Archive for November, 2021

Olga Tokarczuk: The Books of Jacob

November 30, 2021

     ‘Literature is a particular type of knowledge, it is… the perfection of imprecise forms.’ I love that.

I’ve been waiting a couple of years for this one finally to come out in English, and I resisted buying the French translation a year ago because I wanted Jennifer Croft’s English version. She’s translated other Olga Tokarczuk novels so well, and I was not disappointed here: she creates atmosphere and tone consistent with her other successes, and I felt I was reading the same Olga, if you see what I mean. Not knowing Polish well enough to read it means I can’t comment on the ‘feel’ of the translation, but this doesn’t alter the fact that translators are really important.

Nor is it possible to summarise the plot of a 900+ page novel, so I shan’t even attempt. Suffice it to say it centres around an eighteenth century Jewish heresy in Eastern Poland led by Josef Frank, who presented himself as the Messiah and urged his followers to accept Christian baptism. Wikipedia is your friend here if you want more details. The whole is also set against the backdrop of the beginning of the collapse and dismemberment of the Polish Commonwealth. But there’s so much more besides, with Tokarczuk’s familiar erudition and digression on display throughout. I found myself thinking at one point, is this Poland’s take on magic realism, with her blend of history and fiction?

I have to admit that this book will not be to everyone’s taste, as the arcana of Judaism and Jewish history is pretty pervasive; at times it all felt a little rambling and self-indulgent, but this did not put me off. It is a book to lose yourself in, a bit like Flights, where you are never quite sure where you are heading next. I thought of Tristram Shandy at times, the endless shaggy dog story; sink into it and go with the flow. It took me a fortnight.

You would have to say it’s a particularly Polish novel, with the focus on time and place, as well as a religious novel in some ways. There is the concept of the Messiah to wrestle with: Christians have had one, but the Jews not, so how will they know when theirs finally comes? And because considerable parts of the novel are set on what was then the border between the Polish Commonwealth and the Ottoman empire, Islam, the third religion of the book, also figures a good deal.

It’s very easy to see why traditional Polish Catholics hated and denounced this book on its publication. Tokarczuk is genuinely interested herself and through her characters in all sorts of heretical and semi-heretical notions; it’s a philosophical and theological minefield for a Catholic reader, as she validates elements of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. And interestingly, too, when it comes to the Catholic Church interrogating Josef Frank and his followers to see if they are genuinely seeking to be united with the one true church, the questioning style and behaviour of the inquisitors is – deliberately – reminiscent of the behaviour of Communist party interrogators during various purges, as they have been recorded in history books. The atmosphere is sinister, threatening, ominous; the Church has spies and agents everywhere, just like the KGB

And then there are the scenes – based on history – set in Catholic Poland’s holiest shrine at Częstochowa. We are shown religious ignorance and trickery on both sides. In the end, for me, some of the most interesting and intriguing parts of the novel were those broader explorations of the meaning of religion, spirituality and the human future in the context of eternity.

Clearly it’s not a book for everyone. If you’re curious, I’d say go for it, but it’s a challenge. It’s evident why Olga Tokarczuk is a Nobel class novelist, for what that’s worth, with this as part of her complete works. I intend to read it again, hopefully in the not-too-distant-future.

As an ex-English teacher I’m a stickler for correctness, and there were quite a few bizarre typographical offerings in this version, particularly in the area of hyphenation, where I thought there were established conventions, but hey…

Richard M Watt: Bitter Glory

November 11, 2021

     Although I bought this book some twenty years ago, I’ve only just finished it, and the timing is perfect, as today is Polish Independence Day

It’s an account of the life of the Second Republic, from start to finish – only 20 years – and I finally have a clear and detailed understanding of the country my father grew up in. The opposition between Pilsudski’s (perhaps romantic) vision of a Poland of many peoples, and Dmowski’s homeland for ethnic Poles only is there right from the outset. Josef Pilsudski’s vision was tried in the Second Republic; Roman Dmowski’s was artificially imposed and created by the Soviet Union and its puppets after the Second World War. And so we have the situation that so many of us in the Polish diaspora find ourselves.

We could have done with more maps, and better copy editing and checking of the book, but I’ll let those pass.

The task was truly Herculean: resurrect a country which had been abolished for 120 years, from three disparate parts run under three very different administrations, with a resentful Germany to the West and an unpredictable Soviet Union to the East. The Versailles conference fixed the Western borders: the East was to be a DIY affair, settled briefly and very resentfully after the 1920 war with the Soviets. So for its entire existence, the republic was hemmed in by unfinished business. The Western Allies, savaged by the Great War, didn’t really care that much.

The book is very broad in scope and detail. In particular, the ethnic and national conflicts on the Eastern borders – the Kresy – are explained and contextualised with great care, and the various approaches to the issues, crystallising in the personalities of Pilsudski and Dmowski, are also clarified. The permanently scarred relations with the former ally Lithuania are also explained. It really does become evident that for so many reasons, and not just the fault of Poles – the new Poland was not really a viable state in the long term. Perhaps that should not surprise us?

Economically, the situation was horrendous: too many peasants on too many small farms. Little industry. No coherent communications. And all was made worse by the fact that no Poles had any experience of ruling or governing. The 1920s were totally chaotic politically, through incompetence and corruption. The roots of the awkwardness of the church date from this time, in a flawed concordat with the Vatican, and of course, antisemitism was always lurking in the background, to come to the fore in the 1930s.

Which was the more dangerous potential enemy, Germany or the Soviet Union? And where were reliable allies to be found? Increasing chaos led to the virtual end of attempts at democracy by 1930 and the country was thereafter rules by authoritarian governments who exploited anti-Jewish feeling when it suited their interests, disgracefully supported and encouraged by the church. For most of the life of the republic, the military were heavily involved in government. There was scandalous trickery used to pass a new constitution in 1930, and a new rigged electoral system.

Things clearly were unravelling all over Europe as the 1930s progressed and Poland was no exception; under an authoritarian rule, swaggering at times as if it were a great power, it waited its turn to be picked off by Hitler…

It’s an exhaustive and authoritative book, with thought-provoking evaluation and conclusions. And though Watt’s picture is very dark, we must acknowledge what was achieved: Poland was brought back into existence effectively enough to survive independently for two decades, and was not to be erased from the map permanently again by the Second World War, though the epoch of the People’s Republic drew out the agony for another four decades and more. The beginnings of a modern nation-state, with national self-awareness took shape. And today’s Poland still has plenty of crocodiles to wrestle with…

COP 26: Cop-Out

November 7, 2021

Warning: politics ahead

It’s clear from the pitiful reactions in what passes for the media in our country that Greta Thunberg is yesterday’s news: all they seem to have been interested in this week is her use of four-letter words when she sang songs with fellow activists. And yet, amid all the posturing of the politicians and the clowning of our prime minister, it is through her and the other protesters that our only hope seems to shine. Why can’t we just get on and sort a few things out?

Given the will, our government could pass laws that would begin to make a real difference to our current over-use of fossil fuels, both as energy and in the production of plastics, and the amount of pollution and waste we produce.

Give food and drink retailers a couple of years, and then all single-use plastic cups, glasses, cutlery and the like are banned. There are alternatives, or we can change our habits.

Give those retailers a couple of years and then all single-trip plastic and glass drinks bottles are banned. Recyclable plastic and glass, as well as aluminium cans, should all carry a deposit. Other countries have been doing this for years: is it so hard for Britain?

Give retailers a couple of years and then all plastic packaging of fruit and vegetables in shops and supermarkets is banned. France has just passed such legislation.

Private jets should be banned. Aircraft should be capable of carrying a minimum number of passengers, or have only cargo space on board.

Internal flights within the UK should be banned. France has passed legislation restricting internal flights where trains are available. We have public transport, and if it needs improving, this must happen. People will need to plan journeys accordingly. There can be exceptions for emergencies if need be. Everyone should be allowed only one return air trip per year, to a destination of their choice. This could be marked on one’s passport, so that it could be regulated fairly. There should not be a market for people to sell the entitlements they choose not to use.

Driving should be charged by the mile. Since MOT certificates record mileage, people could pay the requisite rate based on mileage in the previous year in order to obtain their new certificate. Certificates could be brought in for new cars, without the need for the mechanical testing at 3 years plus. Electric cars could be charged at 50% of the annual rate, petrol vehicles at 100%, diesel at 150%, SUVs or large-engined cars at 200% or higher.

These charges should apply to all commercial vehicles too: this should encourage more efficient use of more polluting vehicles, or even shift some freight away from roads.

Public transport needs to be encouraged and improved. All public transport is free in Luxembourg. Austria is bringing in an annual travel card which costs 3€ per day. Small countries clearly have an advantage, but we already have zoned travel cards in London, and surely this idea could be extended. Germany already has a range of regional travel cards. It may be that government subsidy is needed initially to get such schemes off the ground. What are governments for?

Enormous amounts of energy are wasted because our housing stock is so poorly insulated. Regulations for new buildings need to be much tighter. Much more encouragement to homeowners to improve insulation of existing properties is needed.

The switch from using fossil fuels for heating and cooking is probably the one which will have the biggest financial effect on families, and this is the area where government investment and subsidy should probably be concentrated.

It’s clear that in this country we can generate a large proportion of the energy we need from renewable resources. We need to do more of this, and build more solar and wind farms. We should also develop tidal energy since we are an island, and look to more efficient ways of storing electricity in batteries. The very last thing we need is more nuclear power: the cost of this would be paid by future generations over many years, and people will resent this when they see other countries who did not go down this futile route benefitting from much cheaper power.

I’m sure like-minded readers could easily add a few more suggestions. But we need action; we need governments to take the situation seriously. They can do this by doing what they are elected for: to pass legislation, and to govern. Plenty of people are already doing their bit, but individual effort is not enough.

Jung: Memories, Dreams, Reflections

November 7, 2021

     This was a fascinating and unusual approach to autobiography. Jung does not present his life in a linear fashion, but through the recalling of significant moments and epiphanies, especially of his childhood. He gives a very powerful and detailed picture of the centrality of religion to his early years, and I quickly recognised a polymath striving to find his way through so much curiosity and so many paths of knowledge. He shows how he arrived at his earliest glimpses of the workings and power of the unconscious, and the shadow, in his life. When he moves on to his development as an analyst, we can see clearly the evolution of his therapeutic methodology, and how it has influenced the ways many current practitioners work. There is an astonishing bravery and confidence during those days of psychoanalysis in its relative infancy, almost a ‘make it up as you go along’ approach. Jung’s split with Freud is explained quite clearly: Jung could not go along with his colleague’s attribution of sexual origins to all neuroses, and quite soon was ploughing his own furrow, Freud merely being an episode in the progress of Jung’s life and work.

I find the descriptions of various cases fascinating and often wonder if such arcane and weird-sounding issues present themselves nowadays, as presented themselves to the likes of Freud and Jung, or whether today’s mental health issues are very different.

Some chapters are very challenging, both to read and to understand; Jung’s confrontation with the unconscious felt almost like an episode of madness to me, and the revelations he enjoyed reminded me of the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. I was continually astonished by his phenomenally detailed memory for his dreams and visions.

Jung’s studies, reading, researches and thinking represent an enormous work of synthesis across many fields, psychology, history, mythology, alchemy, religion, literature, and reflect the complexity both of his past and development, and through him, our understanding of that of the human race as a whole. There seems to be a much broader scope in his approach to the human mind and consciousness than in Freud’s work, as far as I can recall it. And I was intrigued – and will reflect further on this – by a sense of his influence on Philip Pullman’s vision of the afterlife as pictured in the Northern Lights trilogy…

As his life progressed, there was increasing emphasis on the importance and significance of the spiritual element, in its broadest sense, to human life, and the consequences of our neglect or rejection of this aspect of ourselves. I was also struck by Jung’s humility, in spite of the scope of his life’s achievement, by his recognition of his own, and humans’ limitations generally, and by the way he reached acceptance and contentment in his terms, as his life drew to a close.

Not an easy read, but a very thought-provoking and satisfying one.

Frieda Fordham: An Introduction to Jung’s Psychology

November 1, 2021

     I’ve been re-visiting Jung recently, and went back to this introductory text, which is quite old now (Fordham actually knew Jung towards the end of his life). Briefly I wondered why I hadn’t chosen a more recent general text, but I’m finding – perhaps because of my age – that older texts are better organised, more carefully expressed and often much better referenced; this one has an excellent glossary. I’m sure the receptiveness of our brains changes, and has been shaped by our age, and our education, too.

One thing that is quite striking is how dated some of the attitudes and behaviours ascribed to men and women sound today; Jung and Fordham were both of a particular time, and this particular flaw does not invalidate their explanations. In fact, a reaction to what we now call sexist language and attitudes is a useful touchstone in a way, for evaluating the soundness of the underlying ideas: you slow down as you read in order to argue with the text and check how sound the arguments are.

The importance attributed to the unconscious is central to Jung’s exploration and understanding of how we humans ‘work’ mentally and emotionally, and it’s stressed that the unconscious isn’t just a sort of dustbin for the unacceptable parts of us, but something far broader and deeper. Accepting that there is much going on below the surface that is an integral part of us is part of a journey to wholeness; concepts such as the animus/anima and the shadow can be helpful in furthering our self-understanding.

I had not recalled – or perhaps not noticed previously – how much Jung focuses on the second half of life, and this is surely part of the reason that I have returned to his after a good many years. Neither had I taken on board his interest in alchemy, as part of his researches, and reflecting on more recent times I wondered if he would have explored the uses of various psychotropic drugs…

Again I have been struck by the modernity in his methods of analysis, particularly the idea that the work done by analyst/counsellor and client/worker but be open, shared: both are working towards a resolution of the issues and there is no cut-and-dried interpretation to be handed down like stone tablets from analyst to ‘patient’. Such an approach is intrinsic to so much contemporary counselling and psychotherapy.

Overall I have been impressed by the breadth of Jung’s research and knowledge and the way he has attempted to synthesise so much material. It’s not the complete answer for me, but a very useful tool to have on the journey, and Frieda Fordham’s book is mostly a very lucid introduction.

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