The Books of My Numberless Dreams

Archive for the ‘History’ Category

I’m not a memoir person and only become so under special circumstances. The first memoir, *From Harvey River: A Memoir of My Mother and Her People, is written by Lorna Goodison one of my favourite poets who turns out to be a remarkable prose writer. That wouldn’t have been special enough without the added bonus of her mother’s life is the book’s main focus. Add the fact that one of my favourite Goodison poems is dedicated to and about that woman, then I’m sold.

The second memoir, Drumblair: Memories of a Jamaican Childhood by Rachel Manley, benefited from the goodwill gained by the first. Here was another notable Jamaican woman writing not only or even primarily about herself but about life with her grandparents: his Right Excellent Norman Washington Manley, one of the nation’s founders and a National Hero, and Edna Manley, one of our most acclaimed artists. (I attended summer programmes and took piano lessons at the school named after her.) She also deals to a lesser extent with her so so relationship with her father, Michael Manley, a former Jamaica prime minister.

Goodison’s memoir provides the unexpected pleasure of revealing much about Jamaica’s history and lifestyle of which I had not an inkling: what brought certain Europeans like the Irish and Scottish settlers; specific details on the Maroons; and simply how every day life was for ordinary Jamaicans, how they kept house, earned a living, their cultural mores, how much had changed and stayed the same. It complemented details I picked up in Andrew Salkey’s A Quality of Violence and Banana Bottom by Claude McKay on how every and anything obviously connected to our African ancestry was rejected. An attitude that seems so alien to me now when I recall donning Nigerian dress for prep school events or how church ladies wore extravagant outfits to impress the congregation on Sundays. I understand the old attitude and yet I don’t.

That Goodison is a poet and not averse to fictionalizing and streamlining accounts helped her book enormously. She played with words by mixing the Queen’s English with a readable Jamaican patois which changed the rhythm and tone to capture a particularly Jamaican, specifically Hanoverian — different parts of the island have their own variations in dialect — moment or sentiment. As life then was more heavily influenced by Victorian England the two different speeches in juxtaposition reflected that. It is clear that Goodison loves words. At one point she lists the names of local produce for the pleasure of sound as well as more practical reasons, reminding me of one of her well-known poems, To Us, All Flowers are Roses. In her love for words she continues to showcases the islanders’ creativity, our spirit and ingenuity to ourselves as well as others.

She has a judicious sense of what readers would find interesting. I cannot stress enough how vital a skill this is for someone writing on things that personally concern her. The writer may find every minute detail and throwaway incident riveting while the outsider is left to fan herself, dream about mocha frappuccinos and wonder why she tolerates such minutiae from anyone not related by blood or marriage. Goodison is up front about embellishing parts of her mother’s life, adjusting timelines. One is not perturbed not only because the seamless narrative pulls one in from start to finish or because one gets a good idea of what is fictionalised from the whimsical way she depicts certain scenes, but because, for a reader like me and a book like this a strict adherance to facts is not necessary for Goodison to record her mother’s life as she perceives it. It’s one of the best books I’ve read so far this year — I’ve already leant my copy out (I never do this) and have been singing its praises to any willing ear. (For an example of everything I’ve mention read this excerpt.)

It is too bad that this book came out long after Drumblair — Manley could have learned a lot from how Goodison wrote her tale. I have no idea whether any part of Drumblair is intentionally fictionalized. On certain subjects like Bustamante‘s character and his political style she readily admits her family’s bias since her grandfather was his political rival — they both led the two rival political parties that still dominate Jamaica politics. Since she is dealing with such historically important political and cultural personages she has more responsibility to factual truth than a Jamaican poetess indulging in family memorabilia, maybe. (Although she writes, “This is not history. This is memory.”) In the end, I’m glad I read it.

But I’m surprised that it managed to win Canada’s Governor General award. If It weren’t for the Geoffrey Philp mention and the Manley name I don’t know how long I would have lasted. Rachel Manley has a tendency to give too much detail about memories that I, without the benefit of familiar relations, can only yawn and blink at. Cute episodes with housing staff which I know must be included to establish what living in the mighty Drumblair house was like became a bit tedious. At other times it’s the intricate political maneuvering that made my eyes glaze. When content becomes a morass I cannot reach for style because her prose is serviceable but not very light and nimble. Her voice comes through loud and clear but there’s not poetry, no grace, nothing that sets her a part as a Writer, yet she is a well-regarded poet. (Her editor probably deserves some free drinks, at least.) In my limited estimation Goodison is the better at writing in the different genres.

Still, the book isn’t all bad. I appreciate how she presents her family members in their full complexity, the good and the less so. They are loved but not idolized. Her grandparent’s married life, like all long lasting ones I imagine, is one of love, yes, but also of tolerance, accommodation of tiptoeing or strategic obliviousness to faults, of intimate knowledge coupled with incomprehensibility, right up to the end, of the other’s choices and habits. Theoretically we know this but it is not often portrayed in the media I absorb.

Much of the Manleys’ political life is marked by as many defeats as triumphs — Rachel describes it as a life “haunted by shadows” — with the most searing one that of Norman never winning an election after the country gained independence despite being a, clearly the family as presented her believing he was the, driving force behind the movement. A “Father of the Nation”. As a lawyer he took up the part of many of the lower classes and even helped to gain Bustamante’s freedom when he bucked up against the colonial authorities. But Bustamante’s charisma and earthy personality eclipses his rival’s contemplative, intellectual demeanor, and so one gains most of the spotlight while the other quietly goes on.

What was aching [Michael’s] heart was the small margin of his father’s defeat, and the irony that his country would be led into independence by anyone but Norman Manley. He knew of no other colonial territory of that time where the man who led the fight for independence was not the acknowledged leader of the emerging nation, the runaway victor of its first election; Ghana’s Nkrumah, Nigeria’s Azikiwi, India’s Nehru– the names would hammer in his head.

Such a mixed life does not end on an upbeat, positive, everything nice note, either. Rachel describes herself as a troublemaker as a child, called “Miss Badness”, distant from her mother who lived in England, has an ambivalent relationship with her father, and a grandmother obsessed in making something of it (for the better, yes, but it was always a thing). At the book’s end circumstances are different but the main elements have not changed but are sustained by different issues. Rachel is a university student eager to join the Black Power radicals pushing for change except that her fair skin and connection to the establishment make her an outsider. Political rebellion is more complicated when your grandfather is tagged as one who is a new version of the old colonial style, that change cannot occur when one uses the master’s tools. “Patois should be taught in schools!” she cres defiantly. (It’s amusing and disheartening that such ideas are still being wrestled over. Even Nalo Hopkinson met up on it.) Edna declared

These young hot-heads were in their cradles when we were struggling for universal suffrage and workers rights’ and self-government! Who the hell do they think got the British out?

But images speak as loudly as words and Rachel noted that it was a woman who looked all but Caucasian with “flawless English” who says them.

As you can tell there’s a lot of historical information easily conveyed through Rachel’s life because her family looms large in events. I get a better idea of how our government gradually gained more and more power as opposed to the (understandably) simplified accounts I had before. There was even a predecessor to CARICOM – a failed West Indian federation built on ideals similar to the Pan Africanism movement — that I knew more about — in which Norman and Busta played leading roles, for a time. And I receive a much clearer picture of the People’s National Party’s (Norman’s group) socialist (some would say communist) background — a fact darkly hinted at, its lasting impact on Jamaica argued over in the Jamaica Observer’s opinion pages which I read in my teen years without true understanding. I even learnt the origins of a certain “fire and blood” speech given by Edward Seaga, a former Jamaican PM, which I remember hearing about as a child, again with no clue.

It is very strange to read about your country’s beginnings and have it feel so…recent. (My mother lived in pre-independence) To read about persons deliberately, actively, maybe even self-consciously trying to be Jamaican, to figure out what that even is. Some of the most tantalizing bits were Rachel’s brief, intermittent descriptions of the island’s nascent artistic movement, of Edna’s interactions with artists and writers, of her nurturing of new ones. Most, if not all of the poetry she and Norman quite is either by Browning, who had a Jamaican wife (didn’t know that), or Mike Smith and George Campbell, friends of theirs who were also involved in the project of being Jamaican by creating Jamaican art. Roger Mais gets name checked in Edna’s encounter a few rastas who temporarily squatted in her studio and had a fondness for her sculpture “Samson”, the blunter, roughter counterpart to the more delicate “Delilah” which was the crowd favourite. (It’s obviously an allusion to Brother Man but must be one to Black Lightning as well — too coincidental otherwise.) I’d have loved to read more about that.

Yes, Drumblair was definitely a fruitful, rewarding read. But it’s no Harvey River.

*What is up with weird, inexplicable title changes and ugly foreign covers? Poor British and Americans. 😛


This is the first in a looooong time that a New York Review of Books article excited me, that directly addressed matters I thought about but aren’t pulled directly from some BBC headline. And I only bring it up for discussion among one or two friends because I’m concerned that I’ll be misinterpreted and perceived differently before the end of the first sentence.

In the latest TLS Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote a *gem of an article in which he pulled from various recently published books on Zionism to give an overview of its history and turn the spotlight on the movement’s influential figures who many may not know about. “Zionism” was a term I often saw used but never defined.

So when I saw the Tony Judt article one could say I was inclined to give it a chance when my typical reaction to anything that could even be theoretically linked to Jews and the Israeli-Palestine conflict is an eye glazed over in defensive inattention. (Also, I’m always good for an article that promises substantial engagement with any of Hannah Arendt’s writings…and I’ve read some of Judt’s stuff before and his name did not carry any negative connotations.)

For a second or two I rethought my decision when it seemed as if this was just going to be another rehash of the Holocaust…but was rewarded when Judt’s adapted essay addressed that very same reaction. Here’s an informed view that ought to get more play, especially the difference between Western and Eastern Europe’s attitude to WWII of which I had not been aware. (Or maybe everyone knew all ready and I’m the only dunce — it’s happened before.) It wasn’t as clear to me, either, that there was a period after WWII where everyone wasn’t undergoing painful introspection about the Holocaust — for as long as I can remember it was given due attention. I never covered WWII in my history classes but, somehow, I still managed to absorb basic information about what happened, with the Shoah at its centre.

…in recent years the relationship between Israel and the Holocaust has changed. Today, when Israel is exposed to international criticism for its mistreatment of Palestinians and its occupation of territory conquered in 1967, its defenders prefer to emphasize the memory of the Holocaust. If you criticize Israel too forcefully, they warn, you will awaken the demons of anti-Semitism; indeed, they suggest, robust criticism of Israel doesn’t just arouse anti-Semitism. It is anti-Semitism. And with anti-Semitism the route forward —or back—is open: to 1938, to Kristallnacht, and from there to Treblinka and Auschwitz. If you want to know where it leads, they say, you have only to visit Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, the Holocaust Museum in Washington, or any number of memorials and museums across Europe.

I understand the emotions behind such claims. But the claims themselves are extraordinarily dangerous. When people chide me and others for criticizing Israel too forcefully, lest we rouse the ghosts of prejudice, I tell them that they have the problem exactly the wrong way around. It is just such a taboo that may itself stimulate anti-Semitism. For some years now I have visited colleges and high schools in the US and elsewhere, lecturing on postwar European history and the memory of the Shoah. I also teach these topics in my university. And I can report on my findings.

Students today do not need to be reminded of the genocide of the Jews, the historical consequences of anti-Semitism, or the problem of evil. They know all about these—in ways their parents never did. And that is as it should be. But I have been struck lately by the frequency with which new questions are surfacing: “Why do we focus so on the Holocaust?” “Why is it illegal [in certain countries] to deny the Holocaust but not other genocides?” “Is the threat of anti-Semitism not exaggerated?” And, increasingly, “Doesn’t Israel use the Holocaust as an excuse?” I do not recall hearing those questions in the past.

My fear is that two things have happened. By emphasizing the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust while at the same time invoking it constantly with reference to contemporary affairs, we have confused young people. And by shouting “anti-Semitism” every time someone attacks Israel or defends the Palestinians, we are breeding cynics.

You’ve gotta read the adapted speech from start to finish.

*Thank you, TLS, for offering me another opportunity to tear my hair out again. Why make the width of the article so narrow that I have to click through so many pages? It’s an annoyance because it’s a bloody book review but I have to click click click click to reach the end before I can find…the reviewed book titles! Yes, that make sense. But comments from random dudes who manage to drop by? Right there, up front and centre! Who the ^&#$#% designed your website? I’d like to…buy him a beer.

There have been some changes at the Times Literary Supplement. First they changed the website and now the periodical got a makeover. If I were cynical I’d say the re-arrangement was so they could have more ads on the inside of the cover but that’s not true. (I’m sure it was a part of it, but not all of it.) No longer is there the pretty table of contents with flourishes at the top and bottom gracing the inside of the cover. Now it’s a tight but neatly packed editorial staff list with their e-mail info and ads boxing it all in. On the next page over we have the table of contents also neatly packed in with no frills, to accommodate articles and ads. For the June 29th issue anyway; the previous one featured an unsightly sprawl down the page with parts of articles squished to sides haphazardly, a hiccup in design change, I assumed.

Commentary features have been shifted around: the amusing N.B. has the back page all to itself, a space usually reserved for a review. Now J.C. has more space to poke pointed fun at government arts programmes and highlight interesting art auctions. (In other words, was this necessary?) The freelance articles that I usually ignore are at the top of the page after the main Commentary piece. Two new additions are the “Then and Now” which is a reprint of an older TLS piece that has some current relevance; the other addition is under table of contents and gives what I think is an overview of what’s in the current issue. Something something. I’ve never read past the first few lines to find out. (I’ll do it next time, I promise, as a good reporter should.) Other little changes are the staples — no longer shall pages slide out and wander away from you — and italic notes at the end of interrupted articles informing one on which pages they end.

Well. It’s not all bad I suppose. I do like the stapled pages.

Dan Jacobson reviewed The Fox and the Flies by Charles Van Onselen in “Worm’s Eye View”. Onselen, a prominent South African social historian, focused on the understudied (according to Onselen) criminal Joseph Silver. Born in a small Jewish community in 1868 he grew up to travel the world — Britain, USA, Transvaal Republic, Cape Colony, Orange Free State, former German West Africa, France, Belgium, Brazil, to name a few — making a lucrative but small-time trade in whoremongering, thievery, police spying, and as informant on friends and enemies a like. To top it off Onselen asserted that at long last the world has discovered the identity of Jack The Ripper and it is Silver. Unfortunately for him Jacobson is not convinced: he compared the scholarly, exacting list of sources that supported all chapters in Onselen’s book except the one on Jack the Ripper, that amounted to a lot of subjunctive phrases and conjecture. Overall Jacobson found the book well-written and Silver’s life an interesting perspective from which to see the expansion and contraction of “the Atlantic World” (Onselen’s phrase) before and after the 20th century.

Ronald Hutton got his hands on horrible treat in “Twisted Tract: An Early Modern portrait of hell on earth”. He reviewed a new edition of Malleus Maleficarum by Christopher S. Mackay, a Canadian scholar, who did a fresh English translation to accompany the Latin volume. It afforded the public a new opportunity to give a new appraisal of the infamous book, both a demonology and witch hunting manual, ably supported by a “full and meticulous critical apparatus” and a good introduction both for readers unfamiliar with medieval history and academics aware of the current historical debates.

Heinrech Kramer, a Dominican friar, fancied himself an expert on witches having burnt two on the stake (he claimed it numbered in the thousands) and being diplomatically removed from an investigation in Innsbruck after the local bishop suspected that he wasn’t quite the authority he thought it was. Despite the general scepticism of the church’s “middle-management” he collaborated with Jacob Sprenger, respected theologian at the University of Cologne who, Mackay argued, wrote the first section of Malleus, evident from its dry and more intellectual tone in comparative to the rest of the text. Kramer also managed to garner the public support of Pope, Innocent VIII. Despite his purportedly disagreeable nature (involved in a few legal disputes and ended up in gaol once) he appeared to have some charisma and was an excellent story-teller, employing parables to convey to his readership the dangers of the demon world.

Women were especially prone to succumbing to the devil’s machinations, forever entering into hellish contracts by selling their soul and/or engaging in a lot of demonic sex. And I mean a lot. Female sexuality played a starring role in Kramer’s tract, which revealed a substantial fear and revulsion, and made him unpopular with feminists. Even Mackay got a bit censorious in his footnotes according to Hutton who then admonished that a historian’s role was not to judge but to understand the internal logic of such irrational phenomena. The book also included detailed legal instructions on how to go about prosecuting witches, if one is so inclined.

Near the end of the issue was a wonderful, concise review of Louise Gluck’s Averno, by Helen Farish in “We will not be spared”. She provided some helpful insight into Gluck’s approach to writing and the principles that govern her poetry. Farish connected it both thematically to earlier works (The Seven Ages) and in the quality of lyrics (The Wild Iris). Gluck has a stated preference for using “the simplest vocabulary” and all of that, along with the excerpts, made me much more enthused about reading her work. (Yay!)

I promised that I would do a series post on David Brakke’s highly engrossing book on demonology in early Egyptian monasticism, and in a rare show of dependability will do just that. Whether this will turn out to be a blog on every chapter remains to be seen, but so far I have not come across one that does not merit attention; indeed this first one will require two posts. I’ll tag each entry “Monks vs Demons” as an easy way to find them all, including my first post on the book. These will not be reviews but reports on the meat of each chapter and/or whatever I find notable. I hope to accurately relay what Brakke has so carefully studied but the best plan is always to read the book yourself. (It’s bound to be at your local university library and maybe your public one wouldn’t balk at making such an acquisition. It’s a bit pricey but hey if you’ve got it, buy it. Harvard Press thanks you.) I suppose many of my (few but cherished) readers may find this curious at best, but I am Queen here, and at the moment her majesty is into holy people hand wrestling demons in wells.

The books is divided into two sections, the first entitled “The Monk in Combat”. It covers the various prototypes of and for monks in direct relation to their demonology and how the ascetic lifestyle could be used for combat. These were founded in various philosophies, interpretations of theology, and ascetic examples that were used in monasteries at the time; this included the influential ideas purported by spiritual leaders later deemed heretics. We learn of this now through the biographies of famous monks (Athanisius’ Life of Anthony) or their own writings (Evagrius Ponticus).

The monk (Greek is monachos meaning the “single one”) is a familiar figure to us now but was a character that had to be imagined and created, which happened around the early 4th to 5th century. The same is true for the development of the idea of a demon as monks understood it — for them he was an adverse opponent, with shape-shifting powers who could inflict bodily harm. This is different than the “daemon” more familiar in folklore and paganism who was not necessarily evil and merely “filled the gap” between humans and gods. They did not hang about crossroad intersections or frequently possess farm animals but instead played a roll in the monk’s ethical life. They were used to address pressing intellectual problems and primarily waged mental attacks, tainting thoughts and provoking strife and turmoil with the brotherhood.

This combative concept has its root in the beginning of Christianity, first presented by Paul and his students. At that time it was believed that Armageddon would be here lickety split, and that Christians were locked in a spiritual battle against the dark forces. They were being attacked at all sides, spiritually and politically, from without and within, and had to remain alert. (What was old is new again.) Although Jesus and later his apostles literally cast out demons, for the average Christian it was a more abstract, moral battle. It was important to remain faithful in all one’s interactions with family, friends, slaves etc.

In proceeding years, more “intellectual” Christians abandoned the notion of an imminent apocalypse, they retained the image of the Christian in combat. This time she was a martyr standing true for her beliefs, no matter the risk. Considering the prosecution the group faced as a minority, its internal divisions, and hostile relationship with the Jews, this is understandable. On a more personal level their moral conflict was envisioned, by the author of Shepherd of Hermas who adapted from Jewish teachings, as a good and bad angel that always accompanied each individual.

The first major influential figure covered here is Origen. He came up with the idea that all created beings once shared an intellectual unity in the worship of God, as equals. Demons fell the furthest from God, then humans, then angels. This is why demons are so at tempting us and attacking our thoughts. Their organisational structure is that of an army, complete with ranks and regiments. Each regiment, one could say, specialised in a vice (gluttony, fornication etc.) They appear in the form of thoughts, although such evil thoughts could spring from ourselves as well. If we succumb to the external thoughts too often we would become enslaved. This was the demon’s primary goal, according toOrigen, to keep us from our spiritual ascent to God, to lead us from the virtuous path.

Paradoxically, the monks needed just such trials in order to spiritually progress; the ascetic lifestyle was perfect for this. Egyptians saw the desert as the special abode of demons and therefore an uniquely excellent place in which to reside, in order to battle and overcome demons. This was only one of the paths a monk could take to carry out his vocation. The monastic life was built on the basic relationship of teacher (advanced monk) and disciple (his pupil). For some this meant retreating into the desert and live a solitary existence with various monastic retreats, like Antony; to live on the edges of the cities by the rivers in loose communities where the members came together at least once a week to worship and eat; and in others large, formally structured groups were formed like the White Monastery, whose members numbered in the thousands, directed by Shenoute for almost eight decades.

Ammonas, a student of Antony the “reputed pioneer” of monastic withdrawal into the desert, sought to make this spiritual lifestyle superior to that of the city monks, to convince wayward students who wished to abandon it. Drawing on Origen’s teachings he stated that all thoughts come from three sources: demons, ourselves, and God, only the last being a legitimate source. Fighting Satan and his minions was central to a monk’s development, and city monks lacked not only the prime fighting location, but the hardy, difficult circumstances that form a true ascetic able to defeat such forces. Besides, since the secluded desert lifestyle was God’s will, any thought to the contrary was clearly invalid.

Antony himself did not make scuffles with Beelzebub in the hot sand quite so central to his monasticism, but he did compose and present a monk’s clear identity and mission. He accepted Origen’s idea of all rational beings once being a part of a singly unity, and that demons fell so far because of their grievous errors. As they are destined for hell they wish to take humans down with them. He emphasised the demons’ diversity and multiplicity vs the single, unified figure of the monk. Naming was a consequence of this diversity because it came about after the intellectual unity was shattered and rational beings were marked off into groups (archangel, principality, demon, human being etc.), given to them “based on the quality of their conduct”.

Demons were numerous and executed a diverse variety of deeds, hence the abundance of names for them. Although the foundation of this teaching is in Origen’s, how Antony interpreted it as a kind of secondary, masking feature that disguises our true and unified origin strongly evokes Valentinian thought.

UP NEXT: Valentinus on our borrowed names, Antony on fake Jesuses and how demons try to block our “restored unity” partly by hiding within our bodies.

That is and will be, by far, the coolest title to ever be on a post here; and Demons and the Making of the Monk: Spiritual Combat in Early Christianity by David Brakke is and will be, by far, the coolest book I read this year.

It starts with the cover. I’m not a fan of Franciso de Goya’s portraits, with the one or two exceptions, but the etchings for his book Los Caprichos, are endlessly fascinated. (If we’re gonna talk portraits then it’s William Bouguereau.) I’ve always been attracted to narrative illustrations, both as companion to the text and on their own terms. The best of them not only complement but illuminate and complicate their verbal origins and I never get tired of exploring exactly how they work.

The etching on Spiritual Combat is Tale-Bearers: Blast of Wind, plate 48 from Caprichos, perfect for the book as it depicts an air-borne demon, air being the space between earth and heaven in which even an exceptional monk could never meet with it, harassing two hapless mortals. I’ve never read the Caprichos but the background in the painting ,combined with what I’ve read in Brakke’s, is suggestive of a desert. Deserts were seen as the particular dwelling place of demons and other evil spirits, at least in 3rd and 4th century Egypt.

David Brakke’s book focuses on the demonological narrative in monastic biographies and writings of this period because they were the most influential on the Byzatine east and Medieval west. Shenoute, a leader of a large community of monks in Upper Egypt, faced the dilemma of how to discipline a small group of monks who had committed a grave sin. In the middle of the night as he mused over what course of action to take, a man dressed as a “middle-ranking government official and accompanied by a subordinate” appeared out of nowhere and attacked him. Shenoute asked whether he was an angel, and asked for help with his current crisis but received no answer, and ultimately he defeated the stranger. His victory proved to him that the foe was a demon because he could not have defeated an angel, and the governmental garbs showed that the true source of his hesitancy to mete out full punishment to the monks was based on their high ranking family connections. They were expelled.

This is what it’s like to be a god-fearing monk living the ascetic lifestyle, every day!

Or not quite. It was far more likely for demons to insinuate themselves into your thoughts, to actually be the evil thoughts beckoning you from the path of the straight and narrow, reminding you of familial and gustatory pleasures, rather than actually try to sucker punch you. Brakke conscientiously charts the different ideas about the origin of heavenly beings, humans and demons from the writings of Valentinus and Origen to Antony the great, as we see through both his letters and his biography by Anthasius.

Unlike Alistair Sooke’s review in the TLS I haven’t it found Brakke’s diction particularly specialised at all, so far. You’ll never have to turn to Google as he lucidly explains the ideas of every figure relevant to his study, and shows how they merged together and evolved in Antony’s philosophy to influence the wider world of monasticism. It’s one of the best things about the book.

I may try to do a post on each chapter as I go along, or at least any section I find of particular interest. Although it not written in a “popular” style or seemingly aimed at a wide audience, the various Christian philosophies mentioned, the ideas of what is what to be a martyr at the time, how Christianity was set up against the pagan religions, and how that has echoed into the present day should be of infinite interest to any curious individual who is or was raised as a Christian.

Also, monks fight demons!

Let’s get the lame stuff out of the way. For some reason this issue has a bajillion page story by Alan Bennett complete with prominent ads for his books and play (last showing! last showing!). I’m not sure how Bennett hijacked the LRB but I’d like for another to take up the burden of peddling his wares. First we get his diary, now this? (Is he a god in England? I am lacking context.)

The great news is that there were actually five, count it, five women listed in the table of contents–and only two were poetry contributors! (Band plays.) And they weren’t covering cooking or floral arrangements either. Keep it up LRB, I (and I hope others) do notice things like this.

I’ve already posted about the provocative Mumdani article which everyone should read. Another excellent one directly related to Africa and major urban areas worldwide was Jeremy Harding’s review of Planet of Slums by Mike Davis, It Migrates to Them. Davis wrote on the explosion of populations in urban areas in ways similar to the effects of the 19th century Industrial revolution: poor housing, poor infrastructure, generally sub-standard living conditions. In certain countries like Japan the rural dwellers did not even have to move closer to the city; the development came to them with highways cutting off their routes to the sea and the pollution killing the fish stock.

One of the major problems Davis identifies is that the populations far outnumber the economic opportunities offered in the cities; he disagrees with the idea that creating property rights will spur any development; and that too many people in these areas are forced to work in the same kind of jobs: “the informal sector…generates jobs not by elaborating new divisions of labour, but by fragmenting existing work, and thus subdividing incomes.” The IMF and the World Bank are implicated in sometimes causing and aggravating this problem in developing nations, along with the corruption of national governments.

The photographer Jonas Bendiksen took photographs of Kibera, an example of one of these slums, on the outskirts of Nairobi, Kenya for the Paris Review Winter 2006. (The piece is in PDF format.)

Buda’s Wagon: A Brief History of the Car Bomb by the same author is also reviewed, the link formed by Davis intention to “focus on ‘slum-based resistance to global capitalism'”. Buda’s Wagon is an indirect way of addressing this (he plans a sequel to Planet Slums that will more thoroughly address the matter). For now he writes on this weapon that’s used by insurgents and secret services alike. Harding asserts that the “unwitting” overall picture Davis creates is the links between the outsider violent groups who use the car bombs and other tactics as weapons and the “state agencies” that taught them.

Peter Barnham’s review of the new translation of Foucault’s History of Madness, Rubbing Shoulders with Unreason, was really cool and interesting but at least 50% flew right over my head. I was clearly expected to have an idea of the concept of what “unreason” different from “madness” but I had not a fucking clue. It read real pretty though so once I actually, you know, find out what Barham was writing about I’m sure I’ll realise that I learned a lot.

Simon Armitage’s translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight has been making the rounds in journals and newspapers. Frank Kermode reviews it here, as well as Bernard O’Donoghue’s in Who has the gall? O’Donoghue takes his modern approach further than Armitage, abandoning the alliterative Middle English poetic style, but both don’t balk at throwing in the jolty contemporary phrase. “Armitage enjoys taking liberties. The knight’s dreadful weapon becomes ‘the mother of all axes,/a cruel piece of kit I kid you not'”.

Kermode occasionally compares both translations to the “authoritative” Tolkien’s and finds good and bad in all. Of the two he leans towards Armitage, observing that while he may “kick up his heels” ever so often he does “much justice” to the extraordinary work. O’Donoghue’s effort is “less sparky”. Frankly all the “modern” made me desperately yearn for the Tolkien translation, although if I had to I’d go for the Armitage as well, based on this review.

Julie Elkner was the only woman to pen a major piece this issue. She reviewed Sheila Fitzpatrick’s Tear off Masks! Identity and Imposture in 20th-century Russia.

Fitzpatrick has a long-standing interest in the ways in which ordinary Russians negotiated everyday life in the 1920s and 1930s. Tear off the Masks! brings together a number of her studies from the past fifteen years, on a series of loosely connected themes falling under the broad rubric of ‘identity’ and its ambiguities, with notions of ‘masking’ and ‘unmasking’ as key motifs.

Elkner feels that Fitzpatrick can be too focused on deflating the idea of the omniscient, omnipotent Soviet bureaucracy, but he work on the different images people presented in their everyday lives, and the elaborate theatrics and mirrors devised by the secret service were lucidly described. I wanted to get my hands on it right away but some evil person did a term loan.

For the shorter pieces Uri Avnery wrote on the Israeli government’s dependence on the Arab world’s refusal of every ‘road map’ or ‘peace agreement’ and how Hamas agreement to the 1967 borders and the king of Saudi Arabia’s effort to unite the Palestinian government fills them with horror rather than joy. Peter Campbell covered the Turner’s Rigi exhibit (now ended) at the Tate Britain, stating the need for the three watercolours to remain together. (The threatened ‘Blue Rigi’ was saved.) Deborah Friedell connected Edith Wharton’s novels and the Herminoe Lee biography to her own experiences.

We roll back for the LRB February 22nd issue. The political pieces made the deepest impressions but there was a dash of the literary, historical and even the mathematical.

Fittingly enough the cover of this editions is given entirely to Other lives, M.F. Burnyeat’s review of two books on Pythagoras: Pythagoras: His Life, Teaching and Influence by Christoph Riedweg (translated by Steven Rendall) and Pythagoras and the Pythagoreans: A Brief History by Charles Kahn. Pythagoras is a figure smothered in erroneous myths so Burnyeat deflates them methodically and then judges the latest books primarily on how well the authors have managed to accept the revisions.

Walter Burkert was the historian who combed through numerous obscure ancient sources, many of which were unfamiliar even to experts, to produce Weisheit und Wissenschaft: Studien zu Pythagoras, Philolaus und Platon or Lore and Science in Ancient Pythagoreanism, the revised English version published in 1972. Did he discover the Pythagoras theorem? Nope. What about pondering the “harmony of the spheres”? Nope. What about “his most famous accomplishment, analysing the mathematical ratios that structure musical concordances”? Eh, if you want to stretch it. According to Burnyeat very little supports the claim that he first discovered it and even less to swallow the idea that what led him to the discovery was the sound of blacksmiths hammering.

So what is left for historians on Pythagoras to write about? Most of Burnyeat’s approval lay on Kahn’s text as he showed a “cool” acceptance of Burkert’s colossal text, shifted his attention to the late fourth century as the period to learn of Pythagoras’ true life and accomplishments. Riedweg’s, in comparison, exhibited his confusion on what parts of the myth to reject and what to retain, never buying into the fabulous tales of the man predicting earthquakes, but encouraging readers to marvel, which seemed to have encouraged him to accept “indefensible” versions of Pythagoras’ accomplishments, asserting that he created the word ‘philosophy’ and started the ‘world-order’ definition of ‘cosmos’.

But Burnyeat finds one or two things wrong with Kahn’s interpretation of historical sources as well, and he expounds upon that and Greeks who actually made significant mathematical achievements, including Thales of Miletus, Hippocrates of Chios and Pythagoreans like Hippasus of Metapontum. It was a great read, even if you don’t know or care a fig about Math.

Peter Hallward interviewed former Haitian President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, who is still in South African, living in exile. Hallward enquires about Aristide’s rise to power, controversial decisions he made while in power, alleged alliances he had with criminal elements and what really went on Feb. 28, 2004 when he was finally thrown over in a second coup. Aristide is careful to couch many of the actions he made while in power as ones that came about as “group” decisions, but he does freely admit to having had to make compromises, and points to the growing body of evidence that the picture of Haiti and him publicised and the reality were often dissonant.

The other major political article was R.W. Johnson’s report on the dire political and social situation in Zimbabwe. I can’t say that I appreciated the unqualified “thanks” he gave for the “colonial law, order and medicine” brought to the country–especially after a casual “well yes white’s stole land from the blacks but they only took one third!” (paraphrase)–but there is no doubt that Mugabe is an absolute disaster and needs to be seriously dealt with. The widespread violent intimidation, the incredibly high estimated death toll from famine and disease–anywhere from two million to six million, revealing how uncertain and fragile things are–, the critical deterioration of the social structure paints a picture of abject misery. It is the African countries who have any real influence, but the criminally stubborn Mbeki stands by him, working his “quiet diplomacy” (whatever the fuck that is) while Mugabe apes Mengistu Haile-Mariam “forced removals”, which the former Ethiopian dictator did during the Red Terror (1977-78), successfully killing more of his citizens. (Haili-Mariam is currently living exile in Zimbabwe and Mugabe refuses to give him up to face charges.)

Things have changed, perhaps drastically since this report with Mugabe’s loyalists turning against him, and the opposition getting bolder. Somehow Mugabe will spin this as the “white man’s” conspiracy.

Shifting to education of the medieval variety, in “I lerne song” Tom Shippey reviews Medieval Schools: From Roman Britain to Renaissance England by Nicholas Orme. Shippey is sceptical of Orme’s claim that ‘medieval education was not a precursor of modern education, but the same thing in different circumstances’ but ultimately finds the book another excellent and accessible “capstone” to Orme’s long, and exemplary study “devoted to the history of education”. He chartered the post-Roman form of education which was closely linked to monastic, in which all education was centred around church traditions: children had to sing responses in church, learn to read so they could understand the liturgy, and learn Latin, “the language of the Church” and the Bible.

One learns not only of the difficulty of Latin, but the way the medieval curriculum appeared to make it even more difficult. A theme Shippey detects in Orme’s work is, oddly enough, how the rod was an enduring staple in the Latin classroom.

In Aelfric Bata’s Colloquy 28 the wretched child being thrashed cries out that he’s dying, only to be told grimly by the thrasher: ‘Non es mortuus aduc’ (‘You’re not dead yet’). Four hundred years later the bishop of Norwich forbade classes to be held in churches, because the screams of the children interrupted services. When Cambridge appointed a master of ‘glom-eryre’, or grammar, he had to demonstrate his fitness for the post by birching a boy in public, though we are told it was a selected ‘shrewed’, or naughty boy, and he was paid fourpence for his ‘labour’.


The major question Orme wrestled with is at what point did the present manifestation of primary and secondary school (in the UK) develop from the “ecclesiastical-vocational purpose” to the educational? One possible answer may be found in the churches themselves: the secular ones like Salisbury who ran different schools for choristers and the general public compared to the monastic ones like Canterbury whose schools were run by headed by persons who were not and could never be monks, a situation in which the school’s focus “drifted towards becoming schools for the city rather than the cathedral.” The effects of this could be detected from around the 14th century.

Shippey mentions the upsets in the monastic orders as friars challenged the Benedictine’s prominent position, as well as how schools and teachers were financially supported. There is also a bit the Reformation’s effect on education, and how “professional” teachers actually were considered in light of the fact that children as a group are currently enjoying a period of high societal regard.

Last, but not last, for me was “In Bloody Orkney” Robert Crawford’s review of Maggie Fergusson’s biography, George Mackay Brown: The Life and The Collected Poems of George MacKay Brown, edited by Archie Bevan and Brian Murray. It’s a good mix of close reading of Brown’s poetry and a very positive critique of Fergusson’s writing on Brown’s life. She was careful not to be judgemental and gave significant attention to Stella Cartwright, once Brown’s fiance and “a sacrifice to the culture of male-bonding, heavy drinking and poebiz showing off which constituted the Rose street milieu of 1950’s Edinburgh.” Brown certainly comes off as classic Freudian figure, so enamoured and dependent on his mother that he was unable to form any healthy relationships with other women. Whatever his personal problems, some of the poetry is out-of-control excellent. Some of that excellence I’d show you write now if wordpress allowed me to format poems the way they should be, with all the requisite spaces, but it doesn’t. So you’ll have to take my word for it. :p

Oh poop, I forgot to mention Michael Wood’s nifty little review of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, my favourite! Mifune is a god.