Milan Kundera for the Nobel Prize

I was reading one of the chapters towards the end of Kundera’s Book of Laughter and Forgetting yesterday.

It’s a dream-type sequence, or an imagination of a kind of afterlife, maybe a limbo, where you go before you really die.

Tamina, this woman, just ups and leaves her job in a café, hightails it with an angel in a sports car. He leaves her at a shore. She’s rowed to an island by a child, and then stranded there. She’s shown to her bed in a dorm, where all the other kids sleep. She’s the only adult. She searches for an escape. There is none and she settles down to living there.

The kids are fascinated by her.

There are teams of children, named after animals. The Squirrels sit shitting and pissing on toilets in the bathroom, while across from them, the Cats wash themselves at wash basins. Then they change over.

After a while, the kids want to wash her. She lets them, and it becomes sensual, sexual. They basically rape her. It’s written beautifully, strangely. You wonder if someone could write this today. You read the lines half-visualizing what’s going on, half trying not to visualize it, because it’s like one of those dreams that you’re not supposed to have.

He just says she’s rocked in a sensual way and gives in to it.

In between these scenes there are musings on music – his Dad’s love of it – Beethoven’s concentration on Variations at the end of his life – the inane music of today (“the monotonous rhythm of the soulless cry” which we all need, from time to time)…the usual Milan stuff:

  • “Sex is not love but merely a territory love takes over.”
  • “Children have no past, and that is the whole secret of the magical innocence of their smiles.”
  • “Humans do not revolt against the killing of calves in slaughterhouses.”

Milan will be 86 this April Fool’s Day. Why hasn’t he won the Nobel Prize?

Can we start a petition?

What we like determines what we are

I was reading this essay by John Ruskin last week. It’s called Traffic. It’s 1864. He’s invited to this place in Yorkshire to talk about an Exchange they’re going to build. Well, he rocks up and says: this Exchange of yours is the last fucking thing I’m going to talk about.

That’s John Ruskin for you.

He says: As far as architecture is concerned, there’s no point asking my advice once in a while. All good architecture is the expression of national life and character.

And then he whips out this phrase of his: “Taste is essentially a moral quality.”

He says: Let me tell you what I mean by that, because people have been picking me up all wrong.

Good taste, he says, is the perpetual contemplation of a good and perfect thing. “It is the kind of shit that the angels, if they were sitting around looking at art, would be looking at. Titian, Turner, Greek statutes, any of that kind of thing.”

He whips this one out, which I like: “What we like determines what we are.”

He says this – and I’m thinking of Ireland – that if a nation has any vices or weaknesses it’s inevitable that they come out either in their art, or their lack of art. That’s what he says. “In all time…every nation’s vice, or virtue, was written in its art.”

That’s John Ruskin for you.

Favourite Irish poem about potatoes

The Irish equivalent of the BBC conducted a poll to find the most loved Irish poem of the twentieth century – and a ballad to peeling potatoes, which involves love for one’s mammy, made the top slot.

This is not a joke.

The poem, inevitably, was written by “Famous” Seamus, Seamus Heaney.

The poem has been described as “only lovely”.

When all the others were away at Mass

When all the others were away at Mass

I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.

They broke the silence, let fall one by one

Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:

Cold comforts set between us, things to share

Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.

And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes

From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside

Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying

And some were responding and some crying

I remembered her head bent towards my head,

Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives–

Never closer the whole rest of our lives.


From New Selected Poems 1966-1987, Faber and Faber Ltd.


Mozart’s Letters to his Dad

I read a few of Mozart’s letters to his Dad. I had no idea he was so religious. He’s in Paris for this concert. He’s not sure how it’s going to go. “I was really very afraid,” he says. “I would have liked to rehearse it again.” But there wasn’t time, so he goes to bed pissed off about it and fantasizing that if it starts to go badly he’ll dive into the orchestra, rip the fiddle from the hands of the first violin and conduct it himself.

It goes great. The audience laps it up, “especially the final allegro”. So what does he do afterwards? He heads down to the Palais Royal and buys himself a big ice-cream and says the rosary. He doesn’t even wait till he gets home to say the rosary. He lashes it out there and then, having his ice-cream.

When he hears of Voltaire’s death he says to his Dad – “You probably know that that godless arch-rogue Voltaire has died like a dog, like a beast – that’s his reward!”

I don’t know about you, I found it pretty funny.

But come here to me – one other thing – he’s talking about this great piano he’s been playing and he says there’s no “reverberation” off it. Does that mean he played his pieces choppily, without a sustain pedal? Could that be true? Did Mozart play his own adagios in a way that we would find – jerky?

The Uses of Pessimism

roger scruton

I get nervous about a writer when I think they write too much. I read my first Roger Scruton book a few weeks ago, The Uses of Pessimism and the Danger of False Hope.

What a title, you’re thinking.

I know. One of my brothers came round and saw it sitting out. That’s the last thing you need, he said.

I read the book and then went looking for more, and I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s writing too many, too quickly, so I might as well re-read this one instead of buying How to Be A Conservative.

Anyway, The Uses of Pessimism is a good book. (You know when I say “good book” it just means “the author agrees with me”).

There are a couple of ideas in it I thought you might like, so here they are, in brief.

  • There are destructive forms of optimism; that people who believe that if you can only change the system, then etc, etc are addicted to unreality.
  • The opposite of this type of person is the Biblical prophet, who is a systematic pessimist. Because of this, such people invest their illusions not in this world, but in the next.
  • That man is not born free, and in fact the institutions of society are part of his freedom, not part of his problem, but that utopian thinking is immune to refutation.
  • What lies at the core of utopian ideas about society is a desire to eliminate all that causes tension and conflict.
  • That Paris 1968 – and all that – might have been a political failure, but the thinking behind it triumphed in the universities ever since (in the humanities departments, with new “tools” of analysis: deconstructionism, post-modernism, etc, etc).
  • He says that to be a conservative means to take a measured view, and to practice a more scrupulous optimism (which means injecting a small dose of pessimism); that intellectuals and leaders who think only in terms of the best possible outcome have often led humanity to disastrous results; and that gamblers are not risk takers because, led by unreal expectations, they fully expect to win.

There’s a lot more in the book than that, but I just wanted to see what you make of that much.

Lose Control

I was coming home the other night and I saw the first poster for Fifty Shades of Grey, the film. It’s such an interesting time for that film to come out – in Ireland – because the most sensational sadist–bondage murder case has just occupied the whole country for a week. The jury has retired.

The remains of a 30-something woman, Elaine O’Hara, were found in 2013. You can Google the ins and outs of it. We have a full record of all the text messages sent to her by the man who is on trial for murdering her. Elaine was a depressive, had mental issues, and was a masochist; the man (a family man, an architect, a man from an impeccable suburb) was a sadist. Among the texts he sent:

  • “I’m a sadist. I enjoy others’ pain. You should help me inflict pain on you and help me with my fantasies.” (April 2012)
  • “I want to stick my knife in flesh while I am sexually aroused. Blood turns me on and I’d like to stab a girl to death some time.”
  • “If you ever want to die, promise me I can do it.” (Ms O’Hara responded: “Yes, I promise, sir.”)
  • “I know you want it. Thirty seconds to slip into oblivion.”

Everyone has been talking about the trial – everyone shocked and etc, etc.

So I was just wondering – in two weeks’ time – how many of the people who are shocked by this stuff will be heading in to see Fifty Shades – with its tagline “Lose Control” – the soft, playful, acceptable face of bondage?

Lena Dunham

We were watching the latest episode of Girls last week and I thought – the amazing thing about Lena Dunham is the distance she has – she started the show when she was 25 and she’s writing mainly about people in their mid-twenties – with so much ironic detachment

Men explain things to me

Nearly ten years ago I was living in an Italian city. It had an old part and a new part. I lived in the new part, which was nothing to shout about, and every day for the first few months I would go up to the old part, which they finished building in 1467 and hadn’t touched since then, to watch the sunset from the city walls. That sounds embarrassing – “to watch the sunset” – but what can I say, I did. I was up there one afternoon when I first saw it happen – you know, where it first registered.

A man and a woman arrived up. Tourists. They’d walked up and this was their first stop to enjoy the view. The man started pointing. Below, the ground is totally flat. Flat all the way to Milan. And he was explaining things to her. She wasn’t explaining anything to him. He was telling her that the city below was very flat, and if you looked over in that direction you could etc, etc.

After that, I saw it happen more often. In an art gallery, a couple would walk around and it would be the man who would have to point things out in a painting. I even found myself doing it. Ever since, I’ve been aware of it.

Last week my wife bought a book called Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit. The book is a collection of essays which Solnit wrote, the first of them being Men Explain Things to Me, in 2008. If you haven’t read it, I’d really recommend it. It’s short, but it has a lot to say and – at the risk of scaring you off – I think a couple of hundred copies should probably be distributed free to every school in the country.

I’d like to see this kind of thing on the news – can you imagine: “today hundreds of Irish women realised they were tired of having things which they already knew explained to them, and they have decided to put a stop to it in a polite, but firm manner…”