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Saturday, 22 June 2013

Ironic distance is a correlate of frustrated desire

This is a photo of T.S. Eliot, the American poet - from Missouri, though he ended up in London, which is a kind of defeat (like Jeffrey Smart living in Italy; pace Jeffrey) - whose work continues to be read even today, and who stands as a kind of paterfamilias next to the gathering of Modernist poets who have appeared since. He is the master of ironic distance.

While Romanticism - set in the context of the American revolution - broke out of the gates at a run, and tended to affirm individual agency, Modernism - set in the context of the rise of the professional class and of proletarian political consciousness in the 2nd half of the 19th century, and especially after the horror of WWI - tended to doubt individual agency. Modernism questions, underscores a multiplicity of possibilities, and centres on the individual as a mere component within an atomised and politically polarised community. It doesn't say 'This is what I believe in' but, rather, asks 'What is left to believe in'. These questions had already started to be asked by the late Romantics - Flaubert, Whitman, Melville, Baudelaire - in the 1850s, at the time proletarian political organisation started to solidify. In their amazing works, the late Romantics signalled formally a capacity for agency - the works were strong - while simultaneously signalling doubt about the ability of the individual to find agency in the world. Theirs was the final flowering before the appearance of the two-stream culture industry - popular culture and "high" culture - that still exists today.

The bourgeois novel had started to appear over 100 years earlier, however, as is seen in Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, which sublimates industry and prudence. But what makes the 1850s different is the awareness of the death of God. Instead of divine certainties that could be used to justify individual action, the individual was forced to make sense of his or her place in the world in the absence of a loving and all-knowing deity. The 1850s also saw the appearance of the first "art movement", in the Pre-Raphaelites, a bunch of idealistic and progressive young men who placed a label on their aesthetic choices as a rebuke to bourgeois consumerism, and as a protest against the evils of rapid industrialisation: alcohol, unemployment, poverty, starvation, homelessness.

But what values could the elites impose on the proletariat in order to counter these evils without damaging their own position? Through high culture the elites invented the literature of the common man as a kind of rebuke to laziness and dissolution, while they supplied the proletariat with a popular culture that was inferior and divorced from the engine of aesthetic innovation. So they continued to feed the proles junk food while ignoring the messages the cultural elites injected into the high-culture products they celebrated and used to impose their kind of order on the community: an aesthetic order only they bothered to understand as a correlate of the economic order only they could control. And while the Marxist dialectic focused insistently on the cash-labour nexus, no alternative kind of way of living was proposed. Instead, the cultural elites expressed their despair by retreating into ironic distance, all the while the gap between high and popular culture has widened more and more; the contemporary culture industry exploits these gaps by vigorously atomising the community along lines of taste and genre.

Pockets of affirmation have appeared from time to time, such as with the Beats in the US in the 1950s, but these are quickly stigmatised for the benefit of the proletariat, by the elites, as destructive, while other parts of the elite appropriate them for their own use. Consequently, we are left with the irony of the atomised man alongside the mindlessness of popular culture: high and low never touching, existing on parallel tangents that pass through the domain of capital like twin rivers filled with the intoxicating elixirs people in the community crave to fend off the despair they feel due to their frustrating lives of work and unceasing economic obligation.

The last decade when the individual stood a chance against the power of innovation, and the market forces that feed off it, was the 1850s. Since that time, artistic innovation has been sundered from the culture of the people and purchased by the elite, resulting in the death of the individual. Melville, Flaubert and Whitman were the last of their kind, and the first to describe the horrors of the atomised society; with them died the flame of self-determination, and from that point in time the hegemony of the common man has gained traction. La revolution s'enfuit!

Sunday, 16 June 2013

A US tradition of retributive violence

Back in 2002 my uncle presented me with an art catalogue and one of the pictures, in colour, that it contained turned out to be reminiscent of the images that we'd recently seen, courtesy of al Qaeda, streamed live - and then replayed again and again and again, like some sort of wildly-successful contemporary performance piece - on our TVs. The picture in the catalogue that so struck me is Robert Rauschenberg's 1963 "combine", Windward.


In a New Yorker article from 2005 about the artist the author talks about that time in Rauschenberg's like when he was living in a New York studio which he shared with the Merce Cunningham dance troupe:
Rauschenberg wanted to be unfamiliar with what he was doing, to keep things open until the last moment and not to work “schemingly.” He liked to think that he was collaborating with his materials, rather than trying to make them work for him, and he wanted as much as possible to keep his own feelings and tastes out of it. “I don’t want a painting to be just an expression of my personality,” he said. “I feel it ought to be much better than that.”
The silk-screen works he was working on at that time were his first to use colour, the author continues:
“I know how to describe this kind of color—delicious,” he said at one point. “It’s so glamorous. Every color is trying to be a star. At least, it doesn’t look like the work of any other painter.” The images he’d chosen were a lot like the images he would be using forty years later—Manhattan street signs, buildings, water towers, birds in flight, helicopters, clocks and dials, the Sistine ceiling, Rubens’s “Toilet of Venus,” a glass of water, a crate of Sunkist oranges. Sometimes they overlapped or crowded each other out, and sometimes he blurred them with solvent or heightened the effect with passages of acrylic paint, which he applied with rags or brushes or his fingers. “It’s as much like Christmas to me as using objects I pick up on the street,” he observed. “There’s that same quality of surprise and freshness. . . . Some images absolutely insist on being themselves no matter what you do with them. Look at this baby.” He held up to the light a screen showing the head of a bald eagle in closeup. “How’s that for authority?”
I've got an old binder of my grandfather's that contains clippings he made over the years, mainly poetry (mostly bad poetry), but in the front evidently my grandmother, who survived him by many years, thought it fit to add a clipping of her own: the front page of the Melbourne Herald, dated 25 November 1963. The headline: ASSASSIN SHOT DEAD ON HIS WAY TO GAOL. Underneath the headline are photos showing Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald, after which the accused killer of John F. Kennedy died. "I did it for Jacqueline Kennedy," Ruby is quoted saying after the event.

Rauschenberg's image and the newspaper front page in my grandfather's clipping album bring my mind back to currrent events: the PRISM scandal and Edward Snowden, WikiLeaks and Bradley Manning, and Julian Assange in London in his refuge. I also think about the secret military unit, JSOC, that the neocons - Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney - in the Bush administration put together, and distanced from congressional oversight, in the months and years after 11 September 2001; the story is detailed in Jeremy Scahill's 2013 book Dirty Wars. Along with the PRISM story, Scahill's book chronicles the appearance of a US government intent on a kind of "total war" that has deemed the internet its province supporting its clandestine "find, fix, finish" combat capability; these are the same guys who topped bin Laden in 2011 under Barack Obama's guidance. That operation, as Mark Bowden's book tells us, was possible due to the use of torture on rendered suspects, and Scahill's book chronicles even more comprehensively the kinds of unencumbered methods the US military, the CIA and JSOC have used in various places, including in Iraq.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Was Miles Franklin any good as a writer?

This is Miles Franklin, an author nobody reads who has two Australian literary prizes named after her. She looks like a wowser; a total leftie, she probably was a bit. What's my point? Well, I'm doing this blogpost because there is a piece in today's Sydney Morning Herald by Susan Wyndham, who writes regularly for the paper, in the Spectrum section, which is an excerpt from a new critical edition of a novel that won the Miles Franklin in 1992. A novel by an author nobody reads and nobody remembers. It's a slog being a feminist in Australia, but placing that piece in the paper is a little bit more than cynical, considering Wyndham's links to the paper. It's more than a touch uncritical, as is the respect that Franklin receives among Australia's sisterhood (let alone the cultural elite more broadly), although I totally understand the reasons for that. Another wonderful author that noone reads is Christina Stead, then there's the bizarrely-named Henry Handel Richardson (a pseudonym), also totally unread nowadays. Aware Australian culture-industry women fight against oblivion in the only way they can: by being uncritical.

Unlike Americans, who uncritically fawn upon their pioneering authors (such as the horrendous Mark Twain, the longwinded Longfellow and the sentimental Hawthorne), Australians pay little attention to theirs, with the possible exceptions of Paterson and Lawson. It's the same with our prominent democrats, like William Wentworth; the mercenary Macarthur, a speculator and a cad, gets all the attention. Money rules, not principle, in Australia.

And principle counted for people like Franklin and Lawson. The political ideas and the social forces that contributed to the way they lived their lives and the types of books they wrote, however, are left undisturbed by the majority of Australians, who are generally embarrassed by intellectual conversation. Real estate, though, they'll talk about until the cows come home, hence the love of Macarthur. It's a shame, but there you are, and it's the same reason why noone knows anything about Franklin and noone reads her books. I respect Wyndham for writing about unknown past winners of the Miles Franklin award - and I forgive the SMH for donating the space for it in their august vehicle - but I think it's time to ask: was Franklin any good?

Was Patrick White any good, for that matter. I personally think so, and he was innovative in a way that Franklin never even closely approached, but then again he's sort of ignored because he's a bit embarrassing after all: a homosexual and a die-hard leftie. In the case of Franklin there needs to be a bit more public discussion about why she did what she did, particularly the going-overseas thing (Stead and Richardson did the same thing, of course) and about why she wrote the kinds of books she wrote. Sure, there might be bruises. Plates might be thrown. Names will be called. Reputations shall be bruised. But our uncritical if elite celebration of Miles Franklin I personally find a bit creepy, and I think it's unhealthy too.

Critical distance and subjectivity in journalism

Dave Cohn in a piece about making news creatively invokes tropes from disciplines outside of media practice to try to find a way to address Jay Rosen's "wicked problems" challenge. Cohn, who has ties to a media startup called Circa, has his own angles that are centred on what that outfit is doing, but he makes a stab at stepping back from what we know as news in an effort to suggest ways to improve it. It's not surprising. Structural changes in news delivery and monetisation have caused the media to experience a kind of existential crisis. Rosen, moreover, has the luxury of being able to spend a lot of time musing on how to fix the problem of declining revenues, but his "wicked problems" thing has struck a chord with many. It may well be that a new approach is necessary, and it may be that "modelling the world" rather than just reflecting the way it looks, using the (flawed) ideal of objectivity, is the answer.

To step back, Cohn invokes Hunter Thompson, a legandary innovator and one of those raggedy-assed American vagabonds - like Melville, Emerson, Whitman, Steinbeck - who spent their 40 days and nights in the wilderness in an effort to find the critical distance that would allow them to "model the world" in a new way, a way that would make other people sit up and pay attention. Thompson, for his part, spent years wandering around the US and the Caribbean writing straight news in a way inspired by Steinbeck, and also writing bad novels. Thompson's breakthrough came as a reaction to putatively objective journalism, and so instead of worrying the same tired anxieties about motorcycle gangs that the mainstream had been mechanically doing for years, he immersed himself in the bikie culture and included himself as part of the story. The Gonzo method was born. It was born of a feeling of disgust at the status quo, much as Rosen's "wicked problems" idea was born. (The picture accompanying this blogpost shows a young Hunter Thomspon on a motorcycle: is that Big Sur? Hey Hunter, where's Henry Miller, where's Kerouac?)

The problem with immersive journalism is it's expensive and it takes a long time to do. But it's still possible. Look at Michael Hasting's The Operators or any of the hilarious books by Jon Ronson. In both cases, there's passion and there's the author centre stage like a movie voiceover helping the reader to make sense of what's happening by not just giving the facts but talking about the way those facts look, in a subjective sense. But it's an American innovation, the New Journalism - where Gonzo fits in - where keen young blades like Tom Wolfe went out into the broad community looking for new angles, and delivering their stories in a way that rejected the impossible objective ideal. No surprise that Wolfe now writes novels to allow him to get on top of those "wicked problems" like race relations in Florida (Back to Blood, his latest). There's a lot more that could be said about the superior honesty of subjective reporting, and about the privileging of the individual - in which French impressionism was just part of a long, historical process, as was the Declaration of Independence - as opposed to abstract ideas and the institutions that used them to maintain power in society.

It could be said, for example, that objectivity is an abstract idea that is exploited by those with power to manipulate public debates for selfish reasons. It can also be said that objectivity belongs to a past era when large, monopolistic newspaper companies tried to accommodate the entirety of the metropolitan readership by being "objective". On the other hand, objectivity has a long and glorious pedigree especially in the physical sciences, and has materially influenced the modern world, just as the idea of "service" first employed by the Catholic church led to the emergence of representative government and honest politics.

For the moment, I want to look at one of the examples that Cohn uses: the gun-control issue. This is the kind of issue that gets highly politicised, like climate change, in which process there is no longer any value in so-called objectivity since the "he said, she said" style of reporting that journalists use in order to maintain the fiction of objectivity fails dismally. Gun control is however the kind of issue that cannot be tackled by focusing exclusively on the US and debates in the US. There's a reason why those raggedy-assed vagabonds like Melville, Emerson, Whitman and Thomspon left the comfortable confines of metropolitan USA in search of critical distance. And if you want to tackle the gun control issue you desperately need critical distance. Whether this involves time-consuming, expensive but excellent immersive journalism is one thing. What it must include, however, is at least an objective survey of what's happening overseas. Americans cannot fix the problem of gun control alone. They need help, and sticking to the "all news is local" mantra is just going to get in the way. Stepping outside: now that's how to find objectivity.

Romanticism and soul music: the missing link

I've been thinking a lot about the vibrancy of popular culture in our day and especially how in popular music rhyming continues to dominate in the community's aesthetic life, although in what is sold as "high" culture particularly contemporary poetry, rhyming and metre have completely disappeared. What is considered "high" culture poetry is almost invisible in the broader community while pop music - which has its roots in American soul and, by extrapolation, in American low-church hymn singing - has a very active life in the community not only in terms of remuneration - rock musicians can become very wealthy indeed while contemporary poets often get by with access to government funding - but also in terms of how it is shared, enjoyed communally, and generally celebrated. In Australia we even had a quiz program dedicated to rock music, Spics and Specs, which ran on the ABC for years. Rock music rocks, to put it bluntly, while contemporary poetry is the concern of a dedicated few.

This split in the locus of production and consumption of culture, moreover, is a recent thing. As far as I've been able to work out, the first self-conscious "art movement" was the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, which began life in London in 1848. It wasn't the first time a bunch of young people had rejected earlier forms and themes but it was the first time those wild young men had actually put their own name to what they did. For the Romantics, for example, the use of a label came later, and was often used in a derogatory way in the media to denigrate and diminish what they were trying to do. It would be interesting to find out when it was that the word "Romantic" was first applied to such poets as Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats and Byron. Periodisation, in any case, was a purely Victorian thing. Noone before their era had ever used the word "Renaissance" or "Middle Ages", for example. The Victorians - optimistic, refined and professional - updated academia just as they improved such things as governance, respect for human rights, and public transport. It was an improving age, and the Pre-Raphaelites were on the vanguard of that process. If it was necessary to reject the corruption, lax morals, alcoholism, criminality and venality of the long century of the Georges (the Hanoverian kings, the last of whom, the louche George IV, died without any surviving children, as did his brother, William IV), it was also necessary to reject the style of painting of the preeminent exponent of that era, Joshua Reynolds. The Romantics had already rejected its literature: the smooth style and urbane subject matter of Pope was pushed aside.

From the time of the publication of the foundational Romantic text, Lyrical Ballads in 1797, to the establishment of the Pre-Raphaelites in 1848 is a mere half-century. But after those young painters made their radical statement there seems to have been a split in how culture was consumed, and it may have something to do with the rise of proletarian consciousness, and the working class politics of the era, which happened around this time. Modernist elements began to appear in art and literature also, and Modernism is nothing if not an elite concern. The 1850s saw the last great democratic works, those of Whitman, Flaubert, Melville, appear in the West. From then on - and even now - the culture you consumed told a story about who you were and how you viewed yourself in the socioeconomic sphere The 1850s evinced the last, great flowering of democratic art after which culture was used by the individual to make a personal statement, to exclude as much as to include. It was a part of the tribal dynamic that we still see operating today, although nowadays it has become even more defined and uncompromising as culture brokers - publishing houses, record companies - exploit the community's special interests to make profit from people in it. The culture industry has become rigid, stratified and polarised in a way that would have been incomprehensible to a writer such as Jane Austen, for example.

The great flowering of American popular culture, which still dominates the marketplace today, happened in the 1920s, and it was a working-class culture. Soul music took its cue from low-church hymn singing, and because it kept many of its characteristics - such as rhyme - those characteristics continue to be used in popular music today. Rhyme is part of a tradition, just like wearing trousers became popular in the Victorian age. If we want to find the source of soul music, though, we have to go back to the age of breeches, back to the great revival churches of the 18th century: the Methodists and the Wesleyans. These movements used hymn singing as a potent tonic to combat the ills of their age, and it was their prosodic style that inspired the soul singers of the 1920s. For example:

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind but now I see.

This hymn, by the evangelist John Newton, was first used in 1773, and it is this kind of lyric that continues to dominate popular music into the 21st century. And funnily enough there is a link between that aesthetic and the Romantics, in whose shadow we still live today. The picture accompanying this post is of William Cowper, a poet beloved of the Victorians (in Sydney, there are streets named after Cowper all over the place), but Cowper was also the poet the early Romantics turned to for a model when they started writing their revolutionary works.

William Wordsworth was still a 15-year-old Cumberland lad in 1785 when William Cowper’s noteworthy poem The Task was published in London but the times were filled with enough drama – the American colonial war had ended with Britain’s defeat just two years earlier; the French revolution was a mere four years away – that both the established poet and the poet-to-be would have been interested in the world in a way that was very much out-of-the-ordinary.

The long poem, which comprises six chapters and 6000 lines of blank verse, was composed while Cowper, who had suffered from a debilitating but periodic mental illness since 1763, when he had been aged about 32, was living in remote seclusion in Buckinghamshire. Cowper had earlier worked with Newton on a series of hymns that were published in 1779, the Olney Hymns. 'Amazing Grace' is one of those hymns.

As for The Task, its rambling tendency, structural vagaries, and an unusual and strong focus on images inspired by the natural world were things that struck a deep chord with young poets of the next generation, such as Wordsworth and his boon pal Samuel Coleridge, so it should be no stretch to acknowledge that when the young William decided to engage in making a long poem, The Prelude, to chronicle his education sentimentale, which would come out in 1805, and which he would continue to revise and modify for the rest of his life, he turned to Cowper for his formal model.

Cowper’s thematic innovation, though set in a traditional blank verse form, was to privilege the writer’s point of view, as well as his thoughts and feelings, so as to say, as a Renaissance or Medieval humanist might have done in other ways in other days ‘Ecco mi qua, un uomo davanti a Dio’ (‘Here I am, a man before God’). This privileging of the individual was probably what appealed to the early Romantics. For Wordsworth the relationship of the individual to God was long a matter of deep interest, as can be seen by looking at the ways he changed his 1805 poem at different points in his life. In his later years reverting to a more conventional position vis-à-vis God – no doubt making stodgy Victorian readers happy.

Funnily enough, it was Cowper that Vladimir Nabokov singled out for praise after the Russian-American writer had done an exhaustive survey of 18th century literature in aid of his own project of translating Pushkin's Eugene Onegin into English. Pushkin single-handedly invented Russian literature, and in homage Nabokov made a new translation, which came out in 1964. Nabokov decisively rejected the rhyming versions that had come out before, and to discover the kinds of prosodic forms that would have been dominant in England when Pushkin was writing his poem, he went back to the 18th century and read everything he could get his hands on.

Friday, 14 June 2013

On the cultural cringe and the infinitude of things

This is the Fisher Library Stack at the University of Sydney seen from a vantage point near the Great Hall, one of the uni's outrageous late-19th-century gothic constructions. The library dates from 100 years later at which time I was a small boy. The Stack features in my new long poem, which I've titled provisionally 'Victoriana', and the building appeals to me in the same way as the privately-funded art gallery Nabokov describes in his 1969 novel Ada - where the charge for entrance is a silver dollar and reproductions of paintings are stored in long file cabinets - since the Stack holds such a wealth of information stored in books. My ideal house would be an annex to a building such as the Stack, a private library which would grant access to members of the public for a nominal fee. Set off one side of the building, my house would have access to it via a door separate to the point of public access.

This idea stems from my attempt, in the author's note to 'Victoriana', to locate the work in progress within an aesthetic tradition, sort of like the way the colonial Victorians tried through the vehicle of architecture to situate the new university within an English tertiary education tradition - even the institution's motto, 'Sidere mens eadem mutato' ('The same mind under different stars') points in this direction. My literary models being William Cowper's 1785 The Task and William Wordsworth's 1805 The Prelude. Two things concern me. One is freighting my poem with associations distilled from reading my favourite authors from the past; am I just sublimating a personal obsession with the early Romantics as an aesthetic choice that may not, in fact, be all that accurate? Other influences might in fact be more relevant to the work I'm undertaking and because of my own lack of critical distance I may not indeed be the best person to make such assessments. So this gives me disquiet. The other thing that makes me anxious is the kind of knee-jerk stance vis-a-vis the "great masters" that you plainly see in the facade of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, which is really a very ordinary Neo-Renaissance construction built at a time, immediately prior to Federation, that hardly embodies the kinds of attitudes that I personally value in relation to art. On the building's facade names like Giotto and Michaelangelo run around the front with all the subtlety and sophistication of a 'To Let' sign placed in front of a block of apartments. You have to ask whether the designers of the University of Sydney were equally unself-aware when they decided to plug into the Gothic Revival movement in England at the time.

There is something endearing and specifically Australian about such self-conscious positioning, and I wonder if that inheres in my author's note as well, a kind of blatant self-aggrandisement that is actually motivated by cultural insecurity; the cultural cringe we're supposed to have abandoned since the 90s  at the same time as cappuccinos became widely available throughout the suburbs in our big cities, those greedy and unforgiving urban agglomerations our nation's founders - naval men all of them - situated conveniently next to the sea. Australian cities - where two-thirds of the population lives - are all about harbours, which are traditionally places that have been outward-facing, optimistic, heterogeneous and money-hungry. None of those sleepy, politically-conservative rural cities that you find throughout the United States. Our outward focus possibly tends to always require placing native cultural products within a wider context, and ideological and historical links with other, more important, places mean we're always comparing ourselves to someone else. There is no recognition as interesting, to an Australian, as one that is given to a local product by a prominent foreign person, be it in the arts or in politics.

So what books would my ideal private library contain? It would be, like Fisher's Stack, a cornucopia of world culture, a resort for the emotionally tired and the aesthetically exhausted, a place where you could really learn, for example, about everything. When I was a boy I had two episodes of spiritual panic when I descended into hysteria because I was overcome by the overwhelming complexity and vastness of creation. I remember these episodes very clearly, though I was out of my senses at the time. Perhaps my ideal library-home stands as an answer to that feeling of helplessness, a place that closely bends toward my deepest fears, an oasis of knowledge in a confusing world.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

A long poem using the rhyme scheme abab cdcd

I'm reading a bio of Edward Byrne-Jones, the Pre-Raphaelite painter right now so I'll use a woodcut of a Renaissance scribe for this post, following the example of the previous post. Reading is not all I'm doing of course. There's also a long poem in the works. The poem takes it's departure from a blogpost I did two months ago on female desire and the man's role in a woman's world. It's also heavily autobiographical, inspired in a way by Craig Sherborne's 2005 memoir Hoi Polloi.

What's notable about this long poem is the form, which is accentual-syllabic (loosely; the iambic metre tends to be observed more in the breach than in the observance, although there are always 10 syllables in each line) and rhyming (abab cdcd, though there are lots of half-rhymes). The models are Wordsworth's long early poem, The Prelude (1805), and Cowper's late long poem, The Task (1785). But unlike these models my long poem is not in blank verse, but uses the sonnet rhyme scheme of abab cdcd. It's probably something that you'd never consider if you'd not tried to write a poem in this style, but this rhyme scheme presents special challenges. With blank verse (no rhymes) or heroic couplets (aa bb cc dd) it's easy to add lines at any time. Say, for example, you complete 100 lines and then two weeks later you go back and decide to pop a few more in at some point within the poem. With blank verse you can add one, two, three, or any number of lines at any time with no problem. And with heroic couplets you can just simply pop in pairs of lines at any place as well. But the rhyme scheme I'm using resists this kind of post-factum editing. You have to keep track of the line endings, because if you miss out pairing one of them, or add in a line ending that isn't paired with a mate immediately, to fix the problem is a complete pain.

The way to make sure you've caught all the line endings is to count the lines when you've done a section. If there is an odd number of lines you're screwed. So far I've done four chapters in 322 lines. It has taken me three days to get this far. I have no specific plan at this moment as to how many chapters there will be in the poem; I'm planning each new chapter during the day and writing it in the early morning before breakfast.

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Return to poetry after several months' blogging

When I had my sequence of love sonnets professionally assessed in late January there were 29 poems, and I've since thought on what was discussed that day resulting in a number of additions and reworkings. There are now 38 poems in the sequence and I have also changed the title of the sequence from 'You' to 'Sovereign Fire', which better embodies what I have been trying to achieve. I think it does, anyway. In any case, the time that has passed since I last worked on the sequence - immediately after I spoke with Elspeth on 22 January this year - and the critical clarity afforded precisely by that passage of time, has meant a fuller thematic scope that reaches out to the reader in a more focused way.

Since March I have been spending most of my writing time on this blog, which has been very enjoyable as well as objectively useful (pageviews jumped from around 11,000 in February to around 19,000 in May; this month promises to see the total slip well past 20,000). I have covered a lot of different topics but recently, especially this month, I have concentrated on literature and, more precisely, on periodisation, which is a lot of fun. But suddenly I felt drawn back to the sonnet sequence. This is probably a result of thematic exhaustion; the periodising took me so far but I reached a kind of plateau. But above all I hate routine (although I'm a creature of habit in my daily life) and so one day I found myself reaching for Elspeth's written notes. These had finally arrived; as the March blogpost linked to above remarks, those notes failed to arrive. In fact they kept on not arriving for several months, and that was partly the reason why I stopped working on the sonnets.

That's the background to my return to poetry. As for the italicised bits in that first paragraph ...

It gets back to the issue of critical distance. In a sense, this is what separates writing you enjoy from writing you do not enjoy. Elspeth pointed to some thematic components of the original sequence that she said she wanted to see explored more extensively. I took this as a valid critical insight, and then I tried to work out how to develop one of those particular themes more fully; this was the theme of the relationship that the love object entered after ours had ended. (The entire sequence of poetry looks at a relationship as well as the narrator's own feelings toward the love object.) And there was another theme that Elspeth said she wanted to see interrogated more; this was the theme of the friendship that developed out of the relationship between the narrator and the love object. So there were two components that had been briefly introduced but not examined too closely. In the additional poems I wrote recently those themes are developed, giving a fuller thematic scope. Because they do this in order to address possible questions that a reader might generate in his or her mind (and, in fact, which did appear in Elspeth's mind when she read the sequence), the sequence now is more focused on the reader. I hope you understand all this.

The matter of the new title is interesting, furthermore, because the word 'sovereign' suddenly appeared as I was rewriting one of the very early sonnets in the sequence, in fact it was number three, originally written on 16 December 2007, and is titled 'New love'. There was a problem of gravitas in the first two quatrains of this sonnet, and also a problem of focus - how the poem bridges the gap between the reader and the writer - that was causing me to have reservations. Once I'd established the phrase "sovereign fire" though, it was easy to propagate it and use it in other places in the sequence; there are now five occurrences of the word "sovereign" in the sequence. This is a literary technique, I guess: the use of keywords to generate a sense of continuity, highlight the importance of changes that have occurred, and lend a seriousness to the whole enterprise.

As an aside, I like the use of the word "sovereign" since there is a quote in the sequence from Robert Herrick, a 17th century poet, who wrote (I think) such pretty love poetry, and who was a royalist. In fact, it was the loss of his clerical living after the army commanded by Charles I was defeated by that of the Parliament, that caused him to relocate to London and to publish there his collected poetry, which was titled Hesperides. I note these facts in my introduction, as well as the fact that my battered edition of Herrick's poems was published in London in 1902, the year Virginia Woolf was 20 years old. (Woolf's father was a historian, by the way.) The year Herrick's book appeared, 1648, of course, was a long time after Shakespeare wrote his famous sonnets. That was in the last years of the previous century. As in Herrick's case, external events - in Shakespeare's case an outbreak of the plague, which caused the authorities to shut the theatres - led that fine writer to bring out a collection of sonnets, again in London.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

The cultural-artistic moonwalk

This is the third in a series of blogposts that discuss art and its relation to the public, or, more precisely, how art is used. I think that this series started because of my critical appraisal of the way art is marketed today, with rigidly distinct spheres of influence, or loci of consumer interest. I don't think things were always like this.

The blogpost series started with 'Some notes on early speculative fiction', in which I bring attention to a couple of instances of artistic ingenuity that were overlooked by readers at the time, but that revealed themselves, in later ages, to have been prescient. In neither case, of course, can you say that the writings "changed the world", simply because noone noticed what had happened. But I think the notion of art "changing the world" is of interest because of the way art has become beholden to market forces; the question issues forth on its own once you become aware of the money dynamics. Art is funny in this way. "Great" art - art that is deemed by popular convention to contain originality or to have "said" things before the work of any other artist did - commands a higher price. This goes for books as much as for the visual arts; that first-edition Joyce your great-grandfather bought in 1925 is going to be worth a lot of money today. Art is also strange, especially in the age of modernity, because those works that eschewed the values of the market are more highly valued, now, than those that merely reflected convention. So the market appropriates artworks relentlessly, and runs like a steamroller over the values that inhere in them, turning them into mere commodities.

The second blogpost in the series, 'The children of the revolution', looked at the death of the Romantic ideal, in the 1850s, and also, at the same time, the radical split between "high" and "popular" culture. The period in which the "children of the revolution" lived is so dense with cultural signification, even today, that the works that were created at that time, especially in English literature and Continental music (particularly the Beethoven - Schubert inheritance), continue to fascinate people living now in a way that those of few other eras do.

I wanted to title this blogpost 'What is art good for?' but I understand that the scope implied by those words would be too ambitious for a single blogpost, so I changed it and decided to stick with a single cultural tendency instead: the act of looking back in order to move forward. Hence the title of this blogpost: 'The cultural-artistic moonwalk'. And I chose as the picture to accompany this blogpost a clip from an 1852 painting by Sir John Everett Millais, titled Ophelia, which many people will instantly recognise, so familiar we are with the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, an "art movement" to which Millais belonged. The date is significant because it falls right in the middle of my own tonic moment: the 1850s, when the surge of energy that had motivated the Romantics petered out, and art again became so beholden to the market that a group of young men in England decided that a new "art movement" was necessary to regain the authenticity they believed was characteristic of the true role of art. Of course, their own innovations would eventually be appropriated by the market, either through a kind of dead-handed emulation or through the act of art collecting (buying early and cheap and realising capital gains at a later date once the market caught up).

I suggest that the Pre-Raphaelites constitute the first "art movement". It was downhill all the way from then on because art became radically separated from the broader community. Art became, with the advent of Modernism, an elite concern, although that didn't stop it being deeply compromised by the market forces that it seemed always to try to subvert. Funny that. Fascinatingly, the politicisation of the proletariat occurred at the same time, and the chronicler of the proletariat, Karl Marx, was publishing his most famous works at precisely this time in history. Marx, of course, spent his whole life looking back at the past to find indications there of the nexus between labour and capital. For their part, the Pre-Raphaelites also looked back for inspiration and to embellish and furnish the aesthetic moment from which their "art movement" sprang.

Precisely, the Pre-Raphaelites rejected the popular and time-worn manner of the 18th century, and so they violently attacked the preeminent exponent of that kind of painting, Sir Joshua Reynolds; this kind of violent rejection of form is characteristic of all subsequent "art movements". To illustrate the depth of their distaste, the men turned for inspiration to Italian quattrocento art, denigrating along with Reynolds the Renaissance painter Raphael, and celebrating the artists who preceded him.

A historical perspective that is expressed in artworks is an optimistic statement because it presupposes the notion of progress: things are different now than they were before. This historical glance back was not new, indeed, in English culture, and so the Pre-Raphaelites plundering ancient literature for subject matter is not surprising at all. They enthusiastically embraced historical themes, as others had already done.

The act of looking back to mark an awareness of progress first emerged in the middle of the previous century with Horace Walpole’s gothic novel The Castle of Otranto (1764), which came out soon after Edmund Burke’s curious A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of Our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757) and at the same time as Bishop Thomas Percy’s Reliques of Ancient English Poetry (1765). The antiquary impulse and the gothic novel would culminate in the historical poems and novels of Walter Scott and in some of the poetry of Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Like Walpole, Scott also fitted out his house with bits and pieces from antiquity, making a sort of TV set full of suits of armour, heraldic items and plenty of leather. As for Coleridge, his weird poetry would subsequently energise Edgar Allen Poe, then Charles Baudelaire. After the energy of the Romantic age exhausted itself, in the 1850s, these aesthetic modes would be appropriated by popular genre fiction, starting with speculative fiction like that of Jules Verne.

Note to self: That moment in the 18th century when some writers demonstrated a sense of progress enjoyed by the broader community is worth spending more time studying. Both of the men in question were oddities, in different ways. The fabulously-wealthy Walpole - whose father was Britain's first "prime minister", a deeply corrupt and avaricious individual - never wrote another book. He spent his remaining time living in his palatial home at Strawberry Fields and writing letters to talented and intelligent women. Burke is another odd one; an Irish protestant who made his way to the bigger world of London, he leveraged the fame his 1757 work gave him and entered politics, eventually becoming a major player in the Whig party and, after the French revolution, a political conservative. Burke's words are often quoted today by people from both sides of the political divide.

It is time now to shear off from discussions of 18th- and 19th-century writers and return to the topic we started out with: the act of looking back to move forward. This brings me to a book I mentioned in one of my Monday blogposts ('Some notes on early speculative fiction'), The Swerve by Stephen Greenblatt, a book I am still in the process of reading. The book chronicles much of the lives of two men: the 1st-century-BC poet Lucretius and the 15th-century-AD bibliophile Poggio Bracciolini, a follower of the early Humanist and vernacular poet Petrarch (1304 - 1374). While Petrarch is famous nowadays for his sonnets written in Italian - following the formal lead of Dante Alighieri, who was among the first to write in the vernacular - for Bracciolini Petrarch was rather notable for his enthusiastic collecting of classical Roman and Greek manuscripts. Greenblatt's entire book is dedicated to the story of how a long poem by Lucretius was reclaimed from obscurity by Bracciolini in 1417 and - presumably, I haven't got that far yet - how it influenced people living in what we call the Renaissance.

This cultural "period" - the very idea is symptomatic of the sense of manifest destiny embodied in the 19th century, when such neat historical labels were attached to past eras - is characterised by a change in the relationship of the individual to the world. This accounts for its appeal, its artistic repleteness. (The same can be said of the Romantic period; the American revolution changed the nature of the relationship between the individual and the world. In the case of the Renaissance the change touched on his and her relationship with God, in the case of Romanticism, the change touched on his and her relationship to the state.)

The question with regard to the Renaissance is: what caused it? What role did literature play in that change? Similar questions can be asked with regard to Romanticism, of course, but I suspect that we are still in the midst of that shift today, whereas in relation to the Renaissance the process I think has already played itself out. But perhaps these concerns have already been overtaken by other events. Perhaps the point, in fact, is largely moot. Perhaps it's time to broaden the discussion and shift the boundary lines in order to accommodate the aspirations of the global South, where so many avid fine art collectors come from. For this part of the world, the Renaissance can be looked on as well with eminent distrust as with a sense of patriotism, as it was the time when colonialism by the global North emerged. As for the Romantic period, it's probably worth remembering that when Burke was writing and publishing his famous book on aesthetics England and France were locked in the first global war.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Swartz forgot that public culture has to be created first

It's passing strange that journalists continue to fail to critically analyze what Aaron Swartz aimed to do when he talked of "liberating information". Well, ok, there are some concessions to reason, for example in a feature story published a couple of days ago by the Guardian stemming from an interview with Swartz's girlfriend. The subs have put a question mark in the headline, for example: 'Aaron Swartz: hacker, genius… martyr?'. There's also scare quotes around a word in the intro: "When he tried to 'liberate' data from an academic website ..." But that's as far as the inquiry goes, which strikes me as being unbalanced, especially considering the deleterious state of publishing in the digital age. Newspapers, especially, are struggling. Magazine companies, too. Swartz should have been more sympathetic to their situation, having briefly worked for Conde Nast after it acquired Reddit in 2006.

The story also contains a link to Swartz's bizarre statement of intent of 2008, the 'Guerilla Open Access Manifesto' in which he inveigles strongly against evil corporations that "lock up" information in a way that constitutes "private theft of public culture" as though such content somehow materialised, complete and beautiful, from the zeitgeist and from relevant existing texts like the form of an ideal female in Botticelli's Birth of Venus. Public culture? Publishing corporations do, indeed, like automakers, employ mostly low-paid workers to generate the material they then sell to the public. They're called writers. Oh you forgot about them? But Swartz's manifesto does not mention writers; it's all about the corporations and the public. There's a mere vacuum, a zero, a blank space at the place where the work is actually produced. By missing a key location in the production and distribution flow - where talented, well-meaning and productive people are right now suffering material hardship - Swartz traduces the significance of his moral exercise.

Making sure writers get paid for their work should have been a priority for an idealist like Swartz, a man who spent months working in a political campaign in order to understand its workings, so that he could help to promote its goals. Working on Reddit would have given him ideas about how writers can monetise their content, surely? But what he saw was the website being bought by a corporation, and he then fled to seek other opportunities to improve things elsewhere. I'm all for improving processes and methods, don't get me wrong. But Swartz for some strange reason only saw part of the real picture, and ignored the key component in the process, the place where everything starts, where everything meaningful and useful happens.

It's also important to note that Swartz with his JSTOR exercise was focusing his attention on one part of publishing, the same part that he points to in his manifesto: academic publishing. I'm not sure why this was, but it's possibly the place where the moral outlines were clearest, since academics already get paid for doing the work that they then relegate to publishing houses like Reed Elsevier. In a real sense, those academics have been adequately remunerated for the work even before the work gets packaged for distribution to libraries around the world.

But the same cannot be said for other kinds of writers. Novelists, poets, freelance journalists, copywriters all get paid at the point of sale not, as for academics, at the point of production. And public culture would be measurably poorer without them. The laws of copyright exist to protect people like these from theft of work they create. When I think of Aaron Swartz, then, I also often think of Daniel Defoe (pic), who wrote an astonishing array of works at a time when copyright law was nonexistent, which probably accounts for his extraordinary productivity and his endlessly poor material circumstances. Defoe also had six children, but they would not have benefited from their father's efforts because any bookseller in London at the time could take Defoe's books and pamphlets and reprint them, and sell the resulting items, without giving any consideration to the originator of the work, or his heirs.

Later in the 18th century other writers, notably Samuel Johnson, would petition the government to do something to ameliorate this terrible situation, resulting in laws that protected writers and publishers from theft of original work. I challenge anyone to find a writer who disagrees with laws such as this. Those who occupy themselves exclusively with the technological aspects of digital might hold grudges against publishing corporations and even seek to find ways to subvert the economic and legal structures that support their business model. But you will never find a writer who wants to see publishers made poorer, because publishers pay writers. If one loses the other also loses out. Maybe those tech-heads who are wedded to ideas of information liberation can do something to help writers to make money from their work. In the case of journalism, the need is pressing, and someone with Swartz's political bent must see that the alternative to a strong and independent media is a journalism function that is owned and controlled by exactly those corporate interests whose power they so deeply resent. Democracy? The irony is as thick as cold engine oil.

Getting back to the matter of societal progress through information sharing, Swartz also misses a key feature of the case because the fact is that academics rarely participate in the public sphere. The reason they do not is because there is nothing to motivate them to do so. Academics seek career advancement through publishing, and so their efforts are focused on completing peer-reviewed work that can be packaged in tight, jargon-filled bundles that are then distributed through publishing companies' networks. The people who reward universities through funding keep a record of this kind of publication, and add a plus-mark against the institution that houses the originator of the published work. So both the university and the academic are encouraged to use the mainstream publishing process.

Information sharing is not just about publishing complete works, fitted with footnotes and references and bibliographies. There are other ways to share and participate meaningfully in public debates. In Australia, The Conversation website houses a team of journalists who work closely with academics from a range of universities to produce topical stories that are distributed free on the internet. The model has been very successful, and there are even rumours of a sister site starting up in the UK to serve academics living there.

Social media is another place where academics can participate and share ideas, but for the most part they do not, again, because there is no incentive for them to do so. Social media also takes time, which most academics would prefer to use to make the works that can help their careers. And it also embodies risk, as academics often are targeted for verbal abuse by unsavoury elements of the community; they're shy of sock puppets.

So while universities might want to encourage academics who work inside them to engage more actively with the broader community, they have so far failed to find a way to promote participation and sharing. These things can be good for universities for many reasons, such as helping them to attract philanthropic donations and to attract the best performing applicants. But until they find a way to reward social media participation, academics will continue to keep their distance. 

Monday, 3 June 2013

The children of the revolution

It's the helicopter scene from Jurassic Park, the 1993 Speilberg film. Imagine for a moment that you and me are sitting in the helicopter with the Jeff Goldblum character, Ian Malcom, and the Richard Attenborough character, John Hammond. As the helicopter descends into a deep crevasse tufted with jungle trees, aiming for a landing pad built deep in the forest, Malcolm and Hammond are talking about the moral implications of bringing extinct animals back to life using science applied through technology. Here's what Malcolm says to Hammond:
The problem with the scientific power you've used is it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge yourselves, so you don't take the responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you knew what you had, you patented it, packaged it, slapped it on a plastic lunch box, and now you want to sell it.
I want to bring a few dinosaurs back to life here, starting with the great innovators of America and France. Walt Whitman, for a start, a man born in 1819. His Leaves of Grass was published in 1855, around the same time as Moby Dick, which came out in 1851. This novel was written by Herman Melville, a man also born in 1819, a couple of years before Charles Baudelaire, who was born in 1821. Baudelaire's famous collection of poetry,  Les Fleurs du mal, was published in the same decade as the other two men's masterpieces, in his case in 1857. There is another dinosaur in this park as well, the polymorph Edgar Allen Poe, who was born a bit earlier than these three, in 1809. Poe constitutes a direct link between Baudelaire and what I call the "children of the revolution". The American Revolution.

Because despite how wonderful the works by these four writers are, they will  always remain the ones, in Malcolm's words, "standing on the shoulders of geniuses". On the shoulders, to be precise of the ones born around the time of the Declaration of Independence, the political manifesto of the colonies, written in 1776. They are Coleridge, born 1772, Wordsworth, born 1770 and Austen, born 1775. In fact Poe belonged to the third generation of writers whose themes and styles were impacted by the events surrounding 1776; there are a whole group of English writers - Byron (1788), Shelley (1792), and Keats (1795) for example - who were young children at around the time Lyrical Ballads was published and Northanger Abbey was written.

I'm reminded of Malcolm's words when I see someone's blogpost about getting published, which usually will contain warnings and advice about the financial aspects of writing. Because there have been few literary works as great as the ones mentioned above that came out in the 1850s - Poe's writing was published in various ways in the late 1820s and 1830s - I usually ignore links that invite clicking through to those pieces. Good advice, no doubt, but what does it mean if the only aim of publishing is to make money - package it, slap it on a plastic lunch box and sell it - when history tells us that to change the world something more is needed.

You might say that the children of the revolution were merely fortunate to have been born at the time they were. You might also say that Austen always had financial returns in her mind when she wrote - Northanger Abbey was, after all, aimed at capitalising on the booming market for gothic fiction in the 1790s and the first decade of the 19th century - but then you have to remember that Austen, apart from being the only woman among those listed, was also the only political conservative among them. In any case, she failed. Northanger Abbey was written starting in 1798, prepared for publication in 1803 and was only finally published after the author's death in 1817. It was far too radical stylistically and thematically to capture the attention of London's publishing fraternity.

So what happened after the 1850s? Modernism is what happened, the relentless search for the stylistically new and the thematically striking. All, attempts to recreate the kind of innovation introduced by the children of the revolution. And while there have been plenty of political radicals, leftists, and bohemians among the writing class in the years since then, only one stands out, and he's probably the most self-consciously radical, bohemian and unusual of them all: Arthur Rimbaud. Born in 1854, his first published work came out when he was just a teenager, but Rimbaud merely attempted to recreate the emotional state that the children of the revolution possessed in their youth due to their exposure to the zeitgeist. He knew that something extreme was needed, but it was necessary for him to make it happen from within, by himself, alone. He wanted to be a giant, which is of course a lot more than you can say for most writers published since.

See also: Vladimir Nabokov, father of Gonzo. The link between the 20th century innovators, Nabokov and Thompson, and the children of the revolution is, of course, war.

Some notes on early speculative fiction

This thread of thought started with something I saw on Google+ about Discordianism, a 20th century religion known for celebrating the Greek goddess Eris. That sparked a blogpost here where I ended up talking about the Humanist project, which got me to pull down from the bookshelf a volume I'd bought a while ago, Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve, in which he looks at the rediscovery in the 15th century, at the start of the Renaissance, of a long poem by 1st-century-BC author Lucretius titled On the Nature of Things.

Greenblatt's book is subtitled 'How the Renaissance Began', which seems to me to be a pretty large claim for a single classical text, though I've just started the book so we'll see. But there's something a bit unaware about Greenblatt's angle - the same sort of exceptionalism I've found, for example, in the work of historian Peter Ackroyd - where he raises the pitch so high that the base-notes that can tie his narrative to a broader discussion, other books in other words, disappear. The effect is unpleasant because you feel as though he's trying too hard to sell you something that might be wrong. Or, if not wrong, just overblown by enthusiasm, by a personal bias that enters the discussion due to long proximity and also due to a deep personal attachment to the text in question. But then again, Lucretius' poem's title shows that the work was pretty ambitious to start with.

I don't know if Lucretius' poem should be titled "speculative" even though as Greenblatt notes early in his book some of its ideas are distinctly modern, meaning they closely resemble realities that have been uncovered by science in the centuries since the work was rediscovered by the book hunter Poggio Bracciolini in 1417. It's probably rather better labelled "philosophical". Regardless, the Greenblatt book brought my mind back to a story I wrote in 2009, and which appeared on the website of Australian Anthill, on early speculative fiction or, rather, speculative elements that appeared in English literary works prior to the rapid run of truly speculative novels that were published starting in the Victorian age. So Jules Verne's Journey to the Center of the Earth was published in 1864 and his From the Earth to the Moon came out the following year. My discoveries predate these works.

This is how my Anthill story began:
In 1667, when John Dryden published Annus Mirabilis, London’s historical sense was heightened by tragedy. A fire had gutted the city, which was being rebuilt as people came to terms with bereavement and loss. 
It was also a time of discovery beyond the dreams of the generations that had bound the world together in a web of trade. Despite on-off war between Holland and England, scientists like Dutchman Alexandre Huygens, who discovered Saturn’s rings, were frequent visitors. 
At the Royal Society he [probably] would have met Dryden, who was also a member. Meetings such as this are behind his stanzas.
And the stanzas in question? Here they are:
Instructed ships will sail to quick commerce,
By which remotest regions are allied;
Which makes one city of the universe,
Where some may gain and all may be supplied. 
Then we upon our globe’s last voyage go
And view the ocean leaning on the sky:
From thence our reeling neighbours we shall know
And on the lunar world securely pry.
I've highlighted the relevant line. For us living in the age of space travel the line makes sense because we've all seen photos like the one that accompanies this blogpost, but for early commentators it made no sense at all. Samuel Johnson, for example, writing a gloss for Dryden's poem 100 years after it was first published, said the stanzas had “no meaning”. A nineteenth century commentator, writing 100 years after Johnson, said “it is difficult to perceive the resemblance to sense in this stanza.” My story continued:
It’s unlikely that Dryden’s work would provoke comment in the pages of our Saturday papers but we avidly consume cultural products that look to the future. 
Readers might recall the menacing sight of the Nostromo in the opening sequences of the 1979 Ridley Scott film, Alien; the intergalactic tug-towing ore transports are controlled from corporate headquarters on earth. 
So the film embellishes on Dryden’s blueprint for interplanetary commerce.
From 1667 to 1979 is a period of 312 years. Dryden's exposure to the brightest scientific minds of his generation was obviously the reason he was able to see so far into the future, but the nexus between science and literature was often close in those eras before Verne wrote his books in the industrial age of steam trains, balloon flight and fast intercontinental travel. Take another case I pointed to in my Anthill story, that of George Crabbe, the parson-poet and a favourite of Jane Austen. My story goes on:
Tales of the Hall, a book of stories in iambic pentameters by George Crabbe, was published in 1819, 40 years before Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species appeared. Yet it contains a germ of the idea that man evolved from another species.
Those stanzas go like this:
It is a lovely place, and at the side
Rises a mountain-rock in rugged pride;
And in that rock are shapes of shells, and forms
Of creatures in old worlds, of nameless worms,
Whose generations lived and died ere man,
A worm of other class, to crawl began.
Crabbe was an enthusiastic naturalist who would spend hours scouring the countryside looking for new plant species, which he would take back home, catalogue, describe, and write about to other naturalists of the time.
Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, also had some odd ideas, and expressed them in an original way. His coat of arms had three scallop shells on it and he had painted ‘E concis omnia’ — ‘Everything comes from shells’ — on his carriage. 
Erasmus Darwin was not taken seriously by the intelligentsia. In addition to being a Dissenter, he was thought to follow Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, a dangerous association to have in a time of war.
So it's not entirely surprising that Crabbe would write the lines he did; ideas that Charles Darwin described with proof in his seminal 1859 work were being talked about by some people in England generations before the young man embarked on his trip on the Beagle in 1831. What is surprising is the fact that Crabbe's admitted adherence to the doctrines of the Church of England would have meant that he had two conflicting sets of ideas to rationalise within his mind. In public as a parson he might have told one story, but in public as a poet he told another story entirely. Can Crabbe's verse be merely described as "outre"? Or was it just a stab at public opinion, something that he probably thought would be overlooked - just as Dryden's speculative verses were overlooked for hundreds of years? Personally, I think that Jane Austen would have simply passed over the lines in question. She was always more interested in the politics of personal relationships.

Not the bloody republic thing again

It looks as though Wayne Swan and Malcolm Turnbull are beating the drums to gather support again for a debate on a republic for Australia. They'll be speaking at a book launch at Parliament House today dealing with the issue. As an ALP man, Swannie has his pride, and we remember Turnbull as one of the movers in the lead-up to the conclusive 1999 referendum, on the side "for" a republic.

While many people will be again looking back, due to the ABC's current screening of a series about Gough Whitlam's government, at the events of 1975, I think that there needs to be more awareness in Australia about the relationship between British monarchs and the people they have governed - and continue to govern - and specifically about the nexus between the Crown and popular self-determination, in other words democracy. With an unelected monarch the issue is always going to be about priorities. Are the monarch's priorities the same as those of the governed? If Australia continues to keep its head of state overseas, this issue will eventually surface. And because the monarch can have a material impact on Australia's government - cf Whitlam's sacking - it is not a trivial matter. Swannie brings up some of these ideas in his op-ed piece.

He also notes that the matter of the quality of the monarch is important. Most people like Elizabeth II, he remarks, but some other, less adept family member might sit on the throne one day. It's an important point, especially when you think of George III (pic); I see a distinct resemblance to Prince Charles, don't you? Look at the mouth and the eyes in this 1799 portrait, a portrait made in a time of war. Another war.

George III's dynastic priorities had been instrumental in bringing England into war earlier in the century, between 1754 and 1763. The matter of colonial trade was also involved. Ironically, it was the gain of France's Canadian colonies during that war by British forces under the command of General Wolfe in 1759 that ultimately enabled the American colonies to declare independence - they could never have done so with such a formidable enemy breathing down their necks - in addition to the more well-known matter of the British Parliament passing laws to tax the American colonies. On this matter, understandably, the colonials protested, and with reason, pointing to the 1689 Bill of Rights which said there could be no taxation without parliamentary consent, and since the colonists had no representatives in Parliament they felt they were exempt from taxation. What's notable in this conflict is how politically aware the American colonists were.

The British Parliament might have been more intent on raising revenue to pay for the long war just finished, but George III should have reflected more on how jealous the British Americans were of their rights. Especially, he should have given more thought to how the earlier conflict between Parliament and the monarch - in that case Charles I - on precisely the same point of sovereignty, had turned out. (Charles - 0, Cromwell - 1.) What the American case shows us though is how the Crown can easily come to make the same stupid mistake twice, so there is no reason why 1975 cannot occur again.

As to the relations between the Crown and the colonists on the Australian continent, we might want to remember that when she was asked by the New South Wales colonists to grant them the franchise, Victoria agreed, in 1856, although the upper house was still populated by gubernatorial appointees. Her willingness to concede elements of sovereignty to the New South Wales colonists is one reason why Victoria has such a good reputation still in Australia today. But what issues arose in the debates leading up to the event are largely unknown here, which is a shame, although there are books available, such as Peter Cochrane's 2007 Colonial Ambition. While Americans all have opinions about their Founding Fathers, and bring up their long-past utterances in political debates that occur every four years when the time comes to elect a new president, it says something about Australians' identity that men like democrat William Wentworth are largely ignored while mere property barons like John Macarthur are well-known.

Economic matters dominate much of what passes for debate in Australia, where many people feel relieved to have dodged a bullet in 2007, one that hit America and Europe especially hard. Why would you want to change the nature of government in Australia, when our system of bank regulation clearly worked better than the system that failed Americans so badly? Such comparisons to the dominant global hegemony animate the minds of Australians when they think about the matter of sovereignty. For example, secular-minded Aussies might feel happy that religion is so much less important where they live, compared to how it frequently enters politics Stateside, and possibly feel there is less need for the comfort that religion gives to people for the precise reason that we look to the British monarch for moral and spiritual guidance, rather than to a church preacher.

And anyway debates about sovereignty are so out-of-date in Australia, because they largely took place at the time of the gold rush. That was the time, for instance, when my own ancestors arrived - in the period of expansion that followed the cessation of Transportation - making me a 6th-generation Australian. We wear our rights like a soft, long coat so well-used and comfortable that we hardly feel its weight hanging on our backs. We look at the spastic gyrations of politics in countries where the head of state is elected by the people and we wonder why they can't just get their act together, and get along. We are ignorant of the battles fought in Britain following the French Revolution over the matter of self-determination, because a universal franchise is something that we take for granted. Sydneysiders might ride past the Wollstonecraft train station on their way to a business meeting in Chatswood and never give a thought to who the place is named after: women had the vote here in 1901, at the time of Federation. So what's the fuss all about? Why worry?

"Charles is a good bloke, right?" But will Charles III be a good king?

Sunday, 2 June 2013

What use are the very-wealthy?

The impulse to write about the very-wealthy seems to be biggest in Britain right now as the country continues to struggle economically and the Tory-led coalition government presses on with fiscal austerity measures that seem to mainly affect those on low incomes. Here's one Guardian story on the issue, one of two that appeared there just today. The author places emphasis on the fact that the wealth being accumulated by those in the top income brackets does not help the broader community. Progressives often attack the "trickle-down" theory that says that wealth gets broadly distributed. The story quotes Chrystia Freeland, an author who has written a book about the very-wealthy titled Plutocrats: The Rise of the New Global Super-Rich and the Fall of Everyone Else. (I started reading the book but put it aside.) I recommend it to readers, as well as a story written by Nicholas Shaxson for the April issue of Vanity Fair magazine on One Hyde Park, an exclusive apartment complex in London where properties cost tens- and hundreds-of-millions of dollars. The image accompanying this post shows the development.

Let's give credence to the progressive line that trickle-down economic theory is nonsense, so what use, then, are the very-wealthy? As Freeland notes in her book, globalisation has led to a larger number of very-wealthy individuals, so we can expect their number to increase while in many parts of the world income disparities also increase. For some, this reality can animate the emotions in such a way that leads to civil disorder, but for others it can work to stimulate the imagination and function as entertainment; we see stories all the time in the Australian media about high-end property sales. What we don't often see is any examination of an important nexus, for example stories about people who live in what are considered relatively prestigious apartment developments in our cities. That might be a hard sell because those people are too much in the middle to warrant attention by culture producers. Instead, we get The Great Gatsby movie, or Titanic, or one more history book about an English king or prominent Elizabethan aristocrat by bestselling author Alison Weir. These subjects are immensely popular and the movies entertain with striking visuals showing clothes, cars or carriages, and houses that regular folk probably hardly ever saw in the course of their lives. These stories are an easy sell because they focus on things that possess value in the market of things that surround us today. They are sexy and easy to consume.

The very-wealthy also appear in popular culture as fantasies. There's Bruce Wayne in the Batman franchise, Tony Stark in the Iron Man franchise, and strange personifications of altruism such as Windsor "Win" Horne Lockwood, III in Harlen Coben's Myron Bolitar series of crime thrillers, and Tony Blake in the short-lived TV series The Magician of the 70s. In all these cases the very-wealthy hero - or, in the Coben case, influential side-kick - dedicates his life to good (yes, they all seem to be men). In actual fact, nothing could be further from the truth. The very-wealthy might consume a more expensive form of culture, fine art for example, but they do not contribute to the improvement of society. They work to increase their wealth, live in isolated comfort in the most convenient parts of our cities, and raise children who generally shift themselves into high-paying jobs in finance, the law or accounting. They are unimaginative, under-educated and self-interested.

There are exceptions, of course, like Nobel prize-winning Australian author Patrick White, who came from a rich rural family, or Australian painter Martin Sharp, who still lives in his parents' house in Bellevue Hill, in Sydney, where he works. These are the rare exceptions, though, the rule being someone like James Packer, who abandoned the struggling media business he inherited from his father and started building casinos instead.

The popularity of stories about the dead rich tells us something about our priorities. We can look at the Florentine grendees, the Medicis, and applaud their patronising the fine arts: plenty of good visuals there. But we ignore someone like William Wentworth, a Sydney colonial figure who not only helped mark the passage across the Blue Mountains but also helped found the University of Sydney and agitated for the introduction of democracy in New South Wales in the 1850s. With his wealth in the land, like many of the early colonial very-wealthy, Wentworth held firm Humanist beliefs; the first prize that was instituted at the University of Sydney is the Wentworth Medal - which is still awarded today - for an essay. And what about all those aristocratic lady poets of ages long gone, like Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea (1661 - 1720). Can Peggy Guggenheim be compared to her? Mr Darcy remains a fantasy, albeit a popular and attractive one for millions of modern-day women who continue to read Jane Austen's novels. But the remarkable George Gordon, Lord Byron, is largely ignored in favour of the merely, gorgeously, massively rich.

Forget Eris, Discordianism is an orphan branch in the progress of culture

Religion goes to our emotional response to the world, and emotions form the cornerstone of our ability to survive, and to live together in dense populations where the economic means of subsistence are unevenly distributed. The second statement I made sounds wrong, of course. Many would think that reason sits at the root of our ability to get by in the world, but recently science tells us that without emotions it is impossible to make any decision at all. I have tried to find the article that substantiates this counter-intuitive claim. I read it one day in a coffee shop in Sydney on a Saturday with the Sydney Morning Herald scattered over the counter by the window where you stand and drink your tasty beverage. I read of a man who had had a car accident that had damaged his brain in such a way that the parts of the brain that look after emotions were severely affected. The result was that the man was unable to do anything. He couldn't do the laundry or drive a car, he lost his job and his whole life changed. You could say he lost his religion.

People who demand absolute certainty and who fail the test of periodic solitude by deeming the anxiety it can produce an unbearable torment have my sympathy. Because time is rigidly unidirectional existence can seem impossibly difficult, and we seek both the comfort of community and proper guidelines for conduct. Symbols and ceremonies work to generate and sustain community and sacred texts give us help in working out how to live in the world. There is also the idea of a "personal God" that introduces the divine into our thoughts and brings it into direct contact with our feelings. And hegemons have always seen the benefits of religion because it works to buttress social and economic structures that both benefit them and serve to ensure the economic viability - essential for the purposes of defense - of the community.

People who study history or the cultural artefacts produced in distant ages have no choice but to tackle the fact of religion because it was ubiquitous. The Koreans who colonised the Japanese archipelago 1000 years BC and who are known as the Yayoi were successful compared to the Jomon hunter-gatherers who already lived there because the Yayoi's wet rice cultivation economy could support heavier populations. I wonder what religion they practiced. In any case, the excess value their form of subsistence produced made them more competitive than the Jomon, who were pushed northward into the forests. The Yayoi also had better technology, in metal implements, which were designed to help them work the land, but which also could be shaped into weapons. Once the displacement was complete it was a matter of time before new innovations would be introduced to further strengthen society and make it more competitive in a geopolitical sense, and in 500 AD Buddhism and written language were introduced from the dominant hegemony in the region, China.

Those who want to read and understand the people of medieval Japan through their culture must also understand how religion operated at both the personal and social levels because where people live in dense populations these things are intimately linked. Similarly, those who want to understand European culture must also know about the religion that was practiced there.

The introduction of the printing press in the 15th century was beneficial simply because it lowered the cost of access to cultural products. At the same time it happened that governments in many parts of Europe mandated universal education for male children; this was done to ensure that men had access to the Bible. The explosion of printed books linked with higher levels of education in especially northern Europe lay the ground for the propagation of ideas, leading to such things as the experimental method in science, for example. Europeans also used books to discuss matters of government which led to the institution of a universal male franchise in some of the American states following the revolutionary war there. So modern technology and representative democracy derived ultimately from people reading and talking about the Bible translated from ancient Greek, Aramaic and Hebrew into the vernacular, which was part of a cultural movement - as opposed to a religion - of the 16th century called Humanism.

Those who claim a special place for religion in Western societies are perfectly justified in doing so. You can even posit that religion enabled the scientific method to survive in Europe because, as the Lord’s Prayer says, God will forgive any trespass, which sounds very much like an invitation to people to experiment, and make mistakes. Because it ensures the economic success of the community, facilitates life in society, provides comfort for the individual, and generates the desirable sense of community that humans crave, religion continues to thrive.

One recent addition to the arsenal of Western religions is Discordianism. (All hail Eris!) The product of two men living in California in the late-50s, Discordianism celebrates chaos, as opposed to a perceived sense of order that most religions promote where they are practiced. It has its texts, symbols and tenets, all useful in many ways for those to whom it appeals. But it seems to me to be a lazy way to understand an increasingly complex world. Although it promotes tolerance of complexity - the world is getting more and more complex, and will continue to do so as technology and global capitalism work to undermine the integrity of even such basic institutions as the nation state - it seems to me to form an orphan branch of cultural progress.

Frankly it seems to me like evidence of a lack of imagination. Possibly some people just don’t have the perception required to understand how the elements of cultural artefacts work in the ways that the artists who create them use them. Certainly, technology - a cultural artefact that needs to be reined back into the fold of the incomplete Humanist project, and acknowledged by all as part of it - has become so complex, sophisticated and specialised that most people feel excluded from discussions of it. But in societies where there is universal education to secondary level these are failures of will, not of access. For myself, I see learning as landscape of incalculable sophistication and complexity and scope that always rewards examination using the rational mind; this applies equally to postmodern literature as to molecular biology.

As we saw in the case of the emergence of the scientific method, the liberal arts lie at the root of all disciplines that exist. The liberal arts are unique in the world because they possess the kind of highly plastic quality that encourages experimentation. Artistic artefacts are also highly shareable; all you need is the means to understand and you can experience what they offer and take away something of symbolic and emotional value. They are also often inexpensive to make. The liberal arts function like an emotional exchange mechanism in society and have many of the attributes of religion. Their plasticity means that this important emotional economy can appear anywhere at any time. You often see creative people achieving great sophistication even though they live inside a society that signally lacks it.

Instead of falling back onto a few emotional props in the ambit of Discordianism intelligent peeps need a new Humanism that can foster tolerance for innovation in the liberal arts, whence all cultural artefacts - from ICBMs to credit default swaps to Elizabethan sonnets - derive. And help the community to rationally appraise their desirability and usefulness, and not just their economic viability or geopolitical instrumentality.

In all cases the arts go ahead of all other disciplines, and function to propagate sometimes very complex ideas throughout a society, thus enabling it to reflect on itself, or on a specific matter, in a useful way that then leads to good outcomes. Perhaps one day there will be a course on Lolcats at the New College of the Humanities in London.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Book review: Inferno, Dan Brown (2013)

This review will have to run something like a recount of a play told by someone standing throughout the performance and intermission in the theatre lobby because I only managed to get to page 100 of the 460-page novel. This morning I was very grateful to read Chris Womersley's review in the Spectrum supplement to the Sydney Morning Herald, so I'm possibly like a man listening to people from the audience chatting about the performance they'd just witnessed while sipping Chardonnay in the theatre vestibule during the break. Look, I did try. OK?

This was my first Brown and I had high hopes but I found the application of the plot onto elements of Dante's long poem clunky and banal. The pace is extremely rapid, which probably accounts for Womersley's dismissing the dialogue as poor, but in essence this book is just a standard-issue thriller although it contains some interesting things. It will irritate anyone with the slightest degree of knowledge about the world, and even with a regular intellect, that Brown finds it necessary to invent a shadowy and all-powerful organisation - the Consortium - to pull the levers that control mankind's fate, and then (on top of that) a genius motivated by evil who wants to kill off a third of the world's population, although these conceits contain nuggets of truth. It's hardly necessary in the post-9/11 world to posit powerful forces operating in secret in ways that affect all of us. But the only aesthetic charm available when you contemplate the fictional Consortium is the luxury yacht hovering off the Italian coast like a negative image of Tony Blake's aeroplane in the 70s TV series The Magician. The yacht houses professionals who fix things for a price. There's plenty of food for thought in such an image, but ultimately the performance relegates to the oblivion of academic niche interest any more substantial overview of how the world has changed in the past 15 years or so.

The obverse of this regret is my own regret at academic Robert Langdon's facile evocations of Dantesque symbology in the lectures that appear at weird times in the narrative, and that serve to fill the unlearned reader in on the medieval Florentine poet and the significance of what he created. A terminal depth of banality occurs when Langdon proudly tells his audience that the sculptor Michaelangelo had praised Dante in verse. Here's the ultimate in Amazon-style marketing of literature, a potent representation of modern culture consumerism embedded like a polyp underneath the skin of the novel, ready to seed and propagate like a million sycophantic squeals of delight in the comments section under a video by Justin Bieber. And all the while the bad guys in black uniforms, the Italian carabinieri police, and God-knows-what-else are chasing Langdon and his female sidekick through Florence while they - the two in flight - must solve the riddle that will save the planet.

The flight meme is as old as Gothic fiction, which is usually about as unreadable (today; it was wildly popular 200 years ago) as Brown's concoction. Flight has something compelling about it: think of Shelley gadding madly across Europe with his wife, Mary (creator of Frankenstein), or across the fields of rural England and Ireland. Shelley was, in fact, being chased - by the security services of his day, an organisation suspicious of his radical politics in a time of war - and the trope perhaps can serve to link that time of general paranoia to what we see around us today. You be the judge of whether this holds any water; I'm just riffing here. One thing you can say about Brown, despite how tired the book made me, is that he doesn't hold up the action. This is seriously sugary stuff, a pure fictional high, if you aren't too discerning.