What is true about love?

“Lovers” by Rene Magritte
In Jonathan Ames’s Bored to Death (HBO), the character George, played brilliantly by Ted Danson (have you watched Cheers?), answers (but not indisputably):

I am in your movie. You are in mine. Two different films, really. We don’t really know each other. We just make a guess at knowing each other, right? I think the same is true about love.



Thanks, JZ and JD, for this beautiful song:


What shouldn’t you be doing at 38?

In One Day (2009), David Nicholls answers:

“It would be inappropriate, undignified, at 38, to conduct friendships or love affairs with the ardour or intensity of a 22 year old. Falling in love like that? Writing poetry? Crying at pop songs? Dragging people into photobooths? Taking a whole day to make a compilation tape? Asking people if they wanted to share your bed, just for company? If you quoted Bob Dylan or TS Eliot or, god forbid, Brecht at someone these days they would smile politely and step quietly backwards, and who would blame them? Ridiculous, at 38, to expect a song or book or film to change your life.”

[Disclaimer: The above does not represent my view — don’t shoot the messenger!] [I am not yet 38.] [I chose the picture because I mistook “photobooths” for “phonebooths”.] [I do quote Eliot, quite often. For example, here, here and here.]

How is love like watercolour?

Paolo and Francesca da Rimini  (1855) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 

Yesterday, when I was reading the following description of watercolour by Laura Cumming  in “New Review” (pp. 32-33), ‘love’ came to my mind, and I am still thinking about it:

Watercolour has a life of its own. You make your mark on the page and very soon it’s not entirely yours. The paint sinks into the surface, seeping, running, spreading disastrously or drying too fast, forming suggestive blots or stains. No matter how quick you are – or how slow – it does not stay put, or remain stable. The colour comes, and it goes, drying unpredictably by evaporation.
Too wet and watercolour will pool, buckling the page. Too dry and it will stop the brush in mid-flow. It reacts badly to a drop of rain or too much heat, to the artist’s impatience or aggression. Although it accommodates happy accidents, it is also disaster-prone right to the last-minute mishap of the water jar farcically overturned.
It cannot be displayed in direct sunlight without fading like Tinkerbell. So it is to some extent a hidden art, preserved behind veils or between the covers of portfolios and albums, languishing under wraps in stately homes and museums. Everyone knows that watercolour gradually weakens. Indigo can age to brown or even pink. The brightest green may dwindle to grey.
So romantic and melancholy, don’t you think? Cumming is reviewing the exhibition “Watercolour” at Tate Britain, London (until 21 August).

What is so special about oysters?

“Oysters” by Edouard Manet, 1862

What? Apart from this?

Sarah Waters in Tipping the Velvet (1998) tells us more:

I opened no more shells for Kitty, for she managed them herself. ‘Look at this one!’ she said, when she had handled half-a-dozen or so. ‘What a brute he is!’ Then she looked more closely at it. ‘Is it a he? I suppose they all must be, since they all have beards?’

Father shook his head, chewing. ‘Not at all, Miss Butler, not at all. Don’t let the beards mislead you. For the oyster, you see, is what might call a real queer fish — now a he, now a she, as quite takes its fancy. A regular morphodite, in fact! (p. 49)

I love oysters.

What was William Empson’s theory about James Joyce’s Ulysses?

In this LRB article, Frank Kermode answers:

It was in 1948 that he [Empson] first outlined the theory in a letter to his wife: Bloom would like to make love to Molly but hasn’t done so for ten years, since his first son died, though he is keen to have another child. If he could get Molly away from Boylan and ‘get her to bed with Stephen’ he thinks he could manage it provided Stephen preceded him – perhaps when Stephen returned to Eccles Street, as he promised. Joyce was apparently ‘shy’ about this bit of narrative, and hid the point from his readers. Not from Empson, however, who expounded it several times adding more and more detail in evidence: for example, in two successive issues of this journal [London Review of Books] in August and September 1982, and finally in the posthumous collection Using Biography. He reached a point where he could not believe an unprejudiced reader could help finding what Joyce had rather cravenly hidden; and in any case he would presumably have given up the hope of a triangular arrangement by the time he started Finnegans Wake. But we are to understand that his desire for it had been urgent, and Empson studies it with appropriate intensity: the triangular outcome is ‘amply foretold’.

Of relevance here is Empson’s own relation with his wife, Hetta Crouse. He wrote the poem “The Wife Is Praised”, which consists of the following lines:
Did I love you as mine for possessing?
   Absurd as it seems, I forget;
For the vision of love that was pressing
   And time has not falsified yet
Was always a love with three corners
   I loved you in bed with young men,
Your arousers and foils and adorers
   Who would yield to me then.

"How to Open at Will the Window onto the Most Beautiful Landscapes in the World and Elsewhere"?

Drawing for The Exquisite Corpse by Victor Brauner, André Breton, Jacques Hérold and Yves Tanguy, 1935.

With a large brush spread black gouache, more or less diluted in places, on a sheet of smooth white paper that you will immediately cover with a similar sheet on which you exert a medium pressure with the back of your hand. Lift this second sheet slowly by its upper edge, just as you would proceed in decalcomania; refrain from reapplying it and raising it again until drying is almost complete. What you have before you is perhaps only da Vinci’s old paranoiac wall, but it is this wall perfected. It may suffice, for example, to entitle the image obtained according to what you discover there, first withdrawing somewhat in order to ensure the most personal and valuable expression.

-Patrick Walberg’s Surrealism (1971), p. 88.

If you enter a bathroom where a woman is standing naked… how do you display true tact?

In his recent LRB article on Wikileaks, “Good Manners in the Age of WikiLeaks” (recommended), Slavoj Žižek (2011) answers:

In Baisers volés, Delphine Seyrig explains to her young lover the difference between politeness and tact: ‘Imagine you inadvertently enter a bathroom where a woman is standing naked under the shower. Politeness requires that you quickly close the door and say, “Pardon, Madame!”, whereas tact would be to quickly close the door and say: “Pardon, Monsieur!”’ It is only in the second case, by pretending not to have seen enough even to make out the sex of the person under the shower, that one displays true tact.

What was the strongest candidate for the original tree of knowledge of good and evil in the seventeenth century?

“Temptation”, from a German version of the Vita of Adam & Eve

Marina Warner in the article “Bananas” (1995) answers:

In the seventeenth century, when savants were as keen on gardening as on the Bible, the general opinion of herbalists and botanists and connoisseurs of simples was that the banana was the strongest candidate for the original tree of knowledge of good and evil. (The palm was preferred for the Tree of Life.) Such books aren’t always reliable guides — the ‘vegetable lamb’, which grew on a stalk in Scythia, also makes an appearance in them as part of God’s flora. Though nobody put themselves wholeheartedly behind the banana as the fruit whereof Adam did eat, Linnaeus believed in the story enough to give the tree the name Musa paradisica. (335)

Why are many pornographic novels written as if by a woman?

Warning: the material below may disturb some.

Angela Carter (1878 1978)  in The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History answers:

Many pornographic novels are written in the first person as if by a woman, or use a woman as the focus of the narrative; but this device only reinforces the male orientation of the fiction. John Cleland’s Fanny Hill and the anonymous The Story of O,1 both classics of the genre, appear in this way to describe a woman’s mind through the fiction of her sexuality. This technique ensures that the gap left in the text is of just the right size for the reader to insert his prick into, the exact dimensions, in fact, of Fanny’s vagina or of O’s anus. Pornography engages the reader in a most intimate fashion before it leaves him to his own resources. (pp. 15-16)

Also read Kristine Ong Muslim’s “Preface to a Pornographer’s Dirty Book”


Why are poor and homeless people in London important?

In the final paragraph of his London: The Biography (2001), Peter Ackroyd answers: 

[W]hen it is asked how London can be a triumphant city when it has so many poor, and so many homeless, it can only be suggested that they, too, have always been a part of its history. Perhaps they are a part of its triumph. If this is a hard saying, then it is only as hard as London itself. London goes beyond any boundary or convention. It contains every wish or word ever spoken, every action or gesture ever made, every harsh or noble statement ever expressed. It is illimitable. It is Infinite London. (pp. 778-779)


What is London’s colour?

Peter Ackroyd in London: The Biography (2001) answers (see below). What is Hong Kong’s colour, I wonder?

Red is London’s colour. The cabs of the early nineteenth century were red. The pillar boxes are red. The telephone boxes were, until recently, red. The buses are characteristically still red. The Underground trains were once generally of that colour. The tiles of Roman London were red. The original wall of London was built from red sandstone. London Bridge itself was reputed to be imbued with red, ‘bespattered with the blood of little children’ as part of the ancient rituals of building. Red is also the colour of violence.

The great capitalists of London, the guild of the mercers, wore red livery. The Chronicles of London for 1399 describe ‘the Mair, Recourdour, and Alderman off London in oon suyt, also in Skarlett’, while a poem commemorating Henry VI’s triumphal entry into London, in 1432, depicts ‘The noble Meir cladde in Reede velvette’. The pensioners of the Chelsea Hospital still wear red uniform. 

Red was the colour used to mark street improvements on the maps of London, and to indicate the areas of the ‘well-to-do’ or wealthy. ‘Red’ was also the Cockney slang for gold itself. The London river-workers, who supported the mobs that poured through the streets in the spring of 1768, invented the red flag as a token of radical discontent.

Novelists have also identified the colour of red with the nature of the city. In The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904), Chesterton’s vision of a future London, a protagonist asks: ‘I was wondering weather any of you had any red about you’ and then stabs his left palm so that ‘The blood fell with so full a stream that it struck the stones without dripping’. This is a prelude to the success of ‘the red Notting Hillers’ in that novel. 

Red crosses were placed upon the doors of households shut up with the plague, thus confirming the symbolic association of the colour with that London disease which was once considered ‘always smouldering’ like covered embers. The fire-fighters of London wore red jackets or ‘Crimson Livery Cloth’. Their commander, dying in a great fire in 1861, performed one telling act — ‘pausing only for a moment to unwind the red silk Paisley kerchief from his neck’. The colour is everywhere, even in the ground of the city itself: the bright red layers of oxidised iron in the London clay identify conflagrations which took place almost two thousand years ago. (pp. 217-218)


Literary criticism doesn’t matter any more — Where did it all go wrong?

In his article “So you ‘like’ Hamlet? Sorry, that’s not good enough” in today’s Times (see here), John Sutherland mentions that in the last years of Frank Kermode‘s life, one of the questions that vexed him was ‘Why doesn’t literary criticism matter any more?’ Sutherland points out that in the 1960s literary criticism could spark national debate similar to ‘that surrounding Richard Dawkins on Darwinism’, but it’s no longer the case now.
‘Where did literary criticism all go wrong?’ Sutherland asks and answers:

One can put a precise date on it. On October 21, 1966 Jacques Derrida gave his lecture La Structure, le Singe et le Jeu dans les Discours des Sciences Humaines at the International Colloquium on Critical Languages and the Sciences at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. Derrida had travelled from France with Roland Barthes and Jacques Lacan, two of the other foundational figures in the rise to dominance of what would thereafter be misleadingly called “theory”. Initially derided as higher Froggy nonsense, the new approach took off like wildfire among the younger American faculty. And here. (“The Review”, Times, p. 9)


Updated on 1 January 2011, 21:11pm: Reid told me about six pieces on literary criticism published in New York Times:

  • Up Front: Why Criticism Matters” | THE EDITORS | What is the place of serious criticism in the age of instant, ubiquitous opinion­?
  • Masters of the Form” | JENNIFER B. McDONALD | A sampling of defenses of criticism from great critics past.

What was the most superior civilization of premodern times?

Paul Kennedy in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers (1987) answers:

Of all the civilizations of premodern times, none appeared more advanced, none felt more superior, than that of China. Its considerable population, 100-130 million compared with Europe’s 50-55 million in the fifteenth century; its remarkable culture; its exceedingly fertile and irrigated plains, linked by a splendid canal system since the eleventh century; and its unified, hierarchic administration run by a well-educated Confucian bureaucracy had given a coherence and sophistication to Chinese society which was the envy of foreign visitors. (p. 4, p. 6)

An interesting thing about this book is that Paul Kennedy predicted that Japan would overtake America. More than two decades on, we all know that he was wrong. And he admitted his miscalculation in a March 2010 interview, in which he predicts that in the future, there will be no one single world power. This argument is strikingly similar to Nicholas Ostler’s about the future of lingua franca.

Kennedy says in the interview:

I can see in possibly 25 years’ time, you have got — you have got a U.S., you have got a Brazil, interestingly, coming up fast, you have got a China, you have got an India, and a possibly consolidated E.U., and you’re looking at something like Metternich’s Congress of Vienna system, a concert of big powers. 

The transcript of the interview is here.

How will the world respond to the decline of English?

Nicholas Ostler answers in The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel  (2010):

The decline of English, when it begins, will not seem of great moment.

International English is a lingua franca, and by its nature, a lingua franca is a language of convenience. When it ceases to be convenient—however widespread it has been—it will be dropped, without ceremony, and with little emotion. People will just not get around learning it, not see the point, be glad to escape a previously compulsory subject at school. Only those who have a more intimate relation to it, its native speakers, may feel a sense of loss—much as French people do today when their language is passed over, or accorded no special respect. And those who are conscious of having made a serious investment to learn the language—having misread the signs of change afoot in global communication—may also feel cheated, even disappointed, when others seem to be excused from having to know it. But the world as a whole will shrug and go on transacting its business in whatever language, or combination of languages, next seems useful. (xv)

See more from this book.

Will Chinese be used as a lingua-franca?

Nicholas Ostler answers in The Last Lingua Franca: English Until the Return of Babel  (2010):

Chinese, like all the great languages of the modern world excepting English and French, remains very much a localized language in eastern and southeastern Asia, even if it is set to be the language of the world’s dominant economic power, and with a truly vast number of speakers to boot. It may well increase its currency in some parts of the world (notably Africa), but the current political structure of the world system makes it unlikely that Chinese will get the chance to seed itself as the common language in new communities around the world that might use it as a lingua-franca. (283)

See more from this book.

What is gossip?

The answer can be found in Doubt, the 2008 film adaptation of the John Patrick Shanley’s stage play Doubt: A Parable, which won a Pulitzer Prize:

A woman was gossiping with her friend about a man whom they hardly knew – I know none of you have ever done this. That night, she had a dream: a great hand appeared over her and pointed down on her. She was immediately seized with an overwhelming sense of guilt. The next day she went to confession. She got the old parish priest, Father O’ Rourke, and she told him the whole thing. ‘Is gossiping a sin?’ she asked the old man. ‘Was that God All Mighty’s hand pointing down at me? Should I ask for your absolution? Father, have I done something wrong?’ ‘Yes,’ Father O’ Rourke answered her. ‘Yes, you ignorant, badly-brought-up female. You have blamed false witness on your neighbor. You played fast and loose with his reputation, and you should be heartily ashamed.’ So, the woman said she was sorry, and asked for forgiveness. ‘Not so fast,’ says O’ Rourke. ‘I want you to go home, take a pillow upon your roof, cut it open with a knife, and return here to me.’ So, the woman went home: took a pillow off her bed, a knife from the drawer, went up the fire escape to her roof, and stabbed the pillow. Then she went back to the old parish priest as instructed. ‘Did you cut the pillow with a knife?’ he says. ‘Yes, Father.’ ‘And what were the results?’ ‘Feathers,’ she said. ‘Feathers?’ he repeated. ‘Feathers; everywhere, Father.’ ‘Now I want you to go back and gather up every last feather that flew out onto the wind,’ ‘Well,’ she said, ‘it can’t be done. I don’t know where they went. The wind took them all over.’ ‘And that,’ said Father O’ Rourke, ‘is gossip!’


Where does ‘cliché’ come from?

“How They Met Themselves” (1860-64) by Dante Gabriel Rossetti
Umberto Eco once wrote, ‘Two clichés make us laugh but a hundred clichés move us, because we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion.’ But where does ‘cliché’ come from?

It comes from the early nineteenth-century French term for a stereotype block, presumably due to the noise the blocks made whilst printing (clicher is a variant of the verb cliquer, to click). It existed in this literal meaning until the 1890s: the OED offers Andrew Lang, writing in Longwood’s Magazine in 1892, as providing the first usage of cliché as a metaphor meaning ‘A stereotyped expression, a commonplace phrase’. The coinage stuck, and the word cliché itself became a cliché, reproduced many times over to designate something reproduced many times over. (p. 160)

In a footnote, Macfarlane also explains the origin of ‘stereotype’:

It began as an eighteenth-century noun meaning ‘A method of replicating a relief printing surface’, but by 1850 had been abstracted to signify ‘A thing continued or constantly repeated without change, esp. a phrase or formula, etc.; stereotyped diction or usage’ (OED). (p. 160) 

When did déjà vu begin?

Eadweard Muybridge 1
[More about Eadweard Muybridge here.]

Nicholas Royle in The Uncanny (2003) answers:

It is usually traced back to 1876, to a man called Boirac who wrote: ‘It has happened that, seeing for the first time a monument, a landscape, a person, I have suddenly and despite myself arrived at this conviction: I have already seen [déjà vu] that which I am seeing.’ (308)

But there might be an earlier example:

It is Nathaniel Hawthorne, reminiscing in 1856 about a visit to Stanton Harcourt, in Oxfordshire, that had taken place three years earlier: ‘I had never before had so pertinacious an attack, as I could not but suppose it, of that odd state of mind wherein we fitfully and teazingly remember some previous scene or incident, of which the one now passing appears to be but the echo and reduplication.’ (308)

And an even earlier example, from Dickens’s David Copperfield (1849-50):

‘If you had not assured us, my dear Copperfield, on the occasion of that agreeable afternoon we had the happiness of passing with you, that D was your favourite letter,’ said Mr Micawber, ‘I should unquestionably have supposed A had been so.’ 

We have all some experience of of a feeling, that comes over us occasionally, of what we are saying and doing having been said and done before, in a remote time — of our having been surrounded, dim ages ago, by the same faces, objects, and circumstances — of our knowing perfectly what will be said next, as if we suddenly remembered it! I never had this mysterious impression more strongly in my life, than before he had uttered those words.’ (313)

The verdict:

Dickens’s novel offers perhaps the earliest definitive appearance in print of what, by prolepsis or anachrony, we now call déjà vu.

Royle’s sources:

  • E. Boirac, ‘Correspondance’, Revue philosophique, vol. 1 (1876), 430-i; quoted in W. H. Burnham, ‘Memory, Historically and Experimentally Considered’, American Journal of Psychology, vol. 2 (1889), 441-2.
  • Hawthorne, Our Old Home, p. 184.
  • Charles Dickens, David Copperfield (1849-50), ed. Jeremy Tambling (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1996), p. 523.

Who was the first Cinderella?

In her hugely enjoyable book, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers (first published in 1994 — mine is the Vintage’s 1995 version) the mythographer, novelist and historian Marina Warner answers:

The earliest extant version of ‘Cinderella’ to feature a lost slipper was written down around AD 850-60 in China[.]

She continues:

The Chinese Cinderella, Yeh-hsien, is ‘intelligent, and good at making pottery on the wheel’. When her own mother dies, and is soon followed by her father, her father’s co-wife begins to maltreat her, and to prefer her own daughter. A magic golden fish appears in a pond and befriends Yeh-hsien. When the wicked stepmother discovers this source of comfort for her hated stepdaughter, she kills it, eats it and hides the bones ‘under the dull hill’. When Yeh-hsien, all unknowing, calls to the fish the next day as is her custom, an enchanter descends from the sky and tells her where to find the bones: ‘Take [them] and hide them in your room. Whatever you want, you have only to pray to them for it…’ Yeh-hsien does so, and finds that she no longer suffers from hunger or thirst or cold — the fishbones care for her. On the day of the local festival, her stepmother and stepsister order her to stay behind, but she waits till they have left, and then, in a cloak of kingfisher feathers and gold shoes, she joins them at the festival. Her sister recognizes her, and it is when Yeh-hsien realizes this and runs away that she loses one of her gold shoes. It is picked up and sold to a local warlord: ‘it was an inch too small even for the one among them that had the smallest foot. He ordered all the women in his kingdom to try it on. But there was not one that it fitted. It was as light as down and made no noise even when treading on stone.

Yeh-hsien comes forward and, taking her fishbones with her, becomes ‘chief wife’ in the king’s household. Her stepmother and sister are stoned to death. (p. 202)

Why is it better to write biographers sooner rather than later?

Samuel Johnson in The Rambler (1750) answers:

If a life be delayed till interest and envy are at an end, we may hope for impartiality, but must expect little intelligence; for the incidents which give excellence to biography are of a volatile and evanescent kind, such as soon escape the memory, and are rarely transmitted by tradition. We know how few can portray a living acquaintance, except by his most prominent and observable particularities, and the grosser features of his mind; and it may be easily imagined how much of this little knowledge may be lost in imparting it, and how soon a succession of copies will lose all resemblance of the original. (No. 60)


Why is Greek tragedy not concerned with evil men?

A.D. Nuttall in Overheard by God: Fiction and Prayer in Herbert, Milton, Dante and St John (1980) answers:

Greek tragedy owes its special force to the stratified coexistence of two ethical worlds. The older stratum is one in which men delighted in the unimpeded energy and even the bragging of the archaic heroes: in the later stratum men view such behaviour not precisely as sinful but as peculiarly likely to attract the jealous anger of the gods. Thus Greek tragedy is not typically concerned with evil men who get what they deserve but is rather about heroes (Ajax, Heracles, Eteocles and Polynices) whose very superfluity of energy offends the infinitely more powerful gods. (pp. 106-107)


Which is more preferable: Innocence or Experience?

In a discussion of William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Experience, Harold Bloom (2004) answers:

Since Innocence and Experience are states of the soul through which we pass, neither is a finality, both are necessary, and neither is wholly preferable to the other. Not only are they satires upon each other, but they exist in a cyclic relation as well. Blake does not intend us to see Innocence as belonging to childhood and Experience to adulthood, which would be not only untrue but also uninteresting. 

The relation of the matched pairs of poems, where they exist, does not appear to be schematic, but varies from instance to instance. The matching of “The Divine Image” and “The Human Abstract” seems to be the crucial one, since it shows the widest possibilities of the relationship, and demonstrates vividly what readers are likely to forget, which is that Innocence satirizes Experience just as intensely as it itself is satirized by Experience, and also that any song of either state is also a kind of satire upon itself. (pp. 308-309)


What is the best kind of metaphor?

James Wood (2008) answers:

The kind of metaphor I most delight in […] estranges and then instantly connects, and in doing the latter so well, hides the former. The result is a tiny shock of surprise, followed by a feeling of inevitability. In To the Lighthouse, Mrs. Ramsay says goodnight to her children, and carefully closes the bedroom door, and lets “the tongue of the door slowly lengthen in the lock.” The metaphor in that sentence lies not so much in “tongue,” which is fairly conventional (since people do talk about locks having tongues) but is secretly buried in the verb, “lengthen.” That verb lengthens the whole procedure: Isn’t this the best description you have ever read of someone very sl-o-w-ly turning a handle of a door so as not to waken children? (209)

Well, I haven’t read many descriptions of someone slowly turning a door handle, so I don’t know if this is the best. But it is a nice one. Do you have other examples of good metaphors? 

Why are moths drawn to light?

Ian McEwan (2001) answers:

[I]t was the visual impression of an even deeper darkness beyond the light that drew them in. Even though they might be eaten, they had to obey the instinct that made them seek out the darkest place, on the far side of the light – and in this case it was an illusion.

And Estella says in Great Expectations: “Moths, and all sorts of ugly creatures hover about a lighted candle. Can the candle help it?”

What is the food that unites us with all our ancestors?

Felipe Fernandez-Armesto answers:

For almost uniquely, in the repertoire of modern Western cuisine, the oyster is eaten uncooked and unkilled. It is the nearest thing we have to “natural” food—the only dish which deserves to be called “au naturel” without irony. Of course, when you eat it in a restaurant, its shell has been barbed and unclamped with all the panoply of civilization by a trained professional, wielding appropriate technology, an inviolable ritual and a stylish flourish. Before that, the oyster was reared underwater on a stone tile or wooden trellis, herded in an oyster bed, grown for years under expert eyes and harvested by practical hands—not plucked from a rock pool as a prize seized from nature. Still, it is the food that unites us with all our ancestors—the dish you consume in which is recognizably the way people have encountered their nourishment since the first emergence of our species.

–from Near A Thousand Tables: A History of Food.

More about oysters here.