Wednesday, November 25, 2009


Illegal lonelinesses. Substanceless despair.

These are the songs you smuggle through customs, carrying them in your gut, taking care not to let them touch you.

These are the poems they shall cut with raw grief.

This is the language they will sell on the streets, your words whispered in the ears of unsuspecting strangers, or offered at parties to careful friends, every line an invitation.

These are the phrases they cannot get enough off, an addiction to meanings, mouths writhing at the end of every hook.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Dream Interpretation

I blame the New Yorker. It's all their fault for printing articles about nightmares and screwing around with impressionable minds like mine.

So, last night I have this dream. The details are a little hazy now, but it's a sort of Alistair Maclean meets Lost scenario involving a scuttled ship that may or may not have been carrying nuclear weapons and a handful of survivors who find themselves trapped on a remote tropical island without either communication devices or firearms but a fairly impressive collection of medieval swords. There are a whole bunch of subplots (none of them erotic, in case you were wondering) but the main story revolves around four people, who I shall call Good Guy, Bad Guy, Scientist Lady and Mystery Girl. After a whole set of clues and at least three dead bodies (that I can remember) Scientist Lady figures out that the ship was wrecked deliberately, for reasons that are never explained but that are immediately clear to everyone involved once the discovery is made. Suspicion falls on Bad Guy and Mystery Girl, who are nowhere to be found, mostly because Bad Guy has lured Mystery Girl into the jungle to poison her so he can have all the prize (whatever that might be) to himself. His greed and treachery prove to be his undoing, however, because when he returns to the group his is confronted by Good Guy, and, not having Mystery Girl by his side, is killed after a protracted and fast-action sword fight. Needless to say, all this happens in full-blown Hollywood action flick mode.

But that's not the disturbing part.

Apparently dissatisfied with the way the dream plays out, my subconsciousness decides to run the whole scenario again. Again the ship runs aground, again the crew starts to die mysteriously, again Scientist Lady does her thing and figures it out. Only this time when Good Guy confronts Bad Guy, Bad Guy gets the jump on him and wounds him badly. Things are looking pretty bleak for Good Guy, until Mystery Girl suddenly appears and proceeds to defeat Bad Guy in hand-to-hand combat (again with the Hollywood action flick effects), before handing herself over to Good Guy and Scientist Lady. Has she had a change of heart? Was she secretly on the side of the righteous? No, it turns out that she learnt about Bad Guy's plan to betray her because she dreamed about it, and decided it was more important to her to get even with him, even if it meant her own undoing.

And no, that isn't the disturbing part either.

The really disturbing part is that the next dream I have involves me lecturing on the underlying themes and motifs in the last two dreams - the central thesis being that the trinity of the Good Guy, the Bad Guy and the Mystery Girl is really a reference to the Holy Trinity (or is it Peter Paul and Mary, with the ship as Puff the Magic Dragon?), or that the whole thing is really a political allegory, with the ship being the ship of State, the Good Guy being capitalism (because of his 'invisible' hands), the Bad Guy being socialism (look, his sword is really a sickle) and the Mystery Girl being fascism. (I swear, my dream self was actually trying to explain this to other people.)

I need help.

Sunday, November 15, 2009


I could never be an artist. I think I always knew that. Or at least suspected. It wasn't that I didn't have talent. Though there were, it wasn't that. I just wasn't brave enough, tormented enough. Not enough to be great. And if you're not great as an artist what are you? A craftsman, an entertainer. The silhouette of an artist, all shape and no substance. What Dylan Thomas would call his sullen art. Sullen art. Such a beautiful phrase, that. The kind of phrase I could never...No, I was never meant to be an artist.

They used to tell me all I needed was to have faith. In my talent. In myself. As though faith were ever anything more than a lack of imagination. As if I didn't already have something more important - doubt, and the need to disprove that doubt, the endless circle of frenzy and disillusion, like a dog chasing its tail. And what a tale it was, this unwritten story, the life I once imagined but could never bring to life. All over now, of course, all impossible.

But wasn't it always impossible? Wasn't this the way I always knew it would be? Not a failure of fiction but a fiction of failure? And wasn't that what drew me to it in the first place, the romance of not being good enough? To believe in the impossible. Not to pretend to believe, you understand, but to believe truly, irrevocably, and in the certain knowledge that what you believed could not be true. The passion and the certainty locked together, feeding on each other, like darkness and light. Oh, how foolish the young are, and how heroic. And could it be there is an art to this? To falling short beautifully? But no, I was never an artist. Look at me. If I were an artist would I be sitting here like this, whining and whinging, when really, what has happened to me? Nothing.

No, nothing has happened to me. Nothing has ever happened to me.

Damaged Goods

Afterwards, God sat under the tree, weeping. Mourning the damage to his most precious fruit.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Identity without ideology

"But, if feminism becomes a politics of identity, it can safely be drained of ideology. Identity politics isn’t much concerned with abstract ideals, like justice. It’s a version of the old spoils system: align yourself with other members of a group—Irish, Italian, women, or whatever—and try to get a bigger slice of the resources that are being allocated. If a demand for revolution is tamed into a simple insistence on representation, then one woman is as good as another. You could have, in a sense, feminism without feminists."

- Ariel Levy, Lift and Separate, New Yorker Nov 16 2009.


Identification without ideology means power without purpose; you end up with a louder voice, but with less to say.

The really treacherous part of this is that the impulse towards identity politics is generally well-meaning. It's tempting to be inclusive; after all, there's strength in numbers. But that strength can only be used to achieve the lowest common agenda, and every new constituency you include diminishes the scope of that agenda further, so that in the end you're left with a mass that is all gravity, and no force. In a sense, identity politics is a local optimum - any movement from the status quo comes with an immediate cost and an uncertain (though potentially significant) benefit.

United we stand for nothing, and very still.


Little by little, he takes possession of language. His lines like barbed wire stretched tight across the page.

The mind, blown, passes to where dreams graze like cattle on greener grass.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Strongest Link

The way sometimes the poem turns
on a single verb.

My entire happiness comes
from seeing you


The Malignant and the Maligned

In other news, you may have seen this story about how couples are substantially more likely to get a divorce if the wife gets cancer than if the husband does, which has been doing the rounds.

What I find interesting about most of the discussion surrounding the story is how there's an implicit assumption that the 'proper' state of things would be for the partner to stick around. Personally, I'm a lot more shocked that more women don't leave, and can't help wondering if the difference isn't so much that men are that much more evil or selfish, but that women are that much more likely to be financially dependent on their spouses and therefore less able to walk away, or just that much more socialized into seeing themselves as doormats. In a truly gender equal world, would more men stay, or more women leave?

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Transcendence precedes comparison...and other arguments to watch out for

It's been a heady week for reading here in Falstaff-land, what with me feverishly alternating between the new Amartya Sen and Alison Bechdel's glorious, glorious Essential Dykes to Watch Out For [1].

Anyway, I'm only a third of the way through the Sen, but I figure if I wait till the end before I blog about it, then I'll end up needing to write a 5,000 word essay and given that I no longer do long posts (or hadn't you noticed) I may as well jot down my thoughts as I go along. What follows may seem a little cryptic if you haven't read the book. Then again, if you're a regular reader of this blog, you probably like cryptic.

So at one point in the book Sen is making a comparison between what he calls the transcendental view of justice (what is a just system?) and the comparative view of justice (which of two given systems is more just?), his agenda being to champion the comparative view over the more well-established transcendental view. Sen argues that the two views have little to do with each other, and that, consequently, the general preoccupation with transcendental theories is not particularly useful to solving real world problems of justice. In particular, that a description of what constitutes a truly just society (the transcendental question) is neither necessary nor sufficient to enable a comparison between two available alternative societies (the comparative question).

In making this argument, Sen spends a lot of time showing why a description of an ideally just society is not sufficient to make a comparison between two alternate societies - a point on which I'm in total agreement. The problem being, of course, that comparing two less-than-perfect options requires us to make a judgment on which option is more imperfect (or less perfect, but I don't dislike double negatives), and knowledge of what perfection looks like alone does not tell us how to make that judgment.

When it comes to arguing that an answer to the transcendental question is not necessary for an answer to the comparative question, however, Sen essentially hand-waves his way through, arguing that there's no reason why we need to discuss what a third best alternative might be in order to compare the two alternatives in hand. It seems to me, though, that this is only partly true. While we may not, strictly speaking, require a clear description of the best possible alternative to undertake a comparison between two less-than-ideal alternatives, we do need some agreed upon dimensions or criteria on which we shall evaluate these alternatives, and it's not clear to me how we would arrive at these criteria without first attempting to answer the transcendental question. Every comparison involves some kind of measurement, however imprecise; and every measurement involves some kind of theory, however imperfect. Of course, defining the dimensions or criteria of justice is not, strictly speaking, the same thing as describing what a perfectly just society would look like, but the distinction strikes me as trivial, and it could be argued that with something as inherently complex as justice visualizing a perfectly just society may, in fact, be the best way to isolate and identify the relevant dimensions. In short, while a complete answer to the transcendental question may not be essential to an evaluation of the relative justice of two available alternatives, the process of asking and trying to answer the transcendental question would seem to be a necessary prerequisite of any meaningful comparative exercise. In that sense, then, transcendentalism does seem to be necessary for comparison.

It's possible, of course, that Sen has an answer to this problem and I just haven't got to it yet (as I said, I'm only on Chapter 6). Still, it'll be interesting to see where he comes out on it. Stay tuned.

[1] It's not just that I like being eclectic. It's also that spending two hours chuckling my way through a book called Dykes to Watch Out For while my students sat and dutifully worked their way though their finals seemed a little too outrageous. After all, it's a business school. We're supposed to be dyed-in-the-Brooks-Brothers suits conformists, not same-sex loving subversives.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

A life together

I know that closure is not death, and death not closure.

But is it so wrong if your ghost and I get along?

Monday, November 09, 2009

Bread and circuses

What does a king do
in the republic of pain? Give them
bread and circuses like any king,
the bread of memory and the circuses of forgetting,
bread and nostalgia.

- Yehuda Amichai (translated from the Hebrew by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld), from Open Closed Open


Bread and circuses. Memory and forgetting. What makes life possible and what makes it worthwhile.

I too would believe in the trapeze of oblivion, if I could only forget the dry taste in my mouth.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Humpty Dumpty Revisited

In memory of Nov 9, 1989

All the king's horses and all the king's men
Brought down the wall in a show of their strength
And when they were done breaking and hauling
They paid their respects to those who had fallen
Each one secretly wondering whether
What was broken could ever be put back together.

See also


A light put out for putting out too lightly.

Doubt's output proves heavy when it comes to light.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


A little selfishness is a guilty thing.