Monday, 12 April 2010
On spring, sapphires and electoral silence
We walked for six hours, at first beside a narrow river and then climbing high into the Chiltern Hills. When we set off, there were scarcely any leaves on the trees, but the sun blazed and temperatures climbed, and by evening buds had opened and shoots had shot, butterflies were dancing, fish jumping, and the world was sprinkled green and bright.
It was as if, at last, someone had found the keys to the kennel and the hounds of Spring, unleashed, had burst out in a frenzy.
I’m picking books at random off the shelves, at present, letting my fingers make the choice for a re-reading. Before the walk, last Thursday morning, they reached me down for my journeys on the underground the formidable American critic Harold Bloom’s Kabbalah and Criticism.
These fingers, perhaps, are curious to see whether their mental equivalents have more luck grasping the meaning of the book than they did first time around (A: only a little).
Bloom writes of the Sefirot (the interlinking orbs of the great figure), that the derivation of the word...
“... would seem to suggest the Greek ‘sphere,’ but its actual source was the Hebrew word sappir (for ‘sapphire’), and so the term referred primarily to God’s radiance. [Professor Gershom] Scholem gives a very suggestive list of Kabbalistic synonyms for the Sefirot: sayings, names, lights, powers, crowns, qualities, stages, garments, mirrors, shoots, sources, primal days, aspects, inner faces, and limbs of God.”
After two pints of Badger, bare head baking in the afternoon sun, up there in the Chilterns, it felt as if we were experiencing something like that. Or those.
This was a company of just three: men of passable intelligence and reasonable curiosity, attuned enough to natural and human affairs.
But what struck me as we parted was that not once, during all those hours together, had any of us mentioned the General Election which Gordon Brown had called a couple of days before.
Neither had anyone in any conversation overheard on underground or overground, or in the crowded pub where we paused for lunch.
Nor did anyone at a supper party two nights later.
Yes, there is all the redounding spout and spume of reportage, verbiage and commentary coming at us from journalism. But elsewhere, or so it strikes me, this is the election that no-one wants to talk about.
Which is suggestive, because after all, everywhere you went before the great climacteric of 1997, when Blair’s New Labour obliviated Major’s Tories, that election was the fizz and buzz of conversation.
It seems we have a new version of two nations here. One consists of the politicians and their colonies of advisers and PR people and bag-carriers, plus the hapless scriveners who are doomed like creatures in a modern Grimm’s fairy tale to spin out more and more and more words to fill the huge and ever-growing caverns of time and space that modern technology has got them (usually by the generation, analysis, serialisation and syndication of bullshit).
And then there’s the rest of us. Turned away, and trying not to mention the 2010 hustings at all.
I suspect the reason is in all in the ethics of the dialogue. By which I mean this: that the way the Labour party, and thence the others, have been abusing the language since 1997, defiling its wellsprings with cynical manoeuvres of spin, distortion, lies and wicked, furtive “briefings”, twisting words to mean what they want them to mean and all the while supposing that their audiences are idiots – that this has left the rest of us, in the other nation, unconsciously or even consciously aware that contact with political discourse is contaminating; that like a cigarette packet, a politician’s manifesto should be emblazoned with some ghastly picture of a diseased organ – maybe a human soul – and a message: “Warning – Politspeak Can Seriously Harm You And Those Around You.”
And a helpline number to a recording of, perhaps, Simon Callow reading Percy Bysshe Shelley’s Defence of Poetry.
Our greatest British critic, Terry Eagleton, about as hard-headed an individual as you could find, uses a surprising Biblical analogy to describe political and commercial language. It is, he says, “fallen” – “bleared and smudged with trade, degraded to a mere instrument.”
Which takes me back across the Atlantic to Mr Bloom:
“The Sefirot are primarily language, attributes of God that need to be described by the various names of God when he is at work in creation... At first the Kabbalists dared to identify the Sefirot with the actual substance of God, and the Zohar goes so far as to say of God and the Sefirot: ‘He is They and They are He,’ which produces the rather dangerous formula that God and language are one and the same...”
Steady there. But maybe, all the same, we do need some sort of preventive sign we can make (besides fingers in ears) to ward off evil when we hear a politician speaking.
Footnote 1: in The Times this weekend Ginny Dougary insists that Gordon Brown is a man of depths. Perhaps that’s his problem? A deep man gasping in the shallowness of politics? And I think it isn’t only a love of paradox on my part that makes me immediately think of David Cameron as a shallow man who’s getting out of his depth.
Footnote 2: this morning my daughter told me that she’d had a dream about Nick Clegg (the Liberal party leader). The content was vague, but this is probably a first for any teenage girl – and for Mr Clegg.