‘Could a rule be given from without, poetry would cease to be poetry, and sink into a mechanical art. It would be μóρφωσις, not ποίησις. The rules of the IMAGINATION are themselves the very powers of growth and production. The words to which they are reducible, present only the outlines and external appearance of the fruit. A deceptive counterfeit of the superficial form and colours may be elaborated; but the marble peach feels cold and heavy, and children only put it to their mouths.’ [Coleridge, Biographia ch. 18]

‘ποίησις’ (poiēsis) means ‘a making, a creation, a production’ and is used of poetry in Aristotle and Plato. ‘μóρφωσις’ (morphōsis) in essence means the same thing: ‘a shaping, a bringing into shape.’ But Coleridge has in mind the New Testament use of the word as ‘semblance’ or ‘outward appearance’, which the KJV translates as ‘form’: ‘An instructor of the foolish, a teacher of babes, which hast the form [μóρφωσις] of knowledge and of the truth in the law’ [Romans 2:20]; ‘Having a form [μóρφωσις] of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away’ [2 Timothy 3:5]. I trust that's clear.

There is much more on Coleridge at my other, Coleridgean blog.

Wednesday, 27 February 2019

Star Wars: Crash 2



“A car crash harnesses elements of eroticism, aggression, desire, speed, drama, kinesthetic factors, the stylizing of motion, consumer goods, status — all these in one event. I myself see the car crash as a tremendous sexual event really: a liberation of human and machine libido (if there is such a thing)” [J G Ballard, interview in Penthouse, September 1970]

On Monday my friend Roger Luckhurst and I took to the stage (well: actually we sat on chairs on the regular floor in front of our audience) for the first of the on-going Barbican Brutalism Book Club events. We were there to chat about Ballard's Crash (1973), and chat we did. The audience was lively and engaged and a fascinating discussion ensued. For this blog-post I want to pick out something I mentioned near the end of the event, as a kind of throw-away, in order to unpack it a little. It's the idea that the true inheritor of Ballard's perverse autovision is George Lucas's Star Wars.

Roger and I discussed several aspects of Ballard's book, dwelling in particular on its repetitive monotony, in which great scads of descriptive prose not only itemise components of the interiors of cars and human sexual organs in various juxtapositions but itemise the same interiors of cars and human sexual organs over and over. It really is remarkable, re-reading Crash, how colourlessly repetitive it is, as text. The narrator, ‘James Ballard’, tells a story about bent desire: alienated from his beautiful wife Catherine, Ballard is involved in an automobile crash on the Westway, injuring himself and accidentally killing the driver of the other car. This event propels him, and the novel, through a sequence of Sadean sexual permutations: sex in cars with the widow of the man he killed, with his own wife and with the obsessed Dr. Robert Vaughan (‘former TV-scientist, turned nightmare angel of the expressways’) who drives around photographing car-crashes, crashing his own car, shagging prostitutes in cars and car-wrecks and generally pursuing his erotic life-goal, which is to die in a sexualised head-on collision with Elizabeth Taylor. (Sidebar: I wonder, given that Ballard was happy to include his own name, his girlfriend's name, and to namecheck Elizabeth Taylor, why he decided to add the extra ‘A’ to the ‘Robert Vaughn’ name: a designedly Scarlet Letter perhaps?)

Anyway: the novel starts with Vaughan's death, crashing off an overpass into the roof of an airport bus passing below, killing many of the passengers. Then it rewinds the story to trace Ballard's own crash, the way it reignites his sex-life with his wife Catherine, his erotic adventures with the crippled Helen (widow of the man his crash killed) and various prostitutes, and with Vaughan, and finally back to the starting point with Vaughan's death. Mostly the novel is great chunks of prose like this:
I looked at the cabin around me. This small space was crowded with angular control surfaces and rounded section of human bodies interacting in unfamiliar junctions, like the first act of homosexual intercourse inside an Apollo capsule. The volumes of Helen's thighs, pressing against my hips, her left fist buried in my shoulder, her mouth grasping at my own, the shape and moisture of her anus as I stroked it with my ring fingers, were each overlaid by the inventories of a benevolent technology—the moulded binnacle of the instrument dials, the jutting carapace of the steering column shroud, the extravagent pistol grip of the handbrake. I felt the warm vinyl of the seat beside me, and then stroked the damp aisle of Helen's perineum. Her hand pressed against my right testicle. The plastic laminates around me, the colour of washed anthracite, were the same tones as her pubic hairs parted at the vestibule of her vulva. The passenger compartment enclosed us like a machine generating from our sexual act an homunculus of blood, sealant and engine coolant. [Crash, 62-3]
Lots and lots of stuff like this, in fact: on and on it goes, capturing the fundamentally machinic monotony of porn without generating any erotic affect in the reader (I mean, ymmv I suppose: but ... really?) The exigencies of this sexual fetish naturally result in injuries for the participants and the novel lingers as fascinatedly on these wounds as on the dissociated sexualised human and car components. Everyone is scarred, some more seriously crippled, and Ballard treats their wounds as signifying marks, a kind of erotic heiroglyphic:
The whiteness of [Vaughan's] arms and chest, and the scars that marked his skin like my own, gave his body an unhealthy and metallic sheen, like the worn vinyl of the car interior. These apparently meaningless notches on his skin, like the gouges of a chisel, marked the sharp embrace of a collapsing passenger compartment, a cuneiform of the flesh formed by shattering instrument dials, fractured gear levers and parking light switches. Together they described an exact language of pain and sensation, eroticism and desire. I looked down at his penis, wondering if this too was scarred. The glans carried a sharp notch, like a canal for surplus semen of vaginal mucus. What part of some crashing car had marked this penis, and in what marriage of his orgasm and a chromium instrument head? [Crash, 71]
On and on it goes, repeated tableaux of sex-acts, semen, mucus and blood spattering across instrument panels, leaking across the fluted ribbing of the vinyl upholstery, cars crashing and humans orgasming. Sex and cars, speed and excitement, coming and death.

There are lots of things we could say about this (in its day, and possibly even now) shocking novel. We could talk about its deliberate aesthetic strategies of uglification, its endless parade of increasingly strained similes, its adoption of the strategies of nineteenth-century realism (those Zola-esque blocks of text itemising every little thing in the service of a representational verisimilitude, except in this case the things beind itemised are all the same things: sexualised human body parts and the elements of car interiors). Roger and I discussed Ballard's slightly eerie successes as a prophet: how his ‘Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan’ (1968) anticipated Reagan's actual rise to the Presidency, how strangely Crash itself anticipates the death of Princess Diana and the bizarre eroticised spasm of national-collective grief that car-crash entailed. And this brings me to my main point. Because I think Ballard's real prescience was in anticipating Star Wars.

This is a nonsense, of course. Crash is a violent and sexually-explicit avant-garde experiment designed to alienate its readers, claustrophobic and disturbing. Star Wars is an expansive and reassuring family-friendly adventure-entertainment about the forces of good defeating the forces of evil. They couldn't be further apart. Could they?

Well, alright. Whether you agree with my argument will depend, I think, on whether you're prepared to accept my initial premise: that Star Wars is a movie about cars.

Of course, nor all the space-ships in the Star Wars universe are cars. The imperial dreadnoughts, for instance, are on a much larger scale: battleships and aircraft carriers in space.


But many of the spaceships in Star Wars are, in effect, space cars: sporty-little numbers with seating for you and a friend, able to zip about the cosmos to take you from one adventure to another.




In this I see a palpable continuity between the Lucas of Star Wars (1977) and his previous movie, American Graffiti (1973). That Oscar-nominated film is a hymn, really, to the joys of automated youth, how much fun it is to hang out with your mates, and how much that fun is enhanced if you have cars.


Star Wars is basically the same movie, with Modesto California swapped-out for The Galaxy and an extra layer of cosmic Good/Evil bolted onto the plotting. Otherwise it's still about how much fun you can have hanging out with your friends, and how much that fun is enhanced if you have space-cars. Or, in the case of the Millennium Falcon, if you have a beat-up old space-campervan.

This doesn't, in itself, make the connection between Crash and Star Wars I realise. But the thing is: it's not just 1977's Star Wars. It's all of them. The key features of Ballard's vision is not just that it eroticises the excitement of violent and sometimes deadly car-crashes; it's that it does so in a perversely repetitive and monotonous manner, driving (as it were) on and on at its simple central conceit, punctuating more-or-less drab accounts of characters driving around West London with the orgasmic intensities of car crashes. The neurotic, lady-macbeth-endlessly-washing-her-hands element of this is not accidental; it's a large part of what Ballard is getting at. Machines are good at repeating the same motions over and over; and Ballard is fascinated not just by the intensities but by the machinic repetitiveness of sex, the obsessive over-and-over-ness of it.

And Star Wars is not just the one movie. It's The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) and The Phantom Menace (1999) and Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005) and ten thousand novelisations and fan fictions, and multiple video games, and The Clone Wars (2008-2014) and The Force Awakens (2015) and Rogue One (2016) and The Last Jedi (2017) and Solo (2018) and the forthcoming Episode IX: Rise of Skywalker (2019). It's the same story, told over and over again with a compulsive urge to return to key fetish objects, light-sabers, droids, spaceships, costumes, and various cathectically-freighted moments and actions. It's the same pattern endlessly repeated and with only trivial variation, drab exposition and travel interspersed with the death-fixated orgasmic excitement of gigantic explosions, like Ballard driving along the M4 looking for the next explosive, orgasmic crash.

The erotic fixations of the Star Wars story express a notable consistency: the pretty-faced, dark-haired, boyish-looking female lead; the fresh-faced young blonde boy (or his Jungian animus, the intense-faced young dark-haired boy) male lead, the two placed in multiple combinations with one another such that their sexual energy is always mediated by technology—a technology hyperbolically both automatic and mobile and therefore automobilic. We could peg this as a failure in diversity of representation, but it's not in the nature of erotic fixation to express diversity. It would hardly be a fixation if it did. And there's no question as to what she looks like, the girl Star Wars wants to fuck:



On and on it goes, detailing fandom's fetish objects as intently and monotonously as Ballard ever does. More, these movies insist with a perverse intensity that these somatic couplings result in physical injury and mutilation, just like Crash. Really, the longer this series goes on the more struck I am by its apotemnophilic emphasis. So many amputations!



So many prostheses, so many scars worn proudly like Ballard's erotic cunieform, the marks of the passionate, tech-mediated connection of sexually-attracted individuals:


What's really remarkable here is the way Ballard's perverse portrait of repetitive techno-eroticism has been recruited by Lucas and his heirs to power a global franchise worth billions of dollars. Ballard, were he alive, wouldn't be surprised that there's such a huge planetwide appetite for all this. From the vanilla perversity of Luke and Leia's incestuous kiss (presumably to-be-repeated in the next film, as Rey and Kylo Ren are revealed to be sister and brother) to the larger scale psycho-sexual intrafamilial pathologies of this intensely repetitive, techno-somatic visual text, we can look past the surface differences and accept how intensely Ballardian Star Wars really is.

Monday, 11 February 2019

Pervigilium Finneganis



So I translated Finnegans Wake into Latin. You can buy the resulting volume as an e-book from Amazon for £1.54: all four parts of the Wake, 453 pages, plus an introduction by me. I'm not expecting you to spend money on it, of course. You're not insane. But it's a thing I have done.

Why have I done this thing? I explore the whys and hows in my preface and don't want to duplicate that material here. Obviously it's a kind of joke, and the joke depends both upon its pointlessness and its egregiousness. I might have just floated the idea, and maybe translated a few pages; but if a thing's worth doing, it's worth doing well, and that counts double if a thing was never worth doing in the first place. I feel Joyce would agree with me here.

Translation is a kind of reading. Indeed, it is a kind of very close reading. I wanted to give myself a reason actually to read the Wake, and I have now done that. But I accept that there's an aspect of this, taken to the lengths I have (manifestly) taken it, that looks a little ... weird. The sort of person who would sit with a copy of the Wake open in front of them, Lewis and Short at their elbow, and a pencil in their hand, who would go, sentence by sentence, through the whole of this immense, immensely complex novel turning it into carefully considered Latin is not the sort of person with whom you'd want to spend your free time. That's not what I did. You probably wouldn't want to spend your free time with me either, I'm well aware, but: that's not what I did.

What did I do? I collaborated with the machine. I fed text through Google Translate, English → Latin. Of course, that didn't get me very far: (a) because that programme is famously unreliable in itself when it comes to the accuracy and idiom of translated text, and (b) because most of Finnegans Wake registers as gibberish to Google Translate (obviously). So I had to fix-up both text and translation, and it was this process, rather than any fetishisation of a Latin Wake as such, that interested me; like one of those avant garde composers who works with prepared pianos. It's text and machine and the intriguing stuff that comes out the far side. That's the really compelling thing, I think.

Somebody needs to engage critically/theoretically with Google Translate. It's a fascinating programme in many ways. It doesn't ‘translate’. It compares source text with a triaged selection of already existing online translations and spits out the result. It's the world's most voracious and least discriminating ‘reader’ of texts. Puts professors to shame.

Anyway: at odd moments over a couple of weeks, and depending on my time and inclination, I would prep chapters of the Wake and feed them to the machine. Then I would work through the raw quasi-Latin that came out the other side. This involved sieving the text through various filters: sometimes search-and-replacing specific things throughout the whole text, sometimes going through line by line and altering bits of the finished project. Quite a lot of Latin is included in Joyce's original Wake actually, and in those cases I had to translate into English, obviously. And there were lots of other fiddly things that proved needful, or so it seemed to me. Indeed, I could easily have spent many months going through the text, titivating it in various ways, Latinising the myriad unrefined (or uncontaminated, depending in your point of view) nuggets that had passed through the filter of Google Translate unLatinised. But I had neither the free time, nor anything like the requisite motivation, to do that. Instead I mucked about with the text in various ways and then just walked away, leaving some parts of the Pervigilium Finneganis worked by me, some Latinspattered by unrevised Google Translate, and a few spots of the original Wake-y canvas visible between the application of the paint, like a Pollock painting. I worked quickly, until I reached a point where the book looked texturally interesting when I, as it were, stepped back and squeezed up my eyes. The judgment becomes whether its scribbled and scratchy texture approximates to the scribbled and scratchy texture of the Joycean original.

But now I'm mixing my conceptual metaphors. Is the finished product more like a painted canvas (of sub-sub-Pollockian sort) or more like an avant-garde composer's prepared-piano composition? The latter has the advantage of emphasising the machine, my co-translator (or lead translator). As Ezra Pound’s ‘A Retrospect’ (in 1918's Pavannes and Divagations) says, there's really no reason why learning to write poetry should be any more difficult than learning to play a piano. Even a prepared-piano machine. That mismatch interests me, actually, because whatever else we might say about Joyce's novel we will surely agree that it was elaborately and laboriously hand-made, over many years. My ‘translation’, by contrast, was machine-generated, quickly.

Machines have a relevance here, nonetheless. We're not (does it tempt fate to add: ‘yet’?) in a place where machines can actually do our thinking for us, much less our dreaming; but nonetheless the night-book that the Wake represents is surely about the way specific processes of thought over which we do not have conscious control infiltrate, shape and direct our minds—it's how dreams work after all. And at least in some ways those processes are pretty well approximated by machines like Google Translate. A machine like Google Translate obviously can't ‘think’, much less ‘create’; it does not look at a line of English and actually translate it into Latin. But what it does do, by sifting through and sorting the slumbering assemblage of human thought and creativity represented by centuries of human translations, is to bring a sort of collective subconscious of Latinity to bear on the source text, rising up from a vast passivity of history and culture to manifest itself, in immanent but unpredictable and sometimes eccentric ways, is not, when you come to think about it, a million miles from what Joyce was doing with history, myth and language in his original novel. It's the 21st-century. Conceivably it's time the machine took its place in the ways Finnegans Wake is read.

If there is any merit in my project here [narrator's voice-over: there was no merit in the project] it might be in the way it shifts attention from the semantic meaning of the Wake and towards its texture. I don't know the (expansive!) body of critical literature on the book at all well, but the little I have seen tends to default towards elucidation, for instance by unpacking the various meanings in the strange neologisms out of which the book is construed. That's fine, obviously. Indeed, it's a common-sense way of approaching this puzzling work, even if it runs the risk of reducing it to a sort of massive screed of cryptic-crossword-puzzle clues. But there are other ways in which we can approach the Wake that aren't to do with unpacking the meanings of its words. We might be interested in its music, in its textural balance of roughness and smoothness (there is a lot of alliteration in the novel, for instance, and overall I'd say there are many more consonants here than there are vowels to service them). We might want, instead of engaging in the process of making the Wake easier to read, to explore the ways it resists being comprehended, even to the extent of producing a midrash upon it that moves comprehension markedly further away from us. That seems like it might be an interesting thing to do, don't you think? At any rate, that's what I did. My partner G.T. and I rustled up the text. Then I sourced an out-of-copyright image for the cover art (Gustave Doré's ‘Tom Thumb and the Sleeping Giant’: reproduced at the head of this post. It works quite well, I think, as an image for this novel) and banged the title on it before posting the whole thing to amazon's Kindle e-book platform. Bish, bosh.

One final thing occurs to me, now that it's up. A Roman would struggle to pronounce ‘Joyce’ after the manner we say it nowadays, with that lovely digging-in /dzh/ at the beginning and its bouncy /oi/ dipthong. S/he would instead utter the ‘J’ as ‘I’, the ‘y’ as ‘u’, would say the ‘c’ hard (as ‘k’) and s/he would pronounce the terminal ‘e’. The result would sound, it occurs to me, rather like the phrase ‘are you OK?’ as sung by Michael Jackson (‘Annie are you OK?’) in his hit single ‘Smooth Criminal’:



That's how I propose to pronounce ‘Joyce’ going forward, at any rate.

Saturday, 9 February 2019

Collections



I'm not a collector. Except for books. And with books it's not really that I collect. I mean, if I'm completely honest I do have a few shelves of books bought because I love them as physical objects, and because I like having them in my room: a gorgeous 18th-century edition of Cicero I bought a couple of years ago, for instance. Or my Scott, pictured above: which amounts to about four-fifths of the first collected edition of the Waverley novels, the 48-vol ‘Magnum Opus’ issue, published between 1829 and 1833 by Robert Cadell (my set looks more complete than it actually is because a couple of its volumes are duplicates). I bought a box of these from a junk-store being run out of a deconsecrated church in Devon, way back in the last century, and for piddling money; and I have been adding to them ever since, if and when I chance upon odd vols. But here's the thing: I read these books. They were already pretty tatty when I bought them (as you can see from the photo) which dilapidation doesn't bother me in the least. So long as the books hold together well-enough for me to be able to read them, I'm happy. Almost all the rest of my books are more-or-less crappy paperbacks, because what I'm interested in is: reading copies.

Now: this isn't a perfect disinterestedness on my part, because I'll confess I do derive some kind of frisson from knowing that I'm reading a first edition (reading Waverley in the compact first-edition Magnum Opus edition is different in substantive ways from reading a penguin paperback). So something of the aura of faux-authenticity clings about my sensibility, as I presume it does with ‘proper’ collectors. But I assume that ‘proper’ collectors make much more of a fetish of condition, immaculacy, of buying things and displaying them in an inviolate, pristine state which human interaction must not be allowed to sully.

I'm not a collector in that sense. Toy Story 2 has wise things to say on this matter, in my opinion.

Anyway: recently I was chasing something down an intellectual rabbit hole to do with Mario Praz, the Italian scholar known (I suppose, still? or has he dropped into obscurity nowadays?) for The Romantic Agony. Doing so, I came across his autobiography, The House of Life (1964). It's a strange sort of memoir really, not an account of the professor's life so much as a list of his many collected objets-d'art: Napoleonic furniture, small gilded sphinxes, Aubusson carpets, majolica figurines, waxes, ormolu caryatids, portrait busts and statuettes. His house in Rome was more like a museum than a domicile, and Praz dedicated his life to Collecting, capital-C. Reflecting on his own impulse, he concedes that there's something deadly about it.
Some subtle spirit may perhaps remark that, just as waxes had a funebrial origin (for centuries wax figures formed parts of the funeral ritual of the great) so also had busts, for the lexicons will tell you that Latin bustum means ‘Crematorium, place in which corpses were burnt (from combustus, comburere, to burn)’ whence ‘tomb, sepulchre’ and then ‘effigy in the form of a bust of the defunct in the tomb.’ All this, added to the reputation that Empire furniture has for being funereal, no doubt provides a precise and unarguable description of my taste.
A collection turns the flat or house in which it sits into a tomb, to some degree, and understanding that this is so unlocks the truth of the collector's urge as such: a desire not so much to surround oneself with beauty as to attempt to fix and embalm flux, to turn one's back on the growth and the change that, at the eventual cost of life itself, is life itself. Praz has the self-insight to own this fact:
I see myself as having myself become an object and an image, a museum piece among museum pieces, already detached and remote, and that, like Adam in the graffito on the marble floor of the church of San Domenico at Siena, I have looked at myself in a convex mirror, and have seen myself as no bigger than a handful of dust. [Praz, The House of Life (translated by Angus Davidson; Acadine Press, 1964)]
Kathleen Raine, writing on Praz's book for The Sewanee Review, insists, with rather de haut en bas grandeur, that it manifests ‘the mistaking of introspection for wisdom’, adding: ‘Praz is caught in his own introspections like an image thrown from mirror to mirror, seen here in miniature, there against some gilded background, but never able, in the false perspectives of that Piranesi prison, to escape into any reality’. There's something here that fascinates me, if I'm honest; which may explain my own fascination for books over other kind of collectible objects, as well as a persistent fantasy, which I can date to my early adolescence (and which is present in much literature of course, from Lewis Carroll on), of being able to step inside an artwork or a mirror and explore the landscape beyond the pane.
There are passages in The House of Life whose tragic intensity is quite extraordinary. One such is a description of a painting of a palace interior at Naples when occupied by Murat; an Empire interior within an Empire interior, a room within a room, which for the owner of the picture has become, as it seems, of a reality equivalent not only in degree but in kind to the room in which he physically stands. Yet we do not feel that the picture gives entry (like those Chinese landscapes about which Lafcadio Hearn tells legends of sages rowing away in little boats until they vanish into the Great Emptiness) into the Artifice of Eternity; but, on the contrary, into the Ruins of Time. Is this because only works of ‘unageing intellect’ can give release from mortality? Of these there are perhaps too few in Professor Praz's collection. But perhaps we must conclude more generally that the enjoyment of the collector is at the farthest possible remove from the joy in creation of works of art. Such works are the expression of some impulse of life, some mode of spiritual or metaphysical knowledge; a living mind in a living society informs them. The traditional heritage of a culture imprints even the tables and chairs and amphorae which the manual craftsmen make. But the collector procures objects out of context; and the more so the more he values them as ‘curios.’ Thus the collector implicitly disowns responsibility for the ideas embodied in the objects he ‘collects’; for ‘collecting’ is an obsession, not at all the same thing as a scholar's interest in some period of the past and its product. Thus, Professor Praz can be a connoisseur of effigies in ‘the religious style’ without religion; the bust of St. Francis de Sales is squeezed among wax effigies, opera-singers, and ormolu angels. All the gods and goddesses of antiquity are here de-sacralized. Thus whatever is collected is at the same time killed (as in those cases of butterflies and humming birds found in Victorian drawing-rooms), because its life has been severed from its roots.
Raine is probably leaning a little too hard on the mystic-vitalism pedal here, but she's on to something, surely. Art should be a door through which we are invited to step, not the stone rolled across the mouth of the tomb.

It makes me wonder, just a little, about on which side my passion for physical books falls. For comparison: I used to own thousand of CDs, stacked up on many shelves, but I've got rid of almost all of them now. I still listen to music, but I have, it seems, no need to own the physical objects. Digital music players are fine, and I'm happy having my music as immaterial files. You might think I'd have gone the same way with books: ebooks are very popular nowadays, after all, and manifest various advantages over physical books, not least in space-saving. But though I do sometimes read ebooks (usually because I'm reviewing something and have only been supplied with the file) I just can't talk myself into preferring them. I still love reading actual books. So perhaps there's something of the funereal instinct lodged in my soul too: like Adam in the graffito at Siena, looking at myself in a convex mirror and seeing myself as no bigger than a handful of dust. Dust to dust. Adam to Adam.

Tuesday, 5 February 2019

The White "House"


I really don’t care, do u


I caught an old episode of House M.D. the other day.

It was almost unwatchable.

Don't get me wrong: it was sharply written, dramatic, well-made—it was the episode where House ‘saves’ a dwarf's daughter from growing up as a dwarf herself by diagnosing a tumour on the girl's pituitary gland, spending a good deal of time making cruel fun of the mother's dwarfism into the bargain. Hugh Laurie was as watchable as ever (always nice to see old Soupy Twist turn his hand to drama). And whilst I was never a super-fan of the show when it was originally broadcast I used to watch it from time to time, and generally I enjoyed it. There were a couple of years when it was pretty much unavoidable, after all: ‘the most-watched television program in the world in 2008’ according to Wikipedia. But to watch it a decade later, after all that has happened in the world, is to encounter a completely different text.

The conceit of the show is that Dr House, the title character, is a hospital doctor diagnostic genius with an abrasive personality. Like a kind of medical Sherlock Holmes he solves intractable illnesses and cures his patients, whilst also insulting people, making cruelly funny comments and generally being an arsehole. We are ‘supposed’ to forgive him his manner, since his genius is of the troubled variety: a gammy leg means he walks with a stick and is in constant pain (he's constantly cadging, or actively stealing, opioids because of this, the lovable-irascible old drug addict!) We later discover, though I'm a little hazy on the details, that he's manic-depressive, has a troubled past, yaddayadda, so we give him a pass for his rudeness. After all: he's a genius! His brilliance saves lives!

Except we don't give him a pass for his rudeness. We relish it. It's why we watch the show. House is licensed, by the weirdly specific and bizarre format of the show in which he appears, to say all sorts of taboo and outrageous things, and we are licensed, vicariously, to enjoy that fact. And that has, I'd say, aged very badly. Because House's performance of obnoxiousness has, in a broader sense, become today's whole political climate. The character's ‘medical genius’, which notionally justifies his rudeness, is a pretext. We don't excuse his rudeness because he's a troubled genius; we tell ourselves that he's a troubled genius in order that we can enjoy his rudeness.

On the Right nowadays this is known as being ‘anti-politically-correct’, and it usually folds itself into a notionally exculpatory narrative. If we replace the phrase ‘political correctness’ with the word ‘courtesy’, or if we call anti-political-correctness bullying, it throws an uglifying kind of spotlight on what has become very widespread behaviour. So instead the anti-PC crowd say: nobody wants to be rude for rudeness sake, but we have to be strong, we have to tell hard truths, the cosmos doesn't provide safe-spaces, snowflake youngsters today need to toughen up. And so on. None of it is true, but truth isn't the point. The point is the joy of shuffling off the discontents of repressing your own objectionable thoughts and feelings, of venting what you really feel; and causing pain to others (owning the libs, as the phrase goes) is just the icing on the cake. Today's Dr House is Donald Trump, and his discourtesy, bullying and rudeness is justified not by any troubled genius backstory or any body-of-expertise on which lives depend, but by a genius for being discourteous, bullying and rude. The obnoxiousness is its own ground, and its own justification, and it frees his followers to indulge the intoxicating jouissance of doing likewise. It's fun to be the bully, in direct proportion to how un-fun it is to be bullied. House is President now, except instead of being the Sherlock Holmes of medical diagnosis, he is the Sherlock Holmes of the racist ressentiment of white voters. Hence this blog's title.

A similar discursive logic predominates on the Left, too. Here it's framed not as an attack on ‘political-correctness’ so much as an animadversion towards ‘tone policing’, an insistence that any attempt to centre discussion, and especially disagreement, on protocols of courtesy is actually a bad-faith attempt to shut down discussion and disagreement altogether. The logic is: oppressed groups are angry and are right to be angry; the articulation of their anger is righteous. You're speaking truth to power, punching up and so on. These are truths the world needs to hear. I tend to think that's right, actually; these are usually truths the world needs to hear. But I also tend to think that the apotheosis of anger into political discourse is counter-productive to the world hearing part of the equation. There is a left-wing jouissance, not exactly equivalent to the right-wing anti-PC Trumpian joussiance, and certainly not symmetrical in terms of today's balance of power (the hard right is on the ascendancy at the moment, after all), but a jouissance nonetheless that tends to corrode practical strategies of persuasion. People rarely change their minds because others are yelling at them, although people do something change their minds. If we're interested in this latter as a practical political goal it's going to be worth working practically towards common ground. There's little of that going on right now, though. Alan Jacobs argues that it is vindictiveness that is ‘the great moral crisis of our time’ and I wonder if he isn't right: ‘social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns.’ Making other people miserable also tends to make you miserable, with the added danger that this very misery is liable to fuel further anger at the world. This is at the root of Nietzsche's diagnosis of ressentiment as a psychopathology. It gives me no personal satisfaction to believe, as I do, that Donald Trump, away from the ego-boost of addressing his rallies of adoring fans, is often miserable. I'm sure he is. But I also suspect that his own misery ‘reads’ to him as anger (depression often works that way too) and that he has habituated himself over many decades into directing that anger at others. It's a very bad strategy for living. We ought not to follow his lead in this.

Conceivably we justify our unpleasantness to others in terms of our own misery. Scenes of Hugh Laurie's House, sitting at home solus drinking whisky, popping pills and scowling at the miserable loneliness he inhabits, work in the show as a kind of justification for his horribleness, somewhat akin the medical principle of inoculation. And the success of House as a show grew out of a time when this kind of obnoxiousness did not define mainstream public discourse in the way it now does. I suppose it seemed rock-and-roll back then; it had the frisson of transgression. There's nothing transgressive about it now, it's solidly mainstream. It's sheer old white guy braying nastiness. In fact being miserable yourself is no justification for making other people miserable. For these reasons I honestly did not enjoy watching this particular House rerun, and honestly don't think I'll be catching any more.