No abiding city


Things take odd turns sometimes. After my Byzantine Epiphany I felt sure I was on the track of something, yet it proved elusive: after a lot of writing I felt I was still circling round it, unable to pin it down.

Then this morning I woke to the news that (with the General Election just over a week away) David Cameron was pledging, if re-elected, to pass a law that would prevent his government from raising the level of a range of taxes for the duration of the next parliament.

I have to say that this struck me at once as absurd, the notion of a government passing a law to prevent itself doing something: why go to all that trouble? why not just say, ‘we won’t do that’?

There’s the rub, of course – election promises are famously falser than dicers’ oaths; against that background, Mr Cameron feels the need to offer something stronger – no mere manifesto promise, but an actual law! – what could be a stronger guarantee than that?

There’s a paradox here, of course – because politicians’ promises are notoriously unreliable, Mr Cameron says he will pass a law to ensure that he will not go back on his word – and that’s a promise. The whole elaborate structure is built on the same uncertain foundation.

I am reminded of advice from a more reputable source, the Sermon on the Mount:

‘Again, you have heard how it was said to our ancestors, you must not break your oath…
But I say this to you, do not swear at all… all you need say is “Yes” if you mean yes, “No” if you mean no; anything more than this comes from the Evil One.’

You are no better than your word: if that is worth nothing, no amount of shoring-up will rectify the matter; and if it is good, what more do you need?

But there is something deeper here: the key, I think, to the very matter I had been trying to resolve.

Let us start with Mr Cameron’s utterance: it is perhaps best understood as a theatrical gesture. The actor on stage, conscious of the audience’s attention (and also of his distance from them, compared, say, to the huge close-up of the cinema screen) may feel the need to make a gesture which in everyday life would strike us as exaggerated and – well – theatrical. So Mr Cameron, in the feverish atmosphere of an election campaign, feels the need to outbid his opponents – ‘they say they’ll do something? well, I’ll pass a law that will make me do as I say!’

I have to say that even in context it sounds rather silly, but it would be even sillier outside it – so that is the first point, the importance of context to understanding.

The second is this business of making a law and the appearance it offers of transferring the responsibility from the person to something independent and objective – ‘don’t just take my word for it – it’ll be the law!’ It overlooks the fact that legislation is a convention that requires our consent to operate: the laws of the land are not like the laws of physics – they do not compel us in any way; we obey them through choice, not necessity.

(And of course the existence of a range of penalties and agencies of enforcement like the police and the courts are proof of this – you do not need any of that to make things obey the Law of Gravity; you only need threat and compulsion where there is the possibility that people might do otherwise)

These two things – the importance of context to meaning and the attempt to transfer responsibility from the person to something apparently objective and independent – chimed with what I had been struggling to express before.
I had been focusing on the effect that the introduction of writing has on language, and through that, on our whole way of seeing the world.

The gist of my argument was this: from time immemorial, we have had Speech, which is our version of something we observe throughout the animal kingdom – bird song, whale song, the noises of beasts. Then, relatively recently – between five and six thousand years ago – we invent something unique: Writing.


At first it is used for relatively low-grade menial (indeed, prosaic) tasks, such as making lists and records; it is a good thousand years before anyone thinks to employ it for anything we might call ‘literature’. That should be no surprise: where Speech is natural and instinctive, the product of millions of years’ development, writing is awkward and cumbersome, a skill (along with reading) that must be learned, and one not everyone can master.

Speech has all the advantages that go with sound: it has rhythm, rhyme, musicality, pattern; Writing has none of these. But it does have one thing: where speech exists in time and is fleeting, ephemeral, Writing exists in space and has duration; it is objective; it exists in its own right, apart from any context or speaker.

My speech dies with me: when my voice is stilled, it is gone (though it may linger in the memory of others); but my written words will outlast not only me but a hundred generations – they could be around long after any trace or memory of their author is wholly erased.

Thus, from Speech we move to Language – by which I mean the complex thing that arises after Writing is invented. The important thing about Language is its dual nature, and the interaction and tension between its two forms, the written and the spoken. These are (as I discussed before) in many respects antithetical – where Speech is necessarily bound up with a speaker and so with a context – it is always part of some larger human activity – Writing stands on its own, apart from any context, independent of its author, with its own (apparently) objective existence.

(and the differences go deeper – where speech draws on a rich range of devices to overcome its ephemeral character and make itself memorable – rhyme, rhythm, vivid imagery etc – writing (though it can borrow all of them) has no need of any of these, having permanence; the problem it must overcome is lack of context – it cannot rely on what is going on round about to clarify its meaning; it must stand on its own two feet, and aim to be clear, concise, unambiguous, logical.)

What Mr Cameron’s absurd utterance brought home to me was the deceptive nature of Writing’s independence and objectivity, which is more apparent than real. Just as the law he holds out as having some objective, compelling force that is greater than his word is only so because we (as a society) agree to assign that power to it (in this connection, see my earlier post, ‘bounded by consent’) – and ultimately has no greater strength than the original word that promises it – so the objectivity and independence of the written word are not inherent properties but rather qualities we have conferred on it.

The independence and objectivity we assign to language is a kind of trick we play on ourselves, and it is bound up with the matter I discussed in my earlier posts (here, here and here) concerning the ‘carapace’ that we erect between ourselves and Reality – a carapace of ideas on which we confer the title ‘reality’ even though it is a construct of our own.

(It was interesting to realise that my philosophical hero Ludwiig Wittgenstein had made this journey before me: in his early work, e.g. the Tractatus, he is much concerned with his ‘picture theory’ of language, in which a proposition is seen as picturing reality, by having its elements related to one another in a way that corresponds to how the elements of the reality it pictures are related:
‘2.12 A picture is a model of reality.
2.13 In a picture objects have the elements of the picture corresponding to them.
2.14 In a picture the elements of the picture are the representatives of objects.

2.1511 That is how a picture is attached to reality; it reaches right out to it.

2.223 In order to tell whether a picture is true or false we must compare it with reality.’

This model takes for granted the objective nature of language: it is the words, the proposition, that is true or false, and that is established by comparison with the world; we do not seem to play much part.

However, in his later work, Wittgenstein moves to a different position: he now speaks of ‘language games’ and ‘forms of life’; it is only as part of a language game or a form of life – i.e. some human activity – that words have meaning; and indeed, as a general rule, the meaning of a word is its use in the language. He emphatically rejects the idea of a ‘private language’ in which our thinking is done before being translated into words: all that is available to us is the unwieldy, untidy agglomeration that is Language, a public thing that everyone shares and shapes but no-one controls or commands – despite the best efforts of organisations such as L’Academie Francaise)

As is typical of Wittgenstein, this modest-seeming manoeuvre effectively demolishes an edifice of thought that has stood for millennia: its implications are profounder than might at first appear.

If we go back to Plato and his fellow Greeks, we find a horror of mutability (‘change and decay in all around I see’, as the hymn has it) and a yearning for Truth to be something fixed and immutable – hence Plato’s world of Ideas, the unchanging reality that can be apprehended only by the intellect and lies beyond the veil of Appearance which so beguiles our poor, deluded senses.

Language – the complex thing that arises after the invention of the written form – is central to establishing this Platonic world, whose influence has lasted down to the present day, in particular its elevation of the intellect over the senses and its separation of Appearance and Reality.

The quality of Language on which all this hinges is the illusion it gives of being something that exists in its own right: words have meanings and can be used to describe the world; if only we tidied up language, rid it of its anomalies, used it more carefully and logically – freed it from the abusage of everyday speech – made it, in a word, more literate, truer to its written form – then we would be able to express the Truth accurately and without ambiguity, and permanently.

This is the edifice that Wittgenstein shows to be no more than a castle in the air: if meaning exists only in context, as part of some human activity, then all meaning is provisional; nothing is fixed (an idea I have discussed before). Language can never be tidied up and purified, cleansed of its faults, because language is ultimately derived from Speech, which is a living, dynamic thing, constantly changing with the forms of life of those who speak it, and the new ‘language games’ they invent.

The truth of what I have just said is by no means universally accepted; indeed, we have made some pretty determined attempts to contradict it: the first was the use of Latin as a scholarly language after it had ceased to be a living tongue (having transmuted, in the course of time, into the various romance languages – Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Romanian). Latin was the vehicle of academic discourse from the foundation of the first European universities in the eleventh century down to the time of Newton and beyond, a span of some five centuries; it remains the official language of the Roman Catholic church (although mass in the vernacular was introduced with the refoms of Vatican 2 in the early sixties, the Latin mass was not ‘banned’ as popularly supposed – only a specific form, the Tridentine rite, was discontinued; mass is still said in Latin to this day in various places).

It is no surprise to find that the Church – very much bound to the notion of an unchanging Truth – should be one of the last bastions of a purely literate language. In the academic and particularly the scientific world, the role formerly played by Latin has to a large extent been taken over by English, and ‘Academic English’ as a form is diverging from the living language, which in turn is diversifying (with the disappearance of the British Empire and the emergence of former colonies as countries in their own right) in much the same way as Latin transformed into various tongues after Rome fell.

I am sure that there are many today who will view my assertion that all meaning is necessarily provisional with the same horror that the Greeks contemplated the mutability of things, but I think if you consider it steadily, you will see that it is both liberating and refreshing.

In my previous piece I began by talking about the perils of building in stone – namely, that what you make will outlive its capacity to be understood, because although it does not change, the people considering it do. I think this happens all the time with ideas, and especially the ‘big’ ideas, about ‘Life, the Universe and Everything’ – because they are important, we try to fix them for all time, but we overlook the fact that they are the product of a particular time, expressed in the language of that time, and that succeeding generations will see and understand things differently.

Of course the change of outlook and the decay of understanding is never sudden and can be delayed, and that is exactly what written texts do: they give a particular version of something an authority and a form that can last for generations, and which may block any development for a long time.

(That, broadly, is what happened with Scholasticism: the influx (via the Islamic world) of ancient Greek learning – chiefly Aristotle – into mediaeval Europe provided a huge intellectual stimulus initially, as great minds like Thomas Aquinas came to terms with it and assimilated it into the thinking of the day; but so comprehensive did it seem that there was no impulse to move beyond it, so that it began to ossify – the object of university study became to master Aristotle’s works, and the ‘argument from authority’ came into vogue – to settle any dispute it sufficed to quote what Aristotle (often called  simply ‘The Philosopher’) said on the matter – there was no going beyond that. This situation lasted till the Renaissance shook things up once more )

So am I, then, making a straightforward pitch for Relativism and denying the possibility of an Absolute Truth?

Not quite. Rather, this is an argument for ineffability, the idea that ‘Great Truths’ cannot be expressed in words. It is not so much that language is not equal to the job (but might be improved till it was), rather that the greatness of these ‘Great Truths’ (that label is of course inadequate) is such that it necessarily exceeds our ability to comprehend them, so limiting our capacity to express them; though poetry can get closer than prose:

‘Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?’

and Art in general – music, painting, sculpture, dance, poetry – offers a more fruitful approach than philosophy – not to success, but a more rewarding kind of failure; or, as Mr Eliot so aptly expresses it,

‘but there is no competition—
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.’

‘With shabby equipment, always deteriorating…’

We live in an age of infrastructure: we take for granted an underpinning layer of nigh-magical technology, much of it electronic, on which our day-to-day lives rely; occasionally we are visited by anxiety lest it should fail – as the result of a solar storm, perhaps, such as a repeat of the Carrington Event of 1859.

The Carrington Event was noted mainly for its marvellous effects (it produced aurorae so bright that one could read by them, and some people thought it was morning) though it did cause a widespread failure of the telegraph system, which must have resulted in considerable disruption in Europe and North America; but considered against the effect of a similar storm today, its impact was minimal.

The reason is simple, yet striking: though the world of 1859 was (in parts) recognisably modern in a way that the world of a century before was not, it was a world lit by gas, fuelled by coal and powered by steam – electricity had yet to be harnessed, and the main supply of oil was obtained, not by drilling through rock, but by harpooning whales.


This brings home to us the astonishing fact that, however transformative our present-day technology may be, the greatest transformation of human society by far – the Industrial Revolution – was wrought with implements of almost primitive simplicity: hand tools, pick and shovel, human muscle and (actual) horsepower.

This thought occurred to me when I was meditating on that most transformative of all things, the human imagination, and its principal instrument, language.

You could probably say that language and humanity are coeval: it is language that makes us human, that has enabled us to do all the marvellous things we have achieved in the brief blip of geological time we have existed for – language underpins it all; it is our ultimate infrastructure, if you like.

Yet it is still pick-and-shovel technology: though capable (in the right hands) of expressing great complexity of thought, the mechanisms it relies on to do so are few and simple, and the chief of them, as I have said elsewhere, is metaphor.

Metaphor works by using a structure or set of relations that is already familiar to give us a way of thinking about something new that we are trying to understand. As I have indicated elsewhere, there is something puzzling in this: if the only way we can come at the unknown is by expressing it in terms of the known, how do we progress? if we describe  what we do not understand in terms of what we do, how is our understanding increased? It can seem like an increasingly elaborate structure built on a narrow foundation that never widens – which is what troubled me when I was young and thought (wrongly, I believe) that all our metaphors relied ultimately on spatial relations, and that a world of objects and space was implied in all our thinking, which must necessarily have a limiting effect on what we could think.

These days I see it from a different perspective: I find it reassuring that language is always being strained to breaking point whenever we try to think of difficult things or big ideas – as Eliot has it in Burnt Norton :

Words strain,

crack and sometimes break, under the burden,

under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

will not stay still.

and, later, in East Coker :

each venture

is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate

with shabby equipment always deteriorating

so that we arrive where we do by a kind of sleight-of-mind trickery, such as Wittgenstein describes in proposition 6.54 of the Tractatus:

My propositions serve as elucidations in the following way: anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them – as steps – to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

As I say, where once I found this worrying, I now find it reassuring and indeed exciting – it means that our knowledge – particularly of the large and important things – is much less certain, much more provisional than we pretend.

Consider, for instance – as I mean to do in another post – a distinction we probably think clear-cut, between what is real and what is imaginary – is that something we can be sure about?

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?