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

 

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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.

 

 

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

 

Reflections on 2017: cultural decay and political institutions

Reflections on 2017: cultural decay and political institutions

In reviewing my notes for the year – diligently if effortlessly recorded in Evernote – I came across  my discovery of an essay from the late 1970s by Leszek Kolakowski, “How to be a Conservative-Liberal-Socialist.” I do not recall how I discovered this gem, as apposite to our times as Kolakowski’s exile from Poland in the 1970s. Perhaps it was a book review by another politically ambidextrous thinker, John Gray? In any case the recommendation fell on prepared ground; and spoke to some universal themes in this year’s political chronicle.

Kolakowski was a philosopher and former Communist from Poland, who,  after the Prague Spring, broke the spells of orthodoxy and the privileged life of an insider, and then led an itinerant and dissident life in the main universities of “the West”. I used to possess his three-volume Main Currents of Marxism (I sold it in a fit of poverty in Canberra the year the Berlin Wall fell), and absorbed its deep aversion to the totalitarian spirit at the heart of that hydra-headed monster. I am forever grateful for the lifelong immunisation against that spirit, and look warily on spruikers of the revival of Marxist ideas in our troubled times.

Those ideas are resurgent in response to growing concerns with inequality, the disappointments of growth, and the predations of a merchant elite. Kolakowski’s essay recognises the truth in socialism, without succumbing to that instinct for one-party rule, for intellectual domination of society by the vanguard of the proletariat. He writes that a socialist believes:

“That it is absurd and hypocritical to conclude that, simply because a perfect, conflictless society is impossible, every existing form of inequality is inevitable and all ways of profit-making justified. ” Kolakowski

But his essay also sees the truth in liberalism. The ambidextrous liberal believes that the State must play a role in security, and that security should be extended to health care, education, employment, and a basic income. But they also believe that “human communities are threatened not only by stagnation but also by degradation when they are so organized that there is no longer room for individual initiative and inventiveness.” Today, Kolakowski might also see a threat of the strangulation of communities through the strictures placed on thought and speech by a radicalism that seeks to cleanse humanity of its traditions, affiliations and improvisations because they inevitably contain errors, guilty associations and unexamined habits.

That cultural repository is the domain of the conservative: the garden which serves as a refuge from a troubled world. Kolakowski gives the conservative three truthful propositions. Firstly:

“That in human life there never have been and never will be improvements that are not paid for with deteriorations and evils; thus, in considering each project of reform and amelioration, its price has to be assessed. Put another way, innumerable evils are compatible (i.e. we can suffer them comprehensively and simultaneously); but many goods limit or cancel each other, and therefore we will never enjoy them fully at the same time. ” Kolakowski

Secondly,

“That we do not know the extent to which various traditional forms of social life–families, rituals, nations, religious communities–are indispensable if life in a society is to be tolerable or even possible. There are no grounds for believing that when we destroy these forms, or brand them as irrational, we increase the chance of happiness, peace, security, or freedom.” Kolakowski

Thirdly,

“That the idee fixe of the Enlightenment — that envy, vanity, greed, and  aggression are all caused by the deficiencies of social institutions and that they will be swept away once these institutions are reformed — is not only utterly incredible and contrary to all experience, but is highly dangerous.” Kolakowski

These nostrums speak to our times. In this year we have seen increasingly shrill debates between progressives, conservatives and radicals in a house they no longer wish to share. We have seen a backlash of populist nostalgia for ordinary ways of life . This is a revolt against the Enlightenment purity of economic reformers and their dangerous vision of a society ruled by contracts between individuals. This idea has dominated elites for thirty years. I have seen it up close. It has ravaged the institutions of government, and filled the halls of power with amoral condottiere, who ceaselessly mouth inanities about change and reform but do not comprehend what they have undone. We have seen a radicalised sexual politics, with its utopianism of the bedroom foisted onto classrooms, that is every bit as scary as Marcuse’s polymorphous perversity. We have seen a return of sacred violence, which can only be understood by acknowledging the power of traditional forms of social life, and especially religion. We have seen domineering autocrats, with no respect for the subtleties of our cultural inheritance, rise to power on the back of resentment. This resentment has been fueled by the attacks of reformers, corporations and identity politics on the lebenswelt of their fellow citizens.

Kolakowski’s invention of the ideal pluralist political thinker – the Conservative-Liberal-Socialist – is a gift of wisdom to our troubled times. It provides a way through the confusion of this moment of cultural disintegration that is infecting our political institutions. In this weekend’s Australian, the doyen of Australian political columnists, Paul Kelly, has published a piece entitled – “2017: West challenged in a spinning world.” It begins:

“Our age of disruption, decay and transformation reached a peak in 2017 and unleashed a shower of contradictions: democracy looks ineffective, politics has surrendered to an era of strong men, and the quest for enhanced individual autonomy now drives the culture.”

Like all political columns, it is an improvised interpretation of events passing before us. Just as, I suppose, any blog is too. While I do not share all of Kelly’s unease about the defeat of the Christian tradition, I agree with his three principal ideas: our political system is collapsing into dysfunction; our culture is experiencing deep losses and decay, and these two trends are deeply intertwined.

“The problem of our dysfunctional political system does not relate just to politics, finance, parties or the parliament. It is also about the public culture and where that culture is ultimately heading.” from Kelly”2017: West challenged in a spinning world.”

Nietzsche: “We are definitely ephemeral.”

 

More reflections on 2017: persistence, terror and Das Schloss

More reflections on 2017: persistence, terror and Das Schloss

Persistence

Twelve months ago I was approaching Christmas and the end of a liberating period of long service leave. It was a period of leave that rejuvenated my writing and my living. It returned a sense of adventure and courage to my cultural life. I found a way through this blog to weave together my personal experiences, my observations of the greater world, the visitations of mine terrible angels, and the life of my mind.

But Christmas came with a terror for what the new year of work would bring. The Castle had, some years before, cast me adrift, stolen my life jacket, and turned its back on me. The lordly castellans had hoped I would drown, and now, as I clambered back to the ship, they spurned and insulted me as a cur, not worthy of any enduring position of honour in the Castle.

Still, I lived and still I wrote. I was assigned to pump water from the listing ship, and at night I wrote here. Here dignity, compassion and the life of the mind endured. Here I could leave behind the humiliations of the day. Here I scratched into the panelling of the cursed ship something of beauty, if not every day, then at least most weeks.

Here, I raised my lyre to sing infinite praise.

Terror

The acts of terror and mass violence across the world, including in my home city, this year have cast a long shadow. In my home city, Melbourne in the south-eastern corner of Australia, so distant from the war zones of the world, we have witnessed a string of incidents: the Bourke Street vehicular attack, an incident on a plane in which a man with mental illness claimed he had a bomb, the luring of police to a hostage trap by an ex-prisoner associated with terror plots.

And, of course, across the world a never-ending chorus of the damned has reported terrors in London, Los Angeles, Manilla, New York, Paris,  Stockholm, and Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Canada, Egypt, Germany, India, Iraq, Israel, Russia, Somalia, Syria, and Turkey. I have read of feral cities and failing states, and been shocked by the espousal of violence by claimants of social justice like Antifa.

This year I had to confront personally the meaning of terror  since it became part of my job. What could my minor provincial government do to prevent and respond to acts of violence, such as the Bourke Street car attack of January 2017? I learned about the motives of mass killers, lone actor terrorists, and group terrorists. I studied grievance-fueled violence and its relationship to extremism and mental health. I met and discussed responses with an Expert Panel on Terrorism and Violent Extremism, composed of a former Police Commissioner and a former Supreme Court judge. I contemplated whether religion provides a salve of peace to counter violent extremism or an ark of the covenant that stores in the culture grievance, hatred and a willingness to die and to kill as a martyr.

I remember the moment of September 11, 2001. I was watching of all things the West Wing, when some news broke that a plane had flown into one of the twin towers. My partner and I watched uneasily the news coverage, and saw live to air the second plane fly into the second tower. There have been many incidents since in the new era of pessimism and fear ushered in by that attack. But it has not truly been until this year that I have truly recognised the gravity and depth of the threat posed by the monster of sacred violence that sleeps in all of our hearts.

He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster. And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss also gazes into you. Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil

Das Schloss

“K. constantly expected the road to turn in the direction of the castle at last, surely it would, and it was only because he expected it that he kept going” Franz Kafka, The Castle (Das Schloss)

Eighteen months ago I was prepared to give away my long search for the gates of the Castle. I had sought a return to the ivory tower of my youth, where I could study history, and leave behind the court and practical affairs. But the keepers of this tower spurned me too. So on the last day of my work before my long service leave I disconnected my work phone, copied onto a flash drive the few documents that would remind me of my most important personal achievements in the bureaucracy, and packed up the few personal belongings on the desk that I would never return to again. I walked out the door about 3 pm, and, on the eve of an election for a national government, went to watch a live-to-air radio show in my local shopping centre where they talked about political affairs and the looming verdict.

I was not sure I would ever come back, but I had no plans to find another career. A year earlier, I had been in a deep depression, close to suicide. I had fled my work in humiliation and fear. Now I was walking into a deeper and truer life, but a life without security or status or power unless I chose to return. I threw myself into poetry, history, and the meaning of a simpler life. But nothing about my dependence for a living on the organisation that seemed to despise me changed.

In January this year I did choose to return to life as a bureaucrat, and I renewed my search for admission to Das Schloss. Every month I have written to some minor lord of the Castle, and pleaded to be considered worthy and admitted to the orders that busy themselves with the business of the court, there in the mists, beyond my vision, at the end of the twisting road. Twenty times, at least, they have said no, and not once, as I have walked this long twisting road, have I caught a glimpse of the true Castle I have searched so long for.

Now at the end of a year in which I have tried to live in truth, to write my own thoughts as authentically as I can and to act in the world in a way that approaches my values, I still stand as an outcast beyond the reaches of Das Schloss.

Which way do I walk next year? To the Castle and back, or do I turn my back on this great civil dream, and wander alone like a grey wolf into the Great Dark Forest?

go for only thus will you be admitted into the company of cold skulls

to the company of your forefathers: Gilgamesh Hector Roland

the defenders of the kingdom without bounds and the city of ashes

Be faithful Go

Zbigniew Herbert, The Envoy of Mr Cogito

 

Image source Sam News

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.

 

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.