Some Ceremonial Questions

I have a knack of being out of circulation for the deaths of major public figures. When Princess Diana died, I was on a Buddhist retreat in Norfolk, and by the time I returned home, the whole thing was over. And I heard about the death of Margaret Thatcher whilst down here in southwest France, where I’m spending a couple of weeks rewriting my next novel. So I have been a little set apart from all of the debate and discussion and rhetoric. I will, however, be back in the UK in time for the funeral, which we are told will be a Ceremonial, but not a State funeral; and whilst mulling over this, I found myself wondering something really rather simple. What is a Ceremonial funeral, and who decides who gets to have one? Read more

Not At All Strange

If I’ve been relatively quiet over the past week or so, the main reason for this is that I’ve had my head down, seated here at my desk in Albi, France, and I’ve been editing like crazy, working on what I hope is the penultimate draft of my novel Goat Music. I’m here for two weeks, and so I’m more or less half way through; and it’s been a productive stay so far—I’m on track, I think, to have the draft done by the time I catch the train home next Saturday, which means that I can get an early copy to my publisher some time soon after.

I thought I’d say a bit more about the book here. The novel arose out of a fascination with the story of the musical contest between Apollo and Marsyas that began back when I was an art student. Set in mythological Greece, it plays on the story of the satyr’s competition with the god. The myth, in brief, goes like this: Marsyas challenges Apollo to a contest in music; Apollo wins by means of tactics that are not entirely fair; and then, having won, he flays the satyr alive for his presumption in challenging the gods.

My unease with this story lies in the fact that, for much of European history—although Apollo wins the contest by what could be called unfair means, and then exacts the most horrible punishment by flaying satyr alive—the tendency amongst commentators has been to side with Apollo, to see Marsyas as a fool who was justly defeated, and to proclaim Apollo’s brutality as a victory for all that is good. Read more

Great images, non-objects and fog

It’s been foggy lately—the kind of fog that makes the edges of things blur into indistinctness; the kind of fog in which forms dissolve into the background, or loom again, imprecisely shaped, out of the greyness. I’ve been thinking a lot about fog lately, because I’ve been reading François Jullien’s book [amazon_link id=”0226415317″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]The Great Image Has No Form, or On the Nonobject Through Painting[/amazon_link]. The title is admittedly something of a mouthful, the first part coming from chapter forty one of the Daodejing, which reads 大象無形, dà xiàng wú xíng, “the great image is without form”, but it’s a fascinating read.

The central question of Jullien’s book is this: how did it become possible, in Western thought, to “posit an object of perception, simultaneously isolate it, and abstract it in a stable and definitive form?” (p. xxi). So Jullien sets out looking not so much at painting as representation, but as de-representation. This, in other words, is a book that is about vagueness, about that which is indistinct, about the mist and fog that swirls through Chinese painting, about the mountains that simultaneously arise out of, and are dissolved into, the cloud. Read more

Knowledge and Friendship at the End of the World

The following post was first published on the old version of From time to time, I’ll be republishing essays that disappeared from my old website when I switched over from Textpattern to WordPress a year or so back. The post had its origins in a paper that I gave at a conference on the apocalypse in literature at Westminster University in 2011.

When it comes to the ways that we think about the apocalypse, we are often inclined to moralise the end of the world. From Noah’s flood, to zombie apocalypses caused by the hubris of scientists, to the various kinds of environmental disasters that may or may not face us, our stories about the end of the world often have the distinct air of moral retribution for past misdemeanours. But there are certain kinds of apocalypse – amongst which can be numbered apocalypse by comet – that have nothing to do with blame and responsibility, nothing to do with how virtuous we are or not. These are endings that simply are, or at least that might be. Read more

The Rhetoric of Urgency

Back in the days when I was a more assiduous Buddhist meditator than I am today, I frequently came across the old, and well-known, Zen saying that you should meditate as if your hair was on fire. As with many such sayings, it is not really clear where this piece of curious advice comes from (although I’d be happy if any readers of this blog, more knowledgable than I, could let me know); but at the time, the saying rather appealed to me. However, as time has gone on, I have become less sure about it.

More recently, I’ve been thinking a bit about the rhetoric of urgency that appears in Buddhism. So, for example, the traditional Buddhist retreat is often infused throughout with this burning sense of urgency. You get up at some unholy hour (three o’clock for the hard-core, six for the spiritually lax), wash (in cold water for the truly serious) and dress, then you sit for an hour or two on your meditation cushions, before you’ve even had a chance to have breakfast. Read more

Therapeutic Philosophy and the Pharmacopoeia of Humankind

Some time ago, I attended a conference — I won’t say where the conference was — at which a certain speaker was talking about what he called the “fundamental conditions of human existence”. The speaker was a tall, rather distinguished looking Norwegian academic; and as he spoke, he laid out what he believed these conditions to be. “Existential loneliness,” he said. “Consciousness of impending mortality. Exposure to the terror of existence…” At the end of the paper, there was a chance for questions. I raised my hand. But unfortunately, time being limited, and I didn’t get a chance to ask my question; and what with one thing and another, I didn’t get round to asking the speaker in person. The question, however, has stayed with me; and so I’ll raise is here instead. The question is this: are these things — existential loneliness, consciousness of impending mortality, terror, exposure, etc. — the fundamental conditions of human existence, or are they instead the fundamental conditions of Norwegian existence? Read more

Bibliodiversity, Competition and Charismatic Megafauna

Tomorrow is the UK launch event for my novel, [amazon_link id=”9380905076″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]The Descent of the Lyre[/amazon_link]; and I’m delighted to be launching it alongside my good friends, Jonathan Taylor, Maria Taylor and Simon Perril, who are all launching books of their own (Jonathan’s [amazon_link id=”1907773274″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Entertaining Strangers[/amazon_link], Maria’s [amazon_link id=”0957098456″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Melanchrini[/amazon_link] and Simon’s Newton’s Splinter — excellent books all!). It is at times like this that I realise how fortunate I am to work with a bunch of fellow writers who are as talented as they are generous; and it will be a delight to be launching the books en masse, and turning the book launch into a collective celebration. Read more

Boredom, Flow and the Eggs of Experience

Over the last couple of weeks, I’ve been engaged in the perhaps thankless task of trying to persuade my students of the virtues of boredom. This is not simply a way of finding an excuse for my occasional tendency to digress and head off on rambling philosophical excursions. It is instead something that is born out of my conviction that boredom is rather more important, and more central to the processes of learning, thinking and creation, than some might often like to admit. Read more

Mo Yan, Politics and Writing

Having heard this afternoon that Chinese novelist Mo Yan 莫言 had won the Nobel Prize, I thought that I would track down some of his work to have a quick read. I only know Mo Yan indirectly, through the film [amazon_link id=”B001BHTNAY” target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Red Sorghum[/amazon_link], which was based upon one of his books, and for which he sold the rights for £80. This seemed not very much to go on, so by a bit of judicious rooting around online I managed to dig out a copy of his short story Soaring (翱翔) in both English and Chinese; and having picked my way through the story in the original, and then read it in English, I have to say that I was very impressed. It was an old-fashioned tale of village brutality combined with uncanny, unearthly happenings, the latter very much after the model of Mo Yan’s forebear in his home province of Shandong, the strange and wonderful seventeenth-to-eighteenth century writer [amazon_link id=”0140447407″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Pu Songling[/amazon_link]. The Nobel Committee called it “hallucinatory realism”, and it seems a fitting name for the genre. Read more

Existential Romps with Short Men

It’s now five years since my first novel, [amazon_link id=”0955138426″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Cargo Fever[/amazon_link], was published; and—now that my [amazon_link id=”9380905076″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]second novel[/amazon_link] has emerged out into the world—I can perhaps confess that the earlier book is one towards which I harbour both a kind of affection and also a kind of ambivalence. Affection, because I still love the characters, the setting, the strangeness of it all; and ambivalence, because I am still not sure how the book managed to find itself marketed, mistakenly I think, as an adventure yarn à la Wilbur Smith, when I’d always intended it to be more of an existential romp. But there is no shelf in the bookstore marked ‘existential romps’ (although if there were, the world, I feel, would be a better place), and so it has continued to sit on the shelves a little uneasily. Read more


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