Why You Should At Least Try To Read Finnegans Wake, In Four Paragraphs And Three Footnotes

A central figure in Finnegans Wake is a letter that is written by the female protagonist Anna Livia Plurabelle. Discussion of this letter takes up a chapter, pages 104-125. For Joyce a letter has a duality to it. Bear with me on this. A letter has male and female properties in the Wake, and is a symbol of transmission: the transmission of genetic material, and the transmission of literary material[1]. This might seem like a weird stretch. But letters are sexual in a way. This is because the metaphor, the elision of the literary with the genetic is in fact incredibly prescient for a book published in 1939, spookily so, to the extent that it is tempting to take sci-fi author Philip K. Dick’s line that Joyce was plugged into a cosmic consciousness as literally true, against all instincts of rationality. Here’s why. Just as he couldn’t possibly have known of DNA (the many helices and handshakes that compose our most core components would have delighted him), he couldn’t have conceived of the euchromatic regions of the human genome being written out by scientists as literal letters, A, T, C and G. You could theoretically read it as a book orders of magnitude more impenetrable and profound than the Wake. The combination of such letters is read like a language in order to develop you in broadly the same ways as everyone else, with organs and bones and muscles and all the other shit in the right order and place. It leads to all this, with everyone the same but totally different. The contradictions and unified beauty in all human life. Not only this, but here’s another spooky part: genes have envelopes. Wrapped in a protein cling-film –– provocatively termed histones[2] –– a portion has to be removed in order for the substance beneath to be interpreted as genetic code. External factors, environmental ones, determine what is revealed when. History, epigenetically speaking, is linked to biology, and it just so happens, in an astounding Joycean coincidence, one of these nodes is a histone, and a histone reminds one of letters, of literary transmission.


In case you needed a primer on one of the icons of the modern age

In the Middle Ages they loved how it seemed as if scientific discoveries constructed an analogy of the world as they saw it, and it fit neatly into their vision of creation. So the human body was a mystical, symbolic version of the cosmos in total, a microcosm. Of course while the metaphors were neat, they weren’t the world as we know it now. This is why Dante’s Divine Comedy is such a good poem: the fiction of the medieval worldview was ideal for a unifying, stupefying poetic vision. You could make the scientific ‘fact’ that the Sun is in the fourth circle of the heavens mean something, and it could be beautiful.

On the other hand, modernity, in all appearances, prizes truth without meaning. We reason nowadays that the earth really goes round the sun, is the third planet in the sequence of doing so, the sun is merely one of many other stars suited to providing conditions for life in the Milky Way, the Milky Way is one of many other galaxies. Speculatively speaking it’s not a stretch to say our universe is one of many. It’s a tough environment to yield a healthy crop of meaning when our planet, and humanity firmly flourishing on it, are not literally in the centre of the universe. We derive meaning from a certain egocentrism in that sense, and since the great frontier of meaning is a vast Other of nothingness, seemingly unknowable and untraversable, we can only cling to such moments as when, medievally, the chaotic asignificance of reality aligns with a metaphor we construct in our minds[3].

Umberto Eco called Joyce’s literary universe a ‘chaosmos’ for this reason. The word is used in the Wake but is not necessarily about that. Finnegans Wake is an expanding universe of meaning, I think designed to gain significance in the future, ever to become both more baffling and better glossed. The letter was both genetic and literary, and somehow, magically, it very much still can be, if you know a bit about modern science. Who knows what prophecies we will find within if everyone reads it, armed with their own panoply of experiences? Simply put, it is a pearl-dive into possibly the most bountiful literary resource ever fashioned, one of a kind for now. It’s the best single metaphor for human experience in a godless age yet conceived. And yes, maybe his liberal use of Vico’s conception of history as moving in four-stage cycles is kooky to say the least. And yes, it’s difficult and more removed from the lives of ordinary people, unlike Ulysses which is just difficult. And yes, people don’t have the time to invest in it. And yes, it could well prove fruitless in the first place, since it’s just a novel, after all. So?

[1] This means there’s also a duality between authenticity and fakeness, and the characters (Anna’s sons) Shaun and Shem.

[2] The oneness behind history, perhaps.

[3] But we are undeniably optimistic in our will. In our own small way we are figuring things out. We do it stupidly and blindly, but some of us are trying.

The Marvellous Secret of Kells



A detail of the Book of Kells’ amazing Chi-Rho page

Beauty can make you cry. You can be moved so much by the sublimity it triggers something and you succumb to a wonderful animal reflex. It’s the brain spinning itself into a frenzy of sheer awe. It’s happened to me very few times.

I remember going to Milan and seeing the Duomo’s roof as one of the last ones allowed to go up there. It was dusk. As the sky faded into ultramarine the incredible sight of a completely, totally sincere love rendered in medieval masonry moved me to tears.

In my experience music is perhaps more common for this kind of thing. The final movement of Mahler’s 2nd symphony, which wavers in extremes from the slowest, slightest trickle of a mountain stream ascending phrase by phrase to the full torrent of river rapids does it. It commands you to rise from the grave, for your heart to beat once more. It truly could summon you from the dead, summon a tear from the coldest human. That happened when I sang it in concert.

I’ve just seen a film that’s done it. Usually if I cry at a film, it’s my sympathy that moves me to that reaction, not my dumbstruck wonder. There’s very few films that can stun me with an image in the first place –– it’s an incredibly hard thing to do.

The love, work and craft that went into The Secret of Kells is nothing short of astounding. Fittingly, for a film that takes as its foundation that masterpiece of medieval book art, The Book of Kells, its joy in the image, its respect for even the meagrest line, its fascination with patterns is palpable.

The very designs of the film are so carefully considered, brimming with what seems to be the light of genuine inspiration, that they appear almost specifically designed to flatter medieval art historians. The very layout of the walled abbey of Kells, where the protagonist Brendan has spent all his childhood with no knowledge of the outside world, resembles a medieval T and O map of the world (showing an affinity for the medieval artist’s respect for the abstract and geometric). The abbot, Brendan’s uncle who has walled them in, forgets the value of books out of his very real fear of Viking raids, but his silhouette, tellingly, is a quill nib. The trees of the forest, where Brendan will unlock the secret of Kells, outline cathedral windows.

The story itself is a simple hero’s journey with scriptoria instead of swords, but its sincere power is only a reminder of how powerful such a story can be. At the heart of the film instead is its love for the image, down even to the almost microbial building blocks of the Book of Kells’ ornate, cosmic spirals. An indomitable light to cast out darkness.

James Joyce was reportedly fascinated in The Book of Kells when writing Finnegans Wake. Its detailed spirals are like the semi-mystical totalities of Hegel’s dialectic: no single fact is unimportant, nothing is erased, everything is eternally preserved and it is only when you zoom out that you see it all fit together. All stories and half-truths add up in a grand equation to one infinite Truth, the order of the universe conglomerates into one massive kaleidoscopic Yes. The art of Kells is an affirmation of genius, and the sublime power of nature. Its ability to dwarf you with its beauty in even the smallest snowflake (even the snowflakes in this film are immaculately illustrated).

The real triumph of this film is to carry this spiralling, wild and serious power into the world of children’s animation, where the audience’s wonder and curiosity will be ignited the most. I certainly found myself re-enamoured with medieval bookmaking, the painstaking brilliance of illumination, and the grand, stately light of the Dark Ages. It fills me with such happiness to know that children for years to come will watch this film.

Watch the film and spiral out of control. It is marvellous in the truest sense of the word.



Opinion Polls and the Totalitarian Impulse



A bad lad

So The Sun recently published that 1 in 5 Muslims sympathise with jihadis. It remains intransigent on this, thinking that this is a completely fair interpretation of the poll, which even Survation has distanced itself from. This intransigence comes in the face of several caveats people have with the poll.

First of all, Muslims were asked to differentiate between a lot of sympathy, a little sympathy and no sympathy for fighters currently in Syria, instead of given a yes/no on whether they sympathised with jihadis. This inflates the amount of people who say they have sympathy, by the way. A yes/no could make you say no if you had a little sympathy; an option for a little sympathy could bring out a sympathy through contemplation of the question’s meaning. This is because of the second caveat people have – that sympathy is a very broad emotion. You would think the journalists who work at The Sun would have realised this by now, being paid to use words as their job. You could interpret the question, quite reasonably, as asking if you maybe understood the motivations of people fighting in Syria, or felt perhaps for the suffering of people trapped by the forces of history. Both of those constitute sympathy for at least some people. The Sun headline spun this into implying 1 in 5 Muslim hearts bleed and sob for the genocidal winnets that populate ISIS. Third caveat – the poll didn’t specifically ask about jihadis. In fact it asked about people fighting in Syria. I personally have sympathy with anyone forced into fighting back against ISIS or Assad or any other of the numerous pricks over there. If I was Muslim, I would find myself on the wrong side of a Sun headline.

The fact of the matter is verbal ambiguity in a poll is always weighted in favour of the person in control, as it can be used to push whatever interpretations are expedient. But I think this takes on an especially sinister dimension when it is explicitly used by the institutionally powerful – in this case The Sun – to exploit the majority’s already burdensome fear of a minority group and to delineate acceptable thoughts and feelings for that group alone. I would not be the focus of opprobrium for answering that poll honestly, for example, as a white, ‘normal’ British person.

It’s not just the media using polls to do this. The government asks children as young as nine ambiguous questions about their thoughts and feelings in order to determine if they are potential terrorists. Ask yourself how you would answer these questions if you were a religious child – would you strongly agree, slightly agree, neither agree nor disagree, slightly disagree, or strongly disagree?

  1. God has a purpose for me
  2. There are two kinds of people in this world: those who are for the truth and those who are against the truth.
  3. Only one religion is correct.
  4. It is okay to marry someone of the same sex.
  5. The only acceptable religion is my religion.
  6. It is better to be a dead hero than to live passively.

I was raised an Anglican Christian, and I know how I’d answer. Given that I would be developmentally incapable of properly discerning the ambiguities and nuances of the questions, I would possibly give the ‘wrong’ answers to all of those questions. These questions were put to pupils in North London – and seven children as young as nine, all Muslim, were identified as potential extremists. This is, to me, nothing but racial profiling. The questions are once again deliberately vague – I can remember loving as a child lots of cool films extolling the virtues of dying a hero (and being Christian you could say heroic sacrifice constituted a pretty big, central belief of mine). I haven’t turned out to be anything near a suicide bomber. In fact, I would definitely say dying a hero is better than living passively. If I was a religious child I might well say ‘the only acceptable religion is my religion’, because I could reasonably infer that it meant acceptable to me, instead of ‘acceptable for society as a whole’. The second question is any religion distilled to its purest essence – but a Muslim child strongly agreeing with it would most probably have a beady eye kept on them.


Enter a caption

The Panopticon – Jeremy Bentham’s design for a prison based on the idea that constantly being observed would keep the prisoners in line. At the centre of a cylinder of cells stands a guard’s tower. Used more famously by Foucault in ‘Discipline and Punish’ to introduce the concept of the ‘gaze’ being an instrument of power.

This is the most disturbing aspect of these opinion polls to me – that these aren’t abstract thought exercises – being open and honest about your thoughts and feelings, as a Muslim, has real-world consequences for Muslims. Only recently racists targeted a mosque in Finsbury Park. Islamophobia is real and a vicious threat to British Muslims’ security and wellbeing. And yet we see no harm in delineating the exact limits of acceptable thoughts and feelings – for Muslims.

I say freedom of thought is a fundamental part of a just society, and fetters on feelings are nothing but folly. It is astounding and profoundly unsettling to me that we tolerate this fascist impulse, and that we indulge it by buying The Sun and by encouraging authoritarians with our voting patterns. A thought is not an act, a feeling is not an act; they shouldn’t be illegal. They certainly aren’t worthy of institutional power deployed against marginalised individuals, as we see with The Sun headline and the government questionnaire.

And it’s coming to our universities too: Prevent is a strategy to deal with combating extremism on campus. Academic freedom, however, is a thing – a very important thing – that is ignored and side-stepped by this legislation. A student was reported at Staffordshire University by a staff member under Prevent because he was reading a book on terrorism in the university library (yes, he was Muslim). It is nothing more than a mandate for the government to sanction acceptable thoughts and feelings, and to use institutional power to enforce that sanction against individuals. You’d be a fool to think this isn’t merely about targeting undesirables, especially Muslims.

The uncomfortable truth is that thinking is dangerous, and Prevent is a product of legislation that puts itself in opposition to thinking and feeling. Thinking, I would argue, is inherently a form of dissent. Think about it: if you constantly acquiesce – just accept any and every stimulus the outside world throws at you – you’re not thinking. At some point, you have to say no: even to yourself. Or you have to question. Or you have to critique. Any way you go about it, thinking is exploring uncharted territory. If you’re going over the same old stuff, you’re not thinking, you’re just revising and repeating. In an institution like a university, that danger is precisely what should be encouraged. There should be no penalty for thinking something, or for feeling something. Anything else is totalitarianism.

Oinking To Rule Them All

A completely unrelated album.

The barrage of pig puns from the gaping, ever-jeering maw of social media about David Cameron’s alleged necrobestiality might make the whole Bae of Pigs episode seem like a jolly good laugh. Almost as jolly a laugh as the Right Honourable Member might have had inside a pig’s head. Funny it may be, but it’s also terrifying.

Isn’t it terrifying to think that, in his sheer enterprising, Getting-On desperation to be accepted among people that matter, David Cameron would so willingly debase himself and people around him? Lurid tales of porcine fuckery aside, he also definitely burned money in front of homeless people and trashed pubs for fun – and why?

We all know why, really. This goes beyond downing a dirty pint for a good night out or even acceptance among a friendship group. David Cameron indulged in pathetic, contemptible, weaselish behaviour because he knew that’s how you access power. The people in that group he wanted so desperately to be in would provide useful contacts for the rest of his life, a support network doubling as a permanent leg-up. At least in Black Mirror the PM fucked a pig to save someone’s life. There is little but a callous nihilism to Cameron’s actions, it would seem. It suggests a puddle-shallow content of character, motivated by lust, greed, amorality. Not to mention the Lord who is throwing a hissy fit over not being able to buy a ministerial post.

The other scary thing is that, true or not, the story of our Prime Minister’s depraved ham sandwich was entirely plausible to most of the population. People believe this is how those at the top behave, and given the evidence trickling out, it in fact may be even worse. People know that it’s almost an entirely different culture and set of values. Deep down a lot of the distrust most of us have for people so ready to flaunt money, to indulge in ostentation, is that we all inwardly acknowledge that money and power grant you a behavioural blank cheque. If there’s anything this farmyard fun has shown us, it’s the insidious machinery of power in Britain today. Cameron will get away with the drugs, the debauchery, the mendacity (possibly the most significant politically – he lied about his knowledge of Ashcroft’s non-dom status). I would be surprised if in the long run it’s anything more than water off a duck’s back. It’s interesting to consider, as a minor thought-experiment, who wouldn’t be able to get away with the same acts.

The Problem With Casting A Black James Bond

It is difficult to write on this issue, because the notion of expressing displeasure at what seems so intuitively to be a positive move in the long history of racism galls you at first. What possible objections could there be to a black James Bond? An example we often hear of, a potential James Bond, is Idris Elba. An actor like Idris Elba has the fire, the grit and the suave coolness we associate with such a character at a basic level. The star factor. Perhaps we imagine Idris in a Bond pose, wielding a Walther, Rolex on his wrist, cocking a Roger Moore-like eyebrow to us from the side of a bus. Not only is it not wrong, it fits on a gut level. Interestingly, Idris Elba would not want to be a ‘black James Bond’.

Objections to Idris Elba’s appropriateness based on his race would probably come from a rhetorical stance that aims to cloud the issue of race, however. I’d like to suggest that it is because of the social factors surrounding race today that a black Bond would be inadvisable, and that the realities of race would somehow be ignored. It should be said that I wouldn’t object to such a casting, though, if a black James Bond were realised – I would pay to watch the film just like any other Bond film I watched since childhood. The optimistic, egalitarian principle behind it is one that needs to be protected, after all. Also, it won’t affect whether such a film would be believable or enjoyable too hugely, considering the trajectory of recent Bond films. That’s not the issue at hand. The issue is entirely one about the history of race in the UK, the current context of race in the West, and especially the character of James Bond. So let’s talk about race.

As a white guy, it’s a daunting task to advance this line of thought. I certainly don’t want to write anything betraying some hideous unconscious racism. I would welcome responses, angry, corrective ones if that’s the case. Spending time deconstructing the prejudices that come out in literature makes you hyper-aware of such a thing. But the basis of my argument is hopefully not one that punches down.

Race is most meaningfully thought of as a social construct – but that doesn’t mean, of course, that race affects nothing – just as the realities of race’s effects, which we clearly see in history, are socially constructed. Just that genetic biological differences are not enough to merit such a profound social construction. Any analysis of race has to face the facts of the history of that social construction. And that history, unfortunately, is only prettier for that select group who construct themselves as the norm. It is a history of groups in power and groups subjugated. Anyone who acknowledges the importance of a proper understanding of racial dynamics in human history would say that a denial of that, an erasure of that, is bad news.

Unfortunately that’s what a black Bond would be. Let’s actually consider the character of James Bond – defiantly upper-class, educated at Eton and Fettes, posh European sojourns in his youth, a man of considerably expensive tastes, called by Ben Macintyre a fantastical “antidote” to a gloomy post-war landscape. Now, it is not inconceivable, of course, to have a black person occupy a position of power and wealth in today’s more enlightened social climate, especially compared to Fleming’s original time of writing. I hope my argument doesn’t seem to look like “Bond is posh, black people can’t be posh, ergo no black Bond” – it’s a question of backgrounds and privilege.

After all, I’m arguing that Bond is not a truly neutral, amorphous character that literally anyone can inhabit. A black person who so comfortably fits into the established aristocracy , a family with a coat of arms, is in fact an even more remarkable story than Bond’s already is. The plausibility of Bond’s personal history rests on his whiteness, because it is a tacit assumption in our society that people born into such privilege are white too. Look at the racial diversity of the cast of ‘Made in Chelsea’ for a modern example (and, come on, how many black people are attending Eton in 2015? Is it even close to a representative sample of the population at large?). Why is this? The history of race in Britain is unfortunately one of white supremacy. It is a simple fact that the country built an empire, and enormous wealth, off the back of racial domination and slavery (and masked such slavery by saying that it only happens far away; the British Isles themselves were thought to be lands of liberty, and hence no man setting foot there can be a slave. Hopefully modern readers can see past such rhetoric).

While the history of British imperial interest is long and complicated, it is still possible to see the same attitudes playing their part time and time again. In the vision of the New World as a virgin land waiting to be ‘impregnated’ with settlers, the people already there were curiously insignificant to the enthusiastic Elizabethans. In the transatlantic slave trade, which Britain initially participated in majorly, the question of black people’s very humanity was a source of debate, all too easily hand-waved away by people with considerable monetary interests.

Of course racism didn’t end with the abolition of the slave trade – owning slaves continued for too long after. But even today a disparity exists. We cannot claim unjust, racially-based distributions of power do not exist in the UK if you look at the economic statistics for black people – half of black children in Britain grow up in poverty compared to a quarter of white children; in the 2009 Wealth and Assets Survey the ‘average white household’ had £221,000 in assets, while the average black Caribbean household had £76,000, and the equivalent black African household had a staggeringly meagre £15,000; 15.5% of black people were unemployed in 2012 compared to 7.8% of white people*. It is even more of a fantasy, then, to see a man of such wealth in modern Britain as James Bond be black. There isn’t a level playing field at work, and so power is more out of reach for a black person.

Not only that, but I think such a fantasy would be nothing more than a comfort to people convinced we live in a post-racial society. Although the gesture would no doubt be born of good intentions, it would constitute a denial of the lived experiences of the vast majority of black people in this country – can you imagine Bond having to struggle with everyday racism all of a sudden? I don’t think people who make movies would be able to either – and this is part of why casting a black Bond would essentially constitute a denial that rivals that of even the most committed racist.

But further to this, what does the gesture I’ve been talking about – making Bond a black man – actually signify? I personally think it would be intended to mean “this is a reflection of how far Britain’s attitudes have come” – but also it would have encoded into it “Bond is a good character; there’s nothing wrong with being black; therefore there’s no problems with casting a black Bond; this is a reflection of how far Britain’s attitudes have come” – but of course I see problems – and one of these is the idea that Bond is a ‘good’ person. I think in the Bond series it is because Bond is a character of privilege that he actually manifests flaws, and as such cannot be considered a wholly aspirational embodiment of all we want Britain to be. His entitlement to women is an obvious example – and one need only read the books to see that he is not a pleasant character in the round – charming to the fullest, undoubtedly, but nonetheless a deeply flawed individual, hardly a paragon of morality. This is what makes him like a Greek hero in this sense – his fatal flaw is part of what makes him so great – it is because of his privilege that he is completely able to be so successful at what he does, in that inimitable style of his. And yet it’s also what leads to his hedonism and his entitlement.

Of course, that’s a minor point. I’m definitely not expecting black people to only be cast in roles where they play paragons of virtue, and never to be hedonistic or entitled. Or privileged, for that matter. But we’re talking about the specific gesture of making Bond black, what it signifies. Not only does it signify we think Bond is someone to aspire to, it signifies a wilful denial of the background of far too many black people and their families in Britain today. This doesn’t mean that black people can never play established characters (we need only think of the successful reinterpretations of Shakespeare that introduce racial diversity and its dynamics to the drama). If we think of one particularly British creation who can be said to reflect our ambitions for humanity as a whole, though, it would be Doctor Who – whose amorphous nature practically dictates (in my view) that the character will eventually be black, or a woman, or both, or every single minority under the sun. There you’d have someone anyone could look up to. Bond being who he is, I would say a black Bond wouldn’t be a great step forward.

Don’t get me wrong – the desire to see a black person fronting major films can only be a good thing in our society. Indeed, even more genre movies prominently starring black people would be good – because, after all, there continues a pervasive undercurrent of racism in various ””lowbrow”” genres – consider the huge number of fantasy productions that follow a rigid, very white medieval Europe cast. (It was Frantz Fanon who claimed that you could never have a major comic book with a black superhero and a white Western villain – such a thing could be possible nowadays, although I’m unsure if his request has been granted.) Increasing the media presence of black people helps remove that insidious us v. them nature that infects all of us and makes us complicit at some level in racism. It helps to get us past the idea that white is the default (in the article I linked above, Elba declined a ‘black Bond’ role because he feared audiences wouldn’t be able to see past his skin colour). But increased media presence is not a satisfactory measure of how tolerant a society is overall – an unthinking tokenism won’t remove the attitudes that dictate prejudice and hostility.

The fantasy presented by Bond becoming black would at best provide escapism for black people from the realities of racism in modern society, and at worst provide a delusion for white people that British culture had solved the deep-rooted problems of racism. Either way, the real character of James Bond, the suave, entitled, privileged, hedonistic, deadly man is sidelined. This only brings up the question of whether it is the case that we even want to preserve that very character – perhaps the very call for a black Bond is a sign that after 23 movies, the true 007 needs to retire.






Antisemitism in Medieval England: Ventriloquism and Bridging Gaps

Clifford’s Tower, where the Jews of York met a gruesome fate in 1190, hounded by a mob of Christians.


The origins of antisemitism in Britain, especially England, have induced a great deal of lush discussion. This is the grim pasture, readers, I’m going to get you to graze upon for a bit. I do English, so the way I’m going to do this discussion is textual analysis of case studies, but hopefully it’s legible. My ultimate aim with this is to discuss what the medieval times might imply for us today. But first, have a potted history of the Jews.

The Jews haven’t had an easy ride (has any group of people over a long enough time period?) and summarising the multiform strifes they endured from the 2nd century CE onwards to the 13th century is inevitably going to be piecemeal and insufficient. However a simple explanation could begin with a rebellion against the Romans. Having endured slavery and general torment from them, the Jews unsuccessfully rose up, and their situation got worse as a result – Jerusalem was made a ‘pagan city’ and they dispersed to the most significant extent in their history so far. Eventually, wending their way across Europe (as a general rule, Ashkenazi Jews were Northern Europe, Sephardic Jews were Southern Europe), they eventually found England. Being at the arse-end of the world, England was practically the last stop in the story of medieval Jewish settlement. They came over with William the Conqueror in 1066. Their legal status was lesser and protected as subjects of the king, as if they were semi-property. Many practised usury as a living, but this phenomenon arose mainly because they literally couldn’t work as anything else. Some Jews got very wealthy; most Jews lived in poverty. However, people focused, of course, on the edge cases – in York, on Coney Street, a moneylender bought an ostentatious house overlooking the Ouse, and was naturally rather unpopular as a result. Jewish displays of wealth were profoundly annoying on a theological level to Christians; it was a popular view among scholars who subscribed to the views of St Augustine that Jews essentially should be subservient owing to their being Christ-killers. The blood libel, the idea that Jews require Christian blood at Passover, spread like wildfire among more hateful Christians. Jews were required to wear a Star of David to mark themselves as Jewish, though often their appearance and language with its strange symbols marked that out already. Special levies were directed at them (this was always the case as they were the king’s subjects, but in the 13th century things only got worse). Usury was even outlawed and many Jews were out of jobs. Eventually the Jews were cast out in 1290 – prefiguring many, many more expulsions. Of course, Jews returned to England after many years – but it’s the medieval period I’m looking at.

It’s fascinating to think about antisemitism throughout history – the similarities and differences are so illuminating, of course, for our own times. Looking at it through history can seem like a dispassionate dissection of prejudice, how it operates, how it manifests. Of course it’s not that simple – we receive these impressions indelibly through past events – looking at the blood libels rampant in medieval England makes me sick to the stomach not because I think of the countless Jews harassed, humiliated and killed at the hands of ordinary bigots centuries ago, but because the first image that flashes into my head is the piles of bodies at Auschwitz. It’s always a more immediate image. It’s as if the idea of indirect causation holds absolutely no weight for a moment – I can draw a line straight from the fury of Thomas of Monmouth (who I’ll be looking at in this post) to the rhetorical bile of Hitler. It makes sick, intuitive sense, though no self-respecting historian would base any essay on it (though there have been many books giving sweeping accounts of antisemitism through time). Wondering why it makes sense is probably the stuff of a separate post.

But it’s no wonder that we conceive of the medieval times as barbaric bigots who don’t shine a light on our more enlightened, anti-racist modern selves. It’s hard to convince people that patronising medieval minds with the presentist smuggery of enlightened modernism is just plain wrong when this sort of stuff crops up. This is the sort of age which proclaims “Pagans are wrong and Christians are right” – quite literally – just read The Song of Roland. This proclamation is then bound up in in-group/out-group prejudice of a very human variety. No wonder any Other has a rough time if this is the attitude. But it’s actually more subtle than that. You have to look at conceptions, perceptions, receptions of the Other via the Norm. That’s because, at the end of the day, a discussion of racism is a discussion of what the Norm thinks of the Other, never vice versa. Indeed, I’d like to suggest by the end of this that these texts are ultimately about and for its Christian readership, despite extended ‘use’ of the Jews.

What makes a good example of that kind of thing? How does putting words into the mouths of Jews sound? Good, then we can get rid of this preamble.

William of Norwich

Rood screen depicting the murder of William of Norwich. Costumes unmistakably mark out the Jews.


I’m working with two texts – William of Newburgh’s ‘History of English Affairs’ and Thomas of Monmouth’s ‘Life and Passion of William of Norwich’. To stop confusion right in its tracks I’m going to refer to ‘Newburgh’ and his ‘History’ and ‘Monmouth’ and his ‘Passion’. (I can just hear you clamouring to get your hands on these sexy-sounding texts – good news – Monmouth’s ‘Passion’ has been published just last year by Penguin Classics! Go go go!) They’re quite different. One is a dispassionate account of events, a precursor to a lot of historical writing, an integral part of the so-called ‘twelfth-century renaissance’. The other is part-saint’s-life part-cult-recruitment-pamphlet. And yet they both share the characteristic of having Jews deliver lengthy speeches, explaining their motivations and their innermost thoughts. A trope of fiction in texts purporting to some degree of truth? Welcome to medieval literature!

Or in stronger language – the authors both ventroliquise the Other to achieve alternative ideological ends.

One thing is immediately clear – Monmouth is far, far more virulently hateful against the Jews. Outwardly so. His entire first part is more devoted to the passion of William of Norwich – his Christ-like death. (This isn’t blasphemy, many saint’s-lives employ this trope.) And guess who’s responsible? Them Jews with their “vileness”. According to Monmouth, a group of Jews lured innocent little William into their home at Passover and gruesomely killed him in a warped crucifixion. On the other hand, Newburgh claims they are merely “perfidious” and “ought to live among Christians for our own utility; but for their iniquity they ought to live in servitude”. It’s that Augustinian theology again – the voice of a moderate antisemite. It should be noted this is in a passage about the massacre of the Jews in York in 1190, though. There is nothing ‘moderate’ about medieval antisemitism; it is pervasive and hides in plain sight (a phenomenon not restricted to the 12th century). That said, ideological divergence here will account for their different approaches to characterising the Jews.

But ultimately there are similarities we shouldn’t ignore: they rely on the mystery of their ‘otherness’ for their accounts to work. This mystery about the Other is altogether alluring – the Jews appear, as Anthony Bale writes, in all guises “with regularity from marginal doodles to theological tracts”. It is possible to find, for example, paintings depicting Jews reading – only the Hebrew characters are garbled and nonsensical. So it’s productive to think of this mystery itself as like a gap in interpretation, one that needs to be bridged. How do the texts bridge this gap?

For example, Newburgh uses Josephus extensively – his ‘Bellum Judaicum’, a classic of Jewish history, was evidently in use. This is by any account a genuine and earnest attempt to understand Jewish motivations, Jewish tradition. The Jewish massacre is likened to the famous siege of Masada – Jews, after a hellish mob hounded them from their homes, and cast out of the castle, found the structure on Clifford’s Tower their last defence at the hands of a siege. Most self-immolated in this old wooden tower, later rebuilt in stone. The rest asked for mercy and baptism; they were killed. This act of suicide at a siege is directly paralleled to the events at Masada hillfort – where the Romans besieged Jewish families until they decided to kill themselves rather than die at the hands of the legionaries. Newburgh, in effect, makes the same connection I did – Jewish history and injustice is all inextricably linked, there is a weird fatalism, a weird tradition at work. Jews in the past equal Jews in the present, somehow. Of course Monmouth does the same thing, to more insidious ends. He claims the murders of Christians are an intrinsic part of Jewish tradition. Understanding Jewish tradition is key to understanding the true character of the Jews, it seems.

Let’s continue this thread of seeing how the character of the Jews is accessed through tradition – both use Jewish ‘elders’ to do the majority of their speaking – a kind of authority within the othered community to represent the group as a whole. (We do this today when we demand for ‘representatives of ‘the Muslim community” to stand up and condemn violence committed by Muslims.) Of course it also lends a sort of authority and gravitas to their speech. Monmouth doesn’t make much of it (a “certain person who had considerable authority among them” speaks – you can practically feel his contemptuous shrug!) but Newburgh makes a whole song and dance of it, expanding imaginatively from his source material. “A most famous doctor of the law … [was] held in honour among them all, … and was obeyed by all, as if he had been one of the prophets.” This is the man who tells the Jews that they will kill themselves. Monmouth wants us to focus on the action, Newburgh is telling us to sit up straight and listen to the speech. Monmouth is enacting a kind of ideological sleight of hand, Newburgh is being upfront and genuine about his intent, so it would seem. Newburgh isn’t sympathetic, however – just more sympathetic than Monmouth (which isn’t difficult).The self-immolation is roundly condemned as “horrid” and a “crime”, while the elder is “that most cursed old man”. What is important, however, is this focus on the speech.

The speech itself is grand and elegiac. “Therefore, let us willingly and devoutly, with our own hands, render up to Him that life which the Creator gave to us, since He now claims it, and let us not wait for the aid of a cruel enemy to give back what he reclaims”. Vocalising the Jews’ final thoughts, we have access to Newburgh’s imagination. He’s trying to rationalise their motives for suicide, and presents his conclusions in the speech. If anything, instead of showing there is some innate tendency to suicide, Newburgh is showing a process. Tradition is a rhetorical tool in this process, with the language closely matching Josephus’ original account at Masada. Invoked but not explicitly mentioned are Jewish touchstones such as Kiddush ha-Shem, which is the practice of suicide to avoid an undignified death at the hands of an enemy. This is therefore a speech not targeted towards actual Jews – this is all once again a characterisation of the Other, intended to be realistic but aimed at Christians.

Monmouth sheds any pretense of psychological realism – he does not aim to understand the motives of the murderers. They speak as one. “Just as we have condemned Christ to a most shameful death, so we condemn a Christian, so that we punish both the Lord and his servant.” Apparently the Jews acknowledge Christ’s lordship – which only goes to show just how insidious they are in his eyes for murdering his servant and ridiculing Christ. It’s not meant to make sense, it goes for emotional blows. You have to get on Monmouth’s level to understand precisely what is actually being said. For example: “We punish both the Lord and his servant in the punishment of reproach; that which they ascribe to us we will inflict on them.” This is not a statement intended to help us sympathise with or understand the Jews – that wouldn’t make sense. It’s that Jews scorn a just Christian punishment, and that scorn is a sign of their vileness. In accepting the very truth of Monmouth’s story, you’re engaging in his games of signification – you accept his ideology completely – that their bloodlust is a sign of their resentment to us, the Christians, and they’re completely incompatible with life in a Christian land:

“Therefore, what remains to become common knowledge, if not the truth of the events, and the discovery of the truth to the detriment and danger of us all? Because of our lack of foresight, and not undeservedly, our people will then be totally eliminated from the realm of England.”

This utterance is not in any way realistic. It sounds more at home in a trashy novel with the worst villains ever. Except, of course, this blatant use of the Jews as mouthpiece had a real effect – because of the blood libel, relations with European Jews were severely strained in the 13th century, and there was much violence. This question of elimination was to prove prophetic, when the Jews were exiled in 1290. (The original Latin eliminare used here disturbingly implies both ‘extinguish’ and ‘exile’. I sense this ambiguity was very much intended.)

Earlier I called Newburgh a ventriloquist. Compared to this, he hardly seems such. After all, this is not only getting us to hate the Jews even more, but is foreshadowing William’s body’s eventual discovery – this is the inventio genre of medieval literature in a nutshell – a saint’s dead body is miraculously found, further proof of the saint’s holiness. The focus, then, is always William, always Christian, even when the antisemitism is rifest. However, I want to suggest that ultimately Newburgh’s focus is always on Christian conduct, and that even in a passage so sympathetic to the plight of the Jews, it is about the Christians. Interest in the Norm always foregrounds interest in the Other.

William of Newburgh.


Geraldine Heng writes that “the manipulation of domestic minorities is a formative moment in the self-construction of national majorities. Knowing who and what a religious-racial minority is, is an essential stage in knowing who and what a national majority is, and is not.” I would also add to this that in these texts it provides a strategy for that ‘national majority’. At the end of the day, the purpose of talking about the Other, bridging the interpretive gap that is their unknowable identity, is so that the Norm knows how to react to the Other. It was never about the Other, it was about the Norm. The disputatio genre, for example, set Jews and Christians in debate – usually very one-sided debate – where the Jews typically explain their beliefs and then the Christians reply and show the flaws. It’s educating Christians on how to interact with unbelievers, what to say – in other words it’s moulding the Norm in reaction to however the Other has been manipulated in that text. This is what we see here, very plainly in Monmouth – a manipulation with words. The threat Judaism poses to the Norm is not theological but far more emotional, deeply ingrained, even on a national level – they invoke their protected status in a trial. Basically, the entire economic and political structural support of Judaism needs to be stamped out in England (and obviously a way to do this is literally to buy into the saint’s cult).

This manipulation is not so plain in Newburgh. After all, his sympathies definitely lie with the York Jews and not the York Christians, although the suicide isn’t condoned. The Christians are roundly condemned, no matter the extent of Jewish sin. Well, I’ll amend that – they’re roundly condemned for temporarily forgetting their Christian superiority: “in their blinded understandings, they perverted that passage of David” and “without any scruple of Christian conscientiousness, [they] thirsted for their perfidious blood.” Using the Jew’s voice, then, is once again for shaping and defining Christian morality.

“Behold the bodies of those unfortunate people … in our trouble we have gained understanding, and acknowledge the truth of Christ; we, therefore, pray your charity … let us live with you in the faith and peace of Christ.”

Moved by the pathos of this speech, most realise that their actions are wrong – and then a few evildoers massacre them. While Newburgh’s ultimate aim is Christian sympathy, this is not made easy by the fact that the motivation for sympathy is their conversion to Christianity. It undoes any potential humanistic message about the intrinsic worth of a Jewish life if the rabble is only moved by Christians-to-be. The Other themselves, being all other-y (and “perfidious”), cannot provide moral guidance in this worldview. The jargon word is that they lack that kind of agency – and that is a very racist portrayal indeed.

So what we’ve learnt from these texts is that ultimately antisemitism contains many different strains under the same umbrella. You can have a sympathetic antisemitism in Newburgh and a hostile one in Monmouth, and they’re given the same name. That’s counter-intuitive, but maybe it makes sense, as they use a similar technique – the Other ventriloquised to form a demarcation on acceptable actions and thoughts for the Norm. But the crucial difference is that Newburgh aims to bridge that gap I mentioned, and Monmouth doesn’t (if anything, he seems to be seeking to muddy the waters!). That’s perhaps the difference between sympathy and hostility.

However, we see that even a sympathetic viewpoint has limitations and that such a perspective is bound by circumstance and preconception – he can’t actually know what was said, nor indeed is his grasp of events airtight without doubt. The message of this is simple, despite the complex range of antisemitic matter these texts cover: so long as that antisemitic context exists, the content itself will never fully attain the truth of the Jewish subject’s voice. It will always be a characterisation that tells us more about the Norm than the Other. Gayatri Chakravorti Spivak writes in her seminal essay ‘Can The Subaltern Speak?’:

“Not only does such a model of social indirection – necessary gaps between the source of ‘influence’ … the ‘representative’ … and the historical-political phenomenon … – imply a critique of the subject as individual agent but [it also implies] a critique even of the subjectivity of a collective agency.”

What is she actually saying here (a reasonable question to ask about any literary theorist since the 1970s)? In our case, the Jews are the ‘influence’, the historians the ‘representative’ and “the historical-political phenomenon” (by the way, what phenomenon isn’t historical or political?) is the antisemitic context of medieval England. That word ‘agency’ crops up again – not only is it difficult (Spivak might suggest impossible) to even have the Norm representing the Other truthfully, the Other can’t even adequately represent themselves, since the Norm might make themselves the object of attention!

It’s a scary thought – that gap can’t be bridged, and if we follow that line of logic, maybe the Norm stays the Norm and the Other stays the Other. What’s truly scary about this idea is that maybe racism doesn’t truly end – as long as there’s one group to be ‘in’ or ‘out’ of, then there you have a group’s power.

If anything else, despite this rather nebulous, theoretical chat, the texts have taught us moderns some rather disturbing things – for example, the strongest thoughts are the most camouflaged. It was an unspoken fact of medieval England that Jews were inferior to Christians. Either in the eyes of God, or even at a basic moral level. A comforting thought is that I think there is considerably more anxiety about this act of ‘ventriloquism’ we saw. Spivak’s article’s very existence, whether you agree with it or not, shows that our era is at the very least concerned about such things in comparison to the medieval era. Few thoughts now are unspoken or unchallenged. Right now I would there indeed still exists a Norm and an Other, and there always will be – but I would guess that slowly but surely that gap is being bridged. History is by no means a neat progression towards an ideal state, but I would say that, looking back at the past, more and more people are now heading in the right direction. That direction being, in my view, a fully realised awareness of the infinite richness of an individual’s constitution (a definition of which might be another blog post). As long as we don’t forget what the past holds for us in the present, that trend should continue.

Recommended Reading
  1. Bale, Anthony. “Fictions of Judaism in England before 1290.” The Jews in Medieval Britain: Historical, Literary and Archaeological Perspectives. Patricia Skinner. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2003. 129-144. Print.
  2. Dahan, Gilbert. The Christian Polemic against the Jews in the Middle Ages. Trans. Jody Gladding. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1991.
  3. Dobson, Barry. “The Medieval York Jewry Reconsidered.” The Jews in Medieval Britain: Historical, Literary and Archaeological Perspectives. Patricia Skinner. Woodbridge: The Boydell Press, 2003. 145-156. Print.
  4. Heng, Geraldine. “The Romance of England: Richard Coeur de Lyon, Saracens, Jews, and the Politics of Race and Nation.” The Postcolonial Middle Ages. Ed. Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. New York: Palgrave, 2001. 135-172. Print.
  5. Otter, Monika.Inventiones: Fiction and Referentiality in Twelfth-Century English Historical Writing. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press 1996. Print.
  6. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorti. “Can the Subaltern Speak?” Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory: A Reader. Ed. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. 66-111.
  7. Thomas of Monmouth, The Life and Passion of William of Norwich. Ed. Miri Rubin. London: Penguin, 2014. Print.
  8. Vincent, Nicholas. “William of Newburgh, Josephus and the New Titus.” Christians and Jews in Angevin England: The York Massacre of 1190, Narratives and Contexts. Ed. Sarah Rees Jones and Sethina Watson. York: York Medieval Press, 2013. 57-90.
  9. William of Newburgh. Historia rerum anglicarum. Trans. Joseph Stevenson. Vol. 4. Web. Fordham University. Accessed Sun 1 March 2015. <;
Somewhere in Switzerland, where 'Der grüne Heinrich' is set

Gottfried Keller’s ‘Der Grüne Heinrich’

Heinrich Lee loves the world and most of its inhabitants. The buffetings he endures do not shake his confidence in life, and never in his blackest moments is he filled with despair about the ‘human condition’ or any such abstraction. His fundamental saneness and soundness he owes in no small measure to the fact that he is a child of nature who under any unusual stress or strain remains well aware of the healing powers of the universal Mother” – J.M. Lindsay. “Gottfried Keller: Life and Works” London: Oswald Wolff, 1968. 132.

Has there ever been a more profoundly uncool book? “Der Grüne Heinrich” is a sprawling semi-autobiographical novel by Gottfried Keller, written and revised up until its final, completed publication date of 1880. It describes the growth of a boy into maturity, through his difficult young years as a struggling artist – an artist who struggles with art, with God, with women and with money. It’s not a particularly exciting book. It ends with Heinrich settling for being a civil servant. If you want to read an affirmation of the power of Art, there are many other works to choose from, especially German ones. Heinrich is ultimately one of the most virtuous characters I’ve ever read (not to mention naïve and frustrating, of course) and, playing by those rules, can’t be an artist. It requires a fundamentally selfish and arrogant viewpoint to produce art – that you and your thoughts are important enough to orient yourself and other people around. Heinrich ‘settling’ is actually a statement that it is not unreasonable to conclude that it is better to give to society in ways that aren’t art. How uncool is that? Lame-o.

This is a guy who can’t get laid. He has two beaux early on in his own peculiarly staid adolescent hormone-crucible – one the kind of Platonic ideal of womanhood, a chaste virgin beauty love thing with whom he feels a spiritual infatuation, and the other a more sensual, worldly, but nonetheless real and more rounded woman. One dies a tragic Victorian death at which everyone feels very sad because she was so perfect, the other lives on and becomes Heinrich’s most valued friend. But Heinrich never gets laid. He’s fine with that of course, and despite the angst it never works out too badly for him – he is too virtuous to sully his flesh with worldly desires, not when there are higher things to attain. However, while denouncing the misogyny of his friend Lys, he still never seems to figure women out. What a square.

Even his flaws are boring, mundane, uncool. He accrues debts (this is given a kind of moral connotation throughout the novel, despite creditors, especially the evil child Meierlein, hardly being the most stand-up characters) – and he only pays off these debts through his poor mother’s money. As she doesn’t work, her austere personality seems to be her main income. She dies and it is all very sad, and so to redeem himself for his selfish wayward habits, which include not looking after his family and not keeping affairs in order, he commits to the civil service. As personal obstacles and flaws go, they’re hardly the most juicy.

Not to mention that constantly, throughout the book, there is this pattern of Heinrich committing to a position only to find it is fatally flawed and for him to abandon it. It recurs again and again. The poor guy can’t catch a break – it’s almost as if he is doomed to vacillate between ideas and theories, never able to fully embody Something totally. He’s making everything up as he goes along. Most telling is the section where he attends lectures on anatomy in order to improve his art (the fool! what a dweeb!) and finds his views on free will totally shattered. He never fully recovers it, and yet he maintains his faith in God, because of his continued awe at creation. What is this wishy-washy nonsense? Why would anyone care about this dullard’s opinions, then? Especially at a length of 700 pages?

Actually, this resolute uncoolness is what makes “Der grüne Heinrich” such a valuable novel today, and a character who should resonate with people – his virtue, his vacillations, his virginity, but more importantly his mundaneness, may harken to a bygone era, in a Europe on the brink of discovering Darwin, Marx and Freud, but it still remains thoroughly modern. It’s comforting, I think, to know that there is someone out there in the realm of fiction as completely different to me in perspective and values, and yet fundamentally experiencing the same things as all of us: that persistent oscillation and lack of surety, that quotidian nature of life. At the end of the day, those are the only things that are in common to every single one of us, apart from death. But this book isn’t about death – it’s about the imitation of life.

Like life, the book is itself a process (it went under serious changes after its initial publication date in the 1850s), and never properly advances a final conclusion. Like life, it appears to meander between various stances and ideas. Like life, some bits are intolerably boring, other bits are bright flashes of beauty and brilliance. Like life, it is no stranger to detail, as anyone who slogged through one of Keller’s many digressions will attest. Like life, it mostly hums along, formless and cumbersome, never particularly at any extreme of emotion. I would say it’s too Spartan, in fact, to truly imitate life – Keller excised a fantastic scene of sexuality in his revision. Youths naked in the shimmering moonlight, getting all hot and bothered. Come on, Keller, that’s gold! Gold! Everybody encounters sex somehow, even the truly asexual or chaste, and the novel would do with being ruder, because life is rude. I don’t deny (in fact anyone who I complained to while I was reading it will attest to this) that it’s a flawed book. It’s the sort of thing you read and know it’s a masterpiece while not exactly enjoying yourself.

Ultimately this book is about the limitations of life – the inability satisfactorily to end the process of endless oscillation that seems to constitute maturation, lurching from each mistaken epiphany to the next. It says, because of that, you should keep things simple for the short time you’re here on Earth, and help other people, probably. How direly unoriginal. How completely uncool. What wishy-washy tripe. Yet it’s a masterpiece.

Go, Slawkenbergius!

Marbled Pages

Having been told recently that some of my thoughts have a degree of interest to them, I decided to set them down somewhere. And here we are.

I will use this space for a variety of topics, but I’m currently interested in music and books. But I will also talk about things I’m less expert in. My only hope is that I’m not going to be boring.

This is a bit of a weak start. But this is how this blog starts, this is how this blog starts, this is how this blog starts, not with a bang but a whimper. If you insist:

Here’s why it’s called ‘marbled pages’. In Volume 3 of ‘Tristram Shandy’, our narrator-protagonist (who hasn’t been born yet in his own autobiography) is currently waylaid, which is par for the course in the novel. We are presented with a series of questions as yet unanswered, and Tristram’s answer is: “Read, read, read, read, my unlearned reader! read – or … you had better throw down the book at once; for without much reading, by which you reverence knows I mean much knowledge, you will no more be able to penetrate the moral of the next marbled page (motley emblem of my work!) than the world with all its sagacity has been able to unravel the many opinions, transactions and truths which still lie mystically hid under the dark veil of the black one.” And then there is a marbled page.

Laurence Sterne, the author, personally oversaw the printing of each volume of Tristram Shandy, which is somewhat unusual for its day. He recognised the kind of significance a marbled page could have – these beautiful pages are a decorative technique in which a page is dipped into some weird mixture of stuff, creating unique, dappled patterns. Good editions of Tristram Shandy to this day carry on the tradition of having a unique marbled page. I, however, have a crap Wordsworth Classics edition, so I drew all over it to make the page unique.

So what’s all this then? It’s about the uniqueness of interpretation. Not unlike the Rorschach test, the marbled page is something slightly different to everyone else. Apart from the astoundingly forward-thinking nature of Sterne’s artistic project, it also represents a deep level of understanding about the act and art of reading. In the passage immediately following, Tristram’s father reads a sentence too simple to be as profound as he wants it to be, so he struggles and struggles to find a deeper meaning, only to get so frustrated he takes to the page with a knife to arrange it the way he wants, before tearing it out completely. Tristram goes on to ruminate on the origins of ideas. What was the original stroke of genius that gives authors their ideas? In what the novel establishes as its main mode, we have been diverted completely from where we were (though all is actually seen to be in control by the end) – and now we’re asking more questions. Questions about reception, interpretation, the relay of signals. Because these just happen to be my favourite questions the book poses in its elegant way, I decided to dedicate this page to that marbled page.

Not that I aim to be a morass of nothing, but more that hopefully what my writings contribute is a sense that there are many marbled pages out there in disguise, lurking around and pretending to be perfectly clear. They’re not. That’s the sort of thing that interests me though.