Inner Diablog 2003

This journal is a subtle matrix of idleness.
Jean Baudrillard (1984)




Having started to read Maria Rosa Menocal's Ornament of the World again it now occurs to me that the West has been redeemed by its pagan past. All the theocracy, intolerance and religious fundamentalism that blighted the Middle Ages were ultimately purged by the lasting appeal of Hellenism. It seems that whichever society finally established itself as the successor to the ancients would come to dominate the world both culturally and technologically, and there is no real reason why the ultimate inheritors of the tradition of Reason should be the descendents of northern barbarians and not those of Mediterranean Imperial citizens. (even ones that ride camels). In the end it's about the nature of truth, and whether scientific reasoning should be allowed to discover and propagate notions that are independent of or even contradict revelation.
Al-Andalus had an eclectic culture, not because a tolerant, reasonable, non-purist alternative is embedded in Islam (and waiting to be woken up again) but because medieval Spanish Muslims were sucked up by Aristotle and the Greek intellectual legacy.
In the end the open society of Al-Andalus was not simply the victim of simple minded spear-wielding Latins from the north. It was squeezed to death from both sides, as much a victim of Almohad Quran-bashing righteousness before the Castillians were even within striking range.

The intriguing thing about the Hellenistic tradition (and perhaps one of the reasons that the Muslim world ultimately found it indigestible) is that it contains unresolved contradictions itself:  Athens and Sparta, open and closed, diversity and purity. This is the great yin-yang duel of history; far more than church versus state, east versus west, Guelf versus Ghiibelline, left versus right and other antagonistic pairings.

The West may have assimilated much of the pagan wisdom, but it has yet to properly purge itself of the notion that faith has unique access to truth. (Perhaps the Americans, with their imperfect and selective rendering of the Greek tradition are the modern world's Romans?) (23/12/03)

The Return of the King: What there is to admire in this final instalment is mainly what Peter Jackson himself brings to the narrative, New Zealand and other stunning visual spectacles. But what of Tolkein? Was it really that flimsy? You start to think those Tolkein kill-joys might actually have a point after all. The balance between action and script, fantasy and realism has gone seriously awry here. Minas Tirith is an amazing special effect; how far we have come from Titanic. Yet the citadel and its people are far less credible than the inhabitants of Rohan. What do they subsist on?  There are simply too many special effects in the final battles. Those long-necked serpent Stukas the Nazgul use were best when used sparingly in the second film. The Nazi-gul were way cooler as equestrians. The impact those improbably enormous elephants have on cavalry caused one Muslim girl in front of V to cower with her arms wrapped around her head. Indeed, these few moments of the film are extraordinarily violent (especially to the animals), in some ways as shocking as the opening moments of Saving Private Ryan. Then suddenly you sense that the action has become a homage to the opening battle in the Empire Strikes Back. Legolas has his moment here, as a piece of CGI.  Like several other key figures including even Aragorn, the film's preference for a panoramic vision leaves him enfeebled as a character. When Jackson does try to zoom back in on the individuals they are shown either over-emoting or talking portentuous Matrix-babble - I spotted several "It is time"s. Most disappointing of all is Frodo who is shown to fail at the last, carried up the mountain by Sam, forced to ditch the ring and his finger by Gollum's unlikely intervention, and finally abandoning all his friends to sail off to the undoubtedly cheesy place in the West where the elves monopolise immortality and smugness. 

Surely something could have been done in New Zealand to find a better analogue for Mount Doom?  V grew up surrounded by volcanoes and those lava-filled scenes in Mordor just don't cut the mustard. Part of the problem may be the way the films have been strung out over 3 years - we would normally expect to see something new and different with each episode but of course they were all made at once. The effects in Return are seemingly more intrusive and there are a number of other annoying little errors, such as the way Frodo's scabs move from one side of his face to another and the way the din of battle is conveniently silenced whenever Gandalf is talking.

The ending is never-ending. It's as if Peter Jackson developed several alternatives then decided to use them all. V is chanting "beso, beso" slowly to my right when Frodo and Sam gaze at each other longingly before Frodo pisses off with the pointy-ears, having presumably finally realised that the Shire is a deadly-dull place full of beer-swilling homozygous bog-trotters.  (21/12/03)

Watch 9pm C4 programme about feral children. It didn't have an important scientific point to make really other than the one Chomsky and co. made years ago - that language skills require socialisation during a key age window. There was commentary by an American professor who's lucky she hasn't been put away in a home for the seriously strange herself. Veronica made the point that it would have been interesting to step back a bit and show how domestic pets are humanised as well and to make some more general and interesting observations about learning, mimicry and development. It seems that feral children rarely grow up with animals other than canines, because they're the only ones that bring up lost humans (other than apes in Tarzan!) No mention made of Frederick II, who dared to conduct the forbidden experiment. It had never occurred to him that the children he deprived of adult contact might not learn any language...he thought they would spontaneously start speaking the original pre-babel tongue. Something of a precursor to Chomsky! (15/12/03)


Watch the last 20 minutes or so of the delightfully non-PC movie The Party starring Peter Sellars as a disaster-prone Indian film star that causes mayhem at a Hollywood party in 1968. Directed by Blake Edwards. Final scenes do enough to convince you that perhaps the 60s were the best times to be alive. Also stars the incredibly cute Claudine Longet, infamous for having shot her lover skier Vladimir "Spider" Sabitch, when he told her she was cramping his lifestyle.

Reading a review of Michel de Montaigne: Accidental Philosopher by Anne Hartle.  She shows how his later essays become more personal, displaying "a profound and mobile curiosity". For instance he speculated whether he is playing with his cat or it with him and suggests that cripples make better sexual partners because the blood that would have ended up in their legs instead goes to their sexual organs. For Montaigne there was no clear set of values, rather a "shifting pattern of dispositional preferences". (9/12/03)


Interesting programme about a foetus in foetu extracted from a little boy in Kazakhstan. It looked like a prop from a fantasy-horror movie, a deformed mass of wan skin and rope-like twisted black hair, half-formed limbs with little nails reaching out from the breach that scalpels cut in its rubbery egg-shaped cocoon. It was a spectacle with the same power to shock and disturb as that little alien that pops out of John Hurt's stomach - it forces you to consider the difference between a normal foetus and a parasite. When does something humanoid become human? Is it when it has purposes beyond the selfish urge to simply survive? (8/12/03)

Watch the excellent Mexican film Perfume de Violeta. The synopses all suggested that it was about a rebellious teenage girl and her experience of rape, but it's not essentially about that (in the way that any American or European equivalent would be) at all. The film has no moral centre, though you clearly can sympathise with the situation confronted by its main protagonist because of the compassionless nature of her world. It's yet another ultra-realist portrait of Latin America which shows how everyone eventually turns selfish and nasty in these conditions, and how the thoughtless actions of the powerful make life disproportionately worse for the powerless. It has a clever shock ending that defies your efforts to second guess what kind of conclusion such a narrative might have. Something else that Hollywood rarely dares to do. It's ultimately a good film because of the way it constructs its human landscape, not because of flashy camerawork or other kinds of quirkiness. (6/12/03)


The Sunday Times magazine had a nice piece on the links between creativity and madness. This was the most intriguing part: "People with a high IQ are good at focusing on a problem and coming up with one solution very quickly, whereas creative people can come up with a variety of solutions simultaneously. It has been suggested that people with high IQ use small areas of their brain very efficiently, whereas creative people co-ordinate several brain regions to produce a flood of ideas." (2/12/03)

Murcof is Fernando Corona, a minimalist from Tijuana.  "Corona's sound lies somewhere between Giya Kancheli and the Aphex Twin. Two sorts of static, you might say, since Corona has the former's penchant for pregnant pauses and the latter's knack of aestheticising the once taboo sounds of crackling interference " enthuses the Guardian. (The latter part is the bit that irritates V the most about his ethereal noises - he seems to take the discordant sounds of electronic and mechanical botchery and makes them all part of the rhythmic exposition.)

"The rhythm parts...are constructed from tiny blips and blops, almost subliminal in their effect, but funkily right in the pocket. And the melodic and textural parts tend to be slow and languorous, unruffled by the pesky little beats. I guess the whole album could have been made on a laptop..."

Funny that they should mention the laptop. During the whole set Murcof was staring at the screen of his laptop and we took turns to guess what it was he was actually doing. Frode reckoned he was playing solitaire. I guessed he was market-watching as his brow was intermittently furrowed by some serious frowns.
Spitz is a Cafe-Venue on 2 floors in the old Spitalfields market. The clientele on the night (and probably every night) was a formless muster of grungey art students in Matrix knitwear and chic geeks wearing Buddy Holly-style specs. Peckish, Frode went down to the restaurant below and ordered himself a 'take-away' of Carpaccio of beef with salad and Spanish olives which was delivered into the throbbing smoky darkness by a pretty waitress. Only Frode. She had to move gingerly across the obstacle-ridden wooden floor, negotiating her way between all the cross-legged intense looking people and their marijuana fumes.
"Beguiling, considered orchestration, contemplative, plaintive melodies and deep melancholy phrasing...Murcof gets into your head with sheer, expansive horizons, Spartan piano and fresh atmospherics."- Sleaze Nation

Frode seemed more beguiled generally than V. "This is the kind of music I work to" he observed and duly pulled out his Powerbook from his bag. (1/12/03)

certainly has an eye for history's little ironies.  For example he notes that the states which retained slavery the longest such as Brazil and Cuba are the ones which had the highest number of freed men and today have the highest levels of racial integration.  He also notes that North American inability to do anything much with their native populations other than obliterate them was a major spur to industrialisation (and that miscegenation made democracy harder to establish in many non-Anglos states). Latin America it seems has also been a safety valve where the most undemocratically-inclined yanquis have periodically let off steam!

FFA seems unwilling however to fully recognise the impact of human psychology and culture on history. In dispelling the idea that the state of Latin America is an atavistic curse he also discounts the effects of anything that could be characterised as cultural differences. History for FFA is driven by facts not beliefs and opinions.

It's all very reminiscent of his piece in the Times where he said that cannibalism was just a taboo and there was nothing really wrong with it as long as its victims were "decently dead"!  ("Curiously, human beings are the only routinely cannibal mammals. Cannibalism is therefore a defining characteristic of humankind. In our culture it has become the subject of an irrational taboo - although it is hard to see anything offensive about it, as long as the victim is decently dead") (21/11/03)


Catch most of Just Visiting with Jean Reno. For an American rehash Just Visiting isn't all that bad. Jean Reno and Christian Clavier are still excellent and very believable as temporally-shifted medievals. But although the characters remain credible, the English language version places them in situations where you can't easily suspend your disbelief.
A comparison of the two films gives you a sense of some of the fundamental differences between French and American society. The meal at home scene becomes a meal in a smart restaurant for example. The class satire is entirely replaced with a plot about superficial greed.  (19/11/03)

Progressing with The Americas:  FFA makes the point that the Maya writing system was design to keep secrets as much as to disseminate or communicate information.  He seems either unaware of, or unwilling to cite, Jared Diamond's theory about how the North-South orientation of the hemisphere played a key role in shaping its cultures. He suggests that the engine behind the native civilisations was the topography that permitted microclimates to exist in close proximity, especially in the Andes and Mesoamerica. These microclimates allowed for dense, sedentary, agrarian societies but contributed to the fragility of the civilisations they produced. Slaves in large quantities were needed further north if the English and French were to exploit those environments and at first the Portuguese controlled much of the access to slave-producing lands. Indentured workers were a temporary solution, but workers more adapted to the climate were needed.  FFA makes the point that Spanish Colonialism was essentially urban.  Ramshackle northern colonies envied the Spanish their grid-based urbanisation, cathedrals and their precious metals. Many non-Iberian colonists in the Americas aped the Hacenderos of the South.  (17/11/03)


Did anyone seriously expect an answer to life's mysteries in The Matrix Trilogy? I guess certain works make a better show if tantalising us with depth they don't really have. Garcia Marquez was never tempted to write a sequel to 100 years! The trick is to craft stories that belong to the same millieu and appeal to the same audience but don't try to extend an existing saga too much. 

It's even more of a pity because the underlying philosophical idea behind the Matrix, Plato's cave, is an interesting metaphor for bringing down some inaccessible contemporary philosophical hypotheses to the level of popular culture - but now it is almost off limits thanks to the Wachowski brothers.

I've finished First Light. It's not at all a tale of combat. There are battle scenes and they are vivid, but they wouldn't make a good movie. We never learn much about anybody aside from Geoff and most of the encounters with Germans appear to be an annoying stressful intrusion on the pliot's true metier of simply flying. Confusion reigns - from the moment of engagement the objective becomes escape.  God is invoked constantly as the responsible party for all the legalised murder. What Wellum seems to be saying, and it's all the more poignant when you consider he published this memoir as he hit 80, is that the pinnacle of his life and of the nation he grew up in was 1940 and he was simply too young to fully appreciate it. And he really convinces you that whatever you think of war, you really have missed out by not being one of the few that clambered into Spitfires and defended Britain against Goering's hordes in 1940.

Now reading Americas, by my new chum Felipe Fernandez Armesto! The first chapter makes me reflect that the essential problem with anti-Americanism is the fact that the Americans simply aren't all that exceptional. Their vices are our vices, just exaggerated, distorted by history.

It is extraordinary that a hemisphere with so much cultural diversity, so many pockets of immigrant and indigenous uniqueness should nevertheless appear so uniform in comparison to Europe. Take Guatemala. 22 Maya languages, and yet, Veronica and her family are essentially "Hispanic", an identity that ties them to people living thousands of miles away in Ecuador or Peru.  There really isn't a trans-European equivalent of this identity.

We are all descendents of migrants and yet in America and Australia the term indigenous is used to suggest an historical crime. This violation happened, but it was surely also not exceptional, just the most recent and most recorded. (15/11/03)

See Bill Viola, The Passions at the National Gallery. Perhaps I lack the patience for Viola's slow motion faces. It's all a bit thespy - The Quintet of the Astonished could just as easily be described as the quintet of the actors striving a bit too hard to emote.  There appears to be more underlying Christiano-Buddhist transcendentalist hokum on show here than in The Matrix!

"It is this high seriousness of intent, not a fashionable credo in an age of sensationalism and transgression, that sets Viola apart", comments Sean O'Hagan in the Observer. Contrast this with Richard Dorment who asserts that "The Passions is so insufferably, glutinously twee that I couldn't remain in it for long without coming up for air. This is contemporary art for people who don't like contemporary art." Viola has, he says, earned his place in the "pantheon of all-time pseuds" with this New Age twaddle.

People seem to be tip-toeing around the rooms, their body language suggesting a need to occupy as little physical space as possible. Is this because this is video or performance art instead of "lifeless" painting?  Perhaps the most extraordinary piece in the whole exhibition is in the first room which contains examples of art that has inspired Viola - Mater Dolorosa and Christ Crowned with Thorns, credited to the workshop of Bouts. The Crossing (1996) gets closest to the immersive sensation delivered by the 5 Angels in the Tate Modern. However, by watching from a thirty degree angle to one side of the screen I missed the fact that the human figure is simultaneously consumed by fire and water. (12/11/03)

Finish Cafe Europa, Life After Communism by Slavenka Drakulic, essentially a 213 page whinge.  Communism crammed millions of peasants into urban spaces they never really adapted to. She suggest that until the Romanians have toilet paper and the Bulgarians start smiling democracy has no chance in the former Iron Curtain states. A sense of exile and frustration, plus dollops of wounded pride pervade this series of essays on contemporary Eastern European experience.

Throughout the book there are many parallels with Guatemala. People's attitude to business in mid 1990s Eastern Europe is conditioned by a lack of a sense of the future - every opportunity might be your last, the man you rip off today will probably never cross your path again.

Drakulic also notes how the egalitarian spirit drives her to take presents back to Croatia each time. Meanwhile her friends and family back home never write to her in the West - they are "too busy suffering to respond" to her letters and gifts. (11/11/03)

The Matric Revolutions: really awful. A tale told by an idiot...

The void of ideas is filled with noise and half-baked mono-syllabic flummery.

As Ulisse suggested, the final instalment does indeed make you re-consider Reloaded in a more positive light, but not for the reasons he meant. Mostly a visual-effect driven battle in the non-stylish, unoriginal world of Zion. (What's with all those torn sweaters?)  Morpheus is shunted into the background, Trinity killed off in a unnecessarily wasteful fashion and Neo reduced to a mumbling automaton.  Smith has become a vehicle for an evil laugh. (Why does he reproduce himself ad infinitum if he wants to fight Neo one on one this time?) Monica Belluci appears simply to flash her cleavage and deliver one line. The Merovingian appears to have moved to Berlin. All the human aspects of the plot are squandered.

What happened to the white control room from Reloaded? You get the impression that there has been some massive editing disaster in the last two films- either too much has been cut out or too much left in! You feel that some of the characters were more developed and had bigger roles in the Wachowski imagination before they had to be squeezed into 4 hours of plot.

Peter Bradshaw's review was spot on:  He says that the Matrices were "a sci-fi epic which for one brief, shining moment persuaded us all that wearing sunglasses indoors wasn't stupid. But that moment has passed...It's like a 129-minute deleted-scene extra that could have gone on the DVD of The Matrix Reloaded." And: "The Matrix has reached into popular culture and public consciousness. I half expected him to go into Matrix Dialogue, the enigmatic, oracular idiom we've grown to know and love: "Does this go down the Holloway Road?" - "Only you can answer that question." - "Look, can I have a single to Highbury Corner, please?" - "What you can 'have' is bounded by your own desires."

Dave W said he thought that at the very least the sentinels could have sung "All you need is love" at the end! 

Left the office at 6 and take the tube to Regent's Park.  I figure it's still a bit early to go into the London Clinic as Mummy has probably only recently checked in, so I walk past and on to Marylebone High Street. Daunt books is still open and I'm immediately attracted to a couple of titles on display. It's hard to get to the SPAIN section as some sort of talk appears to be about to get going.

Suddenly it dawns on me that the two almost stereotypical academics seated on the dais at the end are none other than Hugh Thomas and Felipe Fernandez Armesto as I had noticed a large display of their new books in the entrance. I grab a glass of free plonk and sit down to listen as they outline the latest products of their erudition and heap sickening ammounts of self-effacing praise on each other.

Hugh Thomas has written another fat tome, this time about the origins of Spanish empire. But it is FFA who is the highlight of this soiree. I never imagined that he would talk like Brian Sewell! ("The United States is a syooperpower") His little book The Americas is an attempt to tell American history from a hemispheric perspective. Imperialism is "not just a white vice". US hegemony today represents a reversal of the usual flow in the hemisphere and is due to a certain limited set of historical circumstances in the 18th and 19th centuries, in particular the exploitation of the great American desert, the prairie.

Hugh Thomas provokes FFA into some defensive posturing when he describes the US as "a nation of suburbs" and when he says that he was surprised no academic attached to the Bush administration made reference to the Roosvelt Corollary of the Monroe Doctrine, the right of the US to intervene in any country where there was a "state of brutal wrong doing". FFA says that such a justification for intervention in Iraq would have made no difference. "You actually do an injustice to all the brutal regimes that you choose not to overthrow". Not sure about the logic behind that. (6/11/03)

Kill Bill - viscerally entertaining, yet intellectually annoying. Tarantino is himself the star throughout. In other movies I have seen and enjoyed recently such as 2 Fast 2 Furious the style was the content and I didn't mind, but here I did. Tarantino seems to have been unduly influenced by his imitators. Like his buddy Robert Rodriguez he seems to have set out to make a self-mocking genre film, high on cool, but low on subtexts. Shallow basically. At least Once Upon A Time In Mexico had some surprises for us in terms of the sequencing of the slaughter.  High Plains Drifter is no masterpiece, but it sets the standard for the revenge movie. In it Clint decks the systematic elimination of his foes with symbolism that leaves you thinking at the end about themes rather than incidents. This is essentially what Kill Bill fails to do.

Signs in search of their signifiers. Back to Baudrillard - that our culture increasingly consists of detached codifications that fall off one meaning and reassemble somewhere else is increasingly evident.  It's not just movies, look at Beyonce.  Is she not some kind of weird collage of J Lo, Shakira and Tina Turner? As for Britney, she and Madonna are engaged in some strange sexual meme-exchange themselves right now.  (25/10/03)

Reading Terry Eagleton's After Theory this morning. Seems to offer an answer to George's lament about there not being any collective intellectual movements or "scene" to belong to any more.

Eagleton says we are in a post-collective and post-individualist era. Whereas Culture used to stand outside the normative bourgeois society, that opposition no longer exists because the bourgeois worldview has fragmented and Capitalism has appropriated Culture to the point that its most salient features today derive from film, fashion, lifestyle, marketing, advertising and the general communications media.

Eagleton decribes students of the humanities as "reluctant joiners" and people that speak the language of value instead of price. "People that know the value of everything and the price of nothing".  (2/10/03)

When Frode and I were working together back in 96, we found ourselves briefly in the midst of a periodic resurgence of the notion that the present was the place to be and the future was full of exciting possibilities and not, as the Postmodernists quip, simply "the present with more options".

Try as I might, I can't really think of that many deleterious consequences deriving from the invention of the mouse, aside from RSI. Yet as a cultural artefact, like all technologies, its claims to neutrality should be treated with scepticism.  It has been less obviously appropriated within the Capitalist mantras of profit, progress and choice than the mobile phone, which is at the very centre of efforts to pervert some of our most important values such as Freedom.

Since the Enlightenment Science and Technology has occasionally staked a claim to offering a path to curing all that is bad with the human condition, the old doctrine of the perfectibility of man. When cultural scepticism has fostered greater caution, science has switched to the more limited claim of worthwhile improvement. Yet the utopianist vision certainly perked up again in the late 90s.  Somehow technology was all about overcoming the weaknesses of our genetic inheritance and extending our innate capabilities, which for some amounted to taking humans to a next stage.

Frode and Doug are visionaries that stand just outside the corporate world of technology. The solutions they offer are  targeted at "power users", which keeps them sufficiently elitist to be harder to assimilate within the system of mass desire mediated by Capitalism.  (1/10/03)


Read "The Flowers", a short story by Arthur Schnitzler which suggests that we are never truly dead until everyone that knew us when alive is also dead.

Finished J.D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey this morning.  The core themes of the precocious intellectualism and the cross-denominational mysticism of the siblings are basically a bit irritating throughout Zooey.  I also find the obvious mystery of the status of the narrator in the second story a little too precious as well. Franny is the more enjoyable piece, less mannered in its style, and more reminiscent of Catcher in the Rye. (30/9/03)

Once Upon A Time in Mexico is entertaining, but let down by it's ambition to break out of the simple plot set-up of the first two films into something resembling a comic book version of Traffic.  Too many different characters (especially baddies) to keep track of and too many fake Mexicans. (Enrique Iglesias and Willem Dafoe being  the worst examples) Yet there are some great set-pieces in the cobbled streets of Guanajuato and Johnny Depp is his usual excellent self. (In one scene he asks someone "are you a MexiCAN or a MexiCAN'T?!)  The Sunday Times review has dismissed the whole thing as "banal" but I think Rodriguez has created a playfully clichéd mythological caper and the only real difference with Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns or even Crouching Tiger... is that this is much more tongue in cheek.  (Peter Bradshaw in fact uses the term Tortilla Western) Rodriguez has nevertheless overextended himself as a creator of narrative on this occasion. 

The movie has been shot with a digital camera. Depp's prosthetic arm is memorable, as are the machine-gun and flamethrower guitars.   (28/9/03)

Matchstick Men: The film is a little short of captivating and the twist comes along like a final sledgehammer which in many ways spoils the other aspects of the story.  A closing sentimental scene is deployed as an unsuccessful attempt to restore meaning to the characters, above and beyond the intricacies of the plot. There are some odd echoes of Lolita.  Cage is surprisingly good though. (24/9/03)

Nietzsche broke down finally in Turin - he saw a man beating a horse in the Piazza Carlo Alberto and threw himself around the horses neck to protect it.  He never recovered his marbles and died 10 years later. The enormous compassion in his nature is one of the great ironies of his biography. It seems he ultimately failed to become an amoral super-person. Conclusion: If being a free spirit means rejecting religion and morality along with the alternatives of both positivism and nihilism, it means going ga-ga.

My comment in conversation last night that Nietzsche's philosophy isn't really about anything concrete is reinforced by Safranki's summing up in the last chapter of his biogrpahy: "Contingency is everything. There is no overarching meaning, but only a dynamics of struggle, self-assertion and self-enhancement both individually and collectively...There is no point of outcome and no end result. There is only the will to an unceasing adventure in thinking"

Nietzsche has been appropriated by many people since his death - his core ideas could almost be made to mean anything. e.g. He was deeply anti-anti-semitic and yet appealed to the Nazis. Part of the problem is that after he went ga-ga his sister took charge of publicising his works and she was a dedicated anti-semitic Wagnerian. One Nazi thinker noted ironically:"All in all, Nietzsche was an opponent of socialism, an opponent of nationalism, and an opponent of racial thinking Apart from these bents of mind he might have made an excellent Nazi"
Most people know that he said "God is dead". His philosophy is a very personal exploration of the "What happens next then?" question. He assumed that most people simply can't cope with the idea that unity, stability, meaning and goals are lacking in the cosmos and that they need some blinders to prevent them thinking about it. He once prophetically said that anyone that who denied God was a "madman" for this very reason. Ultimately his pre-breakdown response to the defunct God problem was to say that God's killers must themselves become Gods (or ubermensch) because the alternatives would all lead to a vulgarisation of culture.
For example, Kant had insisted reason was the answer. The Anglo-Saxon tradition of philosophy favours empiricism and you could argue that modern society reflects the uncontemplative, empirical nature of modern science. Nietzsche flirted with metaphysics throughout his life and was generally much too German to adopt a cold, "apollonian" approach. He thought of Socrates as the founder of knowledge without wisdom and the main culprit behind the trend towards mass-participatory democracy and the machine age. You could perhaps now also argue that our contemporary society reflects another of the responses to a dead God that Nietzsche feared...a culture of the "last men" -  the mediocre masses, who brutally defend their mundane existences and banal pleasures. Heat magazine.
Nietzsche also rejected nihilism and historicism (Hegel, Marx). He thought life was essentially tragic, agonistic.  An attempt to use reason and science to achieve a more equitable division of happiness was misguided because the happiness of the greatest number was secondary to the potential achievements of super-individuals. On these "peaks" humanity would be judged, not by how well it compensated for the general wretchedness of being.
Safranski has concluded that he ultimately "fell victim to the colossal dimensions of life", meaning that he never really got his head round how to expand himself into one of these amoral supermen.

His first nature, compassionate as the horse incident shows, never fully transformed into his cruel second nature alter-ego. But that makes his philosophy even more engaging. He knew that he was himself part of the problem, and concluded that teaching was the only way to learn and develop into something potentially better.  (18/9/03)

Belleville Rendezvous is a macabre affair. If Swimming Pool seemed a bit like a French joke on the Anglo-Saxons than this animated nightmare is even more so. It could bring out the latent Francophobe in anyone. "So French you can taste it" says Peter Bradshaw in his review. Yes, you can indeed almost taste the spit-roasted frogs!  Apparently the debt to Tati is explicitly recognised, and indeed  I had the same uneasy sense of Gallic putrescence bubbling to the surface from underneath all the apparent innocence and charm when I saw that double bill of Tati films with Surfer last month. Not exactly going to be a huge hit Stateside...the film appropriates New York and turns it into a French-speaking dystopia of the fat and sleazy. 

In the home straight now with Safranski's biography of Nietzsche who was constantly asking the question, how did I come to be privileged enough to think the way I do and what sort of person does this make me? He suggested that morality was in origin not moral, that it mirrored existing power relations and was ultimately a question of who's judging who. The goal of life was not the happiness and prosperity of the greatest number but individual excellence and success, the will to power.

Nietzsche rejected the notion of a  metaphysical "world behind" and instead claimed that the universe was lacking any goal "unless there is a goal in the happiness of a circle".
By keeping one's distance from things, the mystery is preserved, he thought. One has to avoid becoming alienated from the core of existence which is possible if one indulges too much in the culture of the "last men".

It seems to me that some people are simply "greater" than others. They have more good qualities ("virtues").  A great person can be an aphrodisiac, especially if their greatness has rewarded them materially and enhanced their reputation. But they can be both attractive in this sense and UGLY. Clearly there are also beautiful people who are not especially virtuous (used in the sense of greatness here).

The classic "inner beauty" idea was best illustrated recently by the film Shallow Hal. Superficially ugly people with inner beauty appeared beautiful to him and superficially beautiful people with bad characters appeared ugly. Yet I don't think a lack of inner beauty negates outer could it? It's not like matter and anti-matter.

Have reached the Übermensch stage in Nietzsche's biography - having killed God we now need to become God in order to avoid an inevitable downward spiral  towards banality. (Maybe the history of the 20th century reflects our inability to actually become God and hence our grudging acceptance that vulgarisation is the only alternative?)

Nietzsche suffered from the problem of others not seeing him as he saw himself - a sensation he described as the "affect of distance".  This is one explanation for the fantasies of mass annihilation that crop up in his writings of the period. The masses appear as a hindrance to the goal of humanity which must lie in its "peaks".   

I have now reached the stage in Nietzsche's life story where he has concluded that passions aim for totality whilst science teaches reserve and the relativity of knowledge. Science acts as a coolant on self-mystifying enthusiasms. Art, he thought, was both a faded echo of religion and another aspect of our self-abhorrence.  Safranski notes that the concern here was how far you can go with the spirit of science before you find yourself in a desert. "Scientific curiosity is initially refreshing, enlivening and liberating , but truths turn gloomy once we have become accustomed to them." (15/9/03)

Nietzsche turned against his initial enthusiasm for Art, questioning whether there was any higher knowledge to be found in a heightened state of being.  A tendency to be metaphysical about art (or in my case perhaps sex and romance!) can lead, he now believed, to "self-mystifications".  How true.  (14/9/03)

Cypher is yet another deeply silly movie.  Tania summed it up best: It's like when someone is telling you a story and you think it's a joke and start laughing only to discover that actually they were being deadly serious.  Indeed at first I thought that perhaps we were in for some satire of corporate America. (along the lines of films like Demolition Man which used a future world to poke some fun at our own.) One crucial early scene was a reminder that if Dante were alive today, the lowest level of hell would be 24-hour Powerpoint.

Yet in the end, the plot isn't about anything other than itself. It's like a Philip K. Dick story with all the insides gouged out of it.  And it's all so self-consciously stylish (the Matrix is not the only other film you are reminded of), as there are constant references, intended or not, to other genre-definers than in Charlie's Angels! Personally I experienced flashbacks to Tron, Leon, Brazil, The Truman Show and others. Jeremy Northam's nerdy character also reminds me of Michael Palin's accountant.

That it ends on a yacht is just the last of a line of cliches and one that is handled with less style than many of the others. Definitely an example of Baudrillard's postmodernist dystopia of re-shuffled signs.

The key to the silliness of this film is perhaps this odd need to bug boring conferences with 60s-style pen transmitters or to move vital data around on plastic CDs. Like many a vision of the future it feels somehow old fashioned - thirty years forward meets thirty years backwards. Yet this particular futurist vision basically fails to deliver what the genre is supposed to deliver - either a satire of the present or a credible projection of a possible future world.  And the CGI is crummy.

Maybe one could say that it starts off quite well and that there are perhaps better possible resolutions of the initial premise. Tania suggested one in which everyone turns out to work for the same company for example. That Northam was himself the dodgy independent operator was something I guessed halfway through the film, but I hadn't actually figured out that this was why his nerdy character had such widening personality fissures. (13/9/03)

It's hard to think of a universe like ours that lacked the possibility of knowledge. Indeed a universe like ours must contain the possibility because here we are. Just how unlikely are we. Biologists and other scientists can show how the mutations that led to self-aware creatures were responses to quite contingent events in our ancestors' environments. Yet it is still hard to comprehend that the place of knowledge in the cosmos is contingent.  When we seek for God, we are in part doing so in the hope that there is a greater knowledge out there that somehow comprehends us more fully. Our lifelong partner becomes something of a surrogate for this. (12/9/03)

Nietzsche identifies Socrates as the originator of the notion that knowledge can overcome the injustices of nature and society. This is the concept of knowledge as corrective panacea, developed further by Aristotle and ultimately resulting in our own machine age, where the metaphysical promise of salvation has been transposed into a vision of progress, where all the deficiencies of life are really just deficiencies of our knowledge.

To Nietzsche though, life was not a process of linear accumulation and progressive enhancement, rather a cycle of expiring and expanding around a fixed point. He wanted to gaze into "that which defies clarification" and reassert the validity of tragedy.  For him the poor lived tragedy, whilst the rich were cognizant of it, which made for a kind of equitable distribution of pain!  Socrates' "loathsome pretention to happiness" is contrasted with the unsentimental Democritus who taught that "nothing exists but atoms and empty space; the rest is just opinion". For Democritus nature is indifferent and beyond good and evil. The atomic substance of the world is calculable rather than perceptible, the sun really doesn't rise. Plato burned Democritus' books:  indeed Platonic cognition meant a process of discovering the good in the world and becoming good in the process.

Earthly consonance is how Nietzsche describes the notion of connection between nature and knowledge - the basic discernibility / intelligibility  of the world. This view distrusts incommensurability.  Truth is valid without reference to the individual - intersubjectivity.

Have also reached the stage in Nietzsche's biographical timeline where he pulls away from Wagner and artistic metaphysics, having realised that the man in his portrait was "beyond" the real Wagner. Getting away from the magician in this way  is described as escaping from Klingsor's Garden.  (9/9/03)


Fascinated by a chapter in Safranski's book about the obscure German individualist/ nominalist philosopher who called himself Stirner, author of Der Einzige und sein Eigentum / The Ego and its Own  Such was his state of ostracism by the juste-milieu of contemporary thinkers, that even Nietzsche elected to send one of his students to take the book out of Basel library! Nobody wanted to admit having read or been influenced by his exaggerated ideas!

Stirner was an agitator that believed that some sort of more direct individual experience would be possible if we rid ourselves of the network of concepts that obscure it - essentialist phantasms.  The "other world outside us" had been critiqued into submission, but the "other world inside us" had if anything expanded its pernicious influence, Stirner thought. 

Nietzsche differed from Stirner in that he saw the removal of "phantasms of thought" as a means and not as an end in itself.  He spoke of the "giddiness" of knowledge that went beyond its own boundaries. He took from Stirner the idea that the creator must stand outside his creation, and must not accede to his own thoughts. Stirner's philosophy echoes that of the Stoics, whose maxim was that we are not influenced so much by things themselves, as by our view of them.

A friend of Nietzsche noted that he would be attracted to short sentences that others had crafted and would attach his own thoughts onto them, building new structures that used them as a foundation. (8/9/03)


Adapted from an email sent today:

At some point in the distant past our ancestors acquired some new abilities. A change in the architecture of the brain meant that not only could they suddenly imagine making more complex tools, they acquired the dexterity and skill to do so. Pretty much at the same time they acquired an appreciation of the sacred.  All 3 of these changes are really important to the history of art.
Now when someone says to Damien Hirst. "I could have done that" and Hirst replies "But you didn't" he is defending the originality of his imaginative composition. But the fact remains that I COULD put a dead shark in a tank. What I can't do is compose a symphony, or paint like Vermeer.
So some modern artists are in effect using only one of the cavemen's new abilities. Yes, it's still art of course. But there is a difference. What we think of as art is culturally and historically determined and it's certainly the case that, in the West at least, the word Art was inextricably bound up with the "Artifice", or skill side as well as the imaginative side.
It seems to me that the urge to create art is inextricably linked to consciousness. And yet consciousness represents the tip of the human iceberg...such a small fraction of our senses, perceptions and memories make it in there at any given moment. So in both the act of creation and the act of interpretation you are dealing with something being forced through a bottleneck. This is a good reason why there is no single objective (human at least) position from which to interpret a work of art, not even the consciousness of the creator. (Nietzsche, like you, was convinced that thought precedes self and consciousness. )
Art to some extent mediates this gap. It functions in part as a medium whereby individuals and societies can come to better understand some of the human mysteries that may be just beyond the bounds of everyday awareness. But the urge to communicate and the urge to create are not exactly the same thing. Art is also the way our consciousness confronts non-human mysteries and attempts to acquire transcendental knowledge. Now I'm very liberal, but I'm not a cultural relativist in spite of what I said above about subjective interpretation. I do believe in the possibility of transcendental knowledge and objective value, I just haven't figured out a way to prove it to myself, or anyone else!
Nietzsche remarked "Flight from boredom is the mother of all art", something which would make no sense at all to an African "artist" whose creativity is inseparable from his immersement in the sacred world of his tribe. Nietzsche's notion of boredom was perhaps a little more sophisticated than mine though. He thinks of art as a remedy for the "eternal wound", the abyss that we might start worrying about were it not for art (or indeed some other kind of vacuous entertainment or indeed religion) to take our minds off it.
In the 19th century Bourgeois society looked upon art as the ultimate justification for humanity and indeed a justification for the general injustice of life/nature. Nowadays I believe we are more likely to think of technology in this way. Ok, we pay lip service to the idea that the highest human values are moral ones, the well-being of the greatest number etc. but in practice we are interested in the well-being of (western) humanity, which today means our own society's economic and political values and its cool inventions.  Art has come to play a more ambivalent role. These days people appreciate Britart to some extent because it represents an art of transgression. Nietzsche would have had fits about this because he saw the role of art as a remedy for social alienation, as a unifying force.
Anyway, elitist art snobs still claim that you need both the innate inimitable talent/skill as well as the imaginative ability to produce great art, but I have thought about this and I think you can be an imaginative genius even if you're a total clutz when it comes to actually making stuff.  (5/9/03)


Nietzsche and Schopenhauer are good examples of what happens when intelligent men don't get out enough. Nietzsche admired what he called Schopenhauer's "Faustian Odour"!  This came from eschewing diversion and confronting the tragedy of life.  Nietzsche's early ideas centre on "self-configuration". He openly admired men that were poets of their own lives, creatively interacting with each moment that they lived. Life as performance art, perhaps. Byron was obviously one of these. Nietzsche charaterises his own position as that of "disciple of an as yet unknown God".  Faith was the route for those that seek tranquility or happiness, truth leads to suffering an requires a more heroic stance. (3/9/03)

With the US the key issue isn't whether or not they are behaving like an Imperialist power, but why they are so bad at it.  The Belgians were bad imperialists, but that was supposedly because they lacked grandeur.  The US is a great power, but is it in some ways a kind of federation of Belgiums?

There is a recurring split personality syndrome in US foreign policy, at once bully and recluse. In Vietnam they lacked the political and ultimately the national will to prevail. In Central America hypocrisy prevailed, genocide and narcotics trafficking were condoned in the interests of strategic objectives. Somalia was a complete mess and now we have Liberia, where they are being at best hesitant.

The Brits acquired an empire in India by accident, pushing inland to quell "failed states".  Perhaps the US too is an accidental imperialist, but one that lacks the vision that ultimately coloured most of the map red.

In the documentary accompanying We Were Young...Hal Moore says "Hate war, love the US warrior". For him this is the solution, the correct attitude that Hollywood has somehow missed before they made a film of his experiences in Vietnam. Yet this is nothing more than a call to moral blindness. Perhaps we can absolve Hal Moore's men - they fought bravely for each other and against an equally, if not more, valiant enemy. But does their heroism absolve their government, or their murderous patriotism?

Great ill is also done in the name of religion. Can you say Hate Persecution, Intolerance, Child-abuse but love the Catholic priest? Jack Geoghegan epitomises the difficult issue and the film took pains to emphasise his idealism and good work in Africa for the church. Yet moments before his own demise he was dealing out death in a frenzied, brutal fashion.  The warrior code is a form of ascetic world-rejection like the monastic code. For Moore Vietnam was going to be like home ought to be, yet his battle-scared troopers later spoke of returning to "the world".  Shared courage under fire explains the war from the soldier's perspective, but surely we can't take this as the whole truth in spite of the fact that an understanding of this "good" was previously missing from our appreciation of the general "bad" that was the Vietnam war.

Secretary is pretty good, but it takes me a while to get involved. I'm in the front row, but it's the smallest screen in the place. James Spanker is back in his standard perv role. Maggie Gyllenhaal, a girl with a pointy nose and very expressive eyes, plays the masochistic secretary. If it wants to be a comedy it fails, but it has a quirkiness which makes the S&M  theme more acceptable because it is made to seem irrelevant to non-quirky people. It ends up as a kind of heart-warming romantic love story between people with rather odd inclinations. Gyllenhaal plays Lee as odd and basically unremarkable, but becomes sensual and sexy in her submissive role, which is possibly the only controversial note.

Skimming  some reviews of "We were Young..." including this one by The Observer's Philip French:

"There isn't a single subversive sentiment and only one four-letter word in the whole film. This is because Colonel Moore and Joe Galloway are not only central characters but credited as technical advisers. Can you imagine a critical, revisionist film of the New Testament in which Christ and St Paul were chief consultants on the set?"

It made me laugh. It also reminded me how a film is somehow supposed to be "objective" even when it's based on the subjective and partisan account of a participant.  When you read the book you accept that it has a point of view. I wonder why reviewers can't do the same with films?
Moore's account of this futile and brutal battle follows the now fashionable trend set by  'Band of Brothers' and Black Hawk Down which avoids offering an ethical analysis of whether it is right and sensible to fight because "all that matters is the guy next to you". The Americans spent years developing "air mobility" warfare using the new fangled Huey helicopters, so they could airlift themselves into the middle of an ambush rather than wait for the North Vietnamese to come along and ambush them in traditional fashion.  In a way, this may be more of an anti-war story than tales like 'Saving Private Ryan', where fighting can seem quite awesome and the need to actually have the battle, both for ethical and strategic reasons is a given,  regardless of the ensuing carnage. (Francois Truffaut said that it's not possible to make an anti-war movie, because all war movies, with their energy and sense of adventure, end up making combat look like fun.)  (25/8/03)

The Swimming Pool - Is this one of those films whose plot simply serves to disguise its own punch-line? Other than that it seems to be an elaborate joke on the English and a celebration of its young star's breasts.  And it's certainly subtle and atmospheric.  But is the twist simple or complicated and can I be bothered to think about it.  Annoyingly, I may have to see the film again just to be sure. Sixth Sense had one obvious seam between its two realities. In this one there could be several.  (25/8/03)

Thinking more about the links between Hopper and Vermeer waiting for bus at Canary Wharf.  Both had a fascination with the partially mysterious and both preferred to explore the feminine mystery over the masculine. Artists and writers perhaps tend not to fall for "deep" women. Rather they are drawn to the ones that can help them unlock their own depths, their own unconscious.  They don't want to peer into another open soul, they want access to their own.

Alain de Botton and his philosopher mate John Armstrong both preach that our compulsive attractions to the opposite sex are usually the result of imaginative projection - we project fine qualities onto our object of desire that perhaps they don't really have...and so we are inevitably disappointed when we establish intimacy and discover the person we are now right up close to isn't the one we were infatuated with. I find this rather a rather annoyingly smug and simplistic male cop-out.
Who ever said love was rational?  90% of all perception is unconscious. So you would expect a large part of the reasons that we are attracted to someone else to be completely opaque to reason. These fine qualities we project onto other people are just post-rationalisations. (and conversely when we meet people that DO have all the right qualities we are often not attracted to them!)
But the problem with unconscious perception is clearly that we are normally not aware of it, or aware how to tap into it. Whereas our conscious self is an on-going narrative, the things that stir us most deeply are often exactly the kind of fleeting impressions that are hard to enjoy without pausing to contemplate them, and without understanding that they are essentially ephemeral. You can't stretch them out to fill your whole life.

The book about Vermeer is helping me to frame my ideas about how the best things in life come in the form of very transient moments, whose value can be extended through contemplation. (Isn't one longing look almost worth as much as a lifetime of cohabitation?)  (19/8/03)

Like many of the best things in life 'Pirates of the Caribbean' is one of those "on-the-edgy" entertainments, walking in wobbly fashion along the thin line separating the very successful from the very bad.  Take Johnny Depp's performance for example. This could have been the most appallingly high-camp rendition of a pirate ever, and yet he gets away with it. (OK, he's still not a very convincing robber captain!) Then there are the "can't-be-killed" pirates engaged in furious battle scenes. This whole element of the plot could have descended into absurdity never to return and yet somehow the sheer fun of it all gives it enough momentum to get through before you start asking yourself those awkward logical questions.  It's interesting that there is rarely an even continuum between good and bad. It's like the difference between the first two Matrix films. Kitsch is terrible, but "almost Kitsch" can be absolute genius. Pirates has all the cliches, except as John pointed out, a bloke with a wooden leg. The parrot is there, and so is the plank. The special effects were obviously expensive, but in places the film felt quite low-budget. In one scene there's a little spit of white-sanded beach that's not especially lovely and you can just imagine the nasty SANDALS resort around the corner. Plenty of people going "ahahaaaaargh" and some great sword fights as expected.  (14/8/03)

The first 20 minutes or so of 'Traffic' (1971) are a life and death struggle with my own eyelids. Yet I am shaken awake by some spectacular and actually quite sophisticated visual comedy, though the funniest of all is the bizarre scene when a passing group of summer-of-lovers fake a tragic dog accident. (Haha. Still makes me laugh.)  James says he had tears in his eyes throughout. I'd have to say that it was all a bit hit and miss.  Though the Dutch traffic policemen with their burlesque Flemish babble are extremely amusing and some of the details of the camping car are also hilarious.

Les Vacances de Mr Hulot is an earlier (1953) more slapstick affair, set in beautiful Saint-Marc-sur-Mer in Loire-Atlantique, which must now have been utterly ruined. Again it has its special moments - the tennis game and Hulot's ping pong shuffle, collecting water from the sprinkler and it spins, the oar falling down the staircase, the old man dismissively chucking the sea-shells his wife enthusiastically passes him. And once again one or two visual jokes are over-used in my opinion, like the noise of the dining room door. It's basically very gentle, and having been made before I was born, less of a disturbing Tardis trip to the drab world of my infancy.

(Roger Ebert's review is as ever spot on: "The first time I saw Jacques Tati's "Mr. Hulot's Holiday,'' I didn't laugh as much as I thought I was supposed to. But I didn't forget the film, and I saw it again in a film class, and then bought the laserdisc and saw it a third and fourth time, and by then it had become part of my treasure. But I still didn't laugh as much as I thought I was supposed to, and now I think I understand why. It is not a comedy of hilarity but a comedy of memory, nostalgia, fondness and good cheer...When I saw the film a second time, the wonderful thing was, it was like returning to the hotel. It wasn't like I was seeing the film again; it was like I was recognizing the people from last year.")

It's interesting to read later that the essential difference between Tati and Chaplin is the Frenchman's apparent lack of improvisation. It was all planned methodically in advance - and yet many of the gags do still seem oddly random.  Like one of my emails where I try too hard to cram in all the ideas I have scribbled in my notebook!  In the end, it's somewhere between Chaplin and Mr Bean.  (12/8/03)

Buffalo Soldiers is good, not great. It is propelled by a somewhat nasty ironic humour, epitomised by Phoenix's unavoidably twisted smile. "There are two types of people here, the motherfuckers and the motherfucked" is quite a memorable line (and "good scheisse ja?").  Ed Harris is superb as the ineffectual Supply Colonel. (10/8/03)

I am getting a little frustrated with Bachelard, whose prose can be insufferably precious. "The housewife awakens furniture that was asleep". Puh-lease. Why am I reading about the poeticism of doorknobs? (10/8/03)

Persevering with Bachelard. So many nuggets amidst so much verbiage.  The "house we are born in", with its verticality between cellar and attic, is surely not as universally formative as he suggests.  Yet there is something that rings very true about the suggestion that this primal home is our first cosmos and structures forever after how we perceive the wider cosmos. (Are the hidden corners of the Matrix like a kind of cellar, the locus of unconscious fears?)  "The house we are born in is physically inscribed within us" Bachelard suggests. "The feel of the tiniest latch has remained in our hands...this passionate liaison of our bodies, which do not forget, with an unforgetable house."  It's no doubt the same with unforgetable people.  After a long absence we find our mind re-loads some of the old software and our behaviour slips into familiar but almost forgotten routines.

I suppose that in Bachelard's terms, my riverside flat with it's balcony overlooking an expanded city space, has an unusual cosmicity for an urban dwelling, but in other senses suffers from horizontality.  (10/8/03)

T3: Rise of the Machines: We have the same seats as usual, 18 and 19 in the 4th row back. Unfortunately I have to sit next to an excitable giggly and gay Italian with a crash helmet who provides a running commentary throughout.  The hottest of evenings and he and his mates are sitting there in leather biker jackets.

T3 is actually better than the overrated T2 in places.  Much of the budget has been spent on wanton destruction, especially during the opening car chase sequence, which had me laughing out loud at the sheer ruin of it all.  9-11 has obviously set a new benchmark here which Hollywood must surpass. There definitely a new one-liner: "Talk to the hand" and Arnie's pronunciation of words with air as ear gets a few laughs too.

The prototype Terminators look even less likely to take over the world as the Daleks did in the 1960s.  Kristanna Loken reminds me of the snub-nosed blondes Baksheesh and I used to hang-out with from the Swedish school (at the time the SPGS girls seemed way too aloof and intellectual for us!) She seems to have modelled her movements on those of Brigitte Helm in Fritz Lang's 'Metropolis'.

The funniest thing about the plot is how easily Arnie and his two human side-kicks get right into the heart of a top secret pentagon installation. This part actually feels quite low-budget.  (5/8/03)


Chewing on this as I waited for the bus: we can only ever get an intimation of ultimate reality. Our perceptions and our logic are not sufficient. Any theory or doctrine that claims to provide access to ultimate truth (or some kind of complete explanation) is necessarily delusional. Most of us can't live with partial solutions and need to start their thinking around an existing total solution. In that sense they perform a valuable function. GR Elton's view that we should all be road-testers for theories requires that the theories exist. History for sure would be a great deal duller without them. (11/7/03)

Some more memorable moments in Blindness.  Such as the Doctor's wife running from the supermarket when the blind crawling around on the floor suddenly detect the smell of chorizo on her breath and start screaming. This would be hard to duplicate in a movie. It's fun that the central character should be known only as the Doctor's wife.  Saramago seems to enjoy describing nakedness. As readers we of course see nothing, it's all in the mind's eye, which is probably what Saramago is alluding to.  But we imagine we see the world as well as the sighted Doctor's wife, who's nakedness is an irrelevance in the blind world.

"History has become a blow up doll and humanitarianism is its condom" says Baudrillard, and who's to say what he means. Definitely a case of mixing metaphors. The more you think about this one the less it seems to say.

However a few more here which do seem to have some underlying content:

"The strategy of idleness - the unshakeable desire to escape the violation of out time by all kinds of predatory, futile activities consists in putting off the point where those activities have to be done".

"Art was the poetic transfiguration of the real. Philosophy was the poetic transfiguration of the concept." and
"I quite like wasting time but not having it wasted" 

Blindness is a bit like Big Brother meets Casandra Crossing, in the first third at least. In Day of the Triffids the blindness serves to make humans easy prey for the killer plants. In 'Blindness' Saramago explores the central idea in itself a great deal more...what are the social implications he seems to be asking? What's the difference between the new blind and the old blind? These incarcerated blind folk bicker, shit, fuck and fight. There are loads of interesting little details such as the anguish the pretend-blind woman feels when her watch stops. The separate solution for blind soldiers. But Saramago does seem to follow one Hollywood convention - the further from the core roles people are the more simplistic their characters and motivations seem to be.  (8/7/03)

Bedford Boys was nicely balanced. It suggests that the action of the first wave at Omaha was indeed glorious. After all someone had to start first in order for the beachhead to be established and this meant inevitable sacrifice. Company A was chosen for this task on merit. Yet it was also unfair. Unfair because war is unfair in its selection of who will live and who will die, unfair because they had little way of fighting back at first and unfair in the wider sense that society is unfair, leaving the young and poor with the hardest lot.  Finally it also suggests that there was some underlying military incompetence as well as bad luck on the day that compounded the slaughter.  (9/7/03)

Baudrillard obsesses with junk DNA, returning again and again to the idea of a useless 90%.  He objects to using a computer to save time: "Time saved is as serious as blood spilt".  He asks if the deaf hear or the blind see in dreams.

Americanism can't be rejected he suggests, because it runs through all our societies like modernity itself. Yet he is clearly irritated by "the deculturated peasant and acculturated tourists, arrogant adults and children with their pretentious technical gadgetry and senseless chatter."

Baudrillard also notes with irony that while capitalism raises living standards increasing the hopes of many that they too can have skiing holidays, yet at the same time reduces their chances of this through the atmospheric warming it fosters.

If "Apophatic is the term applied to a theology which seeks knowledge of God through what he is not" what would apophatic history be like, he muses. Interactivity, he suggests "is the end of the spectacle. It all began with the abolition of the stage and the immersing of the spectator in the spectacle; Living Theatre. When everyone becomes an actor there is no action any longer, there is no stage.

The mistake of socialism was to think it could take the whore History for its own and quickly became the "eternal cuckold".

He refers to a story I was unaware of, a liner full of the world's smart set which set out from Manaus to celebrate the new century in 1889 which "drifted off into the night, carrying its passengers to their deaths in the meanders of the river".

"You gauge the flow of time only through others", he notes, because their "faces are much fairer and crueller mirrors to us than our own image. This is doubtless because we recognise them through all their changing appearances, while one never recognises oneself: one always rectifies one's image by reference to an ideal face from which one's present face is merely an exception - an never a definitive one".

There are some cleverly mad ideas too.  Such as fixing retirement dates based on the anticipated date of death and thus eliminating a "scandalous inequality". And the points-based license for behaviour embedded in every citizen: "You would only need to embed the points-based license in the body as a kind of programmed implant to have the recalcitrant liquidated by automatic seizure." Or "we should plan to build niches filled with explosives into the buildings of the future."

And then there's..."imagine the amazing good fortune of the generation that gets to see the end of the world. This is as marvellous as being there at the beginning." A few pithier but interesting quotelets:

"In the empty space of desire, the seats are expensive."

"You never have both the cards and the rules of the game at the same time."   (A possible Netcoms motto that.)

"The worst thing when your ideas are plundered is the fact of being taken for a wreck"

"The democratic dictatorship is shaping up nicely"

"Boredom used to be born out of uniformity; today, it is the product of acceleration"

Finally, an interesting observation about the first Gulf War, also applicable to the second: "Working on the event as it happens, as with the Gulf War, yet not in real time and not with the benefit of hindsight, but with the distance of aspiration. Journalism of the third kind, the very opposite of reporting." and "It is as impossible for a citizen to form an opinion on the basis of the news media as to form an aesthetic judgement on the basis of the art market."

In his parting speech to the faculty GR Elton told us in 1986 that the proper role of the historian was not to be a believer but to be a verifier.  It seems that Edward Hopper was also a pragmatic thinker, aware of transcendentalism but not caught up by it. He concentrated and compacted reality in frozen motion in order to observe it more closely, perhaps seeking evidence "in between the frames" for something outside the normal.

Hopper's art also suggests a continuity between the human world and the natural world albeit in disequilibrium at the points of contact. (A dialectical relationship in fact, "simultaneously an incursion and an expansion" in the words of Kranzfelder. An interim space in permanent oscillation. )

How much of the human world is the way it is because we collectively willed it that way? Mechanisation is something that happened to us as much by us. Many of the properties of technology are systemic, like nature. The dichotomy between the natural and the artificial is in important respects itself artificial.  (27/6/03)

With the obvious caveat of 'if you like that kind of thing' 2 Fast 2 Furious is a fabulous film. And as a sequel it succeeds where Matrix Reloaded failed. Successful creativity is often about knowing what to include and what to leave out and this film gets this part right. Key elements of the first film are retained but overall the pacing and balance are improved. In this instance it is the second film that stands out as intelligent (yes!) , original and genre-defining. (Plus it doesn't have that dickhead Vin Diesel in it.)

Of course the general mood and sensibility are unashamedly adolescent. The camera drools over the cars and ogles the girls, but actual sex is appropriately absent. Violence too is kept to a minimum. There are no deaths from gunshot wounds, though opportunities for including them are abundant. The central drug-trafficking latino baddy, is played with delicious menace by Cole Hauser. Yes, he's a walking cliche, but he's better than 90% of his duplicates. The central eye-candy is provided by Cuban-American Eva Mendes, physionomically a Bollywood version of Cindi Crawford, great to look at, but you can tell she'd be less good at thumping goons than her precursor Jennifer Lopez, so the directors have left her with an essentially passive role.

In the original Matrix the filmmakers managed to distract us from the essential silliness of the underlying premise. They then forgot to do this is in the sequel. Sticklers for realism and rational plotlines will no doubt also find 2 Fast 2 Furious a painful experience, but as with artier self-consciously surrealist cinema, that's really not the point.

Quibbles. Perhaps there isn't enough real wit in the script. Hollywood Spanish is also much evident: "Muevanse muevanse", the equivalent of "Schnell Schnell" in WWII movies. But none of this detracts from the thrill, which is maintained at high octane levels throughout. It's a successful blending of genres into something that feels new and different, kind of MTV Base meets Playstation meets Miami Vice. For UK viewers there's perhaps a bit of Essex in there too.

Frida was surprisingly enjoyable, but I guess it must be classed as an example of one of those Faux-Brow movies.  It's slow in places and I'm not entirely convinced by Salma Hayek who smirks too much for my taste in this role. Molina on the other hand is excellent. There are some arty little touches throughout but the rest of the narrative is often sentimental and unchallenging. You are generally left with a greater interest in the life and work of Rivera. (18/6/03)

Excellent and highly amusing article in the Guardian entitled "Robots without a cause".

"Technological accomplishment is often the product of a can-do rather than a why-do culture. That is why the recent TV ads for Orange phones suggesting that 80% of us are using only 10% of the facilities on our mobiles and need to be educated to do so are misplaced. Orange should be considering instead why 90% of the facilities on their phones are of no practical use to the vast majority of us."

Watch the Donnie Darko DVD I rented from Blockbusters.  Dark, mysterious, angsty but the lack of a 'juggernaut plot' combines badly with my jetlag and I leave the last half hour for the morning. Belongs to the unnamed American genre of leafy small-town suburbs and high schools. Other members include films like American Beauty, Halloween, Blue Velvet, The Faculty, Twin Peaks and perhaps even the surreal Argentinian cinema of Eliseo Subiela The debut films of talented writer-directors always make interesting viewing and I'm always stimulated by plotlines that toy with notions of alternative timelines, but some of the weirdness here is a little mannered.  (Drew Barrymore was executive Producer on this movie.)  (6/6/03)

Matrix Reloaded: Ben Elton once said of the old Ferrero Rocher ad that it seemed as if it had already had the proverbial piss taken out of it. And indeed for much of the first hour, Matrix Reloaded felt like a send-up.  Everyone talks in measured epigramatic language, which occasionally provokes a peal of hilarity from the audience, in that instant unable to believe that the movie could be taking itself this seriously. You expect someone to utter "and so it begins" at any minute.

Then along comes the Freeway sequence, 25 minutes perhaps of sheer cinema exhilaration. This alone makes seeing this film on the big screen worthwhile. Makes us understand that this is all just fun.  At one point the camera seems to duck under an oncoming truck to emerge unscathed at the other side.

Just before the Freeway sequence some light relief had been offered by 'The Merovingian', a walking embodiment of Old Europe, part Cointreu man, part Herr Flick. That name itself a knowing acknowledgement of that whole corpus of pseudo-history, Cathars, Rosicrucians, hidden treasure, secret bloodlines, occult religion.

Surfer said that it was a good thing the production team had avoided the temptation to give cameos to well known thesps, but agreed that he too had thought "oh no its Donald Sutherland" when the Architect appeared. This was a role that would have fallen to the likes of Ralph Richardson in another era of Sci-fi. Many parts of the film seem to be flirting with sci-fi archetypes and cliche. Parts of the Zion script are pure 'Terminator'.  I've never watched The Prisoner but I'd be prepared to wager that fans of that show experience a sense of deja vu!

The cast have aged a bit. Generally all the main players are better as avatars than they are as ordinary humans. Morpheus attempts to make a rousing speech to the Zion masses that demonstrates clearly why monotone is his preferred medium of communication. Surely the scene where Neo has to kiss Monica Belluci twice, once with passion and once without is an in joke at the expense of the wooden Mr Reeves? Surfer was unimpressed with the twins. Indeed their signature special effect suggested that they would make more formidable foes than they prove in practice.

Zion's night of celebration is like the worst WOMAD festival you've ever been to. A conscious effort seems to have been made to suggest that Zion is a society where none of the familiar inequalities and divisions along race and class lines apply. And yet how so? Surely all these people were formed inside the world of the matrix which is an analogue of the one we live in ourselves.

Is there an underlying philosophy lesson? If there is it is a strange mixture of science and religion. And the more the plot flirts with non-classical cosmological ideas, such as multiple versions of key characters and events, the harder it becomes to maintain our own emotional engagement with the sequence we actually see in these movies. Narrative depends on a universe with traditional sequentiality. 4/6/03)

I learned today that Antal Szerb died in a German forced labour camp in 1945.  Like Ervin in the story, he was a catholic of Jewish descent.

The Complete Review  has this commentary on Szerb's novel by George Szirtes of the 'Times Literary Supplement': "The book is compulsive and infuriating by turns, sometimes skating, sometimes lurching, between its influences. There are elements of genuine paranoid vision, heavy surrealism, guidebook travelogue, Gothic horror tale, Chestertonian fantasy, intellectual debate and an uneasy social satire. (...) Journey by Moonlight is a burning book, a major book, one of those maddeningly uneven firework displays that serve as much for symptom as artefact."

Perhaps the most intriguing part of Mihàly's psyche for me is the alternative of passion through abstraction he pursues. It's also interesting that he finds geography to be such an aphrodisiac. ("Alone in that profound solitude a man feels after he has embraced a woman with whom he has nothing in common") 


In Journey by Moonlight Mihàly has, partly by accident and partly by design, been separated from his new wife on the Umbrian plain and is now actively hiding from any pursuers in hilltop towns "behind God's back".  I find much to identify with in this character: his sense of impermanence, his abstraction and introversion that make him feel that he is merely playing at being serious adult human being. He finds passion more in distance than physical intimacy. This urge to vanish, to give life the slip reminds me of how the same thoughts occurred to me at the airport in Guatemala City back in 1989. Anyway, I'm really enjoying this novel. 70 pages in and it's not really about anything other than the personality of its lead protagonist. (13/5/03)


Finished reading 'Morocco Modern'. The last chapter showcases the work of Charles Boccara, a French-educated Tunisian that sits at the centre of contemporary Moroccan architecture. He is an exponent of architectural surprises - his designs incorporate niches and attics, because he believes that such spaces contain the soul and the mystery of a house.  This is an idea that also crops up in my new book Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb.  I remember how the basement at No1 Eaton Square felt to Antonio and me like a point of contact with a mysterious shadowy underworld. Now that the whole place has been gutted and refurbished, even the basement is a little luxury flat. The old house has lost a bit of its soul. (11/5/03)

Lounge in the sun reading Death in Venice. This is really the ultimate holiday-gone-wrong tale. It even has the equivalent of the 'nightmare taxi journey from the airport' chestnut - Aschenbach manages to pick the only Gondolier without a license, a muttering brute that ominously tells him "you will pay signore" and proceeds to take him where he doesn't want to go. Right from the start, Aschenbach's trip is accompanied by a sense of reality "sliding into some bizarre and grotesque derrangement" and that "the world was undergoing a dreamlike alienation" and the certainties of his solitary bourgeois life in Munich unravel on the waters of the Venetian lagoon. (6/5/03)

I'll finish Martin Rees' book tonight. One of the key points I've taken out of it is that the sciences of the very small and the very big are intimately linked, and both the deep aspects of reality. He confirms the notion I picked up elsewhere that the vast size and duration of the cosmos is a pre-requisite for the interesting things that happen in the mid-scale. The book also reinforces my suspicion that any talk of chance at the cosmological level is often unhelpful. Rees points out that a sufficiently large cosmos would inevitably have copies not just of each of us, but also everything we can see with our most powerful telescopes. In such as case it's rather pointless to talk of the probability of other life elsewhere.

I understand the the Big Bang a bit better now. The name is misleading because it was in no sense a typical explosion as the pressure was the same all around. Rather it was an expansion, and strangely one that didn't need to be fed with energy because the gravitational pit that it created compensates neatly for the rest mass-energy of the universe. The light we see is itself evidence of the big bang because photons are its after product.

Roger Penrose: "Even aardvarks think their offspring are beautiful". (He was referring to the pet theories of leading colleagues, but this quotation could equally be used to poke fun at relativism!)

The suggestion that there may not be any fundamental difference between a 'real' cosmos and a virtual one appears to give hope of underlying meaning. Yet, the universe we can contemplate with telescopes and mathematical genius is extraordinarily quirky. What kind of algorithm would produce this?  Why are tiny asymmetries so important? So much of the large-scale complexity depends on what was imprinted back when the universe was the size of a golf ball.

In biology accident seems to play an equally disconcerting role. The random fate of soup-dwelling protozoa determined the whole genetic line of our biosphere. Yet Conway-Morris and others say that the phenomenon of convergence within biology, where separate branches of genotypic evolution end up with similar phenotypes, suggests that there is some kind of plan or bias at work. It does not however seem that cosmological randomness has an analogue of convergence that we can currently detect.

Rees believes that space exploration is held back by its very professionalism and hopes the kind of people that would choose to become earthbound explorers and yachtsmen will one day be able to risk themselves in space. In a similar fashion, I rather hope that some non-expert contributions could be made to cosmology as well. mathematics may have an "unreasonable the physical sciences" (Eugene Wagner) but it has an unreasonable ineffectiveness as a medium of mass communication.

One random thought that occurred to me during this read was been that in the end we are just like wrinkles on a sheet of material. God is neither, good or evil, not our friend. God's the one stretching the material at the edges until the wrinkles disappear.


Pressing on with Martin Rees' book. The possibility of the mortality of our species and perhaps of all life in the universe is something scientists seem to intuitively reject, as if it would compound the anguish of our own personal mortality.

Freeman Dyson says he finds the notion of a Big Crunch "claustrophobic", and this in spite of the obviously vast scales involved in the space-time we can already experience and comprehend. He suggests that infinite amounts of information could in fact be processed with finite energy reserves. (Rees quotes Woody Allen : "Eternity is very long especially towards the end.") Even without a crunch though, there are potentially other brick walls for life. Expansion takes more and more of the universe beyond possible reach setting a limit, albeit a large one, to how large a system can stretch within the universe. The graininess of the universe also sets a limit to the intricacy that could be established within.

One way to keep up your optimism is to maintain a belief in an underlying plan. For example, the stuff we know least about such as dark matter of quintessence might save the day by changing into something else equally ineffable which will alter the fundamental rules of the game in favour of Life.

The sun will collapse on us in 5 billion years, and maybe Andromeda will crash into the Milky Way around the same time making it an even bigger crisis. But if we've got from soup to Einstein in 1 billion years, 4 more might be enough time to see the development of the kind of complexity that can save itself. (1/5/03)


Martin Rees' Cosmic Habitat is very readable. He doesn't construct loads of showy-offy metaphors like Dawkins but his prose style infers a great deal of detail and philosophical open-enders that readers can extract and play with in their own time. The issue of how probably and repeatable our biosphere is can be approached from two angles: is life actually highly probable given similar conditions? But are similar conditions quite hard to come by? It seems that the language of classical science fetters the debate. In a temporally and spacially-infinite universe, or a multiverse of all realisable probabilities, is chance a meaningful player? What conclusions should we draw from the fact that visible reality is not just a habitat for complex self-organising systems, it appears to be one itself? One key condition mustn't vary by very much at all if our universe is to remain 'biophilic' : if Gravity were less weak, stars would not have to be so large and long-lived, the universe wouldn't be a multilayered hierarchy of structures and spacetime itself would be shrunk. (31/4/03)

Anthony Beevor tells how two German armies fought to reunite in the forest around Halbe, south of Berlin. Their aim to was link up and head West because surrender to the Americans meant safety while surrender to the Soviets probably meant slavery and death. Many German soldiers were wounded by wooden splinters, like 18th century sailors - the Russian tanks deliberately fired high into the trees. Perhaps as 30,000 Germans, 20,000 Russians and 10,000 refugees died at Halbe. A battle fought to escape the war and its aftermath.

Beevor also describes how the meaning of rape changed while the Red Army moved in through the Berlin suburbs. No longer revenge, rape became the act of collecting carnal booty. Beevor suggests that these behaviours probably tell us something unsettling about primitive male sexuality, which is only revealed when all restraint and social norms are suspended. It probably also tells us something about group behaviour, and indeed Beevor indicates that gang rape became a source of male bonding ritual.

Some of the troops facing the Russians were referred to by their own officers as a "casserole" - a mixture of old meat and green vegetables. Schutzjuden were jews protected by the Nazis. They included those that helped stage the Berlin Olympic Games (Must have been popular after the war!)


Simon Baron Cohen has a theory called E-S (Empathising-Systemising) theory - the average female brain is hardwired for empathising and the average male brain for systemising. Evidence includes the fact that boys prefer the ramming game in plastic cars, while girls from aged-7 can tell better when someone has said something potentially harmful. Newcomers to a group playing a game are more likely to watch first before jumping in if they are girls. Boys prefer toys with clear functions like buttons or lights. At one day old boys look longer at a mechanical mobile. Autism/Asperger syndrome patients suffer from obsessional need to work out the rules underlying a system. It is about having a learning style that prefers depth over breadth, accuracy over gist. (24/4/03)

Down on the farm on Sunday we watched the first episode of the BBC's new part-dramatised documentary about Leonardo Da Vinci. The programme traced his early fortune of being adopted by his father after an illegitimate liaison with a peasant girl, then recounted how his lack of book learning permitted him to observe in new ways as he did not know what he was supposed to think. His parachute and tank were shown to be very feasible. Many of the notes he took were written backwards for reading with the aid of a mirror. He tried to compensate for his own slowness by painting his last supper fresco on a new kind of dry plaster. Unfortunately moisture subsequently rose to the surface damaging the work substantially. His painting of Ludovico Sforza's mistress Cecilia Gallerani is an extraordinary piece.

Men like Da Vinci and Socrates are remembered by our culture as bearded old geniuses, which obscures their earlier histories as predatory young homosexuals. Da Vinci's wanderings within the Florentine demi-monde were denounced using the Boca della Verite, a sculpted lion's mouth into which allegations could be posted. Mental or sexual fragmentation often seems a spur to creative achievement, some cases involuntary of course, while other thinkers seems to have the rarer ability to negotiate their own equilibrium. (22/4/03)


Australian natural philosopher Paul Davies (author of 'How to build a Time Machine') has had what amounts to a bit of a moan about the multiverse theory in the NY Times. He suggests that the multiverse has been thunk up to compensate for the "just-so" nature of our own universe, and becomes a theory out of control once you consider the undeniable possibility of virtual worlds "Gods and worlds, creators and creatures, lie embedded in each other, forming an infinite regress in unbounded space". You can almost hear the noise of his head hitting the desk. He avoids mentioning any of David Deutsch's 'evidence' for the multiverse, such as the split screen experiment, which all means his own time machine must be a very different animal. (14/4/03)

Miranda France
can sure turn a turgid phrase - "Argentina was an enigma, an infinite puzzle, like one of Borges' stories of labyrinths" Her Argentinians are morose self-styled European exiles endlessly seeking labyrinths within their own pysches where in fact only banality reigns. Seemingly unable to make any real observations of the city and its inhabitants, her Buenos Aires oozes fantasmal gore like the Overlook Hotel in Kubrick's 'The Shining': "Every street and square bore the memory of an atrocity, a promise unfulfilled" The most telling observation is her own remark to a fellow passenger on the aeroplane out: "I was a foreign correspondent" she says, "I wasn't much good at it."

Still, I learned a few new things about Argentina. That they eat potato gnocchi on the 29th of each month. That Evita had a little mini-republic for children (perhaps a bit like Bekinscot but with a state apparatus) constructed out of town. And that Miranda France's flatmate thought that there were more psychoanalysts than human beings in BA. Two macabre tales will stay with me as well. The statue of an angel passing through a door that sits atop a mausoleum in the Recoleta cemetary - commemorates the unfortunate end of a a young girl entombed when in a coma. She awoke and started to scratch and shout, but by that time the key to the tomb had been misplaced and she had suffocated by the time it was found. Then there's the Museum of the Morgue which has a collection of heads floating in formaldehyde, mostly of miscreants and unfortunates from the turn of the 20th century. One of these, El Pibe Cabeza, a notorious brigand, is represented not only by his eponymous head, but by patches of skin scraped off to preserve his tattoos - of Peron, Tango and Sodomy.

Now that I've finished "Bad Book in Buenos Aires" I have turned to Kapuscinski's account of the war in Angola - "Another Day of Life". It begins with him in Luanda, a city of waiting wooden crates. His reportage leaves you with an abiding image of him sharing the company of books in an understocked dusty bookstore while frenzied crowds outside fire AK47s at the sunlight.

Miranda France's 'Bad Times in Buenos Aires' is certainly readable, but draws on some fairly superficial observations. She quotes the statistic that one person dies every two hours from an elevator accident in the city without question. Just another exotic detail for the travel writer. But it must be untrue. I mean, that's around 4000 a year. The Argentinian junta generals that ordered the nation's tango composers to be more joyful and Carlos Menem's proposed edict to preserve his favourite team from relegation illustrate the often frivolous and ultimately powerless nature of Latin American despotism. One of Guatemala's military rulers also changed the direction of all traffic in the capital overnight. Mayhem. (1/4/03)

An excerpt from Dawkins' new book was published in The Culture last Sunday. In previous works he's always managed to drop in an aside - nature may be cruel and indifferent but we don't have to be. Not much of a theory of ethics really. Rather middle-class and negative. But now this aside is the main theme as he tries to squeeze out another popular science bestseller. You have to doubt whether he's added substantively to the argument.

Once you realise that nature is callous Dawkins says, you can either revel in it like the Social-Darwinists or wholeheartedly reject it. Not much of a political theory either.

There's always been something "that's not my department said Werner Von Braun" about Dawkins' wider philosophical views. When I went to hear him speaking back in 99 with Julian Woolford he was being hounded on the moral implications of cloning and defended himself by drawing a specious distinction between science and technology - science is just theory, any applications of this theory are technology and therefore somebody else's problem. Not very impressive for the "Professor of the Public Understanding of Science" if you ask me.

Would future space colonists be like the God-fearing folk of "Little House On the Prairie" or would they be more like Argentinians?

Perhaps there's some truth after all in characterising Argentina as a country colonised first by a wave of European rich, then by even more waves of European poor, the descendents of whom now feel abandoned at the end of the world, homesick for a mother culture they never really knew, and preserve only outmoded parcels of. If the dumbness of the US comes from the mistaken belief that they have surpassed Europe, the sadness of the Argentinians comes from the knowledge that they haven't. Utopia achieved or anguished permanent exile.


Andrew Graham Dixon's secret life of Vermeer set out to make the point that "art gives you what you can't have". Jan Vermeer lived on the edge in a noisy competitive world it seems. His grand-mother was an uitdragster (someone that drags stuff out to flog it) and his uncle was a counterfeitor. He married up into a catholic family and shared his home with 11 children and 3 other adults including his mother-in-law. The programme suggested that Vermeer's images of domestic tranquility were all about those rare moments of real value. Children were almost never depicted. Peace and tranquility would have been extremely precious - something he could only reach through art.

Visual perception is more V's field than mine and she's not buying this and I think she's right. So very little is known about Vermeer the man, so it's surely very hard to build a psychological profile (or infer intentions) from surviving works. V says that a painting of a scene is not just a story about a scene, but a dialogue or engagement between the artist and that scene. The communication operates not just on the conscious self but on an unconscious and emotional level too. When you draw or paint something, you are often reporting on what reality is telling you, and how it makes you feel, she says. There seems to me to be a danger of anachronism in understanding Vermeer as a man seeking peace and transcendence in art but ultimately brought down by the rat race around him. Tracey Chevalier's novel "The Girl with the Pearl Earring" depicts Vermeer as a slightly other-worldly and taciturn figure, compliant with the opposite sex. Somehow I think he was probably much more dynamic, but it's just an opinion. Graham Dixon's emotions seem stirred when he makes his final speech in front of Vermeer's famous view of Delft. But I'm not convinced that he was making a generalised statement about peace after a storm. This kind of landscape art is very different from tourist photography. If I were to sit down to paint my view across the Thames towards the City, as Vermeer painted his own home town, the end result would be a representative composite view incorporating years of impressions and a deep familiarity. Vermeer's moments are not really moments at all. In the scenes of suspended action he stores away much larger narratives which even he probably couldn't fully express in words.

I've taken loads of pictures of Tikal over the years, but if I wanted to represent it, I would draw upon different impressions laid down in my memory perhaps jogging them a bit with a refresher visit. The most powerful of all these memories was that time Surfer and I reached the roof cone of Temple IV after the late afternoon storm and the jungle steamed like the back of a racehorse and a wall of luminous cloud rolled in from behind us, covering the forest canopy like a cake topping leaving only the upper platforms of temples I, II and II visible in the gloom.

Before squeezing 'In the Shadow of the Sun' back into my bookshelf, there's one paragraph right at the end that is worth quoting in full: "The world of the average African is different indeed. It is a lean world, of the very simplest, most elementary sort, reduced to several objects: a single shirt, a single bowl, a handful of grain, a sip of water. Its richness and diversity are expressed not in material, concrete, palpable and visible form, but in the symbolic values and meanings that the African imparts to the most mundane things, imperceptible to the uninitiated on account of their utter ordinariness. Thus a rooster's feather can become a lantern lighting the way in darkness, and a drop of oil on a shield that will protect you from bullets. The slightest object takes on symbolic, metaphysical weight, because man decided that it would be thus and through his choice elevated it, transported it into another dimension, into a higher realm of being - into transcendence."


Brisk walk down chugger alley (Kingsway) at lunchtime to attend a talk given by Professor Richard Overy at King's College in the Strand. Overy got his MA at Cambridge and is something of a World War Two authority, having published a bio of Goering and a book called Interrogations which analyses how the key Nazis responded to allied questioning at Nuremburg. The subject of today's talk was 'Towards a New World Disorder? The fall-out from the war on Iraq', a topic on which he spoke for about 25 minutes before discussion began. Apparently, some effort has been made to set-up a proper debate but they have been unable to find anyone at King's willing to speak up in favour of intervention!

As I sat down the guy next to me was sized me up before asking "Is this a free event?" !

Overy has a good speaking voice - he almost sounds like he uses a mike. He began by characterising the current situation as the biggest watershed in international affairs since 1989 and argued that the current level of global protest indicates that many people around the world are aware of the significance of the Iraq war and its potential to profoundly influence issues in both domestic and external affairs. Additionally, the juicy potential for fall-out from the crisis has sucked in historians such as himself, usually reluctant, he said, to predict the future. (Though perhaps that has always been the secret agenda of all historians.)

At no point in either Overy's speech or the subsequent question and answer session was 9-11 mentioned. There was some debate as to whether a similar crisis-point, albeit less extreme, might have been reached under Gore's leadership. Overy said that although it might appear old-fashionedly marxist to say so, the survival and extension of the existing world economic order simply had to be a factor underlying the renewed American 'sense of purpose' especially as several members of the current administration have a distinctly economistic perspective on world affairs. An audience member later referred to the New American Century Organisation website as ground zero for the most dogmatic and scary expression of these kind of views.

Overy explained how the current crisis can be traced back through a number of different historical threads, such as the West's largely unsuccessful efforts to understand the terms of its confrontation with Islam, and the ambiguity of Britain's relationships with Europe and America, amongst others. The war has clearly fostered a sudden sharpening of many issues which had been swept under the carpet.

Britain has become Europe's belligerent state, taking part in every available armed conflict for the last 12 years. Europe will now have lost many of its illusions about our tendency to act unilaterally. That there is some sort of resurgent anglo-saxon imperialism at play here is clear to Overy who described the language of Camp David as the language of the white man's burden. What should concern us all is that these men are "less than capable of understanding discourses other than their own".

Surveying the likely consequences, he concluded that the world will be more dangerous, polarised and lawless. Unrestricted US state power will create new enemies abroad which will further restrict liberties at home. He finds the argument that you can't stop fighting once you have started specious and advises the British government to declare an immediate cease fire. (Though at the same time suggested that nothing would get the US to pull out.) He also concluded that the way forward for Britain would be to orient itself towards Europe in future. I agree that on an intellectual level this is a choice we can all make. Yet the polarisation around this issue within British culture and politics is extreme, and one of the consequences of this war is surely that it surely will be harder than ever to achieve consensus on the issue.

Some of the 'questions' were actually rants of varying degrees of coherence. One man picked up on Overy's suggestion that the Cold war had restrained the US as much as Russia by asking if what we see now is in effect the "real post-1945" world order after the historical aberration that was the Soviet Union. A British-born Iraqi in a wheelchair announced that he saw himself first and foremost as a muslim and not an Iraqi or a Briton, and that he and his peers saw the confrontation less as one of resources and economic control but as an intellectual confrontation between the West and resurgent 'political' Islam. He noted that in the 70s Iraq had been far more secular, but that his generation had turned back to the Koran for its answers. The western powers had, he said, created the current nation states in the middle east by famously drawing lines in the sand, but now all arabs saw it as their islamic duty to resist interference regardless of their view of Saddam.

We can certainly see that In the global 'battle for hearts and minds' America's superpower status is less clear-cut. Weaknesses here have been tellingly exposed over the past 12 months and to some extent military response was an attempt to overcome these with decisive action. Now that the action is less than decisive, the communications war has heated up again, but this is an area where the US has been strategically-weak from the start. You can't bomb people into democracy. Overy himself observed that it is historically-observable that the most successful liberations are self-liberations.

The discussion at King's ended on a theme that hinted at issues far more serious than the rights and wrongs of a single conflict. It would indeed be preferable if the West was led by individuals that could understand alternative discourses, but this does not mean a license for unrestricted relativism. There are fundamental facts at play here which will promote ideological confrontation how ever much understanding is promoted. The Western system is geared to wealth creation which in turn creates power. Islam lays much less stress on economic development and scientific enquiry. It is also more exclusive than the liberal, tolerant and (in European form) secular western tradition. These conditions alone will tend to create resentments and fear on both sides regardless of stated policy.

Has America really decided to take advantage of the current window of opportunity its status as sole superpower potentially gives it to remove all possible future competitive systems and resolve all the world's thorniest issues by force of arms? Will the war in Iraq bog down and force them back towards multilateralism? What else can possibly restrain them? (Their pre-war ultimatum to the UN was surely one of the more worrying demonstrations of what has been lost along the way to war.) Would we really prefer a multi-polar nuclear world with loads of competing mutually-exclusive ideologies?

You can learn a great deal about someone from the luxuries they retain whilst they are otherwise economising.

Started Miranda France's 'Bad Times in Buenos Aires' last night. It begins a little unpromisingly. It's as if she got off the plane and immediately rushed off into the centre of town in search of metaphors. The white-haired being served by the white-jacketed in elegant 'old Europe' style cafes. A dilapidated fountain is recruited to the cause, made to symbolise the state of the nation. More than a hint after just 3 pages, that the Argentines will come across as a nation of self-obsessed whingers.

It's not very fresh, but I thought I'd post up my own review of Minority Report from July last year:

Minority Report doesn't make the transition from provocative short story to blockbuster movie very convincingly. Roger Ebert said it's a "triumph" and has "stunning sequences". The latter is true. It is visually entertaining and provocative but fails on the intellectual level. (There are parts like the rolling eyeballs that still have me chuckling inside!) It doesn't seem to know whether it is a silly spoof sci-fi like Judge Dread, Demolition Man (or any number of Arnie films) or a serious attempt to make some sort of point. It's vision of the future is never coherent. You never get a convincing complete world like Blade Runner, it's like all the parts have been designed by different people. Those funny tube-like vehicles that park on the side of your apartment would be no bloody use for carrying a bed back from IKEA, let alone a road trip south of El Paso!
(Though the three-wheeler in AI is the definitive dicky futuristic vehicle) The premise itself is pretty dumb and required a bit of work to move it away from the Robocop genre into an area where issues like free will could be properly examined. Instead you get 3 odd by-products of gene/drug abuse that can detect murders in advance as long as they occur in DC and a bizarre red and brown ball system which is never applied consistently. Given that the fact that these predictions can be averted proves that the events themselves are not predetermined, and given everything we know about the western tradition of law and ethics it is likely that a useful method of preventing crime like this would be taken just like that, as a useful way of preventing crime, not as a way of punishing people for crimes that haven't actually been committed. We also get the painful end game, where the baddy has the plot painstakingly explained to him for the benefit of the hard of thinking in the audience. There's also a wierd collection of movie cliches. The cop that has cracked up due to a terrible event in his past comes from Lethal Weapon via Hot Shots! The movie has a film-noiryness about it that makes it seem oddly old fashioned. Some other observations...

- After the franchise wars, all cars are called Lexus!

- If you want a new car go to the factory and steal it because nobody actually works there

- The underground system knows who everyone is by zapping their irises from a distance. However, if the fantastically incompetent gadget victims called the Pre-Crime police need to identify a criminal they have to use funny spider things which have to climb onto your head, open your eyelids and shine a light into your irises in order to nail you.

- Meanwhile the overdressed Police Swat team that have fallen out of a flying fairground ride will wait patiently downstairs. One will say "I'm going up" as if it was a pretty unconventional thing for a SWAT team member to want to do

- GAP will not change at all in the next 50 years repositioning itself as 20th century retro fashion

- You will need to learn Tai-Kwondo to operate a PC

- If you want to cheat the Iris readers you need an eye transplant but that's OK because they can be had just like illegal abortions in the 60s.

- Eyes keep nicely in little plastic bags for days.

- IT departments are just as bad in 50 years time. You can be accused of double murder, sentenced to long term freezing but still nobody has bothered to deactivate your login.

- The best place to stick a metal tube into your chin in order to change your appearance is ducking behind a plinth in a crowded public space.

The movie ends on a note of pure unadulterated Cheese. V even said "where the hell have they dumped them?". Log fire, crumpled old paperbacks, a tractor, a lake, no other humans for miles and miles. Is that Spielberg's idea of a perfect world?

I've been reading Neuromancer this week almost out of a sense of duty. Remembering it's distinctive loud blue spine from the bookshelves at No16, I asked Xtofer last night how he'd fared,  suspecting that he must have loathed it - there are just so many irredeemables interacting rudely with one another in the narrative. Sure enough, he said he'd abandoned it in disgust. I myself gave up after Chapter 4 two weeks ago, but am having one last go now. (Xtofer said he read it on the recommendation of a friend who subsequently died when his private plan crashed into a mountain in Scotland.)

It owes its landmark status to the fact that it brought the notions of cyberspace and the matrix into mainstream culture and defined the cyberpunk sensibility for future imitators. There undoubtedly are a few good idea-bites inside, some visionary, some just cute. (The space station Zion run by Rastas for example)

Part of the problem with any futuristic writing (especially in the 3rd person) , is the dilemma of how to position the narrator in relation to contemporary readers. Cinema simply shows the future to us avoiding the need to mediate the action through another consciousness. In 'Solaris', Lem takes you thousands of years into the future to a distant world only to fill his space station with dusty books and anglepoise lamps. He's really trying to ask questions about contemporary epistemology but needs an ineffable alien intelligence to do it.

In 'Neuromancer' the anglepoise lamps are the standard motifs of 80s science fiction: space colonialism, Asian ascendancy, virtual reality drugs, post-apocalyptic urban life. Gibson's voice assumes familiarity with all the jargon of his world, but it clutters the narrative. Today's vocabulary would no doubt surprise someone from the 20s transported into our era - but is jargon just buzzwords? There must be other more subtle changes in modes of speech over time an author could predict.

So much of American sci-fi is deeply dystopic. Many outsiders that look in and fear American culture probably also sense this trajectory towards unpleasant, selfish and brutal future societies. The US is a nation that is shackled by its mythic past and projects a vision of its history into its own future, as if the present were a brief respite in its mythological role as gatherer of the greedy on the frontier where life is cheap and civilisation a distant luxury.

The key elements of good science fiction writing for me are: that the location of the action outside of the present or the past is entirely consistent with the themes that the book wishes to address. That world described is a coherent vision of a possible future. Neuromancer doesn't fall down too badly on these, it's just that it doesn't meet the wider standards of good literature. There's one group in the story described as Nihilistic Technofetishists and that's as good a description as any of the kind of person that would enjoy this novel. This is the little red book of the pasty-faced, black t-shirted, smelly-armpitted Forbidden Planet subculture of the 80s.

The central account of the experience of cyberspace is couched in the kind of postmodern verbal excess that typically hides an absence of real meaning or content: "a blurred fragmented mandala of visual information" or "lines of light ranged in the non-space of the mind" or "infinite neuroelectronic void" Amidst all this non-meaning and non-style, occasional ideas smile out at you: Simstim, a kind of PC Anywhere for humans. The omnipresence of coffee franchises (we don't get to find out if they still torture us with Billy Holiday). Drugs that induce hallucinations visible to all - dreaming real. Equally attention-seeking to the noughties reader are the anachronisms. (Remember the TDK ads in Blade Runner?) like cassettes. (Not forgetting the "microsofts" people slot into themselves.)

Watched Angel Eyes last night. V's final judgement was that it promised the big enchilada then left you covered in nacho crumbs. It did start vaguely promisingly. J Lo's character, a dyed-blonde policewoman, had the unlikely name of Sharon Pogue. The dialogue was often well-crafted and there were some suggestions of the potential for Hitchcock-style suspense and underlying family drama, but it all descended into horrendous ickiness. I'm often a sucker for sentimental films however superficial, but nobody in this one seemed really bothered to make the effort. There's one scene when it's actually painful to watch J-Lo screwing up her face in an effort to get a tear to roll out. James Caviezel's final cemetery monologue is also channel-flickingly un-moving. Funny how in two hours some Directors can immerse you totally in another world, involve you so deeply in family strife that you feeling like shouting or chucking household objects yourself, and others leave you with the impression that in the absence of close observation only more time on screen could have added to the depth of the characterisation. (The Director of this particular pavo was Mexican Luis Mandoki.) (26/3/03)

Saw Speilberg's AI:Artificial Intelligence again on Saturday night: seemed more substantial on the second viewing. Obsessive humans and their obsessive robots - most likely a theme inherited from Kubrick. Humbert, Jack Torrance, Dr Harford, HAL 9000, obsessives the lot. Even those very Spielbergesque post-humans at the end just seem to want toys to play with. AI's world is more coherent than Minority Report, but it's really only a backdrop for the questions that the film wants to ask. There are some powerful scenes like the mecha scrambling over the pile of spare parts to replace their own missing limbs, jaws etc. And the classic line "let he who is without sim cast the fist stone." is almost drowned by crowd noise! I'm not so sure how many of the questions this fable asks are answered in the course of the narrative. I wonder how much of the original Kubrick concept was retained and how much of the content is Spielberg imitating Kubrick. I must have a think around these themes of machine love and individual uniqueness some time! (I'm sure the version I saw in the cinema in September 2001 had close ups of the sunken WTC towers.)

Many critics were very dismissive of AI in 2001. The use of a robot (as opposed to some sort of genetically engineered creature) was deemed out of date. Apparently Kubrick sat on this project for 12 years, in part because he hoped to cast a real android as David! Brian Aldiss's tale 'Supertoys Last All Summer Long' was less influential on the final vision than W.B. Yeats' poem 'The Stolen Child'. There was an extensive use of hidden puzzles on the Internet as a promo tool followed by a group called 'The Cloudmakers'. The distant father-son relationship is apparently a Spielberg trademark. Much probably hinges on whether or not the Director intended the final ending to appear wholesome and satisfying. One critic asked "who is this movie actually for?" V noted that the final act was more like a movie for kids and it's certainly the part where Spielberg ickiness predominates. A building in "Rough City" that was shaped like a penis was however removed so that the film could go out as PG-13. In other areas, such as the already noted obsessiveness and the overall selfishness of the western human flood survivors a darker side is strongly suggested. (24/3/03)

The trouble with people that say in public the things that most people just think in private is that they too have private thoughts.

Kapuscinski's book reports on two bizarre Ugandan tribes. First the permanently naked Karimojong. The sudden death from disease of most of the Europeans that manged to encounter them in the 19th century was attributed to their clothes. The Karimojong therefore regard clothes as tokens of evil. When Amin was in power, he attempted to make nakedness illegal, but the tribesmen simply carried around a small cloth which they could wrap around themselves quickly should they run into the military. The Karimojong also believe that God gave all the world's cattle to them alone to look after, so the tribe's main religious ritual involves rustling. Then there are the Amba. If you thought it was lamentable that many tribal peoples instinctively treat all outsiders as bearers of evil, consider the alternative. The Amba uniquely reject the safe view that bad things tend to come from difference. The end result is a society utterly consumed with suspicion, paranoia and murderous internecine conflict. (18/3/03)


Kapuscinski observes in In The Shadow Of The Sun that a tribesman in Africa tends to view the world outside of his village as unreal, even irrelevant. This contrast between the local and global perspectives is very important I think. Right now, you can look at the Iraq crisis either as a series of diplomatic rows, tokens on a map representing tanks and troops or you can zoom in and watch Iraqi children using a bomb shelter as an adventure playground. From the global view we are all bomber pilots. 4000 dead in sweat. Strategically necessary. Yet when we get glimpses of the local view we suffer anxieties. We are individuals, just like the people whose houses and lives will be destroyed on Wednesday night, but we are also members of the "international community" who face some kind of "clear and present danger" from the fanatical poor and other marginals. Kapuscinski describes thus the different perspectives of villager and urbanite in Africa: "The newcomer has a wide-angle lens, which gives him a distant, diminished view, although one with a long horizontal line, while the local always employs a telescopic lens that magnifies the slightest detail". Here in London, we are basically tunnel-dwellers. But occasional global travel and the mass media convince us to think like "citizens of the world". We carry both lenses but leave the wide-angle one attached to the camera at most times. Trouble is that the wide-angle view turns us all into potential armchair tyrants. Death becomes just a detail. And what of the lens that offers an historical perspective too? Remember Roowarnda...remember the crusades...remember the Turkish occupation? Now add black & white film (good versus evil etc.) 

Strangely though, there are also some people with a predominantly close-up view which is heavily distorted by atavistic historical perceptions.

Anyway, neither view is always exclusively appropriate. And like everything in life, balance can mean compromise. But we have to at least consciously try to achieve this balance in our own live (appropriate to our role and cultural level?) and to pass it on to our dependents.

"Remember Roowarnda?". Let's give W the benefit of the doubt. He probably does recollect seeing a load of dead Africans on CNN and like many has probably internalised the notion that somehow this was the result of the "international community" not doing something. The fact that he mentioned Kosovo in the same breath also indicates that he thinks the two problems were basically ethnic and that the proper role of his nation's obese military machine should be like the police force at a football match keeping rival tribes apart. What does remembering Rwanda actually achieve though? Do we remember just the bits we saw on CNN and the speeches that followed? Or should we try to figure out what actually happened? Unlike the majority of African states, Rwanda is not made up of a multiplicity of tribes. In Rwanda there is just one - the Banyarwanda, making it the least likely place to encounter serious ethnic conflict in Africa. However, the Banyarwanda nation has been divided historically into two separate social castes. The noble Tutsis who owned the sacred cows, and the humble Hutus that tended to them. (Known as Vaisyas in India). The elite Tutsis favoured independence in the 1950s. The dastardly Belgians encouraged the Hutus to take up arms and a bloody revolution followed in which tens of thousands of Tutsis were massacred in 1959. Once the feudal system itself was replaced a continual life and death struggle between the two groups for the limited space within this tiny nation became inevitable. In 1963 the Tutsis attempt to strike back from Burundi but are defeated and another 20,000 are hacked to death. Neighbouring Burundi was also controlled by the Banyarwanda at this time, but the Tutsis still dominated. When a massacre of Tutsis occurred in Rwanda, Hutus were massacred in Burundi and vice versa. In the 70s a Hutu strongman called Habyarimana takes over in Rwanda. The oppressive dictatorship he imposes blends caste resentments with a yearning for democracy. In 1990 a Tutsi army from Uganda invades. How is another massacre prevented? Habyarimana calls up Mitterand and the French seeing the logic of defending a French-speaking tyrrany against attack from an English-speaking neighbour deploy paratroopers and Habyarimana is saved. But over the next 4 years Hutu extremists prepare for a final solution. The army grows sixfold and paramilitary groups are established. Crucially though, the call for genocide comes from the Univeristy of Butare, the intellectuals not the generals or the ignorant masses. Hutu intellectuals presented an argument which turned the issue into an ethnic one. The Tutsi are reinvented as outside invaders from the Nile. In 1994 Habyarimana is downed by a missile while attempting to land at the airport in Kigala and the genocide that will last 3 months commences. Maybe a million die. But most are not killed by modern weapons used by trained soldiers, but bludgeoned to death by machetes, hammers, sticks. This Rwandan genocide was carefully planned to be a communal act.

What happened in 1994 was a grim episode in a long history of pogroms and bloodbaths. The "international community" has played a negative role from the outset. As with Palestine, only a dreamer could imagine these people divvying up the disputed territory and settling down to live in peace. One or other has existed in refugee camps plotting revenge for decades. The mere existence of the other side is the main barrier to the happiness of the other. Only cynicism or naked aggression can hold back these hatreds. Rwanda becomes peaceful if you either restore the old feudal system (unlikely) or impose a brutal and corrupt dictatorship. When people think in these kind of historical/ethnic categories, they can't be reasoned with. They have a world-view based on conflict - two into one doesn't fit. You can only achieve real peace by systematically destroying that world view. But neither force or diplomacy are much good at that. 


Sodeberg/Clooney's Solaris was predictably mysterious. It seemed to want to retain some of the lugubriousness of Tarkovsky's version, (even though it was supposed to be a new take on the novel not on the Russian film), whilst adding some softer western romantic elements and some issue resolution at the end.

Strangely the "thriller" atmosphere in parts of the book are mostly discarded, but right at the end a mysterious extra corpse appears which doesn't seem to follow from any of the main plot themes and actually undermines some of the cosiness that has up until that point been introduced to the story.

It's like each version of this fable is a set of dots joined up slightly differently. Sodeberg takes on emotions that Lem left out, but creates additional chimeras elsewhere. If Solaris the sentient planet is something of a stand-in for God, in the Lem novel it's an ineffable, autistic deity. In the new film, it is mysterious but basically benign with the power to resolve our inadequacies and incompleteness. I don't recall that Lem gives us a clear notion of the inner world of the "visitors", we can only see the mystery from outside. But Sodeberg's Visitors have memories which we see cinematically. And they are of events where ONLY they were present, so they can't have been constructed out of the memories of 'their' humans. (Is this a goof or an intentional clue?)

Maybe someone knows why the Visitors are built of Higg's bosuns instead of neutrinos in this version. Does it make a difference? Has science moved on in 30 years to make the neutrino story unlikely?

I read Plato's symposium this week and would recommend it to anyone. It's a nice short but deep book, 69 pages in the Oxford edition. The setting is a dinner party in the house of Agathon the playwright in 416BC in Athens. The content is a series of speeches on the nature of Love, reported thirty years after the event by someone that knows someone who was one of the gathering of great minds.

It all makes you wish you belonged to a society so fluent in the idiom of sophisticated cosmological debate. The greeks are very enigmatic though. They belong within the western tradition and so much of this table talk is wonderfully immediate and familiar. On the other hand they are also some way away from the current manifestation of the western tradition; their world could almost be some strange sci-fi future-possible.

One of the immediately bizarre aspects is of course their celebration of homoeroticism as the sexual norm. Anyone that wants to join the nature-nurture debate on homosexuality needs to figure these guys into their explanations. Aristophanes says in his speech that there were once three sexes: male, female and hermaphrodite, which were cut in half. Only the male halves of the original hermaphrodite sex are now attracted to a female "other half" implying that homosexuals are the majority and actually more normal. He also refers to all heterosexuals simply as "adulterers" because all marriage took place outside the context of sexual desire. Pausanias says that gay armies would be a more effective fighting force because people always strive for excellence when surrounded by lovers and potential lovers. (Shortly after the Symposium was written the Thracians created such a force, the "Sacred Band" in 378BC.)

As ever, the main man is Socrates. He is contrasted with Alcibiades, flamboyant, alcoholically-liberated and venal politician and ultimately a total burn-out. Detachment versus immersement, politics versus philosophy, good looks versus ugliness. Alcibiades has tried to get Socrates into bed, but ends up being mentally "raped" by the shoeless one. If for Aristophanes, Love is a lifelong quest for your missing other half, for Socrates the quest is a gradual ascent towards perfect love, starting with physical love and ending with love of beauty and goodness. ("Love isn't a search for a half or a whole unless the whole or the half happens to be Good")

Love isn't a God, claims Socrates, but a spirit, neither wholly mortal or immortal, knowledgeable or ignorant, and was conceived when Poverty date-raped Plenty.

"Every human being is both physically and mentally pregnant...Love's purpose is physical and mental procreation in an attractive medium" - procreation of either babies or wisdom with the aim of immortality. (philosophy is another route to immortality because you move your intellect, the part of you that survives incarnation closer to the world of perfect forms)

The idea that ignorance is not the same thing as lack of knowledge is quite powerful. The ignorant are those that neither love knowledge or desire wisdom. Similarly, not-attractive can be distinguished from repulsive and not good from bad!