Friday, January 30, 2015

Cúiseanna fíu

Ar feadh an bhliain seo caite, d'iarr Léna orm a tabhairt airgead eigin do charthanacht. Thúg muid chuid gach airgead. Roghnaigh muid chartanachtaí éagsulaí ar ár chuid féin.

Beidh mé líosta mó chuid féin. Ar dtús, chuimneagh mé faoi an Lakota Scoil Scamall Dearg ina hÁirinthe Iomaire Péine i nDakota Thuas. Léigh mé h-aiste ina hAmannaí Nua-Eabhrac leis mholadh acu le hagaidh a n-oibreachaí maith ag búnadh leis hÍosanachaí--chomh maith le Tionscail Bhuacaill Baile. Tá sé níos áitiúíl mo bhaile féin, i ndáiríre.

Nuair bhí mé óg, bhí maith liom ag dul ar an Leabharlann Huntington in aice leis mo bhaile. Bhí amanna go leor ag foghlaim agus ag léamh ansin, chomh buachaill fadó agus scólaire le déanaí. Is mian liom ag íoc ar ais siad.

Tá suim agam leis Tibéad ó mó óige. Mar sin, chuir mé airgead do Shábhail Tibéad. Ach, thúg siad suim go leor chun airgead a bháiliú; thabharfaidh mé go Tibet Fund an bliain seo.

Is cuimhne liom Proinsiasaigh i gCaipisíneach. Chuidaigh siad liom i gcoláiste. Tháinig go leor bráithre go dtí gCalifoirnea as Éireann ar ais ansin.

Ar deireanagh, thúg mé airgead do Vicipéid. Bím úsaid é an-coitanta ann. Sílím go féidir leat a bheith ag báint úsaid as chomh maith.

Worthy causes.

During the end of the year, Layne asked me to give some money to charity. We took a share of money each. We chose various charities on our own.

I will list my share. At the start, I recall the Lakota Red Cloud School at Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. I read an article in the New York Times with a recommendation for their good works started by the Jesuits, as is also Homeboy Industries; it is very local to my own house, in fact.

When I was young, I liked to go to the The Huntington Library near my home. There were many times learning and reading there, as a boy once and a scholar lately. I need to pay them back.

I have had an interest in Tibet since my youth. Therefore, I send money to The International Campaign for Tibet. But, they take a large amount for fundraising; I will give to Tibet Fund this year.

I remember the Capuchin Franciscans. They helped me when I was in college. Many friars came to California from Ireland back then.

Finally, I gave money to Wikipedia. I am using them very commonly. I think you may be doing so as well.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Gruff Rhys' "American Interior": Book + Music Review

At twenty-one, John Evans left his Welsh farm. Arriving in Baltimore in 1792, he set off from the Alleghany Mountains into uncharted heartland. He sought a lost tribe of Welsh Indians.

His distant descendant by a maternal uncle, Welsh musician Gruff Rhys, is best known for his singing and songwriting as a founder of Super Furry Animals, and currently as a solo artist and a member of Neon Neon. Long intrigued by his forebear, Rhys pursues Evans' path on an ambitious 2012 "investigative concert tour" up the great rivers of Mid-America into the Great Plains. It's all documented in a "psychedelic historic travelogue", an album, a film directed by Dylan Goch, and a bilingual app mingling these media from Penguin (the last not made available for this review).

"It sounds like a joke: here were a Scotsman and a Welshman employed by a Spanish king, leading a boat full of French speakers into the precarious tribal waters of the Mississippi." Furthermore, John Evans sought to rid the West of the British, reach the Pacific, capture a unicorn, grab a seashell or two as proof, and then return for a two-thousand peso reward from Spanish Louisiana's governor, at a time when British Canada threatened to sweep south into Mexico, after French Canada succumbed to the British Empire, and as the American expansion under Thomas Jefferson eyed territory which the Spanish feared losing.

Into this geopolitical arena, young Evans entered. For five years, he mapped many blank spots and tried to verify what Rhys rightly calls the "most useful invention" of Prince Madoc. Supposed to have arrived from Wales in 1170 and rumored to have spawned a clan of Welsh-speaking natives who mingled with, or were, the Mandan of the present-day Dakota states, Madoc's reputation endured. In colonial America, a few Welsh emigrants swore they had met tribesmen who answered them in their common language. Rhys labels these as "ear-witness accounts". He explains how these settlers made Madoc "a tangible hero" among those pioneers who confused, for example, Kentucky's "Padoucas" with the supposedly Welsh "Magodwys" who had perpetuated their customs in Native America. This legend had persisted from Elizabethan times. Madoc's landfall (purported at Mobile Bay, Alabama) was appropriated by the English Crown, in a concerted effort to concoct noble lineage and irrefutable prior proof that the British could lay claim to the continent their forays now forced open to conquest.

As a Welsh speaker, Rhys brings the advantage of judging not only the discredited claims for Madoc, but providing comparisons between Welsh and Native American predicaments. Both communities feature indigenous speakers of a threatened language and ancient culture. Both face a relentless pressure which shoves the natives off their homeland, erases names and memories, and which forces their political assimilation. Evans, after all, proved no friend of the British. In 1793, he had been imprisoned by the Spanish in St. Louis, who feared either an American agent or a British spy. As a patriotic Welshman, he favored American claims to the New World's frontier. But he defected on the western side of the Mississippi River to the Spanish, becoming their citizen, so as to finance a 1795 expedition. Spain wished to fend off any British takeover west of their great river border. Spain had taken vast territories from the French, and soon Spain was at war with the British again in Europe.

So, the Spanish authorities sent Evans upriver to drive off the British who infiltrated into the Midwest across a contested Canadian frontier. Evans proves in Rhys' wry telling "responsibly delusional". He charted (but did not understand the sight of) volcanoes and veered from crocodiles. He survived passing through the lands of twelve tribes of hostile reputation, and an assassination attempt by a British operative from Canada. A skilled cartographer, after nine months in the Dakotas, the diligent emigrant Evans in conscientious fashion ultimately failed to match the Mandan evidence with any Magodwys of Madoc's purported lineage. By winter of 1796, Evans turned back from near Canada when his funds ran out and weather blocked his progress westward. His luck appeared to run out, too.

Yet, his mission paid off a few years later. Evans' hosts among the Mandan and guides from the Arikara told him what he needed to draw the first map of the source of the Missouri River. He noted the presence of what we call Yellowstone, and indicated how the Rockies comprised not one but three tiers of mountain ranges. This information enabled William Clark to plot the correct course when he and Meriwether Lewis planned and carried out their own venture less than a decade after Evans.

Rhys tracks Evans on his journey, even if his firsthand manuscripts have been lost and we must rely on those who met with him, corresponded, and copied his discoveries into their own reports. In turn, Rhys largely follows Gwyn A. "Alf" Williams' similarly lively Madoc: The Making of a Myth (1979). Williams, a Marxist historian and Welsh republican, proved a masterful interpreter in print and on film of this controversial topic, debunking persistent claims by a few Celtic romantics convinced of Madoc's existence, but Rhys appears in two places I spot-checked to repeat Williams' minor errors. For example, neither the self-styled Muskogee chief, William Bowles, nor the flamboyant double- or triple-agent Brigadier General James Wilkinson were Irishmen. Both were born in colonial Maryland.

In his own account, Rhys discusses his musical interpretation of Evans' undertaking sporadically. Although Rhys is on the road as not only an adventurer and interviewer but as a working musician, a reader needs a wider sense of how this "investigative concert tour" succeeded. Mentions of appearances, scattered lyrics, and a few comments from fans gain transcription. Rhys sees the sights and relates folksy or impassioned chats. The best of these happen on the prairies with native activists, and in Louisiana among voudou haunts. But many other places blur. Some characters barely register.

Therefore, the film (to be released on DVD April 18, 2015, in the U.S.) and the album fill in what the book may allude to or skim past. Rhys' PowerPoint presentation for American audiences, his rock songs worked out on the road, and his interviews (some with English subtitles, as the documentary aired on SC/4, the Welsh-language BBC channel) enrich the experience as he retraces Evans' steps.

The concept album, appropriately homespun and often acoustic-based, but also cinematic in scope, compliments the print version. "100 Unread Messages" lists Evans' itinerary in jaunty verse. "His mind was baked just like a cake as trouble gathered 'round." It's impressive to merge Evans' accomplishments into a skiffle song, in far less than five minutes, too. The melodic "The Weather (Or Not)", "Liberty," the title track, and the spacier "The Last Conquistador" and "Lost Tribes" mix the moods familiar to Super Furry Animals' fans, spiced by varied sonic textures, sprinkled with electronics and smooth vocals. Rhys always stands out singing in his first language. "Allweddellau Allweddol" (roughly "Keyboard Key") emits childlike native, tribal chants, wrapped into an experimental tune. "The Swamp" layers keyboards and processed beats, akin to his SFA and his three past solo albums. While some of this album floats along into its plush surroundings and threatens to drift away, the storyline manages to transfer Evans' vision into digital files through Rhys' skill in multimedia. These sixteen tracks can stand apart from the book or film, but Rhys' triple telling deserves full exposure.
(The film's trailer typifies the visual presentation; so does the array of platforms on the project site and, from the album itself, the title track video.)

"Iolo" gallops along as if a string-sweetened, synthesizer-warbling soundtrack for Evans' wild flight, when he was chased away by the Lakota. An anthemic "Walk into the Wilderness" precedes the pedal-steel, country-tinged musings on "Year of the Dog" and "Tiger's Tail". These demonstrate Rhys' knack for converting pop tropes into lush arrangements that try to evade predictability or repetition. "That's Why" picks up the pace, helped by guest drummer from The Flaming Lips, Kliph Scurlock. "Sugar Insides" resembles the Lips' congenial eclecticism, in fact. "Cylchdro Amser" (roughly "Circle Time") appropriately spins beyond temporal limits Rhys measures, as Evans' life orbits away.

Nobody knows what Evans looked like. So, Rhys in typically sly fashion commissions a three-foot "John the Avatar" as a felt doll. Rhys carries it with him as he traces Evans' five-year quest into the northwest as it was known, or not known yet, to Europeans. Intriguing vignettes parallel Evans' separation from his society, as Rhys encounters contemporary folks, native and other Americans, who warn of global warming and corporate control. A few still seek solace on the river, or in a simpler existence lived off of the grid, away from the urban gridlock. At one point, so far removed in places a map had yet to fill in, Evans was the most isolated white man on the entire continent, Rhys reckons it.

Throughout, as Rhys shows in genial but earnest manner, Evans faced challenges as he tried to prove what reality showed as false. Madoc was verified as only myth, when the Mandan failed to chatter in Evans' first language of Welsh. The dream ended, Evans returned on a sixty-eight day voyage down the Missouri River, 1800 miles to St. Louis. He tried working as a surveyor, but the fractious territory bristled with Frenchmen abandoned by their nation's loss to Britain. The Spanish tried to keep their hold on a region where the Americans and the British infiltrated to assert their own imperial claims. This left Evans no opportunity for an easy occupation. Rhys tries to track down Evans' ultimate fate.

In New Orleans, where Evans was monitored by a suspicious Spanish governor uneasy to let such a skilled frontiersmen loose in dangerous times to spill his secrets to a rival power, he succumbed to delirium by 1799. Whether due to depression after his long adventure's denouement, malaria, alcohol, or more than one cause, Evans met a humble and early end. No grave remains. Most documents in his own hand probably were thrown overboard by pirates looting the ship on which the Spanish, departing after the Louisiana Purchase, had loaded up treasures to safeguard in their Florida redoubt. While Evans' tale has been scrutinized by previous scholars, Rhys admits he has found a bit to add to Evans' saga, given their common language, and thanks to Rhys' recent archival research in Seville.

Out of his thin family tie, on a search for origins, Rhys connects with Evans poignantly. It's in an eerie, prescient form left for the reader, listener, or viewer to witness. (Here, I prefer the book to the film, as it evokes more sensitively Rhys' epiphany as he seeks Evans' final destination, if he rests near the site of New Orleans' notorious Storyville.) Beforehand, in a meeting conveyed well on both page and screen, Rhys visits Keith Bear, a Mandan flute player. Bear envisions the fabled dragon of the Welsh flag as combining mythic with real, out of a creature half-earth and half-air. Truths conjured from fables create their own power, spurring Evans and Rhys on to cross paths with native tribes, once hoped for as evidence of a utopian, hybrid heritage. The Welsh imagined a few natives in America had forged a congenial community and that they had lived as inheritors of Welsh customs, for hundreds of years. Out of such suppositions, the true and the imaginary create a kind of "common" sense, even if this conceit fails as commonsense. This expresses an elusive awareness beyond mere fact. In American Interior's multimedia endeavor, as innovative as an app, as venerable as an old map inspiring an epic, Gruff Rhys honors his ancestor, Ieuan ab Ifan (renamed John Evans by the English), as natives do. Rhys and Evans share, two centuries apart, a tribal Welsh vision quest.
Project's website
Artist's website
(This appeared on PopMatters 12-18-14 as "A Multimedia Tale of a Welsh Vision Quest")

Monday, January 26, 2015

Evangeline Walton's "Mabinogion Tetralogy": Book Review

This retelling of the Welsh Mabinogi, acclaimed as one of the best fantasies of the 20th century, finds a long-overdue reprinting in a single volume from Overlook Press. I review the 2002 printing; the volume appeared with a better cover in 2012. As a teenager, I always meant to read the Ballantine four-volume paperback box set, part of the revival by that press of worthy tales post-Tolkien, but somehow I forgot. Inspired by two sources, Morine Krissdottir's 2007 biography of John Cowper Powys, and David Goodway's enthusiastic acclaim in "Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow" for Powys' "Porius," I started that even longer epic but paused three chapters in as it reminded me of Walton.

I had to start with her fiction dramatizing the tension between the Old Tribes (akin to pre-Celts, indigenous inhabitants of Britain) and the New (as in the Celts, although they are not named as such), and hints of even newer religions emerging in very far off lands that one day will seek to wipe out tribal faiths and undermine traditional beliefs and customs over all these isles and more. Powys praised Walton's 1936 debut, originally called "The Virgin and the Swine." It met with no wider success then. While not the best title for the masses, the symbols of commodified woman and coveted magic pigs both fit her emphasis, cleverly teased out and elaborated by her into druidic rituals and Pythagorean cosmologies), of the clash between Old Tribe "conservatives" affirming free love and no bonds between men and women, and the New Tribes, who insist on marriage to lock women into their increasingly patriarchal system, one which traps both sexes into lifelong commitment. It's surprising for that time period, but very congenial with Powys' own take on tribal times. Both Walton and Powys imaginatively delve into this cultural strife, and both elaborate the battles both physical and spiritual, sexual and tribal, between those who push empire or impose rule, and those who fumble to try to attain a more individually based, and erotically liberating, lifestyle.

It's livelier in Walton than this summary sounds. Renamed "The Island of the Mighty" after Betty Ballantine finally tracked Walton down in the 1960s to learn that she had written three other installments, which precede it in this omnibus, the series was published in roughly chronological order as to its narrative in the early 1970s. "The Prince of Annwn" starts off splendidly with the weird hunt, the bargain with forces beyond, and it progresses smartly into the epic fight in the Underworld.

Her prose carries the action along, yet pauses for insight, and commentary. "Blackness terrifies; it is sightlessness, it blinds a man and hides his enemies; yet the darkness within the earth is warm and life-giving, the womb of the Mother, the source of all growth. But in snow or in white-hot flame nothing can grow. Whiteness means annihilation, that end from which can come no beginning." (18)

However, Walton leavens the mythic tone by making her characters believable, and taking down a peg the boasts of legends. "The Mabinogi says that no house or ship could hold him, though if that tale has not grown in the telling, houses and ships must have been very small then. One thing seems certain: Bran was very big." (153) Lightening the tone of much of the original, wit proves welcome.

Poetry fittingly enters into a Welsh setting. "At night the stars, watching those many bright fires upon the once dark earth, must have wondered and searched the sky for a gap in the constellations, shivering lest they too should fall." (164)  This is early in the second book, "The Children of Llyr," which describes the stubborn rivalries that will tear apart not only the Mighty Island but Erinn too.

My favorite hero in this section? A brave starling who speaks. Amidst the war, powerfully evoked. "Dawn found them there, gray men fighting amid gray shadows; as perhaps every man who fights in war fights a shadow, the death that he sees as death because it sees him as death; so that out of their common passion for life all are turned into its foes and kill." (243) Walton subtly raises dark specters of brutality and cunning, even as she gently commemorates those who resist evil with compassion.

An eerie gray figure makes a prophecy not only the Welsh live with today, when "fair-haired invaders will sweep over all and subject us all." The power of women having been abandoned as birth is limited to their domination by men (as procreation begins to be understood by the Old Tribes), and as rebirth (a subject sprinkled deeply into these tales by Walton's hand) eventually is denied, "for ages women will be as beasts of the field and we men will rule, and practice war, our art. By it we will live--or by it, rather, we will struggle and die." (277) The earlier respite from pain gives way to pain.

Bran's prophetic head predicts, too: force will be unleashed, beyond its proper use "only to keep one man from hurting another"; and governments will elevate the masses over the individual. (289) Gods having been corrupted and cruel, people will set up government, and that in time too will threaten all.

Against this top-down oppression, happiness tries to rebound. As "The Song of the Rhiannon," part three scans the fate of a few who escape human destruction and divine vengeance. In life's plain magic, fragile and elusive hope rests. "Yet a Head that talks after being cut from its shoulders is not, if we stop to think, nearly so vast or all-moving a Mystery as the wonders of growth, or or sunrise and sunset." Walton's narrator avers: "We have made of 'natural' and 'everyday' poor words, ordinary and trite, when they should be the Word, full of awesome magic and might; of cosmic power." (348)

Unlike many who delve into this material, Walton refuses to excavate a spuriously "Celtic" artifact to parade as a proto-New Age bauble to gush about. Her story-cycle fairly examines the strengths and weaknesses of Old and New Tribes, and she judges the excesses and follies of rulers over the ruled, as well as the inevitable bickering and petty strife which appears doomed to haunt families everywhere. Even if paternity at this distant point remains a debated theory and a novel supposition that the New Tribes from Dyved appear to import into the neighboring realm of Gwynedd, it hovers.

As this theory starts to become reality, and as women begin to be vowed for life to one man, the anthology as it progresses gains momentum. The storm that assaults Dyved, the flight of the survivors, the increasing despair of their lives, the poignancy of death, as a few seek to rally magic against cunning power, set up the entry of the last and longest portion. "The Island of the Mighty" feels at first more archaic, having been written nearly forty years before. Some spellings of Welsh names differ, and the register of the prose seems more hesitant in the first chapters of volume four.

Then, the excitement grows: the punishment meted out to impetuous Gilvaethwy and scheming Gwydion, their three transformations, the fate of Pryderi, the spite of Arianrhod, the odd births of Llew, Dylan, and Blodeuwedd, the predicament of Goronwy, and the final rounds of cunning retribution. All these resound. While fantasy looms over all and magical spells proliferate, Walton wisely sticks to the everyday, if that adjective works, reactions of confounded characters trying to survive. This reliable set of plot complications drives the last few hundred pages along swiftly.

A generation gap widens. "For it is a strange thing that the most intimate relations of our lives, those which hold our holiest and deepest loves, should also be innate antagonisms, individual combats in the universal war that is as old as sex and as consciousness and the reproduction of life. Yet it shall be so until the day when the world is healed and the sundered halves are welded, and consciousness is more clearly and truly conscious than ever, yet has fused and melted into the One." (560-1) While I suggested above that New Age musings are absent from Walton's presentation as to "Celticisms," she admits that she interposes some slight Atlantis hints, if not named as such, to account for lore from distant times and lands, and to encourage a "stair of evolution" as Math mentions towards unity. I find hints of Platonic models, or Neo-Platonic conceptions, which on the other hand enrich these themes.

Math warns how, in suppressing these "Ancient Harmonies," the New Tribes' "recognition of fatherhood will enslave women." Either that submission by women or their hiring out of their bodies will make women "the bondmaids of men." (588) Arrayed against coercive arrangements, the consciousness of the Whole--as bees and ants possess-- contends against the individual ambition within humans who fight systematic injustice. Llew learns from Gwydion how people lost consciousness of the Whole so as to shut themselves off, to work for their own gain. In turn, this confounds systems, "for in all systems there is injustice, and one class profiting at the expense of another; and since individuals will always work for their own gain and not the system's, the suffering class will always end by turning and preying upon the other." What will eventually transpire is the winning back of a collective identity, when this "wider consciousness" into a oneness with all species and a fellowship where all creatures are known "alike for our fellow beings" will happen. (595) But "millions of ages will pass" before the world moves ahead this far. By then, who knows about human evolution? Heady topics for a rendering of medieval Welsh legend, but reason why Powys praised it.

Again and again, the "magnet and the sting" of attraction reverberate as men and women strive to first couple and then divide again. Peace must come for this to happen safely, and plenty of instances in the previous six-hundred pages, by the time Math and Gwydion muse about this, demonstrate the hazards of trust and the dangers of lust. Each side tries to devour the other, yearning (again the Platonic notion lingers) "unknowing after that lost wholeness." In the "give and take of exchange," Math observes, "through the brief moments when their flesh achieves it, life goes on and the endless round renews itself, and more souls are embodied in the world to carry on the ceaseless quest and strife." (615) This suggests also a Buddhist notion, perhaps, of clinging to the flesh and the worldly.

Requiring the desire of women for men to be buttoned-down into a life sworn only to one man sparks Llew's lament as to marriage as a "crucifying riddle: how to make painless the love between a man and a woman when love must die in one heart at a time." (704) While this saga ends without resolving this eternal question, the wisdom filling this thick book merits reflection. It's a welcome addition to the shelf, although my 2002 printing has six errors on the copyright page alone, and it has typographical slips here and there throughout the text. Finally, the fantasy genre label may confuse some expecting nothing more than swords and romance. On the other hand, the thoughtful presentation of weighty subjects, and the good-natured tone with which Walton leavens arcane lore, provides readers with a vivid immersion into an ancient time of what-ifs, made relevant for moderns. (Somewhat edited for Amazon US 8-14-2014)

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Keith Roberts' "Pavane": Book Review

Having listened to this in the Neil Gaiman Presents audiobook read by Steven Crossley, I liked the narrator's ability to convey the Dorset voices--Gaiman notes that the speaker himself hails from this corner of England. The regional focus of this around Purbeck heightens the intimacy of the stories, as they unfold in an alternative realm ca. 1968 to 1985, where the Reformation was defeated, and the Catholic Church holds sway in heavy-handed rule over a largely unchanged population still riding horses, but having rail, and limited electrical experiments, hidden from the masses.

The first story "Lady Margaret" depicts the rail, with details of the machinery, a steam-punk predecessor perhaps, this having been written in 1966. Keith Roberts integrates a tale of unrequited love, and then hooks this into later installments in the "stately dance" of the "pavane" as it unfolds leisurely over a few generations of the Strange family. I liked "The Signaller" the most, as this cohered, more or less, about the career of a boy who becomes a semaphore transmitter, the way that coded messages are sent all over the papal lands. A novel take on how without radio or telegraph, information might have been relayed from afar. That story includes a dreamlike sequence, and we start to learn about the sign of the crab. This is hinted at in "The White Boat," a girl's fascination with that vessel, and a enigmatic tale at least as heard in the audio. I found it mysterious, having only the spoken words to go on. If I had read it in print, it might have been clearer, but I favor the ambiguity.

Impending dangers clarify with "Brother John." This shows an inquisition, under "The Office of Spiritual Welfare," suppressing witches, pagans, and all who resist Rome. It starts off well, with appropriately sinister tones as the tortures crush many innocents. But this part ends as the cruelty drives that monk to revolt against this cruelty. This chapter takes a long time to evolve into what becomes a rebellion against Catholicism by the local nobility and peasants. It's a rousing martial set-up, but the narrative starts to ramble, and this tendency increases with "Lords and Ladies" and "Corfe Gate" where more machinations entangle the Purbeck Stranges and the anti-papists. I found myself drifting from these scenarios. Yet Lady Eleanor's peevishness and bravery complicate her and Crossley expresses this well. Also, battle scenes are well described and Roberts seems to relish them. The in-between revelations, on the other hand, began to move slower, making it gruff and moody.

Some critique the inclusion of pagan elements, and the replacement of Baldur and the old gods by Christ is frequently discussed by characters, if away from the ears of the clerics. But these underlying cultural foundations for me enriched the agrarian and sustained context. They add to "The Signallers" a haunting magical passage. So did one aspect I have not found many readers notice: Aqua Sulis is used for Bath, and old names like Londinium and Durnovaria. This conservatism slows progress too, even as I wondered how if Gaelic and Welsh survived on the island, (along with Latin, Norman French, Middle and Modern English) what "Celtic" was and where that persisted post-1500 or so. Roberts as in any alternative history needs not explain every bit to the nth degree, on the other hand.

The "Coda" as many observe is tacked on too rapidly, and it either needed more elaboration, or another way the information could have been conveyed, as a lot is packed into a few sentences about what happens in the aftermath of the revolts. It is lyrical and passionate, if briefly. Overall, this remains a memorable book. If I may come up with my own take, a "steam-monk" novel of invention. (1-10-15 to Amazon US)

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The British Library's "London: A Literary Anthology": Book Review

Although the handsome cover and many familiar authors may tempt browsers to judge this compilation as a pleasant holiday gift or congenial night-table companion, the contents reveal a complex presentation. Some treat London as did Daniel Defoe, as "the greatest, the finest, the richest city in the world" but as many talented writers and artists gathered within concur, this megapolis has long stood for poverty, congestion, pollution, and degradation. From medieval poets John Lydgate and William Dunbar to current observers Benjamin Zephaniah and Zadie Smith, Londoners whether native or newcomers regard its vast crowds and tall towers with dread, dreariness, and delight.

Arranged thematically by Richard Fairman, thirteen chapters begin at dawn, moving into the reactions of those entering its sprawl for the first time, then exploring its mews and squares. "In dim-lit streets, war-tired people moved slowly/ like dark-coated bears in a snowy region." So recalls James Berry, as he views"Beginning in a City, 1948" from a Caribbean immigrant's perspective.

Although the weather requires both rich and poor to bundle up, beneath this comparison, differences endure. Contrasts between the high and low life have long fascinated visitors. Consider Charlotte Brontë's protagonist from her novel Villette: "I like the spirit of this great London which I feel around me. Who but a coward would pass his whole life in hamlets; and forever abandon his faculties to the eating rust of obscurity?" This lure draws millions, over centuries, from all over. Amazing diversity endures, noted by William Blake as by Hanif Kureishi. London's narrow streets never seem to empty.

The febrile tension from crowds connects Hugh Walpole's story set on The Strand, Katherine Mansfield's depiction of "The Tiredness of Rosabel" as she comes home from work to climb four flights up to a humdrum night out of the rain, and Doris Lessing's excerpt from The Four-Gated City. This finds Martha out after dark, fearing exposure she risks passing through a red-light district on her way from Oxford Street to Bayswater Road, along Queensway towards Notting Hill. The drama of a pedestrian's passage from one district to another, subtle or dramatic, and the warren of diversions or temptations in dim side streets, recur in many of these sixty-six entries from nearly as many writers.

On first perusal, the lack of an introduction or any editorial context for the selections or authors puzzled me. It seemed a shortcoming. A small flaw is the near-absence of those who live away from the historic core of The City or the few miles near the north side of the Thames. Only Angela Carter's Wise Children speaks up for those beyond the south bank. But, the presentation of period illustrations and literary reflections, if attentively read, invites audiences to study dozens of reactions in pen and pastel to the domination of The City over one's own mental landscape. For those who have visited or who live in London, it will remind them of why many want to return there, or why some never will.

As Evelyn Waugh's satire sums it up: "all that succession and repetition of massed humanity...Those vile bodies..." A bitterness clouds many sights seen by those who record them honestly. Charles Dickens' Bleak House dramatizes a tale from a mother so poor she wishes her son had never survived his birth. Virginia Woolf's far-better off Mrs. Ambrose, in The Voyage Out, observes from Waterloo Bridge: "When one gave up seeing the beauty that clothed things, this was the skeleton beneath."

Clad in rags or cradled in finery, people never stop arriving. Jewish, Australian, Scots, and Pakistani immigrants all find their voices in these pages. Israel Zangwill and Zadie Smith may have lived a century apart. But they agree in their stories that chaotic city streets spark tension. Classes must mix, and their failure to cope with relentless demands strains relationships, in passing or permanently.

Overcrowding and inequality, worsened by the weather and the conditions which made this city for many centuries one of the world's largest also generate disease and decay. Juxtaposed chapters on disgust, plagues and fires, wartime devastation, and apocalyptic depictions of the city's downfall remind readers of the reactions writers amass to London's perpetual pride, and how it tempts fate.

Peter Ackroyd's Hawksmoor brutally conveys how the plague dissolved family ties. Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Poison Belt" and H.G. Wells' The War of the Worlds, as to doom, join Richard Jeffries' stoic description in his suitably titled portion from After London. Even less cataclysmic scenarios in The City show its force exacted upon nature. Dickens' Dombey and Son charts the immense digs that built the railroads, and if the holdouts of Stagg's Garden defy the iron horse, they may not last long.

On a thoroughfare half a century or more later, Amy Lowell at two in the morning imagines the results of a transformed London. "I stand in the window and watch the moon./ She is thin and lustreless,/ But I love her./ I know the moon,/ And this is an alien city." What has changed is constant light. Juxtaposed memorably, in the last chapter documenting London after dark, the photos and illustrations, many chosen well from the British Library's holdings, suggest a nuanced reaction to the coming of electricity. This transformed London from a few candlelit circles within foggy shadows.

"Electric lighting in the City" from The Graphic, April 1881, may cause you to beg to differ with Lowell from 1914. It shows walkers halted by the wonder of seeing what had long evaded sight. Complementing these engravings, another from the same publication evokes a supremely detailed "Bird's-eye view from a balloon" in May 1884. The attention to precision, over Westminster Abbey and the Houses of Parliament next to the sweep of the Thames, astonishes the careful eye. The people and cabs are so far away they appear as dots, and this elevation, after all, removes one from the jostle, the smells, the unpredictability of whatever the streets bring the rich and the poor. Above, one sees only a city made beautiful, from so high up that clouds float down below, over the serpentine river.

The fact that these clouds emanate from factories does not detract, somehow, from their wonder. That too, may be what makes London a place that impels immigrants to remain as residents, and which fills those same streets and attractions as it has for hundreds of years, as a destination that compels.
(PopMatters + Amazon US 12-19-14)

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

John Gross (ed.) "The Oxford Book of Essays": Review

The range of these 140 inclusions by 120 authors is considerable, but the quality varies. Many precede the 19th century, so as a representation of the duration of this form, this is a useful compilation. John Gross confesses in his brief preface how he tried to keep this to complete selections, but the length of this format, especially for earlier writers, demanded some cutting. This editorial constraint also appears to have taken its toll on more recent essays, for many here are short, and one feels the potential of a particular essayist is not shown best by the essay chosen here.

That being said, a few hours browsing these contents reveals entertainment and instruction. William James' accurate fear of "The Ph.D. Octopus" in 1903 taking over higher education, Mark Twain's caustic challenge to divine providence in "Thoughts of God," Robert Graves' uneven and curiously assembled "The Case for Xanthippe," George Orwell's measured judgement as "Reflections on Gandhi," and H.L. Mencken's takedown of a Pennsylvania steel town in "The Libido for the Ugly" all kept my attention. There is a tilt against the mercies of the Almighty which can be discerned, but this appears within the context of modern critiques of God, if in the background. As some compensation, G.K. Chesterton gets two essays and Hilaire Belloc one, although none of these are on religion. Jeremy Taylor weighs in on God's charity, James Froude on Christianity, and Charles Dickens on the sad state of churches in the City of London, too, so any claims that these contents are biased against Christianity can be balanced accordingly.

Entries such as "Bad Poets" by Randall Jarrell, Jacques Barzun on English vs. German and French, and Maurice Richardson on pen nibs, indicative of the variety in this anthology, seem too brief to matter much. A musty air permeates much of this volume,  and more context on each author and the time the essay was written could have enlightened readers likely to be unfamiliar with many of the earlier writers. This is all rather Anglocentric, and as Gross is a literary historian specializing on the early modern period of British literature, this may be a natural bias. More Americans pop up later on, but one wonders if more international authors might have survived translation and merited inclusion. But ending this 1991 compilation with the Australian poet Clive James' review of Judith Krantz' "Princess Daisy" is a sly and surprising delight, easily one of the best in this collection. (Amazon US 12-18-14)

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Gan an h-Idirlíoní raibh an h-Idirlíon againn ag ar bhaile faoi deireanach. Mar sin, chaith mé ag dul go dtí ar an leabharlann Dé Sathairn seo caite. Bhí lucht na páistí ansin, agus bhí torann go léir ar fud ann.

Dé Domhnaigh, shiul Léna agus mise go dtí do caife beag. Níl muid ag dulta ansin, ach sé in aice leis. D'ól mé cócó agus d'ól sí caife, ar ndóigh, cé gur obrigh muid ar ár ríomhairí glúine ar chéíle.

Nuair fhilleadh mé ar ais ag bhaile, léigh mé Cogadh agus Síocháin. Bhí dith orm a críochnú an úrscéal mór seo, ag deireanach. Bhí ionadh orm ag an epilog.

Bhi sé lán de plé faoi díospóireacht idir saor in aisce agus riachtanas le Tolstoy. Críochtnaidh sé féin ar feadh an dara. Ach, staidéar sé seo an-mhaith ar dtús.

Tá áthas orm a críochnú é. Measaim go raibh dhá bhliain ar thalamh agus é sin a dhéanamh. Anois, tá leabhar eile a léamh agus chun athbhreithniú a dhéanamh ar an mí seo chugainn.

Without the Internet

We did not have the Internet at our home lately. Therefore, I had to go to the library last Saturday. There were groups of children there, and there was lots of noise all around there.

Sunday, Layne and myself walked to a small café. We had never gone there, but it is close by. I drank cocoa and she drank coffee, of course, while we worked on our laptops together.

When I came back home, I read War and Peace. I had a need to finish this big novel, finally. I was surprised by the epilogue.

I was full of discussion about a debate between free will and necessity by Tolstoy. He himself finished by favoring the latter. But, he studies this very thoroughly first.

I was happy to finish it. I reckon that it was two years on and off to do that. Now, there are other books to read and to review for this next month.

Friday, January 16, 2015

Je Suis Charlie depuis deux jours

Only the Independent targeted the mix of defiance and puerility that combined in Charlie Hebdo's fatal art. That paper's front page illustrated a middle finger lifted from out of Hebdo's yellow background, its own bold frame ready to be dramatized by an inker's touch. That touch died, digit extended, surrounded by blood spilled into or as if red ink.

The New York Times refused to reprint Charlie Hebdo's often juvenile, if sometimes clever in startling or unsettling ways, determinedly satirical cartoons that led to the murders of eight artists, three police (one of Algerian descent), two more dead, and two days later, four Jewish hostages. A Yale UP book on the 2006 Danish cartoons did not dare to include those depictions. With such hesitancy by publications purporting to critically investigate this issue, I fear this leads too much to caution. While understandable, this failure of nerve lest nervousness grow may erode our liberty due to too much tolerance. Inviting discussion, as I sort through journalism, memes, and commentary I've compiled, in ‘Je Suis Charlie depuis deux jours’, (‘I Was Charlie for Two Days’), I share here an array of perspectives as I watched and participated in the spirited discussion and debate. The whole episode spanned two-plus days, but it warped rapidly online.

Jonathan Freedland at the Guardian also asserted that his paper should not reprint the images. From what I can gather, neither the Irish Times nor the Telegraph printed any of them as well. More on that as this essay continues. For now, at least Freedland also covered what in the aftermath of the attacks remains to me tellingly an under-reported aspect. Freedland asks why innocent Jews at a kosher supermarket should be held as if guilty of crimes in Gaza by the IDF. This reductionist ‘blaming the victims’ was also being marshaled to spin the Charlie Hebdo cartoonists' fate. This direction, as far as I could follow, emerged soon after the initial shock many testified to on hearing about the attacks.

First, I noticed my FB feeds and profile photos or friends fill with ‘Je Suis Charlie’ and fellow cartoonists' responses in solidarity. But, a few hours later (at least in the time lag given my ability to call up coverage and my own delay keeping up with the media blitz, for at work I had not even learned of the incident--indicative of my multicultural milieu, for better or worse, avoiding any such discussions), I found another twist. This asserted that while of course we do not justify violence, we feel sorry for those who found the caricatures offensive and racist and despicable, and we deplore their promotion, just as we would any which once darkened the pages of Der Stürmer or a tabloid.

Jay Michaelson issued a progressive's call for ‘maintaining composure in the face of anger. We should not deny the rage we feel at Jews being targeted in a kosher grocery store while they buy wine for Shabbat. That would only make the anger worse. But we should channel it into effective responses with cold, clear reason.’ This is how I first learned of the hostages taken, as this aside. I found no other posts on it, and when I scoured the NYT and LA Times websites, ‘grocery store’ in the latter led the sub-heading. After the sad standoff was over, three killers gained their martyrdom. Four Jewish shoppers had died for the sin of being caught in an ordinary business doing ordinary things hated by those who captured them; nobody else remarked on this directly in media or FB that I saw.

Christopher Hitchens took a nuanced turn on what is not found in a kosher market, and how we live with competing impulses between control and abandon. Back in 2006, he discussed the reaction to ‘the Danish cartoons’ and the refusal of most media to risk sharing them: ‘The innate human revulsion against desecration is much older than any monotheism: Its most powerful expression is in the Antigone of Sophocles. It belongs to civilization. I am not asking for the right to slaughter a pig in a synagogue or mosque or to relieve myself on a “holy” book. But I will not be told I can't eat pork, and I will not respect those who burn books on a regular basis. I, too, have strong convictions and beliefs and value the Enlightenment above any priesthood or any sacred fetish-object.’ Wise words.

Giles Fraser, speaking of sacred fetishes, linked the terrorists to the cartoonists: both as iconoclasts. As for the Enlightenment values, two days before the attacks, the cover star of that week's CH issue,  Michel Houellebecq was interviewed about his new novel (released the day of the attacks and at #1 already), which dramatises the buildup to an election in 2022 France when ‘Mohammed Ben Abbes handily beats Marine Le Pen with support from both socialists and the right.’ He claims that those ideals are lost amidst dead consumerism and capitalism, as Islam rises and perhaps Catholicism might join forces with it against secularism. It has lost its appeal as a counter to the fundamentalist upsurge.

Houellebecq goes on to tell The Paris Review: ‘My book describes the destruction of the philosophy handed down by the Enlightenment, which no longer makes sense to anyone, or to very few people. Catholicism, by contrast, is doing rather well. I would maintain that an alliance between Catholics and Muslims is possible. We’ve seen it happen before, it could happen again.’ And, ‘Islam is an image of the future. Why has the idea of the Nation stalled out? Because it’s been abused too long.’ No stranger to frank satire, I hope he is safer in Ireland than in his native land these intolerant days.

Jeff Sparrow in Australia considered a satirical cartoon published and then apologized for there during last year's Israeli incursion into Gaza. He asked how many would cheer its anti-semitic stereotypes. He distinguished defense of free speech from condoning the dissemination of such imagery: ‘you don't have to like the project of Charlie Hebdo to defend its artists from murder, just as you can uphold media workers' right to safety without endorsing the imagery they produce’.

Nigel Duara explained that this imagery reveled in a rather sophomoric intent to rankle and irritate, but being French and secular, it tried to raise everybody's hackles. In 2012, The New Yorker’s cartoon editor, Robert Mankoff, offered what was the only inoffensive cartoon possible. ‘”Please enjoy this culturally, ethnically, religiously and politically correct cartoon responsibly.” It was four black lines. An empty box.' When spaces are illustrated, how much do readers and publishers collude in doing harm by stereotype? In Irish, NÓS recalled the precedents of the Third Reich and of Punch in Victorian England in spreading depictions that we acknowledge as worthy not of satire but contempt.

The Electronic Freedom Foundation balanced the tradition of Swift and Voltaire with a caution about the restriction of rights online and off. The speed of dissemination of the cartoons complicates the role of the press, as no censors or filters can shield journalists in a ‘global field’ where they are now vulnerable. Buzzfeed showed how many British and American press outlets have cropped or blurred CH covers, while others, as noted above, refused to reproduce them.

Michael Deacon at the Telegraph suggested the terrorists did not care about the cartoons themselves, but were using this as ‘bait’ to tempt counter-measures in turn guaranteed to stoke more support for Islamic extremism. Juan Cole popularised a similar thesis that the attacks were part of a canny agenda: “'Sharpening the contradictions' is the strategy of sociopaths and totalitarians, aimed at unmooring people from their ordinary insouciance and preying on them, mobilizing their energies and wealth for the perverted purposes of a self-styled great leader.’ In passing I must testify that some on the fringes of the media had accused Israel [and the U.S.] of responsibility under a ‘false flag’ operation smacking of the Reichstag Fire, as the attacks followed France MPs seeking national recognition of Palestine. I wonder if this accusation persisted after Jewish hostages were executed.

Naomi Wolf on social media urged restraint. She shifted blame back at Western hegemony for the anger expressed against CH. Others castigated ‘white privilege’ as indulging in unwise cruelty, goading on Muslims who then lashed back out of pride and solidarity. Others wondered why American policy was not held culpable, and the pro-Israel lobby. These retorts seemed to convince many progressives. For, once the sense of what the cartoons conveyed had been (if briefly) spread on the net (if less so in much of the mainstream press), the insistence that the freedom to publish provocation was weighed against--and found wanting by many on the left--fears of impending crackdown on Muslims by Europeans beholden to NATO and the U.S.

Wolf’s rhetoric and rush of words transmitted expresses this counter-narrative: ‘So now Hollande [thanks, typo corrected] is saying “France is at war with Terror” and this exactly echoes the “global war on terror” and “we are in a war footing” language that let Bush and Obama strip an open civil society at peace of every liberty and launder billions into untraceable “War” black holes. Worst of all is the way the open peacefulness of Europe is going to be shifted into constant terror hype fearmongering and militarization with continual attacks on civil society from the state. Beware beware France you have a far worse threat facing you than terror attacks!’

Oireachtas Retort listed a litany of ‘recent curtailments of freedom of expression’ in Ireland by the media and the government, exemplifying how nations less directly involved in the struggle between Islamism and secularism also encourage compliance to the norm as imposed by censorship and ignorance. For me, having the ability to seek out offensive content is as important as having the option to choose not to seek it out. I want to decide for myself, not thanks to a mullah or mogul.

Socialist Worker issued a SWP statement: ‘The media present Charlie Hebdo as simply a “satirical magazine”. But it is not the French equivalent of Private Eye as some commentators have suggested. It may have been once, but it has become a specialist in presenting provocative and racist attacks on Islam. That does not justify the killings, but it is essential background.’ This summed up another line of counter-attack, placing the Parisian crimes within a wider geopolitical, and right-wing dimension and equating Islam with a ‘race’-based polity. This to me feels at odds with what Malcolm X saw on his hajj to Mecca, when he witnessed blue-eyed and fair-skinned pilgrims join those of many ethnicities to fulfill their Islamic duty, I note in passing.

Simon Schama reminded readers of the history of satire against potentates, pontiffs, and princes as part of European progress. After all, the liberating dimension aligning humanist opposition and secular confrontations against those who rule in the name of gods from above or of the market also merits mention. ‘The horrifying carnage at Charlie Hebdo is a reminder, if ever we needed it, that irreverence is the lifeblood of freedom. I suppose it is some sort of backhanded compliment that the monsters behind the slaughter are so fearful of the lance of mirth that the only voice they have to muffle it is the sound of bullets.’ He upholds a ‘right to ridicule’, against those who send in clowns.

Joe Sacco began by mourning his fellow cartoonists. Then he reflected on their foolhardiness. This caught the double-take of many like him in the media, a day or so after the attacks, when initial ‘Je Suis Charlie’ posts and candlelit rallies with ‘Not Afraid’ blended with the second opinions of those who realised that the responses of Muslims angered by the cartoons might be taken more seriously than those of a more privileged, and therefore suspect, class of intellectuals and humanists, and those on the right who sought any opportunity to stoke anti-Islamic slogans and actions, from the Western ‘white’ world. This did, however, tend to polarise responses, as if none in the Muslim world, wherever that spans, objected to the murders and celebrated dissent.

Andy Borowitz tweeted: ‘I guess one part of their plan that the terrorists didn't think through is now Charlie Hebdo's cartoons are being seen by millions around the world instead of a few thousand in Paris.’ While this tweet was shared by those pleased by this, others reacted that mockery had met with revenge. And some of these did not seem overly displeased by this, even as they averred that the cartoonists did not merit death for art. Their riposte echoed: what right does the colonial have to ridicule the colonist?

David Brooks at the NYT may differ from that paper's editors. He chided a double standard. ‘Americans may laud Charlie Hebdo for being brave enough to publish cartoons ridiculing the Prophet Muhammad, but, if Ayaan Hirsi Ali is invited to campus, there are often calls to deny her a podium.’ I made this same point before I read Brooks. I also wonder: many Irish a fortnight ago were angry at the BBC proposing a comedy about the Famine. How far can we push the limits of what we may find funny, but not others? Americans usually have fewer legal restrictions than elsewhere but socially, pressure continues to discourage many ‘offenses’. In Britain, ‘incitement’ is illegal for speech deemed leading to racial hatred; also, laws applying to all must be distinguished from codes applying, fairly or not, on a campus that tries to police itself apart from rest of society.

Ross Douthat takes up a defense of blasphemy. Although he and Brooks are the conservative minority at the New York Times, their stance encouraging opinions and depictions with which they disagree sustains a type of principle many liberals back away from taking to its uncomfortable limits, in a time when tolerance and sensitivity are urged, and when everyone is jittery about spreading hate. Yet, for reasons of public order and concomitant discretion in diplomatic rhetoric, this divergence from frank talk can echo when our politicians decry in Paris ‘terrorism’ without naming its context more specifically. This is another way we dance around the suppression of freedoms in the Islamic heartland. There is a ‘squeamishness,’ as Douthat's article links to in other journalism, about how many react. Part of the problem is that culture, religion, identity are all wrapped up into a massive package labelled ‘Islam’ differently than much of the secular realm, where many of us try to set religion into a category apart.

Here we turn to those not from Europe but from the Islamic world who have protested its ideology. While I raised this in exchanges with those on the left who took the ‘CH had it coming’ side, my claims that those in Islamic regimes also faced incarceration, torture, and death met with no reply other than that free speech used in such excess unwisely egged on those who, outraged, lashed back. I also challenged those sympathetic to Islamism to account for the crackdowns on those from Islamic nations who expressed opinions similar to CH. Could they be denigrated as ‘racist’ or ‘imperialist’? The pro-Islam, and somewhat anti-secular response, from those who some on the left supported is typified by this blog post, shared from Al Javieera: ‘One can condemn violence and at the same time sustain a critical stance against Charlie Hebdo. One can condemn the “asymmetric warfare” of masked gunmen and also reject racism, tyranny, and hate. One can denounce cold-blooded massacres while also unsubscribe from the horrible, orientalist titillation of Charlie Hebdo cartoons and the mental passivity of liberalism.’

Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who knows firsthand the price paid by those who provoke Islamist power, fled her Somali homeland and then from the retaliation she faced after Theo Van Gogh was murdered and she went into hiding in her adopted Holland. Therefore, she feared capitulation once more. She urged the media to reprint the cartoons. It was our duty to stand up against forces sympathetic to jihadists: ‘The more we appease, the more we indulge, the more emboldened the enemies of freedom become.’

Salman Rushdie, who escaped a sentence of death, invoked as if in Islam's name, concurred in his statement. ‘Religion, a mediaeval form of unreason, when combined with modern weaponry becomes a real threat to our freedoms. This religious totalitarianism has caused a deadly mutation in the heart of Islam and we see the tragic consequences in Paris today. I stand with Charlie Hebdo, as we all must, to defend the art of satire, which has always been a force for liberty and against tyranny, dishonesty and stupidity. “Respect for religion” has become a code phrase meaning “fear of religion.” Religions, like all other ideas, deserve criticism, satire, and, yes, our fearless disrespect.’

Maryam Namazie agreed. She cites Raif Badawi's flogging with the first round of 1000 lashes in Saudi Arabia as one of many abuses and threats against those in Islamic heartlands who speak out. ‘With the focus now on Charlie Hebdo and the crucial need and right to criticise Islam and religion, though, let us not forget the many across the globe who face execution or imprisonment for “insulting the prophet” and criticising Islam. Below you will find some examples which include Muslims, believers and atheists; the charges aim not to protect “Muslim sensibilities” as we so often hear in the west but to protect the status quo and the political power of Islamists’-- As an Iranian activist now in London, this data verifying oppression may counter the ‘racist’ or ‘imperialist’ charges brought by some on the left who decry the Charlie Hebdo content as akin to Nazi, Klan, or orientalist caricatures.

And at least some outlets like the Huffington Post printed enough of the cartoons to let us judge, rather than editors or activists or clerics, about what we could reflect upon, laugh at, or cringe from. The Daily Banter went further, showing some other outlets would not due to explicit content. The Onion, as true satire, merits a reprint of their 2012 sketch: ‘No One Murdered Because of This Image.’ Still I note that that satirical site did not include the Prophet in their send-up of holy images desecrated gleefully.

Finally, the staff at Charlie Hebdo issued this simple remark: ‘Les caricaturistes sont morts dans l'exercice de leur métier et pour notre liberté. Leur plume était leur arme.’ (‘The cartoonists are dead in the course of their trade and for our freedom. Their pen was their weapon.’) May peace prevail.
The Pensive Quill Jan. 12th 2015. Thanks to Anthony McIntyre and Carrie Twomey for publication.

P.S. Inevitably, more to share: Nick Cohen emphasises the necessary awareness to battle self-censorship: ‘European liberals ought to have stopped, as the lash fell on Badawi’s shoulders, and wondered about their queasiness at criticising the religions of the “powerless” and “marginalized”. The Saudi Arabian monarchy is all too powerful, as are the other dictatorships of the Middle East. Power depends on where you stand and who stands below you. The unemployed man with the gun is more powerful than the Parisian journalist. The marginal cleric may have a hard life, but if he sits in a sharia court imposing misogynist rules on British Muslim women he is to be feared’.

Olivier Tonneau offers a valuable insight into CH’s mission and equal-opportunity satire from its French contexts: 'A wave of compassion followed but apparently died shortly afterward and all sorts of criticism started pouring down the web against Charlie Hebdo, who was described as islamophobic, racist and even sexist. Countless other comments stated that Muslims were being ostracized and finger-pointed. In the background lurked a view of France founded upon the "myth" of laïcité, defined as the strict restriction of religion to the private sphere, but rampantly islamophobic - with passing reference to the law banning the integral veil. One friend even mentioned a division of the French left on a presumed "Muslim question".
            As a Frenchman and a radical left militant at home and here in UK, I was puzzled and even shocked by these comments and would like, therefore, to give you a clear exposition of what my left-wing French position is on these matters'….Tonneau's whole Mediapart essay merits reflection, as does this presentation, Le Monde journalist Nabil Wakim's explanation 'to my American friends'.

Max Fisher at Vox continued their critique of what they chide as Islamophobia, and also pointed out as does Tonneau the double layers at work, for better or worse, in the CH satire and 'news-mixing'. The Understanding Charlie Hebdo site places various cartoons in this perspective, as a corrective. Meanwhile, Olivier Cyran, a former staff member, confronts CH: '''Muslim bashing" dressed up as “intransigent defence of freedom of expression” has become your front-window showcase, which you take care to replenish regularly.' This stance 'allowing you to occupy a non-negligible segment of shameless Islamophobic opinion on the left.' Cyran, in a long letter documenting many cartoons, concludes: 'The machine for refining crude racism isn't just profitable, but also extremely fragile'.

Daily Kos shared a few of Cabu's CH cartoons, targeting French reactionary and state icons. See also at DK 'On not understanding 'Charlie": Why many smart people are getting it wrong.' About the sneering that replaced sympathy rapidly among some critics on the Anglophone left, Leigh Phillips at the Canadian site Ricochet takes on the standard reproach voiced as I noted above within a day or two: 'Of course the killing of journalists is a bad thing, so the argument goes, but come on, Charlie Hebdo is "a racist publication." So what do you expect? is the implicit, victim-blaming conclusion.'

Kenan Malik at the Marxist site Redline avers to the past two decades, when many leftists may promote 'a moral commitment to censorship, a belief that because we live in a plural society, so we must police public discourse about different cultures and beliefs, and constrain speech so as not to give offence'. David Riley at the Buddhist blog The Endless Further frames this hesitation for free speech within that system's fundamental aspiration to right speech: 'Where do we go from here? Do we encourage journalists to censor themselves? And if so, is it an act of tolerance, or is it just doing what the terrorists want us to do? Or, perhaps, the outrage, the defiance, the condemnation is exactly they want to see. Are we only displaying our wounds for their pleasure?' Out of another definition of the right to pleasure and to autonomy rather than conformity, Suzanne Moore takes a feminist stance. She retorts: 'don’t ask me to have respect for these kinds of fundamentalism that have none for me'.

My wife and I differ. She insists that if the cartoons targeted Jews, it'd be a very different matter, and besides, try as she might to reconcile the need for free expression with the magazine's images, she does not find them funny. For now, let's let survivors at CH have the last word, or pictures saying more than my past four-thousand or so words above, in their new issue (summed up in English).

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Patrick O'Donnell's "A Temporary Future: The Fiction of David Mitchell": Review

While often classified as a postmodernist, David Mitchell's novels fit better into other categories. Patrick O'Donnell, in the first full-length study of all six of this English writer's innovative works to date, begins by considering cosmopolitan and anthropological contexts as better suited to this protean storyteller. His books tackle the complexity of how people approach mortality. These tales blur genres, leap across time and space, and dramatize disruption, individually and communally, as threat nears.

Mo Muntervary, an Irish nuclear engineer, observes in Mitchell's first novel, Ghostwritten (1999): "Memories are their own descendants, masquerading as the ancestors of the present." Her comment reveals her creator's interest in quantum physics and relativity theory. Mitchell applies what O'Donnell labels as the tense of the "future anterior" as past events are linked to a possible future, "on which the past event depends for its significance".

This can be a difficult subject to explain. O'Donnell's study, aimed at an academic audience, focuses on temporal conditions to highlight Mitchell's contribution to current fiction. This critique, as with its sources, challenges easy explication.. Multiple perspectives and genres across the globe mix, while "both human connections and the brutal intransigency of events sporadically collide and conspire in time streaming toward what will have been". While the novels demand close attention, and while they often nonetheless prove more fluid and compelling than a scholarly representation of their contents may express, O'Donnell and Mitchell agree that the events they dramatize matter, far more than as entertainment. They articulate human predicaments, and they confront our planet's danger.

In the unpredictable island nation of monster quakes, sudden death, and mob reprisals, Number 9 Dream (2001) pays tribute to the Japan where Mitchell taught English for eight years in Hiroshima, and where he met his Japanese wife. He also pays homage to Haruki Murakami, for this unstable narrative layers disruptions across Tokyo, as encountered by a young man who may be at different moments or chapters in a James Bond-type of caper, an avatar's fantasy world, a manuscript, or a video game, to name only a few possibilities. As its title indicates, it floats about and jumps around.

Cloud Atlas (2004), Mitchell's best-known novel to date, wraps five dispersed stories, at first partially completed, around the core of a post-apocalyptic adventure set on the Big Island of Hawai'i. Then, Mitchell continues each interrupted account, concluding them in reverse order. O'Donnell relates the "character chains" which not only enrich the novel's formal innovation, but the 2012 film adaptation's own casting choices which tinker further, if fittingly, with Mitchell's fluid representations of characters who repeat in different guises over the centuries. Mitchell's subtexts of reincarnation and shape-shifting reoccur in nearly all of his novels. Pasts and futures shuffle. Narratives progress and regress. His human and post-human figures confront the depravities of capitalism, the constraints of conformity, and the notions of one's own society as the most civilized of all possible worlds.

While Black Swan Green (2006) certainly proves the most streamlined of his narrative models, it shares his scrutiny into the situations which oppress everyday people, nearer our own time. It is based loosely on some elements from Mitchell's own upbringing, for he and the protagonist were both aged thirteen in 1982, in suburban Worcestershire. Both stammer, both face divorce as their parents separate, both seek to fit into what appears an alien atmosphere, and both share a fascination with the onslaught of popular culture as experienced by ordinary men and women. Yet, this novel nonetheless resists any reduction to a straightforward coming-of-age saga or thinly disguised roman à clef.

Contrary to the treatment many give Mitchell's most accessible and apparently most ordinary novel, taking its events as a satisfying, straightforward recounting of a boy's jitters, O'Donnell finds elements recalling Austen, Dickens, and Joyce. Beneath a chronological depiction of thirteen months in a boy's maturation, the fairy-tale, initiation story, and the novel or manners appear. So do historical chronicle, fantasy touches, and hundreds of brand names, song titles, pop song lyrical snippets, books, and television programs from the early 1980s. O'Donnell places the adolescent narrator into this milieu, as his commodified and oppressive reality. Set as the Falklands War and late-Cold War NATO-Warsaw Pact tensions clouded even a lonely English schoolboy's perspective, this novel continues the pattern Mitchell has woven, one in which everyday people get tangled up in history.

As well as mystery, for as one young man had viewed "a row of screaming Russian dolls" in Tokyo, so another visitor to Japan finds himself, too, in another labyrinth, where possibilities overlap and crush. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob Van Zoet (2010) enlivens another familiar genre, that of the historical epic. O'Donnell moves beyond the critical reactions which place this long tale, set in 1799 in Nagasaki harbor as a Dutch trader tries to open up the mainland to trade, within a "stereoscopic" overlay of Asian and Western meetings, or as a post-feminist take on the Orientalist trope of an eager white man falling in love with a, coy, exotic woman. Instead, the personal and the political trip up progress. Translation garbles commercial and intimate exchanges. The lust for profit and the rush for conquest play off against confounding Japanese attempts to manipulate European delegations. Road trips, melodrama, gothic, science fiction, and romance all merge and drift apart in this vast story.

The same ingredients in The Bone Clocks (2014; see my review for PopMatters 16 Sept. 2014) swirl across six decades in the life of another English narrator from the 1980s on, as Holly Sykes finds surprises within mundane circumstances. O'Donnell again shows how Mitchell makes time elastic. In his latest novel, he dramatizes the difficulty of translating concepts, emotions, and points-of-view from one person's perspective into another. Mitchell adds a supernatural dimension. Here, he takes up religious debates, depictions of the sociology of power, late twentieth-century pop culture as trends come and go. He predicts how (a minor but relevant aspect which merited more detail in O'Donnell's critical analysis) reading audiences and literary recognition shift attentions in our own near-future.

Other critics, not cited by O'Donnell in his positive appraisal of Mitchell's fiction, regard some of the writer's efforts as not paying off in their conclusions. His novels all keep a reader turning their pages, they remain honest in their narrative sleight-of-hand, and they offer convincingly drawn protagonists. Yet, some readers and critics shut Mitchell's novels with a sensation of let-down, as if after all the dazzling legerdemain, the magical tricks fail to linger after the performance has ended. O'Donnell diligently finds in each novel the connections which link characters and events across them all (one of the best reasons to read them all in order, I advise) in subtle and playful ways. But if O'Donnell had addressed reader reception by those of us in Mitchell's audience who continue to open each of his works with hope but close them with a nagging feeling that an added effort could be made by their author, this consideration would have strengthened what is an understandable if telling weakness in this work of literary criticism. O'Donnell offers only praise for David Mitchell's diverse set of novels.

Granted, this is not to detract from a considerable achievement. Given he is only forty-five, Mitchell may likely better his present success as an author respected by critics and welcomed on the bestseller lists by readers worldwide. He continues as one of the most talented storytellers and most rewarding fabulists in contemporary fiction. The Bone Clocks handles a very intricate narrative with verve. Mitchell enlivens Holly, telling her life's story, one which for the first time in a Mitchell novel takes precedence throughout the narrative as a female presence. (Typically, this novel's cast of characters and settings overlaps, as we see Mo Muntervary reappear in her Irish home turf, fifteen years after her debut in Mitchell's fiction.) Colliding with what begins the novel (shortly after Black Swan Green) as Holly's daily routine, the clash of the Horologists and Anchorites as they wrestle over "decanting" immortality sharpens Mitchell's depiction of what may be our species' inability to match a utopian concept to a human set of weaknesses, given doubt, lust, temptation, and the profit motive.

Mitchell regards impermanence as the condition in which men and women must endure. He can present this with detachment, another reason some critics and readers get uneasy with his stance. Time, topography, and plot accumulate. They force readers to realize their implicated guilt along with that of characters like us, but as if a few decades later. The plight of the planet, weakened by ecological decay and predatory commercial, political, and social practices we encourage, implicates audiences into Mitchell's dire warnings. Crucial characters cannot be written off as escapist or as alarmist. They face an evil era. While it is close in time to ours, it is one we wish to fend off forever.

Summing up Mitchell's ambitions, O'Donnell charts patterns in six novels which may serve as models of how we can adapt to globalizing circumstances. Individually and collectively, the vexing question of how our lives may continue impels the risks Mitchell takes in each protean narrative. These demonstrate the "clearest sign of his imaginative investment in having a future" we want to create. 
(PopMatters 1-6-15; 1-8-15 Amazon US)