Posts Tagged ‘Literature’

The Demaundes Joyous
The lightness of these, when measured against the Old English Riddles, makes them seem mere bagatelles. Quite a lot of those Old English Riddles are light and jokey also; it is just the labour of translation makes them seem less. But for ease of reading, and sheer fun, we  have these.
Did I mention translation? Yes, well, these are also translations – but not from the heavy?, stodgy? Anglo-Saxon – no, they are from the Romance of northern French.

The Demaundes Joyous

1 Who was Adam’s moder?

2 What space is from the hyest space of the se to the depest?

3 How many calves tayles behoveth to reche from the erthe to the skye?

4 Which parte of a sergeaunte love ye best toward you?

5 Which is the moost profitable beest, and that men eteth leest of?

6 Which is the broadest water and leest jeopardye to passe over?

7 What beest is it that hath her tayle between her eyen?

8 Wherefore set they upon churche steples more a cocke than a henne?

9  Why doth an ox or a cowe lye?

10 Which was first, the henne or the egge?

11 Which tyme in the yere bereth a gose moost feders?


– It is always best to have a ‘flavour’ of the kind of answer expected. So, here is the answer to Question 3:
No more but one if it be long ynough.

If you want to try and answer these… then let’s say you must do so in the curious English of their period.

The source of these Demaundes Joyous is Wynkyn de Worde, 1511.
The collection contains about fifty such riddles – I have skipped the more church-orientated, and so maybe a little obscure now eg Why come dogges so often to the churche? etc.
My source says the collection here is based partly on an early sixteenth-century French collection, Demandes joyeuses en maniere de quolibets.

There are some old crocks here: Which came first, egg or hen? But there is no Why did the chicken cross the road? Maybe that is in the other forty, not included.
Some are a little… indelicate? Some just crazy. All have the flavour of their period.


Happy Festive Season!


I was just flipping through excerpts from Homer’s Iliad – as we all do in those idle moments, of which we are inundated – and I noticed just how effective the imagery was. And also, apologies, just how unintentionally and grimly funny some of it was.

Maybe, I thought, it is the translation/translator’s unconscious input to ‘image the English’ this way. And so I tried several translations. You will have guessed by now I have not even a little Latin, and certainly less than no Greek, to quote Robert Greene on Shakespeare.

Take, for instance, one of the later dreadful moments before the gates of Troy. Hector is outside, all the other Trojans having just been chased in by the Greeks. King Priam sees Achilles racing across to challenge his son, Hector, who is below.

Robert Fagles gives us:

And old King Priam was the first to see him coming,
surging over the plain, blazing like the star
that rears at harvest, flaming up in its brilliance –
that star called Orion’s Dog – brightest of all
So the bronze flared on his chest as on he raced –

Robert Fitzgerald’s version:

And ageing Priam was the first to see him
sparkling on that plain, bright as that star
in autumn rising, whose unclouded rays
shine out ………………………..
the one they call Orion’s dog, most brilliant
……………….. So pure and bright
the bronze gear blazed upon him as he ran.

And we see it.

The immediacy is in the imagery, its tactile and visual appeals; Priam’s shock and dread provides a platform for what is being visualised so clearly. There are literary tropes and elements in profusion, of course, as we know from Hesiod, but the translators here both resort to the same cognitive palate. Was this ‘Homer’s’ cognitive palate, too?

There is something about this imagery I recognised from exercises in visualisation, in art, and especially in ‘drawing from the right side of the brain’. The imagery here in the above passages is focused on the subject, and yet relaxed sufficiently for extraneous detail to be noted. Visualisation techniques, in their early stages, foreground their subject, and relegate all other detail to background. The effect is of creating, say, a huge central figure/image. Much as Achilles is presented in the whole passage.

I have seen similar effects in sleep experiments, where REM dreaming creates a further distorting effect. And more importantly, we have all done it – not just every night we go to sleep, but as kids in staring games: the fixed eyes exaggerate their focus, the other’s face distorts, a well-known face becomes unrecognisable.
I have watched this in action as Alzheimers affected cognitive function: ‘That is not your face.

Ok, that is somewhat different – the point I am making here is that the cognitive appeals in the above passages denote an internal visualisation of the scene, that is then held in the mind’s eye, whilst it is described/written down.
No easy task.

On another scale there is how Gaelic poets composed – by lying, in subdued light, quiet – isolated – with a stone/small rock held against the stomach.
I can appreciate the need for this: the stone/rock centres the attention, provides tactile input, becomes the prompt to the act of composition. Why was this method noteworthy? It helped in their manipulation of strict forms, of intertexuality; of a hundred and one rules, appeals, concerns, to be addressed. It was the calm, timeless quality of the setting, of the quality of enduring stone/rock, that provided the context for the frame of mind, of being, that the poetic composition demanded. The rock connected one to one’s time, to the world, to earth; it provided a point of contact between inner visualising/mentation, and outside demand/input. It grounded the imagery.

Grim humour?

Well, I couldn’t help but notice, later on in this passage…

(Priam pleading with Hector to come indoors)
 ……………….. Ah for a young man
all looks fine and noble if he goes down in war
…………………….When an old man’s killed
… the dogs go at the grey head and the grey beard
and mutilate the genitals -………….

Or, as Robert Fitzgerald has it:

………………………….Everything done
to a young man killed in war becomes his glory
………………. But when an old man falls ,
the dogs disfigure his grey head and cheek
and genitals…………………

And if that wasn’t enough:

And his mother wailed now…………
………………………loosing her robes with one hand
and holding out her bare breast with the other……………

……………………………. – have some respect for this! (sic)



The writer Ted Hughes had a long engagement with Shakespeare.
Story goes, in the early 1950s, just as he was to go up to Cambridge – working-class boy makes good – he was called-up, as all were in those days, to do his National Service. He said he spent those two years in various look-out posts, reading all of Shakespeare’s works. It went on from there.

The culmination of this long engagement came first in his 1971 book, A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse, published by Faber and Faber. His argument there was – ever the controversialist –  that we can appreciate Shakespeare’s poetic art as well in excerpts from the plays, as in sticking solely with the published poems.
His argument is more than borne out by the samples he gives. This is indeed an excellent book.

The part relevant to my argument here, is the postscript. This is a long essay on what Ted Hughes saw as the evolution of Shakespeare’s craft, and forms the heart of what became his next big attempt on Shakespeare: Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being. He came to blame the writing of this as a betrayal of his/the muse, and resulting in his last illness.

In these works he came up with what he called ‘the tragic equation ’ of Shakespeare’s writing. This was all to do with the evolution of Shakespeare’s craft, its psychic properties, and engagement with history.

For this blog I am just looking at a detail of that postscript, beguilingly called ‘Note,’ in A Choice of Shakespeare’s Verse.

In the ‘Note’ he discusses how Shakespeare’s craft and art underwent a ‘quantum leap.’ It was a ‘quantum’ leap because it worked on the level of a new weighting of language and language use rather than big themes. He writes of how Shakespeare’s mature style used a ‘high’ word ie a usage from a lexicon outside the normal language of the audience, that was paired with a ‘low’ word, to qualify a third. He writes ‘… the new, unfamiliar, word from the ‘high’ language is balanced, interpreted and translated by an old word (or words, or image made up of old words) from then ‘low.’ In practice, this becomes usually a combination of one word of classical derivation with another of native… derivation.

He goes on to call this a ‘masterful democritisation’ of language, for ‘welding the audience into a single thing.’ He dates this change in resource of language from All’s Well That Ends Well onwards.

Here he brings in another conceptual avenue: ‘If other evidence is valid and he used a Brunoesque mnemonic system…’ Ted Hughes was hedging his bets with that  ‘If’, but it is evident he has been reading A study of Love’s Labour’s Lost (1936), Giordano Bruno and the Hermetic Tradition (1964), The Art of Memory (1966) by Frances Yates. All, but certainly one or two of the above.

What is it about this causes Ted Hughes to make this claim? How, he seems to ask, could Shakespeare have memorised all these new words? His answer, by using a memory system, a mnemonic. And then tying this in with the newly available books by Frances Yates on The School of Night, Giordano Bruno et al. He ties this to Shakespeares’ quoted use of tables: ‘set it down in ‘…‘tables’, or notebook…’. (p187, 1991 edition). There are a number of such references to ‘tables’ used in this way.

He gives the example from All’s Well That End Well of a line from a speech:
On the catastrophe and heel of pastime
He reads the use of catastrophe as one of Shakespeare’s new words; how is it used with the term heel, then? By reading catastrophe as  down-turn… heel then becomes, of the foot, but more, it becomes in context the image of Achilles’ heel.
Ted Hughes writes:
‘By regarding the line as a slightly modified ‘New Word’ entry in his ‘tables’, where the word to be mastered is matched with its translation and ‘fixed’ with its mnemonic image….
(page 186/7).

What do you think?

There is, of course, another explanation for that word ‘tables’, other than implying a mnemonic system of tables.

Roger Chartier, in Inscription and Erasure, (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), writes of how between 1577 and 1628 a certain London bookbinders sold what were called Tables. Many examples survive, complete with bookbinder’s name and London address.
A direct reference to these can be found in Hamlet Act 1, Scene 5, lines 107-11.
They are notebooks with the added ability of being able to be wiped clean.
In effect they were the wax tablets as used in medieval times. As we see from Roger Chartier, they were still in use in Shakespeare’s time. He describes them as part of the materiality of the text.
They were small: hand-sized, and rectangular: wooden trays, usually in pairs, strapped together with leather, so they could be closed face to face to save what had been imprinted from smudging. These trays were filled with bees wax, to be marked on, written on, with a metal stylus. They could be erased with a wet cloth, allowed to dry, and used again.
Roger Chartier writes how an eleventh-century priest-poet, Baudri de Bourgueil, wrote in detail about his tablets/tables. The wax in time would become old, blackened, full of grit.
Being wax, they would also be vulnerable to temperature: cold, draughty cloisters and scriptoria  probably held ideal conditions.

By Shakespeare’s time, we read, the medium had been changed from wax to a mixture of plaster, glue and varnish (page 23, Inscription and Erasure). The ‘tables’ of this period also included in their package printed almanacs, tables, weights and measures, calendars… much like our own notebooks.

So what, then, of memory systems? You need to go back to the Hamlet reference, above. Just before that speech, comes the phrase, table of my memory.
We read in Roger Chartier, how many such Tables could be collected, and stored. Their contents were not erased, but kept for transcription onto parchment, vellum in the future. They were, in effect, stored writings: libraries.

Cicero’s Rhetorica ad Herennium was one of the main sources for describing a memory system (though many found the descriptions confusing, incomplete). By Chaucer’s time Geoffrey de Vinsauf had dispensed with this as far too outlandish.
By Shakespeare’s time the Tables would be used for storing quotations, improving phrases, then jottings, recipes, tittle-tattle. They became known as ‘writing tables,’ or ‘table books.’
And memory systems, as part of what might be considered ‘occult’, were very much forced underground after the fall from favour of Dr John Dee, and especially in Jacobean times.

We have here, though,  the act of writing as an act of memorising. Any student will know this: the physical act of writing notes on paper aids to remembering in revision.
And yes, I did keep a straight face when I wrote that – though only just.

Behind this memory–writing equation is maybe an episode from Plato’s Phaedrus. Here, Theuth (Thoth), the Egyptian god, had invented the art of writing: using visual, drawn, images, to convey spoken words. He presented his invention to the king of all Egypt, Thamus. He refused the gift, on the grounds that it would make people lazy, not having to remember everything.

I do not know the book by Plato, and cannot tell what was made of this anecdote by Socrates. It certainly would not be left to stand alone, that is for certain.
Topic for another day.

Roger Chartier is one of the chief writers of the histoire des mentalities school of cultural history.
He writes in French, but many of his books are available in translation.
Inscription and Erasure is a book full of riches. I would recommend it very highly.



THE EVENINGS, by Gerard Reve, 1947.
Published by the excellent Pushkin Press, in its first English translation, by Sam Garrett, 2016


I am currently reading The Evenings, by Gerard Reve (Gerard Kornelius van het Reve, 1923 to 2006).

This is an early, outsider-novel, and a classic:
– ‘a cornerstone… of modern European literature…’  (Tim Parks)
– ‘The funniest, most exhilarating book about boredom ever written….’ (Herman Koch)

And that last comment captures my problem.
The novel is set in 1946, presumably in Amsterdam. There is no TV, no record player or records; there is  a radio, yes, that plays classical, a bit of jazz, some Latin American.
Of course no internet, iphones….
And everyone is bored out their heads.

Note that, ye critics of today’s youth.

And so the chief character, 26 year old Frits van Egters, entertains himself by needling everybody. This ‘entertainment’ takes over, to increasing degrees.
At first I had the distinct impressions of Billy Liar, by Alan Sillitoe, but no.

And so I am struggling with it; struggling to keep up the interest.
Because…. ‘I have seen the best minds of my generation…’.
The date, see: 1946.
The best minds of the generation before were still numbed by years of Nazi occupation, the round-ups, the transports. The best engineers, mechanics, workers, had been trucked off for the German war effort. They returned home morally ruined, physically malnourished, spiritually dead.

And Frit’s generation were beginning to stir, wake, shake themselves, look around. And what did they see?
‘He looked at her’ (his mother), ‘:  the thin face, the grey hair, the slight growth of hair around the mouth and chin, the arms that never stopped moving. “Help us,” he thought.

 – Is it me, or is it always the woman is the easy target? That she must maintain a static, constant, role, appearance, demeanor, for the narrator/character.
Woman as a distant, uncomprehended being; woman as an inhabitant of the same world, also – but surely she cannot feel what we chaps feel, how we feel. She goes on doing that house stuff as though nothing else mattered, or had happened.
Only, Frits wakes one night, to sounds in his parent’s room. He entered, to find his mother shaking and sobbing. His father, isolated in his own wrecked existence, excuses it as one her nervous attacks.
There is an unwritten novel in that, certainly. In her side of the story.

Frits looked around his world, and saw people holding onto the known and trusted traditions, but they now seemed little more than threadbare habits:
‘”Who’d like a pickled herring?…”, “”No, please, no.” But he does.
‘“… there’s a real Middenweg wind blowing…” , “…Please don’t use terms unfamiliar to the uninitiated.”

The book starts off well, with a sly, dry, ironic humour as Frits woke early one Sunday morning. Early: good, despite the bad dreams, but time to make something of the day. Then we see him every few minutes clock-checking, and the opportunities flounder, die, as the day wears on.

The story is set in late December. Even the Winter was a disappointment: the ice on the canal melted early; there was no real snow; plenty of drizzle, yes, but nothing with any energy or excitement to it.
The intention was there, but it is as though the life had been drained out of people, the world, even; the spark to ignite a creative fire, dampened.

‘“Tom ta tom tom, tom ta tom,” Frits sang to himself, “nothing ‘s good, but everything’s fine.”
– There’s definitely a modernist technique at work here. There is certainly an echo of Doblin’s ‘Berlin Alexanderplatz’, in the use of vernacular, in the internal monologues, thesinging.


The novel is structured on ten evenings, of increasing frustration with a fruitless life, and world. Each chapter charts the route taken by the tacking and manouvering of a clumsy, mostly empty, boat.

No, the novel is a not a ‘Ulysses’; it may share some of the self-absorption of Joyce’s classic, but the scale and scaffolding are pointedly small-scale.
After the previous period’s vacuous claims to new world orders, new worlds, great futures, this is a pointedly and purposely humdrum conception of humanity.
When you build, you must build from proper materials: people as they are – and not cloud cities, a reich, built from vacuous guff shored up with people’s real blood, guts, lives.

We see Frits attend the school re-union; his peers were trying to adopt the old role of getting on, making something of themselves. Frits, perversely, does not.  It is not as definite as that, or as a much a stance. His life has no heroic gestures, statements, no focussed disavowal of old values. No, he rumbles on in a diffuse scepticism.

And it is here where the book’s strength lies.
It does not succumb to cliche, or stereotype. Frits is disagreeable, but not hateful. The story charts  the hinterland that is his life: he does not veer far from the main path, and certainly not off into the dubious byways, side roads, the district beyond the tracks.

The immediately pre-War writers grouped under the banner of Forum, were preoccupied with the relationship of man to society. The War changed all that; the War brought the Nazi regime’s Kultuurkamer and its prescription of everything other than National Socialist writing.
Reve’s book was the first one of impact to be published in that aftermath.

Reinder P Meijer, in his’ Literature of the Low Countries’ (Stanley Thornes (Publishers) Ltd, 1978) writes, ‘The dreariness of the subject matter recalls the work of the nineteenth-century naturalists, of whom Van de Reve may be regarded as a descendant.’
The directness of Gerard Reve’s depiction, though, is the main factor: ‘Van het Reve offers no explanations, no comments, no psychological key.’ (: Reinder P Meijer).
Gerard Reve also employs ornate speech – the interactions between Frits and older brother Joop, and associates, reads – as his response to the use of vernacular, above, shows – as an arch, ornate, edging-towards-parody of earlier high-flown literary styles.

It is not Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’ the book shares kinship with, but perhaps Sartre’s ‘La Nausee’. They both explore the ennui. Sartre’s book has the definite stance, raison, backstory even, in the opus of Being and Nothingness. Reve eschews those grand gestures, definitions, concepts, in favour of the individual vision.
Where Sartre argues for the individualistic response, Reve gives it.


Gerard Reve hit the headlines again with his 1970’s quartet of books ‘Dear Boys,’ ‘Sweet Life,’ ‘I Loved Him,’ and ‘A Circus Boy,’ where he explores gay sex, with a brutal edge. It is the style, also, that grabbed attention. The books are written with a blend of fact and fiction, in the form of written letters, and fantasy, but not the standard epistolary format.  Reinders P Meije again: the books stand out because of their ‘firm structure and … skillful way(s) of preserving a precarious balance between reality and the fairy-tale elements… introduced in his later novels…’.

But I’m still stuck.


Negative Energy, by Richard Livermore.
24 Essays and Blogs. Elefantasia Press, 2016

ISBN: 976-1911357-17-9                  Price £.7.99 (Postage free in the UK)

The book can be purchased from:
Richard Livermore, 6/1 Jamaica Mews, Edinburgh, EH3 6HN, Scotland, UK.


Richard Livermore should be better known.
He founded and edited Chantecleer Magazine, and its later online form Ol Chanty:

He has been active in the literary and poetry worlds for many years. He is a seasoned campaigner for wider dissemination, deeper understanding, for the neglected and the deserving of better readership.
But he never shies away from the difficult questions, the tricky areas.

Aficionados of literature, poetry, film, philosophy, culture will feel very at home in the world of this book.Why? Because

This Is The Book For You!


2016 marks the five-hundredth anniversary of Shakespeare’s death.
I mention this in this context because my favourite essay so far in this collection contains a wham-bang essay on Shakespeare. He opens by questioning Why he was never given a place in Poet’s Corner in Westminster Abbey.

In this mere eight pages he takes us through the pungency of Shakespeare’s response to power as he found it in London under Elizabeth 1, and earlier claimants. He shows how Shakespeare ran the gamut of realisations from Timon of Athens, to the big three of Hamlet, MacBeth and King Lear. This he argues persuasively was a zeroing-in on the subject of the nature of power itself. Timon, he writes was about money as power; no, the real kick came when Shakespeare found a way around censorship via history, other cultures, to look at, pull apart, expose the gaining, use and abuse of political power.
This is why Shakespeare was difficult to domesticate. He had to be ‘bowdlerised’ as one term has it; he had also to be rendered benign through academic study modules.
That is why it takes an essay like this, outside of the academy, to reveal just how much Shakespeare pushed perceptions; how he threw it out into the open, to the populace, to people outside privilege and court circles.

I wrote above that essay was my favourite ‘so far’. Admit it, our likes, our desires, change. They grow develop. Or do they? Is the pack just reshuffled after a time? Time, yes. Time is the problem. What happens to us over time?
Some have attempted road maps (of the soul) for us. Whether they are religions, philosophies, politics or ethical systems, the intent is similar: how do we navigate our combined lives through time, in our shared space?
These essays and blogs take us through these invented landscapes searching all the time for that thing that makes our lives. He has his own particular criteria.

A close second on the Shakespeare essay/blog is EPIC PERSPECTIVES.
Being challenged can be one of our greatest pleasures, as well as spurs to learning, to knowing. In this piece Richard Livermore brings us to that body of writing I have long wanted to dive into and swim, The Mahabharata. In this instance it is Carole Satyamurti’s version. His love for the work is obvious on every page, and it illuminates the text.
The Mahabharata is, of course, another way of navigating time and space. This time it does not follow on the Greek/Classical rationalism method, but uses an older means, that of story. It is an unfolding story, series of stories, though, and this is important: it is not a static, rendered-into-text, finished product. The stories went out into the villages, were added onto, changed, re-valued. What we have here is one-off screen-shot of The Mahabharata’s vast complex of stories.

Think Game of Thrones has twists and turns, and conniving and general skullduggery? Try The Mahabharata. The difference is that The Mahabharata has Dharma, it has a through-line of purpose, intent, that is responsive to current and contemporary situations. G R R Martin certainly knows his predecessors.

On the topic of time, duration, and identity, Richard Livermore takes us through the book  Difference and Repetition, by Giles Deleuze, in his essay DELEUZENARY STATES
It is necessary for any thought-traveller to have some grounding in Deleuze (and Gatari), and this essay is an excellent place to begin. We encounter Kant as a major contributor. Kant occurs throughout the essays and blogs: his contribution to modern thought is given due recognition.

What do you think of democracy? That sacred cow of the enlightened Western world: Do not touch; do not question; just accept it as the best we have to offer.
Well, is it?
Richard Livermore writes: ‘Personally, I would  extend the notion of democracy and limit it at the same time.’ You see, it is possible to think further, think round corners, look at democracy from other sides, angles, and not just the big sell part. In our small worlds of personal interactions, equality and diversity etc, it has proved invaluable. On the big stage it can take on an appearance as lumbering, out-dated.  ‘A means to an end, and not an end in itself.’ he writes. Once an idea, a political ideal, becomes realised it is limited by its success, its existence, even. We sit back: the work is done. It is never done, though, is it. Democracy is just a station on your way, to quote Leonard Cohen.

So what does he mean by Negative Energy? It is part of an equation with positivity. Positivity denotes creating, building up, aspiration and achievement of promise. Negative Energy is not its opposite – that way of thinking, of universals, logical oppositions, contradictories etc is not helpful. Negative Energy is the energy released from the break-down, break-up, of ossified structures and systems. Sound familiar? Sound like someplace you know? The energy can be just as creative, just as vitalizing. The best of our works, our books, plays, symphonies we value as such because they give us the struggle of the breaking out and rebuilding.
It is quite a whoosh when you realise that!

The book is in no ‘particular order – chronological or otherwise’ Richard Livermore writes in his Preface. I see that as a strength, it gives the book a jewel box quality, full of surprises and sparkles, some dark, some glittering, some challenging our icons, some valuing them.
That is not to say there are no through-threads, themes, obsessions, even. There certainly are, and it provides us with a pleasure to find topics occurring in unexpected places.

We glimpse a very human heart and mind at work here behind the essays and blogs on film, opera, novels, plays, poetry, philosophy, science.
Here are our cultural nodes and political moods, explored and unraveled for us. For us to carry on the work.



Now available on Kindle!


Kindle book ready and waiting!
Roll up! Roll up!



Posted: July 3, 2016 in Chat
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