Selling house – farewell to limestone country

May 13, 2007 at 3:47 pm (Uncategorized)

I haven’t had time to write anything for ages because we’re in the process, finally, of selling our house in Lancashire. I’ve been up there sorting things out – and I feel sad that we’re selling it, and that I haven’t been able to spend more time there.

The house is in the Silverdale/Arnside area of natural beauty, and if you’ve never been there you should go. It’s the nub that sticks out just beneath the Lake District – a small peninsula made up entirely of limestone. The rock, originally laid down at the bottom of tropical seas, is now eroded into a series of steep crags and flat-bottomed valleys, where the water which has percolated through the permeable rock, surfaces again in ash-shaded springs, so startlingly clear it makes you thirsty, or collects in reedy ‘mosses’. The fields in front of our house were once a moss, but have been drained for farming – but the sea and the rain still conspire to keep them under water half the year – you can boat on them. Huge flocks of birds winter there – when you walk out, you set them up in flocks of thousands, which seem to bounce from hurrying cloud to cloud, the water reflecting their impossible formations. I was there in March, when the flocks had departed and the waters had fallen back. One warm evening, as Ide had finally drifted to sleep, I was enjoying the silence at an open window, when it was broken by the eerie mating call of the lapwings from the water meadows, uncannily like a child’s cry. These birds nest on moorland too, and the sound, ringing in the darkness through the long nights of March, must have resonated with Wordsworth’s imagination of his lost Lucy. Lapwings are declining in numbers, but this part of the country is in one of their stronghold, where their importance is marked on the maps – ‘Twitefield’, for example, bears one of their northern nicknames. Their calling – all night long in the secret dark, in the fields that refuse to dry out – seemed like the sound of the mysterious persistence of nature.

Warton Crag, the most southerly of the series of Silverdale’s limestone hills, rises behind the house – its south face shining softly in the sunlight, and again in the full moon – silvery indeed. The limestone is hard to cultivate, and most of the peninsula is cloaked in bright coppiced woodland, with a mossy carpet of fern, bluebells, wood anemone, wood sorrel with its tiny shamrock leaves, and Solomon’s seal. In the clearings are low-fertility meadows, full of cowslips and marjoram. The grikes in the limestone cliffs and pavements hide the deep roots of lily-of-the-valley, rockrose and bloody cranesbill. We moved into Moss Cottage, and went for our first walk, on another warm March day, which seemed put on by the Crag in welcome. The year’s first butterflies fluttered up beneath us; ravens, kestrels, buzzards and mating peregrines soared above, as if to get first sight of summer rolling round. Slim tree trunks were silver too against the moss, with just a lacing of green at their buds. A stoat froze in our path to look us up and down. Orchids, violets and primroses were out early, gleaming against the dark earth and last year’s leaves. There was never a more lovely day.

But April and May look lovely too – around the small fields the walls and hedges wind up and down the valleys as though they grew of themselves, with the may frothing over them like foam on a brimming pint of beer – and smelling like it too. Every bush hides its own warbler – my favourites are the blackcaps, burbling and laughing all out of time. In the woods, hazle and ash wade ankle deep in bluebells, the thickening canopy keeping in their dusty sweetness. The hollows are full of starry wild garlic, which loves limestone – its pungency rising with the moisture from the shady rocks and the old wells, so you feel the smell like a cool hand on your warm shoulder as you come in from the sunlight.

I’ve never seen the rocks in their full summer dress of marjoram and rockrose – we’ve always been away by the time the peregrine chicks hatch. Autumn brings more silver, as the old man’s beard floats out on the breeze. The hollies, perfectly shaped like little Christmas trees, are cheery bright as the weather gets colder. When the flowers are gone you start looking out – the view gets better as the air crisps up. To the east the flat-topped Ingleborough is often spread with a snow, like a well-smoothed tablecloth. To the south, from the foot of the crag, stretch the flooded fields, their wind-rippled surface often stilled with ice – a mighty stretch of water to rival the Lakes. Beyond the fields the glistening sea sands stretch away – to the west dazzling into sky, further north hemmed in by the long rough line of Cumbrian mountains. These are sometimes dusty blue with white caps, but more often dark, their ragged edges mirrored upwards in a gathering curtain of drenched cloud, growing leaden and then weighing down to obscure all before your eyes. The mountains’ jagged backs catch the force of many a shower before it ever gets to us.

Our house itself is made of limestone too – with huge oak crucks and beams that show the curves of the trees felled to make them, and the irregular marks of the adze that shaped them early in the eighteenth century. The house was built by someone named Dawson – a mason’s mark on the beam gives the full surname, while the date-stone on the front of the house reads ‘J.D. 1732’. There was a wealthy lawyer of that name in the village around the time, perhaps the house was his. We had an exciting time renovating – when restoring the original floorboards in the main bedroom, we found mysterious things underneath – a pipe stem, a shaped piece of glass, and a gigantic pile of chaff – upstairs? Then there’s the fireplace, way too grand for a house this size — we speculate that it may have come from a mansion nearby which fell into ruins and then was steadily pillaged over the centuries. It could even have come from the Old Rectory, a 14th century mansion, the picturesque ruins of which are just across the road.

If we can afford to buy in Cambridgeshire, I expect it’ll be a 60s semi – more space, but rather less romance…

We’re selling the house privately – there are details and some photos here.

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Clarity and ambiguity

April 3, 2007 at 1:36 pm (Uncategorized)

In an email, an Empsonian friend of mine has suggested that the style of literary criticism may on occasion need to contain a little more of the ‘inexplicit’ than I suggested in my last post – that the elliptical, the aphoristic and the oblique in literary criticism play an important role in constituting a style through which we can entertain ideas, as opposed to expounding them.

I agree with him – though you wouldn’t necessarily guess so from the post in question… this blogging business makes it riskily easy to misrepresent one’s self to the world….

I’d better make it clear what I meant, and then try to figure out what I really think on further reflection.

In that post I was thinking mainly about what should happen when ‘we step out of criticism into a more abstract discursive space’ of theory, rather than about literary criticism in general. Coming to think of it I wouldn’t want to defend this opposition as an absolute – but it’s useful. My final comments were supposed to suggest that a division of labour of some sort (even if not an absolute one) would be a very good thing, if we are hoping to sort out questions like ‘the question of literary value’ in the abstract (rather than just in practice – my preferred option). I didn’t mean to demand that practical criticism be ‘logical’ or anything other than suggestive. I think I do think that theory should be logical, most of the time. If it’s not, I’m not sure it’s really ‘theory’ at all – though I guess it might be philosophy – in the sense that Wittgenstein thought of his work as the latter but not the former. Perhaps he was doing ‘practical criticism’.

But that last example leads me to the conclusion that I was unhelpfully lumping together a whole load of inexplicit and non-logical forms of expression, a whole lot of motives for inexplicitness, and a whole lot of different critical activities, and lashing out at them all in my annoyance with the attitude of suave non-committal which, it struck me, Jarvis’s gentile reticence had helped him take up on the fence.

‘Good’ ambiguity has been through clarity and come out the other side. Bad ambiguity can’t make it to clarity. Bad ambiguity is vague and underdetermined, suggesting nothing in particular and drops the thread of the argument – good ambiguity is precise in its indecision, and trembles on the tension in the argument. Good ambiguity deserves an ‘hmmm’; bad ambiguity an ‘eh??’ Ambiguous, suggestive writing is riskier than clear, logical writing. There is the risk that we may be duped into an appreciative ‘hmmm’ because we feel the lack is in us, rather than in the writing – like Austen’s Fanny Price teaching Mr Rushworth his lines — trying to ‘create a brain’ for the muddled writer out of the superfluity of our own, or like Dorothea Brooke, whose ‘faith supplied all that Mr. Casaubon’s words seemed to leave unsaid: what believer sees a disturbing omission or infelicity? The text, whether of prophet or of poet, expands for whatever we can put into it, and even his bad grammar is sublime.’ But of course Dorothea’s faith is admirable as well as wrong-headed, and there is the contrary risk that that we may go ‘eh??’ because we lack the brains or the patience or the generosity for a fruitful ‘hmmm’. We don’t want to limit ourselves to Celia’s ‘pretty, carnally minded prose’.

But then there’s the second-order danger that we can be accused of one of the first-order mistakes whenever we try to talk about a piece of ambiguous writing…

For these reasons we might, pragmatically, choose to decide to stick to clear writing in some contexts. No one wants a suggestive instruction manual for the VCR, and some bits of literary critical writing are closer to that pole of the continuum than others. For example, I think when impugning the scholarship of other individual writers we should probably stick to trying to say what we mean as clearly as possible. Someone else’s bad work probably doesn’t deserve to be dignified with the grandeurs of indeterminacy.

I guess we need to be realistic about the attention and ‘hmmm’ing with which our readers are likely to grace a given piece of writing. They will probably entertain each ambiguity in an article in a scholarly journal with a little more patience and imagination than they are willing to grant their instruction manual, but probably a little less than they’re likely to grant a poem…If our criticism is truly brilliant, we may, in good conscience, take up with our critical silences some of our reader’s time and imagination that he might otherwise bestow on, say, The Prelude – but if we aren’t thatbrilliant…

Not that any of these decisions about the appropriate degree of reticence or ambiguity are going to be clear-cut – a matter of logic or demonstration – we’re going to have to fall back on inchoate judgments and appeals to taste…you know what I mean…and I eat my tail…

When I wrote that ‘in literary studies we need to take particular care to resist the vanity and self-indulgence of indulging in boring abstraction in the name of theory, in conceptual tangles in the name of complexity, and in careless obscurity in the name of profundity or elegance’ I meant to leave open the possibility of abstraction, complexity and profundity and elegance, not to cancel them. We do need special license for non-logical writing as literary critics, but we need to earn that license by care and attention to what we’re writing about, and not abuse it as a cover for cowardice, or just plain laziness or stupidity – something even their enemies could never accuse a critic like Empson, or thinkers like Nietzsche or Adorno, of doing. That’s what we need, I think, in the face of the ravages of Theoretical non-sense – a more scrupulously conscientious theoretical and critical rhetoric.

If anyone ever reads this – got any good examples of good and bad ambiguous critical or theoretical passages?

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Theory’s Empire – TLS Review

March 19, 2007 at 4:17 pm (Uncategorized)

One of the first things I’ve been reading in my catch-up effort is Patai and Corral’s anti-Theory anthology, Theory’s Empire, and all the fun that’s been going on in the blogosphere around that book. Having missed out on the dialogue at the time, I’ll have to vent in a monologue here instead…

The best-worst reviews reviews of the book seem to me to have come from Berube and Jarvis. It’s quite interesting to think about these two critiques in conjunction, as B and J are talking from a similar, half-for half-against Theory position. But Jarvis first.

I was impressed with the magisterial poise of Jarvis’s argument, not least because, myself, I can’t even pretend to any sort of detachment when it comes to this topic. But I was dissatisfied with the argument – and relieved to find out that I had some cogent reasons, on top of the gut ones. Part of the problem is that Jarvis makes his subject more manageable by dealing mainly with the adequacy of TE’s contributors’ answers to the question of literary value, and not many of them really deal with that head-on. But I’m also unhappy about the style and manner of a review coming from such a well-qualified theoretical (but not paid-up Theoretical) critic.

I think this bit is symptomatic:

Paisley Livingston complains that ‘not a single contributor’ in George Lewis Levine’s collection ‘Aesthetics and Ideology’ refers to any item on a long list which he then gives of contributions to philosophical aesthetics. Since I have read some of the items on that list, I can confirm that one reason why I haven’t read all of them is that they quite often come up with unenlightening conclusions like the following, from Livingston’s own essay: ‘An aesthetic experience of literature, I suggest, is an intrinsically valued experience occasioned by the contemplation of the qualities of a literary work of art’.

A few things about this. First, Livingston doesn’t actually complain, merely remarks. But second – given that Jarvis is about to ‘complain’ that Livingston attacks ‘the Very Big Claims’ of Theory in over-general terms and without providing enough textual proof, isn’t this dismissal of all the work on aesthetics done in the analytical tradition, on the basis of one sentence, a little sweeping? Jarvis says “Livingston’s procedure of inviting readers to imagine for themselves who is being attacked is extreme” – isn’t it just as extreme to expect us to imagine what’s wrong with this sentence, and then to take his word for it that all of analytical aesthetics is equally, as he sees it, absurd? Jarvis doesn’t even seem to think it’s worth saying what’s wrong with Livingston’s sentence. I must say, the problem with the sentence is nowhere near as obvious to me as is the tendency of Theory to make big claims (anyone, anywhere, keen to deny this?). But I’m guessing that Jarvis dislikes the careful, slow, and – from his perspective – boring, style of this very ‘Analytical’ sentence, which is so careful as to spend a lot of words on (from J’s point of view) a very small bit of argumentative progress. This is a pedantic sentence, from Jarvis’s point of view. Funnily enough, Jarvis’s ridicule of this sentence shows that he acctually accepts Livingston’s point (even without the long footnote he’s demanding), that not only Theorists but almost everyone else habitually makes ‘Very Big Claims’ in very little space, in comparison to your careful analytical philsopher.

I’m always amazed when people who work on the work of the likes of Kant and Adorno baulk at the language of analytical philsophy – I know which I find harder to deal with. But I’m prepared to accept that that’s just the way my brain works, and I think it’s a good thing some people are prepared to make more effort with continental philosophy than I am. Jarvis, though, doesn’t seem inclined to live and let live. Which is weird, given the way he starts his article, with a lengthy parable, here potted:

Imagine, please, that you have detected some star of the Theory circuit in a simple but significant error…Your first thought is to make it known, for the public good. Yet …Your article goes unread…At last…Your work begins to resemble a campaign to have this star and others like her deleted from the firmament…

That is one kind of story about resisting Theory. But perhaps there can also be another kind. You find that one problem has a nasty way of leading into others…You read all the star’s work. You become impatient with attacks on it …You appear in print to defend it against such attacks. Your enemy has corrupted you – or, has educated you.

Jarvis is coy about what all this is supposed to mean, but I guess one’s supposed to feel that the second story is happier – and, perhaps, to feel chastised if your relation to Theory has not followed this pattern. To feel this, you have to agree with the assumption that there is probably something to learn from all thinkers, and all schools of thought.

Now, apart from the fact that this degree of relativism about schools of thought is pretty contentious (begging some of the biggest questions at stake in the Theory row), it is, on the evidence of this article, not part of Jarvis’s own practice. So why not just be a bit more up-front about the fact that there are some disagreements unlikely to be got over simply by being less curmudgeonly – and that those disagreements are worth thrashing out?

Maybe we don’t all want to write like analytical philsophers, but we may need to be a little more explicit in expressing ouselves than Theory has tended to be, or than Jarvis is here, if our debates are to be meaningful. I’ve had to ‘guess’ what point he’s making once or twice in expounding his argument here, and this is part of his style, and the style of many otherwise excellent writers in English departments. It’s fashionable to leave as much as possible to the interpreter, in compliment to their good sense and taste. An elliptical style is flattering – and exciting. Theory works best of all in this regard – it can get us from textual references to india rubber balls to an undermining of the whole project of empire in a few words, especially with the help of a few footnotes full of authoritative names. Certainly, the analytical style can’t do that for you.

But it can help you make your argument clear, and fair. Jarvis says that ‘Anthologies of literary theory make…little [space] for outright attacks on…shared assumptions underpinning the whole field…that is a bad thing.’ Sounds like a supplementary volume like TE should be a good thing then? Later, he says that ‘if…the question of literary value is again to recapture the attention of the…most intellectually ambitious graduate students and young academics…a lot more is required’ than an anti-Theory anthology. I’m positive the editors of this volume would agree on this obvious point – the tone of their introduction is modest, not megalomaniac. TE is designed to make space for such a rediscovery, to bolster the confidence of students and young academics who feel inclined to challenge, or sidestep, the awesome conceptual and institutional edifices of Theory. An analytical philsopher would probably say that TE is perhaps a necessary, but not a sufficient, step towards saving the soul of literary studies. But Jarvis instead gives us another argumentative ellipsis – from the ‘not sufficient’ argument he skips any investigation of whether TE might be necessary, or even useful, and takes us straight to the elegant proclamation that ‘What is needed is something quite different.’

‘All the humanities are philosophical through and through’, says J — in the same way as Eagleton used to say they were all political through and through? I must say, that without wanting to try to disprove the statement, I groan when I hear that ”Thinking about literature cannot but be philosophical’. I just do not believe that all, or even most, academics in literature departments, let alone most students in those departments, are either truly willing or properly prepared to take on the full implications of a non-trivial interpretation of that sentence.

Like J, I believe that ‘There is no reason why laxer standards should be permissible’ in philosophising about literature than in philosophising about anything else. But the fact that, on my reading, even J himself doesn’t seem to have come close to these standards even while discussing them, suggests to me that he is not really taking that statement seriously. There seems to me to be a huge tension between it and his dismissal of Livingston and other people ‘in the pay of a Department of Philosophy’. I don’t see why we can’t accept that many of us have put too much effort into archive work, or training our ears to the rhythmns of verse, or whatever, to have the time left to be philosophers as well. Why can’t we accept a bit of help from departments of philosophy, if scientists can from the philosophers of science in those departments?

Not that there isn’t room, and indeed need, for theoretical literary critics, as there is for theoretical physicists. But the big lesson of Theory is that we really do have to take theorising seriously – philosophy isn’t a break from the details and hard work of textual and historical research – it’s more hard work, requiring, if anything, more patience – and not all Nietszchean aphorisms. I don’t think Jarvis’s style in this review suggests such patience.

Having to attend to works of creative genius, in which the most profound and complex truths are sometimes captured in a single turn of phrase, no wonder litcrit is perpetually tempted towards suggestive imprecision. There may be some truth in the old story that the idea of ‘taste’, expressed in a style of knowing and tactful reticence about the details, used to cater to this vanity. Perhaps it still does. But pre-Theory, all the rhetoric of reticence was likely to claim was that you, and your chosen reader (whom your style seemed to single out and take aside for a quiet sherry at the end of the SCR) both knew exactly what Shakespeare was getting at in this couplet, even if you couldn’t exactly say.

But Theory’s stylistic appeal on this front is unrivaled, and ‘theory’ as a separate activity from criticism offers far greater temptations. Setting aside the debate about the hierarchical relation between literature and the supplementary activity of criticism, it seems to me that if we step out of criticism into a more abstract discursive space, and then try to do theory in a style which disdains the patience, care and modesty of properly logical argument, the product will not deserve to be honoured with the name of theory, or philosophy. It will rather be terrible, and nightmarishly dull, creative writing. If the experience of Theory, captured in TE, teaches us anything, it’s that in literary studies we need to take particular care to resist the vanity and self-indulgence of indulging in boring abstraction in the name of theory, in conceptual tangles in the name of complexity, and in careless obscurity in the name of profundity or elegance.

Can’t those of us who can’t understand the significance of sentences like Livingston’s just take literary value as read, and read and write about literature in ways that make that value jump off the page? And can’t that majority just focus on showing our students how to do that too? Those of us with the right sort of brains, prepared to do the right sort of research — from them I think we do need more theory — but let’s do it properly this time.

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I’ve been living in a cave for two years…

January 26, 2007 at 5:33 pm (Uncategorized)

That’d be a birth cave (it’s nice in there)…and I’m only just starting to get up to speed. Ide is 14 months old now, and I was as sick as a dog for nine months before she was born. And then I had to get my book out. My last connection with the world outside took the form of a nauseous craving for a whippy ice cream, triggered by watching Tony Blair hand one to Gordon Brown as a token of amity during the last election campaign. (Quite a fitting symbol, really…soon goes runny and makes a hell of a mess unless you keep licking…come to think of it, is THAT what the Statue of Liberty is holding?)

So I went from an obsessive current affairs consumer to a person who hasn’t even seen the six o’clock news for more than a year…hang on, perhaps they got rid of it?

I’m writing in full confidence that no one will be reading this, as I don’t think those spiders from Google have been around yet (Ide will spot them when they come – she spends most of her day looking under rugs and stones for bugs…) But if anyone ever does read this, you can watch my comical blunders during the catchup (another memory from before the cave – throwing up during a modern film-version of Robinson Crusoe, (starring Tom Hanks, maybe?) —well, like him after he gets back to civilization).

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