Friday, 4 September 2015

Salman Rushdie: Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty‑Eight Nights

A “colossal fragmentation of reality” occurred in the 20th century, Salman Rushdie has said, and his novels enact and display that fragmentation with terror and glee. His new book assures us that reality has lately been crumbling more colossally than ever, and is about to come completely unglued. The climate destabilisation we are experiencing is only a foretaste of advancing chaos, which the author describes with considerable relish. Eschatological lightning strikes, oracular infants and local failures of gravity will become the norm, as the Dark Ifrits, the mischievous forces of disorder, begin to take advantage of the weakening of the fabric of the everyday.
The cumbrous title transcribes a certain number of days into years and months, but not the four weeks that would naturally complete it, because the word “Nights” is needed to suggest the original Thousand and One. Rushdie is our Scheherazade, inexhaustibly enfolding story within story and unfolding tale after tale with such irrepressible delight that it comes as a shock to remember that, like her, he has lived the life of a storyteller in immediate peril. Scheherazade told her 1,001 tales to put off a stupid, cruel threat of death; Rushdie found himself under similar threat for telling an unwelcome tale. So far, like her, he has succeeded in escaping. May he continue to do so.

At the idea of trying to summarise the plot, I shriek and fall back fainting on my seraglio couch. Rushdie has a fractal imagination: plot buds from plot, endlessly. There are at least 1,001 stories and substories, and nearly as many characters. All you need to know is that they’re mostly highly entertaining, amusing and ingenious. A good many of the characters are in fact genies. The jinn live in their own world, Peristan. But the dilapidation of reality in our world, intensifying since the second millennium, has affected the wall between us and Peristan, leaving slots and slits through which they can slip.
Their existence in Peristan is one of almost ceaseless sexual intercourse in surroundings of total luxury. Still, some of them find this as boring as some of us might, and like to sneak over here to entertain themselves by meddling with our little mortal lives. The male jinn are creatures of flame, the female jinnia of smoke. They have great powers of magic, not so great powers of intellect. Wilful, impulsive and unwise, one of them gets trapped over here every now and then, imprisoned by a spell in a bottle or a lamp.
We haven’t seen any jinn for a while because their passages into our world were sealed up about a thousand years ago, not long after the greatest jinnia princess, Dunia, had a love affair in Andalucia with the philosopher Ibn Rushd (also known as the great Aristotelian philosopher Averroes). The outcome of this affair was a slew of descendants distinguished by their lobeless ears and trace of fairy blood. For that’s what Peristan is in English – Fairyland.

The strongest male figure among the many in this book is Mr Geronimo, a gardener. He is a physically and emotionally vivid character, likable for his strength and modesty and his homesickness for the city of his childhood, Bombay (which to him will never be Mumbai). There are strong women in the book, too – a Mayor, a Lady Philosopher – but they are pretty much cartoons. The novel’s protagonist, Dunia, is female, and I wish I didn’t have a problem with her. It’s not that she isn’t human; you can’t ask a fairy princess to be anything other than what she is. But you can ask her not to think like a man.
Bearing children by the litter, seven to 19 at a time, is certainly a practical-engineering approach to leaving a large number of offspring, but not one many women would choose. We don’t see Dunia nursing her babies (it would be interesting to know how she did it), nor anything of her certainly busy motherhood. When she returns to Earth after a thousand years, it is to defend “her children” – but this means her remote descendants, a scattered group of earlobeless people whom she calls the Duniyat, asserting her authorship of a lineage.
The usual name for this authorship is “paternity”, and its importance to men among the Mediterranean and Arabic peoples is very great. More generally, while women are likely to value their actual children and their status as mother over any abstract idea of lineage, men may consider their children, particularly sons, most valuable as maintaining the paternal bloodline. This gender difference may reflect biological imperatives, male mammals being motivated to reproduce their genes, females to nurture the gene-bearers. Dunia is a mammal all right, but her loving heart and her numerous litters can’t keep me from suspecting that – like so many other kick-ass, weapon-wielding warrior women – she’s a man in drag.
Towards the end of the book, we find that our descendants of the next millennium have abandoned conflict as a way of life. They peacefully cultivate their gardens rather than their bigotries and hatreds, having found that “in the end, rage, no matter how profoundly justified, destroys the enraged”. But … Of course there has to be a but.
Contemporary sophistication declares that peace is boring, moderation is blah, happy is sappy. Defying sophistry, Rushdie imagines a contented people, but only by depriving them of dreams. No visions, no nightmares. Their sleep is empty darkness. The implication is that our human gift of imagining can’t exist without the hatred, anger and aggressiveness that lead to such human behaviours as warfare, conscious cruelty and deliberate destruction. To imply that only our dark jinn inside can give us dreams and visions may be one way of admitting the essential balance between the creative and the destructive within us.
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Wednesday, 2 September 2015

Against the old clichés - Europe: A History by Norman Davies

My introduction to European history began with a map. The peninsula of Europe lay stretched out over a blackboard; the lecturer drew an imaginary line down the center. Empires shifted, he explained, but this line had remained the same. To the west of it lay the Roman Empire, the Holy Roman Empire, the “progressive” Great Powers, and what we learned during the Cold War to call “the West.” To the east lay barbarism, feudal states, Russia and Austria-Hungary, and what was then known as “the Communist bloc.”
The lecturer explained that the division of Europe was nothing new: it had its origins in deep cultural and political differences, land use patterns, the absence of capitalism in the East, the scientific revolution in the West. In all cases and at all times, the peoples to the west of the imaginary line had been more sophisticated, more progressive, more advanced. The peoples to the east were slower to develop, less democratic, less “European.” The peoples to the west of that line would, therefore, be the object of the next nine months of study.
It only takes a few swift sentences early on in his monumental Europe: A History[1] for Norman Davies to dispense with that sort of history. After all, he notes, there are many dividing lines which shaped the history of Europe. Some of the most important—in terms of climate, culture, family structure— divide north from south rather than east from west. Some of the most permanent— like that which separates Catholic and Orthodox Christianity—have nothing to do with who is and who isn’t now in NATO, or who was or wasn’t in the Holy Roman Empire. Nor did all of the lines divide Europe exactly as one might think. During large chunks of history, Byzantium was far more sophisticated, scientifically and politically, than the old Western Roman Empire, for example.
Certainly it isn’t the case that at all times, and in all places, the division of Europe which persisted through the second half of the twentieth century remained the same. Contemporary events shape our idea of which countries are and are not meant to be “progressive,” and in our era, the event which has most shaped history is the Second World War and its aftermath. The Allied Scheme of History—of which more later—produced a number of assumptions, all of which I also distinctly remember being taught: the belief that the “Atlantic Community” is the pinnacle of progress, the demonization of everything German, the generally indulgent view of both the tsarist empire and even the Soviet Union, at least in its wartime role, and the unspoken acceptance of the division of Europe as “natural.”
Powerful though these assumptions and geographical prejudices may be, Professor Davies ridicules their historical basis so thoroughly that it seems surprising no one else has thought to do it before. After all, we live in an era of hyper-historical consciousness, in which the prejudices of our historians have themselves become the subject of learned theses. In recent years, women have been discovered, the history of the illiterate lower classes has been unearthed, the stories of slaves and chambermaids have been published to great acclaim. Only our geographical prejudices have remained curiously intact—and Norman Davies was precisely the man to dissect them. His own family is Welsh, his wife’s family is from what is now Ukraine, and he is a British scholar whose two-volume history of Poland, God’s Playground, has become, in translation, the standard text in many Polish schools. With family ties and professional interests on Europe’s peripheries, he has long been privately and publicly critical of the way “European” history has come to mean the history of England, France, Germany, and very occasionally Italy and Spain.
Most historians are content merely to complain about such things over sherry and leave it at that. Professor Davies took it upon himself to correct the prejudices he perceived, however, and the result is this book: the story of Europe from Indo-European tribes to the present, in which the many strands of European history—not only English and French but Slavic, Irish, Spanish, Swiss, Dutch, Jewish, and Scandinavian—are at last woven together. Although largely narrative history, the main text is enhanced by a series of “capsules” of social and intellectual history, about thirty-five to a chapter, on subjects ranging from the origins of the goose step to the evolution of table manners to the history of the Papal Index. To give some added flavor of different attitudes of different times, each chapter also ends with a detailed description of a scene which was, in one way or the other, pivotal to the era it describes: the fall of Syracuse, the construction of Bernini’s Rome, Whitehall on August 3, 1914.
Despite all of these distractions, Professor Davies does manage to keep up, throughout a thousand pages and two thousand years, his basic theme. “For some reason,” he writes, “it has been the fashion among some historians to minimize the impact of the Magyars … all this means is that the Magyars did not reach Cambridge.” He then goes on to list the effects of the great Magyar invasion of the ninth century: within sixty years they helped form modern Hungary, as well as Bohemia, Poland, Serbia and Croatia, Austria and Germany; they permanently separated the northern Slavs from their southern cousins; they opened the way for German colonists to come down the Danube. “Only armchair historians, sitting in a backwater of an offshore island, might judge such developments trivial.”
Not all of this book, however, is about reviving that which is forgotten. Professor Davies is also adept at tracing the dissemination of ideas from their origins to the nether regions of Europe, tossing out odd bits of erudition on the way: reintegrating the history of East and West Europe also means describing the profound effect which the latter had upon the former. Discussing the Enlightenment, he pays due homage to Voltaire and friends, as any traditional textbook would—and then points out that the ideas of the Enlightenment were put to use “for different purposes in different countries.” The Polish king adopted Rousseau’s theories of education. In Britain, Enlightenment ideas influenced the liberal wing of the Establishment. In the American colonies, they were invoked by revolutionaries who opposed the British Establishment. In France, Spain, and Italy, they inspired intellectuals who opposed monarchy; on the other hand, Frederick II of Prussia and Catherine the Great of Russia selectively adopted them as ruling principles.
Davies resists traditional classifications, like the simple division of post-Reformation Europe into the Protestant North and Catholic South. As one might expect of a historian of Eastern Europe, he dwells upon the linguistic and cultural foundations of nations, or, more normally, lack thereof. On the other hand, he gives the main events their due, noting that “there is a universal quality about the French Revolution which does not pertain to any of Europe’s other convulsions,” and proceeding to examine the impact of that particular event at length. The result is learned, quirky, and inclusive at the same time. Perhaps more importantly, in this age of overspecialization, it is readable: Davies’ achievement is literary as much as it is historical. He makes a special plea on behalf of readable history, citing the example of Thomas Carlyle: “Imaginative historians such as Thomas Carlyle have not simply been censured for an excess of poetic license. They have been forgotten. Yet Carlyle’s convictions on the relationship of history and poetry are at least worthy of consideration.”
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Monday, 31 August 2015

Charles Baudelaire: Autumn

Soon we will plunge ourselves into cold shadows,
And all of summer's stunning afternoons will be gone.
I already hear the dead thuds of logs below
Falling on the cobblestones and the lawn. 

All of winter will return to me:
derision, Hate, shuddering, horror, drudgery and vice,
And exiled, like the sun, to a polar prison,
My soul will harden into a block of red ice.

I shiver as I listen to each log crash and slam:
The echoes are as dull as executioners' drums.
My mind is like a tower that slowly succumbs
To the blows of a relentless battering ram.

It seems to me, swaying to these shocks, that someone
Is nailing down a coffin in a hurry somewhere.
For whom? -- It was summer yesterday; now it's autumn.
Echoes of departure keep resounding in the air. 

Middlemarch and the “Cry From Soul to Soul”

George Eliot’s novels are often painful places to be. Her characters frequently find themselves embroiled in circumstances beyond their control or understanding, struggling to find their way forward in the face of incompatible desires or competing goods. “It is very difficult to know what to do,” Janet Dempster says plaintively in “Janet’s Repentance,” one of Eliot’s first published works of fiction, when she flees her miserable marriage to an abusive alcoholic. “O it is difficult, — life is very difficult!” says Maggie Tulliver to Stephen Guest in The Mill on the Floss as she resists the mutual passion that violates their most cherished loyalties; to her, “one course seemed as difficult as another.”
Who — as a spouse, a lover, a parent, a friend — hasn’t been in such a situation, when to go one way seems as fraught with complications as to go another? If only there were simple rules to follow, or someone to relieve us of the burden of navigating our own way through life’s complexities. That, as Eliot is well aware, is one of the great consolations of religion: it offers us not just scriptures full of precepts to follow, but a hierarchy, both worldly and otherworldly, to which we can submit our problems and subordinate our judgment. But even for believers, the world can be a lonely and confusing place, and the yearned-for help can seem long in coming, while nonbelievers (like Eliot herself) have no comforting expectation that solutions to immediate hardships will be delivered from afar, or that there will be compensations in another life for trials in this one. Moral courage is hard to sustain in the face of such cosmic indifference.
Between prayer and despair, however, lies a different possible response to our common condition, one exemplified in Eliot’s novels in ways that reflect her own most deeply held convictions about our place in and responsibility for the world we live in. Over and over in her fiction she shows us that our best hope and greatest obligation is not faith but fellowship: that while we may not have God, we do have each other. There are still no simple solutions to our problems: indeed, her novels immerse us in the density of the historical, social, and personal contexts in which, like us, her characters are entangled. But her novels, which she called “experiments in life,” teach us through vicarious experience to sympathize with their predicaments and then to recognize our own role in making the world a better — or at least a less difficult — place.
Eliot’s interest in translating sacred impulses into secular action is visible throughout her novels, which are preoccupied with religion to an extent that initially seems paradoxical. She was, after all, as one contemporary observed, “the first great godlesswriter of fiction.” Yet Scenes of Clerical Life, with its minute and sympathetic attention to parish life, convinced many of its original readers that its then-anonymous author must “himself” be a clergyman. The Methodist preacher Dinah Morris is the moral center of Adam Bede; in Romola the eponymous heroine transforms her life under the influence of the charismatic preacher Savonarola. From Adam Bede’s Reverend Irwine to Felix Holt’s Mr. Lyon or Dr. Kenn in The Mill on the Floss, clergyman often embody her novels’ highest virtues — compassion, generosity, altruism. But there is no real contradiction here. For one thing, from its largest organizations to its metaphorical language, Eliot’s world, and the world of her characters, was saturated with religion; her realism required her to reflect that fact in her fiction. Even more important, though Eliot’s studies had led her to reject Christianity’s supernatural premises as myths rather than truths, she recognized the church itself as a vital historical and social institution, one that had long provided forms and opportunities for people to express their highest moral aspirations. Following Ludwig Feuerbach, whose Das Wesen des Christentums (The Essence of Christianity) she was the first to translate into English, Eliot believed that what people imagined as “God” was really a projection of their own best and worst capacities. As science and philosophy advanced, she expected that people would reclaim supposedly divine qualities and powers as their own and thus come to accept their own primary responsibility for the state of the world. In the meantime, doctrines mattered less than actions: the real measure of virtue, she held, was sympathy “with individual sufferings and individual joys,” an ethics for which religious faith was neither necessary nor sufficient.
All of her novels guide us towards this revised understanding of religion, not as the earthly manifestation of divine will, but as something essentially and inextricably human. This aim is made most explicit in Silas Marner, which rewrites Christianity’s central salvation myth as a humanist fable: in Eliot’s version too, redemption comes in the form of a small child, but one whose history is anything but miraculous and whose influence is thus all the more profound and touching. Eliot always feared lapsing (in her words) “from the picture to the diagram,” however, and thus she is rarely so overt in pursuit of her philosophical aims. “After all has been said that can be said about the widening influence of ideas,” she observes in Romola, “it remains true that they would hardly be such strong agents unless they were taken in a solvent of feeling.” Though her essays and reviews demonstrate her mastery of argumentative rhetoric, she found that fiction enabled the most potent combination of thought and feeling. “Art is the nearest thing to life,” she argued in her early essay “The Natural History of German Life.” It is “a mode of amplifying experience and extending our contact with our fellow-men beyond the bounds of our personal lot”:
The greatest benefit we owe to the artist, whether painter, poet, or novelist, is the extension of our sympathies. Appeals founded on generalizations and statistics require a sympathy ready-made, a moral sentiment already in activity; but a picture of human life such as a great artist can give, surprises even the trivial and the selfish into that attention to what is apart from themselves, which may be called the raw material of moral sentiment.
Her novels work in just this way, guiding us, without lecturing us, to put aside the religious doctrines that too often divide or punish, rather than help, and urging us to embrace the simple starting premise expressed by Dorothea Brooke in Middlemarch: “What do we live for, if it is not to make life less difficult to each other?”
This philosophical project appears in its most elegant form in Middlemarch, where it is fully integrated into the novel’s moral and emotional drama. An exemplary moment occurs soon after a crisis in Dorothea’s marriage. We know long before she does that this marriage was a terrible mistake. Idealistic but naïve, Dorothea mistook the drearily pedantic scholar Edward Casaubon for the answer to her pressing question: “What could she do, what ought she to do?” Believing he could lead her to the spiritually meaningful future she dreamed of, she accepted his proposal — only to discover on their honeymoon that “such capacity of thought and feeling as had ever been stimulated in him by the general life of mankind had long shrunk to a sort of dried preparation, a lifeless embalmment of knowledge.” She is too preoccupied with her own disappointment to consider his point of view: “she had not yet,” the narrator tells us, “listened patiently to his heart-beats, but only felt that her own was beating violently.”
Soon after they return home, Dorothea and Mr. Casaubon quarrel bitterly over what Dorothea (with some justice) perceives as unwarranted criticism on her husband’s part: “Dorothea had thought that she could have been patient with John Milton,” the narrator remarks dryly, “but she had never imagined him behaving in this way.” Dorothea is full of self-righteous anger — until Mr. Casaubon collapses with a heart attack. Our sympathy for him, like hers, is at a low ebb when it strikes, but it’s a sad spectacle nonetheless, and it is not in Dorothea’s nature to turn away from suffering, even of the man who has blighted her own hopes. In her emotional turmoil, she turns to the young doctor Tertius Lydgate, who has been called in for his medical advice. “Help me, pray,” she says to him piteously; “tell me what I can do.”
It is with her complex existential situation, as much as her husband’s physical health, that she really longs for help, but Dr. Lydgate —who like a good man of science deals primarily in the literal world — is ill-equipped to understand, much less solve, her problem. And so, finding himself at a loss, he rises to go:
He was bowing and quitting her, when an impulse which if she had been alone would have turned into a prayer, made her say with a sob in her voice —
“Oh, you are a wise man, are you not? You know all about life and death. Advise me. Think what I can do. He has been labouring all his life and looking forward. He minds about nothing else. And I mind about nothing else —”
For years after Lydgate remembered the impression produced in him by this involuntary appeal — this cry from soul to soul, without other consciousness than their moving with kindred natures in the same embroiled medium, the same troublous fitfully-illuminated life. But what could he say now except that he should see Mr. Casaubon again to-morrow?
Dorothea’s desperate appeal is all the more moving because there are no simple solutions. What can Dorothea do — whatshould Dorothea do, indeed? Does compassion require her to sacrifice her youth to a man who is proving wholly undeserving of her ardent devotion? Would it be so wrong to stand resolute against his arbitrary demands and stultifying inhibitions, insisting on her own right to happiness, and never mind his failed hopes and heartfelt sorrows? And yet how can we expect her to turn her back on the man for whom the narrator has only just made this eloquent case:
For my part I am very sorry for him. It is an uneasy lot at best, to be what we call highly taught and yet not to enjoy: to be present at this great spectacle of life and never to be liberated from a small hungry shivering self — never to be fully possessed by the glory we behold, never to have our consciousness rapturously transformed into the vividness of a thought, the ardour of a passion, the energy of an action, but always to be scholarly and uninspired, ambitious and timid, scrupulous and dim-sighted. Becoming a dean or even a bishop would make little difference, I fear, to Mr. Casaubon’s uneasiness. Doubtless some ancient Greek has observed that behind the big mask and the speaking-trumpet, there must always be our poor little eyes peeping as usual and our timorous lips more or less under anxious control.
Mr. Casaubon’s “hungry shivering self” surely has some moral claim on Dorothea, especially because the illness that is so distressing to her might well prove literally fatal to him. Before long, in one of the novel’s most moving passages, we will be reminded that he is a man “looking into the eyes of death,”
passing through one of those rare moments of experience when we feel the truth of a commonplace, which is as different from what we call knowing it, as the vision of waters upon the earth is different from the delirious vision of the water which cannot be had to cool the burning tongue. When the commonplace ‘We must all die’ transforms itself suddenly into the acute consciousness ‘I must die — and soon,’ then death grapples us, and his fingers are cruel.
Unpleasant as Mr. Casaubon is, the reiterated first-person pronouns remind us of our kinship with him, if only in our common mortality. What, then, are the duties of his wife, who — albeit under a naïve delusion — vowed to love, honor, and cherish him? These questions go well beyond any physic Lydgate could provide, and no answer he or we might come up with is going to satisfy all of the competing demands George Eliot has established on our sympathies or our conscience.
Dorothea’s “involuntary appeal” speaks for all of us who have looked at our “fitfully illuminated” lives and wondered what we can — or, often harder, what we should — do. Dorothea’s religion teaches her that at such a time she should appeal to God, and indeed the narrator remarks that if Dorothea had been alone, her supplicating impulse would have “turned into a prayer.” She isn’t alone, though, and what she really wants and needs is not divine intervention of some indeterminate kind but personal comfort and practical guidance. There at hand is someone whose own wider experience might provide the wisdom he needs to offer her, if not solutions, at least support. “You are a wise man,” she says to Lydgate entreatingly; “you know all about life and death. Advise me. Think what I can do.” Caught up in the story, we can feel the emotional urgency of her demand even as we recognize that there is no single clear path through the tangled web of circumstance, duty, and emotion in which Dorothea is caught. Eliot’s ethics are not prescriptive in that way: she does not offer a set of alternative commandments, which in her view would be a mistaken effort to codify the intricacies of human life. “All people of broad, strong sense,” she writes in The Mill on the Floss,
have an instinctive repugnance to the man of maxims; because such people early discern that the mysterious complexity of our life is not to be embraced by maxims, and that to lace ourselves up in formulas of that sort is to repress all the divine promptings and inspirations that spring from growing insight and sympathy.
“Moral judgments,” she believed, “must remain false and hollow, unless they are checked and enlightened by a perpetual reference to the special circumstances that mark the individual lot.” Her novels draw us into just such attention to particularities, never falsifying the difficulty of knowing what to do. But they also insist that complexity is not the same as inexplicability, and that our appeals for help don’t have to dead-end in mystery. Patient inquiry, deep understanding, and sympathy are our best ways forward, and while an appeal to God may momentarily relieve our feelings, Dorothea’s “cry from soul to soul” points us towards what we all really need: not a priest, but a friend.
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Sunday, 30 August 2015

A virtuoso muse - Bettina Brentano

Who," asked Napoleon Bonaparte, "is that fuzzy young person?" She was Elisabeth Brentano, known simply as Bettina. Actually, Napoleon was not among her conquests, nor was he her type.

She did not jump into his lap, as she did with Goethe, or croon her name into his ear, as with Beethoven, or go for intimate walks, as with Karl Marx. Napoleon did not dedicate a battle to her, as Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms dedicated songs and the Grimms an edition of their fairy tales. But, even at a distance, Bettina Brentano drew comment.

She was sister to one famous poet, wife to another and inspiration to others, but declined to write poetry. What she did write has outraged and fascinated people ever since. She was a supreme muse, a one-woman literary movement, at once among the singular and most representative figures of the Romantic century.

Bettina was born in Frankfurt in 1785 to the large family of an Italian merchant. Her grandmother was an acclaimed sentimental novelist. Her mother had been Goethe's first great love and Bettina grew up thinking of him as family property.

When her mother died, Bettina, then aged eight, was dispatched to a convent. When she was 12 and living with her grandmother, a handsome young man turned up. It was her brother Clemens, whom she had not seen since she was five. He became her mentor and protector.

Clemens encouraged Bettina to read Goethe. She promptly went mad for the fabled character of Mignon in Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship. Goethe's Mignon was a little Italian dancer, stolen from her family by circus performers.

She perched on roofs; some days she would not speak and others spoke in riddles; she carried a cutlass and fought with brigands. In manner and dress, Bettina became the elfin, inexplicable Mignon. Meanwhile, for Goethe himself, she conceived a passion that would simmer until she died.

Oddly enough, it was Clemens's main concern that Bettina should marry well and become a proper hausfrau. He was afraid that his sister would hook up with a mad poet.

Clemens knew about mad poets because he was one himself. At one point he painted his room (floor to ceiling), the carpet, the curtains and his own face blue. He wrote plays and fairy tales and, with his friend Achim von Arnim (and with help from Bettina), gathered the folk poems for the epochal collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a touchstone of German Romanticism. As a lyric poet, Clemens rivalled Goethe.

Decades later, Bettina would publish her correspondence with her brother. We find him alternately encouraging her and trying to rein her in. She resisted relentlessly. "For heaven's sake," he chided, "don't become a Seeress... If you knew that... witches of former centuries were none other than the victims of constipation, you would take more care."

Already Bettina had a horror of the ordinary. To Clemens she wrote, in terms she would echo for the rest of her life: "It is no use telling me to be calm; to me that conveys sitting with my hands in my lap, looking forward to the broth we are having for supper... My soul is a passionate dancer; she dances to hidden music which only I can hear... Whatever police the world may prescribe to rule the soul, I refuse to obey them."

Bettina was small and delicate, with black blossoming curls, porcelain skin, fathomless brown eyes and a magnetism beyond conventional beauty. "What artist could do justice to her?" Goethe exclaimed.

Teenaged Bettina's first actual love was for a girl five years older, a beautiful, melancholy, impoverished poet, who lived in a convent: Karoline von Günderrode.

Bettina would publish their letters, too. "I can't write poetry like you, Günderrode, but I can talk with nature... And when I come back... we put our beds side by side and chat away together all night... great profound speculations which make the old world creak on its rusty hinges."

But Günderrode had a desperate passion for a married man. One day she opened her dress to show Bettina the place on her breast where a knife would find her heart. Finally the lover went back to his wife, and Günderrode put a dagger through the place on her breast. (Goethe used the incident in stories.) Bettina was devastated but not defeated. Günderrode had fallen to the dark side of the Romantic temperament: fatal longing, like Goethe's Werther. Bettina was the sunny side.

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Novalis: Longing For Death

Into the bosom of the earth, 
Out of the Light's dominion, 
Death's pains are but a bursting forth, 
Sign of glad departure. 
Swift in the narrow little boat, 
Swift to the heavenly shore we float. 

Blessed be the everlasting Night, 
And blessed the endless slumber. 
We are heated by the day too bright, 
And withered up with care. 
We're weary of a life abroad, 
And we now want our Father's home. 

What in this world should we all 
Do with love and with faith? 
That which is old is set aside, 
And the new may perish also. 
Alone he stands and sore downcast 
Who loves with pious warmth the Past. 

The Past where the light of the senses 
In lofty flames did rise; 
Where the Father's face and hand 
All men did recognize; 
And, with high sense, in simplicity 
Many still fit the original pattern. 

The Past wherein, still rich in bloom, 
Man's strain did burgeon glorious, 
And children, for the world to come, 
Sought pain and death victorious, 
And, through both life and pleasure spake, 
Yet many a heart for love did break. 

The Past, where to the flow of youth 
God still showed himself, 
And truly to an early death 
Did commit his sweet life. 
Fear and torture patiently he bore 
So that he would be loved forever. 

With anxious yearning now we see 
That Past in darkness drenched, 
With this world's water never we 
Shall find our hot thirst quenched. 
To our old home we have to go 
That blessed time again to know. 

What yet doth hinder our return 
To loved ones long reposed? 
Their grave limits our lives. 
We are all sad and afraid. 
We can search for nothing more -- 
The heart is full, the world is void. 

Infinite and mysterious, 
Thrills through us a sweet trembling -- 
As if from far there echoed thus 
A sigh, our grief resembling. 
Our loved ones yearn as well as we, 
And sent to us this longing breeze. 

Down to the sweet bride, and away 
To the beloved Jesus. 
Have courage, evening shades grow gray 
To those who love and grieve. 
A dream will dash our chains apart, 
And lay us in the Father's lap. 

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Amitav Ghosh: Flood of Fire

AMITAV GHOSH likes to trouble boundaries. None of his books fit snugly within categories, either of genre or of nation. He slipped between memoir and scholarly thesis throughout In an Antique Land (1992), using old letters in a Jewish synagogue in Cairo to follow the path of an Indian slave who traveled the Red and Arabian Seas a thousand years ago. Political lines on a map grew porous in Shadow Lines (1988), where Ghosh described a fictional family that suffered loss at the hands of communal tensions spilling over the border between West Bengal and Bangladesh. The Hungry Tide (2005) weds ecology with anthropology to explore the disturbed history of man and tiger in the Sundarbans as it leaks into modern times. The Ibis trilogy — now complete with the release of Flood of Fire — represents Ghosh’s longest and most ambitious work by far, depicting a world in motion on the eve of the Opium Wars.

The ensemble cast of the Ibis trilogy — the first two volumes are Sea of Poppies (2008) and River of Smoke (2011) — lives and breathes in the mind long after you put the books down, from soldiers to sailors, indentured laborers to fallen aristocrats. A slaver-turned-trading ship called the Ibis ties together the main characters, each of whom is transformed by their journey across the ocean. A Bengali aristocrat stripped of his titles by the British ends up a scribe and informer for the Chinese in Canton. Two Bhojpuri lovers whose relationship is barred by caste and class are able to reinvent themselves as a married couple on the Ibis and then in Mauritius. A Parsi opium trader from Bombay is split between two identities: the upright trader with a wife and daughters in Bombay, and the man with a Chinese mistress and son in Canton. But what cleaves him in the end is not this, but a moral divide — between his status as an opium trader who needs to recoup losses, and the ravages that he sees opium addiction wreaking on China and his own son. His wife finds her identity expanded by the ocean when she leaves Bombay, later, to visit her husband’s faraway grave.

In theory, the historical context of the Ibis trilogy can carry few surprises. We know the outlines of what’s to come long before Ghosh begins. The first set of Opium Wars began nearly two centuries ago, with China’s attempt to end the lucrative (and illegal) opium trade. By the late 1830s, British and American merchants were growing rich off the sale of opium to China in return for tea and silks — leaving debilitating addiction in their wake. In 1839, after China’s attempts to block opium through diplomacy failed, Commissioner Lin Zexu ordered the destruction of all opium cargoes belonging to British and American merchants at the port of Canton.

Following the costly loss of opium, the British navy retaliated against China — leading to war and China’s humiliating defeat. By 1842, China had lost ownership of Hong Kong along with the right to turn opium from its shores. The country was forced to open its borders to trade with the rest of the world, in a series of “unequal treaties” undermining China’s sovereignty, treaties that were not completely overturned until World War II. These events, apocalyptic for China, reverberated across the rest of the world. With the victory of free trade came the expansion of empire.

Against this exquisitely researched historical backdrop, the tale of Britain’s victory and China’s loss reaches the levels of Greek tragedy in Ghosh’s skilled hands — there are few storytellers alive today in the English language as gifted as Amitav Ghosh.

A frame story is set in the future in Mauritius, where a handful of the previous denizens of the Ibis tell stories of how the tumult leading up to the Opium Wars disrupted each of their lives. The matriarch of the group in Mauritius, a Bhojpuri woman named Deeti, has a touch of second sight that allows her to look beyond her own narrative — she went from widowhood in the poppy fields of Uttar Pradesh to transportation on the Ibis as an indentured servant, and finally to a second marriage and a second start in Mauritius. Opium suffused her life and nearly broke it. The poppy crop barely supported her family in India, and its extracted drug killed her addict husband. Opium permeates every other life in the narrative, too — each character embedded within its far-flung web of trade and war, from businessmen who extol the virtues of Free Trade to addicts seeking an escape from painful reality.

The narrative gives equal sympathy to all these characters, deftly drawing us into each conflicting mind in turn. We are shown the perspectives of the Chinese fighting for their homeland and of Indian soldiers far from home as they fight for the British in China. Toward the end of Flood of Fire, an Indian soldier named Kesri notices the passion of a Chinese soldier who fought to the death at the Battle at Chuenpee. Kesri feels the other’s depth of belief is something he himself cannot have, fighting as he does under the flag of the British East India Company. It “struck Kesri that in a lifetime of soldiering he had never known what it was to fight,” the narrator says, for something that was his own. “An unnameable grief came upon him then; falling to his knees he reached out to close the dead man’s eyes.”

This is the strength of Flood of Fire, the best of the three novels at taking that imaginative leap that lifts fictional characters off the page. The first two books are weighed down at times by the research that went into them — unsurprising, given that Ghosh dug enough from the archives for this series to write several academic texts on Indian Ocean naval history alone. When faced with so much material, it can be a surgeon’s job to carve out only as many details as the reader needs to grasp an unfamiliar context and bring a lost world back to life. River of Smoke might have benefited from fewer details about Cantonese cuisine, for instance, and more about the emotional growth of the characters.

But with Flood of Fire, Ghosh has gotten the balance right. The reins of the narrative are back in the hands of individuals we can identify with and care about — often to the reader’s peril. There is no safety in this world that Ghosh paints, rushing as it does down the path to war. The most destructive acts happen not on the battlefield, however, but within the minds of the characters themselves. One of the darkest narrative arcs of the series takes us on the journey of a man from Baltimore named Zachary Reid, who opens the trilogy as an optimistic, likable young sailor on the Ibis. He is mixed-race, born of an African-American mother and a Caucasian-American father, and learned to imitate his father’s gentry manners and accents while waiting at the latter’s table. Escaping racial violence in Baltimore by boarding the Ibis, Zachary has learned to pass as white by the time he reaches Calcutta. Here, no one knows of his mixed heritage except for an odd mystical figure named Baboo Nob Kissin, who sees in Zachary an avatar of the dark-skinned god Krishna.

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