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.


Sailing to Byzantium

Sailing to Byzantium

Since I am on holidays from work, and not consumed with duties and obligations, I have returned to an old habit of virtue, and spent time memorising poetry. The poem I am committing to memory today is Yeats’ Sailing to Byzantium.

The choice of this poem itself was prompted by reading Richard Fidler’s Ghost Empire, which is an uncluttered, vivid telling of the main storylines of the Byzantine Empire. He connects threads of Byzantium in surprising ways to our own culture – the story of little Red Riding Hood, the use of the fork in Europe, the adaptation of chess, the theft of sericulture from China. This mysterious still neglected story haunts our imagination, without us really knowing how or why. As Fidler writes:

“Once you know the story of this lost empire, you feel the ghost of Byzantium  pressing against you at the crumbling land walls. You become suffused with it when you stand under the golden dome of the Hagia Sophia, and you glimpse it within the shadows of the underground cistern of Justinian. The story of how Constantinople flourished into greatness and expired in terrible violence is one of the strangest and most moving stories I know.” (Fidler, Ghost Empire, p. 9)

And it is a story that very much belongs in the Burning Archive, devoted to remembering the ruined cultures and disappearing stories of the world, and the yearning of this tattered cloak upon a stick to enter into the infinite conversation. Fidler titles his final chapter, “The Artifice of Eternity,” in a tribute to Yeats’ poem. And towards the end of this chapter, Sailing to Byzantium itself appears, crowning a discussion of Constantinople’s place as the “immortal city of imagination.” Fidler quotes Yeats from a BBC lecture discussing his poem in which Yeats said

“When Irishmen were illuminating the Book of Kells, and making the jewelled croziers in the National Museum, Byzantium was the centre of European civilization and the source of its spiritual philosophy.”

Fidler leaves out of the quotation the last clause of Yeats sentence: “so I symbolise the search for the spiritual life by a journey to that city.”

I wish I had a symbol of a holy city to which I could sail, fleeing from the fires in the archive and the depredations of merchants and treasonous clerks. Through loving attention, perhaps I can create one.

In the meantime, here is a musical realisation of Yeats’ great poem – set to music by Andrew Howes in a world premiere performance by Sydney Camerata at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on 18 May 2012. I don’t know if the music exceeds the beauty of Yeats’ language.

And here are the final stanzas of Yeats other poem, Byzantium:

At midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,
Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame,
Where blood-begotten spirits come
And all complexities of fury leave,
Dying into a dance,
An agony of trance,
An agony of flame that cannot singe a sleeve.

Astraddle on the dolphin’s mire and blood,
Spirit after spirit! The smithies break the flood,
The golden smithies of the Emperor!
Marbles of the dancing floor
Break bitter furies of complexity,
Those images that yet
Fresh images beget,
That dolphin-torn, that gong-tormented sea.

Image source: Four Icons from a Pair of Doors (Panels), possibly part of a Polyptych: John the Theologian and Prochoros, the Baptism (Epiphany), Harrowing of Hell (Anastasis), and Saint Nicholas, 15th century, New York Metropolitan Museum of Art