‘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.

Friday, 12 February 2021

Purgatory Mount (Gollancz 2021)

My new novel Purgatory Mount is out now, and available from all good bookshops. 

Waterstones are selling it here.

Amazon uk, if you don't mind buying from them, here (and on Kindle, here). There's an Audible audiobook.

I also signed fifty copies, which Goldsboro Books are selling at no extra cost. I think these are the only signed copies going, aside from those occasional and individual books personally inscribed to friends and the like, so the usual publishing joke about ‘for sale, a rare unsigned edition of etc etc’ doesn't, in this case, obtain. I added a few annotations to a few of the Goldsboro copies too, as a kind of lucky dip. Not many though.

I'll do another post linking to reviews if and when, over the coming weeks.

A couple of readers have got in touch, or articulated their feelings online, to the effect that though they liked the book (I will of course also keep you informed of people who hate it, as many surely will) they weren't sure they entirely understood it. I have to confess that this rather gratified me, and not, I think, out of mere perversity. My worry, in writing the novel, was that what I was doing was only too clunkingly obvious, clunking obviousness being the enemy of art. I still worry about that, actually. Purgatory Mount is, as its title implies, a novel about forgiveness, its possibility or impossibility. I take either alternative seriously—I mean, generally, in the world, and so in the novel I have written. It seems to me one of the great matters of our time, actually: so much so, in fact, that the lack of art about it surprises me. I mean, I know plenty of art that, sometimes eloquently and powerfully, articulates outrage at and condemnation of the manifold wrongnesses in the world, but not art that explores the forgiveness of such wrongnesses. Perhaps I'm just not seeing the art that engages this matter; but I don't think I'm wrong that ‘we’ have a problem with forgiveness nowadays. That many of us don't choose to forgive (that we indulge, rather, the dark satisfactions of a targeted, often collective and vindictive unforgiveness). Or perhaps it's that we don't know how to forgive: or more specifically don't know how to forgive without feeling weak, feeling like suckers, feeling as though we're letting gross offenders ‘off the hook’—which is indeed what forgiveness does, of course, so I suppose I mean: without feeling as though the people we are forgiving don't deserve forgiveness. Maybe they don't. It seems to me that there are enormities so egregious they approach unforgiveability. But the ‘you don't deserve forgiveness!’ attitude runs hard into the fact that I don't, either. Who among us does, really? And a society in which there is no generally accepted mechanism for enacting forgiveness can never achieve, in the resonant South African phrase, truth and reconciliation. Somebody has done something, or said something, to hurt you: under what circumstances should you forgive them? It's obviously not for me to tell you what to do, or how to feel, and if I don't have that right then neither does anybody else. But, by the same token, a sociey in which there are no channels through which forgiveness can flow becomes a kind of hell. This is true in several related ways, I think. For example my friend Alan Jacobs, conversation with whom in part shaped the way this novel emerged, argues that ‘in a really important sense Hell is the refusal to be forgiven’, and I think he's right. Which is to say, Alan, as a Christian, understands how crucial forgiveness is to human community, health and flourishing, and is aware how often the Chrisian Right, as well as the radical Left, in his own country fail on precisely those terms. But even I, as an infidel, can see the wisdom in what he says, and am struck by how allergic the Left in my country are to forgiveness. Should Black people ‘forgive’ the history of European and American slavery and its centuries-long legacy of structural and individual racism? There is obviously no way I, a white Englishman, could possible insist upon such a thing. But let me ask the same question in different terms: should our children forgive us? Should their children? Do we deserve to be forgiven for poisoning and depleting the planet, wrecking the enviroment and bolstering a rapacious dog-eat-dog socio-economic system that leaves them indebted and stripped of life-opportunities? Do you deserve forgiveness for this? Do I? Is there an alternative to, on the one hand, a braying self-exculpatory denial (climate change is a hoax! the younger generations are lazy avocado-munching knaves!) or on the other, to our simply curling up in shame and expiring? Might there be some tertium quid, some knight's-move leap via which forgiveness becomes, liberatingly, possible? Some things probably are unforgiveable; but most things aren't, after all.

Purgatory Mount is moved in the first instance by that question: should our children forgive us? The novel's answer is by no means a facile yes they should. It is, rather, and as per the book's structure, a cerberusian three-headed thing: a hellish no, a paradisical (if sacrifical) yes and the main bulk of the book, by page-length, working its way through a more—I hope dialectical, but perhaps merely muddled—purgatorial dramatisation of the dilemma. This middle section perhaps does not arrive at a place that persuades you. I don't know if it persuades me, and I wrote it. All I know is that the place at which it arrives is the one that felt right, in a way alternatives just didn't, as I was writing. But the big question of forgiving others includes the smaller question of forgiving ourselves, and that latter strikes me as just as intractable.

I do feel, strongly, that forgiveness is inextricably linked to memory, individual and collective, that it can never bloom in a culture of forgetting. That's also, I think obviously (I fear: over-obviously) what Purgatory Mount is about. You could read it for yourself and see whether you think I get it right. But, of course, only if you wanted to.

Wednesday, 23 December 2020

The Tintinnabulation at the End of the World: a Christmas Story


: Look, Daddy. Teacher says, every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.
George: That's right, that's right! Attaboy, Clarence!

Individual nations took various steps to maximise their campanoproductivity through the 1950s, but it was only after the 1961 UN resolution—backed by both the USA and the Soviet Union, and with the tacit approval of China—that global tintinnabulation properly began to ramp-up. By midsummer 1965 the recently-formed Global Bellsound Survey calculated that close to a million distinct and individual bell-ring sounds were being generated every ten seconds by human beings all across the planet. The development of computers led to increasing efficiencies in tintinnabulation. By the end of the century it was possible for a single, modestly-priced computer to sound a hundred distinct bell-sound noises every second (resulting in over a billion such sounds a year). Hundreds of millions of such machines were devoted to this business by 2000 alone. Some pundits predicted the craze would die out, but manifest alterations in the fabric of reality—a huge increase in angelic visitations and apparitions, especially in dreams, but also measurable distortions in the Earth’s magnetic field, gravitational anomalies, mysterious messages appearing in the least likely places and so on—convinced most people that this was labour with which it was worth persevering. Economists argued that the true driver was the percentage of angel-oriented prayers (perhaps as high as 65%) that now resulted in positive returns. Priests, Imams and Rabbis spoke of a newly productive mode of religious engagement. Music fans applauded the supersession of guitars and drums by bells. By 2010 more than 40% of global GDP was devoted to tintinnabulating. Every city resounded, day and night, with a cacophony of bells chiming, deep or shrill, long or brief, day and night. Most people made-do with noise cancellation headphones or (in poorer parts of the world) with wadding stuffed into the earholes, although some elected for radical surgery to sever the aural nerves. As 2015 began, the global production of new angels was assessed at 10^85 annually, more than the number of atoms in the observable universe. By 2017 this number was calculated to be 10^190, a figure significantly greater than the number of Planck volumes composing the volume of the observable universe. No bricks-and-mortar Tower of Babel ever had, or ever could have, approached so nearly the ineffable throne of infinity as this new project by a humanity unified by internet media. Quantum computing raised productivity exponentially. God was being swamped with new angels, overwhelmed by an exponentially increasing spiritual volume. Some theologians argued that the nature of the Divine was such as to be able to accommodate a literally infinite addition of angelic pressure. Others observed that the War in Heaven—so memorably narrated in Paradise Lost—had involved some paltry thousands of rebel angels, and that had shaken the pillars of paradise. Who could say what effect the creation of so many googols of new angelic natures, each one an infinitude-in-one theologically-speaking, would have upon the Godhead? By the end of 2020 the line of the graph approached closer and closer to vertical. This was when, in a one-third-full car-park in Leicester, UK, God made His final manifestation in this reality. He spoke medieval French (a detail that occasioned a good deal of academic hypothesis and disputation in the years that followed) but what he said was clear enough: “That’s it, I’m out, I’m through with this joint. In sufficient numbers, even gnat-bites will chase away the brontosaurus. You’ve had six thousand years of my rule. Get ready for a new manner of management, a Graham’s Number of angels, your new commissariat. Take it from me, there’s very little on which they all agree.” With that, He vanished. And so, as we look forward to the twenty-twenties, some folk are apprehensive, and some excited, and most are perfectly indifferent, caught up, as is the human way, in their own day-to-day concerns.

Tuesday, 15 December 2020

La Chose En Soi


My French publishers asked me to record a 5-minute video talking about my novel The Thing Itself, prior to its appearance in translated form. For reasons that now escape me, I elected to do this in a hat. As you can see, my French is not very good. Still, if an Englishman can't speak French clumsily, and with an atrocious accent, then what was the Battle of Waterloo even for?