Larkin avec Lacan

(repost of a long-lost analysis from August 2009 of Philip Larkin’s “Love Again”)

A defunct form of misery, or so we might imagine. Larkin had a couple of tries at imagining it so himself, notably in “High Windows” and “Annus Mirabilis” (“Sexual intercourse began / in 1963″), which pictures the sexual revolution of the 60s as the moment when “everything became / a brilliant breaking of the bank, / a quite unloseable game”. Yet here he is, wanking at ten past three, his misery the particular misery of the sexually defunct.

The language of the poem is shocking, not so much in its direct obscenity as in its juxtapositions: “love” must live, somehow, in this proximity to “wanking” and “breasts” and “cunt”. “Breasts” and even “cunt” can be said tenderly, but here I think are not: here they name the parts on display in the Swedish porn mags sent to Larkin by his pal Kingsley, the parts of a woman’s body related to as prize or property: either one’s own or “someone else”‘s. This is a poem about coming second in a competition between men. Humiliation, “the usual pain”; and consolations that do not console (“the drink gone dead”, flat in the glass).

Why “love”, then; and why “drowned in that lash-wide stare” (rather than, say, “up to his balls in quim”)? The latter is of course quite compatible with greedy objectification: women routinely figure as both “breasts and cunt” and mysterious oceanic sex-beings in which male identity is submerged and dissolved. The speaker’s anguish here is that of being uncomfortably left alone with his “male identity”, his deprived and grasping selfhood, rather than “drowned” or “swayed” by the disindividuating force of erotic love.

There is a contradiction in how he imagines his successful rival, as both masterfully in possession (“surely he’s taken her home by now”) and ecstatically dispossessed (“drowned in that lash-wide stare”). This contradiction is reflected in his own compensating position, which is trying to make up for two incompatible privations at once.

On the one hand, there is the typical Larkin move towards knowledge as balm for disappointment, in which what is lacking in direct experience is made up for in ironic reflection: the arid satisfaction of being “less deceived” in proportion as one is less involved. Here I want to supplement Larkin with Lacan’s observation that “les non-dupes errent”: the fantasy of being “the less deceived”, of imagined aloofness and linguistic mastery, conceals the reality that the trap of experience has already been sprung and one is already writhing in its jaws.

On the other hand, the poem is an expression of profound ignorance, in spite of what it says about being unable “to be ignorant, / Or find it funny, or not to care”. The ellipsis after “Even…”: what was he about to “put…into words”? Even, I think, to feel happy for this person he says he loves (if that is what he is saying): the sequence would then run from ignorance, through amusement and indifference, to benevolence. But this step, a first step beyond selfishness, is beyond Larkin – or so he insists, in poem after poem.

Instead, the poem turns to the question of “this element // That spreads through other lives like a tree / And sways them on in a sort of sense”. “Unselfishness” might be a good name for it; but even as the poem yearns for release from selfhood, it has no name for what might open selfhood up from the inside, exposing it to the proximity of other selves in which this release might be found. “Love again” is something other than love the first time around, the primary erotic motive force that “spreads through other lives”: it is love narcissistically recaptured, as self-love deprived of the object that would have facilitated it.

Larkin’s answer, here, to the question of “why it never worked for me” seems to have something to do with attachment: the implicit narrative I think is one of a “violence / A long way back” that detached him from the sympathetic weave of “other lives”, and a subsequent attachment to “wrong rewards” – the satisfactions of poetic craft, ironic knowledge, literary fame – that belong to “arrogant eternity” rather than the temporal present through which Larkin’s imagined tree of life spreads its branches. Poetry here is not the sublimation of erotic urges, or “emotion recollected in tranquility”, but rather a usurping power, rooted in privation: the poet as Larkin presents him in this poem is not an especially sensitive individual, but rather an especially desensitised one (although unwaveringly sensitive to his own condition). It is a studiously unappealing portrait, and I am rather inclined to take it as a warning; which may after all be how it was meant.

Monday Poem: “Swarm under, death!”

A silly and bad-taste poem from July 2008…

Swarm Under, Death!

hairless cats prowl the streets
snails desert their shells
black shoots pierce the concrete -
death from below!

swarm under, death!

you will trip up one day
and fall into the underworld
stalagtites and stalagmites
glistening like gristle

you will trip up one day
on your untied laces
and the souls of the damned
will yodel in triumph

the souls of the damned
will pause in their rotation
and sing like schoolchildren
from their microwave ovens

the facts are compelling
they yodel in unison
the souls of schoolchildren
are 90% gristle

in the fatal urinal
where you trail your laces
they sing out from the plugholes
in minatory gurgles

join us! join us!

you will stumble one day
and then we will have you
straight down the piss-chutes
and into the ovens

black vines grasp your ankles
snails schlupp up your trouser-leg
waving their tentacles
sniffing for gristle

down with the stalagtites
up with the stalagmites
in the ghastly quarter-light
of the eternal Reich

the facts are compelling
they swill down the plughole
the souls of the damned
are ineffably lovable

What’s New In Octarine

Octarine is now at version 0.5, and has been enhanced with New Stuff:


Transform records (and anything else you have extractors/lenses for) with a fluent mapping DSL.


When you have a bean, but want a record, and your key names map (or can be mapped) reflectively onto bean property names:

Reflective JSON serialisation

You lazy so-and-so, you.

Serialisation/deserialisation of maps

Sometimes the “keys” in a JSON array are dynamic values, such as ids, rather than static property names. In that case, you need to be able to serialise/deserialise a map of values rather than a record. The serialisation/deserialisation libraries have been revamped to support this, and a variety of other cases (lists of maps of lists of records, etc.)

Friday Trem: What A Rose Is

Closing time, I’ve had more than my fill
legs keep walking, get me over the hill
stars above never answer back and never
dare to judge misery and misbehaviour

for in that rose contained was
heaven and earth in little space

Closing time, all alone in filthy weather
cars go by on their way to who knows where now
streetlights shine, rain and mist create a halo
just like mine – if you love me, why won’t you say so?

for in that rose contained was
heaven and earth in little space

Blackwaterside: Pastoral Electronica

For a period of about six months from late Autumn last year to early Spring this year I was working near to Harmondsworth Moor, and had the opportunity to go out wandering over the moor at lunchtimes. I took some pictures -

The river
The river
A pathway
A pathway
Reeds in the lake
Reeds in the lake
A rock
Help, I’m a rock.

and, whilst staying overnight at the very accommodating Jury’s Inn hotel in Hatton Cross, I made some music on my laptop. Lacking instruments, and limited in the amount of noise I was able to make, I composed and recorded everything entirely in software, using the excellent Reaper DAW and a bunch of free instruments and plugins.

The collection of tunes that emerged over this period had some common features: from the beginning, I decided to make music focusing on Harmondsworth Moor, which would evoke both its flourishing flora and fauna and the often wild, wet and windy experience of walking across it. Rather as the black metal artist Striborg establishes rules of mimesis whereby different sonic components of his music correspond to different aspects of the experience of wandering through the forests of his native Tasmania, I started finding ways to produce “blustery” or “burgeoning” sounds using electronic instruments and complex signal chains. My previous experiments with w/trem and (the electronic version of) Spiral Jacobs provided some ready-made techniques for making electronic instruments squall, throb, fuzz and hiss; I also found that arpeggiation gave me a nice musical analogue for the profligate natural self-propagation of bushes and flowers.

You can hear the entire album below – it’s also available as a name-your-price (including “free”) download from the Blackwaterside bandcamp page.

“With A Single Bound, He Was Free”

A trio of questions from Z:

It is not immediately clear that the rationalism you describe is conscious of its historicity, of the way particular ‘rational’ subjects and knowledge practices are historically constituted — and therefore it appears to be unconscious of its limitations. The “rhetoric of transcendence” further suggests this inattention. Again, the question here is not one of intellectual imperialism, but about how, whether, and with what limitations you can know. Is a rationality that transcends the standpoints of particular rational subjects possible? Can it be practiced by these subjects? Are the tools being relied upon, whether maths or something else, capable or sufficient of producing knowledge that transcends given subjects’ limitations?

Yes, yes and yes, otherwise we might as well pack up and go home. But the trap’s in the word “transcendence”, which implies a magic trick that one could always remain unpersuaded had actually been performed. Actually, the notion that “the standpoints of particular…subjects” constrain rationality in such a way that it must somehow escape them in order to function as the rationality it thinks it is, is fatally question-begging. Such “transcendence” is in fact an everyday occurrence, banal and unmagical: it takes place every time you or I take up an argumentative form and commit ourselves to reasoning consequentially according to its rubric.

There is no fact of the matter about my standpoint that can have any bearing whatsoever on the validity of a mathematical proof: if I am able to know that the proof has been performed successfully, it is because I am able to follow it through. If I am able to detect an error, it is because in the process of following the proof through I have stumbled upon an invalidating condition (usually a contradiction of some kind). Formalisms enable us to get to places that are not prescribed or localised by our immediate situations as users-of-form. That is, in fact, precisely what we use them for.

Most of the things we know, we don’t know in quite that kind of way of course. Much of the time, what we know or think we know is stabilised as knowledge against a backdrop of assumptions and heuristics supplied by our “standpoints”, which is one of the reasons why we misunderstand each other so often and so deeply. So I’m not suggesting that we take proof-following reasoning as a model for reasoning in general, or that knowers in general are not situated and not simultaneously enabled and constrained by situational constraints and affordances. What I do want to argue is that our image of a knower’s “situation” as wholly-localised and wholly-limiting is false: we are in fact situated within view, and within reach, of a rich variety of navigational affordances which enable us to reason from context to context. Reason is not an instantaneous ascent into the empyrean heights, from whence the whole terrain is visible at once: it involves traversals, translations, the construction of linkages from context to context, and whereabouts you start on the map is often significant. The crux I think is that it’s significant but not wholly determining: we don’t have to have perfect, godlike freedom in order to have some degrees of freedom.

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