the TOWer

Picture Credits: Peter H

The bricks are far below,
baking in the sun, but here the vaporous wisps of cumulus dampen his jerkin,
trowel, snap. The derricks are still, ropes twisting in the breeze, and it’s
quiet: creak of tortured wood ceased as the men climb out of the treadwheels;
the cranes silent, the silence quickening for the midday hour. He settles to
enjoy it.

The breeze has cleared
the cumulus; there’s a blessing of sun despite the height. He scratches his
back against the buttress, spreads his legs, unslings his basket. From the
laddered scaffold above him comes a raucous grus grus then silence
again.

Below on the work huts on
the spiral terrace the thatch is already decaying and far below, on the plain,
the town stretches in stillness. He breaks open the loaf, tears out some crumb,
dips the crust in water and chews slowly, meditatively, regretting afresh his
marrying unwisely – was bread harder than brick a fair price for affection? –
but the lengthened mastication is in tune with his mood. For day by day he has
seen the population of the town drop as whole groups departed, signs of
habitation shrinking like puddles in the sun. Up here on the ramps it is felt
even more, a dismal let-down after the excitement, the hubbub: that strange,
strained period of sudden alterity, the uncanniness of human encounter made
problematic.

No more lingual music
decoupled from meaning; no daily, hourly, impromptu mime, spontaneous signal
eloquence, no more flare of temper then enkindled warmth of empathetic reach;
no more the quickened sense of selfhood.

All gone. All quiet. A
far distant grus grus then silence. He chews on, chews over his sense of
estrangement, his speech now unconfident, self-conscious, swollen crumb to his
tongue, hard crust between his teeth.

Life is now in the
present tense.

For it is now clear the
building will go on for years, forever – job security for the rest of his life.
It’s equally clear they will never reach the heavens, never burst through the
mundane dimension into dazzled wonder; the great project has lost its meaning,
become a self-perpetuating myth, a self-justifying occupation of
build-and-repair; life drained of optimism, the tower merely the plain upended.

He tosses the heel over
the terrace, watches it fall, thinks that now his fecklessness is curbed if not
cured, he can confront his wife, complain with justness, put his foot down over
her baking, he being now a reliable breadwinner. There is a bright side to
things despite the grey.

Grus grus. He
looks up, sees the crane, watches it slowly flap its wings, take off, beating
toward the low horizon.

*

That was a way of putting
it: an ekphrastic study in a worn-out fictional idiom.

For what does it amount
to, this Bruegelian imbroglio?

The forms have died along
with the myth, leaving the worker stranded on the crumbling tower on the plains
of Shinar, and us begging for bread. For us, the intolerable wrestle with words
is playacting, a fixed bout with choreographed moves, to rules we no longer
believe in. Who today tastes language on the tongue, between the teeth? Rather,
a drouth, an after-taste of eructation.

The towering myth of
Babel was quarried over centuries, from Augustine to Alfred the Great – in,
that is to say, a prelapsarian age. We now know better: the Pentecostal flames
were merely spontaneous combustion, the irruption of languages a series of
lightning strikes yet to be explained.

In the mid-nineteenth
century, the German philologist Karl Gustav Weigel, reviving a monogeneticist
tradition, devised an elaborate graph plotting co-ordinates of
lexical/etymological against syntactical/phonetic affinities to measure the
radii of displacement, mapping the vectors and zones of banishment from the ur-sprache.

His venture was historically
late – too late; he was duly pilloried. His life ended in silence: no word was
uttered, went the legend, for the thirty years preceding his death. Some
maintained it was the silence of shame. But there were counter-rumours: (i)
that he believed he had identified the ur-sprache as being not German,
as had been believed since the sixteenth century, that he learnt and spoke only
Akkadian; (ii) that he felt himself to be on the linguistic edge of the Western
world, too many zones from Shinar, and took the sense of exile personally.

But maybe it was darker
still; that his silence foreshadowed die sprachkrise, la crise du langage
that crepuscular suspicion, the owl-born intimation that not division but
language itself was the civilizational curse; that language – at least,
literacy – would no longer be the Leavisian creative flux but carrion burden;
that henceforth the invocation of cranes would be not taxonomic play but
rhetorical taxidermy, aleatory impasse, gruesome noise.

On the plains of Shinar
we sat down and wept.

We requested bread, we
received sucking-stones; the permutations – pocket-mouth-pocket – amused us
awhile. But now we have to face up to the choices: thin gruel?; stale wafer?;
the unLeavened crust lodged between our teeth, dry crumb beneath our tongue?

Oh, swallow, swallow.




Metaphysic

It is the evening for his class and of course the train was late. He will have to skip dinner, have a late supper; time only for a change of shirt and socks, and out.

He makes the library just on eight, sits at the back, composes himself. Tonight’s class sounds a little dry: Philoponus contra Aristotle (WEA Philosophy Module II: the Mediaevals) but turns out to be anything but.

The attack on Aristotle’s theory of the quintessence is merely a preliminary to demolishing his conclusion: that the universe was eternal because that fifth element, ether, has a circular motion; that everything comes into being from its contrary; that as there is no contrary to a circular motion, ether must have been eternally existent.

Philoponus counters by arguing that things come into being from non-being, but that non-being has no such status as that of a contrary – non-being is not the material out of which being is fashioned (Against Aristotle 5 fragment 132).

Joshua (Shua, to his friends) thinks there is a simpler approach, a practical one: Aristotle had had no experience of the Circle Line in the rush hour. The contrary to motion on the Circle is no motion. He is tempted to raise this in the discussion period, but is reluctant. He doesn’t want to be a smart aleck, to be thought flippant.

Now, cooking his supper, he wishes he had – it strikes him as logically sound. No matter, he has been stimulated, his head is still spinning (elliptically); progress has been made. For if, contrary to Aristotle, the universe had a beginning, it must have an end.

He takes from the grill his supper, cheese and mustard on toast, which, during his reflections, has been carbonized.

*

Augustine on Time is presented as a sequel – or rather, prequel – to last week’s class, grappling with challenges thrown up, the tutor hopes, by Philoponus’ argument with Aristotle. For if, contra Aristotle, the universe had a beginning, it raises a question in the questing mind (he actually says this): what was there before the beginning? What Began the Begin, to paraphrase Cole Porter (he says this too).

Augustine’s prior answer was, in a counter-intuitive move, to side with Aristotle, but for tactical reasons: the universe had no beginning in Time, since Time came into existence with the creation of the universe (City of God IX 4, 12).

So although God pre-existed the universe, he did so outside Time, though not before Time, since there can be no before until Time begins. This must be so, in order to answer satisfactorily the objector’s question: what was God doing before he created the universe? (Confessions XI 12, 14).

Shua thinks of a different answer, and determines this week to add it to the discussion. He becomes more determined as the lecture continues, teasing out the attempts Augustine had pursued to eliminate Time as an objective entity. Time, said Augustine, is all in the mind, for what we experience is a moment, an instant, an atom of the Present. The Past was a sequence of present instants, but no sequence of instants add up to more than an instant (XI 15. 20). Shua is intuitively dissatisfied.

As the discussion commences, he raises his hand then his argument: that there is a simpler answer to what God was doing before creating the world – creating an earlier world. Physicists posit the existence (he says this) of multiple universes. If the number of universes is infinite, this would give God enough to do for all eternity. His argument, he argues, has rigour, elegance, cuts through sophistry and preserves common sense.

Several, though not the tutor, applaud.

He is, he thinks, getting the hang of philosophy.

*

This week’s is the class Shua has been anticipating, the reason he signed up for the course: Boethius on Divine Foreknowledge. Not the topic per se, but its contextual provenance, so to speak, in Boethius’ masterwork, On The Consolation Of Philosophy, its very title beckoning to Shua’s spirit, but enhanced by the fact – as he understands it – of its, and Boethius, being composed under sentence of death.

For this, surely, is the function of Philosophy, its cutting-edge raison d’être: reason’s skirmish with existence in extremis.

It was also one of the few books – the only book – of which he had heard beforehand. But that, maybe, was fortuitous, or evidence of his own foreknowledge.

In the event, he finds it a trifle disappointing, his mind sluggish after a demanding day, laggard in keeping pace. Boethius’ solution to the squaring of Divine Foreknowledge with human freedom, i.e. disposing of Predestination, was that as God is beyond – or was it above? – Time (outside, at any rate), His knowledge of a human’s future act is not foreknowledge but simply knowledge, a seeing of an act in the present, which eternally Time is to God (DCP 5.6). This strikes Shua as a let-down, a sleight of hand already used by Augustine.

No matter. He leaves the class consoled and calmly elated, through a form of osmosis. He had once seen a painting by a Sienese artist of St Francis rejecting the trappings of his mercantile father and allying himself with the bishop. The setting of the bishop’s throne – a pink, slender-columned portico giving a glimpse of cloistered serenity beyond – had remained a touchstone, a Philosopher’s Stone, ever since. It was that monastic angularity, that sumptuous austerity he craved. Now he feels he has, for an hour and more, dwelt in it. Or dreams he has.

*

The fourth class, and the last before half term. Shua has learnt a lot, not least by experience, and has made provision against the unreliability (atemporality?) of the Circle Line and consequent late supper, viz. a can of saucepan-ready lobster bisque. He leaves it on the draining board and changes his shirt, then his mind – about the choice of shirt, as there are several buttons missing.

He has to decide: put on a dirty shirt; put on a shirt agape at the belly; sew on some buttons and be late to class. Self-respect dictates the third.

He thus arrives with the lesson (The Epistemology of Duns Scotus and William of Ockham) in full swing. In fact, Scotus has been done, they are onto Ockham.

Ockham, the tutor is explaining, took Scotus’ differentiation between abstractive and intuitive knowledge and extended it, raising in consequence the spectre of radical doubt.

For Ockham, he continues, there are only individuals; universals are not entities but abstracted from individuals, which are the first objects of sense and therefore understanding. Abstractive knowledge, then, presupposes intuitive knowledge, which, using the word in a non-intuitive sense, is caused by perception – though not necessarily sense-perception; he allows intellectual perception: states of mind, etc. (OTh 1. 28).

In the main, though, intuitive knowledge is caused by objects themselves. If we look at the stars, that perception gives us an awareness of them, though the awareness and the stars are not one and the same. For God could, if He chose, create that awareness in us in the absence of stars, by direct rather than secondary cause.

This is where the difficulties, the doubts, set in.

In such a case, that directly-caused awareness of non-existent stars would seem to qualify, for Ockham, as knowledge, intuitive knowledge. But it would be false knowledge. For Ockham, using his razor-sharp mind, makes a further distinction between intuitive knowledge and evident knowledge. Only if the stars are there would our awareness be evident knowledge, true knowledge (OTh 9. 499).

To further clarify – or mystify – if God causes such a false awareness, then my knowledge is not intuitive but abstractive. How then can we be sure that our knowledge is both intuitive and evident? Only by assuming that God had not caused – had no need or desire to cause – such a perceptually deceptive miracle.

And there, flourishes the tutor, opens the chasm of scepticism. He opens up the chasm to debate.

It’s fitful at first, but livens. Someone mentions Descartes’ demon; the tutor remarks that Augustine had used a similar ground-zero argument – “If I am in error, I exist”; someone else invokes Hermann Hesse in his Eastern phase, that if life is illusion, I too am illusion…

Shua, who has not comfortably comprehended the tutor’s lecture due to his flustered arrival, perks up at this. There seems, he thinks, to be a knack to non-existence.

He ventures a comment, to test the position: that to describe both life and ourselves as illusory means we are back where we started. The tutor lightly quotes Wittgenstein to the effect that philosophy leaves everything as it was. A wag asks if, in that case, they can get their fees back. For the tutor, that nicely rounds off the lesson.

*

Shua in his kitchen picks up the tin of bisque, opener in hand. He hesitates. Lobsters are usually boiled alive, he has heard. He reads the label punctiliously. It’s of no help. He lashes in with the tin-opener.

But as the bisque starts to bubble on the hob, he suffers more qualms. He visualizes a pot glazeless in a searing kiln. Is that why they call it bisque, he wonders. But he has nothing in the larder and no energy for a takeaway; the Ethics segment is late in the term; he suspends judgment.

*

It’s a clear night, stars are visible above the sodium haze. He stares up. He knows the stars he sees are no longer there; would that count as a miracle? He dismisses it as an entirely natural consequence, not at all what he is seeking.

What he seeks is a full-blown miracle: a repeal of evident knowledge, a divine assurance that the stars are illusory, all is illusory, an illusionary world ribboning out; others, himself, his self, his memories: her head on the pillow, cheeks furrowed, pillow furrowed, quilt buckled under geological stress, harrowed, the guilt, the naked clay in the searing kiln…

But it is, he knows, too great a miracle, too big an ask. It is not cessation he desires but erasure. And not even God, he has read, can abolish historical fact.

He would settle for a friendly Cartesian demon, sitting on his shoulder, whispering the world into deceptive tissue.

This is more modest, more manageable. We can accommodate his need. For what he – what you – have failed to realize is that this is the demon at work.




At Colonus

Picture by David Blackwell (copied from Flickr)
Picture by David Blackwell (copied from Flickr)

Expanse of grass to left and right, extending to a perimeter railing of corroding wrought iron. The view is limited by a series of trees: regularly-spaced urban plane; horse chestnut, leaves browning, crisping prematurely; a solitary beech.

In foreground, in contradiction of the grass worn bald by summer use, an expense of grass close-mown, striped in the mowing, watered daily and still dewed in the heat. In its shrubbed borders a rustle of wings.

A figure seated in partial shade. Another hurrying toward it.

-What do you think you’re up to? Strictly no dogs, there’s a notice prominent at the gate.

-Dog? I have no dog.

-Then what’s that lead for?

-A keepsake, a memento mori, a comfort to the hand, a habit.

-Let me see your ticket.

-Ticket? I have no ticket.

-You need a ticket to enter this enclosure.

-This is not a public place, a park?

-This is the putting green. You need a ticket, obtainable at the office, along with putter and ball.

-I did wonder at the quality of the sward. I was enjoying its refreshment.

-It’s here for the enjoyment of golfers. If you’re not intending to play, I shall have to ask you to leave.

-Would that I could.

-Play or leave?

-Both. I was a mean opponent with the clubs in my day. But my ingress through the gate was of the nature of a hole in one, that is to say, a fluke. My egress, I regret, will require assistance. Your arm?

-You’re blind?

-I was hoping for tact and a friendly touch.

-So this lead here? Guide dog?

-Another hole in one. Far more than man’s best friend. More like a daughter to me.

-What happened?

-Killed by an unskilled skateboarder. Below the Hayward Gallery. Attempting some sort of pirouette, was his explanation. Broke her neck. A clean break is all I hope.

You find this funny?

-Surely they would give you another? The Guide Dog charity?

-I could never replace her. Besides, another would outlive me. Who’s to take care of it? I’ll muddle through, it isn’t long.

-Well. Still, rules are rules, and if you’re not a bona fide golfer I’m obliged to, here, take my arm, I’ve spread a tissue, tell you what we’ll do, I’ll deposit you outside the enclosure but in the shade of the shrubs. You’ll get the benefit of the sprinkler but within the safety of the rules. How’s that?

Two figures move slowly through the sunglare, glint of a chain still visible as their shadows merge into shade.

***

Two figures, one seated, one stooped. Only one of the figures is familiar.

-You move fast for an old man. You sure you’re not exaggerating your visual impairment? How’d you cross all those roads?

-By stumble and grope and listening for the pips. I had a head start; I left at dawn.

-How’d you know?

-By the intersection of the milk delivery and the refuse collection. And the freshening of the breeze, the dawn wind.

-But why’d you go, why’d you check out?

-It’s an overnight hostel, is it not? Night was over.

-No, it’s all-day too. And there’s breakfast all day.

-I prefer to picnic. I like the variety of the unexpected.

-But you didn’t sign the register.

-You forget what a hit-and-miss procedure that is for me.

-There’s always someone there to help, a qualified warden. It’s one of the conditions, signature on the register. That’s why I’ve been sent to find you, escort you back.

-Coercively?

-Why should it come to that? It’s what’s best for you, it’s in your own interests. You’re all on your own, unprotected. Look, you may be a senile old fool, but surely you see that?

-“Senile” and “old fool” are tautological. I best know my own interests. I’ll not budge from this spot.

-You can’t stay here by your bloody self.

A third figure approaches, his peaked silhouette recognizable.

In the distance behind the beech, a faint boil of cloud.

-I’ll ask you to moderate your tone and volume. You’re close to committing a public affray. The bye-laws as displayed at every gate are explicit in this. Are you being bothered by this person?

-He wishes to drag me back to the hostel.

-Hostel?

-We prefer the term Short Term Sheltered Accommodation.

-Known to fellow inmates as Boris Bunkers.

-They’re provisions of the Mayoral Outreach to the Undomiciled.

-They?

-There’s a chain of them across the capital.

-The M&S of the underclass.

-There you are – a tribute to the quality of the care we offer. Good food, clean bed, hot water and soap…

-The catch?

-No catch. We just require a signature in the register and their agreement to return for a minimum of seven nights.

-Hence the coercion.

-Why the coercion?

-Our funding depends on it. This venture represents a commitment to long-term solutions to vagrancy, weaning people off charitable dependency and the streets. People like him, fly-by-nights, jeopardize the funding. Drift in, hot meal, use of the lav and off; it’s taking the piss. Spoils it for everyone. Anti-social.

-I was once pro-social. Attitudes change with circumstance. Pro, anti… I wish for peace, no more.

-You’d have your own cubicle, own locker, a bath, disposable razor. Christ, what more does a man want?

-Dignity and a peaceful death.

-I just said, you’d have your own cubicle, needn’t be disturbed. How could you hope for a peaceful death with the foundering of the Mayoral Outreach on your conscience?

-With so much on my conscience already, I’m sure I could squeeze it on.

-For fuck’s sake.

-You’ve been warned.

-Does my bag of bones mean so very much to you?

-It’s for your sake too. Even in this weather, nights are cold, old bones chill. Don’t be so bloody stubborn.

-If you want my two penn’orth, he has a point.

-That’s it, you try to talk him round. I’ll be at the gate.

***

Above the beech, cumulonimbi are building up.

-Has he gone?

-He’s waiting at the Main Gate. He does have a point. Cynicism is fashionable but there are people who care. Care workers become care workers because they, well, care. Take my sister-in-law, now, she’s a social worker, years of training…

-The Big Society, room for all in the tent. Welcome the Other, the Alien and Stranger. Hug-a-hoodie, remember that? A sentiment I of all should favour. Unfortunately I was robbed by a hoodie, an off-duty squaddie. A Cameron Highlander, I was told, to add piquancy. No. “The world of the happy man is a different one from that of the unhappy man.” The passage from one to the other is but one-way. There are border guards. Notices at every turn. “Persona non grata” around one’s neck. Never more so than in the care of the carers.

-But surely you’d have the companionship of…

-Of one’s own kind? The camaraderie of the forgotten? Brothers-in-alms? The parry and thrust, the mutual joshing?

-But you’d have your own cubicle, didn’t he say so? And he’s right about the weather. My knees are a constant reminder. Would it hurt you to stick it out for the week? Rest up, clean up. The sprinkler’s helping but it’s no substitute for soap and water. Not to be personal, but…

-No, quite right. None taken. You think having no access to mirrors, I’m unaware of my appearance; the ill-assorted jib, runnelled visage, a head more crust than hair?

-Nothing that a good bath and a rummage round Oxfam wouldn’t cure. I’ll ask my sister-in-law, she’s bound…

-And the inner man? The reinforcement of one’s invisibility? A week of such?

-God, you’re a stubborn man. He was right about that too. What makes you so stubborn?

-A gift. Nurtured through adversity. Is the ruffian still at the gate?

-He’s still waiting.

-He’ll wait in vain.

-We’re in for a storm. Why not return for just the one night? Sleep on it.

-You’re a kind man. You have my welfare at heart, I acknowledge that. Don’t think me ungrateful, man to man. Yes, I smell the storm. A last favour. Save the ruffian from a soaking. Tell him I’ll be staying put. And for yourself, a parting gift.

-I couldn’t possibly accept anything from…

-You will, in time. God bless.

A peaked figure moves through the curdling light.

A prone form rises, stumbles once, moves toward the beech, a slow, unsteady progress.

The trailed chain – wet – coruscates.

Lightning flicker. A puncture in the atmosphere.

 

At death the world does not alter but comes to an end. (Wittgenstein)