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The Literature of Dreaming: Part 2 (The Science of Sleep)


I love sleep. My life has the tendency to fall apart when I’m awake, you know?
― Ernest Hemingway

On Thursday 22nd October, Lavinia Greenlaw chaired a discussion between Jonathan Coe, Deborah Levy and Dr Russell Foster on all matters surrounding sleep at an event co-hosted by the Royal Society of Literature & Royal Society. Foster, a neuroscientist, opened by reminding the audience that 36% of our lifespan is spent sleeping. He described sleep as “the single most important behaviour we experience”, as well as giving a historical portrayal of its significance by citing Thomas Dekker, who thought that sleep was “the golden chain that holds health and our body together”.

Lady Macbeth refers to sleep constantly, using it to her advantage initially by making the sleeping state the moment to take the lives standing in her way, until it gets the better of her by abandoning her for good. She is deprived of rest, and yet clamours “To bed! to bed!” Shakespeare knew it was not something to be trifled with, and perhaps it wasn’t, until Thomas Edison came along. He thought sleep a criminal waste of time, and in inventing the light bulb he curtailed our natural sleep in a way candles and gas lamps didn’t and couldn’t.

Research continues to consolidate the link between mental illness and sleep disruption: illustrated by Foster’s graphs of hormone levels released whilst sleeping in the brains of schizophrenics. Sleep and mental illness have shared origins of overlapping neural pathways, as well as the more obvious factor that one is clearly able to influence the other. We need sleep to be able to use our brains as we would wish. The body at rest allows the brain to repair itself, sort information and perform memory consolidation, which is why we can sleep ‘on’ something and wake up with the solution.

Sleep deprivation actually puts the brain in an altered state, where you cannot tell how dampened a level it is working at. The part of the brain that controls impulse is asleep, which is why every idea seems outstanding when you are tired enough. Jonathan Coe said this was partly why he always felt sorry for Thatcher attempting to function on four hours a night. None of the three speakers put any faith in the concept of the brilliant idea at 3am. Rather than trust it for genuine inspiration, Coe recalled the story of a Hollywood producer who, agonized by ideas in the night dissipating on waking, put a pad by his bedside at his wife’s suggestion. The first morning he awoke to find he had written “boy meets girl” overnight.

Deborah Levy’s statement that “dreams tell us the things we don’t want to know but know anyway” clearly signposted that the scientific part of the evening was essentially over. She read Kerouac’s “rhapsodic manifesto” against sleep, containing his assertion that “the only ones” for him were “the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars”. His rule of no yawners allowed does reveal the short jump between sleep avoidance and a fear of death. Just as brothers Hypnos and Thanatos lived cheek by jowl, some of us fear sleep in the event we should never wake again; Poe described sleep as “those little slices of death — how I loathe them”. Children require talismanic blankets and soft toys as part of their bedtime rituals in order to feel happy about going to sleep, but is this because of a painful (to them) separation from the waking world? Their fear of sleep could be more closely related to the threat of nightmare, depending on your personal views of the liminal state. Children are instructed to have sweet dreams, but more often see what truly lurks under the bed, or in the recesses of their minds.

Just as we have no control over the content of what we encounter within as we sleep, there is the area of considering what happens around us while we are unconscious. Jonathan Coe read from The House of Sleep, written 19 years ago about visiting a sleep clinic. Coe sleep walked frequently (nearly climbing out of a first floor window at one point) and decided not to visit a clinic, as he was frightened by the idea of being watched over while caught in the powerlessness of sleep. A parallel he drew with being in love. This powerlessness was summed up by a passage where characters Sarah and Gregory (an aspiring sleep clinician) have just had rather disappointing (for her) sex. The post-coital sleepiness and nostalgia were her favourite parts of the whole process. He tells her in one such period that his favourite part of her body is her eyelids, from watching her sleep. This is the first hint of his fondness for standing over sleepers. He likes to look down, fully in control, watching the helpless (a brilliant segue from sweet intimacy to sinister humour in the space of a few paragraphs). Sarah wakes from a nightmare where a creature has seized her by the eyes by its tongue, to find she cannot open her eyes as Gregory is holding her lids down with his fingers. He expressed a desire to see life flickering behind the lids.

If dream reveals the parts of the subconscious we would rather not tackle, daydream presented to Freud the ideal case scenario where we can make the little directions we desire to reality, much like the habit of thinking of a great response to an argument rather after the fact.

In the same way, we tend to think most truly in the quiet period immediately before sleep, moments described by Ondaatje in the English Patient “when she feels most alive, leaping across fragments of the day, bringing each moment into the bed with her like a child with schoolbooks and pencils. The day seems to have no order until these times, which are like a ledger for her, her body full of stories and situations.”

Full of possibility, in other words. Levy’s hypothesis was that only psychotics are truly certain. There is value in being separated from our certainties, as a state of floating helps ideas, and allows us to encounter endeavour. Our super conscious state – where we are at our most controlled and articulate – lies in direct opposition to a sleeping or semi-conscious state where you encounter what you can’t articulate, and you lack the imperatives to control it. As science has no definition for the unconscious, literature revels in bridging the gap. Coe’s apt response to Levy was that a novel or a poem is not a daydream, as there is control there. A controlled daydream then.

Science and literature agree that sleep is a transitional state. Raymond Carver captured it perfectly when he talked of crossing an invisible line to “a place where a little harmless dreaming and then some sleepy, early-morning talk has led me into considerations of death and annihilation.”

The Editors

The Literature of Dreaming: Part 1


And people who don’t dream, who don’t have any kind of imaginative life, they must… they must go nuts. I can’t imagine that.”
― Stephen King

In the late 1910s, the surrealists, led by Andre Breton, invented a process they called “automatic” writing, which involved, among other techniques, waking each other up in the middle of the night in order to write immediately and attempt to capture something approaching the purity of unconscious thought. In this they were inspired by Freud’s works of psychoanalysis, and in particular the theory that the subconscious mind, free from the shackles of reason, is somehow capable of revealing a deeper truth. For both writers the dream was a purveyor of this deeper truth; the surrealists simply went to greater lengths to try to harvest the dream as a source of creative expression. It is noticeable, however, that between the publication of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams in 1900 and Breton’s The Magnetic Fields (the first automatic text) in 1919, there was a world war, and it makes sense to me that this global catastrophe should have contributed somewhat to the urgency and pragmatism that the surrealists invested in their attempts to flee the constraints of rational thought.

But the surrealists were not the first writers to see the world of dreams as a way of escaping the strictures of waking life. Lewis Carroll was also fascinated by the contemporary science on the interpretation of dreams, and used the dream as a narrative form through which he could satirise staid Victorian didacticism. Alice in Wonderland is in many ways just an escape from the limitations of English society in the mid-19th century, and for Carroll the dream was the perfect vehicle for that escape. Conventional views of logic, order and morality are thus subverted in favour of a sort of gleeful anarchy of the mind.

I’m not strange, weird, off, nor crazy, my reality is just different from yours.”

In discussing dreams and escapology in literature it seems entirely necessary to mention the famed use of the dream as a hackneyed narrative technique to obviate apparently inevitable fictional developments – otherwise known as the “I woke up and it was all a dream” ending. This device does of course have a more highbrow name – the deus ex macchina trope – whereby authors brazenly interfere with otherwise plausible plots just because they can and they don’t like the way things are going. Apparently Alex Garland’s novel The Coma has the message “I WOKE UP AND IT WAS ALL A DREAM” encoded in final paragraph. God knows what he was hoping to achieve with that, but presumably it was intended as some sort of play on the abovementioned cliché.

I suppose the point this post is meandering towards is that the dream in literature is often used as a sort of escape hatch to an alternate reality; an escape hatch used by authors to forget and to criticise the reality of waking life, or simply to indulge in whimsical doodles. The unifying thread seems to be dissatisfaction with contemporary reality and a yearning for something that may only be possible in the dim half-light of the dream world. And yet the escape is often not just from objective reality, but also from the reality of subjective consciousness. Returning to Breton and the Surrealists, automatic writing was intended in large part as a way of evading a subjective understanding of reality that was conditioned by a mind taught to think in a particular way. In other words, it was an escape from Western ideas of rationality and logic, as well as from the broader historical and social context of the time. Given that the prison bars of the mind are less clearly defined than other more objective constraints, it takes a very particular form of escape within oneself to break free from them. And what better temporary leave from the conscious self than the dream? Surely not drugs, despite certain similarities and what some claim to be the hallucinogenic aspects of Alice in Wonderland. No, the purest drift into unconsciousness is the dream. As William Blake, that king of dreamers, wrote:

Father, O father! what do we here
In this land of unbelief and fear?
The Land of Dreams is better far,
Above the light of the morning star.

The Editors

Book Club Spy: H is for Hawk

One ofHawk our more sensitive members misheard somebody talking about Helen Macdonald’s book and thought it was called “H is for Whore.” The latter somebody, as a pretty dyslexic person, was delighted to have the opportunity to tell the unfortunate mishearer that that is NOT how you spell it. Sadly/luckily, he left the room before she could even try.

H is for Hawk is predominantly about Macdonald’s grief upon the death of her father, T.H. White, and her decision to train a goshawk as a result, as she has been obsessed with hawking most of her life. However it is also partly a biographical account of T.H. White, as she interweaves his earlier, abortive attempts to do the same, only he was not grieving, but in retreat from life in general.

His first biography is described by Macdonald as almost like having his recently interred corpse on full display, with the detritus of his life (such as fishing reels) too much on show. Her version is more self-consciously delivered, and to be honest, none of us were ever going to read a book just about him anyway, no matter how big a fan of The Once and Future King one is. However, her extracts on White were some of the most enjoyable parts. The idea of a man living in a cottage in the grounds of a school almost pretending to be a hermit in the wild, fighting certain aspects of his nature and trying to apply hawking principles lifted from medieval texts is desperate. He was pretty much making it up as he went, or applying wildly outdated knowledge (he overfeeds his gos as he mistakenly thinks she is hungry when she is merely miserable), whereas Macdonald has had years of experience. She knows what she is doing, although of course there are plenty of panicked moments when she feels her gos does not like her. The wildness and alien aspects of the gos appeal to her, so she starves her and keeps her at flying weight to a carefully calculated level. Yet this beautiful, wild animal (the passages describing these elements of the animal’s nature are gripping) is kept inside, hooded, for large swathes of the book.

So it is certainly more than a beautiful and poignant account of Macdonald’s grief. There is no tragedy or mawkish sentiment. She clearly adored her father and had a strong relationship with him. It must have been hard to write about this. There are sections of the book which are slightly overwritten, and she asks far too many rhetorical questions. Phrases such as “I can tell a hawk from a handsaw” made us all collectively cringe, but she settles into it after a pretty poor opening line, and we were all spellbound until the final quarter. Apparently editors tend not to be too strict with academics, believing they can write already so why waste resources. This is unfortunate.

As well as a biography of White, and of grief, it is also a story about a woman with blood streaming down her face from a laceration to her scalp on a hillside in the Cambridgeshire countryside. The only thing that stops it from going fully Robert “Wildman” Macfarlane is the fact that it is located just there: in the mostly rather dull and flat Fenlands, rather than somewhere less urbanized.

There is something, too, about the fact that this is also a story about a slightly bonkers woman in her sitting room – the floors covered in birdshit – of a house she does not appear to need to work to keep. Of course she is not required to disclose any aspect of her life, least the financials, but a year to ride out grief alone in your own house with a companion over whom you are able to obsess is the province of the relatively few.

She may be bonkers, but someone unaffected by that level of grief may be deficient in some regard. Her honesty is uplifting despite some of the dark matter. And of course, we all obviously loved it when she chose the small, old, mad gos, not the large meek bird on that quayside.

The title does raise the question of whether the author is merely referencing her childhood in a semi-autobiographical work – learning the alphabet for some was done through beautiful illustrations such as

Or is the H that used to stand for her first name now for Hawk as her sense of self becomes so entangled with this animal during the course of their relationship that she has become obscure.

It is unclear which of these several titles and many stories this book contains, and of course therein lies much of its appeal.

The Editors

Review of the Year 2014

Fiction: Part 2

Welcome back to our Review of the Year 2014 – enjoy our remaining “best reads” and if there’s anything you’d like to contribute please send us an email:

Alice Farrant
Alice Farrant writes the blog Follow her on Twitter: @nomoreparades.

The Secret History, by Donna Tartt

I love all of Tartt’s novels (including The Little Friend), but The Secret History is one of the best books I have ever read. Reading it felt like fireworks exploding in my mind and I’ve never felt as creative or motivated as I did after finishing it. Who knew five intellectuals, two deaths and a murder could bring me so much joy.

Mrs Hemingway, by Naomi Wood

Fictionalising historical events or people is a complicated task that has the potential to go horrendously wrong. However, Wood manages to breath live in Hemingway’s four wives in a way I never have thought possible. She destroyed my preconceptions of his wives, ones that were predominantly negative of the three who followed Hadley, but after reading Mrs Hemingway I had grown to love all four women who loved and suffered with him.

Editor 1

Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger

That place had phonies coming out of the window” was one of my favourite sentences of 2014. A book I am looking forward to reading, and re-living, over and over again. I am not sure why I hadn’t read it before. (Read the DRTF review).

Your Fathers, where are they? And the Prophets, do they live forever? by Dave Eggers

A chilling take on the rational justifications we make for the actions we use to mask our fear and the sense that we don’t belong. One of the more impressive works in the psycho-lit genre that has been born out of America’s lost youth taking up arms to define and discover their place in an alienating society of the twenty first century. (Read the DRTF review).

Editor 2

This year has had the requisite amount of furtively ploughing through science fiction and fantasy hardbacks such as The Slow Regard of Silent Things by Patrick Rothfuss, Nick Harkaway’s Tigerman and the collection from everyone in that generously sized genre aptly named Rogues.

I have reaffirmed my respect for the short story thanks to Bark by Lorrie Moore, and shall endeavour to keep reading entirely different kinds of stories, such as S by JJ Abrams, and the wonderfully funny and entirely bonkers In the Approaches by Nicola Barker. The latter book is essential reading for anyone who has ever lived on the South Coast and/or suspects that their family are mad.

2014 has also been a really strong year for comics: Through the Woods by Emily Carroll shows beautifully dark fairy tales with bite (read with Marina Warner’s latest if you are interested in the roots of these stories). Porcelain: A Gothic Fairy Tale by Benjamin Read is drawn by the wonderful Christian Wildgoose, and perfect for reading over Christmas. Finally, decades later, Neil Gamain has returned to fill in a few gaps he left when The Sandman came to an end, with Overtures. Everything I could have hoped for.

Editor 3

Stoner, by John Williams

An almost inconceivably succinct, heartbreaking account of the highs and lows of human existence. Despite the ostensible adversity with which Williams besets his protagonist, I found this an extremely uplifting novel, as though the author had somehow managed to crystallise the essence of what it is that makes life living. (Read the DRTF review).

Levels of Life, by Julian Barnes

This book was written as a glorious tribute to the love the author shared with his late wife, Pat Kavanagh. It is a book that deals with the immense suffering of loss, yet recognises that a loss of this magnitude must be preceded by the greatest possible victory. The novel revolves around the central metaphor of ballooning, which deals precisely with, to quote Nick Cave, “those moments when the gears of the heart really change.”

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever?

Your Fathers Where Are TheyYour Fathers, Where Are They? And The Prophets, Do They Live Forever? – Dave Eggers

Dave Eggers is one of a rare breed of American writers (perhaps their leader?) capable of capturing complex emotional states with sophisticated bluntness.

His first book, A Heart Breaking Work of Staggering Genius is the part biographical story of a young man coming of age, discovering the world in the company of his younger brother, for whom he has become responsible.

Those states of responsibility and liminal adulthood are picked up again in Your Fathers. The protagonist, Thomas, seeks to orient himself in the world (”I really am a clean cut guy. I’m just stuck in a tight spot right now”) and establish his sense of self by kidnapping a sequence of characters from his childhood who each represent a cut of the many facets of American hero culture; an astronaut; a retired war veteran-senator with no legs; Thomas’s mother; a teacher; a policeman.

As the story unfolds so too do the personal links connecting each of the kidnapped characters to Thomas, the astronaut was a class mate (”You told me one day you were going to go up in the Shuttle. Remember that?”), the teacher his old maths teacher who held ‘sleepovers’ for his students which Thomas’s mother would send him to. By a coincidence the policeman Thomas kidnaps turns out to have been present at the shooting of a disturbed student, a friend of Thomas’s. The plot falls into place around him like so many shackles.

More importantly, Your Fathers is a song to a generation born into peacetime and expectation. A world explored and conquered, a life cheapened and tainted. A generation, perhaps like all other generations, which looks at its forebears and thinks, ‘you must be joking’ but does not know how to change what they see before them. Thomas approaches his fate with a quixotic mix of action and resignation: ”After I took the astronaut, I figured I only have a certain window before I’m caught or found or something else happens to me, so I thought I might as well get it all figured out in one fell swoop.”

Eggers carefully stretches the boundaries between flippancy and premeditation (”You were the guy who came to the house to rewire the phones?”) demonstrating Thomas’s enormous capacity for positive action and crushing it against what on occasion seems like mental illness, but too often presents itself as the manifestation of the selfish modern cult of consumerist self-discovery in which everything, including the lives of others, are fodder to fill a yawning need for validation: ”But just yesterday, with the astronaut, I felt like I was on the verge of something, I was breathing better. And I know you’ll help me even more.”

Your Fathers deals with a very modern strain of issues of the self. A generation of disaffected young people, alienated from their peers, from the structures of social validation, born into expectation and abundance to which they feel an entitlement even when they lack the personal skills to access it. Written entirely in dialogue, it is a book which embodies the dysfunctional intergenerational dialogue that our society of abundance has fostered and created – a fierce, clear window into a world still being created.

The Editors

Bookshops of London and other places

Down a small side street off the King’s Road near Sloane Square there is a small and perfectly proportioned bookshop. It’s cool shady shelves and rich hardback stock is like a glen of sleeping dragons in the heart of London’s brash and bustle. 

Like any good bookshop it is a place of thoughts as much as of sales; a harbour for thoughts, paper bound, cloth bound, shelf-bound thoughts and it is to this, among several other similar harbours (I think of the Edwardian splendour of Daunt Books in Marylebone, the clinking quiet of the London Review Bookshop, the rambling excellence of Foyles) that my idling brain has fled from its daily labour and innocently wondered whether, if there really is an afterlife, it must be as an independent bookseller in London, Paris or Istanbul. 

The richness of London’s book selling scene is that its reading scene can support diversity. In other cities where I have bought books (Moscow, Newcastle and I am told Zurich) books can be prohibitively expensive and small, independent bookshops are if anything a thing of the future having played little part in the past.   

In Beirut, in downtown Hamra, I lived for a while near a newsagent that specialised in adult and second-hand literature with amusing if not enlightening hand drawn cover art. For a tiny city with its share of issues to cope with it was well serviced by bookshops. The Virgin Megastore, rising above the old rubble of the newly re-built Downtown area was packed thick and deep with books of every type and language like a sprawling metaphor for the country. Antoine’s in Hamra was two floors of raw discovery, brimming with students, text books, comic books and sparkling with literary gems. From this delight I mined a sequence of nobel laureates who have come to form my own canon: Calvino, Saramago, Pamuk, Hemingway as well as Kundera, Le Clézio and de Saint-Exupéry. The copy of The Old Man and the Sea which I picked up there is one of my favourites, devouring it in one long gulp on a balcony overlooking the mediterranean sun – all of us sprinting for the horizon. I bought a copy of The Tropic of Cancer from a bookshop in Damascus, nestled in the side of a hotel, as unlikely a place for Henry Miller as for anyone and a copy of Coming up for Air for 10p in a street market near Damascus University. And in their winding, Levantine way, those cities seemed to hold back their greatest discoveries from me – each revelation suggesting another (and rumours of a nightclub with a library, a bookshop on an alleyway down a backstreet on the right past the shawarma restaurant which I could never find and so on).

The bookshopping experience of any city has become like a window to its heart. The large extravagant, Barnes & Noble-type monsters that have failed are no place to buy a book. The small, intimate, even arcane, bookshops like Shakespeare & Co in Paris, like John Sandoe in London (where once they bought and sold books only by weight), like Nomad Books in Fulham or Clerkenwell Tales in Exmouth Market or Simply Foxed at Gloucester Road or any number of second hand and seconds bookshops on the Charing Cross road – these are portals of discovery through which books whisper their secrets to those who are willing to listen.

 London’s book selling scene is a lively hotchpotch of Edwardian galleries, varnished parquet flooring and thick, still air. For those who disagree that the fall of Barnes & Noble and the Amazonisation of everything is the toll of the bell for bookshops it should be the source of great pride to note the expansion of the great British book selling names – six shops of Daunt, six shops of Foyles and one yet to open (and three of those in St Pancras and Westfield of all places), a recently refurbished John Sandoe and independent local bookshops surviving, even expanding, diversifying and supporting a deep-rooted culture of British reading which is second to almost none. And all this as succour to those of us hoping these shops will be there, at least until we die.

The Editors

A reader’s guide to coffee in London

Ten best cafes for reading in London

If you like coffee and/or reading, it is inadvisable to go to a Starbucks, ever. There is not much for West London here, feel free to make suggestions. As long as they are not places like Daylsford Organic or Baker & Spice please, white marble and biscuits for £7 doesn’t seem that fair. 

For the coffee: Flat White

This is Jim’s favourite location for our weekend meetings, however Tom has had trouble getting out of bed for these of late, so it is fair game. The people working here are very good at their jobs. The food is affordable and delicious. It has quiet corners and long opening hours. And now the weather is showing its true natures, the tourists will thin out. The brownies will kill you with pleasure.

17 Berwick Street, Soho

For cake as well as exceptional books: London Review Bookshop

The LRB bookshop has one of the largest poetry sections in the city, an excellent evening events programme and a café next door for a seat on one of London’s quieter side streets. Surprising given it is right next to the British Museum. It is two doors down from a really good stamp shop, if you are interested in customised stationery (and an occult bookshop if you are into other things). If not, at least go out of morbid curiosity:

14 Bury Place

Not for those who only like normal tea: Prufrock

I got an old-fashioned look on questioning their Himalyan something tea, and it was very good. But the coffee is the point. Also their excellent brownies. The only downside is people who work in advertising go for offsite meetings in there, but they tend to have mostly gone to work by 3pm so the afternoon can be yours, and the weekends are more peaceful still. 

23-25 Leather Lane

For brunch and coffee: Workshop Coffee Company

This is a large and beautiful establishment in Clerkenwell, and is a decent pocket of quiet in central London at any time. They deliberately do not have Wi-Fi in order to eliminate laptops, which I initially found annoying and now respect deeply. 

27 Clerkenwell Road

For those who cycle: Look mum no hands!

Read your book while they mend your bike, and consume as much as you can while you wait. People who know about bikes also seem to like reading – they encourage it here by providing small tables spaced far apart – providing respite from the uncomfortable interaction between people who like sport and people who prefer reading. Also their walnut cake is famous.

49 Old Street

For the quiet, and the toasted sandwiches: Café Bliss

I used to go here every weekend. It is always serene. And there are exhibitions by local artists on the walls.

9 Dalston Lane

For the location, and the exhibitions: Store Street Espresso

Great coffee, large selection of food, frequent private views of art and a very generous loyalty card system.

40 Store Street

For coffee turning into a meal: Brunswick House

This restaurant in the LASSCO building is famed for its delicious menu, which deserves every syllable of hype. However it is also a delightful place to spend an afternoon, especially in the outside area on a clear day.

30 Wandsworth Road

For buying second hand books: Rustique

There is not enough recognition of North London in this list, sure this would change if the Editors got to spend more time there, but this place is an ideal place for spending the afternoon and picking up some new books after a few cups of coffee.

142 Fortress Road

Surprise entry: A Caffe Nero

The coffee here is the best of the chains, and this particular branch has the quietest downstairs room I have seen on the weekend. Two stoic readers sitting 18 feet apart. Ideal. 

36A St. Martin’s Lane

The Editors

On Liberty

libertyOn Liberty – John Stuart Mill

John Stuart Mill’s classic philosophical text is probably best known for the expression of libertarianism’s fundamental principle, that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.

It is a principle that, in its striking simplicity, still frequently recurs in modern discourse to oppose itself to any infringement of the individual’s freedom to do as he pleases without harming others: it is the bar by which prohibitive laws are measured in the public’s mind.  See for instance the ban on cigarettes, which only gained momentum when it became accepted that smoking is not just a danger to the individual smoker, but also to others.  Similarly, the principal argument against euthanasia is not that people should not be free to end their own lives, but that allowing people to do so might indirectly result in situations where others feel they are in some way being coerced to do so.

It is a philosophical equation that is astoundingly easy to grasp, which is why it remains such a powerful guardian against the encroachment of individual liberty.  And yet, what is fascinating about Mill’s essay is the way in which, having established this principle in the opening pages, it goes on to discuss the practical implications of abiding by it in everyday life.  Firstly, Mill explores the importance of freedom of thought and how it relates to what we consider to be ‘right’ and ‘wrong’: “if any opinion be compelled to silence, that opinion may, for aught we know, be true.”  However, much more radically for the mid-nineteenth century, Mill then asserts that “though the silenced opinion be in error, it may, and very commonly does, contain a portion of the truth.”  The idea that truth of any kind is multi-faceted, and must therefore be consistently challenged, is harder to accept because it takes the position that you can never be certain of what you know; it is an idea that introduces the spectre of doubt, which is something we all naturally recoil from.  In fact, it seems to me that this is why we recoil from the idea of pluralism generally, often accepting the natural logic of the assertion that “we can’t all be right”.  This is an assumption that Mill definitively rejects, making the point that it is for the individual to weigh competing opinions for himself in a world of doubt and half-truths.  To turn away from challenging prevailing custom and modes of thought is to deny one of the great virtues of humanity:

Thus the mind itself is bowed to the yoke: even in what people do for pleasure, conformity is the first thing thought of; they live in crowds; they exercise choice only among things commonly done: peculiarity of taste, eccentricity of conduct, are shunned equally with crimes: until by dint of not following their own nature they have no nature to follow: their human capacities are withered and starved: they become incapable of any strong wishes or native pleasures, and are generally without either opinions or feelings of home growth, or properly their own.  Now is this, or is this not, the desirable condition of human nature?

It is for its espousal of individualism that On Liberty deserves to be reread in the twenty-first century.

The Editors

Ariel by Sylvia Plath

Ariel by Sylvia Plath, London Literature Festival, Southbank Centre, 26th May

The women participating in the reading, each taking one of the collection of forty poems, were sat facing the audience in a sweeping crescent shape. They approached the stage in groups of three and we were asked to applaud only at the end. Many of the women were reading red, whether by agreement or happy accident it was unclear, but it looked wonderful. Some of the readings were obviously more personal than others – Ruth Fainlight, to whom the poem was originally dedicated, read Elm.

This collection of poems was begun in 1962, and was first published in 1965 three year’s after Plath’s death. Frieda Hughes, Plath’s daughter with Ted Hughes, made an introductory speech. She said this was how her mother would have wanted her poetry to be heard. This chimed against the exhumations by Elizabeth Winder (Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953 and American Isis: The Life and Art of Sylvia Plath by Carl Rollyson in the last year).

Would Plath prefer these to be described as gradual peelings away of her legacy? Both Ariel and Cut refer to an unfurling of skin in this way. This in turn brings to mind the words of The Couriers: “It is not mine. Do not accept it.” Plath’s true voice is unmistakeable in its jarring, altering nature. Thalidomide even now still reads as a visceral and shocking series of stark, monochromatic images shot through with red.

There are certain subjects she returns to again and again: gorse with its contrasting colours and bitter black spikes, for example. The moon is vital in Barren Woman: “The moon lays a hand on my forehead, / Blank-faced and mum as a nurse.” The moon is always there, as her mother, and her rival, quiet but not sweet. Cats are also shown to be central in Lady Lazarus, read on this occasion by the intense Emily Bruni, who looked very much ‘like the cat with ‘nine times to die’. She returned to cats in Morning Song: “Your mouth opens clean as a cat’s”, and The Other: “Between myself and myself.
I scratch like a cat.”

Ariel contains moments of humour: The Applicant read in the droll Scottish tones of Phyllis Logan was more manageable, even funny: “First, are you our sort of a person?” In the way that only a Scot could pull off. However, there is no escaping the writer’s despair – moments of happiness in a pair of gum boots grinning at the sun while being heavily pregnant (“Snug as a bud and at home / Like a sprat in a pickle jug.”) are all too soon subsumed by the smiles of her family like little hooks on her skin.

Her true desires emerge in Tulips:

“I didn’t want any flowers, I only wanted
To lie with my hands turned up and be utterly empty.” And this drive to be pure, alone and insubstantial are illustrated beautifully in Fever 103:

“I am too pure for you or anyone.
Your body
Hurts me as the world hurts God. I am a lantern—

My head a moon
Of Japanese paper, my gold beaten skin
Infinitely delicate and infinitely expensive.”

Her plight seems to worsen, and solidify in Lesbos read powerfully by Kate Farhy:

“Now I am silent, hate

Up to my neck, Thick, thick.”

A Birthday Present read by Claire Louise Cordwell was done so well that it should be read in full and heard aloud, rather than cut up by me trying to do it justice. This goes for every poem in the collection to varying degrees, heard is better than read with many of Plath’s poems in Ariel. Ideally, of course, do both.

Towards the end a recording of Daddy read by Plath herself was played, I had this on my iPod ten years ago and listened to it every night, held fast by her clipped drawl.  This collection of poems was a staggering experience for as a member of the audience; a truly powerful series of (often lightning quick) razor sharp incisions across every botched re-imagining of Plath, and across the skin of the listener, peeling away the outer, tougher layers of epidermis only to reveal the moon-pale tissue beneath.

The Editors

The Literature of Oppression: Part 1

I know many books which have bored their readers, but I know of none which has done real evil.

So said Voltaire in the eighteenth century.  Since then, the world has seen the publication of Mao’s Little Red Book, Qaddafi’s Green Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf, three books which might be considered as a sort of grotesque canon of totalitarian literature, covering as they do both extremes of the political spectrum, with rogue state oppression somewhere in the middle.  All three were published in the twentieth century, the century in which totalitarian ideology somehow managed to evade reason and irreversibly scar the face of human history.

“[Our purpose is] to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy, and that they help the people fight the enemy with one heart and one mind.”

The above quotation from Mao’s Little Red Book provides a singularly perverse view of the function of literature and art in society.  It is not often that books are seen as weapons that can be wielded by the forces of oppression, but unfortunately art is an inherently malleable thing, only as benign and constructive as the artist chooses it to be.  As such, we can hardly be surprised if on occasion literature is co-opted by the forces of darkness and used as a tool to further the totalitarian policies of oppressive regimes, all the more so since propaganda is a key element of any dictatorship.  Ultimately, there is no denying that books have been complicit to a certain extent in some of the worst atrocities committed by human beings.

And yet the hideous number of deaths caused by the regimes of twentieth century tyrants does not necessarily refute Voltaire’s point; a book in and of itself can do no harm, unless the reader is of a particularly frail and sensitive disposition.  Of course, that a book is unable to commit genocide of its own volition does not settle the debate over the potential harm caused by books either, in vaguely the same way that a rifle being unable to commit murder on its own does not settle the debate over US gun control (see the laughable simplicity of the NRA’s slogan “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”).  One could argue that Mein Kampf, which is still banned in numerous countries, including Austria and Russia, continues to incite racially aggravated violence across the world, from Greece to Colombia.

Interestingly, Mein Kampf was never banned in Germany, but its publication has been restricted since the end of the Second World War by the state of Bavaria, which owns the copyright to it.  This copyright expires in 2016, seventy years after Hitler’s death, and Bavaria plans to publish an annotated edition of the book before this happens, in an attempt to educate new readers and make it “commercially unattractive” to publish in the future.  The latter may be optimistic, but perhaps this is the best way to proceed.  After all, to ban books, however offensive or inflammatory the content, is to fall into the totalitarian’s trap.  In view of this, the Literature of Oppression series aims to look at some of the worst books ever published by oppressive regimes, not, we hope you will agree, in an attempt to stoke anger or resentment, but in order better to understand the influence they continue to exert, whether or not that influence is still enforced down the barrel of a gun.

The Editors