Quotes from Proust XXVI: The impression is for the writer what experiment is for the scientist


For the truths which the intellect apprehends directly in the world of full and unimpeded light have something less profound, less necessary than those which life communicates to us against our will in an impression which is material because it enters us through the senses but yet has a spiritual meaning which it is possible for us to extract.

For instinct dictates our duty and the intellect supplies us with pretexts for evading it. But excuses have no place in art and intentions count for nothing: at every moment the artist has to listen to his instinct, and it is this that makes art the most real of all things, the most austere school of life, the true last judgment.

The impression is for the writer what experiment is for the scientist, with the difference that in the scientist the work of the intelligence precedes the experiment and in the writer it comes after the impression. What we have not had to decipher, to elucidate by our own efforts, what was clear before we looked at it, is not ours. From ourselves comes only that which we drag forth from the obscurity which lies within us, that which to others is unknown.

Martin McGuinness = Nelson Mandela?

There were two Martin McGuiness’s, a man of war and a man of peace, says John Major, reflecting the orthodox view. There then begins an empty debate over which was the “real” Martin McGuinness. In fact here was only one Martin McGuinness, and his life had a logic and a mission—impossible as that might seem to people who had children, siblings, and parents killed by the IRA.

McGuinness was born into a Northern Ireland that was as unjust as Apartheid South Africa. Indeed, Apartheid is often used in the context of Northern Ireland: Catholics/Nationalists were systematically oppressed. They may have had the vote, but the political system was rigged.

So what do you do about such injustice? You might wait 50 years for the demography to change, although you might legitimately fear that, as in South Africa, a ruling will find a way to prolong its power.

If you believe in a just war then you probably need to believe in just “terrorism”/rebellion/revolution. I write “probably” because terrorism often targets “innocent” victims, but a) wars kill civilians too (in fact increasingly so) and b) are adults “innocent” if they live with the status quo that suppresses many? With the example of the Second World War it’s hard to believe that there is no such a thing as a just war.

What are the conditions for a just war? I could look them up, but I’ll think for myself. Firstly, there must be substantial injustice. This was the case in Northern Ireland, although some would not accept that it was so. Secondly, you must have exhausted peaceful means to end the injustice. Many would say this was true of Northern Ireland before the “troubles” began. Thirdly, the terrorism must in some way be “proportionate.” This is hard, perhaps impossible, to judge, but terrorism that is directed against agents of the oppressive state (policemen, soldiers, politicians) would certainly be more proportionate than blowing up children. Fourthly, as the oppressive state tiring of the violence comes to recognise the need to negotiate the “terrorists” must be willing to negotiate.

Jonathan Powell, who was Tony Blair’s chief of staff when negotiating the Good Friday Agreement, described on the radio how McGuinness had always been there whenever there was any possibility of negotiating a peace agreement, going back to the early days of Margaret Thatcher’s premiership. Knowing when the time is right on both sides is a hard calculation, and John Major described his horror when the IRA returned to violence after he had been negotiating with them. He also made the generous point that he might have his difficulties with his backbenchers and Parliament, but he didn’t run the risk of being short as McGuinness did–by both his enemies and his own side.

One of the most remarkable features in McGuinness’s was his friendship and political partnership with Ian Paisley, once his sworn enemy. Powell described how he knew peace was coming when negotiations had to start late because McGuiness and Paisley had been up late together drinking whisky and Irish dancing.

McGuinness was, I believe, one man not two. Will McGuinness one day come to be seen as much of a hero as Nelson Mandela? I believe he will–when Ireland becomes one, as it inevitably will.



Battle of the pessimists

Two weeks ago I took the role of pessimist in a Radio 4 debate on whether our future would be healthier, and I ramped up my pessimism to heights that almost depressed me.  http://blogs.bmj.com/bmj/2017/03/09/richard-smith-can-we-look-forward-to-a-healthier-future/ My brother after reading it sent me a passage from Bertrand Russell that he thinks close to being the summit of pessimism. It’s at the end of this blog.

This piece has to compete with the bleak view of the world by Arthur Balfour that I posted a few days. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2017/03/16/the-bleakest-possible-view-of-life/  His most famous saying is “Few things matter much, and most things don’t matter at all.” Russell and Balfour were contemporaries, and they were reacting to Darwin having shown that man was just one more species destined for extinction and astronomers understanding that the Earth would eventually be gone. This was a rapid fall from the first half of the 19th century when humans could continue to think that they were the summit of God’s work.

One reaction to the discoveries is to simply deny them, and Creationists are a relatively recent invention. The early Christian Church did not believe in the literalness of the story in Genesis. Another reaction, described in John Gray’s The Immortalisation Commission: The Strange Attempt to Cheat Death (which I’m reading now) was to use science to counter what science had destroyed and show man to be immortal.

I wrote in the BMJ in 2002: “David Nicholl will not need reminding that everything–him, me, the works of Shakespeare, Aristotle, Darwin, Beethoven, and Einstein, and the Himalayas–will be gone in the end.” http://www.bmj.com/rapid-response/2011/10/28/praise-ephemeral But Michael Innis wrote to refute what I’d written: “In an Infinite Universe, any event which has a greater than zero chance of occurring, as do all events mentioned by Richard Smith, must occur an Infinite number of times. Mathematically therefore, there is no dearth of Nicholls, Smiths and Einsteins scattered throughout an Infinite Universe.” http://www.bmj.com/rapid-response/2011/10/28/re-praise-ephemeral I’ve since learnt that quantum physics has killed the idea of infinity, itself as seductive a belief as God.

Although I agree with most of what Russell writes, I’m not convinced by “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.” I don’t feel “unyielding despair,” far from it. The fact that all those I love, the Earth, all its beauties, all man’s creations will be gone is painful in some ways but ultimately comforting. I couldn’t go on for ever; death provides life with an arc, a narrative. Immortality would be unbearable. I don’t detect despair in Shakespeare’s famous speech from The Tempest:

And like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capped towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself—

Yea, all which it inherit—shall dissolve,

And like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on, and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

I like being made of dreams, and I like to sleep.

But perhaps my joy in life is simply in my genes, robot that I am and proud of it. As I read my brother’s autobiography to my mother on Sunday I came across these lines where Brian (Arthur) describes the success of his play An Evening With Gary Lineker: “the play was like a confident child that neither sought nor needed nurturing or encouragement, smoothly handling all obstacles to arrive where it wished to be.*” The * takes you to a footnote that reads: “Rather like my brother Richard.”

I was momentarily taken aback. The phrase made me sound like a machine, a beast without sensitivity; and that feeling resonated with what I felt when I first read Brian’s autobiography 10 years ago–that I hadn’t been there for him when he was down. But when I got home from my mother’s and read the description to my wife she said: “That’s you.” I accept it and am grateful.

So now the bleakness of Russell:

“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the débris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.”

PS. Some 20 minutes after posting this I read this is in a letter from Bertrand Russell to Ottoline Morrell: “I cannot understand the rush for a future life–it is the chief consolation that in the grave there is rest.” He wrote this a few days after beginning his passionate affair with Morrell and shortly before telling his wife that he was in love with Morrell. She was furious.




Dougie Wallace: the world’s greatest street photographer?

I’d never heard of Dougie Wallace until Chicken got me to watch a programme about him in the series What do Artists Do all Day? http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b08j8jj1/what-do-artists-do-all-day-26-dougie-wallace The title of the programme must be taken from a question that people ask commonly of artists. One stereotyped answer is that they live in garrets and paint all day in poverty, concerned not with money but with truth. Another is that they live Bohemian lives, drunk, surrounded by naked models, dashing off a picture on the tablecloth before lapsing into a stupor. Neither of true is Dougie (it would be all wrong to call him Wallace).

Indeed, Dougie doesn’t fit the stereotype of the artist. He’s a working class Glaswegian with an accent so broad they must have wondered about using subtitles. He’s a photographer not a painter, and he seems to take only seconds to create his powerful pictures.

Dougie is a “street photographer,” perhaps, a publisher in the programme argued, the leading one in the world. He develops a “project” and then spends hours every day roaming the relevant streets taking photographs. He takes them in seconds, usually without putting the camera to his eye. He has set up his camera with a flash gun (he gets through dozens), and often he shoves the camera right into the face of the people he’s photographing. He participates, encouraging his subjects to go further. Much of his talent is his boldness, his courage, his willingness to offend people. He doesn’t ask permission: he snaps people, and when they threaten to call the police he laughs and walks away. He’s big and strong, a street fighter as well as a street photographer.

Wallace Harrods

The project that featured most in the programme was Harrodsburg, photographing people–mostly ostentatiously and vulgarly rich people, many of them Arabs–around Harrods. He’s been at it for a year, maybe longer, and is happy if he gets one good picture a day he’s happy. But he must take hundreds. Something that mystified me is how the pictures end up so clear and usually so rich in colour. It must be party high technical competence, setting the camera just right. It must also be chance in that most pictures must be discarded. But is it more than that? Does he crop the pictures, enhance them? There was no reference to that in the programme.


Because he takes pictures that I don’t hesitate to describe as beautiful, even though the subjects are often so vulgar. He compared his pictures to those of Beryl Cook, who painted pictures rather like the saucy seaside postcards. This is especially true of his pictures of drunken nights in Blackpool. As he said, he’s been there, done all the crazy things the drunks do, and got drunk with them as he photographs them. But his pictures have much more edge than Cook’s; they are that mysterious thing “high art,” as looking at his magnificent website will show you. http://www.dougiewallace.com/




Quartet for the End of Time: be sure to listen to it

The Quartet for the End of Time by Olivier Messiaen, famously performed first in a prisoner of war camp, is one of the greatest pieces of 20th Century music. It arrests you on first hearing, but you never tire of it. I’ve listened to it many times, including live, but I still haven’t penetrated its full mystery. I never will, and nor perhaps will anybody. I’m paying attention to it today because I listened to the 20 or so recorded versions being discussed on Radio 3’s Building a Libraryhttp://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08jf6s6

The piece is played by a piano, a violin, a cello, and a clarinet–because these instruments were the only ones available in the prisoner of war camp. It is one of those pieces of music where it makes sense to read what the composer said about the piece–because Messiaen, a devout Catholic, is explicit about what inspired him and the “meaning” of each of the eight movements. His inspiration was the Book of Revelations:

“I saw a mighty angel descend from heaven, clad in mist; and a rainbow was upon his head. His face was like the sun, his feet like pillars of fire. He set his right foot on the sea, his left foot on the earth, and standing thus on sea and earth he lifted his hand to heaven and swore by Him who liveth for ever and ever, saying: There shall be time no longer; but on the day of the trumpet of the seventh angel, the mystery of God shall be finished.”

But it’s not about the Apocalypse, his imprisonment, or the war but about the end of time and the replacement of past and future with eternity, a peaceful eternity. The piece fades at the end into eternity. The key phrase in the piece from Revelations is “There shall be time no longer.”

Inevitably this made me think of Carlo Rovelli’s book on quantum gravity, which I read recently and has a chapter entitled “Time does not exist.”

“As we abandon the idea of space as an inert container, similarly we must abandon the idea of time as an inert flow along which reality unfurls…We must think of time as a localised phenomenon: every object in the universe has its own time running, at a pace determined by the local gravitational field.”

In Revelations the Angel has finished time, while in quantum physics man has abandoned time as an age old but ultimately misleading way to think about how the universe works.

Here’s an account of the eight movements, each with a title and words from Messiaen. (I’m listening to the relevant movement as I write about each).

I. Liturgy of Crystal

Played by the full quartet

Messiaen describes the opening of the quartet: “Between three and four in the morning, the awakening of birds: a solo blackbird or nightingale improvises, surrounded by a shimmer of sound, by a halo of trills lost very high in the trees. Transpose this onto a religious plane and you have the harmonious silence of Heaven.”

The solo clarinet is the blackbird, the violin the nightingale.

II. Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of time

Played by the full quartet.

Messiaen writes: “The first and third parts (very short) evoke the power of this mighty angel, a rainbow upon his head and clothed with a cloud, who sets one foot on the sea and one foot on the earth. In the middle section are the impalpable harmonies of heaven. In the piano, sweet cascades of blue-orange chords, enclosing in their distant chimes the almost plainchant song of the violin and cello.”

III. Abyss of birds

Played by solo clarinet.

Messiean: “The abyss is Time with its sadness, its weariness. The birds are the opposite to Time; they are our desire for light, for stars, for rainbows, and for jubilant songs.”

As a lover of the clarinet (and a former hopeless player) I find this a beautiful movement. It shows all that the clarinet can do.

IV. Interlude

Played by violin, cello, and clarinet.

Messiaen: “Scherzo, of a more individual character than the other movements, but linked to them nevertheless by certain melodic recollections.”

V. Praise to the eternity of Jesus

Played by cello and piano.

Messiaen: “Jesus is considered here as the Word. A broad phrase, “infinitely slow”, on the cello, magnifies with love and reverence the eternity of the Word, powerful and gentle, “whose time never runs out”. The melody stretches majestically into a kind of gentle, regal distance. “In the beginning was the Word, and Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (John 1:1 (King James Version))”

The marking for this movement is “infinitely  slow, ecstatic.” It’s really a beautiful cello solo with the piano simply marking time.”

VI Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets

Played by the full quartet.

Messiaen: “Rhythmically, the most characteristic piece of the series. The four instruments in unison imitate gongs and trumpets (the first six trumpets of the Apocalypse followed by various disasters, the trumpet of the seventh angel announcing consummation of the mystery of God) Use of added values, of augmented or diminished rhythms, of non-retrogradable rhythms. Music of stone, formidable granite sound; irresistible movement of steel, huge blocks of purple rage, icy drunkenness. Hear especially all the terrible fortissimo of the augmentation of the theme and changes of register of its different notes, towards the end of the piece.”

This is a crazy movement, disturbing after the slow ecstasy of the previous movement.

VII. Tangle of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of time

Played by the full quartet.

Messiaen: “Recurring here are certain passages from the second movement. The angel appears in full force, especially the rainbow that covers him (the rainbow, symbol of peace, wisdom, and all luminescent and sonorous vibration). – In my dreams, I hear and see ordered chords and melodies, known colors and shapes; then, after this transitional stage, I pass through the unreal and suffer, with ecstasy, a tournament; a roundabout compenetration of superhuman sounds and colors. These swords of fire, this blue-orange lava, these sudden stars: there is the tangle, there are the rainbows!”

VIII. Praise to the immortality of Jesus

Played by violin and piano.

Messiaen: “Large violin solo, counterpart to the violoncello solo of the 5th movement. Why this second eulogy? It is especially aimed at the second aspect of Jesus, Jesus the Man, the Word made flesh, immortally risen for our communication of his life. It is all love. Its slow ascent to the acutely extreme is the ascent of man to his god, the child of God to his Father, the being made divine towards Paradise.”

The version selected by Building a Library was played by Huguette Fernandez (violin), Guy Deplus (clarinet), Jacques Neilz (cello), and Marie-Madeleine Petit (piano). It’s a difficult piece to play, and Kate Molleson, who was making the selection, said that she’d like to have made a selection for each of the eight movements. I rather liked the version by Michael Collins (clarinet), Olli Mustonen (piano), Joshua Bell (violin), Steven Isserlis (cello), but Molleson was very down on what she thought was heavy handed piano playing by Mustonen over the mournful cello solo in the 5th movement. To me it sounded right, like one of Time’s last acts.

But perhaps the greatest performance, sadly unrecorded, was the first performance, outdoors in the rain on 15 January 1941. Four hundred prisoners attended, and the Nazi guards sat in the front row. “Never,” said Messiean, “was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.”

How being blind might lead you to exquisite happiness

Until now I’ve thought of “Les Misérables” as a musical I’ve never seen and bad film, but now as I read it I’m learning that it is a remarkable book and that Victor Hugo was one of the world’s greatest writers. (Actually I knew this because I read “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” 30 years ago.) Two million people attended his funeral.

He has a great capacity for surprise and for making you think something you’ve never thought before. I’m used to the idea that the blind may have special musical talents and that their other sensory organs may be enhanced, but here Hugo describes how blindness can lead you to exquisite happiness,

“We may remark in passing that to be blind and beloved may, in this world where nothing is perfect, be among the most strangely exquisite forms of happiness. To have a wife, daughter, or sister continually at call, a devoted being who is there because we have need of her and because she cannot live without us; to be able to measure her affection by the constancy of her presence and reflect, ‘If she gives me all her time it is because I have all her heart’; to see the thought in default of the face, weigh fidelity in exclusion of the world, hear the rustle of a dress as though it were the rustling of wings, the comings and goings, the everyday speech, the snatch of song; to be conscious every minute of our own attraction, feeling the more powerful for our weakness, becoming in obscurity and through obscurity the star around which an angel gravitates – there are few felicities to equal this. The supreme happiness in life is the assurance of being loved; of being loved for oneself, even in spite of oneself; and this assurance the blind man possesses. In his affliction, to be served is to be caressed. Does he lack anything? No. Possessing love he is not deprived of light. A love, moreover, that is wholly pure. There can be no blindness where there is this certainty. Soul gropes for soul and finds it. And the found and proven soul is a woman. A hand sustains you, and it is hers; lips touch your forehead and they are her lips; the breathing at your side is her breath. To possess her every feeling from devotion to pity, to be never left in solitude, to have the support of that gentle frailty, that slender, unbreakable reed, to feel the touch of Providence in her hands and be able to clasp it in your arms, a palpable God – what happiness can be greater? The heart, that secret, celestial flower, mysteriously blossoms, and one would not exchange one’s darkness for all light. The angel spirit is there, always there; if she moves away it is to return, she fades like a dream to reappear like reality. We feel the approaching warmth, and, with its coming, serenity, our gaiety and ecstasy overflow; we are radiant in our darkness. There are the countless small cares, those trifles that become huge in our void. The tenderest tones of the feminine voice are used for our comfort and replace the vanished world; they are a spiritual caress; seeing nothing we feel ourselves adored. It is a paradise in shadow.”


Places of the Mind: British watercolours

After an energetic morning’s teaching at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine I treated myself to a visit to the British Museum’s exhibition Places of the Mind: British Watercolour Landscapes 1850-1950. It is in watercolours that the British excel: the medium is suited to our rain-soaked, cloudy, misty, understated landscape just as oil paint is suited to the sun and drama of the South of France. Given a chance to own a painting by Turner, the greatest British painter, I would opt for one of his watercolours, the medium that brought him closest to his ambition to paint light itself. https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2016/05/08/turner-a-bank-note-and-a-theory/

The exhibition takes its title from an essay by Geoffrey Grigson in which he argues that “every landscape drawing is a construct of the mind and imagination of its creator – an attempt to convey not merely the physical properties of a landscape but an almost spiritual quest to capture its essence and sense of place.” This is really statement of the obvious: every painting, especially those done quickly with the landscape before the artist, must be composed from the landscape itself and what is in the mind of the artist.


At the beginning of the exhibition I read a statement from John Ruskin: “There is a strong instinct in me, which I cannot analyse, to draw and describe the things I love–not for reputation, nor for the good of others…but a sort of instinct, like that for eating and drinking.” My immediate thought is that I could adopt those words to my own compulsion to write: “There is a strong instinct in me, which I cannot analyse, to write about and digest the things I experience–not for reputation, nor for the good of others…but a sort of instinct, like that for eating and drinking.” The instinct has got stronger as I’ve got older, coming closer to death and total extinction.

The overwhelming feeling of the exhibition was of melancholy, a sweet melancholy, a feeling I often get in the British countryside. I am more conscious in the countryside of the past, the dead, the passing of time, my own fragility, the brief candle of my life. Very few of the pictures included people, or there might be one small figure in a large landscape. There were empty forest glades, still lakes, distant mountains, and big cloud-filled skies.

The starting date of 1850 was chosen because it was the year that Turner died, and the century that followed saw the industrialisation of Britain (which is signified mostly by the longing for the countryside, although there were a couple of industrial landscapes), the end of the British Empire (which seems not important at all), and two world wars (which are reflected in a painting of graves by Sargent, although from before the First World War, but mainly in the paintings becoming more abstract and tortured).


Graham Sutherland and Henry Moore are heavily featured, and Sutherland, who is described as having done to landscape what Picasso did for portraits, was strongly influential. From earlier times Whistler and Sargent, both Americans, painted exquisite landscapes, with Sargent’s pictures full of the bright colour and energy that was lacking in most of the paintings.


Although I loved the nostalgic, melancholic feel of the exhibition, I did enjoy the few paintings that used bright, strong colours. Watercolours done that way can work well, as Sargent and Arthur Melville showed in this exhibition.


As an adolescent walking in the Lake District and the Pennines, I painted dozens of watercolours, all now lost. Perhaps I should return to painting them, perhaps on North Uist.