Monday, July 31, 2017

The Enemy of Mankind

When I have drawn my dying breath
There will be wailing all around:
"He kept his madness unto death
 And by his stubborn pride was bound;
Until the day his eyes were shut
In endless sleep, with tears and groans
We begged and pleaded with him; but
He never looked at Game of Thrones."

The priest will sermonize me thus:
"Now brother Mal will never see

The rhapsody of blood and guts
That marks the end of Season Three;
Alas, alas, he now must lie
Where worms will leave him naught but bones
And-- yes, my friends, you well may cry--
He never looked at Game of Thrones!"

There are no flowers upon the grave
The headstone stands without a name;
The world has thought it best to save
His memory from such ill-fame;
But still, some passer by will stretch
A finger, and in whispered tones
Say to a friend: "There lies the wretch
Who would not look at Game of Thrones!"

TV Tropes on Pope Benedict

My favourite website of all is a website called TV Tropes. The best description of this site is its Google snippet: "TV Tropes, the all-devouring pop-culture wiki, catalogs and cross-references recurrent plot devices, archetypes, and tropes in all forms of media." That's about it.

It would be hard to explain why it's so fascinating to me. I can happily spend hours on it, reading about TV shows I'm never going to watch, books I'm never going to read, and songs I'm never going to hear.

TV Tropes often comments upon real life, as well. (Bear in mind this is a wiki, so it is users who write and edit it.)

In an article entitled "Overshadowed by Controversy", there appears this fascinating assessment of Pope Benedict XVI's pontificate:

Pope Benedict XVI, having a short pontificate sandwiched between the hugely popular John Paul II and the also hugely popular Francis I, probably wouldn't have been remembered for much in any case, but he had the bad luck to be on the throne when decades of child sexual abuse by priests were exposed, which also implicated him in a massive coverup to save the Church's reputation (though there's some evidence John Paul was complicit as well). He's also known as the Pope Who Quit, i.e. abdicating his seat while still alive (not unprecedented but extremely rare), paving the way for his successor. References to him in popular culture that aren't to the scandal, his uncanny resemblance to Darth Sidious, or the fact that he had a much better predecessor and successor are few and far between. 

It's a strange feeling, to read such a paragraph as this. I think it's probably a fair description of his legacy in the minds of the general public, or the casual weekly Mass-goer. And yet, so many of the Catholics I know have enormous admiration for Pope Benedict. He might even be more popular than St. John Paull II, amongst conservative Catholics. I started practicing my faith during his pontificate, and he is definitely "my Pope". It's interesting to see how dramatically perceptions can differ, based on your viewpoint.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

The Treasure in the Field

From today's Gospel:
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field which someone has found; he hides it again, goes off happy, sells everything he owns and buys the field.
(Matthew 13:44).

Short as it is, this is probably my favourite of Jesus's parables. The Parable of the Prodigal Son is more poignant, but I find the parable of the treasure in a field more exciting. Its simplicity is a great part of its appeal.

Everybody, I think, feels a longing to give themselves utterly to something, to believe that there is something in the world worthy of our utmost devotion. This parable seems like a motif repeated again and again throughout Christian history. Saints, religious orders, and forms of spirituality re-emphasize the pre-eminence of the Gospel, in an infinite number of ways. When I think of this parable, my heart burns.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

The Books I Read in 2016

This evening, I was watching an interview with Ben Sasse, a Republican Senator who promotes the "Century Club" challenge; that is, to read a hundred books in a year. It got me wondering how many books I read in a year.

Then I realized I didn't have to wonder; I started keeping my diary in June 2015 and haven't stopped since. That means I have a complete record for 2016. I skimmed through my diary for that year, noting down all the books I read from beginning to end.

"From beginning to end"; there's the rub. I partially read at least as many books as I read from cover to cover. And what about the books I read almost from cover to cover, but not quite? I decided to be quite strict, and only include books where I felt I could reasonably say I'd read them the whole way through. So I excluded, for instance, a huge biography of Fr. Pádraig Ó Fiannachta, the Irish language writer and priest, which I spent weeks reading, on and off, but still gave up half-way through. (It's over six hundred pages long.) I also excluded the last book I read in the year, which was Keith Waterhouse's City Lights, since I gave it up towards the very end. (Eventual success makes Waterhouse annoyingly smug.)

Early in 2016, I decided to start intensively reading Irish language books, to improve my Irish. I named this "The Toronto Strategy", because I like giving pompous names to projects. The reference is to a bookshop in Toronto which claimed to be the biggest bookshop in the world. (It's now closed.) 

So here are the books I read, from cover to cover (or close enough), in 2016. There aren't a hundred of them. There are, in fact, only thirty-four.

The Lurkers by Charles Butler

Teenage horror novel about a girl who realizes that an invisible creature is using her brother as a conduit-- the "lurkers" intend to take over the world, of course. I picked this up from the book exchange outside the library. I like teenage and young adult horror, because it tends to be more straightforward in its story-telling, and less lurid in its content. However, this was weak, and yet another kids' book where siblings are shown to despise each other 90 per cent of the time, and teenage snottiness is presented as the norm.

Winter Street by Ellen Hildebrand

A chick-lit novel, set at Christmas, about a family whose members are all very different. The father of the family owns a hotel famous for its Christmas parties, his second wife is having an affair with the hotel Santa Claus, his very successful financier son is sacked for insider trading, his youngest son is in the army in Iraq...that kind of thing. I enjoyed it very much. I picked this one up from the book exchange, too. I was interested in the positive portrayal of religion-- several characters pray at difficult moments, and the superiority of religious carols to secular Christmas songs is a minor theme. The sex lives of the characters are not at all impeded by religious considerations, though.

Conversations with Zygmunt Bauman, by Keith Tester

I haven't worked in a university library for sixteen years without realizing that Zygmunt Beauman is the big noise in sociology these days. (He died in January of this year.) So I wanted to learn something about him. I was drawn to this book because of its conversational format. However, Bauman is just another predictable intellectual who sees NEOLIBERALISM as the Great Satan behind all the world's woes. His thesis that the market economy teaches us all to constantly re-invent ourselves, and to prize this very fluidity, is surprisingly conservative. He also mentions that the Bible became more and more meaningful to him as he grew older, though he was not religious.

The Devil's Hoof by Jonathan Barry

A novel that by a friend of mine, that I read in manuscript. A fine, spooky yarn set in the Dublin Mountains in the eighteenth century. It centres on the legend of the Hell-Fire Club, a real-life club around which various dark legends circulated. I am mentioned in the acknowledgements!

The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Steven Covey

The best-selling self-help book. I really made an effort to follow its programme, for a few weeks. The thing about every self-help book is that, if you give up on its programme, the author can say: "Well, you never followed through." But if you do follow through, and it seems to work, how do you know it wasn't your own increased effort and consistency, rather than anything in the book itself? I did enjoy reading this book, though. Self-help books give a certain psychological fillip, from the very enthusiasm and optimism of the author. Covey was the leader of the first Mormon Mission to Ireland, and met Eamon De Valera.

Séan MacDiarmada by Brian Feeney

One of the series of "Sixteen Lives" biographies, issued to commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Mac Diarmada did most of the footwork in organizing the Rising; he travelled up and down Ireland building up the Irish Republican Brotherhood, the secret organization that infiltrated the Irish Volunteers and brought about the Rising. All the organizing had to be face-to-face, as all other communications were monitored by the British. The last few days before the Rising involved such frantic organizing that, as one historian put it, it was only when MacDiarmada entered the GPO with the main body of rebels that he could finally relax! Mac Diarmada has been described as "an amiable fanatic", and that seems accurate. He gave his religion as "Irish nationalism" on a census form, although he did see a priest before his execution.

Patrick Pearse by Ruan O'Donnell

Another of the "Sixteen Lives" biographies. Pearse was, of course, the leading light of the Rising. Famously, he was utterly idolized in the decades after 1916, then all-but-demonized in more recent decades. This biography is an attempt at a balanced portrait, but it wasn't particularly memorable or well-written.

The Confession of St. Patrick

A short autobiography by St. Patrick. I've read this every St. Patrick's Day over the last few years, although in 2017 I didn't read the whole thing. St. Patrick's humility and piety is deeply endearing. His vagueness on historical detail is often maddening.

Titim agus Eirí
by Diarmuid Breathnach ["Fall and Rise"]

I started the Toronto Strategy with this autobiography by an Irish language writer and activist. Incredibly dull from beginning to end. I have no idea why I persisted with it. At least Breathnach complains about the hostility towards the Catholic Church in modern Ireland.

Duirt Bean Liom by Máire Uí Néill ["A Woman Told Me"]

This is a collection of interviews with Irish-language speaking women, prominent in various fields. I called it "the lesbo book" in my diary. Only one of the women interviewed is actually a lesbian, or so I recall, but they all seemed like angry, empowered wimmin who were mad as hell and weren't going to take it any more-- a case of wanting to revive one tradition (the Irish language), while seeking to destroy any number of others. The title is quite clever: it's from an Irish language proverb which literally translates: "A woman told me that a woman told her..." and which has the same gist as "A little birdie told me."

Lán Dóchas is Grá Martín Ó Maicín ["Full of Hope and Love"]

A collection of newspapers columns by a columnist for an Irish language newspaper, spanning the years before and after the turn of the millennium. Never was a title less appropriate; the book is full of obituaries, laments and gloom. It's also incredibly pedestrian in content, pretty much on the level of a fourteen-year-old schoolchild's essays.

Brian Óg Padraig Ó Conaire [Young Brian]

A story of chivalrous adventure set at the time of James II....I think. I don't have much of a memory of it. It was quite dull, despite the fact that it was written by one of the big names of Irish language literature. 

An Dealbh Spainneach, Deasún Breathnach [The Spanish Statue]

A kid's novel about a ruthless, slimy Spaniard who travels to Ireland to reclaim a statue-- there are drugs in it, or something. This is a series of novels about a group of Irish and Spanish friends who have repeated encounters with the same slimy Spaniard. The slimy Spaniard is apparently killed off at the end of each novel, but keeps turning up again. Actually, it was quite good, a page-turner. One ambiguity that hovers over every Irish language novel is: are the characters actually speaking in Irish, or is the writer just translating it for us? In Deasún Breathnach's novels, they are actually speaking in Irish, unless otherwise stated. Even the Spaniards sometimes speak in Irish.

Fileann an Feall
by Bríd Dukes [The Wrong Returns]

A short novel about teenagers who are captured by drug smugglers. Or hostage-takers. Or criminals of some sort. Actually, it was pretty good, and quite suspenseful. The title comes from an Irish language proverb, "the wrong returns on the wrongdoer".

An Buama Deiridh Déasún Breathnach [The Last Bomb]

This was one of the most original Irish language books I've read. From the creator of the slimy Spaniard, but not in the same series. It involves a doomsday cult which wishes to blow up the world, and whose members commit suicide as soon as they've failed in any mission. Quite gripping. 

Grisciní Saillte: Cnuasach Aisti by Déasún Breathnach [Salted Cuts, or something like that]

A collection of newspaper columns by the writer of the above. A lot less appealing than his fiction. Breathnach was a supporter of the Provisional IRA, which bothered me. He was a Catholic, and he complained about dirty books and entertainment, but aside from that he was very left-wing. The essays are full of bitterness about the situation of the Irish language, and pedantry regarding both the Irish language and the English language-- the author was a sub-editor for an English-language newspaper, as well. 

An Fhealsúnacht agus an tSíceolaíocht, edited by Ciaran Ó Coigligh. [Philosophy and Psychology.]

Papers from a symposium on philosophy and psychology. A short book, but really interesting. The first of the Toronto Strategy books that really engaged me, as much as an English language book might have.
Seosamh O Heanai: Nar Fhagha Me Bas Choiche by Liam Mac Con Iomaire. [Joe Heaney; I'll Never Die.]

I hope that's the right translation of the title. Joe Heaney was an Irish language singer and storyteller. Although he was very celebrated, he couldn't find employment in Ireland, and so had to move to New York, where he became a doorman at a swanky hotel much used by celebrities. Later in life he became an artist in residence at a university. He was a rather difficult personality, who was quite willing to berate an audience if they weren't paying attention to him. The book is in both Irish and English, and I skipped most of the English parts. It's quite badly structured and too flabby.

Iníon an Tincéara Rua by Caitlín Uí Thallamhain [The Red-Headed Tinker's Daughter]

A short children's novel about an itinerant girl who is gifted at horse-riding. Readable and charming. I read it in school, so it was a nostalgia hit for me.

Cead Cainte! Criostóir Ó Floinn [Permission to Speak]

I can remember literally nothing about this collection of newspaper columns.
Coill Na Meala Brian Ó Baoill

A strange novel about a nihilistic, anti-clerical bank clerk who moves to a pious Irish town. I struggled with the Irish and I was never sure whether the author was in favour of the narrator's anti-clericalism, or mocking it. I can't remember how it ended. I don't know how to translate the title, which is the name of the town in which it is set.

Deireadh Báire le Caitríona Ní Mhúrcú [The End]

This was an interesting book-- a kids' fantasy novel which drew on Irish mythology, specifically the war between the mythological races of the Firbolg and the Tuatha De Danaan. (A bit like goblins and Elves.) I was really surprised by its violence, ruthlessness, and bleakness, even though the protagonist is a teenage girl.

Ciall agus Creideamh Brian Ó Ceallaigh [Reason and Faith]

Ó Síol Go Fomhair Brian Ó Ceallaigh [From Seed to Harvest]

Two religious education text-books by a Catholic priest, from the 1980s. They were really good, solid, and even inspiring. They were obviously written before liberalism began to corrode the Irish Church in earnest-- or perhaps Ó Ceallaigh was simply a hold-out. I was especially interested in the importance he places on cultural nationalism.

Thomas Clarke by Helen LItton

Another in the series of Sixteen Lives biographies. Thomas Clarke was the oldest of the 1916 leaders, and the first to sign the Proclamation of the Republic, as a recognition of his seniority. He was the eminence grise of the Revolution, shying away from publicity, but his was possibly the single most important contribution. He spent many years in English prisons, suffering appalling conditions. He was the most pragmatic of the 1916 leaders, at the opposite end of the spectrum from the dreamer and idealist Pearse. Clarke is the 1916 leader I find least appealing, as he seemed to see independence as an end in itself-- which is my least favourite sort of nationalism. However, this is also what fascinates me about him-- what drove him? Surely he most have had some vision of what an independent Ireland should look like? The biography, though it might well be the best of the Sixteen Lives biographies, didn't really answer my question. Clarke remains an enigma.

Nil Desperandum: A Dictionary Of Latin Tags And Useful Phrases by Eugene Ehrlich

I picked this book up from the book exchange and read it in an afternoon. It's not just a collection of phrases, but also includes examples of their use, from texts both ancient and modern. It excited me about the classic world-- reading the book, it seemed to me that this vanished world was every bit as multifarious as our own.

Vaticáin II agus an Réabhlóid Chultúrtha by Sean MacRéamoinn [Vatican II and the Cultural Revolution]

A book written shortly after Vatican II, lamenting the fact that it didn't go far enough. The writer has some self-awareness and tries to defend liberal Catholicism from the obvious criticisms, but not very convincingly. I wrote in my diary: "I can almost hear a guitar being strummed as I read it."

 Rún na hEaglaise by Pádraig Ó Croiligh [The Mystery of the Church]

A book on the seven sacraments of the Church, written from a conservative perspective, by a Catholic priest. I loved this book and it actually excited my imagination-- it almost made me want to run to Mass, or even Confession!

The Triumph of Failure by Canon Sheehan

Canon Sheehan was a very successful Irish priest-novelist, who died in 1913. His books can be mawkish and melodramatic, but he writes about spiritual drama very compellingly. This book is about two young men, one of them a lost soul, the other one a fiery Catholic lay preacher. The title became more famous when it was borrowed for a biography of Patrick Pearse.

Seven Secrets of the Eucharist by Vince Flynn

A short book about the Eucharist. Good, but featuring too much of the overheated rhetoric that is all too common in Catholic devotional books, and that I find embarrassing.

 Edel Quinn, Envoy of the Legion of Mary to Africa, Cardinal Suenens

Edel Quinn was an Irish woman, a lay missionary with the Legion of Mary, whose work spreading the Legion in Africa and Asia was astounding, especially as she knew from the start of her mission that she was unlikely to live more than a few years. Cardinal Suenens was a notorious liberal, but you would never guess it from this book. The account of her childhood and deepening religious commitment is fascinating, and the same is true of her final days, but the description of her travels become quite tedious at times. Too much event kills narrative.

Crossing the Threshold of Hope by St. John Paul II

St. John Paul the Great was a wonderful man and a wonderful Pope-- even if I've come to regard his enthusiasm for Vatican II as misguided. However, he could be incredibly dense in his writings. This book isn't the worst example of this, but sometimes it makes me feel like screaming: "Just answer the question in plain words, for goodness sake!". (The book is a set of responses to an interviewer's questions.) The chapters on other religions are quite interesting-- St. John Paul may have kissed the Koran (which he never should have done), but he's surprisingly blunt in his critique of other religions here.

Story of a Soul by St. Therese of Lisieux

I avoided reading this book for years, since I find the saccharine cult of St. Therese quite annoying. But, when I started researching a book about the saints, I felt I had to read it. It's impossible not to be moved by it-- St. Therese's radical dependence on God, her unwavering supernaturalism, is infectious. It's easy to understand its impact.

Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defore 

I got this book for Christmas in 1985, and didn't finish it until 2001. Then I read it again last year. I like novels to be full of ideas and dialogue, so a novel full of carpentry and crop-growing is quite a challenge to me. I'm glad I persevered, though, if only for the mental discipline it required. I'm impressed by the manner in which Defoe dispenses success and set-backs to Crusoe, in a satisfyingly believable way. This was one of Chesterton's favourite novels (sometimes he named this as his favourite, other times he named The Pickwick Papers).

That's all folks! How many books do you read in a year?

Be a Reactionary, but Don't Overreact

"Be angry, but do not sin", says Ephesians 4:26.

Similarly, I think we should be reactionary, as I've argued in a recent post, but we shouldn't overreact. And by "overreaction", I'm not so much talking about moderation in reaction, as avoiding reaction in the wrong places.

Here are some areas where I personally think excessive reaction is a danger. Most of them are typical libertarian responses to political correctness.

1) Support free speech, but don't become a free speech absolutist. Taboos and sacred cows are not necessarily bad things. Decency and piety are, in my view, things that shouldn't be challenged-- people should be allowed to challenge them, in certain contexts, but this shouldn't be seen as laudable. The idea that every tradition and every institution should to be constantly challenged at is, in my view, wrong-headed. Consensus is not intrinsically bad.

2) Don't fall into the trap of dismissing identity politics. Identity is important and should play a role in politics. Personally, I think the crucial distinction is the distinction between the identity politics of victimhood and the identity politics of affirmation. But even that distinction is not watertight.

3) Don't be infatuated with meritocracy or the worship of excellence above all else. Meritocracy is important, but it's not all-important. Sometimes it is overridden by other important considerations.

4) Don't dismiss the ideal of equality, and I'm not just talking about equality before the law or equality of opportunity. I mean equality of dignity. This is something quite elusive and, in my view, compatible with all sorts of natural and social distinctions. It's an attitude, and atmosphere, more than anything else.

5) We like to make fun of "special snowflakes", but I don't think we should cease to insist that everybody really is special. At least, I believe this. It doesn't mean anyone should be complacent, entitled, or resentful. It just means everybody in unique, valuable and should never be an object of contempt-- though their actions might well be deserving of contempt.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Of Your Kindness

I have been feeling despondent these last few days, afflicted by a lot of self-doubt in particular. If you think of it, please mention me in your prayers. Thanks.

Some Thoughts on Academe

I'm not quite finished Dracula, but I find the later parts of the novel-- where it becomes much more an adventure story than a horror story-- quite tedious. So I've put it aside and I've been reading a book of criticism on the poetry of Christina Rossetti.

Christina Rossetti is my favourite female poet. I especially like poetry that is smooth and polished, and Rossetti's poems are so smooth and polished that they positively gleam. I like all her most famous poems (anthology pieces nearly always deserve their fame), but an example of a lesser-known Rossetti work that appeals to me is her sonnet on John Henry Newman. (Remember Rossetti was an Anglo-Catholic.)

O weary Champion of the Cross, lie still:
Sleep thou at length the all-embracing sleep:
Long was thy sowing day, rest now and reap:
Thy fast was long, feast now thy spirit's fill.
Yea, take thy fill of love, because thy will
Chose love not in the shallows but the deep:
Thy tides were springtides, set against the neap
Of calmer souls: thy flood rebuked their rill.
Now night has come to thee--please God, of rest:
 So some time must it come to every man;
 To first and last, where many last are first.
Now fixed and finished thine eternal plan,
Thy best has done its best, thy worst its worst:
Thy best its best, please God, thy best its best.

The phrase "not in the shallows but the deep" gives me the shivers, even though I agree there's nothing obviously ingenious or original about it.  And "Thy best has done its best, thy worst its worst" is about as neat and satisfying a line of poetry as anybody could ever hope to write.

As I've been reading this work of criticism, I've been struck by a feeling that has become quite familiar to me recently-- that is, gratitude for the work of literary critics, and for academics in general.

When I started working in a university library, more than fifteen years ago, I felt a certain disdain towards academics, especially academics in the field of literature. I thought they sucked all the joy and fun out of poetry, and out of literature in general. There's nothing terribly original in this attitude. Yeats probably articulated best in his poem, "The Scholars":
Bald heads forgetful of their sins,
Old, learned, respectable bald heads
Edit and annotate the lines
That young men, tossing on their beds,
Rhymed out in love’s despair
To flatter beauty’s ignorant ear.

All shuffle there; all cough in ink;
All wear the carpet with their shoes;
All think what other people think;
All know the man their neighbour knows.
Lord, what would they say
Did their Catullus walk that way?

It's very easy to engage in this kind of sneering at academics, to contrast them unfavourably with creative writers. The poet creates; the scholar can only analyse. The poet is spontaneous and mysterious; the scholar is plodding and forensic. The poet is anarchic, the critic is in thrall to some hidebound theory or other.

I was also disdainful of the apparently endless multiplication of academic fields, each one more trivial than the last. Film Studies, Gender Studies, Celebrity Studies, Porn Studies...I was much amused once to discover that there is actual a Yeats Eliot Review. Guffaw, guffaw! I liked the witticism that "a specialist is someone who knows less and less about everything, until eventually he knows everything about nothing." I compared these cases of intellectual myopia, who perpetrated text-books full of unreadable academic jargon, with serious intellects such as C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, who could write erudite and scholarly books which would also appeal to the general reader.

However, I've changed my mind. I think more is better, in general. I've come to believe that every field of human activity, every field of human concern, should have its specialist students, its specialist investigators, its own specialized discourse, with as much rigour as its possible in that particular field. Indeed, it seems to me a good thing that society can afford to pay people to think and write about one very specific subject. That's not something to be deplored, but to be celebrated. It's civilization.

And I'm grateful for the labours of academics. When I become interested in any particular subject, I'm grateful that there have been people there ahead of me, mapping the territory, trying to study it and think about it in a systematic way, looking at the thing from a variety of perspectives. When I become interested in a movie, for instance, I'm fascinated to see what critics and others have written about it; it adds to the movie, it doesn't take away from it. The same is true of poets and writers. I'll probably never read Catullus, but if I ever do, I'll be most grateful to the old learned respectable bald heads that edited and annotated his lines. And I'm very glad that many people have devoted a great portion of their lives to reading and thinking about Christina Rossetti, so that I can benefit from their long labours simply by picking up a book.

In our time, ordinary people are getting in on the act, and I see nothing to be deplored in this, either. I feel that a whole army of Amazon reviewers and Wikipedia contributors are benefiting society every day. There is an academic database called "web of knowledge"; it's a nice image, and I really think it's quite appropriate to our era. This is one of the good things about our time, and it's one for which I'm belatedly grateful.

What is Interesting?

The question, "What is interesting?" is one which interests me. It doesn't only interest me. It fascinates me, baffles me, perplexes me, preoccupies me, and often even causes me considerable angst.

Here is a question which haunts me. Why should anything be interesting? I can imagine (not in reality, but as a thought experiment) waking up one morning and suddenly finding that nothing in the world was of interest to me. Who could help me, in such a situation? How could anyone induce me to take an interest in anything? The quality of being interesting doesn't seem to exist objectively in things, but only subjectively in the intellect and emotions. There's something mystical about it.

Once upon a time, I had a dreadful nightmare where everything around me was fading (visibly fading), and in which everybody in the world had lost interest in everything. In the first novel I wrote, The Black Feather, one of the few half-decent passages concerned an encounter between the protagonist and a being whose intellect had become morbidly developed, to the extent that it could no longer find the intellectual stimulation it craved and was preparing to commit suicide, as the rest of its species had done. The whole novel was a protest against rationalism, against the dead-end of rationalism. I still see rationalism as a dead end, although I'm less alarmist about it now.

Every now and again I have a confident crisis about whether my own thoughts and preoccupations are interesting. This blog has a readership, and people have made kind comments, so to some extent I suppose they must be interesting. However, this anxiety never seems to be entirely vanquished, and flares up periodically. (Earlier this morning, I was listening to an interview in which Paul McCartney discussed the break-up of the Beatles. He said that, for weeks afterwards, his self-esteem was completely flattened and he felt useless, not shaving or getting out of bed. It's fascinating to me that even a member of the most successful musical group of all time could be a prey to such insecurities.)

This whole subject has been on my mind recently, but this afternoon I had a conversation which focused my mind upon it to an even greater degree. I reminded one of my colleagues about a story she'd told me many months ago, one which was so interesting to me that I told it to several other people. I'd been asking her if she had any interesting photographs, and she told me about an odd picture of a girl sitting in an armchair, which she found in her attic. She told me that she didn't want to get rid of this picture, as it seemed to belong to the house, but that she didn't like having it either. I'd asked her to take a picture of it with her phone, and show it to me, but she said she didn't even want to have it on her phone. More recently, when I raised the subject after a long interval, she told me she had got rid of it, but she was rather vague about it and didn't seem entirely sure if she had.

A story like this, to me, is enormously interesting. And the conversation got me thinking; why do I so rarely find other peoples' stories that interesting? Because, when I say I often feel insecure about my own thoughts and how interesting they are, that's only half the truth. The full truth is that I often find other peoples' conversation uninteresting. The conversational obsession with the practicalities of getting about, for instance-- routes, time spent in transit, traffic, etc. etc.-- is something that baffles me. I've lost count of the amount of times people have asked me how long it took me to get to such-and-such a place, or how long it takes me usually, and I reply (honestly): "I don't know."

Small-talk is something that bothers me. Once, I even made a badge with the words: "No small talk, please". (I sent it to a reader of this blog, actually, on request!) I'm an introvert, and introverts' dislike of small-talk is famous. There are many articles about it on the internet. For my own part, it's not that I don't see the value of small-talk. It's better than awkward silence. My loathing of small-talk, indeed my dread of small-talk, is something that I no longer try to defend. I accept that it's irrational. But it doesn't make small-talk any less irksome, or intimidating.

This question of what's interesting and what's not interesting doesn't only concern me for my own sake. It's also something that influences my view of the world. As I wrote in this series of blog posts, I'm greatly preoccupied with the question of keeping society interesting. I've always been preoccupied with this. One of the reasons I'm a conservative and a traditionalist is because I think conservative, traditional societies are more interesting. Superficially, they seem less interesting. But ultimately I think they are more interesting, for many reasons. Cosmopolitan liberal secularism is the lowest common denominator, a vacuum, a nothing-- dreary tolerance, grey "diversity", utilitarian reasoning. Liberalization may be exciting, but the excitement is all in the transition, in the battle against tradition.

Finally, let me say a few words about boredom, because this is (if you'll pardon the expression), where it gets interesting-- at least, where I think it gets interesting...

For somebody who frets constantly about whether something is interesting or not, you might imagine that I would consider boredom to be an unalloyed evil, the great Satan. But I don't. In fact, it's almost the opposite-- boredom acccompanies and hedges everything that's really interesting. I said earlier that conservative societies seem dull on the surface, but are ultimately more interesting. I think this is true of many other aspects of life.

Take sex and gender. Society is now infatuated with the idea that gender-bending, the defiance of gender roles, and sexual liberation are interesting. But all these things are really deadly dull-- once the novelty wears off. You can't go deeper into them. And besides, they are entirely parasitic on what they subvert. Gender-bending is simply endless "subversion" of the masculine-feminine dichotomy, and has no meaning without reference to that dichotomy. But the masculine-feminine dichtomy is inexhaustibly fascinating and fruitful in itself. Humankind spun stories and songs and sagas out of it for millennia. Gender-bending, on the other hand, is a dead end.

This is true of art, as well. Post-modernism seems like an exciting new departure, but it's not a departure at all, because there's nowhere to go once you've made your rather trivial point. Classical artistic conventions, on the other hand, never grow old.

But my fondness for boredom goes deeper than that. It seems that boredom is a kind of fog through which we must pass, in order to discover a new country beyond it-- and it often seems to me as though everything really interesting likes on the far side of that fog. Here I can't help quoting one of my favourite Chesterton passages, which I quote so often because I find it so endlessly relevant:

The principle is this: that in everything worth having, even in every pleasure, there is a point of pain or tedium that must be survived, so that the pleasure may revive and endure. The joy of battle comes after the first fear of death; the joy of reading Virgil comes after the bore of learning him; the glow of the sea-bather comes after the icy shock of the sea bath; and the success of the marriage comes after the failure of the honeymoon. All human vows, laws, and contracts are so many ways of surviving with success this breaking point, this instant of potential surrender. 

John Ruskin said something similar in The Stones of Venice:

The endurance of monotony has about the same place in a healthy mind that the endurance of darkness has: that is to say, as a strong intellect will have pleasure in the solemnities of storm and twilight, and in the broken and mysterious lights that gleam among them, rather than in mere brilliancy and glare, while a frivolous mind will dread the shadow and the storm; is not that the noble nature loves monotony, any more than it loves darkness or pain. But it can bear with it, and receive a high pleasure in the endurance or patience, a pleasure necessary to the well-being of this world; while those who will not submit to the temporary sameness, but rush from one change to another, gradually dull the edge of change itself, and bring a shadow and weariness over the whole world from which there is no more escape.

The "train spotter" is often taken as the type par excellence of the boring person. But the idea of train spotting seems terribly exciting to me. It must be great fun to be a train spotter-- to feast on the daily comings and goings of trains.

It must be great fun to be a politics nerd-- every week, an election is happening somewhere in the world. It's a bottomless sea.

Only a few days ago, I was listening to a sports broadcast on the radio, and I suddenly thought how wonderful it would be to know all the rules, vocabulary, and history of a wide range of sports-- it would be something to feast on.

It's not people fascinated by an obscure subject who I find boring. It's people with a perfectly ordinary interest in perfectly ordinary subjects. The bore is a character-- he has personality. It's the "basic bitch" I find boring. (Sorry to use the word "bitch", but it's an allusion to a popular comedy sketch. I'm happy to apply the term to men, too.) 

I've written a couple of other posts on the strange appeal of boredom, here and here. I hope you don't find them too boring.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

"And Then No More" by James Clarence Mangan

Meritocracy is the cry amongst much of the anti-politically correct right, but here is another instance where I find myself unable to join in. It's not that I think we don't need meritocracy-- of course we do. If someone is going to open me up and perform surgery on me, I want him (or her, I hasten to add) to have got the job on merit. Or at least, to be qualified to do it.

But meritocracy is like freedom. I think we can have enough of it without making a fetish out of it. And by "meritocracy", I mean here not only the allocation of jobs and positions in society, but the quest for excellence in general.

In a post some months ago, I defended the Special Olympics on the grounds that the athletes who perform in it are unlikely to get many opportunities to perform in such a setting. 

I'm not sold on artistic or literary meritocracy, either. Matthew Arnold once described literature as "the best that has been thought and said in the world." I don't like this definition.

Again, I'm not arguing that it has no relevance. Many great works do have a surpassing literary and artistic merit which transcends all boundaries-- A Christmas Carol, for instance.

But I think extra-aesthetic and extra-meritocratic considerations can and do influence our appreciation of culture. When you think about it, this is obvious. Is it wrong for someone to enjoy Three Men and a Boat because they like boats? Or to enjoy Conan the Barbarian because they like the sword and sorcery genre? Of course, not.

I'm partial to the idea of "national culture" and "national literature", and I think national cultures rest as much on second-rate and third-rate and fourth-rate talents as they do on first-rate talents. The same point applies to regional literature and regional culture. W.B. Yeats belongs to world culture as well as to Irish culture. But there are other writers who have a readership or reputation in their homeland, but not abroad. I think this is all to the good, and I worry that globalization might endanger it.

(When I went to Hull, I was very upset that a local bookshop had more Yeats books than Larkin books on the shelf. I felt Hull was Larkin's city and he should be the favourite son there. That was in 2005.)

James Clarence Mangan is a poet who is fairly well known in Ireland but virtually unknown outside it. (Although Chesterton wrote a highly knowledgeable review of his works.) He died in 1849. He was a rather Byronic figure who suffered from depression and addictions. He was also a cultural nationalist.

W.B. Yeats took him as a predecessor, although (if my memory serves me) he admitted later in life that he had rather overpraised him. His poems have a tendency towards the melodramatic and orotund-- although that's not the worst thing in the world.

My favourite of his poems is probably "And Then No More", a poem which greatly appealed to me when puberty fired through my veins. (But that's not the only reason I liked it. I've always liked poems with a very restricted rhyme scheme.) I still like it, although not quite as much. Anyway, my non-Irish readers might be especially interested in a poet they're unlikely to have heard of.

I saw her once, one little while, and then no more:
’Twas Eden’s light on Earth a while, and then no more.
Amid the throng she passed along the meadow-floor:
Spring seemed to smile on Earth awhile, and then no more;
But whence she came, which way she went, what garb she wore       
I noted not; I gazed a while, and then no more!

I saw her once, one little while, and then no more:
’Twas Paradise on Earth a while, and then no more.
Ah! what avail my vigils pale, my magic lore?
She shone before mine eyes awhile, and then no more.       
The shallop of my peace is wrecked on Beauty’s shore.
Near Hope’s fair isle it rode awhile, and then no more!

I saw her once, one little while, and then no more:
Earth looked like Heaven a little while, and then no more.
Her presence thrilled and lighted to its inner core       
My desert breast a little while, and then no more.
So may, perchance, a meteor glance at midnight o’er
Some ruined pile a little while, and then no more!

I saw her once, one little while, and then no more:
The earth was Peri-land awhile, and then no more.       
Oh, might I see but once again, as once before,
Through chance or wile, that shape awhile, and then no more!
Death soon would heal my griefs! This heart, now sad and sore,
Would beat anew a little while, and then no more.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

On Being Reactionary

The English academic Bruce Charlton is always interesting. I read his book Thought Prison (on political correctness) some years ago, and occasionally look at his blog. He was an Orthodox Christian when he wrote that book, but now he has embraced Mormon metaphysics (I'm not too sure what that means). In his latest blog post, he writes:

I equate modernity (that is secular Leftism in all its forms - including all mainstream and non-religious parties) with arrested adolescence - which is the worst thing.

I equate religious reaction with our spiritual childhood.

Now - if forced to choose between perpetual adolescence and childhood, I would certainly choose childhood. But that is not what is on offer from religious reaction, starting (as we are) from here-and-from-now: what is offered is a partial and self-conscious return to the closest-possible simulacrum of childhood - therefore not childhood itself.

This is still somewhat better than full-blown Leftist modernity, but it is not stable - and it is sad, because it knows itself to be based on a kind of self-deception, a self-blinding.

I see his point, but I disagree with it. I think religious reaction (and reaction in general) is very likely to be stable, because it generally draws on tried and tested forms, forms that have lasted generations or even centuries. I realize I'm talking about the phenomenon itself, and Charlton is talking about the spiritual and psychological state of the reactionary, but I don't think that invalidates the point.

I think worrying too much about self-deception can drive us crazy, and there seems no way of escaping the labyrinth. When do you know you are no longer deceiving yourself? Isn't there an element of role-playing to all human behaviour?

There is something very cheerful, humble and gleeful about reaction. Reaction respects the pre-existing fault-lines of debate and conflict. How likely is that the everybody was wrong about those fault-lines? Reaction is (I would argue) even respectful towards one's opponents. It's accepting their dance-steps, even in conflict.

Recently, I was re-reading Jiving at the Crossroads by John Waters, an Irish liberal-turned-conservative. The book was written while he was in transition from one to the other. Amongst other things, this book reflects on the Presidential campaign of Mary Robinson, Ireland's first female President (mostly a ceremonial role), who was elected in 1990. Waters argues in the book that Robinson had transcended the liberal-conservative, traditional-modernist, rural-urban divide. All these years later, Robinson's Presidency is seen as a great watershed of Irish liberalisation and globalisation. Waters was overthinking the matter. Things usually are as simple as they look.

I think the same thing when I remember the beginning of Pope Francis's pontificate, when so many Catholics (me included) were so eager to convince themselves, and others, that the new Pope was not a liberal and that he was seeking to transcend the whole liberal-conservative division. Well, we were wrong. We were over-thinking it. Mea culpa. It really was as simple as it looked.

Another example is the new female Dr. Who. I don't care about Dr. Who. I think it's a stupid, boring, intellectually lightweight show. I get that the Doctor is an alien. But the only reason they're having a female Doctor is to push a PC agenda. So indignation is entirely appropriate (if you care enough to be interested).

I think we are better off sticking to reaction.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Sermons at the Wrong Time

This is just a quick post about something that I have noticed amongst some of my fellow Christians-- that is, a tendency to give sermons at the wrong moments.

I'm really thinking of times when people are brought low, are upset about something, or are angry about something.

If someone is having a really bad streak of luck, and desperately wishing for their luck to my view, it's simply unfeeling to remind them that God sends good luck and bad luck, that we are redeemed through suffering, etc. All that might be true, but it's very easy for you to preach it at that moment. And not helpful.

If someone asks you for prayers for a specific purpose, and it's not immoral, I recommend you tell them you will pray for that purpose. Don't give them a homily. They didn't ask for one. Don't tell them to offer it up. They know that already and they are probably doing it already. They might have been doing it for weeks, months and years already.

Similarly, if somebody is very angry about some kind of mistreatment, giving them a lecture about forgiving their enemies is probably not helpful (in my view). It's easy to recommend forgiveness to other people.

OK, if someone you know is smouldering with bitterness for a long time, then perhaps it is justified. But if someone is in the throes of anger, and it's probably going to burn itself out anyway, why upset them more with ill-timed advice?

Imagine you were at a funeral and one of the bereaved said that the deceased was an angel in Heaven now. Would you say: "Actually, she's not an angel, that's theologically illiterate. And we can't say she's in Heaven, we can only hope she is."

Of course you wouldn't.

Well, admittedly, that's an extreme example, but I think the principle applies in less extreme cases. If someone comes to you looking for comfort and consolation, don't give them a sermon. Give them comfort and consolation, if you can.

Sunday, July 23, 2017

Saturday, July 22, 2017

"What Does it Mean to be 10 Per Cent Irish?"

This was a search that found my blog today.

Perhaps the person doing the search simply missed out on a zero. I guess that's the most realistic explanation.

But I like the idea of somebody being ten per cent Irish. What would that look like?

On "Exposition-Dumping"

I'm still reading Dracula. Yesterday I came to my very favourite part of the novel, an extract of which follows. Feel free to skip it when it becomes tiresome to you....

When we met in Dr. Seward’s study two hours after dinner, which had been at six o’clock, we unconsciously formed a sort of board or committee. Professor Van Helsing took the head of the table, to which Dr. Seward motioned him as he came into the room. He made me sit next to him on his right, and asked me to act as secretary; Jonathan sat next to me. Opposite us were Lord Godalming, Dr. Seward, and Mr. Morris—Lord Godalming being next the Professor, and Dr. Seward in the centre. The Professor said:—

“I may, I suppose, take it that we are all acquainted with the facts that are in these papers.” We all expressed assent, and he went on:—

“Then it were, I think good that I tell you something of the kind of enemy with which we have to deal. I shall then make known to you something of the history of this man, which has been ascertained for me. So we then can discuss how we shall act, and can take our measure according...

All we have to go upon are traditions and superstitions. These do not at the first appear much, when the matter is one of life and death—nay of more than either life or death. Yet must we be satisfied; in the first place because we have to be—no other means is at our control—and secondly, because, after all, these things—tradition and superstition—are everything. Does not the belief in vampires rest for others—though not, alas! for us—on them? A year ago which of us would have received such a possibility, in the midst of our scientific, sceptical, matter-of-fact nineteenth century? We even scouted a belief that we saw justified under our very eyes. Take it, then, that the vampire, and the belief in his limitations and his cure, rest for the moment on the same base. For, let me tell you, he is known everywhere that men have been. In old Greece, in old Rome; he flourish in Germany all over, in France, in India, even in the Chernosese; and in China, so far from us in all ways, there even is he, and the peoples fear him at this day. He have follow the wake of the berserker Icelander, the devil-begotten Hun, the Slav, the Saxon, the Magyar. So far, then, we have all we may act upon; and let me tell you that very much of the beliefs are justified by what we have seen in our own so unhappy experience. The vampire live on, and cannot die by mere passing of the time; he can flourish when that he can fatten on the blood of the living. Even more, we have seen amongst us that he can even grow younger; that his vital faculties grow strenuous, and seem as though they refresh themselves when his special pabulum is plenty...

Reader, does this kind of thing make your spine tingle, as it makes mine?

"Exposition-dumping" is a term that some novelist coined to describe clumsy, all-at-once exposition in a work of fiction, as opposed to deftly dropping exposition throughout the story, like Hansel and Gretel's breadcrumbs. I don't like the term, because I love scenes where there's lots of exposition, like the one above.

My favourite chapters in The Lord of the Rings are "The Shadow of the Past" and "The Council of Elrond", scenes that are almost entirely devoted to characters talking, and filling each other in on backstory.

My favourite part of every single Sherlock Holmes story is when the client comes to 221B Baker Street, and tells Holmes and Watson their very singular (even "grotesque") case.

I was never a huge fan of Biggles, but my older brother read him, and so I read some of the books. The only part I liked was when Raymond, the air commodore, briefs Biggles and his chums on their next mission.

In Harry Potter, the Pensieve sequences were my favourite.

In The Wicker Man (I mean the original-- and if you haven't seen it, watch it NOW), it's the part where Sergeant Howie goes to the public library of the weird pagan island and reads up on their traditions. The way the camera lingers on the creepy etchings in the book is delicious.

Why do I love such sequences?

Perhaps it's the cosiness of the characters being in no immediate danger. Perhaps it's the excitement of a new horizon opening up. I don't know.

In horror, there is usually the added element that the protagonists are learning about something supernatural, paranormal, or monstrous. There's nearly always some variation on Hamlet's famous words, "There are more things in Heaven and Earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy." How far the incredulity of the characters is maintained is a tricky subject. Too little incredulity, and the characters seem unreal. Too persistent an incredulity, and we get irritated at them. ("For goodness sake, you've already seen a man disappear...") Then again, how often do we feel the same thing about the disciples' persistent incredulity in the gospels?

Thursday, July 20, 2017

When the Saints Go Marching In...

...will be not quite yet, at least as far as I'm concerned, as I'm pausing my "Year with the Saints" blog.

It's getting single-figure statistics, and since the whole idea was to promote my book, I'm not sure how useful that will be. But I might revisit it. It's quite a lot of work for a questionable amount of good.

I've been told by the publisher that my book should be published in December, by the way. 

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Reading Dracula

I am reading Dracula. Not for the first time, but this time I am reading it for my horror club. I was actually the person who suggested we should take it as the next subject for discussion. It is usually either a story or a movie which is the "text" at my horror club meetings, but this time it is going to be the first four chapters of Dracula-- which cover Jonathan Harker's time in Castle Dracula.

I suggested we should tackle Dracula because the club has some very enthusiastic fans of the book-- people who have written and lectured on Dracula, and created visual works of art inspired by it. They seem to know it inside out. I suggested we should read our way through the book, since one of my favourite things in the world is listening to people who really know and love a subject talk about it. However, it was quickly pointed out that this would be a mammonth undertaking, so we are only going to discuss certain sections. 

Dracula is, of course, Irish. His creator was Bram Stoker from Clontarf. This is one of those facts that strike me afresh as surprising, every now and again. it is a grievance of my horror club that he is not sufficiently honoured in his native city. They were disgusted that an opportunity to name a bridge after him was missed quite recently. 

There is a delicious theory that the name "Dracula" is derived from the Irish language-- droch fhola being a literal translation of "bad blood". (I don't know how grammatical it is.) However, there is no foundation for this at all.

In my late teens, I borrowed a book about writing horror, fantasy and science fiction from the local library, and read it several times. Dracula was lauded for several reasons. One reason was the name "Dracula" itself, which was presented as the gold standard of horror character naming in a chapter on that subject. Another was Stoker's parsimonious use of the arch-villain. After the opening chapters, he rarely appears in person.

Of course, we have all been familiar with Dracula since we were toddlers. My first acquaintance with the novel itself came in a Ladybird version. My American readers may not know what Ladybird books are. They are picture-books, in which the page is usually divided half-and-half between text and a picture. In fact, most of the Ladybird books of my childhood had accompanying cassettes. There's no need to make that face; they were actually very good. Me and my two brothers listened to them over and over. Our favourites were the classic books series, and the inside back cover and facing page had a list of other classic titles in the series, with the heading "Stories...that have stood the test of time". They list had a kind of decorative gold frame pictured around it, and around that the page was coloured deep brown, like mahogany.  This stirred my imagination with the idea of timeless classics, and the magic of story.

The acquisition of Dracula was especially memorable. One afternoon, my father suggested out of the blue that we should buy it, and gave us the money. He'd obviously seen it in the supermarket. It's one of those little gestures that always remain with me.

Anyway, even though I've read the novel a couple of times since then, it's the Ladybird book that, in my mind, remains the definitive version. The phrase "London, with its teeming millions" (used in horrified anticipation of Dracula arriving there) has ever since evoked for me the poetry of a great city, better than any other phrase. The cry of the female vampire, upon being denied Jonathan Harker's neck in Castle Dracula-- "are we to have nothing tonight?"-- was rendered so powerfully on the cassette, that I can still hear it all these years later.

The passage from the Ladybird book that impressed me the most, however, had nothing horrific about it. Just before a terrible sea-storm occurs off the coast of Whitby, on the day that Dracula's load of coffins arrive in the town, there is such a spectacular sunset that a small crowd gathers to look at it: "The approach of sunset was so very beautiful, so grand in its masses of splendidly-coloured clouds, that there was quite an assemblage on the walk along the cliff in the old churchyard to enjoy the beauty." I'm glad this detail made it into the Ladybird book because I remember being completely fascinated by the idea of people actually stopping to look at the sky. I'd never heard of such a thing.

I read the book proper in my early twenties, but I can remember next to nothing about it. It's extraordinary how that happens. There are many novels of which I can say the same thing; Middlemarch, Crime and Punishment, The Way of All Flesh, Pride and Prejudice, and many others. It's as though a kind of film descended over my attention, or memory.

I read it again more recently, and got more out of it, but it still didn't made as big an impression on me as the Ladybird version.

The passage that excited me the most in the entire book, each time I read it, is probably Count Dracula's rhapsody on his family's past (this is before he has revealed himself as a supernatural being). Please skip this purple passage if you start to find it boring:

I have had a long talk with the Count. I asked him a few questions on Transylvania history, and he warmed up to the subject wonderfully. In his speaking of things and people, and especially of battles, he spoke as if he had been present at them all. This he afterwards explained by saying that to a boyar the pride of his house and name is his own pride, that their glory is his glory, that their fate is his fate. Whenever he spoke of his house he always said “we,” and spoke almost in the plural, like a king speaking. I wish I could put down all he said exactly as he said it, for to me it was most fascinating. It seemed to have in it a whole history of the country. He grew excited as he spoke, and walked about the room pulling his great white moustache and grasping anything on which he laid his hands as though he would crush it by main strength. One thing he said which I shall put down as nearly as I can; for it tells in its way the story of his race:—

“We Szekelys have a right to be proud, for in our veins flows the blood of many brave races who fought as the lion fights, for lordship. Here, in the whirlpool of European races, the Ugric tribe bore down from Iceland the fighting spirit which Thor and Wodin gave them, which their Berserkers displayed to such fell intent on the seaboards of Europe, ay, and of Asia and Africa too, till the peoples thought that the were-wolves themselves had come [....] Ah, young sir, the Szekelys—and the Dracula as their heart’s blood, their brains, and their swords—can boast a record that mushroom growths like the Hapsburgs and the Romanoffs can never reach. The warlike days are over. Blood is too precious a thing in these days of dishonourable peace; and the glories of the great races are as a tale that is told.”

The Count's words of appreciation for the howling of his wolves have become deservedly famous: "Listen to them, the children of the night. What music they make!". Indeed, I think those words might express the poetry of horror better than any other.

Another thrilling line from the book: "We are in Transylvania; and Transylvania is not England. Our ways are not your ways, and there shall be to you many strange things." 

I'd always assumed that Dracula was the book which introduced the vampire into popular fiction. But this is actually far from the case. Vampires were already seen as clichéd by the time that Stoker came along. He gave new life to the genre, so to speak. Indeed, this time round, I've noticed that, when the term "vampire" is first used in the novel, it's not even explained to the reader.

I'm often withering about feminist literary theory, post-colonial literary theory, and all the other lefty, identity-obsessed fields of literary theory on this blog. Well, the proponents of such approaches absolutely love Dracula, and I have to admit that it's a book in which it's difficult not to see such theories borne out. In fact, I wonder how much of this is actually conscious artistry on Stoker's part.

For instance: there is the famous scene where Lucy Westenra, who has become a vampire, is staked through the heart by the combined efforts of her fiancé and two other men who proposed to her earlier in the book. OK, feminists. You can have that one.

And the fact that Dracula is quite literally an infectious creature from a backward and uncivilized country, intent on corrupting and polluting the women of England, does seem to be a genuine projection of cultural anxieties. (The fact that Stoker was Irish is often dragged into these discussions. Was Dracula Irish, in a deeper sense than just having an Irish creator? Was Stoker instilling him with all his own feelings of being "the other" in England? Why am I even talking like this?)

 It's certainly a story...that has stood the test of time. I'm looking forward to hearing the horror club discussion on it!