The Muybridge Moment


The memorable Eadweard Muybridge invented a number of things, including his own name – he was born Edward Muggeridge in London in 1830. He literally got away with murder in 1872 when he travelled some seventy-five miles to shoot dead his wife’s lover (prefacing the act with ‘here’s the answer to the letter you sent my wife’) but was acquitted by the jury (against the judge’s direction) on the grounds of ‘justifiable homicide’. He is best known for the sequence of pictures of a galloping horse shot in 1878 at the behest of Leland Stanford, Governor of California, to resolve the question of whether the horse ever has all four feet off the ground (it does, though not at the point people imagined). To capture the sequence, Muybridge used multiple cameras and devised a means of showing the results which he called a zoopraxoscope, thereby inventing stop-motion photography and the cinema projector, laying the foundations of the motion-picture industry.


(“The Horse in Motion-anim” by Eadweard Muybridge, Animation: Nevit Dilmen – Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division; Licensed under Public Domain via Commons –

Muybridge’s achievement was to take a movement that was too fast for the human eye to comprehend and freeze it so that each phase of motion could be analysed. It was something that he set out to do – as deliberately and methodically as he set out to shoot Major Harry Larkyns, his wife’s lover.

It is interesting to consider that something similar to Muybridge’s achievement happened a few thousand years ago, entirely by accident and over a longer span of time, but with consequences so far-reaching that they could be said to have shaped the modern world.

We do not know what prompted the invention of writing between five and six thousand years ago, but it was not a desire to transcribe speech and give it a permanent form; most likely it began, alongside numbering, as a means of listing things, such as the contents of storehouses – making records for tax purposes, perhaps, or of the ruler’s wealth – and from there it might have developed as a means of recording notable achievements in battle and setting down laws.

We can be confident that transcribing speech was not the primary aim because that is not something anyone would have felt the need to do. For us, that may take some effort of the imagination to realise, not least because we live in an age obsessed with making permanent records of almost anything and everything, perhaps because it is so easy to do so – it is a commonplace to observe that people now seem to go on holiday not to enjoy seeing new places at first hand, but in order to make a record of them that they can look at once they return home.

And long before that, we had sayings like

vox audita perit, littera scripta manet
(the voice heard is lost; the written word remains)

to serve as propaganda for the written word and emphasise how vital it is to write things down. One of the tricks of propaganda is to take your major weakness and brazenly pass it off as a strength (‘we care what you think’ ‘your opinion matters to us’ ‘we’re listening!’ as banks and politicians say) and that is certainly the case with this particular Latin tag: it is simply not true that the spoken word is lost – people have been remembering speech from time immemorial (think of traditional stories and songs passed from one generation to the next); it is reasonable to suppose that retaining speech is as natural to us as speaking.

If anything, writing was devised to record what was not memorable. Its potential beyond that was only slowly realised: it took around a thousand years for anyone to use it for something we might call ‘literature’. It is not till the classical Greek period – a mere two and a half millennia ago (Homo sapiens is reckoned  at 200,000 years old, the genus Homo at 2.8 million)  – that the ‘Muybridge moment’ arrives, with the realisation that writing allows us to ‘freeze’ speech just as his pictures ‘froze’ movement, and so, crucially, to analyse it.

When you consider all that stems from this, a considerable degree of ‘unthinking’ is required to imagine how things must have been before writing came along. I think the most notable thing would have been that speech was not seen as a separate element but rather as part of a spectrum of expression, nigh-inseparable from gesture and facial expression.  A great many of the features of language which we think fundamental would have been unknown: spelling and punctuation – to which some people attach so much importance – belong exclusively to writing and would not have been thought of at all; even the idea of words as a basic unit of language, the building blocks of sentences, is a notion that only arises once you can ‘freeze’ the flow of speech like Muybridge’s galloping horse and study each phase of its movement; before then, the ‘building blocks’ would have been complete utterances, a string of sounds that belonged together, rather like a phrase in music, and these would invariably have been integrated, not only with gestures and facial expressions, but some wider activity of which they formed part (and possibly not the most significant part).

As for grammar, the rules by which language operates and to which huge importance is attached by some, it is likely that no-one had the least idea of it; after all, speech is even now something we learn (and teach) by instinct, though that process is heavily influenced and overlaid by all the ideas that stem from the invention of writing; but then we have only been able to analyse language in that way for a couple of thousand years; we have been expressing ourselves in a range of ways, including speech, since the dawn of humanity.

When I learned grammar in primary school – some fifty years ago – we did it by parsing and analysis. Parsing was taking a sentence and identifying the ‘parts of speech’ of which it was composed – not just words, but types or categories of word, defined by their function: Noun, Verb, Adjective, Adverb, Pronoun, Preposition, Conjunction, Article.

Analysis established the grammatical relations within the sentence, in terms of the Subject and Predicate. The Subject, confusingly, was not what the sentence was about – which puzzled me at first – but rather ‘the person or thing that performs the action described by the verb’ (though we used the rough-and-ready method of asking ‘who or what before the verb?’). The Predicate was the remainder of the sentence,  what was said about (‘predicated of’) the Subject, and could generally be divided into Verb and Object (‘who or what after the verb’ was the rough and ready method for finding that).

It was not till I went to university that I realised that these terms – in particular, Subject and Predicate – derived from mediaeval Logic, which in turn traced its origin back to Aristotle (whom Dante called maestro di color che sanno – master of those that know) in the days of Classical Greece.







Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great

Aristotle is the third of the trio of great teachers who were pupils of their predecessors: he was a student of Plato, who was a student of Socrates. It is fitting that Aristotle’s most notable pupil was not a philosopher but a King: Alexander the Great, who had conquered much of the known world and created an empire that stretched from Macedonia to India by the time he was 30.

That transition (in a period of no more than 150 years) from Socrates to the conquest of the world, neatly embodies the impact of Classical Greek thought, which I would argue stems from the ‘Muybridge Moment’ when people began to realise the full potential of the idea of writing down speech. Socrates, notably, wrote nothing: his method was to hang around the market place and engage in conversation with whoever would listen; we know him largely through the writings of Plato, who uses him as a mouthpiece for his own ideas. Aristotle wrote a great deal, and what he wrote conquered the subsequent world of thought to an extent and for a length of time that puts Alexander in eclipse.

In the Middle Ages – a millennium and a half after his death – he was known simply as ‘The Philosopher’ and quoting his opinion sufficed to close any argument. Although the Renaissance was to a large extent a rejection of Aristotelian teaching as it had developed (and ossified) in the teachings of the Schoolmen, the ideas of Aristotle remain profoundly influential, and not just in the way I was taught grammar as a boy – the whole notion of taxonomy, classification by similarity and difference, genus and species – we owe to Aristotle, to say nothing of Logic itself, from which not only my grammar lessons but rational thought were derived.

I would argue strongly that the foundations of modern thought – generalisation, taxonomy, logic, reason itself – are all products of that ‘Muybridge Moment’ and are only made possible by the ability to ‘freeze’ language, then analyse it, that writing makes possible.

It is only when you begin to think of language as composed of individual words (itself a process of abstraction) and how those words relate to the world and to each other, that these foundations are laid. Though Aristotle makes most use of it, the discovery of the power of generalisation should really be credited to his teacher, Plato: for what else are Plato’s Ideas or Forms but general ideas, and indeed (though Plato did not see this) those ideas as embodied in words? Thus, the Platonic idea or form of ‘table’ is the word ‘table’ – effectively indestructible and eternal, since it is immaterial, apprehended by the intellect rather than the senses, standing indifferently for any or all particular instances of a table – it fulfils all the criteria*.

Which brings us to Socrates: what was his contribution? He taught Plato, of course; but I think there is also a neat symbolism in his famous response to being told that the Oracle at Delphi had declared him ‘the wisest man in Greece’ – ‘my only wisdom is that while these others (the Sophists) claim to know something, I know that I know nothing.’ As the herald of Plato and Aristotle, Socrates establishes the baseline, clears the ground, as it were: at this point, no-one knows anything; but the construction of the great edifice of modern knowledge in which we still live today was just about to begin.

However, what interests me most of all is what constituted ‘thinking’ before the ‘Muybridge Moment’, before the advent of writing – not least because, whatever it was, we had been doing it for very much longer than the mere two and a half millennia that we have made use of generalisation, taxonomy, logic and reason as the basis of our thought.

How did we manage without them? and might we learn something useful from that?

I think so.

*seeing that ideas are actually words also solves the problem Hume had, concerning general ideas: if ideas are derived from impressions, then is the general idea ‘triangle’ isosceles, equilateral, or scalene or some impossible combination of them all? – no, it is just the word ‘triangle’. Hume’s mistake was in supposing that an Idea was a ‘(faint) copy’ of an impression; actually, it stands for it, but does not resemble it.

City of Desolation, Chapter 21: Across the Abyss

Jake’s attempt to cross the nightmare bridge began badly and soon got worse. So steep was the initial descent that the only way to do it was to clamber down ladder-fashion,using the wooden slats as rungs. Unfortunately, the slats were too wide to grip easily with his hands, while the gaps between them were too narrow to admit his feet beyond the slightest edge of the tip of his toe: every change of position was an agonising fumble for a toe-hold while his fingers clung desperately to the rough wood.

He had not gone far when he missed his footing altogether, hung for a moment with his full weight supported by the extremes of his fingers, then went rasping and slithering downwards at great speed, his whole body pummelled by the undulating slats, his chin abraded and his fingers lacerated by the friction of his fall. As he slid backwards down the narrow track an even greater fear came on him, that any attempt to stop himself by catching at the ropes on one side or the other would skew him sideways and sling him off the bridge altogether to leave him hanging over the void.

When at length the easing of the slope slowed him and he was able to bring himself to a stop, he looked up and saw that he had come a long way: the ledge where the bridge began was high above him and seemed very far away. He lay for a long time face down, clinging to the walkway, unable to slacken his grip in the paralysis of fear.

When finally he moved again it was by crawling backwards, as he did not dare turn round or attempt to stand lest he should slip in doing so and fall through the space at the side of the bridge: he could not bring himself to abandon the reassuring solidity of the slats.

After an age of miserably slow progress, he forced himself to kneel, then pulled
himself upright and at last, with infinite slowness – his knuckles white with gripping the side ropes – he manoeuvred himself round to face the way he was going.

The sight made his head reel and his stomach heave: he had come scarcely a quarter of the way across. In front of him, the bridge swooped down to its lowest point, then rose up, up, up with a steepness almost vertical to the huge dark rampart ahead. All about him yawned the abyss: he dared not look down.

He stood a long time,completely daunted, unable to put one foot in front of the other.

In the end, it was the rain that came to his rescue: it began as a chill drizzle, but soon developed into a battering downpour that drenched him to the skin and cut off any view beyond a couple of feet with a hissing curtain of wet. Cocooned in drenching misery, he shuffled onwards, fearing to raise his feet from the slippery slats.

Soon he was chilled to the bone and could think of nothing beyond the mechanical action of moving his arms and legs: he could not tell if he was even making progress; for all he knew he might be stationary, his hands and feet slipping constantly in an illusion of forward motion.

The wet cold must have numbed his imagination too, and with it his fear, because
when he came to a point in the bridge where the slats were missing and the void gaped a footstep in front of him, all that occurred to him was that now he must either turn back, or work his way along the side, his feet on the lower rope, his hands on the upper.

Since there was no question of going back, it was a simple matter of logic that
he must make his way along the slippery swaying rope, and he set out to do so in the same dogged manner that had driven him on through the rain. Some way in he found that a length of the footrope was missing, so he swung his legs up over the handrope and inched his way along it, hanging upside-down over the abyss.

There was a tricky moment extricating himself at the other end where the slats resumed – the bridge began to sway alarmingly as he shifted his weight, and for a time all he could do was hang on until the oscillations ceased.

He was by now on the upward slope, and the greatest challenge lay ahead, where the final ascent of the bridge grew steeper and steeper, so that at some point he would have to make the decision to scale it like a ladder. Before he could block it out, the memory came back to him of what had happened on the descent, and he had an excruciating vision of himself slipping back perpetually when he reached a certain point, until he became too tired to continue, and finally let himself slip headlong into the emptiness below.

He wondered if perhaps he ought to rest, but the fear of turning over in his sleep and rolling off into the void so terrified him that he decided to press

When he reached the critical point, he took off his shoes and hung them around his neck, reasoning that his bare toes would make more of the minimal holds available. Whether because of that, or perhaps because the slats were more widely spaced, he found he made better progress on this side – he had also evolved the technique of gripping the ends of the slats with his hands, which gave a surer purchase – but the fear of slipping was always on him, and it grew as the steepness of the slope increased.

Now he had to revert to curling his fingers over the top of the slats again, and his whole world, his entire existence, was reduced to the repetition of the same
sequence of tiny movements: right hand, left hand; right foot, left foot; right hand, left hand –

Then his right foot missed its toehold and flung him off balance so that his right hand slipped too and for the space of a heartbeat he hung one handed, his toes scrabbling to regain their hold, and then he saw that he could not support his weight in that position and for a full second before it happened he knew he must fall.

In that second a voice in his head told him plainly and calmly that his only hope was to abandon the slats altogether and try to catch the ropes that joined the bridge deck to the hand-ropes, which were like the rungs of a rope ladder, but too far apart to use for one; he saw that he must twist to one side or the other as he fell in order to grab at them –

and then he did fall, and his foot encountered a side rope almost at once and slipped off it again, so that he came down painfully straddling it, but with one hand gripping the hand-rope, so that he was able to hang on, though he could not prevent himself from swinging far out into space: the shoes round his neck unwound and he saw them falling, falling, falling until they were the merest speck – and for a space it was as if some part of him had fallen with the shoes, and was falling still, looking up at the bridge and the boy who clung there.

For a long time he sat astride the rope, cursing and weeping by turns, too terrified to move; then he fell silent, and saw that he had a choice: he could let go now, and follow his shoes down into the darkness below (were they still falling? What would it be like to fall so far, for so long?) or he could resume his climb, and keep going until he reached the top or his strength gave out.

All right, I’ll do that, he said, as if there was someone else there who had actually offered him these choices and was waiting for his reply. He imagined this person’s being pleased at his decision, and proceeded to explain to him how he was going to manage it – I’ll get a hold with my left hand, here, then move my left foot here – then I can pull myself up until my right foot is on the rope, and I can put my right hand up there –

It was simple, really: all he had to do was keep on repeating the same movements, concentrating all the time, and he must surely get somewhere in the end.

And in the end, he did: at last there was no more bridge to reach for, but instead a hard, sharp lip of rock, onto which he pulled himself gratefully and with a final effort dragged himself away from the edge before collapsing into an exhausted slumber.

When the rain woke him, he had no notion of how long he had been asleep – it might have been days, or only minutes – at any rate, it had been long enough for him to recover sufficient strength to stand up and propel himself along the broad stone roadway in the lashing rain.

As he went, the feeling of solid ground beneath his bare feet sustained him: whatever might lie ahead, he told himself, it could scarcely be any worse than he had already gone through on the bridge. He wondered, looking down at his toes, if his shoes were still falling.

He had followed the roadway through the vast arched tunnels that pierced the
buttresses twice already and could see the third looming up ahead when he was forced to a halt: the road in front of him was riven by a huge fissure hundreds of yards across; from far below he could hear the roar of water, and thought he could just make out, a lighter patch on the darkness, a cloud of vapour spray.

The wall on his right hand side was pierced at intervals by doorways, and to the first of these he now retraced his steps. He passed through a short tunnel, its roof just a little way above his head, its walls in easy touching distance; it ended in a flight of steps leading downward.

Don’t go down, Ulysses had said, but Jake could see no alternative. He went
cautiously down the steps and soon emerged onto a flat stone pavement. His first
thought was that although he had come indoors, as he imagined, it was still raining; his next was that the depth of darkness was less here – a sort of murky brown twilight prevailed, and he felt sure that if he gave his eyes time to adjust, he would be able to see his surroundings.

He stood and waited in the drizzling rain.

As his vision cleared, he saw that the rain was very localised, and indeed seemed to be falling only where he was: he took a few steps to the side, and found himself in the dry. Looking up, he saw that the shower of drops seemed to issue from a leak somewhere high above.

He was standing on a long stone pavement reminiscent of a railway platform, but beside it, where the railway should have been, there was a canal of dark water, bounded on the other side by a low parapet: there was empty space beyond. In the brownish murk – it was like being inside an old sepia photograph – he could just make out that he was on the edge of a great ravine or gulf on the other side of which was another vast stepped rampart like the one outside; but here, the space
between was not empty, but criss-crossed by a fantastic network of stone bridges
supported by impossibly tall arches. These were at every level: looking up, he could make out at least four layers above him; looking down, he saw that the bridges were in fact aqueducts, carrying canals across the gulf – there were perhaps half-a-dozen layers or more visible below.

To one side of the platform, he saw that the steps he had descended continued in a downward spiral; the other side ended some way off in a blank wall. Looking at the dark waters of the canal, he wondered what manner of craft travelled on them, and for what purpose.

As he watched, his eye was caught by something on the surface, and he saw that it was a raft of debris, a kind of mat of twigs and rubbish. What struck him
was that it was moving, very slowly but quite definitely, to the left.

He knew enough about canals to realise that was unusual: they were supposed to be level, without any current. Was it possible that in this incredible place the canals were tilted very slightly, in one direction or the other, to create a current that boats could move along?

As he was wrestling with the stupendous feat of engineering that would be necessary to create such a system, as if to confirm his surmise, a dim light appeared to his right and he saw that it was on the bow of a barge, the head of a long train of them, that was slowly gliding towards him.

Avoid the canals, Ulysses had said. Don’t go down.

It seemed now that he could only avoid the canal by taking the spiral stair, which certainly went down a lot more rapidly than the canal; and the canal at least went to the left. He crossed the platform and clambered on board the slow moving train of barges, settling himself in the bow, behind the light.

He must have fallen asleep again: when he woke, he was in darkness, though up ahead a weak horseshoe of light hung like an arch for the barge to pass through, only it never seemed to draw any closer. Had they stopped moving altogether? He reached up his hand and it brushed rough stone: he must be in a tunnel. The light ahead was thrown by the bowlamp; it served only to deepen the darkness around it, and gave no gauge of whether they were moving or stationary.

He reached up again, letting his hand trail against the roof, and in time became convinced that they were still moving, though very slowly.

So we will get there eventually, he told himself: I am in a long dark tunnel, but it must end sometime, and I will come out into the light. He visualised the end of the tunnel up ahead: a pinpoint of light that would slowly grow until it assumed the shape of an arch, gradually becoming larger as it drew nearer: even when it was still very far off, he would be able to see it, and would know that the tunnel must end eventually.

So there is always hope, he told himself, and settled back to wait.

As he sat crosslegged, eyes gazing into the darkness, he must have passed into some sort of trance-like state: he seemed to have become detached from his body, so that he now heard his own breathing as if it was a little to one side of him. The sensation was odd, and rather disturbing; it made him catch his breath to think of it – and when he did, the breathing beside him carried on.

There was someone sitting beside him in the dark.

Fear like paralysing cold washed over his scalp, then encased his neck and chest: he found it difficult to breathe. Who or what was beside him? He feared to reach out his hand, dreading what it might encounter – what if it was something scaly, or worse, covered in hair? He shuddered. Then a voice spoke, close to his ear.

– I don’t think this tunnel comes to an end, do you?

It was a slightly hoarse, insinuating voice – not pleasant, but the fact that whatever it was could talk filled Jake with relief. This lessening of his fear made him bold enough to answer

– Every tunnel has an end.

– Not this one: it goes down and down into the dark.

Something in the tone of the voice, and also the situation, stirred a memory of long, long ago: he had just started school and was sitting on a wall at playtime when another boy came and sat beside him and began talking, in the same sort of pretend-friendly way, about all sorts of bloodcurdling things.

He’s trying to frighten me,thought Jake, and the scale of his fear reduced still further: he knew how to play this game.

– How do you know? he asked.

– I live here

– So do I, ventured Jake.

The response was a low laugh.

– You do now.

– You wouldn’t know if a tunnel had no end, because you’d never reach it to
find out – you’d just keep on travelling.

– What do you think we’re doing now? asked the voice.

Jake began to feel slightly unnerved.

– The only way it could have no end is if it’s circular, he said firmly, and even then it must have an end because it had a beginning.

– What makes you think that?

– I remember going into it, back there.

Despite the dark, he gestured behind him.

– You’ve been asleep.

Jake did not quite know what to make of this sudden change of direction.

– So?

– So all that about going into the tunnel could have been a dream.

– It wasn’t!

– If you think about it, that’s just what you would dream about if you were
caught in an endless tunnel.

– I didn’t dream it! he shouted.

Jake could hear the note of desperation in his own voice. The insidious thought crept into his mind that the voice might be right – how did he know how long he had been here in the dark? How could he be sure that everything he thought he remembered was not just a dream he had just wakened up from? Perhaps he had done this before –

perhaps this was all he did – travelled in the dark, slept for a time and dreamed, woke and travelled on.

– How do you know you didn’t dream it? asked the voice.

He tried to be calm. He’s just winding you up, he told himself, like your brother used to do coming home from church when he would say he had the doorkey even though you knew you had it in your pocket, but he managed to sound so certain that you got angrier and angrier and always ended up pulling it out of your pocket to show him, and then you felt a fool because he’d made you do it, just by his tone of voice –

this recollection cheered him. I didn’t dream that, he thought: part of him could still feel the intense frustration of all those years ago, though he could laugh at it now. He did laugh, aloud. Two can play at that game, he thought.

– But the tunnel has an end now, he asserted boldly. I just made it have one: I

can do that, with my mind. I just think of a thing and there it is.

– Where is it then?

Was it just his fancy, or did the voice seem a little less sure of itself?

– Just up ahead.

– I don’t see it.

– Wait and see, he said, as smugly as he could.

And it is there, he told himself: every tunnel has an end, like a little pinpoint of light that slowly gets bigger. Instead of straining his eyes into the dark, he closed them, and concentrated on the pinpoint of light in his mind’s eye. It gets bigger and bigger, he told himself, until you begin to be able to make out its shape, like an inverted shield hung there in front of you –

a slight, disgruntled sound from his invisible companion made him open his eyes again. There ahead, just as he had imagined it, was the shield of light. Soon the interior of the tunnel had lightened enough to allow him to make out the brickwork overhead, and at last the train of barges emerged into the open again.

He turned and saw that his companion was a boy who, by his size, was younger than he was; but his face had a wizened, aged look, and for a moment Jake wondered if he was a boy at all and not some kind of midget. He was swathed in rags, and his skin was filthy.

– I was just joking about the tunnel, he said.

– I know, said Jake.

– Are you going to the city?

– Yes.

– It’s lucky you’ve got me with you then – this is where you want to get off, just up here.

The barge was gliding in alongside another platform, with stairs leading down from it, though none, as far as Jake could make out, leading up.

– Well, hop off then, if you’re for the city, said his wizened companion. That
stair on the left is the quickest way.

His voice was friendly, even warm. Jake considered. Avoid the canals and don’t go down. He shook his head.

– I don’t think so, he said.

– You’d better jump now, or you’ll miss it, said the other.

– Nah.

– I’m telling you, this is the stop for the city! his tone was harsher now.

– Changed my mind, said Jake. Don’t think I’ll go to the city after all.

His companion lapsed into a sulk.

– That’s what you think, he said after a time. I was just joking you – the city’s still up ahead: the canal stops there. You can’t go any further.

– I know, said Jake, with infuriating sweetness.

They entered another short tunnel from which they emerged into a vast space like a railway terminus: overhead there was a huge vaulted roof of steel and glass, while on the ground canals like flooded railway lines ended in long channels between platforms. Everywhere there was a great bustle of unloading and movement, and Jake was in no doubt that this must be his objective: only the proximity of a great city could generate this kind of activity.

– Over there, said his companion, emerging from his sulk. Go left!

Jake saw that the canal branched up ahead, like a letter Y; further on, each branch also forked, so that the approach was like a river delta.

– left, left! yelled his companion.

– How? shouted Jake.

– The tiller!

He pointed back: Jake saw that there was indeed a long tiller arm that came almost the length of the barge. He jumped up on the canopy had put it hard over.

– No, no! The other way – push it right to go left!

– Sorry! said Jake, wrenching it back in embarrassment.

The bow caught in the jaws of the left hand channel; the barge bounced from one wall to the other, then slid in. His companion made a contemptuous noise.

– Where’d you learn to steer?

Jake, on his mettle, was determined to do better next time.

– What way now? he asked.

– Just keep going left. The terminal we want is on the far side.

He made a better job of it this time, though he still scraped along one side. He

concentrated furiously at the next branch, and made a clean entry. He grinned in

triumph at his companion, who grinned back.

– This is it coming up, he shouted. I’ll go astern to unhitch – you steer the barge into the caisson.

– The what?

– The caisson, shouted the other, darting nimbly along to the other end of the
barge. That big iron thing at the end of the line!

Looking ahead, Jake saw that the canal divided once more, into two branches of
unequal length: the left-hand one was shorter, and seemed to terminate in a big iron tub that was open at one end; the right-hand one ran past this, ending in a solid gate.

– Which one is it? Jake yelled back.

– Left! Left! came the shouted reply.

Jake steered left, and felt the barge move forward with a sudden lurch: looking back,he saw that his companion had detached the train and tied it to a bollard, so that he was now moving alone into the waiting dock. He took particular care in steering a centre course and was pleased to enter without touching either side; however, there was no way of stopping the forward motion, and he had to be content to run into the far end of the caisson, which he did with a resounding boom.

At almost the same moment, he was aware of a whirring noise behind him, and looking round he saw an iron gate descend to block off the entrance: he was now floating in what was effectively a giant bathtub. He looked round for his companion and saw him come running up, grinning and waving. Jake gestured to him to come aboard, but instead he turned aside to a huge lever – taller than he was – on which he swung with all his might.

There was a rumble of machinery; the tub jolted, slopping the water so that the
barge dunted the side. For a moment, Jake could not work out what was happening,
then the motion became unmistakable: the entire caisson, barge and all, was rolling sideways down a steep ramp.

– What’s this? he yelled to the figure who stood beside the lever, a grin splitting his face.

– It’s called an incline plane, he shouted back, gleefully. It takes you down!

– Down where?

But the caisson was descending at such speed that the boy was lost to view over the top of the ramp; Jake clung to the side of the barge in terror. He thought he heard a distant shout of ‘just joking you!’ from above as he plunged away.

He had been descending for some time, without slackening speed, when he became
aware of a noise coming up to meet him – a mechanical rumble, overlaid with voices shrieking. All at once another caisson swung up from the darkness below and shot past him on a parallel track, the barge it was carrying laden with figures like the wizened boy, hooting and jabbering and pointing scornfully at Jake. As their caisson climbed away from him, they leaned over the side and waved to him in mocking farewell.

He shot downwards into the dark.

an extract from City of Desolation : Chapter 19 – Virgil

(for an audio version of this piece, click here)
There was sand in his mouth and someone was pulling his arm. He tried to open his eyes, but they seemed to be stuck together. Then whoever was pulling his arm turned him on his back and water that had been in his mouth ran down his throat and made him choke. He put up a hand to wipe his eyes and encountered something scaly and slippery which made him recoil in horror. A voice above him made concerned, soothing noises and when at last he forced his eyes open, Jake saw an old man standing over him holding a long streamer of brown seaweed in one hand.

He struggled to sit up and the man stooped to help him, supporting his shoulders. He looked around: he was on a beach that stretched out of sight in both directions; the sea in front of him showed an oily, sinister calm. The beach was deserted. The high-tide mark was strewn with sea weed, driftwood and flotsam. It was a melancholy place. He looked up at the man, and found him melancholy too. He was old and defeated-looking: his face had once been handsome and still kept traces of nobility and dignity that made his present hopelessness all the more poignant. Seeing Jake sitting up and apparently uninjured, he seemed to decide that his role was ended, and he turned and began to shuffle away.

– Wait! called Jake, spitting out a quantity of sand.

The old man stopped without turning round. Jake struggled to his feet.

– Wait! What is your name? Where is this place?

The old man turned now, and Jake could almost see his brain working: he pictured ancient rusty cogs engaging, grating harshly, long disused.

– My …name? I have one, I’m sure…it will come to me presently. And this place? It is…the place where we find ourselves.

Highly informative, thought Jake. He began to think the old man was a bit wandered in his wits. How did I get here? he thought. For a moment his mind was entirely blank, and then it came back to him: he had been in a boat that had capsized in a storm; he had been sure that was the end of him, yet here he was. But where was here? And why had he come? The thought sent his hand to his pocket, and he was immediately reassured to find the package still there: he drew it out and examined it: the wrappings were intact, and it had suffered remarkably little from immersion in the sea.

He became aware of the old man’s gaze on him and looked up sharply, suddenly suspicious. The old man continued to gaze at the package and at Jake with candid interest, his whole look subtly transformed – as if a spark had kindled in the ashes of a cold hearth.

– You have…a mission? asked the man.
– Yes. I have to give this to someone.

The old man’s face took on an inward look, as if he was striving to retrieve something from far, far back in his memory.

– If you have a mission, then I must help you, he said at last.

Jake looked at him in surprise.

– I have done it before, he said. It was long ago.

He stared out to sea, remembering.

– Maro, he said at length.

– Pardon?
– I was of Maro: Virgil was my name. I was a poet.

They trudged up the beach in the direction of the dunes.

– There was another – with a mission, I mean. He was a poet too.

He sat on the slope of a dune, shaking his head. Jake imagined flakes of rust falling from the machinery of his memory.

– All this was long ago. Much has changed since then.

The old man looked into Jake’s face, as if he might find the answer he was seeking written there. Then he smiled – a slow, uncertain smile, as if he had forgotten how.

– Dante, that was his name. Dante Alighieri. I was his guide.

Jake smiled back at him.

– Would you guide me, too?

The old man shook his head, sighing.

– Alas, I cannot. So much has changed now – it is all different. I would not know the way.

He stood up, and moved to the top of the dune, beckoning Jake to follow.

Jake had not known what to expect, but it wasn’t this. Beyond the dune, a dreary prospect of grey, uniform houses stretched in every direction under a brooding sky, filling a broad plain that rose to higher ground in the remote distance, where Jake thought he could make out the walls of what seemed like a fortress or citadel; there was a suggestion of a taller tower in the middle of it, with a red light at the top which flashed intermittently, as if signalling.

– All this used to be fields, said Virgil. The fields of Elysium. We were happy here, in our quiet way. He shook his head dolefully. But that was long ago.

Jake saw that off to the right – the opposite side from the distant fortress – there was a low hill, where among ancient ruins a sort of squalid shanty town had sprung up, composed of makeshift buildings haphazardly assembled from all sorts of materials. The smoke of many fires went up from it, obscuring the land behind, which rose in steep high cliffs. Virgil followed the line of his gaze.

– That’s where most of the ancients are now, he said. Still beyond the pale, of course.

He nodded towards the base of the dune, and Jake saw that there was a high wall topped with a coil of barbed wire between them and the grey houses. Virgil had begun to walk along the top of the dune in the direction of the shanty town. Jake followed.

– I stay mostly on the beach, myself. There’s a rougher crowd have moved in there. (he indicated the shanty dwellings) It used to be all philosophers and poets, but now there’s a lot that used to be further in – in the Old City, I mean – but they seem to have got out, somehow. Order is breaking down everywhere. The authorities don’t seem to bother with the older population now. I’m not sure just how much of that is still inhabited.

Jake looked in the direction of his nod and saw that a change in the wind had blown the smoke away to reveal that what he had taken for a cliff rising behind the shanty town was actually an enormous rampart, the first of a series that mounted like giant steps up and up until they were lost in obscurity. Here and there the masonry was riven with great cracks, and the whole wore an air of ancient decay and neglect.

– If you come down this way, I can take you to the gate-house. That’s as much as I can manage, I’m afraid.

Jake followed him down a path that wound steeply down the grassy slope and presently joined a broader way that ran from the shanty town on the hill towards a large opening in the wall that surrounded the sprawl of houses. As they drew closer, Jake saw that the opening was guarded by a low blockhouse.

– I’ll speak to them first – they can be… awkward, sometimes.

The room they entered was notably bare: the walls were naked concrete blocks, not even whitewashed. A large counter ran the full width of the room: behind it stood two men in buff-coloured work-coats, one very large, the other small and wiry. Though evidently unoccupied, they paid no heed to Jake or Virgil when they entered, and when Virgil rapped on the counter to attract their attention, they went through an elaborate pantomime, looking first at each other, then at every other part of the room (including the high corners, as if someone might be perched up there) before finally deigning to notice the man who stood right in front of them.

– Yes? said the small wiry one.

The other began rooting under the counter, and produced in turn a huge leather-bound ledger, which he opened, an old fashioned inkstand, and a jar with a number of pens. A door behind him opened and a third man appeared, wearing a dark uniform with shiny buttons, like a policeman’s. This man paid no heed to anyone but went to the far end of the counter, where Jake saw there was a small washstand, with a mirror. The man took off his tunic and hung it on a peg, then bent low, making the motions that go with removing boots. All the while, he whistled tunelessly through his teeth.

– My young friend here wishes to go further in, said Virgil.
– Does he though? said the small man. What do you think of that?

The second question was addressed to his partner, who made no response, but continued to fiddle with the pens, as if looking for one that suited him. Jake saw that they were the old-fashioned sort, that needed to be dipped in ink.

– Well, if you can just let me have your details, said the wiry one to Virgil.

– But it is not I who wish to go, protested Virgil
– That’s as may be, said the other. I take it you are prepared to vouch for the boy?
– Er – certainly, said Virgil.
– Well, in that case, you’d best give me your details then, hadn’t you? said the other triumphantly, as if he had scored a point.
– Very well, said Virgil wearily. Virgil Maro, Poet.
– Marrow, eh? That’s a kind of vegetable, isn’t it?

Virgil sighed. The large man, having at last chosen a pen, wrote something in the register, very slowly, his tongue protruding from concentration.

– Have you got that, then?
The other pushed the register over to him. The wiry man read it, and shook his head.
– What did you say your name was?
– Virgil Maro.
– That’s not what it says here.

Virgil looked at him in exasperation. Jake saw to his surprise that the third man was now removing his trousers, which he folded neatly and hung beside his tunic.

– What it says here is “Vegetable Marrow”.

He turned the book for them to see: Jake saw that it did indeed say that, written in a large looping script, peppered with blots.

– Now if I was a suspicious man, I might incline to think that a pseudonym – or perhaps I should say a nom de plume, seeing as how you are a poet. You are a poet, I suppose?
– Yes, said Virgil tersely.
– Make a living at it?

Virgil sighed. The man at the washstand was now attiring himself in a brown civilian suit.

– I wouldn’t ask, normally, only my friend here does like to pen a bit of verse in quieter moments – you’d never think it to look at him, I know, said the wiry man with a smile, but some of it – in my humble opinion – is really quite good, and well worthy of a wider audience.

The big man examined his fingernails with a show of modesty. The brown suited man emerged from behind the counter, set a hat on his head, and said

– Well, that’s me off now, lads.

He went out, letting the door slam shut behind him. The wiry man put on a sudden air of briskness.

– But we can’t spend all day chatting about such things, I’m sure. He looked at Jake for the first time. Now then, young sir, what can I do for you?
– I’d like to go further in, said Jake.
– Would you now? Make a note of that, George.

The big man took the register again and wrote in it laboriously, at some length. While he did so, the other came round to their side of the counter, took a brush from a closet, and began to sweep the floor. When he reached Jake and Virgil, he looked at them as if surprised to find them still there.

– Well, if you come back tomorrow, I’m sure the sergeant will attend to you.
– The sergeant? said Jake with a sinking heart.

The wiry man swept round them.

– The gentleman who’s just gone out, he said over his shoulder. He’s the one you want to speak to. Now, if you’ll excuse me, we’re finished here for the day.

When they were outside, Virgil shook his head.

– I’m sorry. You see how it is. Perhaps they will be more amenable tomorrow.
– I doubt it, said Jake.

He watched as the wiry man, whistling cheerfully, closed the gate, securing it with a large padlock.

– Is there no other way in?

But Virgil was already some way down the road that led to the shanty town. Jake hesitated a moment, then went after him. It began to rain.

The Case of the Florentine Poet: Was Dante the father of Science Fiction?

It was only in researching this piece that I was struck by the uncanny physical resemblance between Dante Alighieri, the Florentine poet, and Mr Sherlock Holmes, of 221b Baker St, the World’s first Consulting Detective:

‘His eyes were sharp and piercing, … and his thin, hawk-like nose gave his whole expression an air of alertness and decision.  His chin, too, had the prominence and squareness which mark the man of determination.’

SH Paget DA Sherlock

That is a description of Holmes, but it would serve equally well for Dante, who even seems to have anticipated the famous deerstalker in the picture above. The similarities are more than physical – of Holmes, Watson observes

‘His ignorance was as remarkable as his knowledge.  Of contemporary literature, philosophy and politics he appeared to know next to nothing …  My surprise reached a climax, however, when I found incidentally that he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory and of the composition of the Solar System.  That any civilized human being in this nineteenth century should not be aware that the earth travelled round the sun appeared to be to me such an extraordinary fact that I could hardly realize it.’

Now, Dante was a learned man and knew a great deal about the literature, philosophy and politics of his time, but like Holmes, he was ignorant of the Copernican Theory, though with rather better excuse, since he died a good century and a half before Copernicus was born.

We know only of Holmes’s ignorance, nothing of what he believed concerning the Solar System, but it is a reasonable inference from what we know of him that it would be a matter of no real interest: times of sunrise and sunset might be of practical value in solving a crime, but not the fact that they are illusions created by the earth’s rotating about its axis at approximately a thousand miles an hour while pursuing an annual orbit about the sun with a radius of some 93 million miles. The intricacies of planetary motion are of no  concern to a man whose mind is wholly taken up with the international conspiracy of crime and the machinations of James Moriarty and his sidekick Colonel Sebastian Moran, the second most dangerous man in Europe, obliquely referenced in Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats: ‘he once played a tiger – could do it again – which an Indian Colonel pursued down a drain.’

Dante, however, would take no such refuge in indifference: his idea of the Cosmos is very clear and thoroughly detailed, derived ultimately from the ideas of Aristotle, refracted through the formidable mind of Thomas Aquinas, one of the foremost thinkers of his age. This mediaeval world-view is admirably described in CS Lewis’s book The Discarded Image. In brief, it pictures the Earth as the centre of a succession of concentric spheres – nine beyond the Earth, progressing through the nearest (that of the Moon) to the outermost Crystalline Sphere or Primum Mobile, beyond which lies the Empyrean and Paradise. (The intermediate spheres are, in ascending order, those of Mercury, Venus, the Sun, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn and the Fixed Stars):

dante cosmosIn The Secret of the Alchemist, my first book,  the hero and heroine are two teenagers, Jake and Helen, who meet in Florence at a Dante Festival. Helen has a great love of Dante, whom Jake thinks an odd choice of hero. Helen asks

– I suppose you prefer computer games and adventure films?

– A bit.

– How about this one? The hero has to penetrate an ancient underground city, where all sorts of people are held prisoner and tortured in terrible ways; his only help is from one of the locals, who offers to guide him – they work their way deeper and deeper underground, encountering all sorts of dangers along the way and outwitting these terrible creatures that try to stop them, till finally they come to the frozen centre of the city, and there is a huge great monster trapped up to the waist in ice, and the only way they can escape is to climb down his body and squeeze through the hole in the ice to the other side –

– I think I’ve played that one, or seen it – is it a film?

Helen smiled. In a rich American accent she intoned

Divine Comedy I : The Inferno. ‘In Hell, everyone can hear you scream! Join all–action hero Dante Alighieri and his trusty sidekick Virgil as they carve their way through the Infernal Regions.’

(The Secret of the Alchemist was published in 2003: in researching this piece, I was tickled to discover that some years later – 2009, I think – someone actually did bring out a computer game based on The Inferno. By the way, if you’re looking to create a follow-up game, you could do worse than to consider basing it on my third book, City of Desolation, in which my young protagonists Jake and Helen follow in Dante’s footsteps, but through an Inferno that has developed somewhat in the intervening seven centuries.

Dante and Virgil make a journey to the centre of the earth six hundred years before Jules Verne thought of such a thing, and when they come out the other side, they ascend Mount Purgatory from whose summit they travel through the heavens, passing the moon and inner planets, till they reach and pass beyond the farthest reaches of space – but this is 1300, not 2001. So is Dante the unacknowledged father of Science Fiction?

Superficially, the claim has merit, but there is a crucial difference: it is clear that Dante does not believe that the journey he is describing is one that can be undertaken by a living man. In his own case, he is almost barred at the very start when Charon refuses to ferry him across the Acheron:

e tu che se’ costí, anima viva,

pàrtiti da cotesti che son morti

(‘And thou, who there

Standest, live spirit! get thee hence, and leave

These who are dead.’)

and at various points it is only his friendship with those in (very) high places which secures his exceptional passage. The same point is expressly made when we meet Ulysses, who tells of his own last adventure, to sail with his old companions to ‘the unpeopled lands beyond the sun’ – and he almost makes it: they come within sight of Mt Purgatory, only to be overwhelmed by a sudden squall that whirls their ship around three times then sends her to the bottom – ‘as pleased Another’ . In other words, the Divine Will prevents their proceeding, as mortal men, beyond the bounds of Earth.

It should be clear from this that Dante is not envisaging a model of the Solar System that is like Copernicus’s but with things in the wrong place: the Divine Comedy is a synthesis of the philosophy, science and theology of the time and it makes use of physical description and location to make the story ‘real’, but it is not Science Fiction – the universe that Dante is attempting to represent is a moral one, not a physical one. it is important to see that Dante’s is not a ‘primitive’ scientific view, i.e. one that does its best on inadequate understanding; it is not a scientific view at all.

Mt Purgatory is located at the Antipodes of Jerusalem in the midst of a vast ocean not because Dante thought you would find it there if you sailed to the other side of the globe (as Columbus later thought he would reach Cathay by sailing West) but precisely because he thought you could not get there at all. In the same way, the Heaven of the Moon is not something that Dante would have put there if he had thought space flight was possible: men in Dante’s time were earthbound, and to say that something was on the moon was to say that it was wholly beyond access. Likewise, he does not posit the physical existence of a system of concentric spheres, each with its guiding intelligence (it was Dante’s wit, by the way, that decided that the Earth (which did not have a guiding intelligence in the existing model) should be governed by Fortune or Chance, that being the only way to explain the sudden reversals of power and fortune that are such a feature of human life (as he knew from personal experience))

Much as in an earlier post I suggested that the blank spaces on our childhood world-map leave room for fantasy, the state of knowledge in Dante’s day was such that there was still room to accommodate God and the heavens in terms of the physical world: that was a way of thinking of them that was open to Dante but is not open to us. Dante could use the subjective phenomena of everyday life as part of an imaginative picture of a divine cosmos without experiencing intellectual difficulty – unsurprisingly, as the principal study of his day -‘the queen of sciences’ – as Thomas Aquinas calls it – was not physics but theology. What serious-minded able people thought seriously about in mediaeval times was God: Aquinas is said to have asked, as a child, ‘what is God?’ and that was the question he pursued for the rest of his days.

We could not do what Dante did today: our maps are too complete, and there is no space in them for God to be accommodated comfortably. But at the same time it is perfectly possible to read Dante with understanding: we see what he is getting at, and if we are educated people, we realise that the model of the cosmos he uses is not intended as a scientific description, but a metaphor, in that it uses the known concrete (the phenomena of the senses) to express the unknown. The place that remains uncharted, where a latter-day Dante might find room for God, is the unconscious – or should I say non-conscious? – mind.

I am hesitant about ‘unconscious’ and definitely reject ‘subconscious’ as both seem to elevate ‘conscious’ to a position of superiority – ‘subconscious’ certainly, and ‘unconscious’ more by implication. As a writer, I have gradually become convinced, having started out as a severe sceptic, of the reality and importance of a non-conscious mind. What fascinates me is that it is clearly able to operate with language – a higher-order skill which we associate with consciousness – and as evidence (trivial maybe, but suggestive) I would adduce the phenomenon of finding that crossword clues and word puzzles can be solved without conscious thought, and the fact that plots and plot complications in specific stories one is writing can be unravelled and resolved without conscious consideration – we go to bed puzzled and wake up knowing what to do, as it were.

Might individual consciousness stand to the non-conscious as a house does to the property that surrounds it? That is to say, we have the house which we inhabit, and beyond that the garden, which is separated by an artificial boundary from our neighbours and the public street; but in reality, the garden, the street, the town, the country and indeed the surface of the planet are a single continuum. So we have a conscious mind which we consider very much our own and separate, and a non-conscious mind which is also ‘personal’ – but how confident can we be of its demarcation from the rest? might we not share a vast common hinterland?

One further thing – why suppose that individual consciousness is some peak we have reached, and that we have emerged, as it were, from the unconscious, unreflecting swamp? might it not be that we are waking into consciousness, and have at the moment just a small individual foothold in a vast territory which will one day become wholly know to us all?

Repentance, or, embracing Subjective Reality

The sun moon and planets are unwitting actors that we have cast in a drama of our own contriving.

Wagner’s Lied an den Abendstern (‘O Star of Eve’ – here intriguingly rendered on the musical saw) is not addressed to the second planet from the sun, inhospitably wrapped in clouds of sulphuric acid, but the brilliant and beautiful light that appears at times in the evening sky, which we have made the symbol of the goddess of love.

And what could be more dramatic than Coleridge’s line

The sun’s rim dips, the stars rush out, at one stride comes the dark ?

The sun may be a ball of burning gas 93 million miles away, but as far as our life is concerned, we know him as an actor in the daily drama that starts with his rising and ends with his setting, often in scenes of spectacular beauty, which have inspired much in the way of poetry, art and music. Between times he wears different aspects:

‘sometimes too hot the eye of heaven shines

and often is his gold complexion dimmed’

and likewise at particular times of the year:

‘Midwinter spring is its own season

Sempiternal though sodden towards sundown,

Suspended in time, between pole and tropic.

When the short day is brightest, with frost and fire,

The brief sun flames the ice, on pond and ditches,

In windless cold that is the heart’s heat,

Reflecting in a watery mirror

A glare that is blindness in the early afternoon.’

Dante famously ends each volume of his Divine Comedy with a reference to the stars:

e quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle

(‘and whence we emerged to see again the stars’ – Inferno )

puro e disposto a salire alle stelle 

(‘pure and ready to mount to the stars’ – Purgatorio )

l’amor che move il sole e l’altre stelle

(‘the love that moves the sun and the other stars’ – Paradiso )

But the stars Dante refers to are not the marvellous balls of burning gas, stupendously distant, that were probably the origins of life here on Earth; the stars he means are the ones that come out at night, the stars as they appear to us from our viewpoint here on earth. I think we could avoid a great deal of needless difficulty and strife if people would only learn to  separate the two, and treat them with equal respect. They belong to different orders.

In saying this, I speak with the zeal of a repentant sinner.

For a long time – since I was 14, in fact, when I first read the Republic while on holiday in Barra (there was no television; I also learned to play cribbage) – I have been in thrall to Plato, in particular the notion that the world has two aspects: ‘appearance’, made known to us by the senses, which is of no value – being deceptive, ephemeral, mutable and relative – and ‘reality’, apprehended by the intellect, which is equated with truth itself, being eternal, unchanging and absolute.

This is a potent notion, and I am not the first to have been seduced by the marvellous simile of the Cave, with its vision of the seeker striving to escape the darkness of ignorance to gaze at last upon the pure sun of Truth*; indeed I think that lay behind my decision, at the end of my first year at Edinburgh University, to switch my field of study from English Language and Literature to Philosophy and Literature.

So it was something of an epiphany when I realised, a few years ago, that this vision of the world had lost its hold on me. One day, I had an idea for a story which imagined a family living in the innards of a clock – either they were very small or it was very large – on some part of the mechanism which they took to be stationary while all the rest moved around them in highly complex and quite marvellous evolutions. One member of the family – a rebellious teenager, without doubt – somehow gets out of the clock and is able to share the viewpoint of the owner of the house in which it stands, and sees that the place where his family lives is a moving part of the mechanism, while the bits he had thought in motion are fixed in place.

So far, so Platonic: the teenager could stand for the prisoner who escapes the Cave and comes at last to see how things ‘really’ are; however, that was not how the story turned out. Although the boy fully grasps that the world his family experiences is an accident of their position within the clock, and appears as it does only because they assume their viewpoint to be stationary – which could be supposed an error – he is not prepared to concede that it is any less real, and in fact he thinks it more beautiful and marvellous than the view from outside, which strikes him as dull and prosaic; for him, the house-owner is the one missing out, the one who does not appreciate ‘how the world really is’.

I think now (beating my breast in repentance) that in an adult lifetime spent in philosophical reflection of various sorts, I have, like King Lear, ‘ta’en too little care of this’: I hereby cast aside my Platonic blinkers, and proclaim that the world of so-called ‘appearance’ – the world of our everyday experience – which I might term ‘subjective reality’ – is no less real and of no less worth for being ephemeral, accidental, mutable and relative.

Awa’ wi absolutes!

*though I should, perhaps, have paid more heed to the fact that it relies on concrete imagery to persuade us to the reality of the world of Forms.