Saturday, January 5, 2008

Fourth Impressions of Toronto: Inscrutable Grates and Giant Snowballs. Uncut, Unedited, and Imperfectly Spell-checked!

Hello everyone, nippers and scholars and hardy pensioners and handsome middle-aged people,

I write from my little bit of warmth in the fridge of Toronto. As of fourteen minutes ago, it was three degrees celsius at Toronto's Pearson International Airport, according to a reputable-looking website (ie. one without those insane flickering ads that have led to many psychedelic deaths among the epileptic and the elderly, and much psychedelic cursing among everyone else). Not very impressive, I know. But mark! Three days ago the said source said that, at the said location, it was -11 degrees celsius, excluding the wind-chill, which was -16! Mark! This is only two degrees higher than the safe temperature of your average home freezer, according to HRDS recommendations! What's this like to live in? Well, I have to say that I was a bit disappointed. Walking around in that weather* is not really that much more punishing than biking to the University of Canterbury on a frosty Christchurch morning in June**, or climbing Mount Roy on a cool day in Wanaka .***

Notwithstanding all of the above and more besides, it is easy to be caught out by freezer-weather, which is why I have barely left my room for the last two days, suffering as I am from three different kinds of head-cold and an internal thermostat that is broken but still very lively, making sudden shifts and spasms every so often. This is not helped at all by the temperature in my room, which is governed by the Inscrutable Grate in the Ceiling. The Inscrutable Grate is a very fickle Grate, by turns breathing fire and breathing nothing. If only it would average itself out, then I would be perfectly cosy and fine. But it is Inscrutable, you see, and no amount of love or persuasion will change its ways. As it is, the changes in room temperature are perfectly modulated so as to set up a kind of resonance pattern with my internal temperature, so that the superposition of the two is more vicious and variable than you would imagine, if you took each one on its own.

However, I have company. I have a snowdrift of tissues, Schubert in my laptop, and a book called Trilby by someone called du Maurier. The first thing is good for resting upon, the second is restful, and the third is also restful, but in a charming and invigorating way. (It's all about love and artists, and has just the right amount of levity for those topics – not so much as to demean them, but not so little as to take the fun out of them). Trilby is partly for fun, but partly for scholarship. (By contrast, Silas Marner was entirely for scholarship). You see, I have this thing called a semester. It starts on Monday and inside it there's a whole bunch of "papers." One of them is called "The Victorian Unconscious", and du Maurier is on the reading list. This may seem a weird course for a student of the History and Philosophy of Science. But it is perfectly normal for a weird student of History and Philosophy of Science, so everything's OK. My positive reason for going into this subject (yes, there were negative ones as well) was that I intended to "engage, broadly speaking, in an investigation of the connections between science and literature" (paraphrased from my statement of purpose, written almost exactly a year ago – ah, those innocent, broadly-speaking days!). And what better way of approaching this topic than through a study of Victorian ideas about the unconscious mind, as articulated in the novels of the time? Is that a rhetorical question? Does it matter? Regress threatens. Was that meant to be funny? QED?

Believe it or not, graduate studies are designed to train the student in the clear articulation of complex ideas, and I was asked to do some of that last semester. However, much of my training was in other skills. In History of Physics, I worked on my ability to skim-read enormous and complicated books and try to review them in a way that was not only succinct but also did not betray my superficial understanding of the subject-matter (hint: when you're stuck, try paraphrasing the introduction of the book). In this course I also made inroads towards a competence in a) improvising answers to difficult questions by twisting the question so that it was relevant to things that I could talk about without embarrassment b) developing a proper reverence for the work of historians of physics (such precision, such clarity, such mastery of two difficult and widely parted disciplines!). In History of Psychology I learnt a bit about how to write academic articles. I also learnt a bit about giving an oral presentation without boring everyone (hint: be a facilitator ie. let the others do the thinking and talking, and listen to them in a posture of earnest puzzlement – even if they find it boring, they've only got themselves to blame, clearly). In Philosophy of Science I transferred my earnest puzzlement to another area of academia where that posture gets you a long way. What else did I learn in Philosophy of Science? Um. That I'll never make a career out of the subject, and maybe not even a hobby. Does that count? Probably not, if it's based on a single course in the topic.

My main impression of last semester was one of permanent tiredness. Not weariness, you understand; not apathy, not dreary insomnia. But tiredness all the same – lots to do and not much time for bed.**** And at the end of it, a fever of drop-boxes and footnotes and printers that don't print and bad undergraduate essays about the "it could be 10 000 to 100 0000 years in Darwin's only Diagram in the origin of geology, it does'nt matter", and bits of refill with badly-written notes on them (mine). A scholar's paradise! I will remember it as the semester that I discovered procrastination. Have you tried it? I find that it works best with a fast internet connection and a relatively up-to-date graphics card, in which case Youtube is only a couple of clicks away, and Fry and Laurie are not much further. I found that if you watch this skit enough times in a three-day period, it actually ceases to be funny! (But I just discovered that this remarkable effect tends to disappear after a week or so. "hey sesame, the cigar is intact! Now explain that!" Good work Dr. House! It's almost as amusing as a Masters student trying to say something new and perceptive about the logic of scientific discovery).

I also spent long hours gazing out the window of our third-floor common room, admiring the snow. In Toronto, you can tell a New Zealander or a Jamaican by the way they actually enjoy the snow; indeed, by the way they become increasingly sappy and childish in proportion to the growing anger and bitterness and grumpiness and tendency-towards-muttered-imprecations of the local people. But I stopped doing this after one day I stared for an especially long time and the next day there was a large sculpted penis in the courtyard below Victoria College, made entirely of snow (yes, it really existed – I checked with others). However, this did not stop me from contemplating the snowy vista in my long-cultivated attitude of profound idiocy. And the day after that, the large penis had been replaced by its female equivalent. So I stopped gazing after that, afraid of what might happen next.

But the snow! In December we got the biggest fall since 1990, and it really was an impressive dump. It fell like a dream on the sleeping earth! (I'm pretty sure someone has said that before, but but.) They are good at getting rid of it over here. If the same thing happened in Christchurch then I think the city would be paralyzed for a week. In Toronto they start clearing the roads pretty much as soon as it stops falling, and they're clear by the next morning. There's still big piles of the stuff on the side walks, though, which is insanely fun. And the parks are all white as well, pristine and wet-looking and just crying out to be run across in tramping boots (thanks dad).

Other things I've done are. Going to nightclubs and dancing (the cold does strange things to your head). Met up with a couple of New Zealanders (Uschi and Kyi Kyi, no less). Tried to have fun at TRANZAC, the Toronto Australian and New Zealand Club (for a while I called it the TNZC, but I relented when people starting make rude remarks about my spittle). This club is on a street just off the main drag in Toronto (called Bloor Street, for some reason). But when you go and look at the place it might as well be just off SH6, somewhere between Hokitika and Houhou.***** Uschi and I agreed that it looks like a rural RSA, but we couldn't say whether this effect was deliberate or not. Unfortunately it was 4:30, and it opened at 5 o'clock, and there are many more evenings in which to explore the bars and tables and floors of this place, sticky with beer and home-sickness. So we hung a left off Highway Six and ended up in the Annex, whose unique hue and flavour is instantly recognizable by the signs on the lamp-posts, which say "The Annex."

More things are. I saw "I Am Legend," which is a bad advertisement for all sorts of things, including religion, Bob Marley, zombie movies, and (of course) Will Smith. The only virtue of this dreary film is that it shows how lucky we were to get "28 Days Later." I saw various other memorable movies, which I've forgotten. I looked forward to the arrival in cinemas of "I'm Not Here," the film where Kate Blanchett plays Bob Dyan and where the trailer makes rash statements about Dylan's abilities and historical importance. But it hasn't turned up yet, despite various sources suggesting otherwise. Is this just Toronto cinemas being behind the times? Or is the whole "movie" just a huge ironic joke devised by a few newspaper reviewers, cinema owners, Dylan publicists, and youtube whizzes? Is this the true significance of the "film's" title? Mysteries abound. Expect updates.

In other news, I bookmarked "The Press", in the hope that I would learn about more earth-shaking events in New Zealand. I was instantly rewarded when I found a lead article featuring Simon Power and the Corrections Department, in which the former expressed deep concern about the worrying tendency of the latter to dress up as famous inmates at office parties. In my remote opinion, there's only one thing worse than the phrase "political correctness gone mad," and it is the readiness of political leaders to pursue spurious political gains by putting out pointless press statements that rely for their success on nothing more than the righteousness and gullibility of a outspoken minority, and are of interest to no-one except the ardent supporters of the said political leader, who rally around this tiny ignorant cause, and the ardent opponents of the said political leader, who rally around a cause that is just as tiny and ignorant, namely the opposite cause, and to neutral commentators, who decry this fresh outbreak of "political correctness gone mad," and to Murray Deaker (is he still alive, by the way? I miss him, in a strange, insane sort of way.)

But that's bye the bye, and to be fair I have only looked at The Press on one occasion since I got up my dinky bookmark. Well that's all for now methinks. Did I miss anything? A few bits, let's be honest, but nothing that won't come to light in Amnesty International's upcoming report on the subject. Enjoy the footnotes, such as they are.******


*in six thermal layers and scarf (a scarf? Yes, lads and gents, I have worn a scarf. I have charmed the woolly snake. I have enveloped my virgin neck. Yes, I have sucked the warm fluff! Well, it seemed quite important to me – I used to think that they were worn only by females and Art Garfunkel (but wait, what's that on the cover of Blonde on Blonde? A woolly tie?)

**in short shorts and a wind-jacket.

***I've always wanted to do that – but it's more time-consuming than it looks, and I promise not to do it again. PS. look out for the hidden treasures of the full-stop.


*****Yes, you're right, I cheated on the place names. But who needs local knowledge when you've got Google Maps?

******That's all I've got time for, and I suspect that you were thinking the same thing. I hope you had a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. And if you didn't, I'm glad it's over for you.

*******These emails are mass emails, but they try not to be spam emails. Let me know if you do not want to receive these mass emails in the future. It's easy! Just click on the following link!

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

More Pus and Decadence

Nothing Like the Sun is as an autobiography of William Shakespeare, framed as a lecture given by Anthony Burgess (who is the author of the book). And the prose is just as you would expect from a collaboration between Shakespeare and Burgess:dense, witty, powerful, oozing with pus and legs and decadent prose. The easiest way into the book is through the plot, which tells the story of WS's rise to prominence and the loves and troubles he comes across along the way.

There is, firstly, his early gift and thrill with words. “’Water hath a trick of drowning and, at best, is a wetter.’ And then the jingle ruled him, already a word-boy. ‘Water wetter water wetter water wetter.’” Then, his unusual appetite for love, or at least his unusual skill in rendering it. “He heard above the beating of his blood the rustling of linen, a gentle panting at the restraining fingers of tapes and laces that yielded all too slowly...” This is the young domesticated WS, writing a youthful sonnet in the middle of a house-hold night, the slops and greasy broth and father calling for work, a bickering sister.

“And, childish, I am put to school of night
For to seek light beyond the reach of light.”

His father is sympathetic. “I have somewhere a piece of fine parchment. Copy the poem fair.” But the dark women is all bundled up with someone else. WS runs on fire from the happy rogering may-pole pagans, their “buttocks moon-besilvered,” and gets well drunk on sixpence of beer and the brimming talk of country rogues. A gap in the memory, a naked surprise in the morning, an accidental child and an accidental wife.

How doth WS the married man? Well, “he had but half of that bed now, and the familiar rest he sought, in so great need, so worn, was less than one quarter what it had formerly been.” WS the married man goes not very well at all, and with not much hope of getting better. “For one line of verse,” he says to his new wife, “I would trade thirty such scolds as you.”

Off he goes to teach words to little boys, and is fired for making lewd advances on his students. He leaves with his future all broken up, but his word-sense in tact, as ever. “I am going,” said WS. “I feel defiled.” (A good phrase, he saw that: a field defiled.)’ Back to the railing wife and her belly double-pumped with babies.

Things really get going, the WS we know starts to really take over the plot, when he falls in with the Queens Men, who arrive in Stratford just as an old herbalist, “cat-queen, cartomancer”, is driven up the street by a mad cruel mob with their heads full of witchy jeers. There is more madness and cruelty in the book, of nature and of humans; but more on that later.

In WS's adult career there are, on Burgess's account, a few key turning points. One is WS’s response to an attack from a fellow actor, an attack upon his talent and good-will. He is conceited, he is told, an upstart; indeed, he is an “upstart crow.” WS will not stand for this. He has always fancied words. With something to prove, fancy hardens into ambition. He will not sniffle along as a mediocrity, a “play-botcher, an excitor of groundlings, a poor stumbling actor. The time was come to show he was a poet.”

Titus Andronichus
is another key, because it starts a friendship that shapes the life and mind of WS. The play piques an audience of nobles, who call the playwright to dine. Wits parry, eyes discover. WS is commissioned by Essex to write a poem, Southhampton quips and glitters. WS is beguiled, and he knows this in a way you might expect, through speech: “the triple chime of his name’s homonym from that lordly and desirable mouth…the lip’s pout, the red tounge’s lifting lazily.” It is a short step to the beginning of a lush, difficult friendship, one that moves from infatuation to love, teacher to equal, affection to tension to bitterness and split. The career of the friendship helps to define the course of the book and of WS's creative life. WS goes passive and old as his boy-lord grows grows restless and clever, setting one eye on advancement and another on treason. And this is the friendship that inspires the bulk of WS's sonnets: the marriage sonnets come first; later, when the clever Southhampton sees through them, the sonnets of the revival of love; the sonnets of ill-fated lust, when WS's lust turns ill-fated.

There is another turning point when Southhampton takes WS to the public execution of three Spaniards. Here is blood and slaughter in the middle of cushions and fair coaches, and WS is shocked, especially by the response of his noble friend, who is callous and smiling. The hangman’s knife going straight from heart to groin, the fat on the heart, the small girl who leaps and claps when the entrails come out. It is the start of WSs separation from Southampton, but also of his tiredness, his growing age.

Age, however, does not enfeeble his appetites for too long. “Let me take a breath, let me take a swig, for, my heart, she is coming”: separation from Harry coincides with the arrival of a new intimacy, a glittering Negro who revives a “boyhood’s timid lust for the wealth of endragoned seas and spice-islands.” It is a rich union, lush and violent, more so when her infidelity is found out. “To her to rail, beat, near-kill. I rip her bodice, tear, wrench, gnash, chew.” After this, WS goes despondent, withdraws into verse.

We do not hear a whole lot about the writing of WSs great works, or the playing of them; we get the context instead, their worldly inspiration and deployment. WS wooes S with his Venus and Adonis. The young nobles “swoon at its rich conceits,” as they do with The Rape of Lucrece. This is sweet Master Shakespeare at his sugary best, and the Inns of the toffs, and the University darlings, lick it up and go dizzy with epithets – “oh, the commodious conceits, the mellifluous facetiousness.” We see the intrigue behind the marriage sonnets the scenes of filth behind Troilus and Cressida. We witness a short sketching-out of a “warring family play”, with a Montague coming into it, and the next we know of Romeo and Juliet is as a finished play, “ravishing the inns.” Here is boss Dick Burbage saying a play is needed for a wedding in three weeks, here is a stanza from Chaucer, here a name (“And then came the name Bottom…”), and a title forked straight out of real life: “Yet with my fire made up I sweated as midsummer, and lo I got my title.” We witness WS turning away from the poems that ravished his noble patrons. They are something, but not enough. He cannot go on “living in a filigree cage, fed on marchpane, turning out jewelled stanzas for the delectation of lords, a very superior glover.” His sees “verse of a very different order.”

Up goes the Globe Theatre, and up goes the rod again of WS, and away he goes again on a lusty marathon. The narrator recounts one particular night with his black beauty. In the plot of the book, more things go on after this event: WS goes into decline, breaking out into pussy gruesomeness and weary sores; he speaks his dying words, he dies. But on this particular night he goes out into the London night and walks along with his dark friend, and as he does so the grim city turns, on an edge of love and fancy, into a lovely place where lovers walk. This transmuting act, played out in dirt and filth for the sake of love or art or some other high thing, has the feel of a climax. The beggars are heroes, the kites are cleansers:

“London, the defiled city, became a sweet bower for their love’s wandering, even in the August heat. The kites that hovered or, perched, picked at the flesh of traitor’s skulls became good cleansing birds, bright of eye and feather, part of the bestiary of the myth that enthralled them as they made it. The torn and screaming bears and dogs and apes in the pits of Paris Garden were martyrs who rose at once into gold heraldic zoomorphs to support the scutcheon of their static and sempiternal love. The wretches that lolled in chains on the lapping edge of the Thames, third tide washed over, noseless, lipless, eye-eaten, joined the swinging hanged at Tyburn and the rotting in the jails to be made heros of a classical hell that, turned into music by Vergil, was sweet and pretty schoolday innocence.”


Themes? There is a lot of madness and a lot of cruelty, of nature and of people. The witch-hunters, the plague and all it caused, the sunny horror of a public execution, prison-riots and money-riots, cracking heads and sticky blood in the afternoon, pus-bulging syphilis, the rats in the tower. Shit heaves. Rats run.

“The flesher shooes flies off with both hands before chopping his stinking beef.”

“The city grew a head, glowing over limbs of towers and houses in the at-scurrying night, and its face was drawn, its eyes sunken, it vomited living matter down to ooze over the cobbles, in its delirium it cried Jesus Jesus.”

More than once WS sees the city as himself.

“In my delirium the City was mine own body – fighting broke out in ulcers on left thigh, both armpits, in the spongy and corrupt groin…the image of the falling city, pre-figured in the prodigies of a night, was drawn from my own body – the bloody holes, the burning hand.”

Some of the best descriptions of physical filth are used as reports of other kinds of corruption:

“Limping about Bread Street and Milk Streer, inhaling Fleet Ditch, I was drawn to searching out my fellows in disease, gloating on a nose-sore like a raspberry, a lip glistening soft, wet, huge, coal-shiny, a naked arm that was yellow streaks and rose pustules, a stone mined with worms. Then I reeled at my discovery of what I should have long known – that the fistulas and imposthumes, bent bones, swellings, corrupt sores, fetor were of no different order that the venality and treachery and injustice and cold laughing murder of the Court. And yet none of these leprous and stinking wretches had willed their rottenness. The foul wrong lay then beyond man’s own purposing; there was somewhere, outside time’s very beginning, an infinite well of putridity from which body and mind alike were driven, by some force unseen and uncontrollable, to drink...the fruitful triangle of stealing friend, stolen mistress, WS. Well, what was the agitation in the city of mine own soul but that? A finger-dip into butter-smooth pleasure and the armies and rioters trample through my veins, crying Kill kill.”

Kites are omnipresent. They wheel above the story like page-numbers, marking time and happenings. They signal the arrival of the plague, “announced in tender swelling buboes.” They share in the slaughter at Tyburn, where three Spaniards, shackled for treason, are rope-dangled, stretched, and opened up by a hangman’s axe. They hang around the rise of WS, around the soft and witty lords in their gold float; and around the decline of WS, his flesh-eating ruin. They are connected to WS's wife, whose name they screech as WS travels home to find said wife with child; they are part of the dark romance in the later pages; as mentioned, they are cleaners in WS's romantic vision of London.

The book is full of bodies, and human fleshiness gives rise to the most lovely notions and the most appalling. It is full of sweet and golden love, spicetrees and fresh thighs; but it is full of ugliness too. This is Shakespeare’s time, when people lived close to their bodies and to the bodies of others, to dirt and sun and indelicate nature. There are no planes but there are kites. There are no buses or fridges or self-cleaning toilets. Nature is the opposite of whiteware. It is profuse and lusty and runs away in the distance, changing out of sight, and thereby it fits perfectly the prose of WS. At the end of the book there is a sense of massive sickness and massive termination, a mad ending that is too sick and violent for reason; it makes reason soft and na├»ve and senseless, and leaves poetry as the only sane thing, because poetry is madly full of words and it rows over the horrible mess and casts it on a clean mirror. “Die in dust but live in filth. Well, if we are to live with it we must somehow ennoble it.”

Nothing Like The Sun: Pus and Decadence

The next post was meant to be a review of Anthony Burgess's Nothing Like the Sun, but really it is just an excuse to quote Anthony Burgess as he imitates Shakespeare. Here are some of the juicy bits, unspoiled by my ramblings:

Was it, he wondered then, to be the way of the adventurer, mythical raker of carbuncles and diamonds from beneath the spicetrees, but first and last the hold’s stink and the foul water after the weeviled biscuit, men rent and filthy and reechy like their shirts of the hogo of earwax, the hap of wrack and piracy or, at best, spewing among rude and rough rascals made roaring lustful with salt beef and, a mere week at sea, cursing and raging in their fights over the ravaging of the soft white body of a boy, a boy refined and gentled with snippets of Ovid and maxims out of Seneca. A dark excitement came that guilt once pounced on in a rearing wave to wash away. Yet the names fired: America, Selenetide, Zanzibar, Terra Florida, Canaria, Palme Forro…

Reechy! Hogo! Selenetide, Canaria! Mounched! (Mounched?) Frotting, spirochaete! Croshabell, oaklings, footsticks, cinques, moxibustion, dittany!

He sat at the table on a three-legged stool, moving a greasy wash-clout from it first; the cheesy smell of curds rose at him like a small grey spirit. She mounched away at nothing, bringing cards. He knew these cards, though not the manner of telling them. Cartomancy. He thrilled at the word. These were not for an innocent game of trump or ruff; they were antique pictures, of towers crumbling to brick in a lightening-flash; of pope and empress; the moon all blood; Adam and Eve; the rising of the dead, sleepy and naked, at doomsday’s trumpet.

Sail-trimmers at their work on the waist between poop and forecastle, where too were stowed pinnance and skiff. The gravel-ballast and cable tiers; the outboard-thrusting beakhead that cracked the seas as the ship plunged. The hold below the orlop where the rotten beer and crawling cheese were stored. Foresail and foretop sail on the foremast; square course and topsail on the mainmast; the mizen mast with its lanteen or mizen yard; the bonaventure mizen; drabler and bonnet. Calivers and arquebuses, the gunner with his linstock, the aft and forward slueing of the carriage, the quoin.

Drink, then. Down it among the titbrained molligolliards of country copulatives, of a beastly sort, all, their browned pickers a-clutch of their spilliwilly potkins, filthy from the handling of spade and harrow, cheesy from udder new-milked, slashed mouths agape at some merry tale from that rogue with rat-skins around his middle, coneyskin cap on’s sconce. Robustious rothers in rural rivo rhapsodic. Swill thou among them, O London Will-to-be, gentleman-in-waiting, scrike thine ale’s laughter with Hodge and Tom and Dick and Blakc Jack the outlander from Long Compton…Hast a privy for a god, then, with the shit in’t. Sayest? Not one fart do I give, nay, for all thy great tally. Wouldst test it, then? Thou wouldst not, for thou art but a hulking snivelling codardo. I have been in the wars and do speak the tongues of the Low Countries. Ik om England soldado. U gif me to trinken. Who saith a liar? I will make his gnashers be all bloody. I will give him a fair crack, aye. You are but country cledge, all, that have seen naught of this world, and this one here, who is but new-wiped, he is a dizard. Thou yearling, thou, had I my hanger I would deal thee a great flankard. But I have my nief and I will mash thy fleering bubbibubkin lips withal…

It was no wise congrued with her lying near-bare against him nor with that horrible steaming-out, some few minutes past, of a mouthful apter for a growling leching collier pumping his foul water into some giggling alley-mort up by the darkling wall of a stinking alehouse privy.