Rumblegumption

Favourite extracts from Rowan Williams

Posted in Uncategorized by rumblegumption on March 16, 2012

[Jacques] Maritain is far from claiming that there are no moral questions to be asked of artistic production, but his argument needs some teasing out. A bad man may produce fine work; but there is a precariousness in this. The ineptitude of a person’s moral perception is a factor that can easily spill over into other ineptitudes. A bad man whose badness takes the shape of self-centred exploitation of his material to advance his personality is a bad artist. And that habit of self-centredness is unlikely to be simply a matter of artistic practice, but connected with or rooted in other moral failures. The artist as artist has a morality, and it is not wholly divorced from the rest of what constitutes morality. (Grace and Necessity, 39)

He [sc. Dostoevsky] began the novel’s [sc. The Idiot] drafts with the idea of someone who advances to some sort of holiness through a career of extreme moral behaviour; it is the ‘innocence’ of his violent extremism that carries him through to renewal. But the various plans failed to work themselves out. Gradually the central figure — epileptic, vulnerable, capable of drastic and shocking acts of forgiveness — came into focus as a representation, from his first appearance, of Christian love, and Dostoevsky clearly thought at one stage that he was constructing a ‘Christ figure’. A good many commentators have taken him at his word; but this, too, misses the point. The final version of this enigmatic character is in one sense an embodiment of Christian gentleness, but it is a gentleness deeply flawed by lack of self-knowledge, confused desire and passivity — an ironic picture that reflects what some would indeed see as Christlikeness, yet incorporates an oblique recognition of something like a Nietzschean critique of Christianity as dealing in unrealities and depending on the resentment of the weak. Myshkin as he emerges in the novel is a tragic hero in a sense that prevents him being a simple icon of Christ (though Dostoevsky mischievously gives him the physiognomy of the familiar iconography of the Saviour, and has people wondering where they have seen him before). The important issue is that Dostoevsky failed to write either a novel about the conversion of a sinner or the portrait of a saint; he wrote one of his most painfully enigmatic fictions because he could not ‘find’ the character of either saint or sinner, and so produced a singular, complex character whose depth is precisely in his failure to be either saint or sinner, his sheer marginality in what we ordinarily think of as the moral world. He is a ‘christ figure’ in his alienness to mere morality; but — human and not divine — this alienness destroys him and implicates him in the destruction of others. The haunting reminiscence of Christ that Myshkin carries with him is a matter of intensely ironic imagining, not a pious aura. Here was elsewhere, Bakhtin is a necessary voice to remind us of Dostoevsky’s refusal to write in straight lines. (Grace and Necessity, 146)

 

Herbert McCabe, a prominent British Catholic theologian and moralist, wrote many years ago – not without a touch of mischief – that ‘ethics is entirely concerned with doing what you want’; going on to explain that our problem is that we live in a society, and indeed as part of a fallen humanity, that deceives us constantly about what we most deeply want. The point that both [Rush] Rhees and McCabe are trying to make is emphatically not that ethics is a matter of the individual’s likes or dislikes, but, on the contrary, that it is a difficult discovering of something about yourself, a discovering of what has already shaped the person you are and is moulding you in this or that direction. You might put it a bit differently by saying that you are trying to discover what is most ‘natural’ to you, though this begs too many questions for comfort. Rhees notes, very pertinently, that if I say I must discover something about myself in order to make certain kinds of decisions with honesty, this is not purely ‘subjective’: I am in pursuit of a truth that is not at my mercy, even if it is a truth about myself. And when the decision is made, I shall not at once know for certain that it is ‘right’ – in the sense that I might know if it were a matter of performing an action in accordance with certain rules: it may be that only as years pass shall I be able to assess something I have done as the ‘natural, or truthful decision. (On making moral decisions)

 

People learn how to tell the story of their own lives in a coherent way when they have some broader picture to which to relate it. You can only tell the story of your own life, it seems, when it isn’t just your story, or even the story of those immediately close to you. … Think for a moment of how you talk about learning or growing: certain experiences are seen as pushing you forward or pushing you into a larger landscape. You interpret what’s happened to you, you don’t just record a series of disconnected moments. You change your job: where did the decision come from, what does it contribute to your picture, your story of how your life develops? (And yes that is a question I have been asking quite a bit lately!) You haven’t seen that particular friend for a while; is that significant? You decide it’s time you made or remade your will – what’s prompted that? And all this is possible because we all at some level work with a usually unspoken sense of what a fuller or more mature human life looks like. We all know the frustration of trying to relate to someone who doesn’t seem to learn, who doesn’t notice when their experience appears to lead them round in circles. We need ways of getting a story straight so that we don’t have to go on repeating it, repeating patterns of behaviour that never move us on. Groundhog Day is a comic horror, but a real enough one: we know how easily we can get stuck in repeating patterns. And the vague and unspoken sense of what maturity might look like at least begins to open us up to the idea that others may be moving in similar rhythms to us, and so to the sense of a shared story that doesn’t just fade away when I’m no longer around. All good therapy and counselling have something to do with this business of getting the story straight; but what is different about religious belief is its bold claim that there is a story of the whole universe without which your own story won’t make sense. (Richard Dimbleby Lecture)

 

What [Isaiah Berlin’s] perspective brings back into political reflection, political theory and philosophy, is a sense of the tragic: rational universalism, reasonable behaviour and ideals being the same for everyone, can’t deliver what it promises in terms of a resolution of every conflict which honours every positive moral principle, so the decisions that are made, especially in the public sphere, political decisions, are always going to involve loss, compromise, some degree of failure in responding to rational ethical imperatives.  All public and political decisions are in some sense less than ideal, in some sense they involve a loss. If ‘[w]hat the entire Enlightenment has in common is denial of the central Christian doctrine of original sin’ ([Two Concepts of Liberty]., p.264), the pluralism that comes from this reaction to the Enlightenment brings back a sober recognition if not exactly of original sin, then of the original limits of human aspiration.  The problem is that so many of the advocates of the counter-Enlightenment – the resistance to universal Rationalism say what they do with the aim of discrediting or paralysing any idea that planned social change is possible; they begin from a deeply pessimistic assessment of human capacities, so the theorists of counter-Enlightenment will regularly argue for high levels of social control, harsh penal systems and minimal social mobility.  The people most critical of the Enlightenment in the early nineteenth century especially, are people with a strong vested interest with things staying as they are – so that you can’t have arguments about how to make things better: if you try to make things better you’ll only make things worse. In a nutshell you may as well stick with absolute Monarchs and lots of executions. So, Berlin’s challenge is about how we construct some political thinking that secures not only basic ‘decency’ (a favourite word of his) but the greatest possible freedom for debate between advocates of diverse projects and priorities; the society that’s worth working for is one in which diversity is tolerated – and therefore criticism is always possible …  And that aim is not vitiated or undermined by clarity and honesty about the incompatibility of certain goods with each other in any finite political settlement. (Isaiah Berlin Lecture)

Could you believe in a faith whose fundamental narrative could clearly be shown to have been fabricated? How important is the credibility of the historical narrative to your faith?

I was asked this question in another context a couple of weeks ago and I had to reply that if the bones of Jesus were discovered in Palestine I could not be a Christian in the way that I now am. I could not celebrate the Sacraments: I could not understand the life of the Holy Spirit as I do: I might still want to be associated with some of the insights and values of the Christian tradition but you would no longer have me as Archbishop of Canterbury (I rather hope you wouldn’t have anyone as Archbishop of Canterbury!) because I actually don’t think that the Church would be credible in its central historical shape. So it does matter, and when you ask ‘could I believe in a faith whose foundations could easily be shown to have been fabricated?’ well, I have to say that that is a risk that every Christian takes: the risk of believing that a difference truly has been made to the world: a risk which depends upon the fragility of these historical affirmations. History alone doesn’t give you a knock-down argument for faith, but I couldn’t do without it because of the very nature of that faith, that at some point God worked, specifically in this way, in human history, and that was the beginning of something different. Christianity has shown itself reasonably robust in seeing-off what some people have thought to be easy and obvious attempts to shake its historical credibility, but that there remains an element of risk I think is undeniable. And that is, depending on your temperament, either something very worrying or something really rather exhilarating. There is a degree of adventure at least, about this, as Dorothy Sayers liked to say about the Christian claim: call it what you like, but not boring. (Answer to questions after Holy Week lecture 2008 on ‘Faith and History’)

 

Same-sex love annoyingly poses the question of what the meaning of desire is in itself, not considered as instrumental to some other process (the peopling of the world); and this immediately brings us up against the possibility not only of pain and humiliation without any clear payoff’, but – just as worryingly – of non-functional joy: or, to put it less starkly, joy whose material “production” is an embodied person aware of grace.  It puts the question which is also raised for some kinds of moralist by the existence of the clitoris in women; something whose function is joy. lf the creator were quite so instrumentalist in “his” attitude to sexuality, these hints of prodigality and redundancy in the way the whole thing works might cause us to worry about whether he was, after all, in full rational control of it. But if God made us for joy… ? (The Body’s Grace)

In its most robust form, in pre-modern societies, honour is a category far more solid and deep-rooted than ‘reputation’ in our own world, with which it might be easily confused. Honour is part of a tight mesh of perceptions and evaluations of what you do, which teaches you what you may think of yourself and expect of yourself, as well as what you may expect of others and they of you. Loss of honour may result from accepting without protest a failure on someone else’s part to give you what is owed to you, or from a failure on your own part to conform to what might rightly be expected of you. And such a loss means dropping out of an entire system of exchange, of mutual perception or recognition: nobody knows how to talk to you any longer. There have been, and perhaps there still are, societies where you can die of dishonour, because there is no convention left by which you can go on being intelligibly connected with other people. You cannot reconstruct for yourself what their formalised perceptions and evaluations provided for you. Quite literally, you cannot respect yourself. … Honour formalises systems of recognition, ground upon which conversation can proceed. More than this, it assumes that the capacity of others to recognise me, to talk to me, is indispensable to how I perceive and experience my self. To lose some dimension of how I am seen and regularly responded to is to lose party of the substance of myself … It is tempting in our environment to misunderstand this dependence on how I am seen as a sign of individual weakness, as if it were always the mark of an unhealthy lack of proper self-regard. But for cultures in which honour is significant, self-regard is learned precisely and only as a way of being-in-society, not as the individual’s assertion of an abstract or pre-social identity. This is why in such cultures shame is both a personal and social penalty: it is not just a particularly acute form of embarrassment, which I may brazen out or which I hope will be forgotten, but a real restriction on what I am able to think and feel about myself, as much as on what others think of me, make of me, say to me and understand about me.

A society without even residual traces of honour and shame would be a very odd one. it would have to work on the assumption that what finally secured my identity was, at the end of the day, the exercise of my will, the resources of an individual energy. The constant in my experience would be that I am always able to choose to construct a worthwhile picture of my existence; and in this sense I should be invulnerable to that enormous investment of my identity in connectedness with others that is typical of a society oriented towards honour. You might then expect, in a culture without a lively concept of honour, all kinds of difficulties about appealing as a moral sanction to the dangers of diminishing the solidity of the self by ignoring the perceptions of others, since the self’s solidity would always be secured by the will’s freedom to affirm itself. You might expect a situation in which shame was no longer any kind of regulating factor in what was thought or said about behaviour. There might be a variety of pragmatic replacements for it — the dread of embarrassment, of appearing out of step, the fear of losing public plausibility — but these would have to do with possible disadvantages, weakenings of a negotiating position in the sphere of public transactions, not with possible moral injury to the self. You would expect an immense investment of energy in strengthening the image of the willing or choosing subject, whether by a therapeutic rhetoric of ‘feeling strong’ in the face of adverse circumstances, or by a market environment encouraging ideas of free-floating consumer liberty and offering a range of styles as an aid to a creative will. You would, in short, expect an environment rather like ours in the contemporary North Atlantic world. (Lost Icons, 120–3)

Bernard Williams and liberalism

Posted in Uncategorized by rumblegumption on February 3, 2012

One question that cropped up at various points in the discussion of Chapter 1 of Bernard Williams’s Truth and Truthfulness at Balliol yesterday was that of Williams’s ambiguous relationship with liberalism. Some rough, mostly clarifying, thoughts on the subject follow.

AH thought the chapter was naturally read as proposing the outline of a defence of liberalism against its theoretical rivals (e.g. the Marxists of the Frankfurt School): that liberalism, perhaps uniquely, attaches an importance to truth that makes it an ally (or ‘associate’) of the Enlightenment spirit of social critique. This, AH said, relied in part on a caricature of the Frankfurt School: they, and other Marxists, were never unequivocally hostile either to the Enlightenment (‘The book’s called The Dialectic of Enlightenment; the clue’s in the title Bernard!’) or to truth. Further, part of Marx’s own claim about 19th-century liberalism was that it was liberalism that stood in an equivocal relationship to truthfulness. In particular, the history of liberalism was rife with attempts to occlude truths about itself, e.g. the kinds of alienation and exploitation it engendered, and which its (untruthful) rhetoric helped to legitimate.

I myself don’t see this strong claim being made for liberalism, not in this chapter at least. But it shouldn’t be denied – as a biographical fact – that Williams was a liberal, and was never wary of identifying himself as such (and not for want of other possible labels that the tenor of his writings entitled him to – conservative, or paradoxically, radical). There’s a throwaway line in a footnote to his reply to his critics in the volume World, Mind and Ethics (Harrison and Altham (eds.)) where he distinguishes his position from that of Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor in the following way: ‘If Taylor and MacIntyre will forgive my putting them into a mere cartoon sketch, one set of relations between our positions might perhaps be put like this: Taylor and MacIntyre are Catholic, and I am not; Taylor and I are liberals, and MacIntyre is not; MacIntyre and I are pessimists, and Taylor is not (not really).’ [Emphasis added]

He was, in general, more willing to avow the appellation when in debate with figures on (the loosely conceived) non-liberal right. For example, here’s his (often entertaining) review from 1981 of Maurice Cowling’s Religion and Public Doctrine in England where he outlines a conceivable liberal position that is rid of certain of the putative delusions of which it stands accused by its critics on the right and left (emphases added):

Cowling seems to have the odd belief that … only he and … various reactionaries … have noticed that much liberalism is optimistic and high-minded claptrap which carries its own intolerances, that survival needs irony, that values conflict, that most things in the world are determined by force and fraud, that political moralism is often self-indulgent, that progressivist utilitarianism is a barren creed. He should be better-informed: these things have got out, and many have noticed them. There are, however, two differences at least between others who have noticed these things, and Cowling. One difference is that some others regard these facts as part of the present historically-given problems of political thought and action, and in trying nevertheless to think and act, exercise that irony which Cowling so much commends – with the aim, for instance, of defending the conceptions of truth and objectivity which he himself both needs and despises. Cowling indeed admits that modernity has, in effect, to be accepted. It is merely superficial of him to suppose that those who equally ‘accept’ modernity, but instead of sitting in colleges writing clotted and ill-natured books, seek to shape its requirements in slightly better rather than worse directions, are necessarily victims of its more flatulent ideologies, or any less command the ‘toughness, subtlety and illusionlessness’ which he claims to use merely in living out the modern world.

Again, here’s him on Alasdair MacIntyre:

MacIntyre’s central criticism of the Enlightenment, and of its legacy to liberalism, is that it set out to free political and social consciousness from any allegiance to tradition, and from any overarching conception of human good … Other people have said this, and they may be right. But MacIntyre is peculiar in thinking that this is just about all that needs to be said about liberalism. What this line of criticism shows is that liberalism has failed to understand itself

And again:

… on MacIntyre’s own account of a tradition, there may be more intellectual hope than he allows for the liberals, or at least for those (and there are some) who have noticed that it is no longer 1789 or 1913. They recognise that the self-description of liberalism that it inherited from the Enlightenment was basically flawed, but hope to find a sounder understanding of it, which may help to preserve the more humane institutions of the modern world.

The point of these passages is to dissociate liberalism from its smugger incarnations, to suggest that there are ways of being an honest, realistic, non-deluded, truthful liberal. I think Williams would allow that, at least in principle, applying his own canons of truthfulness to liberalism might make one something other than a liberal. For the moment, however, liberalism remains an honourable, if tarnished, position.

But truthfulness in this respect needs to be distinguished (and at some level dissociated from) two things: ‘hyperconsciousness’, and pessimism. A quick quotation on hyperconsciousness, which came up in discussion yesterday. The crude thought is that lying and deception are incompatible with the spirit of truthfulness that Williams thinks (imperfectly) animates, and has the potential to redeem, liberalism. But it does not follow that the only defensible liberalism is one that is completely explicit about every aspect of itself. He puts the point succinctly in an interview from 1998:

 Now, I’m very against lies. I admit that’s a first-order value of mine of the Nietzschean kind, and I have to admit to being fairly shameless about that, but that seems to me to be a value which certainly philosophers are very ill-advised to give up. They[‘d] better try and tell the truth, on the whole. I mean truthfulness seems to me to be part of the profession, if it’s worth doing, but I’m not so keen on hyperconsciousness and that seems to me consistent. There’s an old slogan in English: Ask no questions and you get told no lies. It may be that some questions you had better not ask because the answers to them are going to be lies. Now, Nietzsche actually thought that hyperconsciousness in itself was part of decadence because he thought that if you didn’t have the form of confidence we were discussing earlier, then you were in a state in which you couldn’t do anything, where the thing imploded really into the hyperaesthetic and all those things he calls decadence.

The second distinction: truthfulness is not the same as, and need not imply, pessimism. Whether it does have this implication depends on what the world is actually like, and this is a matter of interpretation and discovery. Equally, at the risk of stating a banality, it might be a matter of temperament. Martha Nussbaum’s obituary for Williams develops this latter suggestion (emphases added):

When Bernard denigrated the aspirations of philosophical reason in human affairs and harped so insistently on the importance of irrational passion, what might have been in danger of playing the master? I believe that much of his interest in Nietzschean pessimism and irrationalism was in the service of warding off a powerful depression, even perhaps despair. Over the years I began to notice that he was never angry … Contempt, world-weariness, cynicism, even an irritability linked to the world-weariness, but never just anger, the sense that wrong has been done and that one had better go out and right it. I think his non-angry attitude to tragedy was of a piece with his critique of the Enlightenment: doing good for a bad world did not energize him, because his attitude to the world was at some deep level without hope. The world was a mess, and there was no saving or even improving it. It was childish, naïve, to suggest that improvement was possible. (His liberal politics were difficult to reconcile with this view, and this perhaps explains his increasing withdrawal from politics and even political thinking in later life.) Nietzsche called this attitude amor fati and connected this embracing of necessity with a kind of cheerfulness, the cheerfulness that comes when we abandon the hope of real change. Similarly, what energized Bernard, cheered him up, was a kind of elegant assertion of the hopelessness of things against the good-newsers, a contemptuous yet brilliant scoffing. …

One basis for rejecting this attitude would be the view that pessimism is not merely a defect of character, but a moral vice. (As Nussbaum puts it, ‘Is despair possibly a sin…?’) Another would be to make a distinction along the lines suggested by Gramsci/Rolland: a pessimism of the intellect, an optimism of the will. (Williams would no doubt ask if such a disposition could be ‘stable’; I suspect his answer might invoke the extent to which both of the attitudes that constituted this Janus-faced disposition were truthful.)

But certainly, Williams’s corpus isn’t short of a cautious (because truthful?) hope (≠optimism). Two quotations before I sign off:

The resources of most modern moral philosophy are not well adjusted to the modern world. I have tried to show that this is partly because it is too much and too unknowingly caught up in it, unreflectively appealing to administrative ideas of rationality. … Some … who have reached this kind of conclusion … have taken it to be destructive of the values of the Enlightenment; or if not, have interpreted those values in a conservative way … I do not think we are forced to join them. A respect for freedom and social justice and a critique of oppressive and deceitful institutions may be no easier to achieve than they have been in the past, and may well be harder, but we need not suppose that we have no ideas to give them a basis. We should not concede to abstract ethical theory its claim to provide the only intellectual surroundings for such ideas. (Ethics and the Limits of Philosophy, Postscript, 1985: 197–8)

The real difference in these respects between modern liberal ideas and the outlook of most Greeks lies … in this, that liberalism demands – more realistically speaking, it hopes – that those concepts, necessity and luck, should not take the place of considerations of justice. … Even if we cannot, and perhaps should not, cancel all effects of mere necessity and luck, at least we hope that they can be placed within a framework that raises the question of justice … Modern liberalism already stands at some distance from the ancient world … in setting this problem. … It is a distinctively modern achievement to have set the problem. However, we shall not know how great our distance really is from the ancient world until we are in a position to claim, not merely that there is this task, but that we have some hope of carrying it out. (Shame and Necessity, 1993: 128–129)

Posted in Uncategorized by rumblegumption on January 8, 2012

The drama of an individual human life, or of the history of humanity as a whole, is not one in which a preexistent goal is triumphantly reached or tragically not reached. Neither a constant external reality nor an unfailing interior source of inspiration forms a background for such dramas. Instead, to see one’s life … as a dramatic narrative is to see it as a process of Nietzschean self-overcoming. The paradigm of such a narrative is the life of the genius who can say of the relevant portion of the past, “Thus I willed it,” because she has found a way to describe that past which the past never knew, and thereby found a self to be which her precursors never knew was possible.

Richard Rorty, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity

Posted in Uncategorized by rumblegumption on January 8, 2012

In the order of grace, the native speaker is not one who has never questioned the language s/he speaks and has no awareness of what other possibilities exist for speech; the native speaker is the one who can inhabit language without anxiety, without constant defensive activity on the borders of the territory, because of a knowledge that all truthful speech and action is activated by what is and always remains unsaid, the hinterland of God’s unimaginable judgement. By such an alignment with an unseen and unspoken judgement, the speaker is aligned with the divine liberty: not a gift of independent human freedom but an openness to the alien margins of human discourse out of which comes the raw possibility of change in the direction of absolution and generosity. I do not coincide with myself; this is a given, we might say, of all serious fiction, of the modern fictional consciousness, preoccupied as it is with growth, self-delusion, recognition of self and of difference. But for the Christian imagination, seeking words and pictures for grace, that fictional consciousness has to be connected with not only the mystery of change but what might be called the mystery of absolution, the unpredictable arrival of the liberty both to absolve and to receive absolution, without any denial of the chains of cause and effect. Grace, the strange gift of becoming a native speaker of the language proper to humankind, the language of being a creature, arrives at right angles to planning and deserving. It rightly provokes both bafflement and gratitude; and a fiction that is hospitable to the gospel will work out of both.

 Rowan Williams

Posted in Uncategorized by rumblegumption on January 7, 2012

All writers think that the world has reached its nadir, its low point … in fact this age will be lamented just like the last – that’s the paradox. What you can say about the world is that … it’s getting infinitely less innocent all the time. It’s been to so many parties, it’s been on so many dates, had so many fights, got its handbag stolen so many times … the accumulation is what makes the world seem that it’s worse always, because it’s never been through so much as it’s been through today …

Martin Amis

Posted in Uncategorized by rumblegumption on January 5, 2012

… I had already had a conversion experience to Wagner the previous year, when a nervous but clever master named F. X. Sempill played us the overture and Venusberg music from Tannhaüser. It’s one of the few early aesthetic experiences I can still recall almost as if it were happening now – those opening woodwinds coming through the little speaker of the Philips gramophone, the quite new sense of restless sexual and emotional excitement. I remember listening to Tannhaüser and gazing out of the window at the surrounding woods, the real world suddenly at a distance. I had the sense that I had been shown something that, though “classical,” was from the future, something I had never glimpsed before and certainly didn’t yet understand but that I knew was going to become important to me.

It seems to me now it was a kind of pubertal initiation into the realm of high art, in which aesthetic experience was more then merely interesting or amusing.

Alan Hollinghurst, The Paris Review 199

Posted in Uncategorized by rumblegumption on January 5, 2012

To live in the world of creation – to get into it and stay in it – to frequent it and haunt it – to think intently and fruitfully – to woo combinations and inspirations into being by a depth and continuity of attention and meditation – that is the only thing – and I neglect it, far and away too much; from indolence, from vagueness, from inattention, and from a strange nervous fear of letting myself go. If I can vanquish that nervousness, the world is mine.

Henry James, [Notebooks]

Posted in Uncategorized by rumblegumption on January 2, 2012

Poets, and other writers and artists may wish even more fiercely than scientists to be rid of sentimentality and similar vices, but for a poet to wish to be the kind of creature who is not vulnerable to it, is for hi[m] or her to wish to be free of the only idiom in which she can write poetry. To wish to be free of all that makes us vulnerable to cliché, banality, sentimentality and so on in our moral thought – including much of our philosophical thought about morality – is to wish ourselves bereft of ways of elaborating, in the realm of meaning, our full sense of what it means to wrong someone and all that conditions that sense.

Rowan Williams, Grace and Necessity

Posted in Uncategorized by rumblegumption on January 2, 2012

This street is called Camphor Tree Lane. Maybe camphor trees grew here once; there are none now. More probably the name was chosen for its picturesqueness by the pioneer escapists from dingy downtown Los Angeles and stuffy-snobbish Pasadena who came out here and founded this colony back in the early twenties. They referred to their stucco bungalows and clapboard shacks as cottages; giving them cute names like The Fo’c’sle and Hi Nuff. They called their streets lanes, ways or trails, to go with the woodsy atmosphere they wanted to create. Their utopian dream was of a subtropical English village with Montmartre manners; a Little Good Place where you could paint a bit, write a bit, and drink lots. They saw themselves as rearguard individualists, making a last-ditch stand against the twentieth century. They gave thanks loudly from morn till eve that they had escaped the soul-destroying commercialism of the city. They were tacky and cheerful and defiantly bohemian; tirelessly inquisitive about each other’s doings, and boundlessly tolerant. When they fought, at least it was with fists and bottles and furniture, now lawyers.

Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man

Posted in Uncategorized by rumblegumption on January 2, 2012

To keep his errors down to a minimum, the internal Censor to whom a poet submits his work in progress should be a Censorate. It should include, for instance, a sensitive only child, a practical housewife, a logician, a monk, an irreverent buffoon and even, perhaps, hated by all the others and returning their dislike, a brutal-foul-mouthed drill sergeant who considers all poetry rubbish.

W H Auden, The Dyer’s Hand