Archive for August, 2022

Sara Wheeler: Travels in a Thin Country

August 25, 2022

     On a map, Chile does look weird, so long and narrow a country, stretching through desert almost to the Antarctic. And, for those of us of a certain generation, there are the memories of Augusto Pinochet, one of the vilest men on the planet in his day, murdering and torturing in the name of the free market and anti-communism. So I was drawn to what purported to be travels through that country, perhaps in the same way that the writer was. She certainly seems to have had a good time; me not so much. And let’s get my usual gripe out of the way at the start: poor maps. And sizeable sections of the country do not seem to feature in her travelogue at all…

Wheeler exemplifies the issues I have with recent and contemporary travellers: how is it different from tourism – not a lot – and what sort of a picture can they convey of a country? This book is so self-focused it’s hard to put together a real, continuous picture of Chile, although glimpses do emerge from time to time. She is political, and there are regular reminders of the awfulness of the Pinochet era and its effects on the nation and its people, as well as the engineering of that dictatorship by the USA; such things must not be forgotten. I still cannot bring myself to re-read Isabel Allende’s novel The House of the Spirits

Wheeler’s account of the Atacama desert, which I was really looking forward to, disappoints. It’s the driest place on the planet and a world centre for astronomy because of its clear skies; it’s a good job I knew that before I read this book. In the end there is a lack of coherent context and background to this picture of Chile; a mishmash of brief nuggets and throwaway references does not suffice, in my opinion. The writer came across as very lucky or privileged to be able to travel freely and widely, with nary a problem or a difficulty, and friends aplenty to jet in and join her whenever she was bored or needed company. I tired of the drinking exploits, too.

So, I felt very deceived by the time I got to the end of this; I was tempted to give up several times. Here was a wealthy and privileged Western tourist gadding about and having a good time, getting a few exotic places ticked off the list. I learned very little about Chile, really; I did have my prejudices about modern travel writing confirmed…

A A Milne: Winnie Ille Pu

August 14, 2022

     I have two A-levels in Latin, and was originally accepted to read Latin and French at university, but that is another story. And Winnie the Pooh was either the first or second book I ever owned as a small child. This book I acquired over thirty years ago; I’ve dipped into it occasionally, but something made me pick it up and (attempt to) read it from cover to cover. It was hard.

Having wrestled successfully with Virgil, Tacitus and Cicero – the three most challenging authors I met – I suppose I expected it to be relatively easy, a children’s book after all… It is fifty years this year since I passed the last of my A-levels, and it shows: I’ve done nothing with my Latin ever since, apart from reading church inscriptions and the inscriptions in museums or at Hadrian’s Wall, and occasionally looking at Church Latin, missals and the Vulgate and the like. So my vocab was rusty and my grammar even rustier: it was a real challenge and I think I’d be pushing it to say I understood 50%.

Of course, my prior knowledge of the stories in English helped a lot; they are classics (!) and once you’ve read them in your youth and then somewhat later to your own offspring, they are permanently etched in your memory. So there were plenty of prompts; long-forgotten vocab slowly came back, and I remembered to look carefully at the case of nouns, which helped quite a bit.

The other major difficulty was that it is a children’s book: the vocab and concepts are rather different from Ciceronian oratory, epic poetry or Roman history, so one is trying to decipher or decode something completely different. And I did find myself in absolute admiration of the translator’s work, for he – Alexander Lenard – will have been schooled in the same classical texts as I was, and yet has managed fluently to convert the stories into what felt like beautiful, flowing Latin. I didn’t dig out my ancient Latin dictionary, or even go online to look words up, realising that many of those I didn’t understand would be Pooh-related rather than Ciceronian, and so most unlikely to figure in a dictionary anyway.

A minor but enjoyable diversion, probably not one I’ll be repeating in this existence. And I was more than a little disturbed, in these PC days, at the initial desire of Pooh and Piglet to extirpate Kanga and Roo as interlopers who didn’t belong in the forest… O tempora, o mores!

Elaine Pagels: Beyond Belief

August 13, 2022

     Elaine Pagels explores some aspects of the early history of Christianity in similar vein to various works by Karen Armstrong and Geza Vermes. Here she is focusing on the time between the death of Christ and the formal codification of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman empire by Constantine in the early fourth century CE. It’s a fascinating period, and clearly there is a lot of information from those early centuries for researchers who know where to look.

What I find particularly interesting is how what seems to have been a revolutionary but fairly simple message, preached and developed by a man who was executed by the authorities as a dangerous character, evolved and developed into something rather different, ultimately one of the great world faiths with all kinds of doctrines and creeds, and penalties for the unorthodox and heretical. It’s evident that all sorts of things were going on, including battles between different interpretations of Jesus’ original message, and varying accounts of his life and work, written by people who didn’t actually know the man.

Pagels’ particular interest is the Nag Hammadi/Dead Sea Scrolls, and the various challenges and contradictions they bring to the long-accepted canon of scriptural writings. She makes clear that there was never one single, ‘pure’ early version of Christianity but a great diversity of beliefs and practices right from the start, which seems to have been inevitable in those days of slow and difficult communication. She focuses on the differences between John’s gospel – part of the canon of accepted texts – and the Gospel of Thomas, not accepted as canonical by the church. They espouse rival viewpoints, with John proposing a more church-based practice and advocating the divinisation of Jesus, while Thomas offered a more individualist approach to faith and practice; clearly, for whatever reasons, John became the preferred option and Thomas was quietly erased from history: finding God on your own was not what a church organisation wanted.

It was not a surprise to read about widespread division and controversy within a century or so of the death of Jesus. The framing of the four gospels into an accepted canon was largely the work of Irenaeus of Lyons; the focus was on John’s gospel particularly as it allowed the promotion of Jesus as divine and this shaped the development of the early church. Creation of an organisation necessitated orthodoxy for its survival in an era of persecution; by the time Constantine made Christianity the official state religion, its basic structures and beliefs had been codified, and were rather easier to enforce: the earlier and wider variety of beliefs and practices was no more.

On paywalls and censorship

August 12, 2022

I explore and read pretty widely on the internet; various RSS feeds to which I subscribe point me towards a plethora of magazine articles which may be of interest to me for all sorts of reasons. And every now and then I settle down to binge read them. But it’s getting more and more frustrating, as more and more publications put up paywalls.

I understand they are commercial businesses that need to survive. In the past they often allowed you to read a couple of articles a month free of charge and then blocked you, but increasingly I begin to read articles and then find them cut off with a demand that I subscribe, or at least set up an account; some quite bluntly lie to me and say I have already read all my free articles for the month when I haven’t read any…

So what do these publishers expect to achieve through such an approach? There are publications I now know not to bother with at all. There are some it’s worth trying occasionally, to see if they have recognised it’s a new month and will offer me an article. And there are publications like the Independent newspaper which are just plain bonkers; I set up an account and randomly it will let me sign in or not, read an article or not.

If I like a particular publication sufficiently to want to read it all, I’ll subscribe; I’ve had the paper edition of Le Monde Diplomatique through the post for over twenty years. And I subscribe to The Guardian app, for free puzzles and news without adverts. But if I’m only interested in the occasional article, then I won’t be subscribing. And this approach feels rather self-defeating, both for me and for the publications: they imply I’m a cheapskate because I won’t subscribe, or open an account and be bombarded with adverts and junk mail, and I feel almost, though not quite, as if there’s a sort of reverse censorship going on: we don’t want you to read our article.

Whatever happened to micropayments, which a few years ago were supposedly going to be the way forward? If I could read a single article in exchange for a small sum of money, I’d be handing over reasonable sums of cash in many directions, hardly thinking about it; instead, I pay nothing to anyone and get to read very little, and the magazines don’t even get to try and entice me to vote with my credit card for a full-on subscription because I can’t sample their wares.

Once upon a time, the internet promised openness and information; now I feel it’s closing doors rather than opening them, and we are moving back to the old days, where I read less widely overall, and used libraries far more, and when if I liked the look of a single issue of a magazine on the news-stand, it could be mine for a modest sum.

Surely there has to be a better way than the current one?

Joseph Conrad: Heart of Darkness

August 11, 2022

     This astonishing novel remains as enigmatic and impenetrable as ever, like its subject-matter: I studied it, along with Conrad’s other works, at university, I taught it to sixth form students, and I’ve come back to it after many years for my book group. Conrad is not much read or studied now, sadly I feel, because he has so much to say. And this particular text I have often seen referred to as racist, colonialist, offensive… and I don’t buy these interpretations.

Heart of Darkness is very short. My American paperback edition has fewer than seventy pages. And yet so much is densely packed into that brief space: there are the carefully layered levels of the narrative; the settings of Victorian London and deepest central Africa, contrasted and yet also likened to each other; the density of Conrad’s descriptive language. And that’s before we engage with the subject-matter: a steamboat journey to nowhere in search of a man who has become a myth. All the time we are wrapped in the question of understanding and not understanding, which for me is the kernel of the entire work: just how much can a white man, a westerner, comprehend of the so utterly different world of the natives whose world he invades? And what on earth do those Africans make of the strangers, the invaders, their weird machinery and brutal actions?

Conrad pushes the situation to extremes because he is questioning the crazed rush for colonies, plunder and profit that the ‘civilised’ European powers were engaged in at that time, but the question is also a more universal one: at what level, to what extent is anyone capable of understanding someone from a different nature or a different culture? Can we ever really know or share? Kurtz, the man/myth at the heart of the novella, has been driven insane – in my understanding – by the powers he has managed to acquire over the native population, and Marlow, the narrator, has fallen deeply under his spell, but is in some slight way capable of understanding Kurtz and his power.

Ar some level, I suppose the question of whether and how much we can understand of ‘the other’ is also rather meaningless, for we are what we are and have to make the best of that, although we should surely respect other cultures and traditions rather than strive to pillage and exploit them. But once again, Conrad brings me to reflect on my own particular situation. I’m half Polish. I know a fair amount of that nation’s history and my father’s family and past, I’ve visited the country a number of times. There are aspects of the country and its people I love, others I loathe, and yet I do wonder how much I really know or understand. If I had moved to live there as a student – I was offered the opportunity but didn’t take it up – would I ever have become fully Polish? Similarly, although I have lived my entire life (apart from a year) in England, I feel I can never be one hundred percent English: there are things about this island I do not like or understand. And yet I know I could not live anywhere else, and my life’s work has been centred on the study and teaching of this country’s literature, which I do feel I understand pretty well.

Conrad is enigmatic, as I said. He makes his readers think, think hard. To me it’s pretty evident that, although he may not be able to understand Africa and its people, to him what the westerners are doing there is evil, and in some ways actually insane. And I have to respect a man who is a giant of English literature, even though English was his third language.

Kim Stanley Robinson: The Years of Rice and Salt

August 8, 2022

     I’d been meaning to come back to this long novel for quite a while; it intrigued me when I first read it some twenty years ago, but it was nothing like I’d remembered it, this time around. It’s a well-written and evocative alternative history of the world covering several centuries, with a major difference: the Black Death of the fourteenth century did not kill only one third of the population of Europe, but eliminated it entirely, leaving the world to develop along a rather different track. Robinson explored potential futures focused on the Islamic, the Chinese and the Indian worlds, with a major emphasis on reincarnation thrown in…

It’s complex – obviously! – confusing, and at times annoying and rather boring; it’s clearly a tour-de-force for an accomplished writer like Robinson to imagine history on such a grand scale, but it does verge on the self-indulgent. Being a great fan of alternative history, I was inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I shan’t even attempt to summarise the plot. The absence of Europe is thought-provoking in itself, given how we and our various offshoots, the USA especially, have shaped the world as we know it. Christianity has also gone, places have disappeared, and later on, our ancient history becomes the study material for curious archaeologists from other continents.

Imagining how the Muslim world might have developed is an interesting line of development, and I wonder what the reaction of Muslim readers has been to various strands that Robinson explores. The futures he creates are largely impressionistic rather than detailed; other religions and philosophies can get stuck in a rut just like Christianity has done in numerous ways. The effect is convincing, and also frustrating at times when I felt I’d have liked rather more detail to his alternative visions…

The Chinese explore the world in the way that various European nations actually did, and Islamic scientists replicate the investigatory and experimental tracks that actually took place in the West: the Islamic science that we know to have faded rather after the Middle Ages continued to flourish. Fortunately, scientists from all nations conspire to foil the development of nuclear weapons.

Although a world without Europe is very different, Robinson inevitably must remind us that humans are humans: there is still the lust for power, much cruelty, development of weaponry and warfare: in his future the equivalent of the First and Second World Wars are telescoped into one war which lasts over sixty years. It’s a strangely riveting read, and at times I found it hard to believe that a Western writer had written it; equally, I wonder where a non-Western writer would have gone with a similar idea. Robinson philosophises about the world, about power and religion and has obviously researched his material: I didn’t ever find myself thinking, ‘this isn’t a credible development’.

The best science fiction, to my mind, makes us think about and reflect on our own world; if it goes into the future, it makes us consider our own future, too. Humans are the same everywhere, and the big question which faces us now is surely whether we can learn from our history and our mistakes or whether we are condemned to revisiting and repeating them, in which case there’s little hope left. Robinson, from a very different and unusual perspective, and in a challenging work, offers much to think about.

Siegfried Sassoon: Reconciliation

August 2, 2022

When you are standing at your hero’s grave,
Or near some homeless village where he died,
Remember, through your heart’s rekindling pride,
The German soldiers who were loyal and brave.

Men fought like brutes; and hideous things were done;
And you have nourished hatred, harsh and blind.
But in that Golgotha perhaps you’ll find
The mothers of the men who killed your son.

I only came across this poem recently: what a powerful one it is, in the light of some of his others, and its theme. After the war, there is peace, and a coming to terms with what happened before, however difficult that may be.

Sassoon creates a situation that would have been familiar to his readers; British relatives would have to travel to France or Belgium to visit either the grave of a loved one, if a grave existed, or to see the dead soldier commemorated somewhere like the Menin Gate in Ypres, or the Thiepval Memorial on the Somme. People are still making such visits today, seeking the last resting-place of an ancestor.

Is your hero in that first line innocent, or ironic, or both? (link to poem) What, exactly, is a homeless village? Do we imagine ruins, one of the lost villages of the Somme which were wiped from the face of the earth and never rebuilt? Sassoon allows the visitor, and the reader, a sense of pride in the sacrifice of a life, though he never alludes to the purpose of that sacrifice, or the meaning of that death.

The challenge is in the fourth line: think of the other side, the former enemy, too. And this is hard. I recall that in my innocent childhood days, our local parish priest had fought in the Great War and lost a leg; it was replaced by a tin prosthesis, and occasionally, if someone looked sceptical – though he walked with a limp – they would be invited to tap the leg, which sounded hollow and metallic. But what impressed me most profoundly about him was that on Remembrance Sunday he always solemnly reminded the congregation to pray for the dead Germans too. Those men also did their duty, were brave or cowardly, and died for their country as well.

The fifth line sums up the savagery of that war in a single line: humans behaving inhumanly, doing things that they no longer wish to remember. Listen to the leaden-sounding monosyllables of that line, interrupted only by the emphasis in the three-syllable hideous.

And then the judgement in the next line, directly addressed again – you – the juxtaposition of nourished and hatred, the alliteration of hatred/harsh, the lapidary blind at the end of the line: no escaping here. Yet the judgement is only implied; there is a hint that the poet understands such feelings. But we have also to remember: he was there, he saw.

The final two lines must be wrestled with. The Golgotha reference – ‘place of the skull’ in Hebrew, I think, from the gospel account of the crucifixion of Christ. Perhaps you’ll find – and perhaps only now do we reflect on the gender of the visitor Sassoon is addressing: is she female? A mother, a sister, a wife, a lover? What are those (German) mothers doing? (see Sassoon’s poem Glory of Women) Are they on the same errand? And if all are in the same situation, then the overarching humanity is surely emphasised, and we are brought back to the title of the poem.

Sassoon’s experiences in the trenches, his anger at what he saw, and the apparent indifference or lack of understanding on the part of those back home, gave him the right to challenge, to question, to confront. But what words would you use to describe the tone of this poem? For it surely is not an angry poem. Solemn? Reflective?

Think about the metre and the rhythm of the verse. Iambic pentameters, solemn; rhyming ABBA ABBA which slows down the pace of the poem as you must wait longer for the final rhyme. Only two stanzas; nothing too complex is being presented or explored here: it’s a very simple poem in a lot of ways, but the feelings and the emotions are rather harder to deal with. For me, it’s another example of Sassoon at his best.

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