In the Moominhouse

Just a quick post this, to round off the year. I’m busy at the moment trying to get a book chapter finished by the first of January. It is about Moomins, flat ontology, Levinas, and other important matters of the day; and if it is taking longer than I had hoped, it is partly because I’m finding some rich philosophical seams to mine. Anyway, the deadline is looming, and it would be good not to start 2014 with a missed deadline, so at the moment I’m holed up with the cat and a pot of coffee,  ploughing through ]Totality and Infinity, Moominland Midwinter and other great philosophical classics.  Read more

What do you want to talk about?

It is always interesting to get reviews, even if they are not entirely favourable — or perhaps particularly if they are not entirely favourable — and so I was pleased this morning to see that my book [amazon_link id=”1441124152″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Levinas, Storytelling and Anti-Storytelling[/amazon_link]  (the original title, incidentally, was the much nicer Troubled Tales, but Bloomsbury, alas, overruled me!), has had received an interesting, although somewhat ambivalent, review from Jeffrey Di Leo, over on the excellent Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews.

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Big Beasts, Little Beasts, and the Value of Creative Writing

In this week’s Times Higher Education, there is an interview with the writer Hanif Kureishi, who has recently been made professor of creative writing at Kingston University. When it comes to creative writing, universities are fond of appointing Big Beasts of literature to professorial posts, in the belief that the presence of some charismatic megafauna might add colour, sparkle and glamour to the grey halls of academia. And for the Big Beasts in question, it is an attractive prospect: after all, however big a beast you are, it is hard to make a living from royalties alone – these days, it’s tough out there on the savannah. Read more

Accidental Sinology

I’m down in Bangor for a brief spell, where I’ve been talking to creative writing and translation students about how a few years back I found myself stumbling into matters Sinological, and the general mayhem that has ensued since then. I wasn’t sure that I was going to get here at all this morning, as there was train chaos across the midlands; but five trains (five!) later, I pulled in to Bangor station on time. And I’m glad I made it.

It’s been a fun afternoon. My talk was called “A Book of Changes? Writing, Chance and the I Ching: or, The Adventures of an Accidental Sinologist”, so I was talking about my forthcoming novel-of-sorts, A Book of Changes, based around the sixty-four hexagrams of the I Ching. Read more

Up North With the Donkey-Rat

Just a quick post this, as I have a train to catch up to Newcastle, and—before that—a lost mobile phone to track down (that’s the trouble with mobile phones: they move around, so it’s hard to remember where you last put them… I like my phones affixed to the wall). I’m heading up to Newcastle for a conference on Working Wonder, back in the Fine Art department where I did my undergraduate degree. I’m looking forward to being in what is probably my favourite city.

I’m doing a paper on the diviner Guo Pu (郭璞), and an interesting tale that I first came across in [amazon_link id=”9004103767″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]Writing Against the State: Political Rhetorics in Third and Fourth Century China[/amazon_link] by Dominik Declercq. The tale concerns Guo Pu’s encounter with a strange creature. The account Declercq draws from comes from the seventh century compilation, the Jin Shu 晉書, but this is drawn in turn from the fourth century Sou Shen Ji 搜神記 (see here). Here’s the passage I’m talking about.


From the Sou Shen Ji

郭璞過江,宣城太守殷佑,引為參軍。時有一物,大如水牛,灰色,卑腳,腳類象,胸前尾上皆白,大力而遲鈍,來到城下,眾咸怪焉。佑使人伏而取之。令璞作卦,遇遯之蠱,名曰“驢鼠。”卜适了,伏者以戟刺,深尺余。郡紀綱上祠請殺之。巫云:“廟神不悅。此是郱亭驢山君使。至荊山,暫來過我,不須觸之。” 遂去,不复見。

Guo Pu crossed the river, and the head of Xuancheng prefecture, Yin You, made him a military adviser. Once there was a creature, large like a water-buffalo, grey in colour, with stumpy legs, its legs like an elephant, its chest at the front and the tip of its tail white, very strong and dull-witted; and it came up to the city walls. The crowd were all astonished. Yin You got his men to stalk and trap it. Then he ordered Guo Pu to perform a divination. He got the hexagrams “dùn” [䷠ / “fleeing – retreat”] changing to “gǔ” [䷑ / “work on what has been spoiled”]. Having performed appropriate divinations, he said its name was “Donkey Rat.” One of the men who had stalked it pricked it with a spear, a foot deep. A prefectural official went to the temple to ask if it should be killed. The oracle said, ‘The temple god is displeased. This [creature] was sent from Lake Gongting by the Lord of Donkey Mountain [Mount Lu, 廬山 Lushan, with Lü / here substituted for Lu ]. It came as far as Jingshang, and recently passed by me here. You must not touch it”.


What my paper is about is the question of where the wonder is in this tale. I’m interested in the Western imperative to wonder—which appears everywhere from Brian Cox’s mop-headed stargazing, to the homilies of the religious on BBC radio’s Thought for the Day, to the wide-eyed enthusiasm of the artists. Roughly, my argument (and it is rough) is that wonder is a curious kind of notion that has an ethical force in the West, and that is in need of further examination, and that what we take for wonder may be rooted in a particular relationship to the unknown (or the unknowable) that is not as universal as we imagine. Along the way I’m going to be talking about great chains of being, flat ontology, and—of course—the 萬物 or ten thousand things. All in fifteen minutes. Well, I can but try…

The main reason I’m saying any of this, however, is that it is an excuse to show you the following picture I made of a donkey-rat, a piece of photoshopping of which I am inordinately proud. If you see one of these wandering around your way, do let me know. I’d love to meet one…


Donkey Rat
A Donkey Rat in its Natural Environment


Document Mountains, Meeting Oceans

Somewhat to my sadness, the teaching year is over; but because bureaucracy abhors a vacuum, rushing in to fill the void left by the departing students is a coming tide of endless meetings, a long summer of juggling paperwork. It’s always a relief when the autumn rolls around, and I head in to my first lecture of the new academic year to see the ranks of faces from the years before, and I have a chance to remind myself that this is why I am doing the job.

They are strange, these summer months in the academic world. Everybody imagines that we are retiring to our quiet hillside villas to write in our libraries, when we are, in fact, lost in a blizzard of spreadsheets and documents and meetings known only by their acronyms. So the following passage struck something of a chord. It comes from the wonderful [amazon_link id=”0385339356″ target=”_blank” container=”” container_class=”” ]A Dictionary of Maqiao[/amazon_link], which I’m picking my way through in Chinese, with the English translation to one side. The novel, written by Han Shaogong (韩少功) and translated beautifully by Julia Lovell, is a dictionary of the rural village of Maqiao during the Cultural Revolution. It is savage, funny, wonderfully digressive, and deeply strange—my kind of novel. I’m about half way through, as I’m making my way through the Chinese slowly; but the following, from the dictionary entry on “Speech Rights”, particularly struck me.

Documents and meetings are both the key to safeguarding power and the best way of reinforcing speech rights. Mountains of paperwork and oceans of meetings are a fundamental or integral part of, and genuine source of excitement within, the bureaucratic way of life. Even if meetings are river upon river of empty talk, even if they haven’t the slightest real use, most bureaucrats still derive a basic level of enjoyment from them. The reason is very simple: it’s only at these moments that the chairman’s podium and the mats of the listening masses will be placed in position, that hierarchies will be clearly demarcated, giving people a clear consciousness of the existence (or lack thereof) and degree (large or small) of their own speech rights… Only in this kind of an environment do those with power and influence, immersed in the language with which they themselves are familiar, become aware that their power is receiving the warm, moist, nurturing, nourishing, safeguarding protection of language… and this is often far more important than the actual aims of the meeting.

“Mountains of Paperwork and Oceans of Meetings”; or, in Chinese, 文山会海 (wen shan hui hai , literally “document mountains, meeting oceans”) — I love this expression. Of course, meetings are not only empty talk: glimmering somewhere amongst those spreadsheets there are, I have to remind myself, useful and valuable purposes. But nevertheless, earlier today whilst we were mid-meeting, with five of us looking frowningly at one version of a spreadsheet whilst a sixth was talking about an entirely different spreadsheet, I thought of Han Shaogong’s book, and I thought that if I am to get through the coming months of paperwork, I’ll probably need crampons, ropes, and plenty of Kendal Mint Cake, whilst if I am to survive the next barrage of meetings, I should probably make sure that, at the very least, I am wearing a rubber ring around my waist…

Understanding, misunderstanding and failing to understanding the classics

I’m writing this from Bangor, where I’m at a conference on Cultural Translation and East Asia; and in about an hour’s time, I’ll be in a panel where I’ll talking about the Chinese classic the Yijing 易經 (I Ching) and about my novel-in-progress, A Book of Changes, which puts the Yijing to work as a kind of literature machine, giving rise to one story for each of the sixty-four chapters of the Chinese text. As I need to hurtle off and give my paper, this post will be necessarily brief.

As a linguist of only middling powers, I’m intrigued by questions of mis-translation, this being something I’m guilty of almost every day. I’m interested in the grains of indeterminacy that creep in when you translate between cultures and settings, and more broadly I am interested in the role of misunderstanding and non-understanding in the way that we relate to, and understand, the world. Read more

Research, or something like it (Part I)

Every few years, here in UK academic circles, there is a curious circus known as the REF, the “Research Excellence Framework”, a bizarrely arcane ritual of humiliation where academics struggle to demonstrate that their research is not merely good (one might have thought that being “good” was a sufficiently high demand, although apparently this is not so) but is instead excellent. And because this is a rigorous exercise, scholars are asked to prove their excellence in research by submitting to learned boards of their peers a range of “outputs” that are scrutinised using the best scientific and divinatory methods, so that these works may be awarded stars. Not real stars, of course; not even the kinds of stars that are handed out to primary school children, shiny sticker-stars, but just notional stars, the Platonic forms of stars that are more true and real than any actual star or representation of a star could ever be. Read more


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