Regaining time

Regaining time

The other evening, I pulled from the shelf the sixth and last volume of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, or to use the Scott-Moncrieff translation, still evocative across the Anglophone countries with their Shakespearean heritage, Remembrance of Things Past. This volume, Finding Time Again, in the awkward 2002 translation of Ian Patterson, or Time Regained, still so in my mind from Scott Moncrieff’s 1920s translation, is the culmination and summation of Proust’s long circumambulation through the illusions of society, friendship, love, introversion, aestheticism and misguided ways through literature. It is in Time Regained that Proust makes his ultimate discovery within himself, within his own experience, of his redemption through literature, memory and the synthesis of subjective perception with the sensual world.

“Real life, life finally uncovered and clarified, the only life in consequence lived to the full, is literature. Life in this sense dwells within all ordinary people as much as in the artists. But they do not see it because they are not trying to shed light on it… Thanks to art, instead of seeing only a single world, our own, we see it multiplied, and have at our disposal as many worlds as there are original artists, all more different one from another than those which resolve in infinity and which, centuries after the fire from which their rays emanated has gone out, whether it was called Rembrandt or Vermeer, still send us their special light.” Proust, Finding Time Again, p. 204

This identification of life and literature occurs as a consequence of the realisation of time regained through the involuntary memories that transport the narrator beyond the constraints of past and present. The narrator stumbles on the cobblestones as he leaves his coach, and he regains the sensation and perception, enclosed within a memory, of his past and ever-changing self, searching the streets of Venice for the experience of John Ruskin’s ideas of beauty. It is the turning point that allows Proust or the narrator of In Search of Lost Time to put aside his doubts about his literary ability, his many diversions, his weak will grounded in the indulgence of his mother, and set down to write.

But it is not an aestheticization of life so much as inundation of literature by life. The processes of perception and symbolisation that Proust recreates throughout In Search of Lost Time are not those of writers or artists alone. They are processes available to all ordinary people. They are ways of seeing, and moral challenges – to see life aright, finally uncovered and clarified – we all know, even if we all do not give ourselves over to the vocation of documenting the unique tapestries of experience, symbol and mind that is great literature.

“The book whose characters are forged within us, rather than sketched by us, is the only book we have.” p 188.

Why did I choose to pull Time Regained from the shelf now? The death of my mother has prompted reflection on memory, old age, death and the disappearance of treasured worlds – and these are all themes in the great coda to In Search of Lost Time Proust composed in Time Regained. I recalled, as I read the book again, the sunny, spacious room in a Victorian terrace, with a rush mat floor and a view onto nothing but another terrace’s wall, in which, in my early twenties, I read all of Proust with the fervour of seeking an aesthetic philosophy of life, just as perhaps Proust sought in Ruskin. All that was so strange and unfamiliar for me in Proust – the life of the French aristocracy in La Belle Époque, the flowers and landscapes of Europe, the Romanesque churches and the travel to Venice, the Dreyfus Affair and the demoralisation French society by world war onecreated a beautiful pageantry for me, but the heart of the drama was the long delayed realisation of the vocation of the writer.

For years I have felt – like Proust’s narrator in the time before he enters fatefully he Guermantes library, and conceives the great artwork he will live and die for – that:

“I now had proof that I was no longer good for anything, that literature could no longer bring me any joy, whether through my own fault, because I was not talented enough, or through the fault of literature, if it was indeed less pregnant with reality than I had thought.” (Time Regained, p. 174)

And when I pulled Finding Time Again from myself, I recreated Proust’s own act of taking from the shelf of the Guermantes library Georges Sand’s Francois Le Champi, which his mother had read to him long into the night to soothe his anxiety, and recovered the magic of art and story-telling and memory within the deep mind of the house of culture.


Poem: the tethered mind

Poem: the tethered mind

The tethered mind

The mind prowls, tethered to its past.
An unknown unknown rises from
An unclaimed grave of awkward glances.
The waves come for the fallen swimmer

Again and again. They roll fast.
They suck his feet into the undertow.
A macadamia tree in a shadowed grove,
Where dreams were made,

Rots and blackens, drowned below
The lipping murk of Brisbane’s spill.
Something else happened there.
Something I cannot sit with.

Cannot say, not even now, not at all.
Only the leather, chafing my neck in thrall.


Jeff Rich

Image Source: MEE/Sebastian Castelier



A little under two weeks ago my mother died. I gave the eulogy at her funeral, and have composed this elegy as a way of working through the grief.


There is no world but this one,
Yet we are incomplete;
Left stranded and voiceless

When the anima disappears in the sea.
Helplessly, we cry out to memory
Since there is no other belief:

Farewell. Thank you. And hear this pledge:
we will remember you.
But the broken sessions of truth-telling

Are lost forever now, though I may coddle
Silent fantasies for years.
The words between us land in weak memory.

No consecration by presence.
No darting eye of thought.
No castigation by madness.

Merely fading recollections.
Merely words, written down.
Merely sweet sanctioned sentiment.

No more Sunday phone calls.
No more complaints about your health.
No more fears of tipping into hypomania.

After the flood, the illness
Possessed your inutile mind.
Decades followed in sterile locked wards.

Exiled from the Glasshouse Mountains,
Stranded, far from home,
You suffered the worst of tragedies,

And died too much alone.
Few attended your funeral, but there they saw
A young woman who before they never knew:

Photos of Dido before her betrayal.
And so the floating bier was lit
By a soaring arrow of words aflame.

And your ashes will mingle with the ocean,
While we stumble towards the same fate,
Muttering insane love for the world bereft.



Jeff Rich February 2018


Cultural collapse: Delhi 1857

Cultural collapse: Delhi 1857

“This whole city has become a desert.” Ghalib 1861

William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi 1857 is a great tragedy, and its fallen hero is the culture of the Mughal court.

Under Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar II (1775-1862), the Mughal court and Delhi society experienced a cultural renaissance of sorts. Zafar, the last Mughal, presided over a liberal regime that practised toleration between Hindu and Muslim, the equal parts of Delhi society, and Zafar himself regularly visited Sufi shrines, and was even known as a Sufi pir. He practised  forms of Sufi mysticism and eschewed a growing Wahhabi fundamentalism that began to spread from Medina to Delhi through the nineteenth century. He also himself wrote poetry, and sponsored mushairas (poetic symposiums) as among the most important and celebrated cultural events of Delhi.

Dalrymple quotes from a fictionalised account of one of the mushairas,- Delhi ki akhri shama, The Last Musha’irah of Delhi by Farhattullah Baig – at which the poets of Delhi would seek to outdo each other with the wit, cleverness and beauty of their ghazals and other forms. On a brightly lit room the poets and audience sat, ate sweets and smoked from their huqqas, until the Shah’s herald entered the room to read the ghazal on which they would invent their variations.

At Zafar’s court there were two great poets who competed for renown and the favour of the Shah: Ghalib (Mirza Asadullah Khan), and Zauq (Sheikh Muhammad Ibrahim Zauq). The two poets were a contrast in lives and style. Ghalib was more formalistic, and more prone to drink, gambling and love affairs. Zauq used simpler diction and forms, and perhaps for this reason appealed more to his Sufi master, Zafar. Zauq was appointed the chief poet of the Mughal court at a young age, and was the poetry master to the Last Mughal. But Ghalib was loved as a poet of less austere lives. It was, however, only at Zauq’s death in 1854 that Ghalib achieved the prime position as the poet of the Mughal court.

However, by that time rising Muslim fundamentalism and Christian evangelism threatened the mushairas of the Mughal court. By 1857, the cataclysm of the Mutiny and the Siege of Delhi would destroy this cultural heritage. The British, pursuing divine vengeance for their humiliation, pursued a policy of cultural extermination: mass murder, rape, destruction of buildings and shrines, looting. They sought to raze Delhi to the ground, perhaps in some reliving of Carthage from their schoolboy history lessons.

Amidst the victims of the looting were Zauq and Ghalib’s poetry. Much of their poetry was lost or destroyed by the British. But one poet and critic, Muhammad Husain Azad, survived, fled the troops, and managed to rescue some of Zauq’s ghazals. In the evening of 17 September, while sheltering in his house with his whole extended family,

The soldiers of the victorious army suddenly entered the house. They flourished their rifles and shouted: Leave here at once!' The world turned black before my eyes. A whole houseful of goods was before me and I stood petrified: What shall I take with me?’ All the jewels and jewellery were locked in a box and were thrown into a well. But my eye fell on the packet of [Zauq’s] Ghazals [which were being prepared for a critical edition for publication after Zauq’s death in 1854]. I thought, ‘Muhammad Husain, if God is gracious, and you live, then all these material goods can be restored. But where will another usad [master] come from, who can compose these ghazals again? While these exist Zauq lives even after his death; if these are lost his name cannot survive either..’

So I picked up the packet [of Zauq’s verse] and tucked it under my arm. Abandoning a well-furnished home, with twenty-two half dead souls I left the house – or rather the city. And the words fell from my lips, ‘Hazrat Adam left paradise; and Delhi is paradise too. But if I am Adam’s descendant – why shouldn’t I leave paradise just as he did.”

(quoted Dalrymple, Last Mughal pp 374-5)

Much of Ghalib’s poetry was lost and destroyed by the British in their looting of Delhi in 1857. He has kept no copies of his verse, and two private libraries where his friends stored his poems were ransacked.  But unlike Zauq, Ghalib lived through the Siege of Delhi and witnessed the collapse of the culture he loved so dearly. In a letter to a friend he described how:

“A few days ago a faqir who has a good voice and sings well discovered a ghazal of mine somewhere and got it written down. When he showed it to me, I tell you truly, tears came to my eyes.” quoted Dalyrmple, The Last Mughal, p. 463

Ghalib would survive another 12 years in the ruined city, in this destroyed cultural paradise.  He was one of an estimated one thousand only surviving Muslims. He saw the princes reduced to begging, and the women of the court, after mass rapes by the British, forced into prostitution. He could find no booksellers, no binders, no calligraphers and no poets in the this once vibrant city of learning and culture. His city had become a desert , stripped of its living heritage of language, the Fort, the bazaars and the watercourses.

Ghalib’s sadness was deep and memorably expressed (all quotes from Dalrymple, p 464). He wrote, “A man cannot quench his thirst with tears.” And again:

You know that when despair reaches its lowest depths, there is nothing left but to resign oneself to God’s will. What lower depths can there be than this: that it is the hope of death that keeps me alive?”

And finally: “My soul dwells in my body these days as restless as a bird in cage.”

I am yet to read much of Zauq and Ghalib’s poetry, and there is a great gulf between Urdu and English in poetic translation. Yet Ghalib’s sadness at his devastated culture and Zauq’s miraculous survival from the looters of the British Raj, make them part of the heritage of the Burning Archive.

Image source: Time


Poem: peaches in a bowl

Poem: peaches in a bowl

Today, a poem composed on the day of my daughter’s departure to study in Europe for five months.

Peaches in a bowl

There it stands

The Indian metal bowl

Silver outside

Burnt orange and black streaks

Glossed in its basin

Inside arranged with care

Each sticker taken from the skin

Eight peaches and five nectarines

It stands

In the middle of the long table

Where we talked

Where we laughed

Where we played

Where we cried

Where we became who

It stands alone

In the late afternoon light

The only thing

Y’need to know on this earth

Filling the air with scent

Before your flight

It stands there

Until your return


The reenchantment of the world

The reenchantment of the world

This morning I feel stuck for words. A heat wave has exhausted me, and the end of my holidays looms. To regather my strength I have been reading over old posts, old poems, and contemplating what keeps me going on.

From the movie The Darkest Hour a quote from Churchill (although its provenance is challenged) that inspires me.

“Success is not final. Failure is not fatal. The courage to continue is what counts.”

In that spirit I am reposting below my post on the Disenchantment of the World, from October 2015. This post was my first after my initial post. Let it be the herald of a year of dwelling in the house of being.

The disenchantment of the world

I have long known this phrase – in German die Entziehung der Welt – from Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism and known it as the long historical process in which rational, scientific and commercial action stripped the objects of the world of their magic, spirit and divine presence. The life world became a set of manipulable objects, and the mind a calculating machine in which symbol and unreason were shamed, caged and denigrated. Weber’s great essay came from the deep spring of this conflict in his own mind, following his mental collapse, his crisis of depression, his reintegration of the mystic spirit he imbibed from his mother and that made him resent the hard casing of rational vocation and mourn the disenchantment of the world.

In truth, hard practical rationality, perhaps some might call it modernity, although that word was born only in the late nineteenth century and has a troubled heritage, this useful reason that dominates our lives never completed vanquished the spirits enchanting the world, and never completely terminated the mourning for a world in which at least the artist could commune with the spirit world, newly abstracted as the imagination. So Wallace Stevens, late in his Hartford study, would speak to his interior paramour, and “for small reason, think/ the world imagined is the ultimate good.” And well before the graceful emperor of ice cream, it was Schiller who coined the concept, the disenchantment of the world. In his 1788 poem, the “Gods of Greece” – the year this great island where I write was settled by modern European peoples and modernity would encounter tragically peoples bound differently in spirit with this new claimed land – Schiller mourned the vital aesthetic world of the Greeks and spoke of die engotterte Natur – nature from which gods have been eliminated. Later, Hegel wrote in Phenomenology of Spirit:

Trust in the eternal laws of the gods has vanished and the Oracles, which pronounced on particular questions are dumb. The statues are now only stones from which the living soul has flown, just as the hymns are words from which belief has gone… The works of the Muse now lack the power of the Spirit, for the Spirit has gained its certainty of itself from the crushing of gods and men.

It is in the mourning of this disenchantment of the world that Gabriel Josipovici places the spirit and the history of modernism in Whatever happened to Modernism?  Its spirit he evokes by expressions of the remorseless need to go on producing art despite an irrecoverable loss that severs the artist, the writer, the thinker, the musician from communion with spirit, continuity of tradition, certainty of authority, divinity of passion. So Kafka:

Nothing is granted me, everything has to be earned, not only the present and future but the past too – something after all which perhaps every human being has inherited, this too must be earned, it is perhaps the hardest task. (Letters to Milena)

So Wittgenstein:

Certain events would put me into a position in which I could not go on with the old language games any further. In which I was torn away from the sureness of the game . (On certainty)

So Kierkegaard: “What is really missing is the strength to obey, to yield to the necessary in one’s self, what might be called one’s limits.”

It is so, Josipovici argues, that Modernism ought not be understood as a passing art period, but rather as “the coming into awareness by art of its precarious status and responsibilities, and therefore as something that will, from now on, always be with us.” It is as such a response to the disenchantment of the world, and so remains as a continuing vital tradition, a never ending work of mourning response to the loss of the cultural, historical and psychological attachments that offer redemption for frailty and failure. It is in this spirit that I am still a modernist, and that modernism, understood not as ideas but as a work of speaking truth in the face of trauma, offers a way to restore a public culture of love and compassion, tragedy and comedy, a public culture that reaches beyond the callow illusions of marketing to the deeper longings we all hold within.



Return of a King

Return of a King

Image credit: Elizabeth Butler, Remnants of an Army  (1879) Tate Gallery

I have finished reading William Dalrymple‘s mesmerising and tragical history of the first Anglo-Afghan War (1839-42), Return of a King: the battle for Afghanistan. It tells the story of the British invasion of Afghanistan, or, as it was known by its local rulers then, Khurusan.

The king who returns in this story is Shah Shuja of the Sadozai dynasty, who is depicted below holding court in the Bala Hissar fort and royal palace of Kabul.


Image SourceInterior of the palace of Shauh Shujah Ool Moolk, Late King of Cabul, 1839, Lithograph by Lieutenant James Rattray, British Library OnlineWikimedia Commons .

In 1800 the Sadozai dynasty had been ousted by its main rival, the Barakzais. The Barakzais clan would be led ultimately by the formidable Dost Mohammed Khan (1779-1863). Shah Shuja lived in exile in Ludhiana in the Punjab, and suffered many humiliations and defeats in his efforts to reclaim the throne, not least yielding the Koh-i-Noor diamond to Maharajah Ranjit Singh, the Lion of Punjab, one of the most effective military rulers who resisted the British. The British made a strategic decision to ally with Shah Shuja. They supported him with a pension, and kept his tattered court intact for thirty years before deciding in the 1830s to reinstall the Shah as ruler of Khurusan.

The British motive to return this King was geo-strategic rivalry with Russia, and the secure control of Britain’s Indian Empire.  Fears were spread in doctored intelligence reports that the Russians planned to take control of Afghanistan, ally with Persia, and squeeze Britain’s imperial heart from the north. These fears were unfounded, but give Dalrymple’s book some of its most intriguing and tragic characters – the three key local intelligence officers of Britain and Russia, Alexander Burnes (a relative of poet, Robert Burns) and his Afghan colleague Mohan Lal Kashmiri, and Ivan Vitkevitch or Jan Prosper Wietkiwicz. These three were the central players in the opening gambit of the Great Game of espionage and geo-strategic rivalry in Central Asia between Russia and Britain. All their lives ended tragically, perhaps none more so than Wietkiwicz. He had been exiled and sentenced to death at the age of 14 for opposing Russian rule of his native Poland. His death sentence was commuted and he made a life as an extraordinary military officer, linguist and early intelligence officer in the Russian army, which he had resented as an adolescent. He outwits the British, and achieves Russia’s initial objectives of securing an alliance with the Barakzai clain, but then is withdrawn as Russia makes a diplomatic pivot. He dies suspiciously in St Petersburg in an apparent suicide on the eve of being honoured by his Tsar, but some historians, including Dalrymple, credit a plausible hypothesis that he was assassinated by British agents.

These men’s lives were consumed and destroyed by rulers and decision-makers full of delusions and misjudgements. The mystery at the heart of the book is the incompetence of power. Why did the least able generals, diplomats and rulers control the command boxes, while the able ones were shunned, ignored, overlooked and slighted?  The greatest tragedy that flows from that incompetence is the invasion of Afghanistan, ordered by the remote and inattentive governor, Lord Auckland, executed with ferocious stupidity by Major-General William Elphinstone, and overseen politically by the pompously self-certain, deluded Sir William Hay McNaghten.

The invasion began with a disastrous unprotected march through the Bolan Pass, where the British army, principally made up of Indian sepoys and camp followers, was attacked by snipers from the high cliffs, and lost most of its supplies. Still, they made it through and were surprised by the withdrawal from Kabul of the Afghan rulers. The British took it over and engaged in outrageous looting and destruction of some of the commercial centres of Kabul. They reinstalled Shah Shuja as a puppet ruler, and settled in for a year or more of British proxy rule. That rule was characterised by arrogant misjudgements and contempt for the local population, and even Shah Shuja himself. McNaghten was the real ruler of Afghanistan, and he inspired an Islamic uprising against mistreatment and foreign infidel rule.

Dost Mohammed had withdrawn strategically to gather his strength. By 1841 he marched his armies and coordinated a network of urban insurrection. The British were trapped in Kabul, and overrun by this urban insurrection. Alexander Burnes – a figure of hate in Afghanistan for his espionage and his private harem of Afghan women – was murdered. Dost Mohammed outsmarted by the vain British rulers. He offered them safe passage out of Kabul. In reality he continued to harry and attack the retreating army, shepherding it into ambush after ambush, while claiming these attacks were made by uncontrollable rival tribes. Almost the whole retreating army and its camp followers died or were captured and sold into slavery in the most terrible scenes. Starving, frostbitten husks lined the mountain passes to Peshawar. Ultimately, a single man – the British surgeon who survived misadventures through luck more than heroism – rode alone and exhausted into the last British stronghold of Jalalabad. This is the scene depicted in Elizabeth Butler’s Remnants of an Army  (1879).

Shah Shuja had earlier been attacked on his march out of Kabul by a band of vengeful Afghani warlords who he had alienated and offended. His palanquin was found and attacked. The last Shah of the Durrani empire, the last Timurid ruler of Khurasan, was shot and left to rot in the barren sands outside Kabul. The British had done much to ruin Afghanistan. It would no longer be a commercial cross-roads of Central Asia. Still, Dost Mohammed ruled successfully for another twenty years, increasing the revenues and security of his country. He would become a national hero, but still an imperial “war for no wise purpose” had wrecked so many lives.

In another of Dalrymple’s histories of Mughal India, The Last Mughal: the Fall of a Dynasty, Delhi, 1857 (2006), he writes:

Public, political and national tragedies, after all, consist of a multitude of private, domestic and individual tragedies. It is through the human stories of the successes, struggles, grief, anguish and despair of these individuals that we can best bridge the great chasm of time and understanding separating us from the remarkably different world of mid-nineteenth century India (p. 13)

The Return of a King is a masterpiece in bridging that chasm through the interweaving of exceptional individual stories with profound public tragedies, and the presentation together of uncanny contemporary parallels with all the strangeness of a lost but recoverable world.