Friday, July 18, 2008

terra inconcessa

Some summers ago, when I could still cast my shadow on the young trees in my garden, I was woken from dozing by a small insect buzzing around my face. I swatted it away, opened my eyes, and literally in that twinkling, saw a same-size conjunction of the insect, a passing gull, and a 747 heading out into the Atlantic; before all three separated on their separate lives.

This memory came to light on finishing reading W G Sebald's "The Rings of Saturn" again. I'd turned to Sebald's humbling yet voluptuous melancholy as a antidote to the vain and specious prolixity of Clive James' "Cultural Amnesia," a book which had really wound me up with its auteur centricity. I needed something positive to think about...

I think that "The Rings of Saturn" is best read in one sitting if you can, punctuated by nothing other than tea and calls of nature. The dense-pack text complemented by some quite remarkable ephemeral images tells around Sebald's walk through an empty Suffolk in late August 1992, and its historical, personal and meditative fallout that ranges from silk-worms to the Cold War.

As the family home of a former girlfriend, with whom I had successive operatic relationships from Cannes to Buenos Aires, Suffolk is terra inconcessa for me. Thus Sebald offers me appropriate covert ingress into its coastal landscapes and its loss.

Sebald died in a car crash in 2001.

[image of The English Channel, looking out from Kent towards the wrecking Goodwin Sands]

Tuesday, July 15, 2008


I got an uncomfortable feeling of slipperiness about Clive James in his book, Cultural Amnesia. I recalled, aptly, a passage in Borges' A book of Imaginary Beings about the creature, Baldanders (left).

Baldanders first comes to light in C16th Nuremburg. A self-descriptive German play on words ('bald' = soon, 'anders' = another), the creature is a rapid shape-shifter, a constant changeling. In 1668, in Grimelshausen's book Simplicius Simplissimus, Baldanders first appears in a forest as a stone carving of a idol, but then changes into an oak, a sow, a sausage, a meadow covered with clover, a flower; before returning to stone.

There is something similarly shifty in Cultural Amnesia - hindsight. As Borges says, "Baldanders is a successive monster, a monster in time."

Saturday, July 12, 2008

the sultan of snide

On March 17th 1662, two elderly women were hanged in Bury St Edmunds, England. Rose Cullender and Amy Deny had been found guilty of malevolent witchcraft. The prosecution case relied heavily on the 'evidence' based on the alleged victim's recall of their dreams.

On 7th October 1939, Vivian James was born in Kogarah, Australia. Due to vanity and/or machismo, he would later change his name because of a Hollywood movie.

Jorge Luis BorgesOn 3rd February 1975, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Jorge Luis Borges wrote in the Afterword to his “A Book of Sand” ("El Libro de Arena"),
"In spite of John Felton, Charlotte Corday, and the well-known words of Rivera Indarte ('It is a holy deed to kill Rosas') and the Uruguayan national anthem ('For tyrants, Brutus’ blade'), I do not approve of political assassination."
On 24th March 1976, a military junta under General Jorge Videla overthrew the Perón government in Argentina. On 19th May, Borges, Ernesto Sabato and other writers met with Videla, expressing their support for the overthrowing of the Perónista terrors, and for Videla's stating that "the development of culture is essential for the development of a Nation."

Between 1976 and 1983 an estimated 30,000 people were 'disappeared' by the Argentinian Dictatorship.

On 15th December 1983, writer Sabato became president of the newly-formed National Commission on the Disappearance of Persons, the government-established commission empowered to investigate the 'disappearance' of persons in Argentina over the previous 20 years.

In 2007, in his book “Cultural Amnesia”, (the now) Clive James published a personal diatribe against Borges, confiscating his years of creative work and judging him posthumously guilty of silence during the Dirty War of the Argentinian Dictatorship (1976-1983). A few pages back James was eulogising about Sir Thomas Browne’s “infallible sense of cadence that could operate through a whole sentence, making it a long poetic line.” So what?

Well quite a lot of ‘what’ if you bother to look…

Sir Thomas BrowneBrowne, like Borges, has enjoyed a string of admirers, particularly for his 1658 work, ”Urn Burial”. Yet Browne is not known for noisily expressing his views on the genocidal activities of the regicidal dictator and Browne contemporary, Oliver Cromwell. Browne had identified himself with the Royalists during the Civil War, and had been subsequently knighted by Charles II, so it is unlikely that he was unequivocal about Cromwell. James may be forgiven for overlooking this silence, but he cannot be forgiven for deliberately ignoring Browne’s documented unsilent role in the Bury St Edmunds Witch Trials which materially led to the deaths of Rose Cullender and Amy Deny. Then James seems to have little interest in the lives of women, of the 890 pages of Cultural Amnesia, just 37 feature women. Adding insult to death, some pages further on in his book, James describes Jean Cocteau's actual mingling with the Paris Propaganda Staffel as "not admirable," and excuses him on the grounds that "nobody died because of him." Still, 90,000 French Jews were killed in WW2.

James praises Sabato, "whose fantastic novels were dedicated to including all the horrors of the real world, and raising them to the status of dreams, so that they could become apprehensible to the imagination, which would otherwise edit them into something more easily overlooked." This sounds like the very stuff that sent two innocent women to the gallows in 1662.

James claims Sabato was unsilent during the Dictatorship (but no citations), then rather shoots himself in the foot with, "that a man so out of touch with the regime as Sabato should nevertheless have seen merit in the Malvinas adventure is a token of how indisputable the claim to the islands looked from the Argentinian side." James fails to mention the 907 people pointlessly killed in the conflict.

It may also be true that James ignored Borges’ stated position on political assassination, or he may have ruled this out of bounds of the 1976 coup - by all of 13 months. Which leads one to ask for motive behind the diatribe, pitching himself alongside Browne and Sabato at the expense of Borges. Iconoclasm for self-aggrandisement?

Sabato, Borges and VidelaThe hindsight bias of Cultural Amnesia is peppered with snide comments, evincing a failed suppression of the would-be comic within. He ridicules the clinically-blind Borges' lack of awareness of the terror with, "a cocked ear would have heard the screams (of those being tortured)". And though critical of Borges meeting with the Generals (left: Sabato, Borges and Videla), he's more than happy to brag about his meeting with Thatcher; and commenting that, "the opinions of intellectuals may be an adjunct to sound government but are no substitute for it." James comes over as the Jeremy Clarkson of criticism - a kicking pantomime horse desperately seeking attention. The attack on Borges is a most complete example of snide as whingeing vanity.

"Under all speech that is good for anything there lies a silence that is better. Silence is deep as Eternity; speech is shallow as Time." Thomas Carlyle, c 1881

Notes on the cast:

Rose Cullender (-1662) and Amy Deny (-1662) The so-called witches' trial was documented in a 1682 pamphlet, "A Tryal of Witches"
Vivian James changed his name to Clive as he felt that after Vivien Leigh played Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone with the Wind" (1939), his given name became irrevocably a girl's name no matter how it was spelled. One wonders how he came to choose Clive - Rhett would surely have been the obvious Hollywood antidote to Vivian. C S Lewis abandoned 'Clive' in favour of Jacksie, but this was on account of a road traffic accident...
Jorge Francisco Isidoro Luis Borges (1899-1986) was an Argentinian writer of short stories, essays, poetry, literary criticism, and translations. Borges has influenced the writing of Jean Baudrillard, Umberto Eco, Carlos Fuentes, William Gibson, Gabriel García Márquez, and W G Sebald.
John Felton (1595-1628) assassin of George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham in 1628, featured in Dumas' "The Three Musketeers." He was set up by "Milady." The real-life assassination of the corrupt and incompetent Buckingham turned Felton into a minor hero but did not save him from the hangman.
Charlotte Corday (1768-1793) famously assassinated Jean-Paul Marat in his bath-tub with a kitchen knife. Marat was the figurehead of the movement that would become the Reign of Terror. At her trial she said, "I killed one man to save 100,000." As if to prove this point, she went to the guillotine, after which a postmortem was carried out to determine whether she had any accomplices - by physically assessing her virginity. Neatly completing the circle with Sir Thomas Browne, Marat's heart was interred separately - in an urn...
Jose Rivera Indarte (1810-1845) was an Argentinian writer and journalist bitterly critical of Rosas' methods. His "Rosas y sus opositores" listed Rosas' alleged victims.
Uruguay's national anthem actually now has the more sanitised 'shake/tremble", "Tiranos, temblad!"
Juan Manuel de Rosas (1793-1877) was an Argentinian General infamous for killing his opponents, or even those whose did not support him. Rosas was eventually defeated and fled to England. Borges openly hated both Rosas and Perón. Along with issuing pardons to military officers for their actions during the Dictatorship, President Carlos Menem had the remains of Rosas returned from England and interred in La Recoleta, as an example of the "futility of continuing to nurture old hostilities." Such is the ocean of cultural difference that lies between us.
Ernesto Sabato (1911-) Argentinian scientist and writer, became president of the Comisión Nacional sobre la Desaparición de Personas (CONADEP) established by President Raúl Alfonsín on 15th December 1983. The commission's final report, Nunca Mas (Never Again) was delivered to Alfonsín in September 1984. The commission reported on about 9000 individual cases of disappearance out of the estimated 30,000 - fear of reprisal still reigns...
Sir Thomas Browne (1605-1682) English writer on medicine, science and religion. Author of Urn Burial (1658) - "Hydriotaphia, Urne Buriall, or a Discourse of the Sepulchrall Urnes lately found in Norfolk."
Browne also wrote, "Religio Medici," containing the passage, "It is a riddle to me, how this story of Oracles hath not worm’d out of the world that doubtful conceit of Spirits & witches; how so many learned heads should so farre forget their Metaphysicks, and destroy the ladder and scale of creatures, as to question the existence of Spirits: for my part, I have ever beleeved, and doe now know, that there are Witches; they that doubt of these, doe not onely deny them, but spirits; and are obliquely and upon consequence a sort not of Infidels, but Atheists." Religio Medici was firmly on the Papal Index, and these pronouncements from an expert witness rendered the prosecution's spectral (dreams) evidence admissible in the 1662 trials and the deaths of Rose Cullender and Amy Deny.
Browne's Urn Burial has influenced the writing of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Herman Melville, Thomas De Quincey, W G Sebald, Virginia Woolf, and Borges himself.
Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) in brief - after succeeding the English Civil Wars I and II, as Lord Protector he had Charles I executed in 1649; then after Civil War III, he set about the genocide of Irish Catholics.
Guerra de las Malvinas (1982) - The Falklands War. The futile bloody war which hastened the end of the Argentinian Dictatorship, the rebirth of Margaret Thatcher, and 907 deaths.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

such is the man’s persona*

Shashi TharoorWhile browsing in a well-stocked Delhi bookshop for some local reads, I was persuaded to buy Shashi Tharoor’s “The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone” as it would give a foreigner an insight into the India of today. So the shop owner said. As did the blurb.

I went along with the advice, happy to have found some answers. Sadly, with few exceptions, the articles in Tharoor’s well-hyped da capo collection of OpEds and essays gave me little insight into the realities of the contemporary India that would hit me in the face as I walked out of the world of the shop. Though it did generate a worrying glimpse into the mind of one who, but for the grace of god and the Security Council, nearly assumed a global mantle.

Tharoor (see his eponymous website) has had an inexorable rise to stardom since graduating from exclusive St Stephen’s, Bombay, learning how to write con tedio, and leaving India; achieving the lofty height of India’s friendly-fire candidate for Secretary General of the United Nations. If you are interested to know how impossible an aspiration that was, you only have to read his essay on the sari and its sad follow-up. Then maybe not. The UN managed to ignore the 4th Secretary General's background. Stalking saris pales into nothing in comparison...

Like many ex-pats – sorry, NRIs – Tharoor often falls into harking back. Usually critically of British occupation, partition, cold-war politics, or corruption; only occasionally to distant Golden Ages or Globalisation. But also harking forward to when (his) India becomes a tiger in the global jungle. Most irritating from a foreigner’s perspective is his incessant ingratiating posture to (his) India of today. Papering over gargantuan issues from destitution to infrastructure. Maybe I’m wrong. I only spend 4 or 5 weeks a year in India and only read all the English language Indian newspapers I can lay my hands on while there. But I am aware that my views are tempered by my cultural background.

Sir Les PattersonTharoor shares many qualities with another famous ex-pat, Australia’s former Minister for the Yarts, now Cultural Attaché, Sir Les Patterson – oozing excessive bigotry, sexism, and xenophobia. However, one doesn’t get the feeling that Tharoor has humorous intentions. Rather, he turns inside out Barry Humphries' maxim, “there is no more terrible fate for a comedian than to be taken seriously.” Such is Tharoor’s seeming ability to miss the point entirely, to ignore late C20th inclusivities, to manipulate language as if it was something semi-solid he’d found in his nose, and to play the archetypical ex-pat who’s gone left-field, that he would have had to have been invented by a Barry Humphries had he not done it himself first!

So yes, read “The Elephant, the Tiger, and the Cell Phone” as you would read John o’Farrell’s contemporary “An Utterly Impartial History of Britain.” You will discover that the latter is a funny and accurate historical critique of Britain today, while the former - well we've been there already...

*the last words in a recent unctuous screed on Tharoor.