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.

 

 

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.

Shuja_Shah_Durrani_of_Afghanistan_in_1839

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

 

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.”

 

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.

 

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.