Tuesday, June 27, 2006

On The First Day

On the first day, in many accounts, it is said that God created the heavens and the earth, and the earth was without form, and void. It is occasionally like that on the first day of the school — there is a framework from which things depend suspended in a sweet and slightly metallic treacle of time and space, and yet all things are formless, void, filled with more questions than answers.

A grand occasion, the grand gesture, some sort of grand piano (which in itself is some sort of oxymoron, unless you mean a great silence) — these things come together. They leave you wondering if gold is bronze or bronze is pyrite. They leave you wondering what would appear if you peeled back the fabric of the universe-that-presents-itself, to look at the universe-that-is.

For each day brings what it brings best, and that is the unique denouément of the day itself. Each day can have a long morning, a hasty passing of the noonday gun, a crossing of the bar when one sets out to sea; sunset and evening star, silver apples of the moon and golden apples of the sun; the afternoon and dusk and the sweeping away of the rose veil of the day and the arrival of the cloak of Ratri. All these things can be found in a day, but not always in the same day.

God said, "Let there be light!" And there was light. And there was a morning, and an evening, a first day. And the second was completely different, as it always is, world without end.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Armed & Engined

The Female of the Species, as Kipling said, is more deadly than the male. Why this is so rests on a single issue, which is something it took me ages to identify when I first read this poem at the age of seven. The relevant verse runs like this:

But the Woman that God gave him, every fibre of her frame
Proves her launched for one sole issue, armed and engined for the same;
And to serve that single issue, lest the generations fail,
The female of the species must be deadlier than the male.

To those who protest, arguing sexism or other Dead White English Male bias, I have to say that it is nothing more or less than what is asserted by the kind of people who complain. But the single issue in Kipling is a matter of greater and greater doubt these days. Does it therefore mean that the female of the species is becoming less deadly than the male, now that (paradoxically), society empowers her to adopt more and more of the traditional male prerogatives and roles? From my somewhat scattershot studies of ancient religions and customs, it seems to me that woman has always been the chief and central principal (and, sometimes, principle) of the household and the community. Oddly, the present-day incarnation of Woman is more likely to have abandoned this role to surrogates. And with this abandonment, it seems to me that the deadliness mentioned in Kipling has indeed been lost.

Perhaps a modern-day Kipling might write:

But the Woman raised in power, raised to serve and win the Game
Proves her ignorance of issues, arms and engines for the same;
And her need to prove an equal who was Spinner of the Tale
Makes her less than ever deadly who was deadlier than the male.

Farewell, Pallas Athena and every lady of power who once was. Hello, modern woman, armed and engined differently, and no longer the harbinger of awe.

Sunday, June 18, 2006


There she sits,
Her exposed position hidden;
Yet there are those who say:
This fortress is stone, heavily defended.

The light shines —
Her hair has silvered in the dawn;
A moving chessboard, she
Wars against herself, both dark and light are foes.

Morning falls.
Her enchanted mountains cut glass;
Dreams do not go beyond
The winter treeline, the death of grass and hope.

Noonday sun:
Her scourge is self, her back is torn
Which once made water weep:
Nothing is as bright as opening one’s eyes.

Her temple turns, gold into bronze.
Pyramids have nothing
Better than her opening sarcophagi.

Time is time
To go; she wastes none here which can.
The graves were empty, void;
With the rain, a desert is the place of life.

There she goes,
Nothing more is hidden with it.
The storm is gone behind her.
Her steps are hollows the hallowed wind sweeps clear.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Book Alert: The Alchemist's Door

Lisa Goldstein has written many books, ranging from the metropolitan urban fantasy Dark Cities Underground to the 1983 American Book Award winner about Eastern European Jews in the 1940s, The Red Magician. All of them are beautiful, sad, and stirring - in mixed and unexpected proportions.

The Alchemist's Door is another such. It chronicles a short slice of history in which the infamous Elizabethan sorcerer Dr John Dee visits Prague and makes the acquaintance of Rabbi Judah Loew, maker of the Golem. They work together to ensure that the 36 anonymous 'righteous people' who uphold the integrity of the world are not destroyed, and they close the portal which lies between our world and the world of the dark beyond.

The prose is intensely simple, detailed, evocative of the human condition. The plot is focussed, claustrophobic, and erudite. The tale thus told reminds me of many others I've read - I feel echoes of Tim Powers' The Drawing of the Dark and Roger Zelazny's A Night in the Lonesome October in particular. But of all things, this novel builds on Goldstein's others to have a certain potent and specific effect. I have come to realise what the truth of the matter might be. The Jewish people have no soul. Or at least, not as we commonly think of such things.

In its place is something which is greater than that - it is a burden of humanity, and where courage allows, for humanity. It is a desire for truth at all costs, ruthless, demanding, and so terrifying that many would rather avoid it. The Jews are a golem - without the Name, without truth, they are dead. But with the Name, and with the truth, they are rational and dangerous, provocative, ever questioning and finding. And perhaps, without their strange, wise, cynical, sad and wonderful brand of humanity, the integrity of the world might indeed fall away.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Book Alert: The Thinking Fan's Guide To The World Cup

All the facts are here - a summary of the last World Cup and a précis of the situation as we enter this one. The wonderful thing about this book, however, is the excellent attempt to enter the psyche of every one of the 32 nations which has qualified this year. Editors Matt Weiland (from Cambridge literary magazine Granta) and Sean Wilsey (from publishing house McSweeney's) have put together some truly interesting pieces which read like a travelogue of distant lands and minds which are somehow familiar while remaining distinct.

In this hefty volume you will find out what it means to be Iranian, ponder the universality of the Serbian/Montenegrin experience, learn to swear in Italian, buy shirts in Togo, eat crocodile in Paraguay, examine nations where football is still a minority sport (Australia, the USA), and find out what surfing off Madeira has to do with Portugal. Not all the pieces are equally satisfying, and some contain little about football itself. Yet, there will be many little bits – cameos and gems – which you will find thought-provoking.

The compiled national statistics at the back make interesting (and often sobering) reading. The United States has more prisoners per capita than any of the other countries, leading the Ukraine by 715 to 416 per 100,000 people. The life expectancy in Angola is 37 years, less than half that of Japan (#1 at 81 years). It's inversely proportional to the share allocated to military (some call it 'defence') spending - Angola spends 10.6% of GDP while Japan spends 1.0%. Other correlations, mostly linked to wealth and peace, abound.

The final section is entitled How To Win The World Cup. It's a bravura sociopolitical analysis deftly and cunningly tucked in - social democracies beat military juntas, which beat fascist states, which beat communist states, for example. Exceptions are examined, the correlation is rationalised. Lines like 'never invest hope in oil-producing nations' ring true too, but in the end, one fact remains beyond argument: billions of people of all kinds will watch 32 squads abide by 17 rules governing 22 players and a ball for one month. Food for thought, indeed.

Saturday, June 10, 2006

Let The Games Begin

The Economist, as usual, has a novel perspective on the relationship between sports and politics. It is one which brings to mind the relationship between different kinds of schools and the philosophies which they cleave to as they pursue their aims. The aims may ostensibly be similar but, as they say, half the journey is getting there.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Dover Ode

They have taken the parade square away;
The memorial photographs remain
Of the stern boys acting adult warriors
With soldierly disdain.

They have taken the flags to other poles;
No longer before the sun they strain,
Nor will we raise our sanctified salutes
Across the concrete plain.

I dare not look to see if my school stands;
Older, I have learnt too much of pain.
The past is always second-best upon
This island of the Main.


Friday, June 02, 2006

Kirsan The Great?

The New Yorker has a vastly entertaining article about the little-known political master of the Republic of Kalmykia. Little-known, that is, except for his role as President of FIDE, the International Chess Federation. It's a tale which could very well be made into the next Broadway musical. It even has space aliens in it.

As the Italians say, "Se non e vero, e molto bene trovato." Even if it ain't true, it's a great story. Enjoy.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

The Nature Of Evil

In the last month or so, I've had the wonderful opportunity to read several books examining the nature of evil: Elizabeth Kostova's The Historian, Neil Gaiman's Anansi Boys, Tad Williams's The War of the Flowers, and K J Parker's Devices and Desires. Broadly all four can be classified as fantasy, or fantastic literature.

But what makes them better vehicles for discussion of that age-old topic than, say, the daily newspapers, the weekly newsmagazines, or CNN? I would have to say that fantasy novels are better because they can choose not to make accommodation for the essence of evil. In the news, in whatever medium, and even in our classrooms, we generally shy away from the idea of evil. We do not seek to understand its causes, its boundaries, its emanations and structures. We do not often ask, "Why is this evil?" or "Why is he evil?" or even, "What is evil?"

In Kostova's Historian, the amorality of the Wallachian count (you ought to know which one I mean) - by all neutral accounts, a viciously Machiavellian but supremely intellectual ruler - is examined as it were by indirect lighting. We hardly see him, but we receive historical evidence and human perspectives. We realise that being an historian can be an evil thing if one aims for perfect neutrality. Amorality then, is also evil. Objectivity in the face of the human condition, also evil. Powerful stuff. There are many who would disagree about objectivity being evil - by definition, it is an attempt to remain outside non-rational perspectives. It ignores, however, the fact that reason can never be the core of existence in a world which can be apprehended but not fully comprehended (vide Gödel).

Gaiman's Anansi Boys is at first an oddly off-centre and slightly comedic journey from somewhere behind the left shoulder of the protagonist. It is somewhat related to Ted Hughes' stories of the mythical Early World, and the rest of the rich folklore of Creation. It is also very much like a Tom Holt look at reality, and 100% Gaiman. Is creativity evil? If you could make a duplicate of someone else, would you infringe on copyright? These questions seem rather quirky, but they are questions that tease you and lead you to define evil much more clearly. Is evil relativist - Nature red in tooth and claw vs Human grey swelling the vox urbana - and perhaps not evil at all in its proper context? Is destruction evil? Look at the tiger and the shrike, read Gaiman, and come to your own conclusions.

Williams's book is a slight contrast to the first two in that is an almost purely Faerie kind of tale (which, like a New York state of mind, is hard to define but easily spotted). The protagonist is dislikeable, a bit of a twat. He whines and whinges through the first part, as the evil congeals around him and his alter ego attempts to summon Old Night into the world. He has to deal with a political environment not unlike that of Belfast in the last century (somewhere in the book, a character says that the Irish learnt their ways from the faerie). The nature of evil here is mainly one of taking pleasure in dominance, in the act of control and the inflicting of torment. But there is a very nasty subtext on evil as well: evil is not reasonable (unlike the amoral and trenchant reasoning of the vampire) and it is sickeningly unnatural.

Parker, of course, has made a career of showing that evil proceeds incrementally and rationally from two things: the nature of humanity and the logic of human reason. Devices is the first book in a third trilogy by this excellent author. Probably the best way to summarise the intellectual and moral difficulties of Parker's characters is to quote Iain Banks who in Inversions writes: "We never like to think of ourselves as being wrong... We never like to think we are sinning, merely that we are making hard decisions..." In every one of Parker's books (see also the Fencer and Scavenger trilogies), perfectly reasonable characters are faced with evil and come to the reasonable conclusion that their only response is to act appropriately - that is, with what we would consider evil and what they are forced to believe is rational.

Four books. Four perspectives on evil: neutral is evil, nature is evil, evil is unreasonable and unnatural, evil is the rational response to an evil world. The terrible about evil is that all four perspectives contain truth. Evil is the consequence of living in a world which is home to terror, faithlessness, artifice and self-gratification. It is so close to us that we find it natural and, at the present time, seldom worthy of discussion.

Evil is now so much part of real life that we must turn to the literature of the fantastic in order to understand two simple things: it is REAL, and it is BAD FOR US.