Thursday, 30 July 2015

Juvenal: The Emptiness Of Power

Some are destroyed by their power, downed by profound envy,
Some are sunk deep by their long and illustrious list of honours.
Noosed by a rope, their statues are dragged to the ground, even
The wheels of their chariots are smashed, and broken to pieces
With axes, while the legs of their innocent horses are shattered.
Now the flames roar, the bellows hiss, and that head idolised
By the people glows in the furnace, flames crackle around huge
Sejanus; the face of a man who was number two in the world
Is converted to jugs and basins, turned to pots and frying pans.
Deck your houses with laurel, lead a great bull whitened with
Chalk up to the Capitol: come see Sejanus dragged along by
A hook, everyone’s celebrating! ‘Look at the lips, look at the
Face on that! You can take it from me, he was never a man
That I liked’ ‘But what was the crime that brought him down?’
Who informed, what’s the evidence, where are the witnesses?’
‘That’s all irrelevant; a lengthy and wordy letter arrived from
Capri.’ ‘That’s fine, answer enough.’ But what of the Roman
Mob? They follow Fortune, as always, and hate whoever she
Condemns. If Nortia, as the Etruscans called her, had favoured
Etruscan Sejanus; if the old Emperor had been surreptitiously
Smothered; that same crowd in a moment would have hailed
Their new Augustus. They shed their sense of responsibility
Long ago, when they lost their votes, and the bribes; the mob
That used to grant power, high office, the legions, everything,
Curtails its desires, and reveals its anxiety for two things only,
Bread and circuses. ‘I hear that many will perish.’ ‘No doubt,
The furnace is huge.’ ‘My friend Bruttidius Niger looked
Rather pale, when I met him in front of the altar of Mars;
I’m scared that Tiberius, like a defeated Ajax, will exact
Punishment for being so poorly protected. Let’s run swiftly
And trample on Caesar’s foe, where he lies on the riverbank,
Making sure our slaves see us, so they can’t deny it and drag
Their terrified masters to justice, with nooses round our necks.’
Those were the crowd’s secret murmurings regarding Sejanus.
Would you like to be greeted as Sejanus, possess all that he
Possessed, be the one to grant highest office to some, appoint
Others to military posts, be seen as the Emperor’s guardian,
He who sits on the little constricted rock of Capri with a herd
Of Chaldean stargazers? Surely you’d like his troops, their
Spears, his excellent cavalry and private fortress; why
Wouldn’t you? Even those who have no wish to kill, enjoy
The power to do so. But what’s the value of fame and wealth,
If the good that delights is matched by an equal measure of ill?
Would you rather be wearing the purple-edged toga of him
Who’s being dragged along, or rule empty Gabii or Fidenae;
Lay down the law over weights and scales, break vessels that
Give short measure, as a ragged official in deserted Ulubrae?
So perhaps you’d admit Sejanus had no idea what to ask for?
Since he simply kept asking for greater honours, demanding
More and more wealth, he was building a lofty many-storied
Tower, from which the fall would only prove greater, whose
Collapse into shattered ruin would be only the more profound.
What destroyed the Crassi, the Pompeys, and that man Caesar
Who brought the Romans under his lash, and so tamed them?
Simply seeking that place at the top, using every trick that
Exists, simply extravagant prayer granted by spiteful gods.
Few kings go down to Ceres’ son-in-law, Dis, free from
Blood and carnage, few tyrants achieve a tranquil death.  

Translated by A. S. Kline

Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë


Emily Bronte


The above image of Emily Brontë – endlessly reproduced – is less a portrait, more an icon. Intense, fierce, inward, solitary, elusive and unknowable: the young author of Wuthering Heights in profile is of a piece with her first, and only, novel.
Her elder sister's work – Jane Eyre (no 12 in this series) – hypnotises the reader through the calculated force of its tone, its "suspended revelations", and its hints of suppressed eroticism. It builds, slowly, to a poignant climax in which, finally, its protagonists are redeemed, though not in a way that's conventional. Wuthering Heights, by contrast, plunges impetuously into a wild and passionate exploration of love in all its destructive manifestations.
Brontë's narrative – fragmented, discordant and tortuous – revolves obsessively around a single, explosive transgression, and the theme of jealousy in the lives of Heathcliff and Catherine, before making a calmer return to the theme in the often neglected second half.
Where Charlotte comes from the puritan tradition of John Bunyan (no 1 in this series), Emily is the child of the Romantic movement, and both sisters are steeped in the gothic. However, it is Emily who takes the bigger creative risks. The first reviews of Wuthering Heights were mixed. Critics who had been swept away byJane Eyre did not know what to make of it. For a long time it was judged to be inferior. Readers who love Jane Eyre are sometimes less enthusiastic aboutWuthering Heights. And vice versa. I've included both in my list because their influence on the English imagination, and on subsequent English-language fiction, has been incalculable.
Looking back, it's clear that where Jane Eyre comes out of a recognisable tradition, and is conscious of that affiliation, Wuthering Heights releases extraordinary new energies in the novel, renews its potential, and almost reinvents the genre. The scope and drift of its imagination, its passionate exploration of a fatal yet regenerative love affair, and its brilliant manipulation of time and space put it in a league of its own. This is great English literature, the fruit of a quite extraordinary childhood.
To look forward, I think we can say that the work as we know it of Thomas Hardy, DH Lawrence, and even Rosamond Lehmann would have been impossible without it. As a portrait of "star-cross'd lovers" it rivals Romeo and Juliet. There is also something operatic about its audacity and ambition. No wonder film-makers, song writers, actors and literary critics have been drawn to reinterpret its story.
Read more >>>

Wednesday, 29 July 2015

Marlene Dietrich and Erich Maria Remarque

For years it was unfashionable in Germany to worship Marlene Dietrich, the Berlin diva who escaped Nazi territory for the US and during the war years did the unthinkable by entertaining US troops. For years afterwards she was accused of anti-patriotism and lived in self-imposed exile in her Paris apartment with little contact with her homeland.
But in the past few years Germany has lovingly reclaimed her, and today she is one of the most potent symbols of Berlin. Nor has the tourist board failed to realise the potential she has to lure people to the capital. The wide range of events to commemorate her 100th birthday in December are barely over, but the city's cultural institutions are on a roll: the 10th anniversary of her death is looming, and so the party continues.
Under the title Marlene and Berlin, the city's cultural office has put on a string of events for those wishing to follow in the steps of the diva for the May 6 anniversary.
A walking tour takes in an array of places where Dietrich lived and made her mark, including the house of her birth in the southern district of Schöneberg, her school, the church in which she married, and the Deutsche Theater and Titania Palast where, in 1960, she appeared to German audiences for the first time after the war.
In the Blaue Engel restaurant on Gotenstrasse, a stone's throw from where Dietrich was born, diners are invited to partake of her favourite dishes in a set three-course menu, and to conclude, fans are taken to the musical Marlene in the Renaissance Theatre in which Judy Winter offers her interpretation of Germany's most famous femme fatale. The next tours take place on April 20 and 27, registration is on: 0049 30 44409 36, or check out www.berlin-tourism.de.
Meanwhile for those who wish to dig a little deeper, there is a whole range of Dietrich-dedicated books that have appeared in the past few months, among them, Ick will wat Feinet - Das Marlene Dietrich Kochbuch (I want something fine - the Marlene Dietrich Cookbook) by Georg A Weth, and Marlene Dietrich zum 100 Geburtstsag (Marlene Dietrich - a 100th birthday commemoration) by Maria Riva.
Their story began, according to Tell Me That You Love Me, as a black and white movie might have, on the Lido in Venice. It was September 1937 and Dietrich, recently separated from her lover Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, sat having lunch with Josef von Sternberg, the director who had first discovered her. In breezed Remarque, himself freshly separated from Austrian actress Hedy Lamarr.
Remarque's manners fascinated and enchanted Dietrich, as Maria Riva, Dietrich's daughter, recounts in her book My Mother Marlene. "You look far too young to have penned one of the greatest novels of our time," she told him. "Perhaps I only wrote it to hear your magical voice say these words," he elegantly replied.
Sensing his presence was fast becoming unnecessary, von Sternberg quietly excused himself. The two German celebrities talked until dawn. According to written and verbal accounts by Dietrich, in that crucial moment at the hotel door, Remarque fixed her with an earnest gaze. "I have to admit something - I'm impotent," he muttered anxiously.
The cool, calm Dietrich, never short of an answer, replied: "Oh, how wonderful!" Sensing that there were further depths to her character, Remarque added: "If it's so desired, I can of course be a totally enchanting little lesbienne."
"I was so happy!" Dietrich later told a biographer. "We would simply read and sleep, be tender - everything so wonderfully easy - God, how I loved this man!"
Read more >>>

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad – a trip into inner space

Conrad’s famous novella is based on a real journey the author took up the Congo in 1890, during King Leopold II of Belgium’s horrific rule. It is a fantastic, imaginative journey to find a man named Kurtz who has lost his mind in the African jungle. It is a journey into inner space; a metaphorical investigation into the turbid waters of the human soul. It is a political journey into the dark heart of European colonialism. It is a nightmare journey, into horror. It is a journey to nowhere, set on a boat lying motionless and at anchor on the river Thames, which also “has been one of the dark places on the earth”.
There’s no shortage of journeys to talk about in relation to Heart of Darkness – but selfishly, I want to talk about my own. Few things have had such a profound effect on me as my passage towards understanding this book. When I began to realise how many possibilities the book contains, and how beautifully Conrad brings out their meanings, I felt enlightenment. A vague kind of enlightenment, it’s true. One, in fact, described by Conrad himself in a typically glorious – and typically elusive – passage about his narrator Marlow’s storytelling style:
To him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale which brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.
When I first glimpsed that misty halo, I was astonished. It happened a year or so after I initially got hold of the book. That first time, I was about 15 and took Heart of Darkness at face value. I read a densely written, uncomfortable, claustrophobic and strange kind of adventure story. I saw it as a quest gone wrong. Wrong because Kurtz never emerged from the jungle – and wrong because I didn’t quite understand the story or the vague, difficult, ponderously adjectival English.
Quite possibly I’d be thinking about it in the same way now, if it hadn’t become one of my A-level set texts two years later. Thanks to a wonderful teacher, and several rereadings, I came to understand something of those other journeys in the book. I started to see how some writers can say one thing, but mean 15 others. How a well placed image can detonate a thousand bright explosions. Marlow’s boat was steaming into the soul of man – and that was the real heart of darkness. Or at least, it might be. Nothing in the book was definite, and this very uncertainty also overwhelmed me. There were no easy answers.
Now those same 40,000 words meant more than I had previously imagined, I began to feel the intoxication of complication. Not to mention the fascination of the abomination. I learned, in short, a new way to read. I’ve always been grateful. I’ve always adored this book. I have been chasing the same buzz ever since.
Yet part of that journey into understanding was also one into disillusionment and disquiet.
Harold Bloom said that Heart of Darkness has been analysed more than any other work of literature “that is studied in universities and colleges”. I don’t know how he measured it – but I can understand why he might have said it. I can also go some way towards agreeing with his assessment that it is Conrad’s “unique propensity for ambiguity” that makes discussing the book so fascinating. Trying to get hold of the novel’s meaning is like trying to catch smoke with your hands. The very act of describing it makes it harder to grasp – and that makes the challenge all the more enticing.

But there are other reasons ink gets spilled in universities and colleges. When I was reading the book for A-level, that same teacher showed me the 1975 essay in which Chinua Achebe denounced Conrad for denying Africans their humanity, and called the author a “bloody racist”. It was confounding. I could then, and can now, raise a few objections. Marlow’s dehumanisation of Africans is a reflection of the Belgian colonial system he condemns so strongly throughout the book. Marlow specifically says “they were not inhuman” when describing his first sight of people on the Congo and highlights his own problems with empathy. He condemns colonialism. He insists that Europeans are no better, and quite possibly worse, with their hypocritical claim to be “remote from the night of first ages”. The very last line of the book sees the Thames, not the Congo, seeming to lead “into the heart of an immense darkness”. There’s also the important point that Marlow is not Conrad. Plus the fact that it is absurd to insist on modern values in a book written and published in a different age. We can’t ask Horace to share our modern revulsion for slavery.

Read more >>>

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Eduardo Galeano: God’s Masterpiece or the Devil’s Bad Joke?

The following passages are excerpted from Eduardo Galeano’s history of humanity, Mirrors (Nation Books).

Origin of Freedom of Oppression

Opium was outlawed in China.

British merchants smuggled it in from India. Their diligent efforts led to a surge in the number of Chinese dependent on the mother of heroin and morphine, who charmed them with false happiness and ruined their lives.

The smugglers were fed up with the hindrances they faced at the hands of Chinese authorities. Developing the market required free trade, and free trade demanded war.

William Jardine, a generous sort, was the most powerful of the drug traffickers and vice president of the Medical Missionary Society, which offered treatment to the victims of the opium he sold.

In London, Jardine hired a few influential writers and journalists, including best-selling author Samuel Warren, to create a favorable environment for war. These communications professionals ran the cause of freedom high up the flagpole. Freedom of expression at the service of free trade: pamphlets and articles rained down upon British public opinion, exalting the sacrifice of the honest citizens who challenged Chinese despotism, risking jail, torture, and death in that kingdom of cruelty.

The proper climate established, the storm was unleashed. The Opium War lasted, with a few interruptions, from 1839 to 1860.

Our Lady of the Seas, Narco Queen

The sale of people had been the juiciest enterprise in the British Empire. But happiness, as everyone knows, does not last. After three prosperous centuries, the Crown had to pull out of the slave trade, and selling drugs came to be the most lucrative source of imperial glory.

Queen Victoria was obliged to break down China’s closed doors. On board the ships of the Royal Navy, Christ’s missionaries joined the warriors of free trade. Behind them came the merchant fleet, boats that once carried black Africans, now filled with poison.

In the first stage of the Opium War, the British Empire took over the island of Hong Kong. The colorful governor, Sir John Bowring, declared:

“Free trade is Jesus Christ, and Jesus Christ is free trade.”

Here Lay China

Outside its borders the Chinese traded little and were not in the habit of waging war.

Merchants and warriors were looked down upon. “Barbarians” was what they called the English and the few Europeans they met.

And so it was foretold. China had to fall, defeated by the deadliest fleet of warships in the world, and by mortars that perforated a dozen enemy soldiers in formation with a single shell.

In 1860, after razing ports and cities, the British, accompanied by the French, entered Beijing, sacked the Summer Palace, and told their colonial troops recruited in India and Senegal they could help themselves to the leftovers.

The palace, center of the Manchu Dynasty’s power, was in reality many palaces, more than 200 residences and pagodas set among lakes and gardens, not unlike paradise. The victors stole everything, absolutely everything: furniture and drapes, jade sculptures, silk dresses, pearl necklaces, gold clocks, diamond bracelets… All that survived was the library, plus a telescope and a rifle that the king of England had given China seventy years before.

Then they burned the looted buildings. Flames reddened the earth and sky for many days and nights, and all that had been became nothing.

Read more >>>

Dying art - Mario Vargas Llosa, John King

In his essay “Culture and Anarchy,” Matthew Arnold defines culture “as having its origin in the love of perfection; it is a study of perfection.” Those in pursuit of human perfection—those who aim to be enriched and ennobled by art, literature, science, and philosophy—incline naturally towards what Arnold famously called “sweetness and light.”

Almost a hundred and fifty years on that sweetness has soured, that light has been crudely snuffed out for the Nobel laureate Mario Vargas Llosa. Anarchy, or at least philistinism, has triumphed over culture. Notes on the Death of Culture: Essays on Spectacle and Society is a provocative essay collection on the fast decline of intellectual life, and one that manages the dual feat of shedding light while spreading gloom. As with the artful Freudian wink in the title of Mohsin Hamid’s recent collection Discontent and Its Civilizations, Vargas Llosa’s title is a sly reworking of another seminal title, namely T. S. Eliot’s 1948 essay Notes Towards the Definition of Culture. The six essays that comprise Notes on the Death of Culture can be taken as a response to, or even an update on, Eliot’s argument.

“I see no reason why the decay of culture should not proceed much further,” Eliot wrote, adding that we may anticipate a period “of which it will be possible to say that it will have no culture.” For Vargas Llosa that time is now. His first essay, “The Civilization of the Spectacle,” explores how culture—once a vital, stimulating, edifying force—has been reduced to nothing more than light entertainment. Light literature, light art, and light cinema preponderate; reader and viewer can consume any or all with little intellectual effort. Critics are a dying breed. Fifty years ago Edmund Wilson would make or break a book in The New Yorker: “Now The Oprah Winfrey Show makes these decisions.” Comparisons between the golden past and the tawdry present continue: quality journalism has given way to lifestyle magazines; books are being eclipsed by television and the Internet; and while the Ancient Greeks saw the cultivation of the body and the spirit as mutually beneficial, nowadays we usually play sports “at the expense of, and instead of, intellectual pursuits.”

In case we haven’t gotten the message, the second essay here, “A Brief Discourse on Culture,” rams it home. Culture isn’t moribund, “it has disappeared. It has become an ungraspable, multitudinous and figurative ghost.” Vargas Llosa means high culture has gone. Thanks to the “massification” or “democratization” of culture, we can all claim to be cultured even if we have never read a book, listened to a symphony, or attended an art gallery. Eliot said that “higher culture” is the domain of an elite. Vargas Llosa is in favor of putting an end to “morally repugnant” elites which are at variance with our egalitarian ideals. In doing so, however, we achieve “a pyrrhic victory” whereby we dumb down and become too all-inclusive: “everything is culture and nothing is.”

We could argue that complaints about falling cultural standards are nothing new. Culture has declined and society has gone to the dogs in every age. An artistic charlatan, also-ran, or persona non grata in one era is rehabilitated as a pioneering creative genius in the next. Rather than acknowledge this, Vargas Llosa spends time on mourning what we have supposedly lost. He gets back on track when turning his attention from ruined culture in general to specific vitiating factors. In “Forbidden to Forbid,” we get a reasoned but impassioned assault on the “conceptual foolery and obscurity of expression” unleashed by French postmodern theorists. Their form of cultural criticism he sees as deliberately arcane and jargon-heavy, “esoteric, pretentious and often devoid of originality and depth.” As such, it has contributed to making the culture of our time “frivolous.”

This attack on key pupils of what Harold Bloom has called the School of Resentment is amusingly scathing. “Frivolous” seems unapt here, but it is a word that is repeated throughout the book, reappearing as a kind of leitmotif, and one that acquires a deeper, more powerful resonance elsewhere. And yet at one juncture in the essay “The Disappearance of Eroticism,” Vargas Llosa runs the risk of rendering his own argument frivolous. Citing a change to the Spanish school curriculum in which sex education for fourteen-year-olds will include masturbation workshops, Vargas Llosa, his curiosity piqued, goes on to list a number of questions: “Do they take notes? Do they have examinations? What feats will students need to achieve to get a good grade and what fiascos would warrant a fail mark?” He assures us that he is still in serious-mode (“I am not joking”) and that he has no moral reservations about this initiative (his worry is that such workshops will trivialize sex), but nonetheless his questions, particularly those about “tactile dexterity” and “the speed, quantity and consistency” of orgasms come across as at best facetious—or frivolous—and at worst inane.

He returns to safer ground by expounding on how eroticism (neatly defined as “physical love stripped of animality”) marks a high point of civilization, and later by examining the interaction between culture and politics, analyzing along the way the extent to which the former has devalued the latter. The best he saves for last. “The Opium of the People” begins with hard facts: religion lies at the heart of all recent global conflict; belief in a supreme being and in an afterlife forms part of every known culture and civilization. With this in mind, Vargas Llosa moves on to ask if our undying interest in religion and our upheld faith in God (still alive and kicking despite the evangelizing efforts of Dawkins, Hitchens, et al.) is good or bad for culture and for freedom.

In essence he wants the best of both worlds, the preservation of secularism (“fundamental to the survival and improvement of democracy”) and an intense spiritual life, with religious education in state schools giving each generation the basic tools to understand their history and appreciate art and literature. Cutting out this “rich inheritance” results in delivering young ignorant learners “bound hand and foot, to the civilization of the spectacle, to”—that word again—“frivolity.”

Read more >>>

Monday, 27 July 2015

Lao Tzu: Tao Te Ching

I

The Name - cannot be named.
The nameless is the Way of Heaven and Earth.
The named is Matrix of the Myriad Creatures.
Eliminate desire to find the Way.
Embrace desire to know the Creature.
The two are identical,
But differ in name as they arise.
Identical they are called mysterious,
Mystery on mystery,
The gate of many secrets.

Haruki Murakami: The Moment I Became A Novelist

The following is the introduction to Haruki Murakami’s Wind/Pinball: Two Novels, out August 4th from Knopf. 


The Birth of My Kitchen Table Fiction 

Most people—by which I mean most of us who are a part of Japanese society—graduate from school, then find work, then, after some time has passed, get married. Even I originally intended to follow that pattern. Or at least that was how I imagined things would turn out. Yet in reality I married, then started working, then (somehow) finally managed to graduate. In other words, the order I followed was the exact opposite of what was considered normal.

Since I hated the idea of working for a company, I decided to open my own establishment, a place where people could go to listen to jazz records, have a coffee, eat snacks, and drink. It was a simple, rather happy-go-lucky kind of idea: running a business like that, I figured, would let me relax listening to my favorite music from morning till night. The problem was, since we had married while still in university we had no money. Therefore, for the first three years, my wife and I worked like slaves, often taking on several jobs at once to save as much as we could. After that, I made the rounds borrowing whatever friends and family could spare. Then we took all the money we had managed to scrape together and opened a small coffee shop / bar in Kokubunji, a student hangout, in the western suburbs of Tokyo. It was 1974.


It cost a lot less to open your own place back then than it does now. Young people like us who were determined to avoid “company life” at all costs were launching small shops left and right. Cafés and restaurants, variety stores, bookstores—you name it. Several places near us were owned and run by people of our generation. Kokubunji retained a strong counterculture vibe, and many of those who hung around the area were dropouts from the shrinking student movement. It was an era when, all over the world, one could still find gaps in the system.


I brought my old upright piano from my parents’ house and began offering live music on weekends. There were many young jazz musicians living in the Kokubunji area who happily (I think) played for the small amount we could pay them. Many went on to become well-known musicians; I sometimes run across them in jazz clubs around Tokyo even now.


Although we were doing what we liked, paying our debts was a constant struggle. We owed the bank, and we owed the people who had supported us. On one occasion, stuck for our monthly payment to the bank, my wife and I were trudging along with our heads down late at night when we stumbled across some money lying in the street. Whether it was synchronicity or some sort of divine intercession I don’t know, but the amount was exactly what we needed. Since the payment was due the next day, it was truly a last-minute reprieve. (Strange events like this have happened at various junctures in my life.) Most Japanese would have probably done the proper thing, and turned the money in to the police, but stretched to the limit as we were, we couldn’t live by such fine sentiments.


Still it was fun. No question about that. I was young and in my prime, could listen to my favorite music all day long, and was the lord of my own little domain. I didn’t have to squeeze onto packed commuter trains, or attend mind-numbing meetings, or suck up to a boss who I disliked. Instead, I had the chance to meet all kinds of interesting people.


My twenties were thus spent paying off loans and doing hard physical labor (making sandwiches and cocktails, hustling foul-mouthed patrons out the door) from morning till night. After a few years, our landlord decided to renovate the Kokubunji building, so we moved to more up-to-date and spacious digs near the center of Tokyo, in Sendagaya. Our new location provided enough room for a grand piano, but our debt increased as a result. So things weren’t any easier.
Looking back, all I can remember is how hard we worked. I imagine most people are relatively laid back in their twenties, but we had virtually no time to enjoy the “carefree days of youth.” We barely got by. What free time I did have, though, I spent reading. Along with music, books were my great joy. No matter how busy, or how broke, or how exhausted I was, no one could take those pleasures away from me.


As the end of my twenties approached, our Sendagaya jazz bar was, at last, beginning to show signs of stability. True, we couldn’t sit back and relax—we still owed money, and our sales had their ups and downs—but at least things seemed headed in a good direction.


Read more >>>

Sunday, 26 July 2015

John Dryden: You charm'd me not with that fair face

from An Evening's Love
You charm'd me not with that fair face
      Though it was all divine:
To be another's is the grace,
      That makes me wish you mine.

   The Gods and Fortune take their part
      Who like young monarchs fight;
And boldly dare invade that heart
      Which is another's right.

   First mad with hope we undertake
      To pull up every bar;
But once possess'd, we faintly make
      A dull defensive war.

   Now every friend is turn'd a foe
      In hope to get our store:
And passion makes us cowards grow,
      Which made us brave before.

Ernst Bloch: The Principle of Hope

Who are we? Where do we come from? Where are we going? What are we waiting for? What awaits us?

Many only feel confused. The ground shakes, they do not know why and with what. Theirs is a state of anxiety; if it becomes more definite, then it is fear.

Once a man travelled far and wide to learn fear. In the time that has just passed, it came easier and closer, the art was mastered in a terrible fashion. But now that the creators of fear have been dealt with, a feeling that suits us better is overdue. It is a question of learning hope. Its work does not renounce, it is in love with success rather than failure. Hope, superior to fear, is neither passive like the latter, nor locked into nothingness. The emotion of hope goes out of itself, makes people broad instead of confining them, cannot know nearly enough of what it is that makes them inwardly aimed, of what may be allied to them outwardly. The work of this emotion requires people who throw themselves actively into what is becoming, to which they themselves belong. It will not tolerate a dog’s life which feels itself only passively thrown into What Is, which is not seen through, even wretchedly recognized. The work against anxiety about life and the machinations of fear is that against its creators, who are for the most part easy to identify, and it looks in the world itself for what can help the world; this can be found. How richly people have always dreamed of this, dreamed of the better life that might be possible. Everybody’s life is pervaded by daydreams: one part of this is just stale, even enervating escapism, even booty for swindlers, but another part is provocative, is not content just to accept the bad which exists, does not accept renunciation. This other part has hoping at its core, and is teachable. It can be extricated from the unregulated daydream and from its sly misuse, can be activated undimmed. Nobody has ever lived without daydreams, but it is a question of knowing them deeper and deeper and in this way keeping them trained unerringly, usefully, on what is right. Let the daydreams grow even fuller, since this means they are enriching themselves around the sober glance; not in the sense of clogging, but of becoming clear. Not in the sense of merely contemplative reason which takes things as they are and as they stand, but of participating reason which takes them as they go, and therefore also as they could go better. Then let the daydreams grow really fuller, that is, clearer, less random, more familiar, more clearly understood and more mediated with the course of things. So that the wheat which is trying to ripen can be encouraged to grow and be harvested. Thinking means venturing beyond. But in such a way that what already exists is not kept under or skated over. Not in its deprivation, let alone in moving out of it. Not in the causes of deprivation, let alone in the first signs of the change which is ripening within it. That is why real venturing beyond never goes into the mere vacuum of an In-Front-of-Us, merely fanatically, merely visualizing abstractions. Instead, it grasps the New as something that is mediated in what exists and is in motion, although to be revealed the New demands the most extreme effort of will. Real venturing beyond knows and activates the tendency which is inherent in history and which proceeds dialectically. Primarily, everybody lives in the future, because they strive, past things only come later, and as yet genuine present is almost never there at all. The future dimension contains what is feared or what is hoped for; as regards human intention, that is, when it is not thwarted, it contains only what is hoped for. Function and content of hope are experienced continuously, and in times of rising societies they have been continuously activated and extended. Only in times of a declining old society, like modern Western society, does a certain partial and transitory intention run exclusively downwards. Then those who cannot find their way out of the decline are confronted with fear of hope and against it. Then fear presents itself as the subjectivist, nihilism as the objectivist mask of the crisis phenomenon: which is tolerated but not seen through, which is lamented but not changed. On bourgeois ground, especially in the abyss which has opened and into which the bourgeoisie has moved, change is impossible anyway even if it were desired, which is by no means the case. In fact, bourgeois interest would like to draw every other interest opposed to it into its own failure; so, in order to drain the new life, it makes its own agony apparently fundamental, apparently ontological. The futility of bourgeois existence is extended to be that of the human situation in general, of existence per se. Without success in the long run, of course: the bourgeois emptiness that has developed is as ephemeral as the class which alone still expresses itself within it, and as spineless as the illusory existence of its own bad immediacy with which it is in league. Hopelessness is itself, in a temporal and factual sense, the most insupportable thing, downright intolerable to human needs. Which is why even deception, if it is to be effective, must work with flatteringly and corruptly aroused hope. Which is also why hope is preached from every pulpit, but is confined to mere inwardness or to empty promises of the other world. Which is why even the latest miseries of Western philosophy are no longer able to present their philosophy of misery without loaning the idea of transcendence, venturing beyond, from the bank. All this means is that man is essentially determined by the future, but with the cynically self-interested inference, hypostasized from its own class position, that the future is the sign outside the No Future night club, and the destiny of man nothingness. Well: let the dead bury their dead; even in the hesitation which the outstaying night draws over it, the beginning day is listening to something other than the putridly stifling, hollowly nihilistic death-knell. As long as man is in a bad way, both private and public existence are pervaded by daydreams; dreams of a better life than that which has so far been given him. In what is false, and all the more so in what is genuine, every human intention is applied on to this ground. And even where the ground, as so often before, may deceive us, full of sandbanks one moment, full of chimeras the next, it can only be condemned and possibly cleared up through combined research into objective tendency and subjective intention. Corruptio optimi pessima: fraudulent hope is one of the greatest malefactors, even enervators, of the human race, concretely genuine hope its most dedicated benefactor. Thus, knowing-concrete hope subjectively breaks most powerfully into fear, objectively leads most efficiently towards the radical termination of the contents of fear. Together with informed discontent which belongs to hope, because they both arise out of the No to deprivation.

Thinking means venturing beyond. Admittedly, venturing beyond has not been all that adept at finding its thinking until now. Or even if it was found, there were too many bad eyes around which did not see the matter clearly. Lazy substitution, current copying representation, the pig’s bladder of a reactionary, but also schematizing Zeitgeist, these repressed what had been discovered. Marx’s work marks the turning-point in the process of concrete venturing beyond becoming conscious. But around this point deeply ingrained habits of thinking cling to a world without Front. Not only man is in a bad way here, but so is the insight into his hope. Intending is not heard in its characteristic anticipating tone, objective tendency is not recognized in its characteristic anticipatory powerfulness. The desiderium, the only honest attribute of all men, is unexplored. The Not-Yet-Conscious, Not-Yet-Become, although it fulfils the meaning of all men and the horizon of all being, has not even broken through as a word, let alone as a concept. This blossoming field of questions lies almost speechless in previous philosophy. Forward dreaming, as Lenin says, was not reflected on, was only touched on sporadically, did not attain the concept appropriate to it. Until Marx, expectation and what is expected, the former in the subject, the latter in the object, the oncoming as a whole did not take on a global dimension, in which it could find a place, let alone a central one. The huge occurrence of utopia in the world is almost unilluminated explicitly. Of all the strange features of ignorance, this is one of the most conspicuous. In his first attempt at a Latin grammar, M. Terentius Varro is said to have forgotten the future tense; philosophically, it has still not been adequately considered to this day. This means: an overwhelmingly static thinking did not name or even understand this condition, and it repeatedly closes off as something finished what has become its lot. As contemplative knowledge it is by definition solely knowledge of what can be contemplated, namely of the past, and it bends an arch of closed form-contents out of Becomeness over the Unbecome. Consequently, even where it is grasped historically, this world is a world of repetition or of the great Time-and-Again; it is a palace of fateful events, as Leibniz called it without breaking out of it. Occurrence becomes history, knowledge re-remembering, celebration the observance of something that has been. This is how all previous philosophers went about it, with their form, idea or substance posited as being finished, even postulating Kant, even dialectical Hegel. In this way physical and metaphysical need spoiled its appetite, in particular its paths to outstanding satisfaction, certainly not just that achieved in books, were blocked. Hope, with its positive correlate: the still unclosed determinateness of existence, superior to any res finita, does not therefore occur in the history of the sciences, either as psychological or as cosmic entity and least of all as functionary of what has never been, of the possible New. Therefore: a particularly extensive attempt is made in this book to bring philosophy to hope, as to a place in the world which is as inhabited as the best civilized land and as unexplored as the Antarctic. In critical and further elaborated connection with the contents of the author’s previous books, ‘Traces’, especially ‘The Spirit of Utopia’, ‘Thomas Münzer’, ‘Legacy of this Time’, ‘Subject-Object’. Longing, expectation, hope therefore need their hermeneutics, the dawning of the In-Front-of-Us demands its specific concept, the Novum demands its concept of the Front. And all this so that ultimately the royal road through the mediated realm of possibility to the necessarily Intended can be critically laid, and can remain orientated, without being broken off. Docta spes, comprehended hope, thus illuminates the concept of a principle in the world, a concept which will no longer leave it. For the very reason that this principle has always been in the process of the world, but philosophically excluded for so long. Since there is absolutely no conscious production of history along whose path of informed tendency the goal would not likewise be all, the concept of the utopian (in the positive sense of the word) principle, that of hope and its contents worthy of human beings, is an absolutely central one here. Indeed, what is designated by this concept lies in the horizon of the consciousness that is becoming adequate of any given thing, in the risen horizon that is rising even higher. Expectation, hope, intention towards possibility that has still not become: this is not only a basic feature of human consciousness, but, concretely corrected and grasped, a basic determination within objective reality as a whole. Since Marx, no research into truth and no realistic judgement is possible at all which will be able to avoid the subjective and objective hope-contents of the world without paying the penalty of triviality or reaching a dead-end.Philosophy will have conscience of tomorrow, commitment to the future, knowledge of hope, or it will have no more knowledge. And the new philosophy, as it was initiated by Marx, is the same thing as the philosophy of the New, this entity which expects, destroys or fulfils us all. Its consciousness is the openness of danger and of the victory which is to be brought about in those conditions. Its space is the objectively real possibility within process, along the path of the Object [Objekt] itself, in which what is radically intended by man is not delivered anywhere but not thwarted anywhere either. Its concern, to which all its energies must be devoted, remains what is truly hoping in the subject, truly hoped for in the object [Gegenstand]: our task is to research the function and content of this central Thing For Us.

Read more >>>

Saturday, 25 July 2015

Tibullus: Faithlessness

to lead me on, but later you’re wretchedly sad and bitter.
Cruel power, what have you to do with me? What glory
is it for a god to set out snares for a man?
For the net’s spread for me: now cunning Delia
fondles someone secretly in the dead of night.
Of course she denies it, swears it, but it’s hard to believe:
she’s always denying me in that way to her husband.
I myself, wretch, taught her, the means of eluding
her guards: alas, now I’m crushed by my own art.
Then she learnt how to make excuses for sleeping alone,
then how to turn the door on its hinges silently:
then I gave her juices and herbs to erase the bruises
that mutual lovemaking makes out of teeth-marks.
But you, deceived husband of a faithless wife,
watching me too, that she might never sin,
be careful she doesn’t sit talking much with young men
or recline with loose dress and throat bared,
or deceive you with nods, or wet her finger with wine
and trace messages over the table’s surface.
Fear, when she goes out often, or says she’ll go see
the rites of the Good Goddess that no man can go near.
But trust her to me, I’ll follow her to that altar alone:
then I’ll have no reason to fear for my sight.
Often, I remember touching her hand, as if I were
examining her jewel’s design, an excuse.
Often, I sent you to sleep with wine, while I, the winner,
drank from a sober glass of counterfeit water.
I’m not aware I harmed you: forgive, now I confess,
Love told me to. Who takes up weapons against a god?
It was me, and I’m not ashamed to tell the truth now,
at whom your dog barked the whole night through.
What use is a tender wife to you? If you don’t know
how to guard your goods, the key for the lock’s in vain.
She holds you, she sighs for other absent lovers
and suddenly she pretends to a raging headache.
But trust her to my keeping: then I’ll not refuse
blows, or shrink from chains on my ankles.
Away from me then, you who dress your hair with skill,
and whose roomy togas flow with loosened folds:
and whoever meets us, so that he might be sinless,
let him stand far off, or go by on another road.
The god himself orders it done, this the great priestess
prophesied to me, with a voice divine.
She, when she’s inspired by Bellona’s power, fears
no fierce flames, in her madness, nor the twisted lash:
she slashes her arms fiercely with the double-axe
and, unharmed, sprinkles the goddess with flowing blood,
stands there with a spear in her side, wounds on her breast,
and chants the fate that the great goddess proclaims:
“Beware lest you harm the girl whom Love protects,
and regret being taught a harsh lesson afterwards.
Who touches her, his wealth will drain away, like blood
from a wound, as these ashes are scattered by the wind.”
And she named a punishment for you, my Delia:
if you still sin, I beg she’ll be merciful.
I don’t spare you for yourself, but your old mother
moves me and her lovely old-age overcomes anger.
She brings me to you in the darkness, and fearfully
joins our hands together, secretly, silently:
she waits for me, glued to the door, at night
and knows the sound of my nearing feet far off.
Live long for me, sweet lady: I’d give you my years
to add to your own if that were allowed.
I’ll love you always, and your daughter for your sake:
whatever she does, she’s still of your blood.
Teach her to be chaste, though no headband tied there
constrains her hair, nor a long robe her feet.
And for me let the rules be harsh, let me never be able
to praise anyone without the girl going for my eyes:
and if I’m thought to have sinned, let me be led by the hair
and dragged face down in the middle of the street.
I wouldn’t wish to strike you Delia, and if such a madness
came to me, I’d rather choose to have no hands.
Don’t be chaste from cruel fear, but a loyal mind:
let mutual love guard you for me in my absence.
But she who was loyal to none, when age has conquered,
helpless, draws out the twisted thread with trembling hand
and ties the fastenings tight to the loom, for hire,
and counts what’s pulled and drawn from the snowy fleece.
The crowd of youths see her with joyful hearts,
and say her old age deserves to bear such suffering.
Venus, sublime, looks down from high Olympus
at her weeping, and warns how fierce she is to the faithless.
Let these curses fall on others, Delia: let us two
be a pattern for lovers when our hair is white.

The Adventures of Doris Lessing

It is as if some gauze or screen has been dissolved away from life, that was dulling it, and like Miranda you want to say, What a brave new world! You don’t remember feeling like this, because, younger, habit or the press of necessity prevented. You are taken, shaken, by moments when the improbability of our lives comes over you like a fever. Everything is remarkable, people, living, events present themselves to you with the immediacy of players in some barbarous and splendid drama that it seems we are part of. You have been given new eyes.
—Doris Lessing, Time Bites
Doris Lessing, who turned eighty-seven in October, is telling us what “old” feels like. Not a believer in “the golden age of youth,” she “shudders” at the very idea of living through her teens again, even her twenties. Since she left Africa for England more than half a century ago, a single mother and a high school dropout with a wardrobe full of avatars—angry young woman, mother superior, bad-news bear, bodhisattva—she has published an astonishing fifty-five books. Although Time Bites is her first collection of articles, lectures, book reviews, and broadcasts, The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog is her twenty-fifth novel. Nor does the fact that she’s four inches shorter than she used to be make her a shrinking violet. “Old” is as nice as she gets in Time Bites. Her default mode is usually imperious, as if ex cathedrawere the normal respiration of her intelligence.
With a muster more of adjectives than argument, she admires the great in their shallow graves (Jane Austen, D.H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Tolstoy, Bulgakov); promotes some personal favorites (Christina Stead, George Meredith, Muriel Spark); scolds us for neglecting others (Anna Kavan, Jaan Kross, Tarjei Vesaas); gets huffy about our provincial ignorance of a Sanskrit folktale cycle, The Fables of Bidpai; and chats up autobiography (Casanova, Cellini), Stone Age civilizations (Knossos, Catal Hoyuk), cults (Cromwell, the Red Guards, al-Qaeda), and Ecclesiastes (“the thundering magnificence” of the King James version). She has a genuine affection for the composer Philip Glass, who turned two of her “space fictions” into operas, and for the editor William Phillips, even if his name is twice shamefully misspelled. But for every lovely fugitive impression (“the first men probably did not know where their thoughts ended and the consciousness of beasts began”), there is a snide kick at “militant feminists,” and for every gut-wrenching account of the agony of Zimbabwe, a couple of twaddles about the “tyranny” of “Political Correctness.”
What makes Time Bites nonetheless a valuable addition to the Lessing index is its account of her finding her way to Sufi mysticism in the late 1960s. Loyal readers who have followed her out of Africa into celebrity are all too aware that a different Doris finished off the fifth and final volume of her “Children of Violence” series, The Four-Gated City (1969). It was as if Martha Quest, until then Lessing’s alter ego and doppelgänger in the series, had somehow got hold of a copy of The Golden Notebook, been desolated to discover the bankruptcy of every master narrative of Western Civ from Euclidean geometry to class war to the Oedipus complex, and then battered her way headfirst through the library wall into a prehistoric realm of memory, myth, madness, and genetic mutation. Or as if, in the yellow house in the south of France, Gauguin had turned suddenly into Van Gogh.
What happened? Her two volumes of autobiography aren’t much help, escorting her only up to The Golden Notebook in 1962. And instead of a third volume, she published a novel, The Sweetest Dream (2001), ostensibly picking up where the autobiographies left off but fictionalized so as to avoid “possible hurt to vulnerable people”—and possible libel suits. So she got to be cranky about Communists, feminists, journalists, shoplifters, progressive schools, conversion experiences, and grief therapy—but aside from the obligatory reference to yarrow stalks and the I Ching, the raptures of the deep went unmentioned.
For a while, encouraged by one of her biographers, some of us saw The Four-Gated City itself as a conversion experience, from the mystifications of Marx and a market economy to the mystagogies of R.D. Laing and mescaline. Time Bites makes it clear that we were wrong. After quitting the Communist Party and finishing The Golden Notebook, she needed to reupholster her own spacious mind. From William Butler Yeats, Saint John of the Cross, and Julian of Norwich to Buddhism and the Bhagavad-Gita, she was looking for something “that mirrored certain conclusions and discoveries I had made for myself…. It could not possibly be, I decided, that I was the only person with these thoughts.” What she found, courtesy of Idries Shah, was the poets and sages of a 1,300-year-old current of Islamic thinking that sought, through otherworldliness, a strenuous spiritual calisthenics of pilgrimage, sleeplessness, fasting, and ecstatic dance, and a kick-the-can pedagogy of parables, aphorisms, fables, verses, and jokes, to see past mere appearances to the hidden reality and transcendent dimension of human life.
Meet the Iranian philosopher Suhrawardi, with his bouillabaisse of Persian, hermetic, and Greek ideas. And the Spanish mystic Ibn al-Arabi, with his Bezels of Wisdom and his vision of an incarnate Sophia, the divine Wisdom. And the jurist and theologian al-Ghazali, who first told the tale of the Seven Valleys the pilgrim soul must cross toward annihilation of the self. As well as poets like ‘Attar, who elaborated on this ineffable topography in his Parliament of Birds, and Rumi, who founded an Order of Whirling Dervishes, the Mawlawiyyah. From al-Muqaddasi’s Revelation of the Secrets of the Birds and Flowers and Saadi’s Rose Garden to The Exploits of the Incomparable Mullah Nasrudin, Sufi literature is associative, intuitive, witty, respectful, transparent, and transcendent, preaching harmony, immanence, and the interconnectedness of all forms of organic life. What it seemed to say to a Lessing who had given up radical hope is that nothing is permanent, but neither will anything ever really change.
After the passionate indignation and furious intelligence of the African stories, The Grass Is Singing (1950), and the first four “Children of Violence” novels, when Martha went through that wall out of politics and psychiatry into dancing atoms and blue lights, Lessing stopped playing by the old narrative rules. From the apocalyptic vision in The Four-Gated City of an ancient metropolis, a clairvoyant priesthood, and emancipating mutants, there would follow Charles Watkins’s tortured apprehension of himself inBriefing for a Descent into Hell (1971) as a splinter of the consciousness of superior beings beamed down from Venus; the frantic efforts by the nameless narrator of The Memoirs of a Survivor (1974) to protect the girl-child Emily by hiding her in the patterned carpets and hanging gardens of a parallel universe; and the late-Seventies space-fiction series “Canopus in Argos,” in which earthlings were watched over and trifled with for millions of years by three separate intergalactic empires in five different evolutionary time zones.
In a preface to the first of these sci-fis, Shikasta: Re: Colonized Planet 5, Lessing suggested that “a single mind” wrote the Torah, the Apocrypha, the New Testament, and the Koran, as well as the liturgies of the Dogon (a tribe in Mali) and Popol Vuh (the sacred book of the Mayans). In a preface to the third, The Sirian Experiments, envious of physicists who got to play with black holes, white dwarves, and charmed quarks, she skyjacked a flying saucer: “As for UFOs,” she explained, “we may hardly disbelieve in what is so plentifully vouched for by so many sound, responsible, sensible people, scientific and secular.” It’s easy to see now that the do-good Canopeans were as much Sufi sages as they were golden Greeks.
At least temporarily, critical realism and social coherence went out the window in favor of biological mysticism, a collective unconscious, and lots of weather metaphors. The excruciating subjectivity of the modern predicament would resolve itself in a remedial reading of such sacred texts as The Cloud of Unknowing, the Book of Revelation, and the Upanishads. Thereafter, for every conventional novel like The Good Terrorist(1985), with its IRA wannabes, or Love, Again(1996), her sexy romp in the theater world, she would publish a fabulist shadow fiction like The Fifth Child (1988), about a Neanderthal baby in modern London against whom his own siblings locked their bedroom doors at night, or Mara and Dann (1999), set at the end of an ice age in a distant future of drowned cities and murderous tribes.
I believe that the chief gift from Africa to writers, white and black, is the continent itself, its presence which for some people is like an old fever, latent always in their blood; or like an old wound throbbing in the bones as the air changes. That is not a place to visit unless one chooses to be an exile ever afterwards from an inexplicable majestic silence lying just over the border of memory or of thought. Africa gives you the knowledge that man is a small creature, among other creatures, in a large landscape.
—Doris Lessing, Preface to African Stories
Nineteen pages into The Story of General Dann and Mara’s Daughter, Griot and the Snow Dog, Mara dies giving birth. So much for the resourceful heroine of Mara and Dann, the plucky Mahondi princess on the run with her crazy brother from the drought-stricken heart of Ifrik to the ice cliffs of the Middle Sea, with whom, in a future as immeasurable and remote as the prehistoric past, we had crossed half a continent of white bones, singing beetles, and burning sand, only a step ahead of famine, scorpions, slavers, and death squads. Except for poppy smoke and banshee wail, Lessing is done with her.
So much too for what Lessing called an “adventure,” but which added up, by nudge, wink, and ninja kick, to something more original. It’s not just that Mara and Dann seemed to rehearse all of immemorial Africa—savannas, gorges, femurs, shamans, soldiers, refugees, empires, necrologies, genocides, and other affidavits of atrocity—and to catalog as well volcanic cataclysms in deep readings of ice caps, carbon clouds, and fossil dumps. It seemed also to rehearse every which way we tell these stories, in chronicles, almanacs, calendars, scriptures, theses, and screed, before deciding to be a fairy tale and apologue.
Thus as the ice grip on Yerrup thawed and desert gained everywhere in Ifrik, we followed seven-year-old Mara and three-year-old Dann from the murder of their parents, their abduction by strangers, and their childhood in hiding, on a rough passage north into the traumatic experience of barracks, brothels, and prisons; of earthquakes, flash floods, fire storms, civil war, and slave labor. While competent Mara made cheese, candles, and community, bipolar Dann, between losing his sister in a game of chance and losing his mind to drugs, killed enough civilians to become a general. “Immensities” troubled their dreams, and humiliating intuitions of their own “smallness,” as well as garbled tales from ancient texts about operatically unhappy characters with names like Mam Bova and Ankrena. But when they finally got north enough—Morocco? Tunisia?—to arrive at the legendary “Centre,” they found priestly clerks awaiting their prophesied appearance, out of drought, into rainbows.
Mara and Dann fabled itself to a fare-thee-well. There was a magic cloak, a designated nemesis, gold coins, evil twins, black towers, even a labyrinth, a counterplot, and a restoration fantasy. Not that Lessing, a Sister Grimm, admits of happy endings. If her 1999 novel accused its century of specializing in refugees, in forced relocations of the outcast and anathematized, it never suggested that any other century had been nicer. If Dann’s ancestors seemed to him omniscient (“There were people once—they knew everything. They knew about the stars…they could talk to each other through the air…compared to them we are beetles”), yet these know-it-alls, staring up from drowned cities, immured like woolly mammoths in blue ice, were just as dead as their epigoni. After 12,000 years of civilization, war was still the end of every story, “the ways of war became crueller and more terrible,” and a punishing ice age was what we deserved.
Read more >>>