Poem: No Markers

Here is another poem, belonging in my Dr Cogito series, if without any direct naming of this persona.

No Markers

There are no markers for when I pass
To this world that holds me fast

But permits at least with frequent trips
Brief reports on conditions there

Most of the lands are unmapped
The cities blur in broken memories

The smoldering glory of a world undone
But for ruins curated by my kind

It is the simple things I can repeat
Like slicing slowly through a peach

Or standing atrophied
In complete exhaustion

Before the verdicts of my peers collapse
And hard men learned in the ken

Cry out for me to run, and take
these poor letters to unknown friends.

Breathing, hard and fast, I wait upon
their answer heard alone in the other world.

At other times, they call me outcast.
In ashen dress I conceal my crime;

Perhaps even I have forgotten
What marked me, what called me

To sit in feigned solitude
And demand a prophet’s vision

Beyond my strength. Yet these self-sworn chains
And the blistered skin beneath

Are now my nightly gown, my stately dress.
No laughter, no canon of the humane

And death can free me from this daily task
To transmogrify the unattainable madness.

Then in hakluyt editions of some second life
These strange journeys will encounter

The welcoming arms of the prodigal father
And at last taste unquenchable life, with dear Penelope.

Advertisements

Ragnarök

Ragnarök

A.S.Byatt has written a short and puzzling book, Ragnarök: the end of the gods (2011, public library). It is a kind of tribute to the Norse myths that she learned as a child through a gift from her parents of a book, Asgard and the Gods. Most of the book is told through the eyes of “the thin child”, a reconstructed persona of Byatt as a child, growing up during world war two. Her father was away at the war, never to return, and she was threatened directly by the Germans, whose mythology she read with the fervour of childhood, hooded by a bed sheet at night with a torch lighting her way to Valhalla.

The war destroyed this thin child’s world, but the stories of Asgard filled her with a “contrary myth” that she found more sustaining than the pallid Christian stories she was taught at school. This contrary myth sustained a belief in renewal and regeneration that was not possible in linear time, and was so needed in a world set to destroy itself. Now as she moves between the thin girl’s innocent dreams and the old writer’s bitter knowledge, the power of this myth is waning. She conjures back its magic, but it seems a world that is lost. Even the possibility of thinking in myth seems more alien to the “civilisation that I live in.”

Byatt’s book is also a meditation on how that civilisation may be facing its own Twilight of the Gods.

“But if you write a version of Ragnarök in the twenty-first century, it is haunted by the imagining of a different end of things. We are a species of animal which is bringing about the end of the world we were born into. Not out of evil or malice, or not mainly, but because of a lopsided mixture of extraordinary cleverness, extraordinary greed, extraordinary proliferation of our own kind, and a biologically built-in short sightedness.” (p. 167)

So she “wanted to write the end of our Midgard,” and in her telling the death and destruction of the great ash tree, Yggdrassil, is only too literal. She finds too a metaphor for the death ship, Naglfar, in the Edda a ship made from the fingernails and toenails of the dead, in the trash vortex, the great vast swirling heap of rubbish that forms a corrupted island somewhere in the heart of the Pacific.

It is not only a Midgard of nature that is falling into destruction, bu the gardens of culture built by we Aesir. Still there is the strange persistence of the beautiful stories of lost times. The gift given to Odin, after his trial hanging from the world tree like a dead man, can endure the final judgement of the Gods.

Image source: via Wikimedia Commons The Elder or Poetic Edda; commonly known as Sæmund’s Edda. Edited and translated with introduction and notes by Olive Bray. Illustrated by W.G. Collingwood (1908) Page 276. Digitized by the Internet Archive and available from http://www.archive.org/details/elderorpoeticedd01brayuoft

 

Perestroika

Perestroika

Towards the end of Mikhail Gorbachev’s The New Russia (2016), Gorbachev recounts an anecdote told in a speech by Richard Pipes, the American historian of Russia and a former Cold War warrior, although this appelation is rather a simplification.

Pipes was given the task of giving a speech in honour of Gorbachev many years after Gorbachev’s remarkable years of presidency of the USSR, from which we still carry the words glasnost (openness) and perestroika (rebuilding). Pipes explained that in 1987, before the walls had come down across Eastern Europe, he had been given the task of reviewing Gorbachev’s account of what he was striving to do, in his book Perestroika: New Thinking for our Country and the World. Pipes criticised the book as too tepid, and as not going far enough.

Twenty years later the two older men faced each other, and Pipes offered a mea culpa. He did so by recalling an anecdote from the reign of Catherine the Great, who kept a salon of French philosophes at her court as both ornaments for her Hermitage and as stimuli for her own project of rebuilding a greater Russia. Denis Diderot acted like the public intellectuals of all times and snarled with no fangs at his great patron for not pursuing political reforms as bold and as pure as reason dictated.

In a letter Catherine the Great responded:

“You, M. Diderot, propose sweeping changes, but you write on paper, which is very durable, whereas I must write on human skin, and that is very sensitive.”

So, Pipes said to Gorbachev, that night at a conservative American thinktank, when America could still delude itself it was the indispensable nation, now I understand you better.

Gorbachev, who is now in his mid-80s, provides an insightful account of the troubled course his country took after  the fall of perstroika, and he holds also a corrective mirror to the complacent West, who in a spree of stock market wealth for twenty years, believed that the market had solved fundamental problems of human social coordination.

In one chapter Gorbachev provides an extended response to Richard Pipes and reasserts the relevance of the new thinking of his perstroika for the world that we struggle to undersatand and act together in today. The world, he says of the New Thinking he fashioned in the 1980s, “still very much needs it today.”

This New Thinking is not “a set of dogmas or a code of practice,” and it evolved and adapted in response to new ideas and world events. But its basis was a stable core of three values: “recognition of the interconnection and interdependence of the world, of the indivisibility of global security, of the importance of human values and interests.” (pp 293-294) He quotes a speech he gave in 1992 that expresses the hope that from the challenges of globalisation a new “symbiosis” of the world’s people’s and cultures (including their cultures of resolving civil disputes also known as politics) can emerge in a world at peace, a multi-polar world that places greater value on healthcae, culture, human personality rather than the ceaseless machine of production and consumption at the service of financial markets.

And it is to this optimistic beleif that he returns, despite all the difficult turns of his own own country’s history towards the end of his book. He repeats his argument that

“The twenty-first century will either be a century of disastrous intensification of a deadly crisis, or the century in which mankind becomes more pure and spirtually healthier. I am convinced that we are all called upon to do our part to ensure the triumph of humanity and justice, to make the twenty-first century an age of renaissance, the century of mankind.”

In a way the courage and resilience of Gorbachev, who has nourished these convictions through many difficult years, is an inspiration, and surely an inspration as deserving of a Nobel Peace Prize as many of the gestures of recent years.

In another way, I wondered if America has not chosen in Trump its own Yeltsin, who with populist charisma and manifest deficiencies in rule, may deliver America to its own time of troubles. But what is bad for America may be good for the rest of the world.

So from its difficulties, from the death throes of its illusions about its place as the one indispensable nation in the world, may emerge Gorbachev’s promise of a new symbiosis of multi-polar world, committed to humane and democratic  model of development and of governing the world.

Image source: Moscow Times

Dr Cogito’s Fall

Here is another in the series of poems featuring Dr Cogito that I have been writing.

Dr Cogito’s fall

To this no-man fathomed deep,

In Dante’s written hell,

Down long, down cold, to flames I fell.

To the great men in union dues

I begged revenge to ill effect,

In the plumbers room,

Where power left me sole and wrecked,

A forgotten drunk with no spine,

Nor mind, fettered to this too real city,

But reaching for the things no numbers surpass.

My words watched from outside tearful glass

The bejeweled feast I am banished from,

Where, in branded rags to hide,

I steal sobs in sunken strife.

When only the mind is wrong,

The body soon sings pain in sympathy.

Then all day is dim.

Then all day is dull –

Slowly awaiting the numb relief

Of small capsules of hemlock

That for my errors in life

I am condemned to drink

And whose illusion breaks in groggy morn.

We call the land of the drones sane.

Escorted from the hive,

Freed from the dream of a cell to call mine own,

I am left to die, labeled and useless,

Clutching only my doctor’s script.

There, cowering alone I sing

Incantations of prose

To revive five forlorn bells,

An elegy to march towards weak light,

In this dread pageant stripped of mystery.

There, like an exiled, imprisoned king

I relive commiserated glories.

I pen laments and memories

Of an ill-tempered sovereign

At war with circumstance

Who lets the mad and insignificant

Moulder into a green and grey corruption

Where his true reign begins.

In the waiting room my eyes close.

I drape alone this penance,

And hide in frailty,

A long traveled pilgrim,

To wait upon the doctor’s administration.

Sitting with hands cupped upwards

Eyes closed, and bleeding,

I catch by sound alone

A rain of fallen martyrs

Whose lives are not told

In magazines, big or small,

Who scream tortured in household duty.

This long life lacks rites of recurring spring.

And so we must find them in learning, in memory.

So, each successive soul can dance itself to death

To appease our productive monster.

So, in the sacrifice the tribe is revived.

So, through sacrifice, the murmured lines endure.

What prince can promise such dire eternity?

No dreamt dwelling, this long wished home.

 

Jeff Rich

Democracy’s discontents

Election nights are rites of reunification. The divisions of a society spew out over weeks, with licensed vitriol and contemptuous sneers permitted for all, and then as the consequences of the strife are tallied, the champions of right and wrong bicker about predictions and polls and the latest certainties they have received by rumour. Then sometime around midnight, one standard is lowered, with humility, grace, and admission of weakness. Another banner is raised, and pledged to unity, to service to those greater things that bind us as a nation, whichever nation we should be, and to a winner’s humility before the enormity of the challenges that lie before us.

These rites have been troubled in recent years, as if, as in Kafka’s fable, some leopards have broken into the temple grounds to change the meaning of the rite forever. The clever hierophants, who appear on every panel show and believe their intense study of the manipulative arts has granted them a sacred authority to interpret the runes cast by the voters, appear dazd and confused. The ceremony was not meant to go this way. George Stephanopolous, to pick one of these arcane priests at random, spoke like a bullying catechist on the night of the election. “What do these people who voted for Trump want?” he said, with the unspoken addendum, and why do they not understand it cannot be done?

So too the gracious speech of harmony, the magical victor’s words of forgiveness and honour for the animal that has just been killed, now is read like a mumbled, unstressed prayer. It has lost its power to heal the wounds of bitter words. Trump was gracious. So too Obama, if more so than the crowd-shy Clinton, who chose to send out her chief fundraiser at 2 am to tell everyone to go home and pretend a little longer, rather than face the humiliating music of the rite on the night. But despite the performance of the ceremony, in its improvised and broken forms, the church members have drifted away in bitter and drifting factions. The prayers for unity no longer ring true.

America appears to be descending into democratic dissension, and elites everywhere are checking their domestic security, while fudging the record on their predictions. Trump’s victory was a surprise, and the many instant interpretations that are springing up everywhere to explain a 50-50 vote in a two-horse race are as reliable as all the wrong predictions based on careful analysis of ground games, private polling, big data, demographic profiling, identity politics and all the other runic nonsense.

Perhaps noone should be surprised. After all one candidate had spent 30 years telling idealistic challengers to the professional political class that there was no alternative to pragmatic realities, and now was telling a public, who were brought by Trump to a frenzy with his talk of real change, big dreams, long walls and drained swamps – always with reassuring sotto voce affirmation, we’re going to do this, we’re going to win big – that she would merely administer more pallid meals with no flavour, no choice, no change in the ratios for those off Wall Street. So, enough decided, we will try the other guy.

But now the other guy faces his own kind of legitimation crisis – improvised street demonstrations do not usually mean much, but perhaps this time it is the protests that are the leopards breaking into the temple. What will become of democracy’s rites if voters and the elected can spurn the results of an election, within hours of its declaration, and refuse the pleas of the vanquished champions to offer the new President, an open mind, whatever that is? Has democracy’s spell been broken, and all its high priests been expelled by the people from their riotous city?

I am grateful that I do not live in America, and expect troubled times for America in coming years. A crisis in American democracy, however, is not a crisis in every other nation’s. But if democracy’s spell is broken here, can it last anywhere?

My thoughts over the last week have turned away from poetry and towards these ruminations of a forsaken Cassandra. But to break democracy’s spell is not wholly a bad thing. If this mesmeric concept weakens its grip, then can we not find other language, ideas and rites to work out together the ordinary virtues of governing well?

So my thoughts have turned to the deliberatively difficult English intellectual historian, John Dunn. He argues democracy has been much more effective as “paradigm for deauthorizing incumbent power than for authorizing it.” (Breaking democracy’s spell, 2014) Whether through street demonstrations, the ballot box or the tattle press, democracy is better at stripping authority away, much more so than its professed rite of bringing people together under a common purpose, in service of a single authority.

So, Dunn writes:

“What it cannot ever do with comparable conclusiveness is authorize particular holders of power, and what it can virtually never do is authorize particular state decisions unless the parameters of these are luminously clear in themselves and can be put in that form to a demos genuinely equipped to understand them. It is especially implausible to see iterative mass suffrage elections, even under conditions of uncoerced participation, and unconstrained and effectively equalized opportunity for the citizens to communicate and inform themselves as yet unmet in any modern state, as authorizing the particular decisions their victors proceed to make.” (Breaking democracy’s spell)

This condition makes democracies a constant insurrection of the ambitious against the established, and the contestants have sought through modern manipulative marketing-politics to mute this conflict by making democracies “sedative and uninformative.” Democracy has fallen into a perfunctory checkbox every few years. Trump’s celebrity TV candidature was an insurrection against this sedative regime of the politicos.
John Dunn demands not misty sentiment about democracy, nor hysterical nonsense about Trump being our century’s Hitler, but rather  a looking through its kaleidoscope to a reach of other political orders. So, he writes

I have argued that we need to learn to understand democracy very differently: to see it more clearly, hear it with less self-congratulatory ears, recognize more accurately where its real potency comes from, and face up to the limits of its capacity to direct our political purposes. To do so, we need now to take in the historical process that has inserted democracy so prominently into the way we see and feel politics and struggle to understand it. More hazardously and ambitiously, I argue that our cumulative failure to do any of these things gravely aggravates many of the worst dangers that now menace us as a species. We need to find a way out of the maze democracy has become for us and face the awesome decisions that lie ahead as directly and lucidly as we can. (Breaking democracy’s spell)

Some of those decisions, he intimates gloomily, may now be beyond human control. America’s decline, I feel sure, is now beyond any President’s control. But are democracies’ discontents also boiling beyond our control? I fear yes, but counsel not despair, but a return to cherishing ordinary virtues in distressing times.

Predicting Donald Trump

This is the post I wrote on 22 July this year: https://theburningarchive.wordpress.com/2016/07/22/donald-trump-and-americas-wounded-pride/

Just as one should be careful of what you wish for, one needs to be careful what you predict!

Part one of the prediction – Trump will win – has proven right.

Part two is that he will fail.

But those weaknesses of Trump will strand his presidency in a disordered society, broken political system, and hostile, suspicious world. I hear over the radio as I write this post that one newspaper said he “conjured up chaos and promised overnight solutions.” He will get things done, but the world will respond. He will build his wall, but at what cost and with what impact on central America. He will rile China and accuse it of currency manipulation, but will this provoke the final crisis for the USA dollar as the reserve currency? He will empower law and order, and provoke more violence, more rage, more desperation. He will cut taxes and search desperately to cut programs, but will wreck further the weak capability of the executive state in America. He will banish the elites and the opponents, and be fooled and befuddled by the svengalis and amateurs who replace him. He will bring to white heat a burning political system. He will fail.
And then what for America? The country is in decay, and it is lashing out like a wounded giant. But the giant is in an iron cage of its own making – all the declamations of pride, all the wild gestures, the threats, the desperation make no difference, and only damage the giant more. This wild, violent, bleeding, insulting and falling giant is what scares the world. But I suspect the world will do well as American falls, even if its desperate pride provokes more conflicts in the world. Trump will truly bring America into its darkest hour” me on July 22

I post this before viewing Trump’s victory speech in minutes…

Blessed rage for order

Blessed rage for order

This morning I read through two more chapters of Andrew Scull’s Madness in Civilization, which broadly covered the nineteenth century and the gentle transformations from madhouses to asylums to lunatic hospitals, from moral treatment to alienism or psychological medicine to psychiatry, and from madness to mental illness or, still worse, degeneracy.

The term, psychiatry, was invented by a German doctor, Johann Christian Reil in 1808, and he formed the term from two Greek words for soul (psykhe) and medical treatment (techne iatrike). These two words wrestled, it seemed to me in reading Scull’s account, for the spirit of psychiatry through the nineteenth century, and most likely beyond.

Unlike my renounced influence, Michel Foucault, Scull sees the compassion and the humanistic hope behind so much of the efforts to reform medical treatment of the instance through the nineteenth century. He records the great hope bested in the institution of the asylum, publicly operated by a more benevolent state, infused with moral principles, and a kinder form of containment than the private madhouses that so scandalised many of the moral reformers of the nineteenth century. So Queen Victoria’s physician called the modern lunatic asylum “the most blessed manifestation of true civilization that the world can present” (p.25).

So doing Scull points out that only Foucault and his followers – with their condemnation of moral treatment as a “gigantic moral imprisonment” – would cavil that the then modern asylums were an humane improvement on the crowded and abusive madhouses, whose horrors he documents precisely. Indeed the real heroes of his story are not the great doctors and propagandists, like Pinel or Tuke, but the non-medical custodians of the insane who were guided by care and compassion and the careful assiduous and ordinary observation of what treatments seemed to help their patients best. So it is not Pinel’s great moral reordering of medicine that Scull foregrounds, but the practical and careful practice of the lay governor of the Bicetre, Jean-Baptiste Poussin, and his wife Marguerite. It was their daily observation of the effects of different treatments and their morally guided experimentation with different forms of care that Pinel then systematised into a grand theory, and Foucault mistook for ideas remaking reality.

Along the way we meet the rare voices and images that spoke of soul from within the great confinement. Here Scull reproduced in full, John Clare’s poem, I am, although I disagree with him that it fails , even in its darkest moments of lament, to make a “vigorous assertion of personal autonomy and individuality.” We also meet van Gogh, and the kind portrait of his doctor, Felix Rey, which sadly the doctor found horrifying. But by the time van Gogh was painting, doctors and their mad patients were becoming estranged by ideas of degeneracy, and the idea of medical treatment was winning out over the soul in the struggle for the spirit of psychiatry.

ward-in-the-hospital-in-arles

Degeneracy was an idea that consumed fin de siècle Europe though first powerfully articulated by a French alienist, Benedict-Augustin Morel, in his Treatise on the Intellectual, Moral and Physical Degeneracy of the Human Race (1857). But it found its most influential expression in Balzac’s fiction and in Max Nordau’s Degeneration. I recall in my university days being mesmerised by this period in culture, and have long been preoccupied with similar themes of cultural decay, but my more ordinary and compassionate side is repelled by the biological determinism of these theories. By 1900 the mad were an incurable burden, and a frustration to the prestige and good will of their treating doctors. So, Tuke’s great grandson, the inheritor of the family tradition of asylums who had lost the great reformer’s optimism, would say with all the cruelty of a heartless administrator, that the insane were “an infirm type of humanity… On admission ‘no good’ is plainly inscribed on their foreheads” (p 243).

His words reflected a greater pessimism among psychiatrists that mental illness could be cured, and this led to a fateful dalliance with eugenics, which culminated most tragically in the compulsory sterilisation of thousands of the mad in Germany and their killing in the t-4 operation that was a prelude to the holocaust. But this was not only a German disease. My own country, my own state, went very close to adopting compulsory sterilisation of the insane and idiotic in the 1930s, and eugenics was widely embraced by the prominent and influential, especially in liberal and progressive circles. It is perhaps one more reason to be grateful for the persistence of religious sentiment since it was faith more than reason that saved many lives here. Scull also quotes the words of Oliver Wendell Holmes, beloved liberal jurist of the United States Supreme Court, son of a doctor who also wrote poetry, who in his 1927 judgement on whether the American constitution prohibited compulsory sterilization wrote:

It is better for all the world if instead of waiting to execute degenerate offspring for crime, or to let them starve for their imbecility, society can prevent those who are manifestly unfit from continuing their kind. The principle that sustains compulsory vaccination is broad enough to cover cutting Fallopian tubes… Three generations of imbeciles are enough. Oliver Wendell Holmes, 1927 (quoted in Scull, Madness in Civilization, p 266.)

All progressive schemes for the improvement of the human condition – especially in the utopias of public health – are tempted by this rage to order the crooked timber of humanity, most perfectly exemplified in the disorders of madness.

In the late nineteenth century it was in unexpected places in Germany,  which was a latecomer to asylums due to its political fragmentation, but a great believer in university research, that psychiatry gave itself over to a rage for order, which yet contained within it a blessed urge for cure. While most German medical research into the mind pursed the dissection of the brain in laboratories, Emil Kraepelin was by accident of his poor eyesight forced to pursue more observational research through the direct treatment of the thousands of patients in Germany’s new asylums. He observed the patients before him, and made careful notes on cards, which he then assembled and reassembled into a classificatory scheme for mental illness, which in some of its essentials still endures with us today. So developed the first diagnostic manual of psychiatric disorders, derived from clinical observations. So too were born the ideas of schizophrenia, which Kraepelin called, as did Jung, dementia praecox, and bipolar disorder.

But this scheme for ordering the disorders of the mind, which is with us still, cannot be dismissed as a ruse of power, as Foucault so dismissively did, a giant grid of surveillance and control, and nor can it be limited to the assertion of a new profession’s power. Kraepelin acted with compassion towards his subjects in a way that many of his less observant professional colleagues did not. And does not madness call for disciplined compassion and imagination from us all? Where would we be, after all, without the imagination’s blessed rage for order?

The maker’s rage to order words of the sea

Words of the fragrant portals, dimly-starred,

And of ourselves and of our origins,

In ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds.

(from Wallace Stevens, The Idea of Order at Key West)

 

Images:

Vincent van Gogh, Portrait of Doctor Felix Rey, Oil on canvas 64.0 x 53.0 cm. Arles: January, 1889 F 500, JH 1659 Moscow: Pushkin Museum source

Vincent van Gogh, Painting, Oil on Canvas, Arles: April, 1889
Oskar Reinhart Collection ‘Am Römerholz’, Winterthur, Switzerland, Europe
F: ;646, ;JH: ;1686 source