Reflections on 2017

Reflections on 2017

The year is drawing to a close, and while it is yet weeks from New Year, the office christmas party season is in full swing, and my mind is turning to an upcoming holiday. I am approaching the end of my current assignment and am going into my annual leave without knowing what I will do or who I will be working with next year. It seems I am very much in internal exile in the minor provincial bureaucracy on which I depend for my livelihood.

I have a crushing sense of defeat in what I suppose I may still call a career. All the qualities that I have seem unwanted, and I can only suppose that the consultocrats and courtiers who run my Castle have decided rightly that I will never be a loyal follower to them. I need to begin to look elsewhere, and to find hope and purpose in more nourishing lands.

So, it occurs to me this morning that one way I can reconnect with a sense of strength is to reflect on this year through the lens of my blog. In many eyes it has been a dark year, but events of the world and events in the life of the mind have different rhythm.

So today let me recap the topics of my posts this year, and next week allow me to reflect on the themes and stories of the year.

In January, I had returned from a trip to Vietnam and Cambodia during which I reread the redoubtable After Tamerlane by John Darwin.

  • It led to a post on the unravelling of empires “adrift in the great historical tides of convergence and divergence” that defeat beliefs in any unitary imperial order, as we see today, when America declines into narcissistic tantrums and China redreams the One Road of Tamerlane.
  • A post on massacres in history discovered a precedent for Islamic foreign fighters in Syria in the exodus of youthful enthusiasts for Hellenic and Christian culture to the Greek war of independence. Among these fighters was the original literary psychopath – mad, bad and dangerous to know – Lord Byron.
  • Then my failure to read Don Quixote, led me to reflect on reading ambitions, and the sheer impossibility of realising them all in our media-saturated world. But the attempt led me to pose the paradox: “In our madness is our truest dignity?”
  • By the end of the month, by now returned to work, I began my series Thirteen ways of looking at a bureaucrat, inspired by Wallace Stevens poem with the same perspectives on a blackbird. I described this series as “an elegy for a kind of life of the mind that has died around me. I sing my sad songs and hope the gods will resurrect this tradition. But the odds on that seem to grow slimmer by the day.”

In February, I wrote posts in response to stanzas I through to V of Stevens’ poem, each with a new subtitle: I vigilance amidst stillness; II the three-eyed raven; III the craft of the cameo actor; IV in unity is death; and V the beauty of the bureaucrat.

In March, I completed the series, Thirteen ways of looking at a bureaucrat, with VI through barbaric glass darkly; VII at the feet of thin men; VIII involved in what I know; IX servants of Utopias; X flight in green light; XI people who live in glass coaches; XII the thaw, the flight; XIII the long waits of winter. I felt the last few posts were rushed, more lapidary, more gnomic. I have since collected all 14 posts together, and may yet expand into a short book. But I am so wary of the publication industry; I may simply self-publish.

In April, I turned to more literary and cultural themes. In that month I was intensely preparing a secret government report on violence and mental illness, and what, if anything could be done, to prevent acts like the Bourke Street vehicular homicide.

In May, I experimented with writing posts late at night in bed in response to the daily prompt on wordpress and fragments composed on my daily commute. It was, I confess, a search for readers.

  • I reposted a series of older posts from my blog, like six asides about culture (and Havel), and going sane writing, which was prompted by a role model of sorts the British psychoanalyst and essayist, Adam Phillips.
  • I curated more of my content, linking to an essay and conference paper I wrote on “Why is alcohol policy difficult?” This paper I presented to a conference of public health scholarly zealots. At least one person came up to me after my talk and expressed appreciation for what I said.
  • I reflected on Hannah Arendt and her philosophy of natality, which “spoke to me as an outcast. Where our podcast literary critic embraced Arendt’s status as a refugee to castigate the world; I saw in her a determination to love the world as an outcast, to see it clearly, and yet to make new beginnings and to disclose your self to the world. That is what human freedom is for Arendt. Not to remake the world; but to give birth to new things in a world that is precious, bounded, beyond our control and yet the only one we can ever know.”
  • I appreciated Kenneth Slessor’s poem, Five Bells, linking to a beautiful radiophonic performance, and continuing the thoughts on natality:”To endure you must begin. To survive you must write without success… Only for those five bells”

In June, I returned to something of a more stable pattern. I reflected on Robert Frost’s practice of poetry and the form of the blog in Waste books and epigrams.

  • I wrote an essay “On Humility” prompted by one of my favourite quotes by Jung and likely prompted by still more humiliations and rebuffs at work.
  • I posted the complete paper that I had presented to a conference on children’s voices and the history of emotions. The paper was about how the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse created a new way of feeling about trauma. I will return to this paper, and my reflections on this inquiry in the tradition of truth and reconciliation commissions, over coming months, since I am committed to writing a long essay on the significance of this public event.
  • I castigated the Nobel Prize for literature for awarding Bob Dylan the prize.
  • I explored the powerful metaphor of the infinite conversation, which emerged for me as an important theme for my writing, my recovery and my psychotherapy.

In July, I published two poems of mine – The state of politics, and Nouriel’s shoes.

In August, I turned back to themes of politics. I was struggling to find a new place role for myself, and began to reach out to the powerful men who I knew as mentors if not as patrons.

  • I wrote some starting hypotheses for a planned essay, Republics in Distress. “So, in our distressed republics, a committed life will only destroy itself if it tries to break the wheel of our decadent politics. Rather, in each of our lives, we should turn to the simple actions that preserve, protect and nourish for renewal in a better time a more virtuous politics.”
  • I wrote on my long held view about the restrictions of freedom of speech and freedom of thought for public servants.
  • Then I wrote a darker piece, The death of the soul, prompted by debates in the press about the decay of culture and decline of religion, in which I asked: “How then do we live in these dark, destructive times, haunted by terror and our own comforts?”

In September, amidst work I was undertaking on lone actor terrorist attacks, I reflected on the return of sacred violence, and this was a kind of dissent against comforting progressive notions of the causes and responses to terrorism.

  • I commented indirectly on the debate on destruction of monuments to historical figures who are no longer as widely esteemed. Here I said: “There is enough war in history; we do not need history wars and culture wars that both consecrate and desecrate public memory. We need rather to practise humility in asserting and nurturing our mercurial identities, while kindly forgiving, if not forgetting, the sins that lie in all of our pasts.”
  • And I posted more poems, with the best being Dr Cogito brings his mind to heel.

In October, I wrote about sorrow in response to my aged mother’s declining health and cognition; the Red Nostalgia I observed at a lecture on the centenary of Red October, the Russian Revolution; and the meaning for me of Keats’ poem, When I have fears:

  • “In the face of death, in the face of oblivion, in the face of insignificance before the grandeur of the wide world, in the face of losing love, the poem realises all those things are true. They may be feared, but they cannot be averted. So, when I have fears, I endure them. I stand on the shore of the wide world, and I sing my song.”

In November, I returned to reflections on major cultural figures with Conrad’s DarknessForgetting Foucault; and Self-portrait in a time of hunger, which was a kind of premonition of this review of my own work. This last post contained some reflections on my enduring purpose and abiding concerns:

  • “I have contemplated suicide, madness, the tragedies of history, play, sacred violence, bureaucracy, governing, trauma, terror, child sexual abuse, sanity, memory, music, literature and more. Certain images – the archive in flames – have recurred as uncanny repetitions. But others have sprung from nowhere and surprised me. There were times when a mere phrase – the disappearance of stories from the world – took hold of me, and found its way to some new thought. Other times I have dared to voice my dissent with the world that I have found in my day job, even if I cannot believe these obscure samizdat will make much, if any, difference. Still, I can practise living in truth and the ordinary virtues – dignity, compassion, the life of the mind. And what is culture if not an unenclosed field in which we are all free to sow our gifts?”

Lastly, in December, I have written just last week’s post On revenge, stirred by images of Captain Ahab, and this long recapitulation of the year.

Such has been my year. Reviewing my words, my reading, my images from the year has given me new strength. The verdicts of courtiers and consultocrats should not bother me. They bring nothing to the infinite conversation. I will survive beyond their defeat of me. I will walk unburnt from the flaming archive.

 

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On revenge

On revenge

“All visible objects, man, are but as pasteboard masks. But in each event – in the living act, the undoubted deed – there, some unknown but still reasoning thing puts forth the mouldings of its features from behind the unreasoning mask. If man will strike, strike through the mask! How can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall? To me, the white whale is that wall, shoved near to me. Sometimes I think there’s naught beyond. But ’tis enough. He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it. That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white whale agent, or be the white whale principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.” Captain Ahab in Moby Dick

 

I will have such revenges on you both,
That all the world shall–I will do such things,–
What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be
The terrors of the earth.
King Lear

At times, thoughts of revenge have driven me mad. Thoughts, but I do not act on them. The thoughts pool like dirty water in my mind. They become a home to disease, and plots to inflict the terrors of the earth on my enemies. But these plots find no actors, know no conspiracies, and drop into the fetid water as no more than bitter letters.

I have borne enough insult, humiliation and loss in my wanderings across the seas of power to dream on revenge. The modern office is a company of strangers, where tragic drama is frowned upon and cynical detachment is preferred. But decisions on jobs and titles and projects and favours are as fateful for soul-making as the adventures of a whaling ship.

Once, after many years of being passed over for promotion, I was subjected by a boss to the silent treatment for weeks on end. It was only broken by a suggestion that I go to some other part of the organisation, where I could be completely forgotten by him. For a few weeks I discussed this exile with the area, but I was unwilling to go because the job did not suit my skills; the new manager I knew I could not work for; and I believed surely I deserved better. At some point, when I still believed I was negotiating the arrangements, I learnt from this new manager, who I was intent never to work for, that I had already been transferred. The paperwork had been signed by my old boss two weeks before, and no-one had even told me. I later learned the new manager had told all her staff months before, before the idea was even put to me, that I would be working there. The plot to use me for their purposes had been hatched without me. The basic dignity afforded to anyone to be involved in decisions about their own work was denied me. I had been traded like a chattel.

This humiliation broke my identity as a professional public servant. It smashed my sense of self.  It led to thoughts of suicide and a deep depression. The world seemed like a great wall of inscrutable malice, seeking to destroy me.  The depression was a war within myself between my own letters of the underworld and an instinct for another life-affirming response. As in Dostoyevsky’s Letters from the Underworld, I immersed myself in a “state of cold, malignant, perpetual rancour” in which I would taunt and worry myself with my own fancies.

“Of those fancies it will be ashamed, yet it will nevertheless remember them all, exaggerate them all, and even imagine to itself things which have never happened, on the mere pretext that one day it may obtain its revenge, and that therefore it must, in the meanwhile, forget nothing.”

Dostoyevsky also anticipated the impotence of my dreams of revenge:

“Or perhaps it will actually embark upon a scheme of revenge; but if it does so the thing will be done only by fits and starts, and from behind a stone, and incognito, and in a manner which makes it clear that the mouse distrusts alike its right to wreak vengeance and the ultimate success of its scheme, since it knows in advance that its poor attempts at retribution will bring upon its own head a hundred times more suffering than will fall to the lot of the person against whom the vengeance is aimed, but upon whom not so much as a scratch is inflicted.” Letters from the Underworld p. 7.

It seemed to me that the injury done to me was too great to fight back, and so I withdrew into a dark night of the soul. Machiavelli said that “Men should be either treated generously or destroyed because they take revenge for slight injuries – for heavy ones they cannot.” So I was both destroyed and unable to take revenge. I only dreamt on the bitter root.

Revenge is barren of itself: it is the dreadful food it feeds on; its delight is murder; its end is despair. Friedrich Schiller

As the months passed the bitter fancies – imagined conspiracies with the court that would undo the courtiers who had undone me – receded. Writing, and not power, would be my salvation. My redemption lay in literature and culture, and not the small prizes of office politics.

Rather than dwell on revenge, I began to mourn the life and dreams I had lost.

I could not give up my life in the oceans of power, but sailed them not in the Pequod, but in The Flying Dutchman.

Image source: Jay Hunter Morris performing as Captain Ahab in San Francisco Opera performance of Moby Dick

 

 

Forgetting Foucault

Forgetting Foucault

Over recent weeks I have chanced upon a few biographical articles on Michel Foucault. One was an account of Foucault’s use of LSD in Death Valley on a road trip with some fellow academics in the 1970s. Another was speculation that in the late 1970s Foucault was too close to neo-liberal ideas that would attack the French welfare state. They have led me in turn to revisit some of the discussion of the biographies and hagiographies of Saint Foucault, including his fevered embrace of sadomasochistic practices in the 1970s/80s San Francisco.

For a long time Foucault was an icon for me, driven by the mesmeric appeal of some of his thought and a personal identification with something in his personal struggle to think and to write. I read everything he ever wrote, and most of his interviews. Whether I understood them, I am not so sure. I have a copy of The Order of Things, which I bought as part of a prize for first year history at the University of Melbourne and so is signed by historian Geoffrey Blainey  (only four years younger than Foucault himself) and the writer who donated the prize, Judah Waten, (who died the year after Foucault) It sits on my shelf now unread for twenty or more years,  and is treasured more for those signatures than for Foucault’s melodramatic evocation of the effacement of humanity in sands of time. But in my twenties I collected Foucault’s thoughts obsessively, as if through the incorporation of these texts I would transform my status from benighted outsider into a public intellectual of standing. I tracked down his very early work on dreams and the practice of Ludwig Binswanger . It was symptomatic of my strange quest that my abiding memories of these texts are Binswanger’s descriptions of ways of being-in-the-world, more so than Foucault radical co-option of those ideas.

I even translated one text of Foucault’s that I could not find an English version – Foucault’s essay on Blanchot’s thought of the outside. I pursued the authors he wa fascinated by, such as the strange, enigmatic but ultimately tediously procedural spoiled rich kid, Raymond Roussel. The works that most deeply moved me were his tales of madness – in life, in writing, in suffering. It was not political Foucault that I found fascinating, although I tried to systematise all I knew of his erratic and unhinged statements on politics into some form of critique governmentality. I even conceived my PhD thesis as a kind of Foucauldian history of work and unions: I was tracing the ways in which a certain truth, a certain identity, was framed around the more fluid and undifferentiated lives of these workers. But while this idea fascinated me, it did not really help me write the work. It was his method and his style, the ravings of a self-proclaimed outcast, that both mesmerised me and paralysed me.

I wanted to borrow Foucault’s identity, his postures, his self-dramatisations, but found myself in a completely alien situation. And ultimately Foucault’s ideas and choices left me cold. He was a histrionic advocate of violence in a black velour suit. He championed the rights of spoiled, privileged men to practise sadistic cruelty. What violence did he practise and against whom? He imagined himself into a dramatic cultural revolution, and supported people’s justice He petitioned the French Government to abolish the age of consent and liberate paedophiliac men to practise their child sexual abuse on unprotected children. He loved death too much, and knew too little of life. His own judgement that taking LSD in Death Valley was the most important experience of his life, to my current mind, condemns him.

The most important thing I learned from my fascination with Foucault was how to forget Foucault. He was a Nietzsche without the suffering – the conscious self-presentation of priestly radicalism mesmerised me and millions more. Miller’s biography of Foucault presents itself as “one man’s lifelong struggle to honor Nietzsche’s gnomic injunction, ‘to become what one is.'” And perhaps this is what fired my imagination, even if I mistook Foucault’s fame and fashion for authenticity and value. Now I think a truer model of the transvaluation of all values was the lonely wandering of Friedrich himself. As Roger Kimball writes:

“But whatever one thinks of Nietzsche’s philosophy and influence, it is difficult not to admire his courage and single-minded commitment to the philosophical life. Wracked by ill-health—migraines, vertigo, severe digestive complaints—Nietzsche had to quit his teaching position at the University of Basel when he was in his mid-thirties. From then on he led an isolated, impoverished, celibate life, subsisting in various cheap pensioni in Italy and Switzerland. He had but few friends. His work was almost totally ignored: Beyond Good and Evil, one of his most important books, sold a total of 114 copies in a year. Yet he quietly persevered.”

The contrast with Foucault the wayward scion of privilege could not be stronger. Kimball uses Nietzsche’s words against Foucault himself, saying,

He epitomized to perfection a certain type of decadent Romantic, a type that Nietzsche warned against when he spoke of “those who suffer from the impoverishment of life and seek rest, stillness, calm seas, redemption from themselves through art and knowledge, or intoxication, convulsions, anaesthesia, and madness.” Foucault’s insatiable craving for new, ever more thrilling “experiences” was a sign of weakness, not daring.

In the end, I left behind some time in my 30s this icon of cruelty. By choosing life in all its mundane beauty, not melodramas of radical death, I learned to forget Foucault.

Self-portrait in a time of hunger

Self-portrait in a time of hunger

“The storm of progress now threatens to burn the remaining archives of human memory. In an infinite set of information, no tradition holds fast. Where then does the Orphean writer look, if not like this angel towards the past, while being blown irresistibly forward by a fire storm?” This blogger, July 2015, (his first post of The Burning Archive)

Today and tomorrow I am fasting prior to a medical procedure, a probe into my bowels for malignant growths. Much though I would like to find a topic external to my mere self, my inattentive mind keeps circling back to images of food. I walk into the kitchen to make a cup of black tea, and I long for the ripe black Hass avocadoes. I remind myself that I cannot snack on the salted dry biscuits. I turn quickly away from the crisp, radiant pink lady apples.

With no topic held steadily in mind,  and ever diminishing concentration, I skitter about and look back over the topics of this blog. It has voiced poems, and been visited by Dr Cogito. It has been graced with the presence of Symborska, Keats, John Clare, Wallace Stevens, Zbigniew Herbert, Emily Dickinson, Anna Akhmatova, Joyce and more. This blog has emulated Adam Phillips in venturing a form of essay on the life that I lead and the alternatives that I might imagine into being through writing. It has more secretly followed Valery in his Cahiers, improvising connections and committing myself to an artwork as a form of provisional self-creation. It has gathered the fallen blooms of thought from a personal canon, stretching across Proust, Kafka, Havel, Rilke, Benjamin, Fukuyama, Fernandez-Armesto, John Gray the pessimist, Blanchot and Sebald.

I have contemplated suicide, madness, the tragedies of history, play, sacred violence, bureaucracy, governing, trauma, terror, child sexual abuse, sanity, memory, music, literature and more. Certain images – the archive in flames – have recurred as uncanny repetitions. But others have sprung from nowhere and surprised me. There were times when a mere phrase – the disappearance of stories from the world – took hold of me, and found its way to some new thought. Other times I have dared to voice my dissent with the world that I have found in my day job, even if I cannot believe these obscure samizdat will make much, if any, difference. Still, I can practise living in truth and the ordinary virtues – dignity, compassion, the life of the mind. And what is culture if not an unenclosed field in which we are all free to sow our gifts?

The stats page of my wordpress tells me that I have now in the nearly two and a half years I have written this blog, written 164 posts. These posts have enjoyed, at this moment,  1317 views and 773 visitors. To each of you viewers and visitors, I say thank you. Despite my hunger I affirm that this project will continue, whatever strange artwork it may in some future time be known as, if it is not forgotten entirely.

It is the convex mirror in which I write my soul.

… The soul establishes itself.
But how far can it swim out through the eyes
And still return safely to its nest? The surface
Of the mirror being convex, the distance increases
Significantly; that is, enough to make the point
That the soul is a captive, treated humanely, kept
In suspension, unable to advance much farther

Than your look as it intercepts the picture.

from John Ashbery, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror

Image Source: Parmigianino, Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror, c 1524, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Web Gallery of Art

 

Conrad’s darkness

Conrad’s darkness

“I have never been able to find in any man’s book or any man’s talk anything … to stand up for a moment against my deep-seated sense of fatality governing this man-inhabited world.” Joseph Conrad, 1922, in correspondence with Bertrand Russell.

A new biography of Joseph Conrad has come out. The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World is written by Maya Jasanoff, an American historian, who has set out to make sense of this dark pessimist as a response to the troubles of the first globalised century.

Her book has prompted a rash of reviews, not the least of which is by the mordant critic of censorious liberalism and all beliefs in progress, John Gray. It is from John Gray’s review, “Homo Duplex,” that I have taken the epigram of this post. It is an epigram I could subscribe to myself.

I first encountered Conrad in reading a little grey-backed student’s guide to English literature, which had been handed down to me from my grandmother’s student days. It must have been published in the 1920s or 1930s if I remember rightly. In this textbook, Conrad appeared as a certain form of stylist – a plain style in contrast to the complex eloquence of Thomas Browne – and a novelist of the high seas.

I went on from this coy introduction to read much of Conrad – Lord Jim, The Secret Agent, Nostromo, and, of course, The Heart of Darkness. He evoked like few other writers the gloom and glower of the world, and the futility of all our grandiose enterprises.

Perhaps the passages that have had the longest, deepest impact on my reading and writing are the portraits of his narrator, Marlow. This wandering storyteller was separated from his society by both experience and vision. His tales are those of a dark prophet spurned in his own country. They are tales of the barbarism in all civilisations.

At the start of The Heart of Darkness, Conrad describes the floating steamer on the Thames, on which Marlow will tell his tale of the horror, the horror of the Belgian Congo. Conrad evokes the great historical voyages of English navigation and English piracy – “the Golden Hind returning with her round flanks full of treasure” – and exclaims: “What greatness had not floated on the ebb of that river into the mystery of an unknown earth!… The dreams of men, the seed of commonwealths, the germs of empires.”

Then he turns to the sun setting on the great metropole of London – “the monstrous town was still marked ominously on the sky, a brooding gloom in sunshine, a lurid glare under the stars.” It is then that Marlow speaks: “”And this also,’ said Marlow suddenly, ‘has been one of the dark places of the earth.'”

No-one really responds to Marlow. His words were accepted in silence, as expressive of the enigma that he was. He did not tell tales like the other sailors. and did not find in life the direct simplicity, the easy satisfactions and the disregard for secret knowledge of other men.

But Marlow was not typical (if his propensity to spin yarns be excepted), and to him the meaning of an episode was not inside like a kernel but outside, enveloping the tale that brought it out only as a glow brings out a haze, in the likeness of one of these misty halos that sometimes are made visible by the spectral illumination of moonshine.” Conrad, Heart of Darkness, p. 8

This story seemed to lay down a way of being I would emulate in my own life, in my own writing. Marlow spoke of the mysterious and the strangeness we only see in darkness. He spoke as one sailor among others who yet pursued another course. He spoke as a man who made his way through the world, and yet was forever marked off by the cultures he connected to. They made him into a stranger in every world he passed through. Of Marlow, Conrad writes: “he had the pose of a Buddha preaching in European clothes and without a lotus-flower.”

It would seem the most natural thing in the world then that Conrad would make an appearance in the strangely beautiful tales by W.G. Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, which have changed forever my sense of what it means to write. Conrad – “whose protracted bouts of despair were henceforth [after his trip to the Belgian Congo] to alternate with his writing” – would appear in Sebald’s Rings of Saturn as both a witness to the human destructiveness that haunts the narrator and the prelude to the tragic story of Roger Casement’s fatal opposition to the horrors of King Leopold’s monstrosity: it would lead to Casement’s brutal execution and the extirpation of his name.

Sebald, Conrad, Marlow, and if this does not seem an imposture, myself: our thoughts are connected by a deep pessimism, from which writing is the only escape. Action in the world is too marked by fatality; but writing allows us to say the things that our silent readers will ignore and accept as just like Marlow.

It is these thoughts too that John Gray speaks of in his undefinable political philosophy marked by scepticism towards all illusions of progress. If I maintain the tradition of Marlow, speaking my strange stories on a floating steamer as the sun sets on our monstrous world, then John Gray maintains the traditions of Conrad’s darkness. Let the final words of his review of Jasanoff’s biography close my post for today:

If Conrad sounds cynical to readers today, it is because he voices truths that are now deemed unmentionable. He did not believe in what Russell, in a 1937 essay, called the ‘superior virtue of the oppressed’. All human institutions, including newly independent states, were steeped in crime; barbarism and civilisation would always be intertwined, with old evils continually reappearing in new guises. It is a vision as disruptive to the censorious liberalism that holds the reins today as it was to imperial fantasies of progress a hundred years ago.

 

When I have fears

When I have fears

I have over the last year or so frequently relaxed in a meditative trance while listening to soft-spoken readings of poetry.  Set against moody electronic music, the softly but precisely enunciated words penetrate to unknown chambers of the mind. Who this poet trance reader is, I do not know, but I appreciate her readings, stripped of any theatrical reading of the kind famous actors sometimes make.

The readings I listen to most are those of Keats, Dickinson, Gerard Manley-Hopkins, and a reading from Rilke’s letters of advice to a young poet. But my favourite is the recording of Keats’ poems:  When I have fears that I may cease to be; To a Nightingale; Ode on A Grecian Urn; To Autumn; This living hand, warm and capable.

I did not know the poem, “When I have fears”, before I discovered it, read in this way. I had been searching for quality readings of poems, as a way to aid memorisation and to fill the well with things of beauty. Instead of showing me the way to famous actors rendering well known poems with their robust personalities, the world wide web pointed me to this anonymous lyricist of trance, who showed modestly how beauty is truth, truth beauty, and that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

The poem itself echoes in my mind. Here it is, before my thoughts:

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has gleaned my teeming brain,
Before high-pilèd books, in charactery,
Hold like rich garners the full ripened grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starred face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour,
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till love and fame to nothingness do sink.

What writer of a certain sensibility has not feared they may never live to trace the shadows of the visions that come without fanfare, without announcement, yet fatefully deciding the inner life?

These fears are not resolved in the poem; and instead they are endured. The poet patiently waits out these fears, with their origins in the mysterious illusions of fame and love. He stands alone on the shore of the wide world, thinks, and waits for his fears to subside and for his dreamt illusions – the high-piled books of literary fame, the faery power of unreflecting love – to sink beneath the lapping waves. He is left alone to write, and to make things of beauty from this world, with no expectation of admiration, applause or recognition. These fears hold a cruel paradox – they are fears of not having things that cannot be. Beautiful, evocative, satisfying, alluring illusions. But these illusions also crush words of truth under the heavy weight of impossibility – huge cloudy symbols of a high romance.

In the face of death, in the face of oblivion, in the face of insignificance before the grandeur of the wide world, in the face of losing love, the poem realises all those things are true. They may be feared, but they cannot be averted. So, when I have fears, I endure them. I stand on the shore of the wide world, and I sing my song.

It was her voice that made

The sky acutest at its vanishing.

She measured to the hour its solitude.

She was the single artificer of the world

In which she sang. And when she sang, the sea,

Whatever self it has, became the self

That was her song, for she was the maker. Then we,

As we beheld her striding there alone,

Knew that there never was a world for her

Except the one she sang and, singing, made.

(From Wallace Stevens, “The Idea of Order at Key West”)

 

Keats’ own inscription for his tombstone: “Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”

My inscription: “Here lies one whose name was writ on burning paper.”

Red Nostalgia

Red Nostalgia

During the week I attended a lecture at my old university on the meaning of the Russian Revolution today, 100 years on from Red October. The lecturer, Mark Edele,  gave an entertaining and insightful talk to perhaps 600 guests, some alumni, some students, some dignitaries associated with the large philanthropic donation that had enabled the creation of the professorship, of which this was the ceremonial inaugural lecture.

The event was not without some pain or embarrassment for me since I had a year or more ago applied  for a job as one of the new lectureships in History at the University of Melbourne, created by this gift from the Hansen Trust, and meant to be dedicated to improving the teaching and public engagement of history. Here was the professor appointed in that batch, alongside a number of lecturers whose experience in the world outside the academy was not exceptional. Here was the living example of the path I did not take, and that still mourn, but which despite my brief hopes in the winter of 2016, I will not ever be able to return to.

While there was mingling offered with drinks and nibblies before the event, I took myself to one side and wrote down some reflections on my day, which had seen rejection for one job, and an interview, despite expecting rejection, for another.  It made me recall the note I had written to the former head of the History Department, as I sought to return there over a year ago: advice for a prodigal son. But wandering I would remain. I scanned the faces of the minglers, and saw no-one I could recall, except one faded peter pan, with unruly hair and modest clothes, who I remembered as a tutor from my university days.

The lecture itself provided a stimulating account of the many processes of revolution, civil war and breakdown of authority that constituted the events of the Russian Revolution. I learned of the new scholarly account of the revolution as an event that spanned the years 1916 to 1923 and all regions of the vast Russian empire, not only the familiar events of Red Petrograd.

Indeed, before this lecture I had not realised the significance of the containment of the imperial breakdown, with revolts across Central Asia, the Caucasus and European Russia, by Lenin thorough a structure of federated soviet republics, based on frustrated national identities. I had read indifferently of the discussion of the nationalities question, but had not realised its significance. Indeed, it was a principal dispute between the old Bolsheviks, Lenin and Stalin (pictured in the featured photograph from 1919, source, wikipedia). Lenin’s view prevailed. He sealed the imperial breakdown in amber, despite Stalin’s objections. In doing so, Edele pointed out, he left what Vladimir Putin described as a “time-bomb” in the constitution of the Soviet Union. The time bomb duly exploded after 1989.

Edele spoke about the conflicting views of historians of Red October as a coup or a popular revolt. It was, I guess I would summarise his view, as a coup with the backing of the power of the radicalised crowds on the streets. Edele seemed less critical of the Bolsheviks as cynical manipulators of this radicalised crowd, compared to the account of paid demonstrators, funded by German money, orchestrated through the German agent, Lenin, that appears in McMeekin’s recent account of the Russian Revolution, which I read a short time ago.

The “radicalised” crowd is a trope of revolutionary history, and part of a kind of Red Nostalgia. I recall reading, in my undergraduate years, George Rudé’s celebration of the revolutionary crowd in the French Revolution, and his portrayal of this crowd as a serious actor in an historical drama. The radicalised crowd is a contrast to the violent mob. A long tradition of thought, which began at least one source of the history of emotions, sought to find an explanation in group psychology and emotional response to the phenomenon of violence in the radicalised crowd. In response to this tradition, Rudé tried to find the reason, indeed the emerging class consciousness, of this radicalised crowd in their material conditions. Bread prices and not fury explained the crowd in this Marixist view. Simon Schama’s Citizens inoculated me forever against this view.

Despite the new fashion of Marxism in some intellectual circles, Edele’s only concession to this view was to speak of the radicalised crowd. This simple word, radicalised, is, despite all attempts at academic civility, a trigger for red nostalgia. It contains within it whirlpools of emotion, strange psychologies, and much responsibility for violence. Today,  we try to explain to ourselves how relatively prosperous settled people can radicalise as terrorists. There is no simple explanation, and no single process that leads from grievance to fighting in foreign wars and seeking martyrdom in Islam. It was likely was no simpler in Petrograd in 1917.

The sentiment of radicalism is immune to scholarly inquiry. It lingers on, and surely some level of red nostalgia played a part in the large audience attracted to this lecture. Edele was polite towards this nostalgia, only gently chiding the sentimental Marxism that has hidden the violence and the chaos of Red October for so many years.

But one unrepentant revolutionary spoke out in question time after the lecture. With only a brief time for questions, one ragged, aged Trotskyist, whose face seemed familiar from decades ago handing out the dreadful rags of propaganda put out by the Socialist Workers Party and similar organs, stood up and made a comment. He was disappointed in the lecture. Edele had not conveyed the grandeur of the Russian Revolution – surely the greatest of them all, better than the French or the Glorious English Revolution. And why should we care of the Constituent Assembly was abolished? It was a corrupted institution. And did not Alexandra Kollontai bring feminism to the world as part of the Revolution? Why did not Edele speak more of the great and true historians of the Russian Revolution – Isaac Deutscher, Stephen Smith and E.H. Carr?

Professor Edele politely demurred. Those books are now very old. It is true that even factions were banned under the Communist Party – how could that represent a true democracy? But there, alas, the time for questions was exhausted, and so the evening ended in a bitter red sunset.

I was left to question: where do our political passions come from, and in what kind of thought process are they grounded? Surely, it is not in the material facts of history.