Culture Headspace

Whisky as ritual

Say what you will about wine, beer or any cocktail; there are times when whisky – and only whisky – is right. For starters, whisky has always been good for conversation. Mignon McLaughlin (in The Neurotic’s Notebook, 1960) said “we come late, if at all, to wine and philosophy: whiskey and action are easier”, but he was wrong. Perhaps it has something to do with him not being a Scotch-drinker (whiskey with the “e” generally indicating American or Irish, rather than Scotch), or perhaps he just couldn’t do philosophy. Because when you get together with an old friend, or when the pressing issues in life bear down particularly heavily, whisky and reflection are easy bedfellows.

Enjoying a fine whisky in deserving company starts with that particular sound of a whisky cap being unscrewed, followed by the careful metering of a drop of water into your glass. You can then recline, and (sometimes, depending on the whisky and/or your pedigree) allow the ice to serve as metronome, keeping your thoughts and dialogue in time. Without the ice, swirling the whisky in your glass serves nearly as well, if you pay attention to the tenacity with which the liquid resists settling, preferring to cling to the sides of the glass. This also works when alone, once everyone has departed or as meditation before their arrival.

Meditation is an activity always enhanced by whisky. When drinking single malt, we are acutely aware of place and time – especially of time, not only in the age of the dram but in the ages of geology and geography that are so essential to the particulars of the whisky. History lives in whisky, through place, time and also through the art of distillers and blenders, who carry the obligation to maintain standards set decades or even centuries ago. And it is for this reason that drinking a fine whisky sometimes takes the form of ritual, for in drinking it we celebrate a possible immortality that we, as individuals, can never fully know.


For those who still want a soul

More from Larkin

Talking In Bed

Talking in bed ought to be easiest,
Lying together there goes back so far,
An emblem of two people being honest.
Yet more and more time passes silently.
Outside, the wind’s incomplete unrest
Builds and disperses clouds in the sky,
And dark towns heap up on the horizon.
None of this cares for us. Nothing shows why
At this unique distance from isolation
It becomes still more difficult to find
Words at once true and kind,
Or not untrue and not unkind.

Headspace Poetry

How strange

Had some warthog at SB’s house tonight. Some good wine and conversation, and reaffirmation that all the things I want to say to you are worth saying, if only for myself. It’s strange to now know – to understand, to be more accurate – the multiple ways in which one has sabotaged one’s own existence, along with those of others, and to not be able to explore the issues with the relevant person. The astonishment at one’s own blindness is so striking that it’s equally astonishing that one could have been so blind.

Reading Raymond Carver tonight. This is his:


Suppose I say summer,
write the word “hummingbird,”
put it in an envelope,
take it down the hill
to the box. When you open
my letter you will recall
those days and how much,
just how much, I love you.


White spaces

Another borrowing from someone who expresses things far better than I’ve ever been able to:

Paul Auster – from the essay “White Spaces”

A man sets out on a journey to a place he has never been before. Another man comes back. A man comes to a place that has no name, that has no landmarks to tell him where he is. Another man decides to come back. A man writes letters from nowhere, from the white space that has opened up in his mind. The letters are never received. The letters are never sent. Another man sets out on a journey in search of the first man. This second man becomes more and more like the first man, until he, too, is swallowed up by the whiteness. A third man sets out on a journey with no hope of ever getting anywhere. He wanders. He continues to wander. For as long as he remains in the realm of the naked eye, he continues to wander.

Despite appearances to the contrary, this is – to me, at least – a rather cheerful sentiment.



Steven Pinker offers a solid overview of the current thinking around consciousness, both from a philosophical and neurological viewpoint. The gap between those two viewpoints has been closing for some time now, and it’s good to see that “idle” speculation has again pointed in a useful direction. Of course, this doesn’t redeem philosophy (in the completely armchair sense) in that critics could always – and probably correctly – assert that for every one good idea, we’ve wasted thousands of person-hours on very bad ones. Which, I suppose, is why at least one of my colleagues will no longer have anything to do with philosophy that’s unconnected with actually poking a stick at something, to see how it responds.

Towards the end of the piece, Pinker mentions a typically perceptive thought from Colin McGinn: even if all the evidence is in, and we begin to understand how simple (in one sense, because it’s clearly not simple at all) we are, we’d probably not be able to believe it, or live with that belief. There may well be a drug that can fix you, and me, whatever our afflictions are, but would we want to take them? Or is this the wrong question, because if we do take them, would we not be glad we had?


Aphorism #1

He picks his words like he picks his teeth – clumsily, noisily, and with no regard for the comfort of others.


Nights in the iron hotel

Michael Hofmann – Nights in the Iron Hotel, Faber & Faber 1983

Nights in the Iron Hotel

Our beds are at a hospital distance.
I push them together. Straw matting
on the walls produces a Palm Beach effect:

long drinks made with rum in tropical bars.
The position of mirror and wardrobe
recalls a room I once lived in happily.

Our feelings are shorter and faster now.
You confess a new infidelity. This time,
a trombone player. His tender mercies…

All night, we talk about separating.
The radio wakes us with its muzak.
In a sinister way, you call it lulling.

We are fascinated by our own anaesthesia,
our inability to function. Sex is a luxury,
an export of healthy physical economies.

The TV stays switched on all the time.
Dizzying social realism for the drunks.
A gymnast swings like a hooked fish.

Academia and teaching Headspace

A philosophical joke

Courtesy of Jerry Fodor. Posted because I’m bored of seeing the previous post at the top of the page…

Once upon a time, a visiting scholar presented a lecture on the topic: ‘How many philosophical positions are there in principle?’ ‘In principle,’ he began, ‘there are exactly 12 philosophical positions.’ A voice called from the audience: ‘Thirteen.’ ‘There are,’ the lecturer repeated, ‘exactly 12 possible philosophical positions; not one less and not one more.’ ‘Thirteen,’ the voice from the audience called again. ‘Very well, then,’ said the lecturer, now perceptibly irked, ‘I shall proceed to enumerate the 12 possible philosophical positions. The first is sometimes called “naive realism”. It is the view according to which things are, by and large, very much the way that they seem to be.’ ‘Oh,’ said the voice from the audience. ‘Fourteen!’

Culture Headspace

Dumbing down

There are different kinds of silence; ours, I think, was an instinctive dread of catching the plague of dramatic rhetoric. People do not realize how insidiously, in certain circumstances, they can be infected by the rhetorical. And how important it is at least to try to shake it off. And to do so in the name of what seems a simple but is actually a perverse rule, that it is on the slippery confines between the banal and the mysterious that we only fleetingly brush against the never wholly grasped nature of things.
– Gustaw Herling

Culture Headspace Politics

The evils of “Democracy”

It has frequently been commented that the US has a rather peculiar relationship with democracy, at least in an ideological sense. They trumpet its virtues and their pride in being democratic, and even sometimes start wars, ostensibly in defense of this political system. But if democracy means – as it surely does – that everyone gets to vote, and everyone’s vote counts equally, then how can we square the stated American commitment to democracy with the likelihood that Dubya would reject the outcome of any Iraqi election (for example) which placed a dedicated theocratic government in power, no matter how fair that election may have been?