10 08 2008




Se mai continga che ‘l poema sacro
al quale ha posto mano e cielo e terra,
sì che m’ha fatto per molti anni macro,
vinca la crudeltà che fuor mi serra
del bello ovile ov’io dormi’ agnello,
nimico ai lupi che li danno guerra;
con altra voce omai, con altro vello
ritornerò poeta, e in sul fonte
del mio battesmo prenderò ‘l cappello…     [Paradiso; 25.1-9]

[If it comes (and may it come) to pass that the sacred poem to which both heaven and earth have lent a hand — so that it has withered me over the years — should overcome the cruelty that bars me from the beautiful fold where I slept as a lamb, an enemy of the wolves that make war on it; then, with another voice, with another fleece I shall return as poet and receive the laurel wreath at my baptismal font…]

So wrote Dante of Florence, ‘la mia terra‘ as he thought of it, the city from which I have just returned. It’s not hard, even across so extraordinary a span of time, to understand the sorrow of an exile (who has not occasionally just wished to go home?) but it is perhaps worse when Florence is the home to which you can never return. Sure, the Florence of Dante was a Florence before the great Duomoand before the Medici renaissance, the enduring institutions that characterise the city for today’s visitor, but there are certain things about the city that seem endlessly renewed: the great hills above it, the lazy Arno river, the long-setting Tuscan sun over the red roofs. It is not idle or stupid to say there is something special about the place.

I’m glad, of course, to be visiting in the present day – when I can wander through the Uffizi, marvel at Botticelli’s Madonna of the Magnificat, be possessed by historical vertigo while admiring the tomb of an Antipope, escape into the backstreets without an umbrella in the driving, warm rain and eat and drink more than can possibly be healthy. Yet there are also, undoubtedly, drawbacks to visiting Florence today. Certainly moreso than France, Italy has retained some sense of religious duty, and often one can expect to be reproached if behaving too irreverently in its great churches, or even refused admission if dressed ‘immodestly’ (bared shoulders are an affront to Christ, as I discovered to my chagrin while in Rome a few years ago) – but increasingly this form of authority is retreating from the most profitable of attractions, and it is this transformation from ‘Church’ to ‘attraction’ that struck me.

I grew up Catholic, severely so, with Vatican II and the monstrous guitar-strumming that passes for a lot of modern Catholicism bypassed my mother’s church, which considered ‘modernism’ the most grievous of temporary aberrations, a blip that would pass quickly in the Church’s somewhat more eternal perspective. Though I am no longer anywhere near that creed, there are undoubtedly innate responses that Catholicism bred in me (from an appreciation of ritual, to a somewhat heterodox appreciation of the psychological virtues of an almost-polytheistic devotion to saints, to rather lax morality happy to sin now and repent later) and while I find its formal theology monstrous on an incomparable scale, I also find it fascinating, improbable and not the absolute evil that many believe it to be. All of which is to say the use of the sacred building is not alien to me – its upturned nave the boat of pilgrims, its architecture an echo of the New Jerusalem. Whether its provoked by the marvels of the Vitruvian canon, the semi-instinctive power of the golden ratio or simply a couple of thousand years of accreted culture coupled with deep-seated memories of ringing golden bells, opalescent lettering on a chasuble and rising smoke, walking into a cathedral has the power to take my breath away.

At least I thought so. I walked into the DuomoSanta Maria del Fiore, and after a few minutes had to slump alongside one of the pillars. It wasn’t a consequence of the vast spaces of the cathedral, its towering arches or incredible dome, but the hundreds of milling tourists, clustered all under the dome, glowing phones and cameras held aloft in a dutiful substitution of recording and consumption for awe or engagement. they milled and marched about endlessly, cameras held before them like a raging mouth, recording everything for oblivion, transforming the cathedral into tiny talismans and markers of cultured taste. No pause: arches, paintings and domes endlessly sucked through the lens of the camera. Thousands, eyeless in Florence.

The obvious conclusion, of course, is that God is very Dead indeed, and this is the crowned achievement of capitalism, the reduction of meaning to a series of markers that can be purchased, recorded, appropriated and catalogued in the comfort of one’s own home. But that really is the obvious conclusion. What interests me is that there are (of course) meanings, sensations and positions of the self implicit in the space of the cathedral that cannot be appropriated simply by paying for an ever more accurate and megapixelled camera: what was the complex position I found myself in? 

When I stood in the nave and stared up again, who was I? I found myself longing to somehow reach out and touch the faith and terror of the builders of the cathedral, who could undoubtedly find the vast points of the cathedral reaching up behind the cross to a dies irae who saw everything. I longed for my feelings entering church as a child, where I could feel Godness pouring off everything like electricity, when I knelt in front of the elevated host unsure whether to stare or look away, but really unable to move my eyes. And then also myself now, who sometimes feels dim echoes of that holy terror, but who looks up at those vast, sad hopeful arches, themselves built in a desperate, yearning grasp to the heavens. On the still air, I could smell the memory of incense.

I am undoubtedly all of these people together, various selves rubbing up against each other, and more, horribly dislocated in time, adrift, free, not quite in one self or another. I sat for a long time looking at Michelino’s La commedia illumina Firenze (image above), which shows Dante staring over an impossible Florence, a Florence that could not have existed in his time, that had not yet been built, a city lost to him. Strange and unexpected afterlife, Dante wanders through the 15th century, behind him looms the Inferno strange and out of time itself, his one hand gesturing to timeless hell itself, but his eyes looking away, lingering over his city, la mia terra.

Then this cathedral itself a strange mix of contiguous times, against each other and not quite touching. The bell rung, and out marched the priest and his servers, thurible swinging, almost like ghosts, with the faithful gathered in the pews close to the altar — the tourists, thinned out but not gone, swung round to take in this new sight, some of them shutting away their cameras out of some sudden respect for an encounter with a human being entirely out of their time. These worlds carefully existing beside each other, somehow miraculously not colliding, somehow barely infringing on each other – the priest’s eyes lowered in procession, somehow concentrated on another world where the vast span of the cathedral remained an incredible, unageing monument to a timeless God. The flash of a camera went off, frantic, recording. As I backed out of the cathedral, thinking on the Vitruvian assertion that the coherently constructed temple is built just like a human body, I watched the priest’s lips brush the stone of the altar.



10 08 2008

Here follows a brief piece I wrote for UK gay magazine ‘attitude’.

PhotobucketI’m not very good at Pride. I went on a date the other night with one of the youth organisers of Pride London, and in a way I found his naive faith in the power of hand-holding, wishing and smiling to cure all social ills quite touching. He did not take it well when I advocated a Frantz Fanon style of direct intervention. He’s a Liberal Democrat, of course, which means he actually possesses no political inclination at all. To me, there’s something really putrid and offensive about the etiolated, anaemic politics of most gay activists operative inside the mainstream; a sort of myopic activism ready to compromise across the board for the interests of a single group.

There’s a lot to hate about Pride. I loathe the insincere corporate presences, particularly the presence of the police and other authorities as some sort of placatory talisman; they’re sort of madly grinning, dancing precipitously on a knife edge over a vast abyss of prejudice, pretending it doesn’t exist. I hate how easily Pride went running after corporate sponsorship, how affably it integrated itself into the corporate model of overpriced alcoholic hedonism, how any sense of injustice and anger has been gradually effaced by fake tan and peroxide. Most of all – overwhelmingly – I hate the witless, grinning parade of dancing boys and drag queens, the sense of being performing monkeys penned in for the ungracious gawping of heterosexual masses.

But those arguments are easy to rehearse, and hating from the sidelines, while fun, is kind of an easy way out. And there is, of course, a counter-movement too, the Vauxhall Gay Shame, which presents its own ridiculous problems, and the wider anarchist organisation Gay Shame, which I think is much more interesting. But no, I want to say that Pride itself matters.

It matters because visibility is a good thing. The more you see queer people, the more you are forced to deal with them as human beings who live in the street next to you, are subject to the same venalities and troubles as you, the more you are forced to concede that they are human. And the fear of the other, painting the queer as some monstrous abomination, is what makes the rampant and spectacular homophobia of the Bishop of Rochester and others so easy – although I can’t help thinking that the gradual implosion of the Anglican communion, and its slow decline into echo-chamber schizophrenia is no bad thing. Nevertheless, the second ‘the queer’ becomes humanised is the second prejudice starts to clear. (Though for those of us who wish to embrace alterity, who revel in otherness, who find the images of the monstrous queer, the infectious faggot, the vampiric lesbian fun to play with, there’s plenty of juice to be found in surfing the waves of prejudice.)

Why should I care? I, after all, live a relatively free life. Do you see the problem with that sentence? My freedom to love whoever I choose shouldn’t be predicated on permission given by others, why should I ever settle on being relatively free in comparison to the heterosexual majority? I want to be able to walk down the street hand-in-hand and not provoke laughter, violence, or even a second look. But really, it’s easy for me to settle for my relatively comfortable rights: our second-rate, heteronormative legislation which allows me to be a relatively unimpeded vector of capitalist profitability. I don’t really have to care in the way I did even five years ago. Why should I?

Because I live on a small, liberal island in a sea of prejudice, hatred and oppression. That’s not overstated: the bodies of young queers are regularly abused, ripped open and cut to pieces all over the world simply for falling in love. That alone should provoke outrage. And it happens in your own back yard. The Home Secretary of the UK recently came out with the vile idea that it’s OK to deport homosexuals back to Iran, because they’re safe if they live their lives discreetly. That word. ‘Discreetly’. That word. That word makes me spit acid. That self-secure, proper, upright word. That ridiculous, frantic, desperate denial of difference. Linguistic blinkers. No, Jacqui, living ‘discreetly’ isn’t enough, certainly not in a country where they’ll cut you up and change your gender or execute you for being queer. It’s not enough. It’s another halfwit mealy-mouthed sop to the red-faced colonels and businessmen and pinched housewives of middle England. God, fuck off, you rank hypocrite! Spending every day fellating the Daily Mail to cling on to power at any cost. Putrid.

That’s why Pride matters. It matters as a sign of visibility. It says that forty years ago, you would have told us to be discreet, marry ourselves off, mortgage away our capacity to love under a veil of shame. Fuck you. We’re here, we’re queer. That’s the fundamental affirmation that needs to be made. It’s not enough to hide us away. We will dance down the street in our tacky, tasteless grandeur, because it’s an inescapable assertion of our simple *presence*. It doesn’t matter if it’s hollow or makes me roll my eyes. We’re here and we demand our rights, and we’re going to keep wearing the sequins and the ridiculous outfits until you realise that there’s a massive well of prejudice, of centuries and centuries of hatred, underneath our feet and it’s up to you to change it and it’s up to me to change it. So I’ll bite my tongue and join the marches, because to do otherwise would be an abdication of my community, of what, for all its toering follies and dripping narcissism, is my family.


29 05 2008


(Cherwell Dawn, a few months ago…)

Whenever I feel like I’m taking this place for granted I get up early and take a walk through Christchurch meadow. It never ceases to amaze.

I bring the little children down to see the riverside
while you’re away
we catch fire in the sunlight, we catch fire
and as the day begins we sing ‘Lord have mercy Lord, Lord, Lord
upon our little souls, upon our little souls…’

Review: Amy Hollywood — Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History

7 04 2008

Have finally got around to reading Amy Hollywood’s Sensible Ecstasy: Mysticism, Sexual Difference, and the Demands of History, which I’ve been meaning to do for a while. I was initially drawn to Hollywood’s work by the question of the attraction of mysticism for resolutely secular and sometimes virulently anti-christian writers, one that has preoccupied me in the past, and was pleased to find that Hollywood’s work on Bataille was only part of a larger project. Hollywood undertakes a reading of four French theorists (Bataille, Lacan, de Beauvoir, Irigaray) in the light of medieval women writers, such as Angela of Foligno, Marguerite Porete, Beatrice of Nazareth and others; that these writers are marginal, heterogenous and even heretical is the obvious point, but reading juxtaposed with her selected theorists throw the issues of subjectivity, sexuality and the body into a new light.

Hollywood’s reading of Bataille is complex and I don’t want to do it injustice here, but I think it’s fair to say that she reads Bataille’s ‘Inner Experience’ as a process of self-dissolution through the contemplation and mental experience of horror and suffering, and that this suffering begets privileged access to the real. This is compared to Angela of Foligno’s screaming and howling union with Christ, the ‘intensifying spirals of ecstasy and abjection’ (p12). The centre of the argument, that Bataille and Foligno both reverse the process of narrative as a way making sense of trauma and instead use narrative meditation as an entry to divine trauma, is intelligently and lucidly argued; Hollywood’s work is particularly deft at unpacking the desire for self-shattering and complex erotic force of Bataille’s writing while maintaining a sensitivity to the criticisms levelled at the new mysticism by Sartre and others, and endeavours to defend the mysticism of suffering as an act of sympathy that does not seek to explain or reduce that suffering through the narratives of redemption. I’m not sure that so exclusively historicised a reading of Bataille as a writer dealing with the horrors of the world wars is completely adequate: while Hollywood acknowledges the problem of aestheticising torture and suffering, Bataille’s sadism is never really faced full on. This is a problem for any reader of Bataille, unless one takes the Peter Conrad position of Bataille as ‘subversive intellectual comedian’, a position that to me implies a relationship with his reader that doesn’t exist in the Summa or indeed in the Accursed Share.

Bataille and Irigaray buttress the book – they both have three chapters devoted to them – and the intervening chapters on de Beauvoir and Lacan provide opportunities to explore the politics of gender and hysteria, and these are similarly intelligent, particularly on de Beauvoir’s tense attraction to mysticism despite its temptation as a form of narcissism. While the section on Lacan is undoubtedly intelligent, it seems in many ways to be setting the stage for the work on Irigaray, which seems far fresher and interesting to me. Undoubtedly this a personal prejudice, though it does seem that the linguistic apparatus for dealing with Lacanian thought is so imbricated and dusty that I find it difficult to sustain my interest, even though Hollywood’s work – on erasure and the analogues between jouissance and mystical experience – is smart and clearly argued.

It’s clear that of the theorists in this book, Hollywood is most enthused about Bataille and Irigaray, and there is an infectious energy that runs along with her engagement, but whereas her enthusiasm for Bataille occaisonally veers into defensiveness, Hollywood is far more willing to engage with the problems of essentialism and sexual difference in Irigaray. There is a particularly beguiling section on misreading, essentialism and the body that struck me as both audacious and cogent, and an apposite warning for any over-eager reader of a mystic.

The book is a potent exploration of the apophatic mystical impulse, an open-ended exploration of the question of loss and its uncertain resolution, the connection between women, minorities and the experience of trauma. Now I find myself thinking about other traditions of mysticism, in particular the mysticism of language and the alphabet with relation to Derrida and Cixous, and find myself wondering if the notion of writing in Cixous (writing as trauma, stigma) can be connected to Hollywood’s work here…

‘Here on this lowly ground…’

7 04 2008

The act of reading is, for me, a spiritual one – almost the unfashionable word to use, perhaps – but reading, and in particular reading poetry, is a transformative exercise. I am a writer, and perhaps I can only say that for me reading poetry can rend and rebuild. In an essay on Yeats, Daniel Albright notes that Auden (who regarded the job of poetry as ‘disintoxication’) reviled and feared Yeats’ poetry because what runs through his work is an awareness of the its power to penetrate deep, uncertain and undetermined regions of the self, an awareness of poetry’s roots in magic and shadow. But what I am concerned with is not only rhyming doggerel as magical affect, but the power of poetry to say things we did not know that we knew, yet strike some deep well inside of us.

In much of my meditation and self-examination, I refer to literary texts or visual art or music… having no sacred book, I have no choice but to take the history of human expression as my mirror, cracked and uneven though it is (and perhaps, for that, its cracks throw up strange reflections and angles denied by the unbroken surface.) And in such reflections, which are inevitably delvings into my small soul, I prepare for some inconsequentialities – with a bag half-stocked with all sorts of incomplete knowledge, and no interest in the vagaries of production, or even the corpse of aggressive literary historicism.

I have been reading a lot of Donne of late, who interests me not simply because of his frank sexuality and earthiness, but because he was a man of deep sensuality with an equal urge towards asceticism and deep religious conviction. Rather than his early poetry – which is witty and rakish, and tends to be the more anthologised – I am interested in the poetry he wrote while closer to death, and in particular the sequence known as the Holy Sonnets. In criticism and analysis, they are usually characterised as embodying particular reformation struggles over the meanings of grace, but that really doesn’t much matter in the act of reading. One of my favourites:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you 
As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; 
That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend 
Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new. 
I, like an usurp’d town to’another due, 
Labor to’admit you, but oh, to no end; 
Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend, 
But is captiv’d, and proves weak or untrue. 
Yet dearly’I love you, and would be lov’d fain, 
But am betroth’d unto your enemy; 
Divorce me,’untie or break that knot again, 
Take me to you, imprison me, for I, 
Except you’enthrall me, never shall be free, 
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.

One of the reasons I find so much resonance in the poetry of the English renaissance and the reformation is the sense in which everything is at stake – that the stable order of reality is uncertain, that grace might be inaccessible if one falls from belief for one minute, a terror that provokes unrest and novelty. And perhaps more so, the belief in the power of words to alter things – one of the reasons I find the morally upright and censorious interesting is because of the implicit belief in one’s own weakness and deviancy that frequently accompanies such rectitude. To read antitheatrical literature of the sixteenth century is to discover a world in which public performance and the crafting of words can move and profoundly alter the audience, to the point of risking their damnation.

But the poem itself: Batter my heart… how extraordinary, how plangent? And in a sonnet of all places, it seems a misshapen sentiment to find. The sonnet, after all, is supposed to be the unequalled vehicle for the anatomising of love – especially in its unattainability, coldness, slippery impossibility. Hence Petrarch’s Laura, hence Dante, hence even Shakespeare. But Donne’s cold-hearted lover, the object of his jealousy from which he wishes to wring a sign, is God. Just as woman, in the earlier elegies is a treacherous whirlpool or a polymorphous devourer, God’s love should, for Donne, be brutal, annihilating, transforming. The extremities of Love are totalising, they are not easy or safe, they are absoluteBatter my heart.

Is this pathological? Is it masochistic, or simply erotic? Does it matter? To begin to answer this question, we must turn to the sense of self that pervades Donne, which is not unitive but fractured and multiple. Look at his choice of conceit in the poem above: the self as usurped town, the habitude of many different voices – and more so, usurped, full of alien things, unwanted things, dissenting voices. Elsewhere in the holy sonnets, Donne writes:

I am a little world made cunningly
Of elements and an angelic sprite…

This sense of the uncertain space of the interior and of a vast, cavernous self of almost-autonomous parts, that rebel in echoes and evoke the unexpected, that horrify the small speaking self because it recognises that they are somehow the same being, is what I find so profoundly compelling. Donne’s solution to this is to demand purgation, a pentecost that involves a fire more complete and horrific than the apostles received – burn me O Lord, with a fiery zeal/Of thee and thy house, which doth in eating heal. The hints, dropped mysteries and intimations are not enough for Donne –you as knock, breathe, shine and seek to mend. The idea of mending is not enough, there is nothing worth patching up, what Donne wants is a single sign that in destroying him renders him whole, and thus erases everything uncertain and multiple. But there is another sense in which the ardent desire for union isn’t simply pious but eroticised, a divine supplication in which all is risked (an echo of Sappho, πάν τόλματον, ‘all is to be dared’) because to keep something back is impossible in the force of that love.

Yet there is something still, isn’t there? The other strain in the holy sonnets, where the tension comes, is the obstinate self, the self that speaks… the writing self, which is never totally eaten up, which returns from drowning in the Lethean flood. And more, the demand for the sign is here, is now. The concern with annihilation also tells another truth: that there is a self of such significance to be humbled, that the passions are of greater intensity and significance than those of every other man. Except you ravish me, nothing else is capable of encompassing me, except you… Elsewhere in the sequence:

At the round earths imagin’d corners, blow
Your trumpets, Angells, and arise, arise
From death, you numberlesse infinities
Of soules, and to your scattered bodies goe,
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o’erthrow,
All whom warre, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despaire, law, chance, hath slaine, and you whose eyes,
Shall behold God, and never taste deaths woe.
But let them sleepe, Lord, and mee mourne a space,
For, if above all these, my sinnes abound,
‘Tis late to aske abundance of thy grace,
When wee are there; here on this lowly ground,
Teach mee how to repent
; for that’s as good
As if thou’hadst seal’d my pardon, with thy blood.

And this demonstrates Donne’s sense of his own significance, his own deeply-felt personal relationship with the divine that exceeds the bounds of propriety and even normality: on that last busie day all the infinities of souls should be stopped, and all attention should be diverted to him, and against this cosmic picture he pins the single demand of his own redemption, which demands profound disruption: not only his spiritual elevation, but for God to descend to the ‘lowly ground’ for him, even that the dispensation of the Christian sacrifice is not enough for him – the subjunctive on the final line dismisses it as almost an irrelevancy, only important as it relates to his redemption.

(It is, I think, sometimes interesting to speculate on the obsessive image, the primal scene of a writer: Milton’s, for instance is the fall, not only in Paradise Lost but throughout his work, Donne’s perhaps is the incarnation, insofar as it represents the irruption of difference into order – as Yeats put it:

…their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.


So this reading of Donne, this desire for totalisation, this demand for a sign, the anxious question what is this speaking thing – what is this act of reading for me? I am not a follower of the Christian God, but the idea of grace as an evanescent, mercurial quality interests me. And the rage, the passion, the urgent demand: come down, come down, come down. There are moments, too, when I feel the absence of something torn from me, of the fractures and echoes and doubts that demand purgation and can never be purged. The sense that writing is always an exercise in distance, in writing of my beloved I weave myself a lattice of words which becomes a fence. In staring, gape-mouthed at the face of God one knows that words fail, as a human being, on this lowly ground, I know equally that words (which escape us and exceed us, being both infinitely meaningful and infinitely fragile) are all we have.


What have I left out? That there are times when I long for the clarity of the desert. Where do we go to see truth? Into the desert, up to a high place, away into simplicity. Where the sun is strong and the lines are clear. Here is shadow. Here is sun. Make a choice. Where words can be graven into tablets and laws are made. Or equally to sew my mouth shut, to say nothing, gouge out my eyes and see nothing, to bear witness to the blank, pitiless desert. Batter my heart, O Lord, until I am made perfect, unmoving and ambitionless as death. The desire tears me in two. Because we do not live in the desert, we live in a world where our hearts are in our mouths and our silence always on the brink of speaking. We live in a world where I can desire two things at one time, where my desire is not pure but vacillates, that my body speaks with a thousand voices. 

And this, finally, what I have not said: the angel and the lover, the lover and the angel, for me, in my foolishness, I cannot always tell where one begins and the other ends. What do we search for from body to body and bed to bed? When I say plant your hand in my heart and when my lover holds the candle or the look in his eyes, open, looking up under the chain or yielding to sharpness… that moment of terror and love in the eyes where both are intermingled at once: those are my best days, when I shake with fear

Novelty & Nuisance

7 04 2008

I’m dipping a toe in here, simply because I’m considering decamping from my pre-existing digital home. The pangs of birth are likely to be many, caul-headed and ugly. Why on earth everything on the internet has to look like a cartoon baffles me, does no one have any style any more?