Heavy on the Magick

A scene in the History Channel series Vikings: a man and a woman with a small infant come before the shield-maiden Lagertha (acting as Earl) for justice.

At the court of Earl Lagertha

The man complains that after many years in which they were unable to have children together, the woman, his wife, became pregnant by a young man who came to their house; he wants her to be punished for her infidelity. Lagertha replies that the young man was clearly the god Heimdall in disguise, and that the husband should give thanks for his good fortune. The man complains: that’s just a story! Lagertha replies: our whole lives are just stories.

It’s a virtuosic display of judgement: by attributing an ad hoc sexual encounter, which has resolved the problem of childlessness between the couple, to the visitation of a god, Lagertha encourages everyone involved to accept and take advantage of the situation. “Ancient stories” about gods who frequently do unexpected things, disrupting the lives of mortals, provide a symbolic framework for dealing with chance and contingency, and a rationale for bending the rules when things don’t go as planned. The society of the Vikings is repeatedly shown to be one which values surprises: narratives are for twisting, and the most effective actor in such a society is the one who knows how to break out of a deadlocked situation with a flourish of (often brutal) improvisation.

It both is and is not true that our whole lives are “just stories”. Lagertha is able to make this assertion because she is in a position of authority, backed by the threat of violence: it would be unwise to cling to a position of obstinate literal-mindedness in the face of her judgement. The prerogative of suspending the reality principle, of demanding collusion in a shared fiction, belongs to those who are in a position to exercise priestly or shamanic symbolic power.

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe.

Literal-mindedness appears “obstinate” because it is a counter-power, an obstacle to collective confabulation. The story-makers will always construe this as wilful, because from their perspective which story you choose to abide by is ultimately a matter of will. If you want to let slip a defiant eppur si muove, you had better do so under your breath.

Our lives are stories inasmuch as our subjective and social experience is mediated through narrative, and subject to symbolic power. The most widely-accepted contemporary answer to the problem of symbolic power being concentrated in the hands of dominant social groups is to insist on “telling our own stories” in retort, taking control of the reins of narrative, becoming shamans of our own lives. Considerable political value is attached to symbolic creativity, subversive meaning-making, magical practices which challenge the power of mainstream narratives which devalue marginalised lives and experiences. At the same time, our lives are not stories, or not wholly stories: to be obstinately literal-minded about it, Heimdall isn’t real. The statement that Heimdall isn’t real isn’t a statement about which stories we should live by, or whose symbolic authority ought to hold sway, but about what exists or doesn’t exist. We try to determine whether or not such a statement is valid not by considering whose narrative it supports, but by working out its ramifications to see whether they are coherent, and reality-testing to see whether or not it holds true.

Isn’t such literal-mindedness missing the point, somehow? I picture an interlocutor saying “yes, we know – we’re not idiots – but: shut up”. Because collusion in shared fictions is what sustains the social bond, what motivates collective political action, and there is no way for either of these things to happen purely based on assertions about what does or doesn’t exist; because statements of fact are inextricably tangled up with espousals of value, and investigation into facts is always framed within a social context; and so on. As true as all of that is, it will never be enough to make Heimdall real instead of not real. Symbolic power is exercised over and against a reality that stands in its way; that, in a sense, is what makes it power. It is only by “missing the point” that everyone wishes us to see and assent to that we are able to force the point – that things are either thus and so, or not thus and not so, and that our lives are no longer “just stories” to precisely the extent that we make this the basis on which we choose what to believe.

Compel the Adversary

The oblique-direct, as practised by a great word-sorceror. What a book Luka‘s would have made. Unpublishable. Someone still should.

Geoffrey Hill said of his late(-ish) collection Speech! Speech! that it was an attempt to bring a sort of energy into English verse that had been missing from it for a long time, an energetic effrontery; and that when presented with that energy, the absence of which they had all been loudly decrying, the majority of critics had simply not known what was to be done with it. He also said (words of advice to young people), “give us a black swan”. I don’t think he’d ever read heronbone – I’m not certain I ever really have, properly.

The Oblique-Direct

The oblique-direct: the slantwise thing, in poetry for example, which carries a certain resonance, carries you off somewhere, even before you are able to resolve it into an intelligible reference to something definitely in-the-world. It may never be resolvable; or no inquest suffices to resolve it, but you learn of the connection which anchors it to a context, a concrete situation, much later on and wholly by chance. There is writing, like much of the late poetry of the late Geoffrey Hill, which is oblique-direct almost all the way through. You can try to become a Geoffrey Hill expert, master of the references, but even the best effort will involve a lot of conjecture, and more than a few near-misses. And that sort of mastery is not the point: the point is the way that someone else’s private references, never wholly private because no language is wholly private, still catch at something in you and can even become part of your own lexicon, never wholly private, of things you say to yourself, out loud or not out loud, when you need something to say that is attuned to something otherwise unspeakable about the situation.

“Great gifts foreclosed on; loss and waste offset / by thrifty oddities of survival – / dittander and black saltwort that are found / flourishing on the midland brine” (“Mysticism and Democracy”, from Canaan). Dittander you can look up – it’s a “salt-tolerant plant”, like black saltwort, which is “generally found along the edges of salt marshes but has been increasingly introduced to gardens” – an emblem of transplanted thriving. The botanical references are not simply there for colour. There’s also an absolutely typical Hill double meaning in “flourishing on the midland brine”: the “on” locates it (“found along the edges of salt marshes”), but also has the sense of “living on” – I fed my plants midland brine, and they flourished on it. (He does that all the time.)

I tried out a similar trick in a poem of my own – “Say self-delight, as in the roadside cowslip / flowering in dense stands along the run / of harrowed earthworks, or the mission-creep / of bindweed raising trumpets to the sun” – you can see straight away how “flowering” descends from “flourishing”, how the image of tenacious flora taking root in a harsh environment is adapted and re-used. “Dense stands”, and “earthworks”, are direct steals from the Wikipedia entry on cowslip: “The cowslip is frequently found on more open ground than the primrose, including open fields, meadows, coastal dunes and clifftops. The plant suffered a decline due to changing agricultural practices throughout the 1970s and 1980s in Britain. It may therefore be rare locally, though where found it may be abundant. Additionally the seeds are now often included in wildflower seed mixes used to landscape motorway banks and similar civil engineering earthworks where the plants may be seen in dense stands”.

You might not know that unless I’d told you, or you’d thought to look it up; I’d forgotten where I’d got it from myself, and only sought it out because “dense stands” seemed too good to have been my own invention and I wondered if it was a common way of talking about flowers. It turns out (ask Wikipedia) there’s something called the “stand density index”, although it’s more commonly used to refer to trees. In the context of the poem, it’s brought into correspondence with “self-delight”, a term I took from a section in John Berger’s TV series Ways of Seeing in which a group of women discussed portraits of women: “this sort of self delight of a person”, which the speaker saw as a sort of kernel within the concept of narcissism, something less “pronounced” than it, more quiet and private and less pushy perhaps, although also something that could radiate out of a person and be perceived and enjoyed by another.

Perhaps this is too much like explaining a joke. I’m trying in this way to sketch out the protocols of a public-private writing, an oblique-direct writing which essays (tries out) “that which shall contain / its own passion in the public weal”.


Brexit/Trump are both in part about the idea that you can always negotiate your way out of an irretrievable situation – you do it by moving unpredictably, breaking decisively with the existing setup, declaring bankruptcy if you have to, then playing hardball for a more favourable deal. It’s a table-flip strategy. A large part of Trump’s pitch has been that he’s the sort of motherfucker who can bring it off – who can make outrageous demands, screw people over, and get away with it. You don’t have to like the guy you bring in to do that; you just have to believe he can do it.

A lot of this has to do with an unendurable feeling of being inescapably beholden. White voters prefer irresponsibility, amnesia, the clean break and the clean slate, to the very difficult reckoning with history and present reality that would actually have to be undertaken to move our societies past post-imperial stagnation and into some sort of responsible global citizenship. What do we (white voters) owe to the world – to migrants and refugees, to the countries we’ve blockaded and bombed, whose resources we’ve extracted and whose labour we’ve exploited, under threat of terrifying violence? What do we owe to our domestic “minority” populations, which are not really so “minor” any more? We’d really rather not think about it. It might, on any reasonable reckoning, turn out to be rather too much. What does Trump say, what does Farage say? Fuck you, we’re not paying. Let’s make a deal: kiss my ass. Do they expect to get away with it?

And it must be said that nothing about Hillary promised any movement past the holding pattern, the desolation of places and populations left to fall into managed or unmanaged decline, the exportation of violence abroad, or the importation of the same violence, with increasing ferocity, into domestic struggles. She may have felt that the position was hers by right, as simply the most senior, most competent, most deserving person in the race. But in truth she did less than nothing, politically speaking, to earn it.

Anger as an energy

I’m trying to envisage what a “rational basis for anger, misery, hatred, love, care, and so on” (Power, 2016) might look like. At one level, it might be simply that the Principle of Reason – “nothing is without (a) reason” – can be applied to all of these things: when one is angry, miserable etc. there is usually a reason for it, a cause which can be addressed. At another level there are Damasio-style arguments about how cognition needs affect to fire it up, and is always embedded in affective circuits. Somewhere in between there’s a Lacanian story to be told about the relationship between symptom and truth. But I’m not sure that any of these is quite what’s intended; the strong version of the claim would seem to be that anger or love are themselves directly rational, in the sense that they are adequated to reality: to be angry at some things is to grasp them, to think them rightly, just as the love of some things is also already a way of bringing those things properly into thought. When we say that someone is irrationally angry – which people often are, and sometimes ruinously – we must also acknowledge that someone might be rationally angry. What makes the difference?

W. H. Auden takes D. H. Lawrence to task somewhere in The Orators for saying “Anger is sometimes just. Justice is never just”*, a sentiment which he takes to mean “beat up those who disagree with you” (he actually says that it’s good advice for lovers, but in politics translates into fascism…). I know quite a few people who think like Lawrence; nowadays, people who think like Auden tend to call them SJWs, focussing on their over-the-top polemical fervour. Even Lawrence doesn’t say “Anger is always just”, though; the idea is that “Anger” may or may not be just, but “Justice”, which purports to determine what is just impartially, without anger, always falls short of the just.

Auden ended up wanting, and trying to model in verse, a civil discourse which could defuse anger in order to make way for the justice of mutual recognition (he seems to have had, post-war, a strongly Arendtian notion of this). Its principle means were irony and detachment. These are, as SJWs recognise, forms of violence, albeit intradiscursive violence: the (symbolic) violence of (symbolic) alienation against expression, against the means by which anger might find direct or “phatic” expression. They contain violence, in both senses of that phrase. The problem is that mutual recognition is not complete – can hardly begin – if I do not recognise the possible justice of your anger, if I am always prepared to turn it aside symbolically. That is I think the violence of philosophy. In non-philosophy, a la Laruelle, there is a barely concealed anger at philosophy’s studied obtuseness with respect to anger, its refusal to incorporate into its matrix of recognition the most elementary facts of human vulnerability and woundedness. What is the charge of “sufficiency”, if not a version of the lover’s accusation: “you think you know everything, don’t you?”

  • So it turns out that Auden was somewhat misquoting Lawrence, and I am not entirely certain that I have not misquoted Auden. Lawrence: “The only justice is to follow the sincere intuition of the soul, angry or gentle. Anger is just, and pity is just, but judgement is never just”. Auden, in at least one source I can find online, has: “Anger is just, justice is never just” (no “sometimes” there). Auden, quoted in another (by James Fenton): “Anger is sometimes just, justice is never just”. I don’t have my copy of Mendelson’s The English Auden to hand, so I can’t readily check this; I remember it as “Anger is sometimes just”, but even if that is what Auden wrote, it isn’t what Lawrence wrote – “judgement” is not quite “justice” (and what happened to “pity”?). Lawrence’s “sincere intuition of the soul” is precisely the sort of thing philosophy teaches us to hold in disrepute; if I have a lingering aversion to the expression “lived experience”, it comes from the same source (why “lived”? What precisely does that add to “experience”, other than a sort of halo of significance? And the same goes for “sincere” in Lawrence’s formulation, which tidies away the awkward question of whether intuition is to be trusted by qualifying it as an especially trustworthy sort of intuition).

Why you should vote Corbyn even if you think he’s a bit of a cacker

Response to a friend who is troubled by Corbyn’s difficulties in acting as an effective leader of the opposition, is considering voting against him, and would like to hear arguments to the contrary:

The argument I would make is that I think it’s important that the pro-Corbyn forces within and without the Labour party prevail against the anti-Corbyn ones. Victory for Corbyn in this leadership election leaves the pro-Corbyn forces in a stronger position; defeat leaves them in a much weaker one (and probably facing a serious purge, further down the line). Whatever one thinks of Owen Smith personally, there’s no doubt that he will act for the PLP establishment against any further attempt to move the party towards popular democracy – that is what he is standing for, regardless of what he, personally, stands for.

On the question of competence, I find it difficult to believe that Ed Miliband was a significantly more effective organiser than Corbyn has been; remember that Blair once managed to sack Angela Eagle from a cabinet position by accident. For decades the PLP has maintained its power on the premise that managerial competence is what’s needed to win the electorate, and to govern well for the country. It has accordingly eliminated all traces of a social democratic programme, sacrificing them one by one in the name of sensible, rational, well-adjusted, realistic governance. Well, I also prefer rational governance to irrational governance – although in practice what Blairism’s wilful subordination to the news cycle gave us was more often than not that notorious “omnishambles”. But politics is about more than just keeping the machine ticking along smoothly: it is about making arguments, capturing the public imagination and desire for change, and parlaying that into real influence over the direction taken by society. Thatcher certainly understood that; I think May does, too. The best the Labour Right have managed in recent years is the Edstone. It doesn’t bode well.

I think the Brexit vote indicates very strongly that “There Is No Alternative” will no longer wash with the electorate: it’s Labour’s task now to articulate alternatives that people will passionately support, and Corbyn – whatever his flaws as an administrator – has been astonishingly successful in doing that. If Labour try to put that particular genie back in its box, then they are definitely finished. Even a split would be preferable to publicly rejecting one of the biggest surges in support any political party has ever seen in this country.

I believe that Corbyn’s role in all of this is to act as a focal point for the forces that support him, to hold his position for as long and as well as he can while the battle is raging, to groom a successor and a supporting team within the party that can take over and campaign effectively, and then to step down. I doubt he will ever be PM, although a snap election just might produce a very surprising result; even if so, I don’t think he will wish to hold the position for longer than he has to. The truth is that anyone holding Corbyn’s political line will constantly be attacked, misrepresented, undermined and betrayed; it’s no good looking for a “unity” candidate who will stand for more or less the same things but somehow be accepted by the press and right-wingers. If you want the Labour party to stand for the things Corbyn stands for, vote for him; if you want the Labour party to continue slaloming into irrelevance as the Very-Slightly-Less-Nasty-Party, vote for the other guy.

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