Rough Beast

SomeBODY once told me about a bird that’s turnin’
And turnin’ in a widening gyre
It was lookin’ kinda lost cause it couldn’t hear its boss
As it soared ever higher and higher

Well, things fall apart and the centre’s not holdin’,
Anarchy’s loose and there’s no controllin’,
Innocence drowned in a blood-dimmed tide,
The worst get intense while the best just hide

So much to do, so much to see
Images out of Spiritus Mundi
You’ve gotta move those slow thighs
Open up your pitiless eyes

Hey now
Lion body
With a man’s head
Go play

Hey now
You’re a rough beast
Get the show on
Get paid

Your hour’s come round once more
Slouching towards Bethlehem to be bo-orn


Milkman / Cré na Cille (The Dirty Dust)

Anna Burns / Mairtín Ó Cadhain

One of the traps I fell into through becoming a Joyce fan at a young age was to not read any Irish writers other than Joyce, or Joyce and Beckett, or Joyce and Beckett and Flann O’Brien, a state I persisted in for far too long. This year C and I bought copies of Anna Burns’ Milkman for one another for Christmas and when I came to read it a couple of weeks ago I loved it. It’s an almost unbearably tense novel whose narrator is a young girl in Northern Ireland during the Troubles: it’s moving and frightening and hilarious and the last few pages had me getting up out of my chair in the kitchen without realising it.

After that I decided to tackle The Dirty Dust, which has been on my to-read list since I first heard that it was out in an English translation in 2015. It’s got a formidable reputation as the greatest work of modern literature in the Irish language—a reputation of which I was wholly ignorant until I heard that it was being translated, for which reasons see the Joyce/Beckett/O’Brien trap described above. Cré na Cille was published in Irish in 1949 and became a critical and popular success in the Gaeltacht, where it was serialised in Irish-language newspapers. The more than fifty-year delay in getting it translated into English seems to have resulted from a combination of copyright problems, the general prickliness of the language question in Ireland and reluctance on the part of those segments of the Irish literary community to bollix up the job, which is understandable, because it’s very, very good. The entire novel is spoken by the dead in the graveyard of a village in Connemara, who carry on the gossip, backbiting and feuds they had above ground. A few reviews of it have described it as being in “dialogue” but that doesn’t quite capture the polyphonic qualities of the speech, which is sometimes conversation — new arrivals are keenly interrogated by the central character, Caitriona Paudeen, for news — but as often as not monologue or chorus. The dead are identified by their verbal mannerisms, in a way which is reminiscent of Joyce but more so of Stein: even more than in life, people are like stuck records. It’s demanding but very funny and savage, and Caitriona is a somewhat awe-inspiring figure, an over-the-top but believable monster of spite and snobbishness. I’m looking forward to reading it again, once I have a bit of a break.

The obvious points of comparison to the three-Irish-authors trap are Beckett — especially Play, with its after-life love-triangle — and Flann O’Brien’s satire of Gaeltacht autobiography, An Béal Bocht, but Ó Cadhain’s work is more generous than either, though just as unsentimental.

Alan Titley’s translation is pacy and accessible, with plenty of anachronistic slang and a deliberate avoidance of Syngean Hiberno-English. The same publishing house bought out a second, alternative translation in 2016, Graveyard Clay, by Liam Mac Con Iomaire and Tim Robinson, in counterpoint to Titley’s, sticking more closely to the letter of the original. I’m looking forward to revisiting it in a different register.

Flying Lotus – Flamagra

(cw for psychedelic body horror)
(cw for weird kids, David Lynch)

I discovered Flying Lotus in a charity store in Marrickville sometime last year – they had the Pattern+Grid World EP playing on vinyl and it sounded amazing so I made a note of it, and have been filling out my collection of his back catalogue ever since. One of the fun things about this process is when a new album comes out and you can experience it in real-time with the rest of the fans rather than in hindsight. Flamagra is really good, though it’s maybe not as cohesive as You’re Dead! but I’m still digesting it. It spans a greater range of moods, I think, than the earlier albums.


It’s been about five weeks since I stopped taking nortriptyline, and things are still changing. Mostly I’m OK, althought for the past two weeks I’ve been irritable, not so much with the people around me as with words and especially words on the internet. Here’s a list I wrote in my journal last week and then immediately concluded hmm there’s a lot of stuff here, I guess it’s my mood.

  • the nerd identity, people identifying as such and having online arguments about it, I feel repulsed by it, if you know what I’m like you can laugh all you want at this but lately I feel like taking a schoolyard taunt and using it to describe any kind of intellectual excitement was a really bad development in our society’s relationship to knowledge and culture;
  • Wikipedia, both my own addiction to reading random articles and its stupid style;
  • programming culture, the articles I read on, especially all the endless whinging about the modern web stack and about JavaScript, and all the C/C++ macho bullshit;
  • This thread about an article complaining that astrology is too fashionable among young queer people; specifically it’s the commenters who are inexplicably furious about astrology and compare it to organised religion or bigotry and homophobia;
  • The ABC’s news app and the state of political coverage in general;
  • That the backlash against the Murdoch press revolved around their anti-Labor bias and not about their bigotry, homophobic, racism, misogyny against Gillard, etc.

There’s something bracing about this, although I’m relieved that it seems to be easing off this week. I went through most of my teens and twenties in a state of high indignation at dumb stuff like the above and I don’t want to be there all the time again. I feel like being off the meds is allowing certain emotional states to resurface, the job I have now is to learn how to handle them.

I’ve had to take a break from social media again: both Facebook and Mastodon, which is where I’ve been most active lately. Partly this is because the election result fallout on FB is too depressing, but, for the most part, it’s not about the content. I was hoping that my compulsiveness about social media would ease off when I stopped the meds, but it hasn’t, and the night of the election I realised that I was going off to read FB or Masto every ten minutes or so as a way to escape my own emotions. It could be that my irritability is getting better because I’ve shut off this avenue of escape and I’m having to sit with things more. Or it is just that I’m reading less random stuff. I’m not sure when I’ll be ready to go back.

I’m not even thinking of going back to Twitter, and I still feel vaguely guilty that I’m on Facebook at all, because they’re both awful companies and I don’t think they’ll ever reform themselves, but the more I think about the ways in which social media is bad for me (let alone what it’s doing to politics) the more I realise that I’ve been relying on it for social connection for years, and I need to find alternatives. I miss everyone, well, maybe not everyone, but most of you. You know who you are.

Cracked – Why Psychiatry is Doing More Harm Than Good

James Davies

One of the false starts I made towards the previous post was a review of this book, which I abandoned because it was making me too angry. I’m home sick today and feeling spiteful, so here it is.

I picked the book up one day when I was feeling sullen and grumpy with my side-effects: I’m glad that I bought it in a remainder store, I don’t want its author to earn any money from it, because it’s awful. I wouldn’t call myself an outright antipsychiatrist, but on top of my personal dissatisfaction with my meds, I feel like the profession and the pharmacological industry have serious problems and need some sort of reform, and I’m also fascinated by the history of the discipline. Despite this, I can’t remember the last time I read a book written from a position to which I thought I would be basically sympathetic which left me feeling that its author was not only a bad writer, but a bad person.

From the start, the book’s style, at once matey and hectoring, made me think of the last five years of British political debate, and I thought, facetiously, that people like Davis are why Brexit is happening. I persisted with it only because of a growing horror and fascination with the author’s sins, his smug contempt for patients disguised as concern, his apparent ignorance of how much of psychopharmacology’s flaws are those of the drug and medical industry as a whole, his sentimental and captious argument that what people need instead of medication is “traditional values” without ever having to spell out how exactly these should be delivered. By the time I reached the end, this didn’t feel like a cheap shot. People like Davies, and an intellectual and publishing culture which supports them, are exactly why Brexit is happening.

The single biggest problem I have with the book is its childish binary logic. It is assumed that we as a society or as individuals are faced with a neat choice: either submit to the corrupt technocracy of big pharma and keep swallowing ‘happy pills’, or shape up, go to humanistic psychotherapists like himself, and, one supposes, church. (Putting the phrase ‘happy pills’ in scare quotes is a perfect illustration of the book’s stylistic dishonesty: this is a phrase which is only used by his side in the debate, so they own it, and holding it at arms’ length is cheating.)

Davies never makes plain what he means by traditional values, so the reader is free to imagine his alternative to the status quo as some sort of pre-industrial idyll, at least if they’ve never cracked open a history book. There’s no connection in Davies’ thought with the anti-psychiatric tradition which sees modern society as regimenting and controlling alternate and viable ways of being; there’s no evidence that he’s read or even heard of Laing, much less Foucault. Nor is there any sign that he’s aware of the callous and violent ways in which traditional societies dealt with the mental illness before modern psychiatry, or the desperation and misery which has characterised the lives of the mentally ill for most of human history.

Outside the journalistic games of good guys and bad guys which books like these are playing, people with mental illness don’t just visit their GP, take the pills and hope for the best. They got to twelve-step and other self-help groups: they go to therapists and counsellors and family members and, yes, church. Davies is an anthropologist and psychotherapist, which makes his caricature of the actual experience of mental illness all the more frustrating. I found myself reminded of the rationalist blogger Scott Alexander and Jordan Peterson, both of whom are also clinical psychologists but who seem to have strange or deficient ways of understanding how actual human beings behave. All three seem very far removed, in terms of temperament, from the qualities I would look for in a good therapist or psychiatrist, or a priest or rabbi, for that matter.

If you want to read a good book on the divide between traditional psychoanalytical practice and psychopharmacology, written by an anthropologist who seems to be able to observe and interpret clinical behaviour, rather than just try to score rhetorical points off it, I can recommend T M Luhrmann’s Of Two Minds as a much better alternative.

Having just added the title to this post, I don’t know what I was expecting from a book about mental illness whose title is a clumsy play on a slur against mentally ill people. This might seem like a PC quibble, but it’s actually a distillation of the book’s awfulness. It’s like someone making dad jokes about matters of life or death and then expecting you to thank them for their intellectual bravery. Everyone involved in it can get fucked.

Getting off the pills

Last night I took what I hope will be my last dose of my antidepressants, after three weeks of tapering off: nortriptyline, a tricyclic. These are the only family of antidepressants which I’ve been able to tolerate and which also seem to have any benefit. I tried four or five SSRIs (the most popular family, of which Prozac is the most famous member) when I was in my early twenties and they all either had unpleasant sexual side-effects or made me feel dangerously manic. I settled onto an MAOI back then but I think all that it really did was make me overeat.

I’ve been on nortriptyline for about two years. When I saw my psychiatrist a month ago about getting off it, he gave me the impression that it’s one of the big guns, which is not what I thought when he put me on it in 2017. But I was very depressed then, and his manner, I remember, was much more soothing. On my second visit I was far more businesslike and less desperate, and he responded in kind. It was all quite male and professional, as if I were meeting with a consultant to organise some financial endeavour, and I found myself stepping into the role of a customer or client, rather than a patient. This is the sort of realisation which would have alarmed or upset me when I was younger, but negotiating the weird ways in which class and the medical system intersect is a good skill to acquire.

Before the nortriptyline I had been on another tricyclic, amitriptyline, for about seven years, although the first few years of that were what one doctor had described as a “homeopathic” dose. I started taking them to get through a period of work-related stress, and somehow never felt ready to go off them, although I talked about it, and grumbled about the side-effects (sleepiness and constipation).

In 2016, I was in the middle of a family crisis. My son had come out to his family and close friends as trans a couple of years earlier. (To clear up any confusion: his assigned gender at birth was female: he presents as male now and has started physically transitioning.) He is also prone to depression, although I am now very cautious about the idea that he’s inherited my own. We have a lot in common, but the idea of depression as a sort of family curse is a trap, when you’re trying to care for the family member you suppose you’ve given it to. Moods resonate, whatever their genetic or biological basis, in the space of emotions and speech and family dynamics, and the ways in which we were reinforcing each others’ misery was really destructive.

His social anxiety about his gender presentation had stopped him being able to attend school, despite it being very welcoming for trans kids, with a protocol in place to tell teachers and students about new names and pronouns, a unisex bathroom, and so on. And I was desperate, feeling as though I’d failed him, and was also failing his twin sister, who was finishing her HSC in an environment interrupted by arguments and sorrow.

There are other serious aspects to his crisis which it’s not really my place to talk about. I’m trying to get back into the habit of personal blogging again, but writing this has made me realise that when I started blogging about being a single dad, my kids were toddlers, and one can’t write about teenagers or young adults in the same way.

On the other hand, this has made me realise that me going quiet hasn’t all been about my own withdrawal, or the mainstream internet becoming a much less enjoyable space, but about the natural course of a family. Kids grow up, and their problems become those of adults one is living with, and that’s different.

I’m trying to end this period of isolation, now that he and I are both doing a lot better, by talking more to friends and family about what’s been going on, and by starting to write about it here, despite the fact that blogging is not the same sort of activity now than it was when I started. I still think it’s worth doing. It’s become a commonplace, especially on less mainstream social media platforms like Mastodon, that Facebook and the other big players have eaten the web, but the old idiosyncratic web is still here. It’s the paths to virality which have been captured, not the space in which to write. I’ve written a lot of journal entries over the past three years, but writing for a readership is different, no matter the size. Just communicating with this blog’s regular readers or people who follow the link from Mastodon or Facebook is worth doing.

Once I felt that I was no longer in crisis, and that I no longer needed the help of antidepressants to keep things together enough to get to work, do the shopping and keep the house clean, the side-effects began to seem too annoying. I had never intended to be on them for a decade, but I am also now at the age when the idea of being on medication for the rest of my life doesn’t seem as upsetting as it did when I was twenty. But I’m looking forward to seeing what I’m like without them. I’m already feeling more myself, in various subtle ways. (Andrew Solomon, I think, describes antidepressants as mood-altering drugs which are boring enough that there’s no danger that people will use them recreationally.) There’s a sort of mild pleasure in experiencing the passage of time, of being in a day-to-day routine, which I’m puzzled to find had gone completely and which I’m very glad to have back.

GLOSSATORY, illustrated

I’ve started illustrating the output of my bot GLOSSATORY (available at on Twitter and on Mastodon) and posting the ones I like the most on @glossatory at Instagram.

It’s been a while since I’ve drawn anything on a regular basis so these are a bit shaky.

GLOSSATORY is a neural net which has been trained on 80,000 word and phrase definitions, and has a lot of strange ideas about the world, and about grammar.

One day I hope to be able to draw arms and hands again. I used to be OK at it. Until then, it’s nice to have something creative to do every day.


I’ve started using Mastodon again and am determined to keep blogging here more often. I’ve said that before, though, so we’ll see.