Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Jack Kerouac - The Dharma Bums (a return)

I haven't been here for a while, as writing about music proved a lot easier and I guess more immediately and communally satisfying. However, now that I've further developed my Hardcore for Nerds output into Tumblr, it seems a good time to come back to this my original blog - which was meant to be my internet niche.

[Of course, I've still been reading, though I have to say it's too often much easier to flip open a laptop and check my blog list than it is to sit down with a paper, non-interactive, Web 0.0 book - though I know that the latter still ultimately provides the greater pleasure. Currently I'm reading Don DeLillo's first novel, Americana (1971), and wondering why it's so uncannily similar to Mad Men; while dipping in and out of the Big Book of Zen, aka Classics of Buddhism and Zen: The Collected Translations of Thomas Cleary, (Vol. 4); and I'm stalled out on Henry James's Portrait of a Lady (really really good book for a mental transatlanticist such as myself, but 19th century novels aren't cut out to compete with 21st century distractions) and Alex Ross's thick The Rest is Noise: Listening to the Twentieth Century (I need to proxy my way into Spotify so I can actually listen to what he's talking about). Plus I'm still reading and essay-writing about a variety of historical and political academic topics.]

Today's posting on Tumblr focused on a short-lived, early 1990s hardcore punk band from California called Han Shan, whose sole output, an eight-song woodblock-printed 7", was incidentally the very first post on the Hardcore for Nerds blog. As a commenter on that post said:

"...This band also got me into the poetry of Han Shan, who I recommend. English translations by Gary Snyder and Burton Watson are pretty good. The fact that a punk band fused their aesthetic with ancient Chinese poetry changed my perception of the possibilities of hardcore."

That translation by Gary Snyder (as 'Japhy Ryder') is part of a key scene of The Dharma Bums, where Kerouac first visits his informal mentor in Berkely:

A peacefuller scene I never saw than when, in that rather nippy late red afternoon, I simply opened his little door and looked in and saw him at the end of the little shack, sitting cross-legged on a Paisley pillow on a straw mat, with his spectacles on, making him look old and scholarly and wise, with book on lap and the little tin teapot and porcelain cup steaming at his side. He looked up very peacefully, saw who it was, said, ‘Ray, come in,’ and bent his eyes again to the script.

‘What you doing?’

‘Translating Han Shan’s great poem called “Cold Mountain” written a thousand years ago some of it scribbled on the sides of cliffs hundreds of miles away from any other living beings.’


'When you come into this house though you've got to take your shoes off, see those straw mats, you can ruin 'em with shoes.' So I took my softsoled blue cloth shoes off and laid them dutifully by the door and he threw me a pillow and I sat crosslegged along the little wooden board wall and he offered me a cup of hot tea. 'Did you ever read the Book of Tea?' said he.

'No, what's that?'

'It's a scholarly treatise on how to make tea utilizing all the knowledge of two thousand years about tea-brewing. Some of the descriptions of the effect of the first sip of tea, and the second, and the third, are really wild and ecstatic.'

'Those guys got high on nothing, hey?'

'Sip your tea and you'll see; this is good green tea.' It was good and I immediately felt calm and warm. 'Want me to tell you about Han Shan?'


'Han Shan you see was a Chinese Scholar who got sick of the big city and took off to hide in the mountains.'

'Say, that sounds like you.'

'In those days you could really do that. He stayed in caves not far from a Buddhist monastery in the T'ang Hsing district of T'ien Tai and his only human friend was the funny Zen Lunatic Shih-te who had a job sweeping out the monastery with a straw broom. Shih-te was a poet too but he never wrote much down. Every now and then Han Shan would come down from Cold Mountain in his bark clothing and come into the warm kitchen and wait for food, but none of the monks would ever feed him because he didn't want to join the order and answer the meditation bell three times a day. You see why in some of his utterances, like - listen and I'll look here and read from the Chinese,' and I bent over his shoulder and watched him read from big wild crowtracks of Chinese signs: 'Climbing up Cold Mountain path, Cold Mountain path goes on and on, long gorge choked with scree and boulders, wide creek and mist-blurred grass, moss is slippery though there's been no rain, pine sings but there's no wind, who can leap the world's ties and sit with me among white clouds?'


'Course that's my own translation into English, you see there are five signs for each line and I have to put it in Western prepositions and articles and such.'

'Why don't you just translate it as it is, five signs, five words? What's those first five signs?'

'Sign for climbing, sign for up, sign for cold, sign for mountain, sign for path'

'Well then, translate it "Climbing up Cold Mountain path"'.

'Yeah, but what do you do with the sign for long, sign for gorge, sign for choke, sign for avalanche, sign for boulders?'

'Where's that?'

'That's the third line, would have to read "Long gorge choke avalanche boulders"'

'Well that's even better!'

'Well yeah, I thought of that, but I have to have this pass the approval of Chinese scholars here at the university and have it clear in English'

'Boy what a great thing this is,' I said looking around at the little shack, 'and you sitting here so very quietly at this very quiet hour studying all alone with you glasses...'

'Ray what you got to do is climb a mountain with me soon. How would you like to climb Matterhorn?'

'Great! Where's that?'

'Up in the High Sierras. We can go there with Henry Morley in his car and bring our packs and take off from the lake. I could carry all the food and stuff we need in my rucksack and you could borrow Alvin's small knapsack and carry extra socks and shoes and stuff.'

'What's these signs mean/'

'These signs mean that Han Shan came down from the mountain after many years roaming around up there, to see his folks in town, says, 'Till recently I stayed at Cold Mountain, et cetera, yesterday I called on friends and family, more than half had gone to Yellow Springs," that means death, the Yellow Springs, "now morning I face my lone shadow, I can't study with both eyes full of tears."

'That's like you too, Japhy, studying with eyes full of tears.'

'My eyes aren't full of tears.'

'Aren't they going to be after a long time?'

'They certainly will, Ray ... and look here, "In the mountains it's cold, it's always been cold not just this year," see, he's real high, maybe twelve thousand or thirteen thousand feet or more, way up there, and says, "Jagged scarps always snowed in, woods in the dark ravines spitting mist, grass is till sprouting in the end of June, leaves begin to fall in early August, and here I am high as a junkey-"'

'As a junkey!'

'That's my own translation, he actually says here am I as high as the sensualist in the city below, but I made it modern and high translation.'

'Great. I wondered why Han Shan was Japhy’s hero.

‘Because,’ said he, ‘he was a poet, a mountain man, a Buddhist dedicated to the principle of meditation on the essence of things, a vegetarian too by the way though I haven’t got on that kick from figuring maybe in this modern world to be a vegetarian is to split hairs a little since all sentient beings eat what they can. And he was a man of solitude who could take off by himself and live purely and true to himself.’

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Jon Savage - Teenage

The English journalist and writer Jon Savage is best known for his book England's Dreaming: Anarchy, Sex Pistols, Punk Rock and Beyond, both an history of the bands of late-70s punk rock and the social history of the punk movement of the time. Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture is a broader social history, dealing with the concept of adolescence prior to the emergence of the 'teenager' as a specific, commercial demographic in the 1950s. As such, Teenage focuses on a variety of movements, conflicts and problems which involved the youth of Europe and America from the last quarter of the nineteenth century up until the end of the Second World War.

The book's introduction traces its development from an early investigation into "the history of youth subcultures" of the post-war era to a realisation that "punk's historical collage... marked the moment when the linear forward motion of the sixties was replaced by a loop. Suddenly, all pop culture time was accessible, on the same plane, available at once." This realisation broadened into a wider interest in the development of youth and adolescence, not only in America but in western Europe; and the history of "the quest, pursued over two different continents and over half a century, to conceptualize, define, and control adolescence."

I haven't yet read England's Dreaming, so I can't comment on the strengths of that book: whether it is, as I have seen it reviewed elsewhere, a good documentary history of the bands of the era but "on slightly more dodgy ground" with regards to social and political context. Certainly Teenage is far more associated with the latter, but I think that is what gives it such strength as a work of popular history. It takes the idea of youth in a cultural and social context, and expands on it through documenting a wide variety of groups and movements. Moreover, it is vigorous in its pursuit of what really was revolutionary about the various youth subcultures - in reference to the discussion of adolescence at the end of the introduction, Savage states:

"There is a dialectic within the book, therefore, between the extraordinary and the ordinary. However, if I have to make the choice, it is to find the extraordinary within the ordinary."

Teenage does this by taking key groups from across the time period and geographical locations, and siting each in the broader social movements of its time. So there are decadents in late nineteenth-century Paris, and boy scouts in Edwardian Britain, juvenile delinquents and gangsters in American industrial cities, right up to the movements for and against Fascism in Nazi Germany. Some subcultures were a reaction to social progress, some were consequences of it, while others were impositions of the adult world on the youth it derived its power from.

To take an obvious example, the Hitler Youth in Germany grew from being one of many youth associations to the predominant, and eventually only, official one, deriving from the political and social ideology of Nazism; whereas around it dwindled a vibrant alternative culture stemming from the Wandervogel of the nineteenth century to a tiny minority of dissident groups. As the Guardian review of the books states, "Yet even the Nazis were unable to mould teenagers exactly as they wanted. Perhaps the strongest, most revelatory part of the book is a detailed account of how delinquent gangs and youthful tastes for forbidden British and American fashions and music survived throughout the Nazi era despite ever more violent state attempts to repress them."

While the most well known of these is the White Rose resistant movement of the late period of Nazi Germany and the war, it was preceded by and - by virtue of the isolation of totalitarian society - separated from earlier movements of looser rebellion by the German 'Swing Kids'. They form - along with the French Zazous - but one chapter of Savage's book, yet I'll discuss them below as both an example of the aim and arc of youth history in the rest of Teenage, and as a subculture of particular interest to my other area of writing.

Swing or 'hot' jazz spread from America into Britain and Europe during the 1930s, the latter form having already been established in Britain and France during the 1920s. In the 1930s, however, jazz came into conflict with the totalitarian and moral ideology of the Nazi state; the regime's attitude towards the genre of music is documented in Michael H. Kater's Different Drummers: Jazz in the Culture of Nazi Germany from which Savage takes a quote from a Hitler Youth leader:

"The Nigger has a very pronounced feeling for rhythm, and his 'art' is perhaps indigenous but nonetheless offensive to our sentiments. Surely such stuff belongs among the Hottentots and not in a German dance hall. The Jew, on the other hand, has cooked these aberrations up on purpose"

With jazz as both a creation of an inferior Negro race and a Jewish conspiracy, censorship and repression soon followed. Savage describes how the divisions of Joseph Goebbels' Propaganda Ministry control and repressed the playing of jazz: the Reichsrundfunkkammer restricted radio play to ideologically controlled German jazz (having to recognise at least jazz's popularity as a form of light entertainment); while the Reichsmusikkammer policed the playing of jazz in public places and some musical venues. The " gaps in the totalitarian state" were exploited for as long as possible, allowing for small groups of jazz fans to form clubs for adolescents apart from the demands of the Hitler Youth, while following a mode of physical and cultural expression - swing - which stood in defiance of Nazi ideology. The largest of these groups was the Hamburg Swing Youth, formed in 1937.

In the 1940s, and in wartime Germany and occupied Europe in general, the Swing Youth was both under increased totalitarian pressure and availing of the confusion of war in both physical and social terms: they "instinctively responded to the freedom that they heard in their forbidden records", even if such

"passions were dangerous in wartime Europe, as the Nazis sought complete compliance from their subjects and their own people. At the same time, youth was destablized by the demands of total war: the chaos of mobilization, the disruption of family life, and the deranged psychology of war itsefl conspired to double the figures for juvenile delinquency in Nazi Germany during 1940 and 1941. At the time when confidence in the regime was at its height, there were over 17,000 recorded youth crimes, of which two-thirds were committed by members of the Hitler Youth."

While most of this youth rebellion was inner-city, working class gangs, the Swing Kids represent for history an extreme (and middle-class) manifestation of non-conformity. This dialectic of exceptionalism in Savage's book sits uneasily here with the class dynamics of Nazi Germany, as the significant Swing Kids had the effective protection of wealthy parents and the economic freedom to collect the consumer goods of the Swing lifestyle - clothes, records - which contrasts with the baser freedoms that working-class youths were able to hold on to. Yet the Swing Youth still represented a true cultural defiance; and many of its leaders, particularly from the Hamburg club, suffered true retribution at the hands of the state police.

This retribution was not, and needed not to be, as severe as that handed out to later and more explicit dissidents, but was still indicative of what we see today as the prime mechanisms of fascist repression. As Savage explains:

"The Gestapo's campaign [against Hamburg Swing clubs which had moved undergound] was extremely effective against a group of young people unprepared for such brutality. They used stool pigeons, pressurising vulnerable swings to inform on their friends. The Hitler Youth informed on swing pupils in local schools and acted with directors to expel the rebels. However, the subculture persisted to the extent that, in the summer of 1941, an appeal for help was made to the head of the Central Security Agency, Reinhardt Heydrich. In January 1942, the net was drawn even tighter with a new decree that banned dancing in semiprivate locations like sports clubs.

That same month, Himmler intervened. He was determined that there would be no "mere half-measures" against this contagion: "All the ringleaders, and I mean ringleaders both male and female, and all teachers with enemy views who are encouraging the swing youth, are to be assigned to a concentration camp..."

Outside Germany, in France the situation was more isolated from the direct actions of the Nazi state, but complicated by the political reshapings of the occupied and divided French state. In the south of the country, in the Southern Zone, power was vested in the Vichy regime. Under the leadership of the World War I her Marshal Petain, Fascism was created anew as a French ideology: Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité was replaced by Travaille, Famille, Patrie. Vigorous morality and a subservience of youth to the "spirit of sacrifice" and the community defined this new Vichy culture. Though this represented existing strains of French conservatism, it was also opposed by the country's intellectuals and liberals, themselves under Nazi control:

"To Simone de Beauvoir, observing from Paris, the marshal's phrases about the family, God, and the "reign of virtue" was the "same violent prejudice and stupidity that had darkened my childhood - only now it extended over the whole country, an official and repressive blanket." In comparison to the Vichy's return to a nonexistent religious agrarian past, conditions in the Occupied Zone were both more modern and more serious. Although Vichy was the capital of the new France, Paris was the seat of power and under the direct rule of the Nazis."

In this culture of repression, resistance was both extremely dangerous and morally required. Sartre remarked, "Everything we did was equivocal; we never quite knew whether we were doing right or wrong; a subtle poison corrupted even our best actions." The rebellion of jazz was an implicit one, an affected attitude found "in the mannered sarcasm first rehearsed by Baudelaire" and a provocative dandyism, which Camus described in L'homme révolté as

"The dandy can only play a part by setting himself up in opposition. He can only be sure of his own existence by finding it in the expression of others' faces. Other people are his mirror."

With the increasing repression and censorship of the regime, in winter 1941 the Zazous emerged from the "petits Swings" and "Ultra Swings" of American influence. They were dandys set apart from the collabos (collaborators) by their dress, a blend of American, British and continental fashions. The jazz slang Zazou originated, in one version, from Cab Calloway "whose watch chains and checked jackets were highly influential on the style" and who "recorded 'Zah Zuh Zah' in 1933, and embellished it with the chant "zazouzazou - hey!", while scat singers "developed this clanging surrealism" further (Savage draws most of his documentation from Les Zazous, by Jean-Claude Loiseau.)

The Zazous continued as an underground movement, subverting the Fascist culture of France and its Fascist youth magazine Le Jeunesse, until by summer and autumn 1942 the state opposition - combined with the violent actions of collabo youth groups - essentially eradicated the "principally middle- or upper-middle-class" movement. In the final period of flux, some of the most interesting cultural statements of the group manifested themselves - from the adoption by a deliberately outcast few of the Jewish yellow star "to show their sympathy for the Jews... exactly like the official one, except for one detail: at the centre, there was a word of five letters: Swing" (or Zazou) to the emergence of a subgroup of 'zazou triste' ('sad zazou'), "wearing somber clothes and steel-rimmed glasses". (Sound familiar?)

"The Zazous appeared on the French stage and then disappeared, as if in a puff of smoke. Although they cultivated a blank facade, they left the authorities in no doubt about their total contempt for "The National Revolution." They also reveled in their bad press to the point of delerious abjection. Turning adolescent obnoxiousness into street theater, they offered a symbolic resistance to the occupation's "ambient, abstract horror" that also mirrored its ultimate vacancy. However, they learned that in Nazi states everything was politicized, and that defiance was punishable by violence, imprisonment and death."

Monday, June 16, 2008


104 years ago on this day, a fictional event took place in the book of James Joyce, Ulysses. The central character, hero and icon of that book was called Leopold Bloom. So, some Irish people like to commemorate the 16th of June each year as 'Bloomsday', by dressing up in Edwardian clothes, eating kidneys, and reading extracts from Ulysses.

Ulysses on Steady Diet of Books


"...and I gave him all the pleasure I could leading him on till he asked me to say yes and I wouldn’t answer first only looked out over the sea and the sky I was thinking of so many things he didn’t know of Mulvey and Mr Stanhope and Hester and father and old captain Groves and the sailors playing all birds fly and I say stoop and washing up dishes they called it on the pier and then the sentry in front of the governors house with the thing round his white helmet poor devil half roasted and the Spanish girls laughing in their shawls and their tall combs and the auction in the morning the Greeks and the jews and the Arabs and the devil knows who else from all ends of Europe and Duke street and the fowl market all clucking outside Larby Sharons and the poor donkeys slipping half asleep and the vague fellows in the cloaks asleep in the shade on the steps and the big wheels of the carts of the bulls and the old castle thousand of years old yes and those handsome Moors all in white and turbans like kings asking you to sit down in their little bit of a shop and Ronda with the old windows of the posadas glancing eyes a lattice hid for her lover to kiss the iron and the wineshops half open at night and the castanets and the night we missed the boat at Algeciras the watchman going about serene with his lamp and O that awful deep-down torrent O and the sea the sea crimson sometimes like fire ad the glorious sunsets and the figtrees in the Alameda gardens yes and all the queer little streets and pink and blue and yellow houses and the rosegardens and the jessamine and geraniums and cactuses and Gibraltar as a girl where I was Flower of the mountain yes when I put the rose in my hair like the Andalusian girls used or shall I wear a red yes and how he kissed me under the Moorish wall and I though well as well him as another and then I asked him with my eyes to ask again yes and then he asked me would I yes to say yes my mountain flower and first I put my arms around him yes and drew him down to me so he could feel my breasts all perfume yes and his heart was going like mad and yes I said yes I will Yes."

Trieste-Zürich-Paris, 1914-1921


from Ulysses: A Short History, by Richard Ellmann

"Ulysses may be seen to conduct its affirmation by discovery of kinship among disparate things, whether these are mind and body, casual and important, contemporary and Homeric, or Bloom and Stephen. The universe is, if nothing else, irrevocably interpenetrating, Joyce takes an almost mystical pleasure in convergence – of times, persons, qualities. These receive authorization in Ulysses from no abstract statement, but from language, which is part of the argument as well as means of expressing it. By displaying the utmost linguistic variety, in levels of speech, in styles of writing, Ulysses testifies that, beneath all forms of conscious striving, of individual life or social organization, human beings are at work with syllables to submit language as living and delighting proof of their gregariousness."

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Flann O'Brien - The Third Policeman

Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman is - at least currently - likely the most recognized of the Irish humorist's novels. It holds a more glamorous reputation than that of the previously reviewed Dalkey Archive and is less achingly literary and somewhat more sensible than his acclaimed debut, At Swim-Two-Birds. What part of that reputation comes from its association with the TV show Lost, as I said before, is probably that "both works are probably equally as difficult to follow".

The Third Policeman is a dark fantasy, a comic tale that delves into murder, death and metaphysics, but never outright farce. The book is set in the provincial Irish countryside, as opposed to the urban and suburban (respectively) Dublin settings of At Swim-Two-Birds and The Dalkey Archive. Hence the focus of the story is on the isolated, cocooned inhabitants of a very strange police station, to which the narrator and main protagonist turns to for assistance at the novel's start.

These policeman (of which there are three) harbour some strange habits, obsessions and, as is ultimately revealed, arcane knowledge. The first, the Sergeant Pluck, is essentially the base for Sergeant Fottrell of The Dalkey Archive, with his obsession with bicycles and their atomic dangers. The second, young Policeman MacCruiskeen, has as a hobby the production of an infinitely regressing series of wooden chests, each fitting inside the one before. The third, Policeman Fox, is the most mysterious, leading a nocturnal and otherwise invisible existence, and not appearing until the very end of the novel. Other characters include John Divney, the narrator's partner- and rival-in-crime of the opening chapters, Mathers, the dead or not-quite-dead miser, Joe, the narrator's soul; a group of one-legged men, said to be allegorical to the IRA; and, in another overlap with The Dalkey Archive, the mad scientist De Selby - who appears in a series of lengthy footnotes which themselves make up a kind of book-within-a-book.

The Dalkey Archive begins autobiographically, in the second paragraph - the first actually begins "Not everybody knows how I killed old Philip Mathers, smashing his jaw in with a spade" - briefly charting the way in which the situation that the narrator finds himself in emerged: the death of his parents; his living in a strange kind of bondage with Divney, the caretaker of the family farm and, later, public house; and their plan to steal the old miser, Mather's, money. Following the apparent murder of Mathers, and some lengthy periods of distrust, the narrator is sent to the old miser's house to retrieve the stashed metal box containing the object of the theft. However, in the tradition of fantastical stories everywhere, as well as in classic science fiction tales of weirdness, 'something happened':

"I cannot hope to describe what it was but it had frightened me very much long before I had understood it even slightly. It was some change which came upon me or upon the room, indescribably subtle, yet momentous, ineffable. It was as if the daylight had changed with unnatural suddenness, as if the temperature of the evening had altered greatly in an instant or as if the air had become twice as rare or twice as dense as it had been in the winking of an eye; perhaps all of these and other things happened together for all my senses were bewildered all at once and could give me no explanation. The fingers of my right hand, thrust into the opening in the floor, had closed mechanically, found nothing at all and came up again empty. The box was gone!"

From that point on, The Third Policeman descends into surreality and bizarre discoveries. The Harper Perennial blurb describes the novel as "distinguished by endless comic invention and its delicate balancing of logic and fantasy", delivered, it must be said, in the author's inimitable but quintessentially (and therefore, imitating) Irish style. Part of the book's appeal lies - and this is not exactly an original observation, but a memory of something I read elsewhere as well - in its combination of the parochial (the rural setting and the microscopic dramas of the police house) and the universal (the metaphysical and existential discoveries, trappings and just plain absurdities of the plot). While The Dalkey Archive was played as a detective farce, investigating the peculiar yet personal experiments of the inscrutable De Selby, The Third Policeman contains a much more entirely warped and twisted world:

"As I came round the bend of the road an extraordinary spectacle was presented to me. About a hundred yards away on the left-hand side was a house about which astonished me. It looked as if it were painted like an advertisement on a board on the roadside and indeed very poorly painted. It looked completely false and unconvincing. It did not seem to have any depth or breadth and looked like it would not deceive a child. That was not in itself sufficient to surprise me because I had seen pictures and notices by the roadside before. What bewildered me was the sure knowledge deeply-rooted in my mind, that there were people inside it. I had no doubt at all that it was the barracks of the policeman. I had never seen anything with my eyes ever in my life before anything so unnatural and appalling and my gaze faltered about the thing uncomprehendingly as if at least one of the customary dimensions was missing, leaving no meaning in the remainder…

I kept on walking, but walked more slowly. As I approached, the house seemed to change its appearance. At first, it did nothing to reconcile itself with the shape of an ordinary house but it became uncertain in outline like a thing glimpsed under ruffled water. Then it became clear again and I saw that it began to have some back to it, some small space for rooms behind the frontage. I gathered this from the fact that I seemed to see the front and the back of the ‘building’ simultaneously from my position approaching what should have been the side. As there was no side that I could see I thought the house must be triangular with its apex pointing towards me but when I was only fifteen yards away I saw a small window apparently facing me and I knew from that that there must be some side to it. then I found myself almost in the shadow of the structure, dry-throated and timorous from wonder and anxiety. It seemed ordinary enough at close quarters except that it was very white and still. It was momentous and frightening: the whole morning and the whole world seemed to have no purpose at all save to frame it and give it some magnitude and position so that I could find it with my simple senses and pretend to myself that I understood it. A constabulary crest above the door told me it was a police station. I had never seen a police station like it."

In this bizarre universe, the narrator's journey takes on an air of inexplicability and unknowableness that marks it out as less of a comic fantasy than a science fiction novel. The wit is ever-present of course, but nonetheless often heavily overlaid with a profoundly odd sense of fear and trepidation. The Third Policeman is thus a novel of combination, "a murder thriller, a hilarious comic satire about an archetypal village police force, a surrealistic vision of eternity, the story of a tender, brief, unrequited love affair between a man and his bicycle and a chilling fable about unending guilt".

Like Lost, the piece of modern culture that this novel is so tantalisingly connected to, The Third Policeman is a cryptic tale, but it is not one entirely without resolution or exposition. From the first extract above, and from some adjectives I could easily have used in describing the book, a good deal of the plot's secret may be guessed. Regardless of the actual nature of the plot or the narrator's journey, however, The Third Policeman remains a work of surreal comedy and bizarre wit. A useful appendix to my edition details some of the book's history, and proves that some of the book's truth is stranger than its fiction:

'A Curious Tale'

A publisher’s note at the end of The Third Policeman displays a letter, written in 1940 by O’Brien to the American author William Saroyan, in which he explains some of its eccentricities.

By the time they reach this letter, readers will already have marvelled at the book’s many themes: man’s search for God, for eternal youth, for unimaginable power and treasures, and his relationship with nature, with the soul, with the myriad mysteries of the universe and, crucially, with the bicycle.

A beguiling and curious combination of many books and styles – part Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, part Gulliver’s Travels, part Seventh Voyage of Sinbad - The Third Policeman drifts from bizarre fantasy to sheer nonsense and back again, propelled by frequent drafts of dry wit. It is, in the immortal words of one of the policeman, ‘nearly an insoluble pancake’.

Almost as strange as the novel’s plot is its history. It was written after the publication of O’Brien’s first novel, At Swim-Two-Birds, but was rejected by his publishers who wrote: ‘We realize the author’s ability but think that he should become less fantastic and in this novel he is more so.’ He had been thinking about adapting it for the stage, probably influenced by Saroyan’s success as a playwright, but abandoned the idea after this blow.

Nevertheless, he did try his luck abroad, sending the manuscript to literary agents in America through a contact of Saroyan’s, with the perhaps more apposite title of Hell Goes Round and Round. However, further enquiries revealed that they had mislaid it. Perhaps enraged, or inspired, by this carelessness, he abandoned all attempts to place it with anyone and began telling friends that he had mislaid the manuscript, even inventing different fates for it. These ranged from the simple mistake of leaving it on a tramcar or showing it to someone at the Dolphin Hotel and then leaving without it, to the inspired notion that he had taken it on a trip to Donegal by car only for the pages to have somehow been blown out of the boot. To an actor friend who knew a film director and who felt it might be adapted into a script he offered the rather undramatic yarn of having left it on a train. Only his friend Donal McDonagh knew the truth and, after O’Brien had asked him to look at the novel again to see what was wrong with it, McDonagh replied ‘nothing’. Despite this assurance, it lay unread for twenty-six years.

Yet various chunks of The Third Policeman did appear in O’Brien’s final novel, The Dalkey Archive. Largely concerned with bicycles and policeman, some of the material has been lifted, word for word, from the original source. And a short story published under the pseudonym Myles na Gopaleen, called ‘Two in One’, also borrowed from the unpublished novel. But when O’Brien’s friend and biographer Anthony Cronin suggested that the story should be published under the byline Flann O’Brien, the latter replied ominously, ‘I don’t know that fellow any more.’

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Terry Pratchett - Hogfather extract (Pt. II)

"In the glittering, clattering, chattering atmosphere a head waiter was having a difficult time. There were a lot of people in, and the staff should have been fully stretched, putting bicarbonate of soda into the white wine to make very expensive bubbles and cutting the vegetables very small in order to make them cost more.

Instead they were standing in a dejected group in the kitchen.

‘Where did it all go?’ screamed the manager. ‘Someone’s been through the cellar, too!’

‘William said he felt a cold wind,’ said the waiter. He’d been backed up against a hot plate, and now knew why it was called a hot plate in a way he hadn’t fully comprehended before.

‘I’ll give him a cold wind! Haven’t we got anything?’

‘There’s odds and ends…’

‘You don’t mean odds and ends, you mean des curieux et des bouts,’ corrected the manager.

‘Yeah, right, yeah. And, er, and, er…’

‘There’s nothing else?’

‘Er… old boots.’


‘Boots. Lots of ’em,’ said the waiter. He felt he was beginning to singe.

‘How come we’ve got… vintage footwear?’

‘Dunno. They just turned up. The oven’s full of old boots. So’s the pantry.’

‘There’s a hundred people booked in! All the shops’ll be shut! Where’s Chef?’

‘William’s trying to get him to come out of the privy, sir. He’s locked himself in and is having one of his Moments.’

Something’s cooking. What’s it that I can smell?’

‘Me, sir.’

‘Old boots…’ muttered the manager. ‘Old boots… old boots … leather, are they? Not clogs or rubber or anything?’

‘Looks like… just boots. And lots of mud, sir.’

The manager took off his jacket. ‘All right. Got some cream, have we? Onions? Garlic? Butter? Some old beef bones? A bit of pastry?’

‘Er, yes…’

The manager rubbed his hands together. ‘Right,’ he said, taking an apron off a hook. ‘You there, get some water boiling! Lots of water! And find a really large hammer! And you, chop some onions! The rest of you, start sorting out the boots. I want the tongues out and the soles off. We’ll do them… let’s see… Mousse de la Boue dans une Panier de la Pâte de Chaussures…’

‘Where’re we going to get that from, sir?’

‘Mud mousse in a basket of shoe pastry. Get the idea? It’s not our fault if even Quirmians don’t understand restaurant Quirmian. It’s not like lying, after all.’

‘Well, it’s a bit like-” the waiter began. He’d been cursed with honesty at an early stage.

‘Then there’s Brodequin rôti Façon Ombres…’ The manager sighed at the head waiter’s panicky expression. ‘Soldier’s boot done in the Shades fashion,’ he translated.

‘Er… Shades fashion?’

‘In mud. But if we can cook the tongues separately we can put on Languette braisée, too.’

‘There’s some ladies’ shoes, sir,’ said an under-chef.

‘Right. Add to the menu… Let’s see now… Sole d’une Bonne Femme… and… yes… Servis dans un Coulis de Terre en l’Eau. That’s mud, to you.’

‘What about the laces, sir?’ said another under-chef.

‘Good thinking. Dig out that recipe for Spaghetti Carbonara.’

‘Sir?’ said the head waiter.

‘I started off as a chef,’ said the manager, picking up a knife. ‘How do you think I was able to afford this place? I know how it’s done. Get the look and the sauce right and you’re three-quarters there.’

‘But it’s all going to be old boots!’ said the waiter.

‘Prime aged beef,’ the manager corrected him. ‘It’ll tenderize in no time.’

‘Anyway… anyway… we haven’t any soup-’

‘Mud. And lots of onions.’

‘There’s the puddings-’

‘Mud. Let’s see if we can get it to caramelize, you never know.’

‘I can’t even find the coffee… Still, they probably won’t last until the coffee…’

‘Mud. Café de Terre,’ said the manager firmly. ‘Genuine ground coffee.’

‘Oh, they’ll spot that, sir!’

‘They haven’t up till now,’ said the manager darkly.

‘We’ll never get away with it, sir. Never.’

'I’m not going to,’ said the head waiter firmly.

‘Look, I’ll buy you a better pair after Hogswatch-’

‘There’s two more Shoe Pastry, one for Purée de Terre and three more Tarte à la Boue,’ said a waiter, hurrying in.

‘Mud pies!’ moaned the waiter. ‘I can’t believe we’re selling mud pies. And now you want my boots!’

‘With cream and sugar, mind you. A real taste of Ankh-Morpork. And we can get at least four helpings off those boots. Fair’s fair. We’re all in our socks-’

‘Table seven says the steaks were lovely but a bit tough,’ said a waiter, rushing past.

‘Right. Use a larger hammer next time and boil them for a bit longer.’ The manager turned back to the suffering head waiter. ‘Look, Bill,’ he said, taking him by the shoulder. ‘This isn’t food. No one expects it to be food. If people wanted food they’d stay at home, isn’t that so? They come here for the ambience. For the experience. This isn’t cookery, Bill. This is cuisine. See? And they’re coming back for more.’

‘Yeah, but old boots…’

‘Dwarfs eat rats,’ said the manager. ‘And trolls eat rocks. There’s folks in Howandaland that eat insects and folks on the Counterweight Continent eat soup made out of bird spit. At least the boots have been on a cow.’

‘And mud?’ said the head waiter, gloomily.

‘Isn’t there an old proverb that says a man must eat a bushel of dirt before he dies?’

‘Yes, but not all at once.’

‘Bill?’ said the manager, kindly, picking up a spatula.

‘Yes, boss?’

‘Get those damn boots off right now, will you?’ "

Monday, December 24, 2007

Terry Pratchett - Hogfather extract (Pt. 1)

Sky One, 8.00-10 PM, 24-25th December

"The beggars stopped singing, except for Arnold Sideways, who tended to live in his own small world.

‘- nobody knows how good we can live, on boots three times a day…’

Then the change in the air penetrated even his consciousness.

Snow thumped off the trees as a contrary wind brushed them. There was a whirl of flakes and it was just possible, since the beggars did not always have their mental compasses pointing due Real, that they heard a brief snatch of conversation.

‘It just ain’t that simple, master, that’s all I’m saying-’


‘No, master, it’s just a lot more expensive. You can’t just go around-’

Things rained on the snow.

The beggars looked at them. Arnold Sideways carefully picked up a sugar pig and bit its nose off. Foul Ole Ron peered suspiciously into a cracker that had bounced off his hat, and then shook it against his ear.

The Duck Man opened a bag of sweets.

‘Ah, humbugs?’ he said.

Coffin Henry unlooped a string of sausages from around his neck.

‘Buggrit?’ said Foul Ole Ron.

‘It’s a cracker,’ said the dog, scratching its ear. ‘You pull it.’

Ron waved the cracker aimlessly by one end.

‘Oh, give it here,’ said the dog, and gripped the other end in its teeth.

‘My word,’ said the Duck Man, fishing in a snowdrift. ‘Here’s a whole roast pig! And a big dish of roast potatoes, miraculously uncracked! And… look… isn’t this caviar in the jar? Asparagus! Potted shrimp! My goodness! What were we going to have for Hogswatch dinner, Arnold?’

‘Old boots,’ said Arnold. He opened a fallen box of cigars and licked them.

‘Just old boots?’

‘Oh, no. Stuffed with mud, and with roast mud. ‘s good mud, too. I bin saving it up.’

‘Now we can have a merry feast of goose!’

‘All right. Can we stuff it with old boots?’

There was a pop from the direction of the cracker. They heard Foul Ole Ron’s thinking brain dog growl.

‘No, no, no, you put the hat on your head and you read the hum’rous mottar.'

‘Millenium hand and shrimp?’ said Ron, passing the scrap of paper to the Duck Man. The Duck Man was regarded as the intellectual of the group.

He peered at the motto.

‘Ah, yes, let’s see now… It says “Help Help Help Ive Fallen in the Crakker Machine I Cant Keep Runin on this Roller Please Get me Ou-”.’ He turned the paper over a few times. ‘That appears to be it, except for the stains.’

‘Always the same ole mottars,’ said the dog. ‘Someone slap Ron on the back, will you? If he laughs any more he’ll- oh, he has. Oh, well, nothing new about that.’

The beggars spent a few more minutes picking up hams, jars and bottles that had settled on the snow. They packed them around Arnold on his trolley and set off down the street.

‘How come we got all this?’

‘ ’s Hogswatch, right?’

‘Yeah, but who hung up a stocking?’

‘I don’t think we’ve got any, have we?’

‘I hung up an old boot.’

‘Does that count?’

‘Dunno. Ron ate it.’

High over the city Albert turned to Death, who seemed to be trying to avoid his gaze.

‘You didn’t get that stuff out of the sack! Not cigars and peaches in brandy and grub with fancy foreign names!’


Albert gave him a suspicious look.

‘But you put in the sack in the first place, didn’t you?’


‘You did, didn’t you?’


‘You put all those things in the sack.’

‘You got them from somewhere and put them in the sack.’


‘You did put them in the sack, didn’t you?’


‘You put them in the sack.’


‘I knew you put them in the sack. Where did you get them?’


‘Whole roast pig does not, in my experience, just lie around.’


‘Couple of chimneys ago we were over that big posh restaurant…’


‘And it seemed like you were down there a bit longer than usual, if you don’t mind me saying so.’


‘How exactly were they just inverted comma lying around inverted comma?’


‘In a kitchen?’


Alber pointed a trembling finger.

‘You nicked someone’s Hogswatch dinner, master!’


‘Yeah, well, that was a bit different,’ said Albert, lowering his voice. ‘But, I mean, the hogfather doesn’t drop down the chimney and pinch people’s grub!’


‘Well, yes, but-’


‘No, it won’t!’


‘Yeah, but you might at least have thought about the people whose grub you pinched.’


‘We’re heading down, master.’


Sunday, December 9, 2007

Alan W. Watts - The Way of Zen

Zen Buddhism

"has directness, verve and humour, and a sense of both beauty and nonsense at once exasperating and delightful. But above all it has a way of being able to turn one’s mind inside out, and dissolving what seemed to be the most oppressive human problems into questions like ‘Why is a mouse when it spins’."

(Preface, p. 10)

This wonderful old book is another of my finds in the Secret Book and Record Store here in Dublin (for a mention of a few others, see here). Well, when I say old I mean 1957. That's not exactly from-back-before-the-automobile antiquity, but it's a nice aged Penguin paperpack - Pelican, actually, since it's non-fiction.

Now, this blog is mostly about fiction, specifically novels; however, the last post was about a combination of a recent film and an illustrated Zen poem, so I do like to mix it up a bit. This particular post is not only linked to the theme of that piece, but also to a general thread which has been running through the blog as a whole, right through the write-ups of Kerouac and Pirsig; there is a whole vein of American sub-culture, or counter-culture, which takes from Zen as its inspiration and influence.(For more Zen, see this post on Hardcore for Nerds)

This is, most of all, a very useful text. What The Way of Zen does as a book is, chiefly, provide a "'account of an esoteric doctrine', as the blurb describes. A quote from the New Statesman calls it

"Certainly the most explicit and orderly of it [Zen] that has yet appeared in English."

At the top of the blurb, in italics, is the prophetic (or rather anti-prophetic) quote

Those who know do not speak;

Those who speak do not know

Watts makes a great deal out of the non-verbal, not-literary nature of Zen: it is not something - at least not in itself something - to be learned out of a book. The traditional Zen way of indicating this is, roughly, to say that the finger pointing at the moon is not the moon itself - as illustrated in this Yoshitoshi print:

"The night clouds dissolve

Hotei pointing at the moon

holds no opinion"

('Moon of Enlightenment', from Tsukioka Yoshitoshi's One Hundred Views of the Moon, via

Watts does a good job of finding the balance between accuracy and authenticity, on the one hand, and on the other, presenting Zen in an attractive, accessible manner. The style of the book is somewhat academic, and slightly dated by this stage, but it's still an easy read. It is split into two sections, 'Background and History', and 'Principles and Practices'. The first traces the evolution of Zen thought through the history and culture of Buddhist and pre-Buddhist thought. The second deals with both the central philosophical ideas of Zen and the traditional images we have of its practices - particularly za-zen, or sitting meditation, and koans, or metaphysical riddles, which separate the two major schools of Zen itself. There is a rich discussion on these issues in the book, and some of the more incidental sections on Zen in the Arts (the tea ceremony, formal gardens) are fascinating. It's a very sympathetic text, but also quite scholarly; it travels an interesting path between objectivity and subjectivity, some of which is explained in the extract below.

The Way of Zen is more than a worthwhile, comprehensive introduction to Zen Buddhism: it is to a degree a cultural text of itself, a book 'of its time'. Watts, the author, is mentioned by pseudonym in at least one Kerouac novel. The 1950s was a boom period for Buddhism in the US, particularly in California and San Francisco city. What exactly Watts made of Kerouac's idiosyncratic take on Buddhism would be interesting to find out, because whatever about hedonism, Zen is all about idiosyncracy - at least when it's not about strict discipline, that is, but I digress - and thus is more than just a spiritual tradition, but an artistic and cultural medium. As Watt mentions below, there is a 'parallelism' between advanced Western science and the Eastern metaphysical tradition; a subject later much covered by Fritjof Capra's best-selling The Tao of Physics.

While, as the blurb says, "it is unfortunately still easier to say what Zen Buddhism is not that what it is", there is a lot to be said for what Zen can be linked to outside of itself. So this book is best thought not of as a spiritual guide, but as a work of discovery for those who want to know about the culture, philosophy and life of Zen. I may return to this book and discuss some of the substantive aspects of it, but for now I'll leave you with an extract. This is exactly the first couple of pages from the author's preface:

"During the past twenty years there has been an extraordinary growth of interest in Zen Buddhism. Since the Second World War this interest has increased so much that it seems to be becoming a considerable force in the intellectual and artistic world of the West. It is connected, no doubt, with the prevalent enthusiasm for Japanese culture which is one of the constructive results of the late war, but which may amount to no more than a passing fashion. The deeper reason for this interest is that the viewpoint of Zen lies so close to the ‘growing edge’ of Western thought.

The more alarming and destructive aspects of Western civilization should not blind us to the fact that at this very time it is also in one of its most creative periods. Ideas and insights of the greatest fascination are appearing in some of the newer fields of Western science – in psychology and psychotherapy, in logic and the philosophy of science, in semantics and communications theory. Some of these developments might be due to suggestive influences from Asian philosophy, but on the whole I am inclined to feel that there is more of a parallelism than a direct influence. We are, however, becoming aware of the parallelism, and it promises an exchange of views which should be extremely stimulating.

Western thought has changed so rapidly in this century that we are in a state of considerable confusion. Not only are there serious difficulties of communication between the intellectual and the general public, but the course of our thinking and of our very history has seriously undermined the common-sense assumptions which lie at the roots of our social conventions and institutions. Familiar concepts of space, time, and motion, of nature and natural law, of history and social change, and of human personality itself have dissolved, and we find ourselves adrift without landmarks in a universe which more and more resembles the Buddhist principle of the ‘Great Void’. The various wisdoms of the West, religious, philosophical, and scientific, do not offer much guidance to the art of living in such a universe, and we find the prospects of making our way in so trackless an ocean of relativity rather frightening. For we are used to absolutes, to firm principles and laws to which we can cling for spiritual and psychological security.

This is why, I think, there is so much interest in a culturally productive way of life which, for some fifteen hundred years, has felt thoroughly at home in ‘the Void’, and which not only feels no terror for it but rather a positive delight. To use its own words, the situation of Zen has always been -

Above, not a tile to cover the head;

Below, not an inch of ground for the foot.

Such language should not actually be so unfamiliar to us, were we truly prepared to accept the meaning of ‘the foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man hath not where to lay his head’.

I am not in favour of importing Zen from the Far East, because it has become deeply involved with cultural institutions which are quite foreign to us. But there is no doubt that there are things which we can learn, or unlearn, from it and apply in or own way. It has the special merit of a mode of expressing itself which is as intelligible – or perhaps as baffling – to the intellectual as to the illiterate, offering possibilities of communication which we have not explored. It has directness, verve and humour, and a sense of both beauty and nonsense at once exasperating and delightful. But above all it has a way of being able to turn one’s mind inside out, and dissolving what seemed to be the most oppressive human problems into questions like ‘Why is a mouse when it spins’. At its heart there is a strong but completely unsentimental compassion for human beings suffering and perishing from their very attempts to save themselves."

(Preface, p. 9-10)