Sunday, December 07, 2008

Table-talk for December 7

1. I do not like the holiday season - there is a paucity of fresh literary news, it is all unsurprising best-of lists!

2. Some weeks ago I was combing desperately through my apartment for the lightest of light reading - something really trashy.

(In an ideal world, I would read or reread something of the highest quality light-reading-wise, only books of that ilk are so rare and are subsequently reread so frequently by me that they are finally leached of their rereading potential!)

Afterwards I was laughing at myself, because I really and honestly feel that I literally found the trashiest book in the entire apartment! It was this; I suppose I bought it a few years ago when it first came out as a delightfully fat mass-market paperback, and read it then. So I read it again and enjoyed it very much - light reading is soothing to the frenzied brain! And then in a train station bookstore a week or two later I was delighted to find the sequel, which I read with considerable enjoyment.

It has an embarrassingly awful cover, but really these books are highly readable - in a slightly different universe from this one, where I am not a professor but am instead a reclusive author of cult-classic science fiction, I am writing sultry Darkover-Pern style romans fleuves and keeping bees and training hawks and generally living an insane faux-medieval lifestyle and attending the odd fantasy convention in a far-fetched get-up...

3. Happily this weekend, as I packed, I found a much more delightful bit of light reading - I do not know why I did not read it when it first arrived in my apartment, but it has my very high light reading recommendation! It is Jenn Reese's Jade Tiger, and it is altogether excellent, like a divine mash-up of a romantic thriller by Mary Stewart and the most adventurous and superb of all kung-fu novels.

It has tipped me over into thinking I really have to sign up for the elementary fung-fu class at the gym, I eye it every semester but have hitherto foregone it due to the lure of triathlon - but now it is time to dip my toes in those waters.

My only complaint, other than the fact that there are not ten other Reese novels for me to get and devour at once, had to do with the handling of set-up and back-story: I could not shake the feeling that there was a missing introductory section, one which laid out a bit more of the female protagonist's present-day home-base setting, that had either existed in an earlier draft and been rashly cut or else needed to be there to pave the way for certain later developments in the story. It is an editing rather than a writing flaw - the book where I first consciously noticed this as a phenomenon was the also very well-written Blood Engines. But this is a supremely enjoyable novel! The serendipities of book-packing - Jenn Reese, write more novels at once!...

4. I cannot agree with everything Burke says, but his prose amazes me. Tomorrow's the last session of the class I've been teaching this semester on Swift and Burke, and we are reading among other things the astonishing Letter to a Noble Lord (1796). (I recommend David Bromwich's edition of Burke's speeches and writings if you are finding a lack of Burke in your life.)

Three of my utterly favorite passages, not just in this letter but in all of English literature:
Astronomers have supposed that if a certain comets whose path intercepted the ecliptic had met the earth in some (I forget what) sign, it would have whirled us along with it, in its eccentric course, into God knows what regions of heat and cold. Had the portentous comet of the Rights of Man (which "from its horrid hair shakes pestilence and war," and "with fear of change perplexes monarchs"), had that comet crossed upon us in that internal state of England, nothing human could have prevented our being irresistibly hurried out of the highway of heaven into all the vices, crimes, horrors, and miseries of the French Revolution.

Happily, France was not then Jacobinized. Her hostility was at a good distance. We had a limb cut off, but we preserved the body: we lost our colonies, but we kept our constitution. There was, indeed, much intestine heat; there was a dreadful fermentation. Wild and savage insurrection quitted the woods and prowled about our streets in the name of reform. Such was the distemper of the public mind, that there was no madman, in his maddest ideas and maddest projects, that might not count upon numbers to support his principles and execute his designs.


All this, in effect, I think but am not sure, I have said elsewhere. It cannot at this time be too often repeated, line upon line, precept upon precept, until it comes into the currency of a proverb, 'to innovate is not to reform'. The French revolutionists complained of everything; they refused to reform anything; and they left nothing, no, nothing at all unchanged. The consequences are before us, not in remote history; not in future prognostication: they are about us; they are upon us. They shake the public security; they menace private enjoyment. They dwarf the growth of the young; they break the quiet of the old. If we travel, they stop our way. They infest us in town; they pursue us to the country. Our business is interrupted; our repose is troubled; our pleasures are saddened; our very studies are poisoned and perverted, and knowledge is rendered worse than ignorance by the enormous evils of this dreadful innovation. The revolution harpies of France, sprung from night and hell, or from that chaotic anarchy which generates equivocally "all monstrous, all prodigious things," cuckoo-like, adulterously lay their eggs, and brood over, and hatch them in the nest of every neighbouring state. These obscene harpies, who deck themselves in I know not what divine attributes, but who in reality are foul and ravenous birds of prey (both mothers and daughters), flutter over our heads, and soused down upon our tables, and leave nothing unrent, unrifled, unravaged, or unpolluted with the slime of their filthy offal.


Nothing can be conceived more hard than the heart of a thoroughbred metaphysician. It comes nearer to the cold malignity of a wicked spirit than to the frailty and passion of a man. It is like that of the principle of evil himself, incorporeal, pure, unmixed, dephlegmated, defecated evil. It is no easy operation to eradicate humanity from the human breast. What Shakespeare calls "the compunctious visitings of nature" will sometimes knock at their hearts, and protest against their murderous speculations. But they have a means of compounding with their nature. Their humanity is not dissolved. They only give it a long prorogation. They are ready to declare that they do not think two thousand years too long a period for the good that they pursue. It is remarkable that they never see any way to their projected good but by the road of some evil. Their imagination is not fatigued with the contemplation of human suffering through the wild waste of centuries added to centuries of misery and desolation. Their humanity is at their horizon—and, like the horizon, it always flies before them. The geometricians and the chemists bring, the one from the dry bones of their diagrams, and the other from the soot of their furnaces, dispositions that make them worse than indifferent about those feelings and habitudes which are the supports of the moral world. Ambition is come upon them suddenly; they are intoxicated with it, and it has rendered them fearless of the danger which may from thence arise to others or to themselves. These philosophers consider men, in their experiments, no more than they do mice in an air pump, or in a recipient of mephitic gas. Whatever his Grace may think of himself, they look upon him and everything that belongs to him with no more regard than they do upon the whiskers of that little long-tailed animal that has been long the game of the grave, demure, insidious, spring-nailed, velvet-pawed, green-eyed philosophers, whether going upon two legs or upon four.


  1. The first two Burke quotations I'm finding interesting vis a vis Paul Virilio. The French Revolution was a revolution of movement...but England was already on the move - though not as much as after the French revolution.

    The third quote is really something else - extremely amazing. It made me think of Hermann Broch's comment that the language of management would soon become the language of life. It also made me think of Robert McNamara. Finally, it made me think of Wallace Stevens: (to paraphrase) "reality is neither the infant a nor the stooping polymathic z" Stevens also has described, I think, the antithesis of what Burke spells out with his "old man, standing on the tower, who reads no book / his ruddy ancientness beholds the ruddy summer."