Ass You Like It

This is a guest post by Norman Foreman, B.A.


Mediaeval Catholic philosophers wrote about both praying and braying. The braying came from Buridan’s ass, a thought-experiment about choice and free will. Imagine a hungry ass set between two piles of hay that are identical in every way: size, shape, colour, tastiness and so on. Some philosophers argued that, if it had no reason to prefer one pile of hay to the other, the ass would be unable to choose and would therefore starve to death.

I don’t agree: inter alia, nervous systems don’t work symmetrically and we don’t experience objects as fully identical when they’re in different parts of our visual field. However, in a literary sense, I understand what it feels like to be Buridan’s ass. To assify myself, I start by imagining this:

• I’m offered £1000 to read a book by the transgressive author Will Self.

Would I accept? Yes. It would be distasteful, but I’d do it for £1000. Self’s writing is so bad that I might give the money back rather than finish the book, but I’d have a go. Now change the situation:

• I’m offered £1000 to read a book by the transgressive author Stewart Home.

Would I still accept? Yes. Again, it would be distasteful, but I’d do it for the money. Or I’d try, at least. The next step turns me into Buridan’s ass. I imagine this:

• I’m offered £1000 to read a book by either Will Self or Stewart Home (not both). And I have to make the choice for myself.

Now I’m on the horns of a dilemma. I would want the £1000, but I can’t decide which transgressive author I’d rather NOT read. Home is a downmarket version of Self, Self is an upmarket version of Home. It’s Self-as-chav vs Home-as-Oxbridge-grad. And/or vice versâ. They’re both keyly committed components of the Guardianista community, with all that that implies in terms of issues around bad English, mixed metaphors and “in terms of”. I’m happy to say I’ve never read a book by either of them. So if I were offered £1000 to do so and had to choose either Self or Home, I couldn’t do it. Not unassisted. I’d have to toss a coin. Best of three. Or best of five dot dot dot


Previously pre-posted (please peruse):

Titus Graun
Ex-term-in-ate!
Reds under the Thread

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8 thoughts on “Ass You Like It

  1. You’re just jealous that you can’t “render a coruscating account” as well as Peter Sotos. H8er!

    (I must admit, I’ve read a book by Will Self, and liked it quite a bit. But my taste is defective, as you know.)

    • You’re just jealous that you can’t “render a coruscating account” as well as Peter Sotos. H8er!

      S4d but tr00.

      Opening with an excruciating set piece inspired by the crimes of Ian Brady, Tool unfolds through a sequence of vivid metafictional narratives that that rain hard light on the blackest recesses of a Sadean abyss [not “über-Sadean”?], limning a ferocious [hyper-feral?] tableau vivant thronged with victims and whores and jaded cops, with grief-stricken mothers, writhing AIDS casualties, and abased gloryhole habitués. In one deeply resonant chapter, Sotos renders a coruscating account of his fateful arrest and interrogation.

      Resonating while coruscating is a good trick. I’d almost suspect the blurb-writer was taking the piss, like whoever wrote the blurb for The Eyes:

      These are the unblinking eyes in which Aldapuerta mirrors the foulness and corruption of our collapsing world, and the worse horrors that stir at its ruined foundations. More than stories, they are the apocalyptic scriptures of an atheist madman who worshipped at a shrine dedicated in blood and semen to both Eros and Thanatos. Once read, they will be with you always… A Nazi rocket-plane rises from the Götterdämmerung of the Third Reich to enter an hyper-oneiric world of sadistic delirium… [etc, etc]

      (I must admit, I’ve read a book by Will Self, and liked it quite a bit. But my taste is defective, as you know.)

      You post here and think your taste is defective? As I said, try À Rebours or CAS. This is a remarkable story, for example, and not his best:

      The Chain of Aforgomon

      • I read A Rebours and liked it. Very creative. Good writing too, although that could be the translator’s doing. America gets the credit for romanticizing misfits and malcontents (James Dean, Holden Caulfield…) but truly the French beat them by nearly a century. Have you ever read anything by Michel Houellebecq?

        If you like being swamped in a tornado of mixed metaphors, there’s always thriller writer Dan Brown. He doesn’t write “EngLit”, far from it, but he still makes you want to book the English language into a rape crisis centre of some sort.

        http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/booknews/6194031/The-Lost-Symbol-and-The-Da-Vinci-Code-author-Dan-Browns-20-worst-sentences.html

      • I read A Rebours and liked it. Very creative. Good writing too, although that could be the translator’s doing.

        “He’s supposed to have a particularly high-class style: ‘Feather-footed through the plashy fen passes the questing vole’ … would that be it?”

        “Yes,” said the Managing Editor. “That must be good style.”

        Scoop, E. Waugh.

        Là-bas by Huysmans is interesting too.

        America gets the credit for romanticizing misfits and malcontents (James Dean, Holden Caulfield…) but truly the French beat them by nearly a century.

        Yes, but there was Poe and he was an important influence on writers like Baudelaire.

        Have you ever read anything by Michel Houellebecq?

        No, but he seems interesting.

        If you like being swamped in a [no-holds-barred?] tornado of mixed metaphors, there’s always thriller writer Dan Brown.

        He’s bad, but he has the big advantage of not being influenced by William S. Burroughs:

        Just then, a masked woman with spiky hair burst through the doors, firing a metallic gun. Sienna opened a hidden trap door that no one had guessed might be there and she and Langdon slid down a curved tunnel that took them to a secret hideout. Inferno — Digested Read

  2. “swamped in a [no-holds-barred?] tornado”

    It’s more of a pulls-no-punches tornado. It steamrolls your psyche with a pivotal undercurrent of toxic interrogagement and removes over 35% more stains than other leading brands.

    • It’s more of a pulls-no-punches tornado. It steamrolls your psyche with a pivotal undercurrent of toxic interrogagement and removes over 35% more stains than other leading brands.

      Yes, good: you mix your metaphors like a house on fire. I wonder how many people don’t spot what Waugh’s up to here:

      Mr. Ryder [the most respected of them wrote] rises like a fresh young trout to the hypodermic injection of a new culture and discloses a powerful facet in the vista of his potentialities … By focusing the frankly traditional battery of his elegance and erudition on the maelstrom of barbarism, Mr. Ryder has at last found himself. — Brideshead Revisited (1945).

      • That has an interesting part, though. “Culture” would normally suggest human culture, but when you have “hypodermic injection” it makes me think of a bacterial culture, so that part of the metaphor actually works in a roundabout kind of way.

        There should be a term for metaphors that are so wrong they become right. Once, Barack Obama joked that he wants to do a “Jedi mind meld” on his political opposition. Everyone laughed at him for mixing up a Star Wars reference with a Star Trek reference, but it turns out there actually is an obscure Jedi power called the “mind meld” (it’s mentioned once in a licensed book, or something). Obviously Obama didn’t know that, the metaphor hit the mark through random accident. It’s like shooting at a bird, missing, and hitting a second bird that you didn’t know was there in the bushes.

        On a different note, here’s something you’ll like: an academic discussion of the mixed metaphor.

        http://www.academia.edu/1607088/Why_we_mix_metaphors_and_mix_them_well_

        The lede contains the phrases “discourse coherence” and “belief-related conceptual planes”, so you can see where this is going. It looks boring and I can’t be fucked to read it, but he’s mined a bumper crop of mixed metaphors from the UK press (…is it just me or does The Sun have worse metaphors than The Guardian? Help me here.)

      • There should be a term for metaphors that are so wrong they become right.

        Moomerangs.

        The lede contains the phrases “discourse coherence” and “belief-related conceptual planes”, so you can see where this is going.

        It’s odd how people with linguistics degrees tend to use language v. badly. Chomsky is even worse than Christopher Hitchens and Will Self, who are so bad that I assumed they had EngLit degrees.

        It looks boring and I can’t be fucked to read it, but he’s mined a bumper crop of mixed metaphors from the UK press (…is it just me or does The Sun have worse metaphors than The Guardian? Help me here.)

        I’ll have a look. But The Sun is the only British paper that makes me feel soiled for reading it. There is something evil about it. Funnily enough, I get the same feeling from James Joyce.

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