Monday, August 22, 2016

Wild flowers from the fells - Jämtlanstriangeln Sylarna Summer 2016

Storulvån

Storulvån. The name of the river, and also the name of the adjacent Fjällstation, which was the start and finish of our four-day triangular jaunt in the fells (29/7/16 - 1/8/16).

As I struggled along with my too-heavy pack, I of course snapped a few common mountain plants; and here they are.

(During the actual walk my meditations mostly concerned the various dwarf willows we saw along the way, but in the end I never made time for in-depth willow study, there were too many other exciting things to do. I brought home a plastic bag of willow samples, and forgot to unbag them until they'd gone mouldy and had to be thrown away.)


Angelica archangelica

Angelica archangelica (Sw: Kvanne, En: Garden Angelica)

It's true we were only just above the tree-line at this point, but there remains an air of paradox about the sight of this sturdy vegetable in the open fell country. The places it frequents, however, are usually luscious spots on the edges of streams.

Its worldwide distribution is bizarre: a sort of line from the Himalayas and Urals through Russia and Scandinavia to the Faeroes, Iceland and Greenland: and nowhere else.

The above statement lumps together two different subspecies. The one famous as a candy, food and medicine, is this mountain plant, ssp. archangelica, sometimes known in Sweden as Fjällkvanne to distinguish it from the coastal ssp. littoralis (Strandkvanne), which is found only in Scandinavia and Iceland. [Neither are to be confused with the familiar woodland plant Wild Angelica (A. sylvestris) (see end of this post!).]

An extremely fragrant plant, attracting insects from a wide area around. Unfortunately I couldn't smell it at all;  it was far too early in our ramble for my uncertain sense of smell to have recovered from months of office air-conditioning!

The plant has been used locally as food, e.g. in Sami dishes (compare Oxyria digyna, below). The stems can even be eaten raw; they have a sweetish taste.

But its wider use in international cuisine began with its cultivation at the other end of Europe, in the marshy flatlands of Marais-Poitevin in W France. (Most sources say the cultivation began in 1602, following an outbreak of the plague, for which the plant was said to be a remedy.) One of its main uses today, aside from the familiar green candied angelica, is as flavouring of e.g. Vermouth, Dubonnet, Chartreuse and Bénédictine.

In the UK it has never been native (hence the English name) and it occurs only as an escape from cultivation; the London area is where you're most likely to find it.


Persicaria vivipara

Persicaria vivipara (Sw: Ormrot, En: Alpine Bistort). The plants hedge their bets reproduction-wise, with hopeful sexual flowers at the top, and more reliable bulbils further down.

It works: this plant grows nearly everywhere in Sweden. Sentimental attachment probably explains why I snapped this not particularly splendid specimen, and why the resulting photo moves me as it does.

It has a wide distribution all round the northern hemisphere, getting about as far north as it's possible for a plant to go (on the north coast of Greenland).

In the British Isles, however, P. vivipara is restricted to the mountains of C Scotland and a small area of the N Pennines.

The vernacular names reflect that. The Swedish name "Ormrot", which means "snake root", is homely and obviously of popular origin. Just as obviously, the English name "Alpine Bistort" comes from the botanical community.

At least those names are stable. On the other hand, the scientific name has proved a nightmare. In addition to Persicaria vivipara you'll also see it called Polygonum viviparum, Polygonum vivipara, and Bistorta vivipara. I'm still not really sure which name we're supposed to be using.


Ranunculus acris

Ranunculus acris (Sw: Smörblomma, En: Meadow Buttercup)

Surrounded by so many plants unknown in our daily lives, it was almost a surprise to spot the odd familiar species. One of them was Meadow Buttercup, here growing with Angelica archangelica. I also noticed lots of Yellow Rattle (Rhinanthus minor).


Dryas octopetala


Dryas octopetala (Sw: Fjällsippa, En: Mountain Avens)

The Dryas leaves are the fresh green gribbly-edged ones. [The larger grey-green orbicular leaves are a dwarf willow that is so unmistakable that even  I  can recognize it, Salix reticulata (Sw: Nätvide, En: Net-veined Willow).]

Dryas octopetala characteristically grows on dry, calcareous ground from which the snow clears relatively early. This type of species-rich vegetation is known as  fjällsippshed / Dryas-heath. We only saw it in one place, beside a pretty beck on the ascent to Blåhammaren.

The Swedish name connects it with various with other showy wild plants such as Vitsippa (Wood-anemone), Mosippa (Pasque Flower), Blåsippa (Hepatica) and Gulsippa (Anemone ranunculoides). But this one is in the Rose family, not in the Buttercup family like the others.

Also native to the British Isles, mostly in NW Scotland and the Burren.


Dryas octopetala



Last sunset on hills - from Blåhammaren, about 23:00

Blåhammaren is the smallest and highest Fjällstation in Sweden (1086m - 3562 feet). We arrived two hours late for the famous three-course dinner, but they gave us our own sitting.

While the weary hikers were sleeping, or trying to sleep, in the packed sweaty dormitories, a dozen reindeer came to graze around the buildings, and the sunlight moved round the northern horizon. The next morning it was raining heavily.


Saxifraga aizoides

Saxifraga aizoides (Sw: Gullbräcka, En: Yellow Saxifrage). It can often look more spectacular than this: especially when you find the orange and yellow forms growing side by side. By streams and springs on calcareous substrate.

Throughout the fell region. Also found in the Highlands of Scotland, Lake District, and Benbulbin in Co. Sligo.




Carex saxatilis

Carex saxatilis (Sw: Glansstarr, En: Russet Sedge).

I can't believe I've never written about a sedge before, as my list of "Botanical Entries" (to the right of this blog) seems to affirm.

Anyway this handsome sedge is common throughout the fell region in wet places with calcareous substrates. Also found in the Scottish Highlands.

The Swedish name "Glansstarr" translates as "Lustrous Sedge" or "Splendid Sedge".


Pinguicula vulgaris

Pinguicula vulgaris (Sw: Tätört, En: Common Bladderwort)

The least bad of several attempts at photographing this single Bladderwort flower, while balancing on narrow planks across a marsh.

Not specifically a fell species, it grows in wet places almost everywhere in Sweden. In the British Isles it's common in the north-west but has disappeared from much of the south and east due to agricultural drainage of wetland.

Långfil is a local kind of fermented milk with a distinctive slimy or ropy texture. One way of starting the culture is rubbing the inside of the churn with the leaves of Bladderwort or Sundew. This leaves a substance (it's disputed whether it's the enzymes of these insectivorous plants, or the bacteria they attract) whose effect is to make the milk proteins form into long polysaccharide chains, hence the ropy texture (which you can get rid of by stirring it before eating it). This was a way of preserving the milk, much needed in the local transhumance culture of Jämtland, where people often spent months at a time pasturing cattle far from their homesteads.


Pedicularis sceptrum-carolinum


Pedicularis is a more significant genus up here than in the British Isles (and the Swedish name "spira" sounds much nicer than the English "lousewort").

This one is the biggest and most magnificent species, Pedicularis sceptrum-carolinum (Sw: Kung Karls spira, En: Moor-king Lousewort). Common on the edges of wet, boggy ground. Not found in the British Isles.



Lichens on stone


Typically decorative stones. I don't know anything about lichens, but the further north you go the better they get.



More lichens on stone


Hieracium alpinum growing among Alchemilla alpina


Hieracium alpinum (Sw: Fjällfibbla, En: Alpine Hawkweed)

I've made up the English name. Hawkweeds are a highly critical group and this may be better regarded as an aggregate group of microspecies (Hieracium sect. Alpina). Similar hawkweeds occur in C. Scotland. Whether they are the same species as any of the Scandinavian plants is a moot point.

Whatever, Fjällfibbla  in a general sense (whether it's one species or many) is highly recognizable up here and very common.

Alchemilla alpina (Sw: Fjälldaggkåpa, En: Alpine Lady's-mantle)

"Daggkåpa" means "dew-cape", so there is evidently some connection with the English name Lady's Mantle. I suppose these names were suggested by the pleated orbicular leaves of the lowland types (and perhaps, in the case of the Swedish name, the blob of rainwater that often collects in the middle). In the alpine species, however, these leaves are divided into finger-like leaflets.



Sedum rosea


Sedum rosea (SW: Rosenrot, EN: Roseroot). A common plant up here, and some of it was still in bloom. This one wasn't, but it looked really good in the rain.




Pedicularis lapponica

Pedicularis lapponica (Sw: Lappspira, En: Lapland Lousewort). One of my favourites, common throughout the fell region. Not found in the British Isles.

Photo taken just outside the Sylarna Fjällstation, where we stayed for two nights.

This was 1040m / 3412ft above sea level, but the Meadow Buttercup in the background was still hanging in there!


Oxyria digyna


Oxyria digyna (Sw: Fjällsyra, En: Mountain Sorrel) is a very small dock. Very common (one of the plants that grows highest, along with Ranunculus glacialis). The leaves, like those of lowland sorrel, have a fresh, sour taste. (It's added to reindeer milk to make the Sami dish "Juobmo".)



Silene acaulis


Silene acaulis (Sw: Fjällglim, En: Moss Campion).

"One of our few true cushion plants", wrote C.A.M. Lindman in Nordens Flora. This form of growth involves every stem being an identical length, so as to form a perfect defensive dome, cradling the warmth and repelling wind and snow. Each stem produces only a single flower.

When the flowers first appear they are salmon-pink, later becoming a pale violet, as here.

In Britain it's mainly a plant of NW Scotland, with outliers in the Lake District, Benbulbin and Snowdonia.


Bartsia alpina

Bartsia alpina (Sw: Svarthö, En: Alpine Bartsia).

Common in the Scandinavian fells, sometimes descending into the lowlands along river systems. Extremely local in Scotland and N England.  

A rather striking plant. "Svarthö" means "black hay", though I don't know if that's really the origin of the name,


The high fells: Tempeldalen, Sylarna



Veronica alpina

Veronica alpina (Sw: Fjällveronika, En: Alpine Speedwell).

This photo shows the flowers when they're closed. They close up whenever it rains, and up here that's most of the time. (It isn't heavy rain, just the sort of continuous light precipitation that you always get when you're up in the clouds.)

Grows throughout the Scandinavian fell region, in areas where the snow lies late. In the British Isles, restricted to a few mountains in central Scotland.



Ranunculus glacialis

Ranunculus glacialis (Sw: Isranunkel, Renblomma. En: Glacier Buttercup, Glacier Crowfoot).

This remarkable buttercup is the flowering plant that grows highest in the Scandinavian mountains. It's also the plant that grows nearest to the north pole (on the north coast of Greenland).  It's characteristically found on the lower edges of glaciers and permanent snow-patches, where there is a trickle of melt-water all summer. (On Sylarna there are three glaciers, though they're shrinking year by year.)

Occasionally a solitary plant turns up in a lowland river valley, growing from a seed that's been washed downstream.

When the flowers first open they are whitish, but rapidly darken to pink and magenta.

According to Lindman it's a favourite food of reindeer (hence "renblomma"). An unusual example of the normally-poisonous buttercup family providing pasturage!  (Though I've heard too that the root nodules of Lesser Celandine can be eaten.)

Ranunculus glacialis has never been recorded in the British Isles; not too surprising, as there's really no suitable environment for a plant that's as ice-loving as this one.


Ranunculus glacialis

This is close to the limit of higher plants. The other leaves in this photo are Oxyria digyna, Veronica alpina and Gnaphalium supinum (Sw: Fjällnoppa, En: Dwarf Cudweed). Above this,  it's nothing but moss, algae, lichens and bare rock.


Ranunculus glacialis


Ranunculus glacialis



In the high fells



Finally, a couple of shots from the return leg:






Arctostaphylos alpinus

Arctostaphylos alpinus (Sw: Ripbär,  En: Arctic Bearberry). At Spåime, on species-poor moorland. A specialist of places where the wind is too strong for snow to settle.

I wrote a separate post about this one:

http://michaelpeverett.blogspot.co.uk/2016/08/back-from-mountains.html


Angelica sylvestris

Finally, as we descended in warm sunshine to the friendlier environs of Storulvån, I couldn't resist snapping this enthusiastic crowd of hoverflies on a just-opened umbel of the lowland Angelica species, Angelica sylvestris (Sw: Strätta, En: Wild Angelica).


We were back!



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Friday, August 19, 2016

The cook at Smolensk

In Book 10 Chapter 4 of War and Peace , the innkeeper Ferapontov's cook comes out into the street, curious about the noises of the cannon-balls. It is Smolensk, in August 1812.

The peasants aren't yet able to conceive the significance of these fireworks in the sky. Ferapontov's conversation is still about the rye harvest. Someone official told him that steps have been taken to prevent any trouble from the French, and he believes it.

While he berates his cook for her idleness, the projectiles are whining harmlessly overhead, but suddenly one of them stops whining and explodes in their street.

When bystanders recover from the flash and the shock, the cook is heard to be wailing monotonously: "Don't let me die, good people, don't let me die."

We don't hear much more about her, but it seems that a splinter from the shell has broken her thigh.

Remembering my friend in the office, who recently broke his femur in a cycling collision, and the complicated modern surgery required, and him being off work for more than a year...  well, breaking your thigh-bone is no joke.

And given that Smolensk on that sunny day is collapsing, within a couple of hours, into a chaos of refugees and fleeing soldiers, I don't have too much hope for that poor cook.

*

Tolstoy, like Zola in La Débâcle, and like Jonathan Littell, is continually preoccupied with the paradoxes of war: the baffling disparity between wartime experience and peacetime experience, the parallel existence of peace alongside war and the terrible transformation from one to the other.

*

The battle of Smolensk, painting by Peter von Hess

[Image source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1029458]



This is where I am right now in War and Peace (I'm listening to the Librivox audiobook); with the carts of the refugees choked up in Smolensk, while the soldiers loot and burn buildings.

The cook is a very minor figure, one of hundreds or even thousands in this novel, but her slender story - the suddenness of this life-changing catastrophe, and yet the banality of its arrival - there's something very affecting about it.

Perhaps it's no coincidence that this is one of the only chapters in War and Peace to focus on the common people rather than on the ruling classes. Of course I love Pierre and Natasha and Prince Andrey too, but that love is a more complex thing. The cook is ... We know nothing about her... the cook is life itself, somehow.

*

I might be the only person on earth to be reading War and Peace at the same time as reading Jonathan Littell's The Kindly Ones (2006). But the comparison has been made before.

The Kindly Ones (not to be confused with Anthony Powell's novel about the eve of WWII in England, or with Aeschylus's play, for that matter) is a fiction on a similar scale to Tolstoy's. It's an account of the Eastern Front from the perspective of an SS officer who took part in the Einsatzgruppen operations, among other things.

Littell, I think I remember reading, wrote some of his book while shut away in a humanitarian aid Agency in the Democratic Republic of Congo in the 1990s, as well as in other "troublespots" around the world. A non-fictional book that I'm currently reading, Tim Butcher's Blood River, gives some idea of the chaos, the violence and the atrocities in the Congo that perhaps went some way to provoking  Littell's astounding meditation on war and evil.

Littell's book, written in French, was a bestseller and a critical sensation in France. Its reception in the English-speaking world was more mixed; but surely that'll settle down. Reviewers in the English-speaking world didn't think much of Solzhenitsyn's August 1914 either; another brilliant war book to add to the three already mentioned.






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Thursday, August 18, 2016

Dittany




Anne Berkeley: The Men from Praga (Salt, 2009)

I'm not sure how I ended up with this on my shelves, because it's quite remote from the kind of poetry book I normally read, but I must say that picking it up now and then gives me a lot of pleasure and a lot to think about.

The poem "Baudelaire's Pipe" consists of six rhymed sonnets, all of them more or less translations of Baudelaire's poem "La Pipe" from Fleurs du mal.

Here's the first:


     I


Stroke
my Abyssinian hip:
I'm an experienced pipe --
a real writer's smoke.

When his spirits ache
my chimney fires up
like a home where good soup
greets the ploughman from work.

I embrace
and rock him idle
in my gauzy blue cradle,

whispering peace
in fragrant loops
from my passionate lips.




As we read on, the translations layer one upon another, and thus the poem slowly turns the pipe over and over, uncovering its layers of colonialism, narcosis, well-earned relaxation, mastery and submission, housewives and prostitutes.


*


La Pipe

Je suis la pipe d'un auteur;
On voit, à contempler ma mine
D'Abyssinienne ou de Cafrine,
Que mon maître est un grand fumeur.

Quand il est comblé de douleur,
Je fume comme la chaumine
Où se prépare la cuisine
Pour le retour du laboureur.

J'enlace et je berce son âme
Dans le réseau mobile et bleu
Qui monte de ma bouche en feu,

Et je roule un puissant dictame
Qui charme son coeur et guérit
De ses fatigues son esprit.



None of Berkeley's translations treats Baudelaire's twelfth line quite literally. They translate "dictame" as "balm", "peace", "spell", etc.

Literally, it means "dittany". This in turn refers to one of several aromatic plants.


Origanum dictamnus



[Image source: https://uk.pinterest.com/pin/179510735123116865/, photograph by pella2011.]


Mainly, Baudelaire must have been thinking of Cretan Dittany (Origanum dictamnus, endemic to Crete), a valued herb used as an aphrodisiac, in witchcraft (e.g. as an incense from which spirits may materialize), in perfumery, and as a flavouring (e.g. of vermouth and absinthe).

He may also have known something about the Dittany, Fraxinelle or Burning Bush (Dictamnus albus)  of the wider Mediterranean region (including southern France), a shrub famous for its volatile oils which can actually ignite the air around it. A very appropriate metaphor for a pipe!

Dictamnus albus


[Image source: http://www.jeantosti.com/fleurs6/dictamnus.html]




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Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Tomorrowland 6 - Neptune's Open Mouth




Neptune's Open Mouth

The preceding section, Sirens, links to this one via its final line ("you dip your legs into your class just testing").  [Apart from its modern-cityscape and newly-discovered-tropical-island type locales, there is also quite a lot of educational loci in Tomorrowland ; such as this "class" (in one of its meanings), in which "you" is either a teacher or a student. Cf "warm and gentle schools" earlier on the same page.

NOM is, unsurprisingly, watery. Water is associated with sex, birth and death. (The coupling of land animals involves a temporary, damp, private re-creation of the watery environment in which our far-distant ancestors lived out the whole of their lives.)

Under the tide my legs are musical
display on moonlit net  ...

Both the opening and closing parts of NOM are vaginal. Hibiscus and sea-anemone, shell and fold.

Within, the following set pieces stand out:

1. A semi-emergent lyric called "Arrival's Song". That is, I should say at once, a dubious interpretation. The title words appear bracketed, as if introducing an embedded lyric, but the text that follows isn't clearly demarcated or distinct from the rest of NOM.

2. A group of stories of a mythical or ritual type. These include a Metamorphoses-style account of a yearning lover turned into a tree, and a relatively long account of water ritual in the days immediately following a child's drowning and before the child's spirit is fully at rest.

3. The curiously impressive apparition of a woman, near the end of this section, "with hair the colour of microphones".

*

[General introduction to the essay:

The story of Tomorrowland

It's customary to say that other readings are of course possible. One could go further. The present effort is more systematic than just a personal reading and can arguably be termed a wilful misreading, since it focusses on narrative and progressive aspects of a poem whose narrative progress, if any, is very much in question.

This reading takes its principal structural bearings from the eleven titled sections into which Tomorrowland is divided. It's arguable that it leans far too much on this particular feature, while other significant formal features (for instance, the alternation of capitalized and uncapitalized paragraphs) are blithely ignored. It regards the first section as preludial and the eleventh as postludial. It assumes that the sequence of sections develops in a progressive and quasi-narrative manner.

As a consequence of its focus on narrative, it takes an interest in the four named characters, while acknowledging the fairly numerous other figures in the poem who are not named. To this predilection it may be objected that what we have here is not so much four characters as four names.

I think it was exposure to the audio version of the poem that provoked my interest in the story of Tomorrowland.  Listening to these superb readings with soundscapes brings out the long-range narrative sweep of the poem. At least that's how it seems to me. I wanted to pay tribute to that startling impression and I also wanted to encourage new readers to discover this amazing poem.

My main regret is that this approach rather neglects the close details of verse and text, because I believe it's at that close focal range that Samuels' poetry is most easily appreciated as the essential thing it is. However, I've already said plenty about that in my earlier pieces:

Review of Paradise for Everyone  (2005)
http://www.stridemagazine.co.uk/2005/Nov%202005/peverell.rev.htm
Review of  The Invention of Culture (2008)
http://intercapillaryspace.blogspot.co.uk/2009/04/lisa-samuels-invention-of-culture.html


]


[I may have mentioned before that I've now discovered the whole of Lisa's CD recording of Tomorrowland  online at Penn Sound:

http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Samuels.php

]












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Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The glamour of the foreigner



[Image source: http://janmarsh.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/moroccan-ambassadors.html]



I was chatting recently to my sister and her partner about their experiences teaching in Japan a few years ago,. (Something they both did for a couple of years, via the JET programme, before they met each other. It gave them something to talk about!)

Both testified to the enormous interest, amounting to fascination, that their presence aroused among the provincial Japanese. At first this constant gazing, crowding round and longing to touch their hair or compare heights seemed oppressive and even scary. But as time went by, they each became used to it. 

And then, returning to the UK, a funny thing happened. They got culture-shock in reverse. Walking into, say, a pub, they unconsciously adopted a celebrity smile and an aura of "Well HELLO there! Let's get this party started!"  And they were almost affronted by the utter indifference that greeted their appearance. 

Accepting that it may be a bit different if you're a slave or a refugee or oyster-picking for a ganger, but there is a kind of built-in glamour to being a foreigner in a foreign land. You are living life. You are out there. Your experiences are potentially worth writing about for the folks back home. Your brain lives in the present, kept active by the stimuli of new sights and sounds. 

*

I was thinking about this in connection with Othello. (My earlier note is here.)

There's no evidence that Shakespeare ever left England. He had travelled, indeed. From Stratford-upon-Avon to London. In those days, that was quite a long way. 

He had surely seen people from other races. Even in those days, London was a cosmopolitan city. Travellers were starting to have black servants. It's even been suggested that the Dark Lady might have been a woman of colour. Still, the sight of people from other races hadn't yet lost its novelty value. The painters of Shakespeare's time - e.g. Rubens - manifested huge interest in the Africans, Arabs and Asians they came across. Clearly Rubens was not alone. Shakespeare too must have joined the crowd clustering eagerly around these strange phenomena. It must have been just like the Japanese country people surrounding an English (or Irish) teacher. 

All the same, Shakespeare, writing about the Moor Othello in Venice, was mainly working from his own imagination. There was already a tradition of dramas about non-Europeans, from Tamburlaine  to The Battle of Alcazar to Titus Andronicus. In the latter, Aaron is a Moorish foreigner in Rome. Shakespeare himself was the co-creator, along with Peele. Aaron is an out-and-out villain, but here already Shakespeare begins to think about what it means to be a foreigner in service. His imagination told him most of what he needed to know. Aaron was valuable, Aaron was cleverer than his native colleagues, but Aaron was an outsider, he was never secure. 

Nearly a hundred years later, in 1693, Thomas Rymer poured scorn on the notion that a "Blackmoor" could ever end up being a leading general of the Venetian republic, but I'm not convinced that Rymer knew what he was talking about. Cinthio, writing for a sixteenth-century Italian audience, makes his Moor a captain in Venice and says he married a well-born Venetian lady. The story he tells depends upon this being out of the ordinary but certainly not beyond belief.

What Rymer's note testifies to is the subsequent growth of feelings of disgust towards blacks, as a direct result of enslaving them and treating them like beasts. (As everyone now knows, humans tend to demonize those they have wronged, not those who have wronged them.)

In Cinthio's and Shakespeare's day this racism was still in an embryonic phase, compared to the feelings evinced later by Rymer and Coleridge and well described by Bradley.

Early theatrical tradition (confirmed by Iago's insults in Othello) seems to have presented Moors as looking more like sub-Saharan Africans than Mediterraneans. Yet Shakespeare very likely had encountered the embassy from Morocco that arrived in London in 1600 and stayed 6 months. Its chief was "Abdul Guahid" (Abd el-Ouahad ben Messaoud), shown in the impressive portrait above. The term "black" had a much wider currency in Shakespeare's day than it did in later, more race-conscious, times: Europeans with dark hair or complexions would also be described as "black".

*

Perhaps none so colourful as Othello, but Shakespeare would also have known many examples of top professionals, and especially military ones, who took service in the pay of a foreign master.

In such service, it was axiomatic that you adopted the religion of your foreign master. Few people yet believed that religion was something for the individual conscience to decide.

That's why Othello appears as a Christian. And Othello is proud of being able to say things that are just what a Venetian would say ("What, are we turned Turk...?").

*

But Othello is a foreigner. He's a glamorous one. And at the beginning of the play, he's euphoric with the growth of his prestige in a foreign country, his indispensable services to the state, a triumph now topped off by his marriage to the much younger Desdemona, a beauty from the Venetian aristocracy. 

Such inner joy, such self-satisfaction, is something that we envious human beings are extremely sensitive to. It's not the least of reasons why foreigners are often hated.

*

The UK has recently had a referendum about this. The question on the ballot-paper was (or least it appeared to be):

Do you want any more foreigners in your neighbourhood? 

__ YES     __NO 

For most people in Britain the answer was, as it always has been, a resounding No. Since we're being given the choice, let's eliminate foreigners. Let them go back where they came from. Life is primarily about our own survival. About preserving the only land we know for us and our children. 

For young, educated, confident, middle-class, high-earning people, the answer was Yes.  They related well to the educated, confident foreigners they met. Foreigners proved on the whole to be better employees and more like-minded pals; they worked harder, were more intelligent, more aware of the wider world, more switched on, and had more interesting backgrounds. Besides, these clever achievers had aspirations to being foreigners themselves one day. 

The clever achievers felt a lot more comfortable among foreigners than with their own traditional class enemies, those surly curmudgeonly working classes who despise aspirational people, their fakeness and their insincerity.  Anyway, I digress. 

*

In the opening act of Othello, it's clear that Othello's euphoric foreignness will make enemies. In fact, he's so confident, so high on life, that he doesn't even care all that much. 

But we don't need to see or hear Roderigo and Brabantio to know that surrounding Othello there's going to be a lurking xenophobia. 

Because if foreignness is glamorous, then the non-foreign populace will experience envy. Envy, as always, disguises itself as something else. Hey presto, xenophobia. 

What about Iago? Is he xenophobic? He certainly talks like he is, but mainly to manipulate Roderigo and Brabantio. Iago might be too smart to actually fall for this crude racist talk. But he is, very definitely, consumed with envy. Of the supremely successful Othello. Also, of the handsome and well-educated Cassio. And he's deeply cynical about Desdemona and all such high-born dames; I believe he genuinely does think that she'll soon tire of her Moorish frolic, and move on to a dashing chap like Cassio. 

The one thing that he doesn't imagine is that Desdemona would ever see anything in him, Iago. (The buried plotline of Cinthio's story resonates here.) 

He's right. Actually no-one sees anything in Iago. "Honest" Iago is a tool. Everyone talks to him and everyone relies on him, but no-one cares about him. Go and fetch the luggage, Iago, there's a good fellow. 

So Shakespeare's imagination drove Cinthio's story deeper until it touched on two of the oldest hatreds of them all: the foreigner, and the class beneath you (or above you). Come to think of it, Othello manifests quite a bit of the third ancient hatred too: hatred of women. 

It's depressing to think how vigorous all these hatreds still are today. 




































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Tuesday, August 09, 2016

David Bircumshaw, The Ghost Machine



Yesterday I reviewed the revised Arden 3 edition of Othello on amazon.co.uk, mainly to talk about the deficiencies of the Kindle version.

Kindle isn't yet up to representing books with complex layouts like the Arden editions. A pity, because I rather fancied carrying around the complete Arden Shakespeares on my smartphone.

Laura pointed out another aspect of Kindle publications that I hadn't really grasped before. If you buy the Kindle version of a book, you can't lend it to anyone when you've finished reading it. For her, as for a lot of readers, part of the joy of reading is sharing favourite books with friends and family.

I accept it isn't easy for publishers to make money any more, but in this case the basic Internet-Age economic principle that everything tends to become free is actually being counteracted by a new level of product policing.

Nevertheless, Kindle definitely has its uses, and one of them is (as an author) to self-publish and (as a reader) to have easy access to obscure works that, were you to buy them in book form, you suspect would get trapped for ever on the bookshelves at home, where you never spend any time yourself.

But I've read David Bircumshaw's book on my smartphone in coffee-bars, on trains, on grassy hillsides, in canteens and on toilets.

*

My critical faculties have been asleep while I've been reading it, so  I'll only suggest that The Ghost Machine is funny, intertextual, self-referential and will probably appeal to fans of gillibrand and molesworth 2. Each page is its own semi-self-contained sketch. Here's page 55 (of 115).

*

LETTERS TO THE EDITOR

Q. What happened to Flaminus and Curzon?
           Amnesty International, Bolton.
Ed.  Unfortunately the development of the duo was cut short by their transmogrification into certain personnel of The Rock Garden.
Q.  What literary influences are there on The Ghost Machine?
Ed. Many. Obviously a kind of semi-Shakespearian blank verse (see O'er the Top); Beckett - The Rock Garden; Bone; Dostoevsky - Bone again, closing lines; Milton, vide Mollock's speech; The Dunciad (e.g. the final paragraph of the A.G.M.); Stanislaw Lem, viz. the Editor's Prologue and The Ghost Machine Another Dimension; Alisdair Gray - just about everywhere; pulp science fiction (The Dome); metaphor-soaked or soused poetry, e.g. Rilke of Mallarmé - The Dome once more; James Joyce - the use of parodic narrators or wayward catechisms as in the A.G.M. and From Our Crime Correspondent (the former) or this page (the latter); Peter Reading and Sue Townsend (!), vid. the poems and diary of EE; and Flann O'Brien (prevalence of bicycles).
Q. What is the purpose of The Ghost Machine?
Ed. Consumption of paper. Eating of time. Postponement of the inevitable. Disingenuous fabrication of maps.
Q. Is the author assured of his ultimate purpose?
Ed. Categorically, no. In reality, a word he shuns, he is lesser than any of his creations and venges his spite on them for his innumerous shortcomings.
Q. Is there any way out of The Ghost Machine?
          Who asked the last three questions, Leeds.
Ed. Closing the book. Blanking the page. Escape into humanity. The re-ordination of a four-letter word: love (ugh! - The Author). As for your implied second question, the answer lies with our variously capitaled author himself.
Q. What hope do you have for the future of the book?
Ed. To my mind much depends on Bone and Ms EE.
Q. To The Author - why are you asking so many questions?
          The Editor, this page.
Author - I don't know - I just need to talk sometimes.

SITUATIONS VACANT
EDITOR REQUIRED for Ghost Machine. Urgent vacancy owing to attack of unforeseen resignation. Apply - The Author, 5, Hangover Square.


*

[David Bircumshaw is a poet from, approximately, Leicester.]









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Monday, August 08, 2016

First journey to Sweden

Some sixty years ago, in the mid 1950s, my father made his first trip to Sweden, accompanied by two pals from Oxford. One was called Richard, I forget the other's name. They were on their way to visit the beautiful girl from Sundsvall that my father had met the previous year in Eastbourne.

Visiting Sweden was more of an adventure then than it is now. English was not yet so widely or fluently spoken. The minefield of Swedish formal manners was still very much alive.

His friends' faith in my father's grasp of the Swedish language was soon shaken. At a restaurant, he confidently ordered what he believed was three steaks, but what they got instead was three plates of fried herrings ("stekt sill").

At breakfast he went to fetch milk for their cups of tea. He correctly translated "mjölk" on the notice above the jug, but didn't realize that this was filmjölk, a soured milk most unsuitable for adding to tea. (On this occasion, his embarrassment was spared by a friendly waitress who stepped in after spotting what was going on.)

Richard, somewhat unusually for those days, had Swedish relatives. The three students went to visit Richard's cousin (in Linköping, my father thinks). She was a friendly, personable girl, but her husband's taciturnity was off-putting.

But after dinner was over, this silent man  unexpectedly produced a lute and burst into song. It was a summer evening. My father sat spellbound listening to the flow of folk-melodies. At that moment he fell in love with the whole country as well as the girl from Sundsvall.







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Saturday, August 06, 2016

back from the mountains




Back from the mountains, I emptied the pockets of my rain-jacket and found these samples. The plant is Arctostaphylos alpinus (Arctic Bearberry, Ripbär), very common in the Scandinavian mountains and also found in NE Scotland.

Ripbär is one of the earliest plants to flower in fell-regions. The unobtrusive greenish-white flowers appear as soon as the snow melts, giving maximum time for the berries to ripen.

Here you can see the ripening berry: it was green when I picked it and had now turned red, on its way to becoming lustrous violet-black. The berries can be up to 1cm in diameter and look luscious. They are not poisonous, and are sweetish but insipid ("fadd" in Swedish). In the 18th centuiry Linnaeus wrote that the Same picked them, but there have been few subsequent reports of anyone finding a use for them. In Örjan Armfelt Hansell's Bärboken, he says that berries left over from the preceding year become agreeably winy.

From my sample you can also see how the previous year's withered leaves remain beneath this year's leaves: they now act as insulation from the cold.

The plant is said to be the favoured food of the Ptarmigan (Lagopus muta, Fjällripa), which no doubt accounts for the Swedish name Ripbär.




A. alpinus in situ. Photos taken on 1st August. In a few weeks the leaves turn a uniform deep red, a major ingredient in the colourful appearance of the fells in autumn.


Ripbär and Kråkbär (Crowberry). with a bit of Lingon (Lingonberry/Cowberry) and Dvargbjörk (Dwarf-birch).


Typical ground-cover in the species-poor areas of the fells: dwarf-birch and crowberry.


The huts at Spåime, where these photos were taken. These emergency shelters are always built on windy spots where snow doesn't settle, so that people sheltering during a blizzard won't get snowed in.

Which explains the presence of Arctostaphylos alpinus, a specialist of the very demanding conditions of "vindblottor", places where the protective winter snow-layer is absent. If I'd known what to look for, I would probably have found its companions Diapensia lapponica (Fjällgröna) and Loiseleuria procumbens (Krypljung) too.




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Tuesday, July 26, 2016

cleats



[Image source: http://www.utsidan.se/albums/viewpic.htm?ID=40154 . Photo, by Öhrnell, of Lappspira (Pedicularis lapponica).]


No further posts here, in all probability, for the next week and a half. I'll be in the fells!




Friday, July 22, 2016

Douglas Hyde: I Believed (1950)




Subtitled, The Autobiography of a former British Communist.

Douglas Hyde resigned from the Communist party in 1948, some twenty years after joining. He also resigned from his job at the Daily Worker, where he had been News Editor (Bill Rust was Editor) for most of the eight years he had worked there. Hyde and his wife had converted to Catholicism of a conservative kind (he was drawn to the neo-medieval Distributist movement that began with Belloc and Chesterton). A couple of years later, true to his campaigning and journalistic instincts, he wrote I Believed, a book aimed squarely at Middle England and intended to supply it with an understanding of British Communism on the know-your-enemy principle.

It will come as no surprise that Hyde’s name does not featurely largely in pro-Communist histories (his book was immediately exposed as treacherous lies). But one doesn’t have to be a Communist to view the book’s narrator with certain misgivings; somehow, politicals of all colours have succeeded in making us queasy about turncoats – the word is deeply pejorative, yet what other term is there?   

Hyde himself as a Distributist is almost laughably true to his character; an instinctive journalist and campaigner, used to making enemies, and capable of arguing himself into incredible positions.

I had believed that Catholic culture had been outgrown at the time when the new economic system of capitalism had broken the fetters of feudalism, that it could all be explained in terms of economics. But had men outgrown it? There appeared to be a convincing case for saying that it was not outgrown but that there had been an attempted murder which had not quite succeeded...

(Hyde’s favourite books had always been Chaucer and Langland. They had once taken their places “quite naturally at the side of Morris’s Dream of John Ball, Marx’s Das Kapital and Lenin’s The Proletarian Revolution “, but now they led him in a different direction.)

Anyway, we appreciate unreliable narrators, and these misgivings about the author only add to the absorbing interest of his book. The credibility of Communism was at its apogee. When Hyde joined up, the Paris Commune was still within living memory, the October Revolution was recent, and very soon there would be Communists running Madrid and Anarchists running Barcelona; the overthrow of capitalism in Europe was something that could happen.

And superficially the Red tide was still running when Hyde left, since the end of the war meant a host of new Communist nations in Eastern Europe.  When the International appeared to be reborn as Cominform in 1947,

The Parties invited to the initial meeting had been those of Russia, France, Italy, Poland, Yugoslavia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Rumania. They were those which were already ruling Parties or those which Moscow thought would soon be so.


Hyde’s change of creed clearly didn’t mean a change of everything. And, especially in the early chapters, one senses that while writing them Hyde re-vivifies his erstwhile beliefs. He is still full of admiration for Communist directness, organization, opportunism and power to mobilize ordinary working people.

At great London meetings men and women were throwing on the platforms their wedding rings, pitiful little heirlooms or everything they had in their wallets at the time. Our political opponents, who charged us with faking these things, most foolishly under-estimated the depth of feeling we had succeeded in creating. 

His accounts of e.g. the successful takeover of a local Labour party in Surrey, of illegal preparations for the national underground Press organization (during the ban on the Daily Worker early in the war), of passing secrets to Russia, and of on-the-spot reporting of the V-1 blitz, are exciting, sympathetic and often tinged with pride.

The deepest of his beliefs had perhaps never changed. The book registers a continuing distrust, sometimes rising to condemnation, of his new book’s new audience.   

They went over so frequently that suburban Bristol began to yawn and Chief Sub-Editors with news sense told their underlings: “Just one paragraph and a small head ­– it’s only another gone over the top.” Once four unemployed pooled all they had to hire an old car, then drove it straight through the railings and over the cliffs, and the Sea Walls hit the headlines again for the moment.

But the “comfortable” folk in the district where I lived felt secure enough in the main and their sense of comfort was heightened, if anything, by the sound of jobless Welsh miners singing, unceasingly, for pence in the street outside, the inevitable “Cwm Rhondda”, “Bread of Heaven, feed me till I want no more”. Then, in little groups on the Downs at night, the younger miners joined with the local communists to sing “Watch and pray, live on hay, you’ll have pie in the sky when you die.”

The professional Communist’s contempt for fellow-travellers, those sympathisers who lacked the moral courage to join the Party outright, is something that Hyde can transfer wholesale to his new position. Or consider this, about those “sensitive intellectuals” (Hyde sounding like Kipling here) who were troubled by the sharp switch of Communist policy at the time of the Soviet-German pact.

Their attitude was summed up in a letter I received from a well-known poet who, after being drawn to the Party because of its anti-fascist propaganda, wrote: “A plague on both your uncles, Uncle Joe and Uncle Adolf” – then disappeared into an ivory tower from which he has never since emerged.

“Emerged” suggests (naturally enough) a media-oriented view of human behaviour. Hyde never changed his mind about contempt for the “ivory tower” and he uses the phrase again, in vastly changed circumstances, to explain why as a Catholic convert he could not retire into one, but must now write this book. 

This reminds me that the book-jacket quotes a review by Stephen Spender in The Spectator, perhaps not one of his best-known texts:

Alas, this book goes a long way to justify the Red scares emanating from America. No one can read it without realising one simple fact: that no true Communist has any interest at heart except the party line emanating from the Soviet Union.

Hyde’s account of Communist thinking is more complex than that.

Communism is necessary and desirable above all else. The fight for communism stretches across the world, which is divided by the two opposing classes and not vertically by different races and nations. In fighting for a communist Britain I am fighting for a better Britain and for the destruction of all that is rotten and decadent. In that fight I have the assistance of all who are operating on the same world front against capitalism. My desire to make my country communist therefore makes me an internationalist.

But at one point in that world front there is a whole nation on my side, a great State, the U.S.S.R., where a strong-point has been established, around which all future battles will tend to turn and without which any other, local victories must fail. At all costs, therefore, Russia, bastion of communism, must be defended.... Who attacks Russia attacks my hope of a communist Britain. In helping Russia “with all the means at his disposal and at any price”, therefore, the British communist is working for a better Britain, the French communist for a better France, and the Icelandic communist for a better Iceland. He is, in his own eyes and that of his Party, the super-patriot. ....

The Soviet-German Pact therefore in August 1939 did not trouble the trained Marxist at all. The Soviet leaders had a responsibility to the working-class of the world to defend the U.S.S.R. and could, if necessary, for this reason make an alliance with the devil himself. ...

It was this last part that the sensitive intellectuals had trouble with. The foregoing argument is not meant sympathetically by the post-Communist Hyde, who intends his ironic glance at the pretensions of a “super-Patriot”, but in fact it retains its logical force. In civil war, loyalty to a Nation ceases to supply a normative guide to behaviour. The Communists projected a real civil war in every capitalist state, but they were already engaged in a mental and emotional civil war within themselves; therefore national loyalty was a mental weakness which meant nothing more than subservience to the present crop of robber-barons and their troops. But the argument extends much wider than Communism; few people today would want to think of themselves as Nationalists or believers in a Hobbesian “law and order at any price”. So what exactly are the grounds for our de facto civil obedience?

It’s easy to see, however, how Hyde’s lifelong love for Somerset Gothic churches, apparently so trifling, led to hairline fractures that slowly but eventually shattered his Marxist credo. (Perhaps he should have talked it over with Alan Mitchell, the strongly left-wing expert on the show-piece trees of Britain’s great estates.) 

Communism justified free love (defying “outworn, bourgeois conventions”) but this is something that Hyde never seems to have felt much enthusiasm for (of course, this could be the Catholic speaking, or perhaps he thought that any kind of defence just wouldn’t play in Middle England). Hyde’s (and his colleagues’) attitudes to women were, in fact, fairly unreconstructed:

Go to any Communist Party Congress and watch the hard-faced women who go to the rostrum. The hatred which the Party kindles and uses is often quite shockingly apparent in eyes as hard as those of a Soho prostitute and lips as tight as those of a slumland money-lender...

“We get women in the Party, and they are all right for just as long as they remain obscure,” one Political Bureau member complained to me, “but within twelve months of our turning them into Marxists they are about as attractive as horses.”

The Party aims by its training to produce “men of steel”. But “women of steel” attract neither other women nor even the men of steel themselves... Thus, the working-class housewife or the fresh young girl who comes into the Party is at once the centre of attention... She is useful for breaking down the suspicions of other women and so is seen as an effective “front”, and at the same time she is a welcome relief from the steely, hard-faced, betrowsered women who have made their way to the top and who are, in Party parlance, so utterly unbedworthy.

[Unattractiveness of senior females]  is general enough to be a matter of concern to the Party leaders and even from time to time to feature on agendas as a problem to be solved. ...

But I want to quote some sentences, finally, about the attractions of Communism, without which there would have been no book and nothing to write about. This was in Bristol in the late 1920s.

As I watched and helped to lead each demonstration of unemployed, my feelings were a compound of both anger and pity. As I saw them trampled under the horses’ hooves during baton charges, or tugging with bare hands at paving-stones in their search for ammunition to be used against the police, hope and pride would mingle with my anger. Each man who disappeared between warders from the court-room into the cells added to my own hatred of the capitalist system and of the capitalist class, and strengthened my revolutionary determination. ... We sang of the revolution,, dreamed of it, fought for it, studied for it, worked for it and, often enough, suffered for it too.

As the economic crisis deepened, the poverty, and the vast scale of that poverty, appalled me. .... When the Daily Worker began to appear, the unemployed queued at the “bomb shop” in the Horsefair in order to be able to read it free of charge. And the Bristol demonstrations, riots and prosecutions featured more and more in its columns. ... The strength and influence of the Communist Party cannot be gauged in times of normalcy, when democracy is working smoothly. ... The real test is in time of crisis. The crisis had come and we were proving our ability to lead as trained Marxists should.
  
Note

Hyde's switch from Communism to Distributism was not quite so perverse as it may seem. William Cobbett had long ago shown that pre-Reformation rural labourers were far better provided for than their grossly oppressed descendants in the nineteenth century. Socialists and neo-mediavalists recognized a common enemy in Protestant capitalism.

[After writing I Believed, a best-seller, Hyde slowly became disillusioned with Catholicism. For many years he was a foreign correspondent in parts of the third world. In the later part of his life he was an undogmatic socialist campaigning for issues of justice worldwide. He died in 1996.]  







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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Ylva Eggehorn: Europe's Grandchildren (1985)




Ylva Eggehorn is these days perhaps best-known as a hymn-writer. She was active in the early years of the Jesus movement in Sweden, around 1970.

Like most Swedes who achieve a certain prominence, she is also a poet and a newspaper columnist, at least she was back in the 1980s when the impressive articles collected in this book were written. By then she had become a sort of  unofficial voice for younger Christians in Sweden.

These articles represent, as the rear jacket explains, her own journey from 1960s internationalism to an increased focus on "Europe". This was Europe as a historic cultural entity, the Europe of cathedrals and art and science. The Europe that had been idealistically embraced by dissidents in the East (in Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia...), yet was forgotten and neglected by an americanized gum-chewing youth in Europe's capitalist nations. Eggehorn, you might surmise, was becoming nostalgic for "Christendom", for Catholic fiefdoms like the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. (See "Att dö för Europa" / "To die for Europe", 3rd March 1984.)

Eggehorn's book precedes, of course, the break-up of the Eastern Bloc in 1989. The story of Lech Walesa's Solidarity was unfolding as she wrote. The struggle against Communism was a prime focus for Christian activism of the time, as were the debates about abortion legislation in the West. In both spheres Christianity stood against materialism, variously understood.

Some of our own preoccupations of more recent times are, of course, conspicuously absent, not because of anything about Eggehorn or her position but just because things have changed a great deal since the 1980s.

She rarely mentions the EU, which Sweden joined only on 1st January 1995.

She didn't yet see Europe's populations in the multi-ethnic terms that we do today, and she scarcely mentions the Islamic world, now the focus of so many of our fears and hopes.

And her book pre-dates, of course, the dramatic resurgence of the Far Right across the western world that now threatens such civilization as we still have.


*

Eggehorn's Christian thought is strongly anti-relativist, defensive of the objective reality of moral values and of a definite Christian conception of the human.


The poet Lars Gustafsson, who I've written about a couple of times recently, makes an appearance here:

Lars Gustafsson skrev i en stor artikel i BLM [Bonniers Litterära Magasin*]  förra året, att paradigmet "människan" saknas i vår moderna vetenskap -- det är faktiskt ofint att ens efterfråga det. Aspekter på människans liv -- sociologiska, biologiska, ekonomiska och andra -- går att studera, men att fråga efter helheten, att söka ett paradigm för människan, anses ovetenskapligt, skriver Lars Gustafsson. Han tillägger dock i slutet av sin artikel att man med fog måste misstänka den moderna vetenskapen för att ha en alldeles speciell avsikt med att betrakta frågan "vad är en människa?" som i princip omöjlig att besvara eller som ointressant för forskarna. Och han tror att den moderna institutionella vetenskapen snart kommer att "tvingas ut ur sin objektiva förklädnad."

Vems intressen de här gagnar och vad vi kommer att få bevittna, säger Lars Gustafsson ingenting om.


[Translation:]

Lars Gustafsson wrote, in a long article in BLM [Bonniers Literary magazine*] last year, that the paradigm "Man" is missing from modern science -- it is indelicate to even ask about it. Aspects of the life of Man -- of his sociology, biology, economy and so on -- those things are rightly the objects of study, but to ask about the totality, to seek the paradigm "Man", is considered unscientific, says Gustafsson.  At the end of his article, however, he adds that one may have the suspicion that modern science has particular reasons for defining the question "What is Man?" as intrinsically impossible to answer and not of interest from a research point of view.  And he thinks that modern institutional science will soon be "forced to abandon its guise of objectivity".

Gustafsson doesn't say whose interests this might benefit and what we will then be witness to.



(From "Den utbytbara människan" ("The interchangeable man" - 13th February 1981)


I guess you could say this is Eggehorn co-opting Gustafsson's sceptical and speculative humanism in order to brandish it as Christian accusation.

*NOTE:  Bonniers Literary Magazine, commonly called BLM or "Blemman" (The Pimple), was a Swedish literary periodical published between 1932 and 2004, when it finally expired after years in the doldrums; it was down to 1,300 subscribers and was published only four times a year. (Its final editors were Kristoffer Leandoer and Aase Berg.)

By this time it had already had one recess, beginning in 1999, and was mourned as the relic of a more ample and slower-moving time, as in this article for Aftonbladet by Arne Johnsson: http://wwwc.aftonbladet.se/kultur/9912/14/aj.html .

In its glory days, for instance when Gustafsson himself was editor (1962-1972), it was published ten times a year: basically a monthly, but with the usual expedient of a "summer special" to cover the blessed period when Swedes stop work and head for their summer cottages.



*

The article "Vems fred?" ("Whose peace?" - 19th February 1983) shows the strength of Eggehorn's internationalist heritage: here she points out that the peace we hope to enjoy in the comfortable west often means suffering, and therefore conflict, in other parts of the world.

The article argues thus: when we pray for "world peace" what we actually conceive is peace for us privileged westerners (as above). Is the concept of "world peace" even coherent, if peace for one part of society means misery for another? The only coherent concept is "God's peace". Pray for that, and you know you can't be wrong.


*



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Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Brigid Brophy: Black Ship to Hell (1962)

Brigid Brophy, photo by Jerry Bauer



The urgency of Brophy's writing springs essentially from this: she accepts Freud's account of the death wish as a fundamental truth about human nature, at any rate in modern times; then combines that fact with the existence of weapons of mass destruction: we all basically wish to destroy everything, and now we have the means, so we will. This leads to (among other things) a violent assault on religion - based not so much on its claims being untrue (that's merely a given) as on denying that religious belief can ever be sincere or morally unreprehensible - these are formidable, in-your-face polemics and I'm shaken and impressed. And yet it isn't difficult to see why her books aren't in print any more. Brophy's passionate admiration for Freud leads to many pages of unparticularized generalities like this, sampled in mid-torrent:

She [the prostitute] has, in fact, improved on the tragic conception of fate by adding to it the numerical idea of chance. The male sex is a lottery, in which the prostitute has bought the highest possible number of tickets. Any one in her holding may be the winning number, the father she is seeking; but since no one knows which is he, it is the series as a whole which becomes the object of her sexual and aggressive desires. For the prostitute, every professional act of intercourse is an act of incest and, at the same time, an attack on her father. In exercising her profession, she gratifies her incestuous wish (and its murderous companion), yet the fact that it is a game of hazard allows her to plead not guilty to incest. Just so, if one member, no one knows which, of the firing squad has drawn a blank cartridge, all may feel innocent of the killing but the execution none the less gets done. The same psychology is manifest in the very usage of modern European languages, where the plural you, vous, sie is a politer way of addressing one person than the singular thou, tu, du. ...

This jostle of ideas is dazzling, but I feel like it was even more dazzling to write than to read. So much seems to be being forcefully asserted, (and yet, in a sort of mode that suggests that it isn't really being asserted), and it's so heavily bolstered by impatient logical expressions like "just as", "of course", "in fact", that I keep wanting to call out: Hold on there! Just let me get it straight, what (or who) actually are we talking about right now? Are you claiming that every prostitute... ? In what useful sense is this an account of prostitution (or warfare, or education, or artists, or elections..)? This was a fashionable style of its era - displaced at some time in the 1980s by the style of theory (revulsion from the post-Freudian style when I was at university led to me wrongly supposing that this was also how Freud himself must have written, thus putting off discovery of my own passionate admiration for Freud for a further twenty years). The passing of time reveals violently hostile contemporaries to share as much as they disputed - Brophy often reminds me - at any rate, so far as her language strategies are concerned - of C.S. Lewis in his populist defences of Christianity (another blatant misuser of "in fact", "of course", etc). Both made, in passing, exactly the same unanswerable protests about the practice of vivisection - protests that were complete failures and now excite surprise; in our own time intellectuals are conspicuously silent about this, it is only the emotive masses who think there is something not quite right about what is euphemistically known as animal testing. (More generally, Brophy also reminds me a lot of Germaine Greer - the same enormous learning and the same admirable assurance of being able to cut through it to what other learned people don't see at all.)

(2008)



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