psychopathology) There is much on the twilight states that we all experience – sleep, dreaming – as well as ones which, while not universal, are very common – such as sonambulism and déjà vu. There is much on psychiatric exotica like latah, koro and arctic hysteria, and obsolete psychiatric diagnoses like nostalgia, once a dread disease of migrant workers. It functions best as a collection of essays, very well written and filled with literary and historical references, about various aspects of psychology rather than as some kind of argumentative tract. Even the most rigid biological determinist would surely be able to read these for profit and entertainment.

 

“People who are not expecting to cry will cry.”

“People who are not expecting to cry will cry.”

I would not necessarily expected to have found an article on what will happen when Queen Elizabeth II dies as gripping as I did, but Sam Knight’s piece in the Guardian is a fascinating, and in ways disturbing read.

annigoni

While Knight reveals some of the hitherto secret details – such as “London Bridge is down” as the code phrase to mark Elizabeth’s death – and discusses the immediate issues of Charles’ succession – the real interest of the piece is the psychological impact that the Queen’s death will have:

More overwhelming than any of this, though, there will be an almighty psychological reckoning for the kingdom that she leaves behind. The Queen is Britain’s last living link with our former greatness – the nation’s id, its problematic self-regard – which is still defined by our victory in the second world war. One leading historian, who like most people I interviewed for this article declined to be named, stressed that the farewell for this country’s longest-serving monarch will be magnificent. “Oh, she will get everything,” he said. “We were all told that the funeral of Churchill was the requiem for Britain as a great power. But actually it will really be over when she goes.”

Knight links this to Brexit, to the possibility (again) of Scottish independence. Elizabeth’s coronation, in ways, marked the beginning of television age in Britain, and her death and burial will no doubt be over-interpreted in ways, but Knight’s piece is compelling in its evocation of an inevitable event that will mark a more than symbolic watershed.

queen coinwarhol_2348861k

The most arresting line is at the end of this paragraph (though I do wonder how Brian Masters could possibly have come up with his estimate):

People will be touchy either way. After the death of George VI, in a society much more Christian and deferential than this one, a Mass Observation survey showed that people objected to the endless maudlin music, the forelock-tugging coverage. “Don’t they think of old folk, sick people, invalids?” one 60-year old woman asked. “It’s been terrible for them, all this gloom.” In a bar in Notting Hill, one drinker said, “He’s only shit and soil now like anyone else,” which started a fight. Social media will be a tinderbox. In 1972, the writer Brian Masters estimated that around a third of us have dreamed about the Queen – she stands for authority and our mothers. People who are not expecting to cry will cry.

No matter what one thinks of monarchy – or The Monarchy – this is one of those instances where I can only urge Read The Whole Thing. Knight writes that the life expectancy for a 91 year old is four and half years – but of course Elizabeth has very good maternal genes for longevity, and London Bridge is likely to have some years yet before falling.

Harry Mathews, “My Life in CIA”, nthposition, 2005

I am sorry to hear that Harry Mathews has died. Mathews in many ways relived the expatriate American writer story previously incarnated by Hemingway, Pound, Gertrude Stein and so many others. Mathews’ obituaries focus on his status as “the American Oulipian”, a member of the literary group whose most famous member was Georges Perec. I alluded to Oulipo in my review of The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel as part of a continuity of avant garde (if that isn’t an inherent contradiction):

Over time, the Latrourexians embarked on somewhat more interesting adventures – developing the various games featured inThe Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel. They are perfectly aware that they are not really innovators – acknowledging their debt to the Surrealists, Situationists, Fluxus, and Oulipo, amongst other–ists and groups sounding like laxatives. The Oulipo author Harry Mathews, in his recent My Life in CIA, describes something very similar to the Latourex concept.

Now I’m usually a sucker for these kind of things. There’s something attractive about the Latourex concept, something of the Chesterton of The Club of Queer Trades and his other, sunny fictions touched more by buoyancy than nightmare. And who has not spent some time playing Exquisite Cadavers, the Surrealist game which involves writing a sentence or paragraph, folding the page to hide all but the final words, passing it to a companion who does the same and passing the paper on, thus ultimately creating a jolly little tale?

Surrealism is an oddly unproductive set of techniques. The initial rush of novelty and amusement at the odd combinations thrown up by Exquisite Cadavers fairly quickly gives way to boredom. The avant-garde, ironically, has barely changed throughout the last century. There is simultaneously something very dated and very timeless about experiments in automatic writing, group writing, and the rest. On the one hand, nothing is as dated as yesterday’s cutting-edge, as a quick look at any Sixties “experimental” movie will confirm.

mylifeincia

 

The rather lofty dismissive tone of the above is, I think, a form of reaction formation.  I have always been drawn to literary games and writing-about-writing, and alternate between a sort of shame about this (seeing it, I think, as a rather cheap way out of Proper Writing) and an exhiliration.  I wrote a rather facetious review of his 2005 novel “My Life In CIA” for nthposition – attempting to play a little literary game of my own:

 

What a coup! Agent Harry Mathews has, for a long time, had the perfect cover. An expatriate author, specialising in fiction that experiments with the boundaries of form, Mathews had the ideal cover job. People will forgive any amount of eccentric behaviour in an author, the more so if he is an “experimental” one. His work as a CIA agent in France from the early Sixties to late Seventies was nearly terminated by the events described in this book. Half formed rumour has continued to dog him since, and he has here hit on an elegant, ingenious solution; write an “autobiographical novel” claiming to be a work of fiction whose point of departure is a real situation. The action of the novel, I can exclusively reveal for nthposition, is all true (well, I cannot entirely vouch for some of the more spectacular sexual encounters). Only the pretence that Mathews was and is an innocent abroad who was never remotely connected with the Company is false.

The germ of this book is the supposed misconception in Paris in the late Sixties and early Seventies that Matthews was CIA. (A character in the novel tells him, and us, that “the first thing to remember is that nobody connected with the Agency calls it the CIA. It’s plain CIA.”) Mathews tells us that there were similar false rumours that he was homosexual, and that he was a millionaire. Thus he presents the rumours that swept Paris that he was CIA as just-one-of-those-things, one of those persistent rumours that are entirely false but nevertheless acquire the patina of truth. Most readers will have experienced something similar, discovering rumours have spread about themselves that are as hard to eradicate as they are false.

Having won the readers’ trust, what follows is a dazzling psychological gambit. We expect Mathews to blur the distinction between fact and fiction. The uninformed reader might assume that this is what he is doing. We are told of his early consternation at being told by well-informed Parisians that, bien sûr, he is of the CIA, and why is he denying it? A potential lover and some Chilean exiles encourage him to play the part, to live it up, to “make the role your very own. It’s a winner. Believe me, respectable men will flatter and pursue you for information you haven’t got” and think of all the women who are dying to get into bed with a real spy!”

Mathews, in the novel, begins to arrange “drops” and to behave as if he is being tailed. He acquires a friend who, working in the private intelligence-gathering sector, teaches him the tradecraft of espionage. His role is so convincing that the Soviets haul him into their embassy for a grilling. He is denounced as a decadent literary gadfly at Communist Party meetings and is sucked into the orbit of fascist groupuscles such as Nouveau Orde and the nascent Front Nationale. Finally he is forced to flee Paris and events take a shocking, bloody turn.

Mathews may seem an unlikely author of a page-turning thriller. Agent Mathews is the only American member of Oulipo, “Ouvroir de littérature potentielle”, the French literary circle that included Georges Perec, Raymond Queneau and Italo Calvino and which explored the interface between literature and mathematics, imposing constraints on the writer that would lead to unexpected results. The paradigmatic Oulipo work is Perec’s novel “A Void” (La Disparition), which is entirely free of the letter e.

Of course, as Mathews says to another character in his “autobiographical novel”, Oulipo had and has no specific politics, although most members are probably broadly leftish. Aside from the obvious observation that, for someone working for the Company, an interest in cryptograms and the sort of cryptic crossword intelligence that informs the Oulipo spirit is essential, the benign, larky nature of Oulipo means that no one would suspect this memoir of being anything other than an ingenious literary game, rather than the blend of confession and apologia it really is. Of course, it is a false confession, a double bluff, a minor truth used to pass a big lie.

Aside from the technical and mathematical interest of his work, Mathews is also a writer of engaging, witty prose. He possesses that “literary vitamin” which George Orwell diagnosed as being missing from Wyndham Lewis’ novels, on which “enough talent to set up dozens of ordinary writers has been poured” but nevertheless “it would be a very heavy labour to read one of these books right through.” Mathews’ prose, even at its most “experimental” and opaque in terms of theme, somehow retains a certain readability. Novels like The Sinking of the Odarek Stadium and Cigarettes might confuse and baffle at times, but also have a clarity and sense of narrative purpose that carries the reader along. Perhaps Agent Mathews is not such an unlikely figure to write a thriller as gripping as a Jack Higgins or Frederick Forsyth.

In a neat example of life imitating art, few could read this novel without thinking of Our Man in Havana. Again, this is Agent Mathews’ genius at work – for this helps reinforce the sense that this is merely a rhetorical device, that therefore the more spectacular events are fictional. Echoes of real events are one thing, echoes of literary events are another – so the reader is seduced into assuming that the whole is a work of fiction.

So there is not a trace of falsehood or its cousin, fiction, in this “autobiographical novel.” Agent Mathews has not merely learnt from CIA – he has much to teach it. In times like these, the Agency needs men like Mathews.