Jazz and Deep Wells

Jazz and Deep Wells

by

Howard Adelman

Today is Black Sunday. I know there is no such thing, but I wanted to convey how I see the day by playing off this past Friday of widespread deep discounts and sales and yesterday’s experience. Today I have not simply a two-for-one offer but a two-for-two-for-two offer. What could be better? On the other hand, what could be worse – not only receiving two long missives on the same day, but the second about two entirely different topics and each topic about two different events. The blog will clarify.

Yesterday morning as I was leaving for Torah study, I saw a peregrine falcon eating its prey on the front lawn. I presume that it was an unwitting squirrel. I had never seen a peregrine let alone one up close. I had read that they had been sighted in Toronto, but it was startling to see such a huge bird in front of me. I thought it was the male that I saw, for the mate which appeared was somewhat smaller. But when I read up on falcons this morning, I learned that it must have been the female for females are significantly larger than their masculine mates.

From the rear – the angle from which I watched it – it seemed to have a huge back of thick blue-grey feathers and a black head. The male – the smaller of the pair – had more distinct white markings on its chest. Did you know that the peregrine falcon is the fastest animal on earth, in a dive reaching over 200 mph? Its highest measured speed is 242 mph. But if peregrines now nest in tall buildings in urban areas, its nest must have been blocks away.

I took the sighting of the peregrine to be a sign – a sign of a positive tale on the human propensity to destroy our planet and other species. For the peregrines were once endangered because of the widespread use of pesticides, especially DDT. However, with the banning of DDT, their numbers have rebounded enormously. I also took the sighting in a different sense, for in Torah yesterday morning, before we even started our textual examination, I opened the volume to initially read the tale of Jacob’s ladder that comes immediately before Jacob met Rachel at the well.

Needless to say, I had never read the short account through the eyes of a falcon. If you recall, Jacob was fleeing towards his uncle Laban because he believed Esau was in hot pursuit given that he, Jacob, had deceived Esau out of his father’s blessing to double the act of treachery in the story when he got his brother to give him Esau’s birthright in exchange for a mug of soup. In his dream, (Genesis 28:12-15), Jacob envisioned a ladder or a stairway reaching upwards into the sky. Angels of God were traipsing up and down the stairs – if they were coming from heaven why not down first and then up? God then promised Jacob that his descendants would spread everywhere over the earth, north and west, east and west. God also promised to protect him wherever he went and “bring you back to this land.” Further God said, “I will not leave you until what I have done what I have promised you.” (28:15)

If God had made that promise to falcons, He clearly kept his word. Falcons, once on the verge of extinction, are now everywhere. Further, falcons are like angels rising on the upward drafts of the wind and then diving down for prey. Falcons have superb vision. An excellent capacity for survival has been intertwined with a theme of destruction, preying on other species necessary for survival and repeatedly being faced themselves with species genocide.

The story that was the subject of yesterday’s Torah study was the one that followed, Jacob meeting Rachel at the well. Jacob continued on after his visionary dream. What did he see first. Verse 2 of chapter 29 reads: “There before his eyes was a well in the open.” The vision was not a dream sequence, but a real sighting. It was not of soaring and diving angels, but of a “well in the open,” also translated as in the “field.” Vision is now grounded. It is focused on earthly things, not long-range promises. And the focus is a well.

As Rabbi Splansky pointed out in comparing three “well” stories, the one where Jacob’s father, Isaac, or his emissary, encountered Rebecca, and the one where Moses came to a well were the daughter of Jethro, the Midianite, had been chased away from watering their sheep until Moses’ intervention, in each case a well is a symbol of overcoming scarcity, scarcity of water and scarcity of progeny. For the women are barren, either because they are virgins or because they seemingly cannot bear children. In the case of both Rebecca and Rachel, the continuity of the generations through time, a necessary correlation to spatially spreading over the land, seems at first to be denied them. Sarah, Rebecca and Rachel are all barren when first encountered. In each case, the opening of the wombs of the women is attributed to God.

Hence, the well Rabbi Splansky introduced to the group as a basis for a dialectic of correspondence yet difference in all three stories. (The tale of the competition between the first-born and a younger brother was not a topic of focus.) Verse 2 in English and Hebrew reads:

And he looked, and behold! a well in the field, and behold! three flocks of sheep lying beside it, because from that well they would water the flocks, and a huge rock was upon the mouth of the well. בוַיַּ֞רְא וְהִנֵּ֧ה בְאֵ֣ר בַּשָּׂדֶ֗ה וְהִנֵּה־שָׁ֞ם שְׁלשָׁ֤ה עֶדְרֵי־צֹאן֙ רֹֽבְצִ֣ים עָלֶ֔יהָ כִּ֚י מִן־הַבְּאֵ֣ר הַהִ֔וא יַשְׁק֖וּ הָֽעֲדָרִ֑ים וְהָאֶ֥בֶן גְּדֹלָ֖ה עַל־פִּ֥י הַבְּאֵֽר:

בְאֵ֣ר

Be-ayr or Beer, as in Beersheva, is a well or pit. A well is a source, not simply of physical water, but of God’s word, of His spirit, of His promise. A well is not a natural spring. It is built by humans. It is an artifice of human labour and ingenuity. When Abraham confronted Abimelech after the latter’s servants denied him access to a well Abraham had dug, Abraham insisted on buying it back with money to define in contractural terms what had been promised by God in a covenant. When Moses travelled to Beersheva, he was promised water. “And from there to Beer, which is the well where the Lord said to Moses: “assemble the people that I may give them water.” (Number 21:16) And all of Israel sang a song: “Spring up oh well; sing to it.”

The well and the water in it offer a voice from God. It is not just a wishing well, but a well of promise. In particular, it is a promise of bringing waters to the womb and breaking those waters to deliver progeny. A well is a source of fecundity. It is from the waters of that well that the flock of sheep, that God’s flock of Israelites, though certainly not exclusively, are offered drink. However, in Jacob’s vision of the staircase to heaven, Jacob worried that it portended destruction and death. For he believed Esau was following him, intent on killing him in revenge for what he had stolen. A well is also a pit, that into which Joseph was thrown, that into which we are all tossed when we die. God in that sense is not only the source of life, but the deliverer of death and from death. When a hole lacks water, it is a pit. Which will it be?

In the Gospel according to John in chapter 4, Jesus was travelling north rather than east like Jacob. Outside the town of Sychar, he sat beside Jacob’s well. The story inverts the original. Jesus asked a woman to give him water from the well. She did, but wondered why he would ask a Samaritan girl? Was he proposing? Jesus then offered the Samaritan from whom he asked for a drink “living water.” The suggestion is that the water on offer had been dead, as dead as the water in the Dead Sea. It had become saline. Jesus was offering, not just to Jews, but now to everyone, to all human kind, “fresh water,” sweet rather than bitter water. The point is not to endorse the message of the Christian narrative as recorded by John, but to indicate and understand a well as a symbol.

The well is covered by a large stone. It will be moved by Jacob. It will be moved by Moses. They as founding fathers move the heavy stone that blocks access to the spirit of creativity, the spirit of procreation which itself is a structure constructed by humans. When a well runs dry, we find only dry bones and not the vital source of life. In Genesis, wells with water recur 25 times.

Wells are built by humans. Wells are accessed by human labour. Humans, as in the Moses tale, can also deny access to the well. In the Jacob story, to save the well from evaporation, the shepherds wait until all the flocks arrive and then remove the rock that covered the well. In the Moses story of the well, access was denied the Midianite women. Moses intervened to provide access. In the Jacob story, Jacob acts without the involvement of the other shepherds to move the stone and provide water for Rachel’s flock.

Why did Jacob do that? Why, when he saw Rachel, did he kiss her and break into tears upon meeting a relative he had never seen? Water flowed out from him instead of into him. It was tears of joy, of happiness. The serenity and unexpressed emotion of Abraham was now left behind. The reticence and passivity of Isaac had been left behind. In place we now have an openly emotional, and, as we soon learn, mentally scheming forefather who dramatically pushes the plot forward just as he intervened to move the stone.

Yesterday evening I went to hear jazz at Koerner Hall. The program featured the much younger Alfredo Rodríguez Trio in the first half and, in the second half, the brilliant jazz pianist, Danilo Pérez with Ben Street on bass & Danilo’s sister, Terri Lynne Carrington, on drums. It was a great performance, but it was akin to hearing the story of Jacob’s vision of the stairway to heaven after one had read the story of Jacob meeting Rachel at the well as our initiation into one of the greatest love stories in literature.

In the second half, the music of Pérez truly soared up to the heavens and back down to earth, but after hearing the Alfredo Rodríguez Trio, it sounded like dinner music. For the Rodríguez trio was truly brilliant. It took us down into the well of creativity in cyclonic waves of poetic repetition. For Pérez is correct in his comments about jazz. It is global music. It is about freedom. It is about improvisation on repetitive themes.

The most powerful structural element in the biblical text is repetition. But also, the riffs on that repetition. The Torah in the literary world is the foundation of jazz in the world of music and it too plays on sounds, on words, on phrasing and on clauses, and translates the combination into stories. The ingenious variations in each are about identity and difference. The parallelisms challenge us to compare and reflect and to do so at various levels. Both literally and figuratively, Rodríguez took the audience down into the deep well of creativity in one of the greatest jazz performances I have ever heard. Sometimes it was just a fascinating variation on a very familiar tune, and, in the case of the last number the trio played, on a very simple melody from his childhood in Cuba.

I write only about the most haunting number. I believe, if I caught him correctly, it was called Yoruba. His CDs were all sold out when I went to buy one or two, so I had to look it up. I believe it is the one called, “Oye Afra Yoruba-Son,” but I will only know when I hear the song again. The number came from the deepest well of all. I would call it haunting jazz, in-depth ethnic jazz rather than global jazz. Hopefully, in a future blog when I hear the trio again, I myself will write with greater depth.

On a day that started with renewed life diving down to earth and feeding on prey on the ground, I was taken deeper into the ground, into wells of feeling and emotion rarely touched. With Yoruba I went back earlier before my ancestors in the Middle East to the Yoruba in West Africa whose music I happened to hear there. It had the same resonance captured in Rodríguez’ number and offered an older oral history deeper than the written word even if Rodríguez probably got his inspiration from Lucumí/Santeria in Cuba from descendants of African slaves brought to that island. Yoruba culture is based on divination and a search for wells, for the invisible beneath us as well as the invisible above us in the air. It developed as a culture of art and beauty rather than a culture which emphasized ethics and law, but one which both complements and haunts the latter.

In Rodríguez’ interpretation, it does do so by a kind of cyclonic activity that thrusts you down into a powerful inward circulation of notes and phrasing and repetitions that rotate, first downwards and finally upward so that one can once again breath freely. Hearing his music was like being thrust into a low-pressure chamber. He not only moved the stone from the top of the well, but dived down into it. And took the audience with him.

From peregrine falcons to cyclonic trips down wells – what could be better? Especially when you emerge unscathed and still breathing.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

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My Sandhill Crane

My Sandhill Crane

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday morning when I was cleaning out the cleaning closet – the last step in preparing the cottage for the summer – I was suddenly very startled. It was very early in the morning. The sun had just woken. A new day was dawning. Should I focus and appreciate the rising of the sun or finish cleaning up the last remnants of the previous summer?

Some very local geography first. Our family cottage is located on an island in Georgian Bay. It is quite isolated and we have no close neighbours. But we are not on the open bay, but on an island in a very large bay, Shawanaga, off the very much larger body of water that is itself the size of one of the Great Lakes. The cottage sits at the pinnacle of the island which is just a six-acre treed outcropping of rock. The back door to the cottage has a large glass plate the length of the door. It stands right next to the cleaning closet.

The noise that startled me was a loud rat-a-tat. Repeated. No, not rat-a-tat, but tat-tat-tat, repeated loud sharp noises in rapid succession against the glass. I looked up and before me on the other side of the glass stood a bird as high as my mid-chest – and I am still over six feet even though I have certainly been shrinking in the last two decades. The bird had a very long beak and I thought it was going to break the glass against the door. The bird’s bill was longer that its head was tall. Its neck was long and thin as it thrust back and forth hitting the window with its beak each time with a noise loud enough that I thought it would waken my wife.

I was standing on one side of the glass and the bird was on the other. I had never seen such a large bird – it was not as large as an ostrich that I had seen up close in South Africa – but not nearly this close. The black legs were very long so I knew it was some kind of wading bird. I thought of the flamingos that I had seen around the Ngorongoro Crater in Kenya. But the only bright colour of this bird was its scarlet red crown. Otherwise, the bird was a mottled gray. If it had a bath, would it become white? Later, when we looked for the bird in our bird book – my wife found the picture instantly – the description said the bird could have a rusty wash on its upper body, but I saw none. Nor did I see its evidently famous “bustle” at the back, for the bird was facing me.

But not just facing me. And not just trying to thrust its beak through the window. It was doing a bit of its dance as it came forward, jabbed the window about ten times, and then danced back, only to thrust forward again almost immediately. The bird was alone. I did not know whether it was a male or a female, but I presumed it was a male because of its aggressive behaviour.

Should I wake my wife? She loves birds. I bet she had never seen such a large bird facing her and just a pane of glass away. But I remembered when we arrived at the cottage. That same glass window was covered in blood. Had a bird injured itself badly against the window? There had been some feathers on the back porch. Were they grey? Maybe it was this bird’s mate and it was seeking revenge. But all I could think of was that the bird might break the glass, that the bird was probably injuring itself, that the bird might wake my wife.

I started to make noises and do my own wild dance to chase the bird away, all accompanied by a low roar – if a roar could possibly be low. The bird stepped back, a bit startled, but clearly unafraid. Then it thrust forward again with the loud tat-a-tat of its bill against the glass of the door.

Suddenly, it turned, spread its wings – the span was at least six feet – and flew upwards towards the north in a low flight pattern that soon circled back south as it increased altitude. Other than its huge flapping wings – though they only flapped at the beginning for the bird seemed to be a glider – the bird now seemed so large that the body, compared to when the bird stood tall before me, seemed to shrink. Of course, that body was now horizontal, like a very aerodynamic missile. As the bird rose, it seemed to require very few strokes. And all of this right in front of my eyes!

I never heard it make a sound, though someone, whom I saw later yesterday at a book launch back in Toronto, told me that its honking sound was prehistoric, more like a haunting bellows rather than the honking of geese. It was also suggested that the bird was engaged in a mating dance. Had it fallen for me? Had I scared off a very large bird that was courting me?

My ego was quickly deflated when it was suggested that the bird saw a reflection of itself and thought it was a female. The male and female look alike. The bird was not courting me. Nor was it being narcissistic. Rather, it probably saw – or thought it saw – a potential mate. It was baffled at the sight of me. It had never seen quite as strange a dance. And the sounds coming out of my mouth were very prehistoric. Later, when we were reading about the bird, we learned that it was a sandhill crane that mates for life. I clearly was not a suitable partner. It is also a very ancient bird with the oldest bird fossil 2.5 million years old.

The sandhill crane is largely found north of Sudbury and North Bay, but my informant at the book launch told me that he had seen a nesting pair on an outer island nearby. He told me they laid very large oval brown eggs. Presumably their breeding grounds and range had been creeping south with climate change.

The formal species name of the sandhill crane that I saw is Antigone Canadensis. Canadensis make sense for this is Canada. But Antigone? Anti came from the Greek meaning “opposed to,” but sometimes “compared to.” Given the Greek myth of Antigone, I took it to mean opposed; the story was one of conflict between two different sources of moral authority. But, in this case, opposed to what? γονη, (goné) in Greek means birth or offspring, so that the dance I saw performed could very well have been a courting ritual. But that still does not explain Antigone and the theme of opposition.

Let me explain. Antigone is the main character in a Greek myth that Hegel discusses at some length in The Phenomenology of Spirit. One of my graduate students wrote her thesis on that section. The issue was not on pride and the hubris of Icarus who flew too close to the sun so the wax in his wings melted and he plummeted to the ground. Nor is it about Hegel’s owl of Minerva, the bird after whom the lead periodical on Hegelian scholarship in English is named.

Hegel in the preface to the Philosophy of Right wrote, “When philosophy paints its gray on gray, then has a form of life grown old, and with gray on gray it cannot be rejuvenated, but only known; the Owl of Minerva first takes flight with twilight closing in.” I saw my sandhill crane in the early hours of the morning, not at dusk. Though the bird was gray, it was not the colouring of a life grown old beyond rejuvenation when an age of history is ending and cannot be resurrected and when the only obligation is to recall and understand the past. I believe that my bird was seeking to give new birth to life. But, to ask again, why then Antigone, even though goné in Greek means “birth” or “offspring”? For the tale of Antigone is as dark a story as you will ever read.

Antigone was perhaps cursed at birth. Her father was Oedipus – the guy who slew his father and married his mother, inspiring Freud with his greatest brand. Antigone’s mother was Jocasta, the Queen of Thebes who was married to King Laius. However, the couple was told by a prophet that their son would grow up and kill the father. So, like Abraham, they took the infant up the mountain, bound him, but, unlike Abraham, left the baby to be eaten by birds of prey. But no such “luck.” The child survived and grew up to unknowingly slay his father. And marry his own mother. And then poke out his own eyes when he discovered the truth. Thus, Jocasta was both the mother and grandmother of Antigone.

With a parentage like that, as a product of incest, what chance did she have? However, she was both a very loyal and determined girl. When her father, blinded, went into exile, she accompanied and guided him. When he died and she returned to Thebes, she found that her two brothers were at war, Eteocles defending Thebes and Polyneices attacking the regime. Both were killed in the battle and Antigone’s uncle Creon became king. He buried Eteocles in an elaborate state funeral, but issued an edict, in accordance with the law of the land concerning treason, that the body of Polyneices be left on the field. Whether enemy or friend, in death everyone deserved to be buried. And Antigone refused to comply with her uncle’s command and had Polyneices buried.

Creon had Antigone arrested and locked in a cave to die. However, Antigone was engaged to her cousin, Creon’s son, Haemon, who was deeply in love with Antigone. Haemon went to the cave to free Antigone, only to find she had hung herself. In despair, he took his own life.

The central theme for Hegel in this tale was not a story of the Owl of Minerva and the death of an era. Nor was it of rebirth and a new age emerging. Rather, it was a tale of the process of history. Creon was a figure of state who believed he had to uphold positive written law and deny any burial for Polyneices, his own nephew, because Polyneices was regarded as a traitor.

But Polyneices was the brother of Antigone and Antigone felt she had to follow a higher law, a divine law, a humane law, a natural law, a law at odds with positive law. She followed her principles and died for them.

The issue is not the end of days when both divine and humane law have become exhausted. This was not the time for the Owl of Minerva to pronounce the death of the old and the obligation to recollect and understand. Nor was the tale about birth of a new era. It is a struggle between positive law gone awry and the obligation to stand up and be counted in opposition to defend a higher moral law.

Was my sandhill crane an omen?

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

Stages of Satire

Stages of Satire

by

Howard Adelman

In the debate over satire, Malcolm Gladwell inevitably re-introduced Northrop Frye, one of the most important and influential teachers I had in graduate school when I audited his course, even though, and perhaps because, I could then only grasp 15% of what he was saying. In Frye’s book, Fearful Symmetry, he wrote that, “tragedy and satire are artistically justifiable only when their finality is paradoxical, and where a subsequent resolution of that paradox is implied.” But, as he made clear in the Anatomy of Criticism, this is the pinnacle of satire, not its exhaustive characterization. Or really the foundation, for the satiric rungs of satire descend rather than rise.

Satire at its best points to an opening from the bleak horror of the current dominant power. That opening is implied, not stated. For satire is open-ended as opposed to that which it satirizes, which is always a closed system. The power of parody at its best, that is, at its lowest, is to reveal the paradox, to unveil it, to show the underlying structure, the anatomy that unites both the closed-system being satirized and the open-system acidly dissolving the appearances of its target. Satire really works best when it unveils both the cultural limitations of the society in which we all live while, if possible in the greatest satire, pointing beyond it. In that sense, unlike its target, it is not just caustic, but moral as well.

Satire in the end is the ultimate in irony. It tries to establish that the established order which promises to deconstruct the world and rebuild it in a new/old vision is the acid; the satire that adopts the caustic disguise is the real poetry. This is the paradox. Satire adopts the caustic position of its target to reveal total destruction as the ultimate and end goal of the system being satirized, but satire leaves a residue, an outline, a sketch, an etching of what can and should follow. Whereas the object of satire is revealed as the devil’s work, satire plays devilish tricks to leave hope, gaiety and delight alive beyond the morbid that is being deconstructed and even destroyed. A fantasy world of delight can be envisioned behind the broken and shattered Black Mirror that the dystopic and myopic would bequeath us in the best form of satire that transforms the normal world, or a logical extension thereof, into a shocking horror show.

But satire must stink if it is to do its work. When one of the greatest works of satire in the history of literature, Jonah, is placed on a reverential pedestal and read every Yom Kippur on the annual replay of atonement, when the laughter is drained entirely from its veins and the rabbis in reading it have lost their sense of humour totally, then its acrid function has been lost. One suspects that those who have elevated Jonah to such a state may be guilty of trying to avoid atonement for their own effort to construct either a closed legal system or a closed sentimental moral one. Unfortunately, the best form of satire has the potential to leave laughter behind so that what is presented is taken as a serious rather than a satiric text.

My son’s criticism of those forms of satire to which he responds negatively is that they destroy a target by simply taking the techniques of the target to the nth degree, and undermining the possibility of effective action, even of heroism to confront and combat the work of the devil. Heraclitus wrote that the essence of life is water, for water symbolizes change, but it is also the eternal instrument of corrosion. (Cf. Duncan McFarlane (2011) “The Universal Literary Solvent: Northrop Frye and the Problem of Satire, 1942 to 1947,” ESC, 153-172) Sooner or later, it washes away the detritus and leaves behind the skeletal structure that allows the body to stand and move forward. Sometimes that water can be very acidic so that we are overwhelmed by the smell of sulphur and fall down laughing without being able to grasp any alternative to a universe of hell.

The following disorganized and dissolute, indiscriminate but very incriminating zingers from Frankie Boyle’s piece in The Guardian (8 February 2017) on Donald Trump fall into this category:

Presidents always enter office with something to prove, it’s just rarely their sanity.

He is a super-villain in a world without heroes, a man so obnoxious and unhappy that karma may see him reincarnated as himself.

You kind of wish he’d get therapy, but at this stage it’s like hiring a window cleaner for a burning building.

He’s not a classic Nazi, but would burn books if his supporters knew how to read.

Being on reality TV is the closest he ever got to reality.

Trump is at war with Saturday Night Live. He thinks it’s horrible and yet he can’t stop watching. Pretty much the same as how the world feels about him.

At other times, the water is so mild, even if on close reading it is more caustic than sulphuric acid, that it passes over our head, or, more accurately, past our funny bone and we lose both the sense of what to laugh at as well as the ability to laugh. Jonah is a case in point.

What is satire? It is militant irony in Frye’s words. Its instrument is humour; its target in its ultimate form is that which threatens life, Thanatos, the Grim Reaper. Does that mean that satire which merely belittles, which merely engages in a reductio ad absurdum, is bad satire, is unacceptable satire, is satire that is destructive without any constructive intent? Yes and no. And perhaps maybe. For there is a minimalist form of satire that is simply caustic, as illustrated by Frankie Boyle above, that imitates the negativity of its object without pointing to a way out.

That in itself is not a bad thing. The fact that certain forms of satire have severe limitations does not make them worthy of discard. They serve a purpose even when they fail to dissolve adequately and thoroughly, even when caught up more with the stench of the object of their hatred than the stink that engulfs us all. When Jonathan Swift in meticulous detail describes how the Lilliputians tie up Gulliver and immobilize him, how the hero is made impotent and reduced to a powerless state, we do learn how the multitude of small minds can defeat the ideals of a Statue of Liberty, can behead that statue and hold it forth as a trophy of war.

When my son remonstrated me for using putdowns to deal with the absurdity of Donald Trump, he referred me to a podcast by Malcolm Gladwell called “The Satire Paradox.” (http://revisionisthistory.com/episodes/10-the-satire-paradox. Malcolm Gladwell seemed to need satire to tell a moral tale, to establish a larger truth. But the real paradox of satire is that in its greatest expression, the paradox, is not between the “truth” unveiled and the crude means used to unveil it, but the tension between the caustic quality needed to reveal the anatomical structure that has allowed a Donald Trump to take power in the name of a closed order and the ability to point beyond to an alternative open order, to a world of possibility rather than one determined, defined and locked down. There is no truth that prevents a satirical sketch from being interpreted in radically different ways. Malcolm Gladwell wants satire to be didactic when, in its essence, it is not and cannot be. The object of satire is NOT to drive the audience towards TRUTH, but to drive them away from a false vision, a nightmare claimed to be true.

It is a mistake to believe that if we do not get the message, if there is no message to get, then the laughter is toothless and has lost the fearsome quality of the tiger in Blake’s Fearful Symmetry. For even satire, in which mirth overwhelms, frees us from the ropes of the binding vision of a demagogue, though it fails to unveil the platform on which we can stand and confront the beast. Malcolm Gladwell criticizes American satire for focusing on the mannerisms rather than the underlying mechanisms of the destructive order, but the mannerisms are the mechanisms. That is the issue.

The satire may be of such poor quality that this is not entirely made clear so that, consumed with laughter, the viewer or listener is still lost in the clouds of his tears, but insofar as it engages in a fearsome attack, even without redemption, it performs a magnificent function. Even in its weakest form of name-calling, satire with virtually no irony is still a sharp spear to tear open anomalies and injustices, follies and crimes, even if it does not encourage or facilitate an engagement in protest. If it just opens eyes and does not engage our intellect, it is satire nonetheless and can be very funny when done well.

At its highest (really, the lowest) level, satire is as precious as platinum. As McFarlane put it in describing Book 11 of Ovid’s Metamorphoses on the death of Orpheus, it, “involves all of Frye’s ultimate criteria for satire. First, an object of attack: the Maenads are a possible target, since their actions are initially ridiculous and finally deplorable, but Orpheus himself is the definite target of the women’s fury. Second, elements of the grotesque or absurd founded upon fantasy: these are plentifully present, in the rending of Orpheus, the fantastic charms of his music, and the punitive planting of the Maenads…Frye suggests the satirist as an author of effective but unthinking brutality, a mindless hatred of the lyrical arts Orpheus embodies…the poet raises, refines, constructs; the satirist debases, defiles, and destroys.”

The steps of satire begin in fragmentation, descend into the epic and then the dramatic, and on rungs four and five to the lyric and saturnalia. Satire at its base is militant irony, irony on the march, founded on fantasy. When the Thracian women, stand-up comics like Boyle, attack Orpheus/Trump with stones, Orpheus may respond with trying to charm the rocks themselves, to neutralize them with a lyre bequeathed to him by his father, Fred. They are impoverished lyrics or, in Donald’s case, tweets. But, as his body is torn asunder by the unremitting attacks, Orpheus descends into the underworld of the epic. There he joins the beautiful Eurydice, Melania Trump, whom Boyle describes as having the “look of a woman frantically trying to unlearn English, appalled to find that this only makes her understand her husband more clearly.”

Trump gives up on Orpheus and falls back on his obsession with gold, his compulsive attachment to wealth. Bacchus transforms Trump into Midas. As Midas, his wish is granted. As president, he can make many more billions than he made as a developer or as a reality star on TV or as a salesman of his own brand. Then, in a dramatic flourish, everything he touches turns to gold, but gold grapes are not only tasteless, they break your teeth even though gold is the softest of metals. Finally, he is even unable to drink a glass of water because, at his touch, it turns into a solid. He asks that his wish for solid gold and the banishment of change, of water, the wish that turned into a curse, be lifted.

That wish is also granted, only to transform Trump into a judge of songs of seduction, lyrical efforts at persuasion. DT goes back to becoming a reality TV star, but one who now occupies the White House. Pan takes on Apollo, the archetype of prudence and wisdom but, in the underworld, Trump’s own father. Orpheus becomes Oedipus. The god of Mount Tmolus had declared Apollo the winner with the most votes, but the rigged system that Trump so vilified now allows Trump to declare Pan, the god of the wild, Dionysius in drag, with hindquarters that can scale mountains and horns on his head that can butt anyone off the mountain he meets. Pan, the classic Pan, not the sweet sentimental Peter who fulfills the fantasies of children, but the ruffian, is the new guise of the victor.

Apollo metes out revenge, turning Trump into a donkey and we are now at the level of saturnalia. Trump travels to Troy, currently called Washington. The parallels now become literal. Using very different devices, Laomedon tricks two gods, both Apollo and Neptune, the Democrats and the Republicans, into building the wall of Troy. But as has been his practice with all sub-contractors, Trump qua Orpheus qua Midas qua Pan, now qua donkey or ass, stiffs them. Washington is punished and flooded with harlequins. In the ultimate irony, the very attempt to stem the flood with a wall, produces the flood itself, not of hardworking immigrants, but of every fraudster and soap salesman from across the land. The attempt to build a wall actually opened the floodgates to inanity. In the final stage of the descent, Hesione, Ivanka Trump, must be sacrificed. Her clothing line is delisted at both Nordstrom and even in the Hudson Bay stores.

Trump now takes on the guise of Hercules. To save Hesione, he must trade in his horses. This time, it is Trump who is double-crossed by no less than the ruler of Zimbabwe. No horses, no Hesione. Debauchery turns into debacle as Ivanka is transformed from a sweet sign of reason and good will into a lioness, and brother kills brother and brother-in-law escapes from the mad apocalyptic world into which all have descended to find a new kingdom. But, in concert with Troy/Washington, Ceyx’s kingdom has also become the very swamp that Trump promised to drain. The dream of turning a desert into a land of milk and honey has become an extension of chaos and self-destruction, where women go mad and are transformed into birds, where wild wolves ravage both farm animals and people.

Lamentations follow in the wake of Bannon’s destructive foul-smelling brew. The ultimate of satire is that it becomes prophetic truth and reveals total devastation.

 

With the help of Alex Zisman

BDS V: An Ideology of Intellectual Activism

The Intellectual Roots of AAA’s Support of BDS: Part V
An Ideology of Intellectual Activism

by

Howard Adelman

With the exception of this past Friday and Monday, in the last of four previous blogs I wrote on the subject of BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement that promotes, among other things, the boycott of Israeli academic institutions, Israeli academics and non-Israelis who are open to dialogue with Israelis. The adherents vary. Some BDS supporters boycott only Israeli academic institutions and their representatives in the name of human rights. Some even declare that they are not opposed to Zionism, even though the “charter” of BDS insists it is at the forefront of the resistance movement against Zionism. The Anthropologists for the Boycott of Israeli Academic Institutions (ABIAI) within the American Anthropological Association (AAA) managed for a while, before a general referendum defeated by a narrow margin the proposal to endorse BDS, to make AAA one of the very few leading academic professional organizations to back BDS. My last blog on BDS reviewed the last three years of this political debate within the AAA. In this blog, I want to explore why the AAA was so susceptible to such an appeal by offering an intellectual analysis and critique of the rationale for AAA’s engagement in advocacy. In my next and last blog in this BDS series, I will probe why universities have appeared to be fertile ground for advancing, and, in a small number of cases among students, backing the BDS cause.

Engaged anthropology is the general rubric used to rationalize the involvement in and support for BDS by the activists in the AAA. (See the special issue of Current Anthropology 51:2, October 2010 entitled “Engaged Anthropology: Diversity and Dilemmas,” that followed the AAA annual 2008 conference called, “Inclusion, Collaboration and Engagement.”) Engaged Anthropology operates at six levels, at each level expressing an increased involvement:
• A basic commitment to respect informants
• Sharing and support with the communities with which anthropologists work
• Teaching and public education
• Social critiques in academic and public forums
All of the above are consistent with traditional academic norms.
• Collaboration with cultures under threat versus hierarchical approaches
• Advocacy
• Activism

Though I have worked with cultures under threat (Indochinese refugees, Sri Lankan refugees, victims of the Rwanda genocide), though I have advocated on behalf of Syrian refugees and I have also engaged in involved activism, and although these activities are informed by my research and scholarship, I do not regard that activity as part of that research. They are simply expressions of my role as a responsible member of civil society. I might ask some relevant professional associations to speak up on an issue, but I would not think of asking the Canadian Philosophical Association to take a controversial stand favouring one side on divisive social issues, let alone try to get my fellow philosophers, individually or through our scholarly association, to take such a stand. Instead, I might invite colleagues to participate in information dispersal and advocacy organizations, but I would never label them as collaborationists if they took an opposite position. I just do not believe that intellectual inquiry is based on an either/or dichotomy, especially where one side accrues the virtue and the other side is cast into purgatory. Self-righteous commitment is not the essence of my ethics of engagement.

For an ideology that insists upon a discipline contributing and adapting to global realities, it is surprising how often this mostly postmodernist approach, which defies a correspondence theory of truth and the existence of a singular reality as a point of reference, specifically adopts the position of insisting what reality is. Admittedly, some defenders of the new engaged anthropology regard the shift into postmodern symbolism and hermeneutics as a deviant sidetrack. Nevertheless, whatever mutation was regarded as mainstream, a shift had taken place away from a correspondence model of truth.

Further, for a perspective that also lauds critique, it is actually shocking to read how un-self-critical much of engaged anthropology is and closed to in-depth structural critiques that examine the effects of funding shifts to give preference to so-called engaged research. The support of BDS is merely the most extreme of the range of efforts by ABIAI to transform the discipline of cultural anthropology and make engaged anthropology the core of the discipline and, in the end, enlist more and more anthropologists into a postcolonial approach to their work. Talk about an imperialist approach to anti-imperialism!

Somehow, the reverence for diversity and breadth does not translate into a conception of itself as a discipline. As engaged anthropology seeks to achieve a virtual monopoly in the field of cultural anthropology, it also began colonizing archeology, physical or biological anthropology, and linguistic anthropology as well as the overlapping turf of its cousins, cultural sociology and social psychology. As engaged anthropology claimed a unique perspective on the dialectical interaction of the microsocial with macroeconomic and political forces, it often pushed aside and/or ignored much of the valuable work of sociologists, economists and political scientists. But in the minds of its advocates, that could be explained by accusing these social scientists of being secret collaborationists and apologists for the reigning power. More generally, engaged anthropology, along with its committed sociological cousins, insisted that their political agenda should be at the centre of public policy, not the work of political scientists and economists.

For a discipline that allegedly reveres history and context, it is revealing to discover how often peer-reviewed articles display an ignorance of history and a deliberate distortion of context, all in the name of its esteem for the rights and dignity of all humans and the promotion of social justice. Even more seriously, under the rubric of advancing human rights, engaged anthropology often ostensibly offers witness to organized social violence, sometimes implicitly and at other times explicitly. Though engaged anthropology is spread thinly over numerous social problems as diverse as climate change and the performance and effects of health systems, from war, racism and genocide to economic development, I cannot tell you how many times I have found that these practitioners ignored acknowledged experts in these areas coming from other fields. For example, did Jean or Stephen Schensul in the field of economic development even read Albert Hirschman?

On the other hand, virtually every committed student of my generation, regardless of discipline, read Margaret Mead and Franz Boas, Ruth Benedict and Ashley Montagu. Sixty years ago, I specifically remember being mesmerized by a lecture by a Harvard scholar and cultural anthropologist, Clyde Kluckhohn (Mirror of Man), in Convocation Hall (the hall held 1,600 and was packed) in, I believe, 1956 at the University of Toronto. (Clyde Kluckhohn died a very few years later at a relatively young age of a heart attack; his or their work was continued by his wife, Florence.)

Though Kluckhohn was a pioneer in ethnographic analysis and intensive longitudinal observations as well as the utilization of empathetic reenactment of thought patterns, famed as both a scientist and a humanist, the lecture that I heard was more narrowly focused on five different senses of time among a specific group of Navaho whom he had studied for decades and four neighbouring cultural groups, the Zuni, Spanish-Americans, Mormons and Texas Homesteaders in the American South. He was the one who introduced me to values theory and the idea that our moral dichotomies of good and evil, our orientation to nature, our sense of personality development and of human relations, particularly between male and females, parents and children, but most importantly in my view, if not his, our sense of time, of past, present and future and their relationship to one another.

I have ever since taken Clyde Kluckhohn as a model both for respect for sensitivity for differences, nuances and variations, as opposed to homogenization, while searching for uniformities, of activism while insisting on accuracy and objectivity, of appreciation for factors that fostered dynamic change while, at the same time, respecting and appreciating traditions, and pushing me towards understanding the power dynamics of domination and subordination. I see it as a seminal betrayal of

Clyde Kluckhohn, the first elected president of AAA, when these activists in AAA are in quest of monopolization instead of appreciating the values of different methodological approaches, quite aside from the deprecation of developed scientific standards. Kluckhohn, in contrast to these ideologists, saw no conflict in working for the government during WWII, possibly for the predecessor to the CIA, studying Japanese morale and the cultural foundations for sustaining that morale at a very high level, while subsequently becoming a fierce opponent of McCarthyism. He was both an academic’s academic as well as a committed public intellectual devoted to practical issues.

It would be helpful if the current school of engaged cultural anthropologists were as active in defining the differences between them and these famous progenitors instead of simply appropriating them for the development of their way of utilizing anthropology. One did not have to be an engaged anthropologist to protest against the McCarthy persecution of academics in the fifties or the efforts to challenge the entrenched racism in the American south during the decade of the sixties or the misuse of anthropology in the study of Laotian Hill Tribes during the Vietnam War. One did not have to become a neo-Marxist to criticize the misuse of academic research or to resist attacks on the independence of academic disciplines by the power of the state.

I have not been able to find a single analysis and critique of the self-representation of engaged anthropologists as moving ever onward and upward, while suffering periodic setbacks, to the liberal vision of progress in intellectual history, even as political and economic history seems to be portrayed as in decline. If identities were constructs, what about critiquing their own self-identity? Deconstructivist and Foucault-type post-colonial theoretical perspectives are taken as givens rather than being themselves subjected to rigorous critique. Self-critique focused on the limitations of academy-based cultural critique in contrast to critical engagement, activist research and advocacy. In spite of favouring the latter, proponents of engagement research noted pockets of resistance and “considerable silence about the kinds and degree of advocacy and activism that would be supported within the discipline and especially within the academy.”
Engaged anthropologists assumed a privileged ethical position for engaging in research. Research without advocacy was considered collaborationist. Anthropology was beginning to be redefined as not even just advocacy, but demanded activism and revolutionary encounters with established power instead of rather than as a complement to detached observation and analysis. They regarded the latter as relegating what is being studied to being an object, a sign of deprecation, instead of examining these intellectual approaches as providing a standard of objectivity.

Support for BDS comes as a logical outcome of such an intellectual shift rather than as a result of an objective and detached study. The practitioners accept a number of premises:
• Zionism is a particularist enterprise concerned only with one group, Jews, and indifferent to the needs of others
• Zionism planted itself in Palestine on the coattails of colonialism and, as such, was and remains a colonialist enterprise
• The problem is not just settlements in the West Bank or even Zone C of the Oslo Agreement, but the Zionist enterprise of settlement altogether
• Zionism continues to be a presence in the Middle East only because it is supported by the imperialist forces behind globalization.
• Engaged anthropologists contend that traditional human rights discourse, that usually targeted limiting state interference in individual rights, while also requiring the state to enforce human rights protections, does little for the Palestinian cause because Palestinians have been the victims of this imperialism and colonialism AND not just the abuse of its own members by the state, thus truer to the universalist discourse of human rights

“Liberation of the beloved Al-Aqsa Mosque and Palestinians from under the occupation of Zionists by the courage provided by the Islamic Revolution and a globalized approach to systematically fighting dominance and Zionism on International Quds Day, have bestowed upon Resistance Front strength and unflagging spirit which had made of Resistance an iron fist against any compromise with illegitimate regime of criminal Zionists.” This is not a statement of engaged anthropologists at the extreme end of the revolutionary spectrum, but of the Revolutionary Guards of Iran determined that Israel not exist in twenty-five years. But it could just as well have been made by this so-called vanguard group of engaged anthropologists, but without such colourful language.

That is why Ken Stone of IJV (Independent Jewish Voices), ABIAI and large groups of engaged anthropologists can make common cause. An academic discipline has been redefined to fit a so-called revolutionary program. Its own history has been described as an exercise too often in serving colonial and imperial interests. Thus, applied anthropology in the United States is depicted as a mixture of New Deal humanitarian liberalism and progressive industrial management ideology. British applied anthropology provided a humanitarian advisory function for colonial administration in Africa. Cultural anthropology itself morphed into institutional anthropologies, such as educational anthropology, thereby replicating positivist approaches to social science in economics and sociology, defining research as a normal part of modern society’s institutional activities and betraying its authentic identity. By the end of the seventies, cultural anthropology had reached its nadir of detachment from modern society with its exclusive focus on the study of tribal and possibly non-urban societies.

However, this imperial success brought with it a revolt against the so-called sins of capitalism, colonialism and male patriarchy. The current conflicts within AAA are heirs of this thirty-five-year-old battle. It is difficult to predict whether the vote defeating support for BDS by AAA by a very narrow margin is a sign that BDSers have reached a nadir and will now enter on a slow decline, or whether, the defeat was just a second act in a longer struggle in which BDS will be reborn and reborn, again and again. Tomorrow I will deal with why universities have become such a hospitable petri dish for a Trotsky-like continuous revolution to culture politically activist cells rather than to understand and comprehend various cultures.

With the help of Alex Zisman

Jazz and Democracy

Jazz and Democracy

by

Howard Adelman

Yesterday evening on stage at that absolutely exceptional musical venue, Koerner Hall, Marcus Roberts, after he introduced the outstanding members of his band, The Modern Jazz Generation, and his planned program of the evening celebrating New Orleans and the jazz greats from that amazing city, turned toward his piano and seemed about to play. Then he turned back to the audience. He said that, although he had blabbered on long enough and should begin playing, he wanted to ask the audience a question. Perhaps they had heard there was an election going on south of them. He wondered whether there were any supporters of Donald Trump in the audience.

To my surprise, there were a considerable number as indicated by the applause and the favourable shouts. I thought Marcus Roberts would get up and walk out. Instead he asked, “And who supports Hillary Clinton?” The applause and cheers made the response for Trump seem miniscule in comparison. Then he asked, “Who supports Bernie Sanders?” It was hard to tell who received more applause, Hillary or Bernie. In the din and chatter that followed, before he turned back to play, I thought (or imagined) he mumbled, “Well I guess I can stay for the evening and play.

Though there were a scattered few young people in the audience, mostly musicians I guessed, the overwhelming majority were long in the tooth like myself. Our teenage years were spent in an age of crooners, in an Al Jolson revival, and with doo-wap and then folk music dominating the air waves before the early rockabilly of Bill Haley, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis took over as rock-and-roll, Elvis Presley and the British Beatles invasion displaced jazz as the musical beat of the young. I still remember listening to Bo Didley at the Chicken Deli on the west side of Mount Pleasant below Eglinton, when rock made rhythm and blues a musical medium for fogies in their late twenties, thirties and forties.

After all, when I started university, Blackboard Jungle was playing in the movie theatres and the sound track featured Bill Haley and His Comets performing, “We’re Going to Rock Around the Clock.” I loved the movie but found it hard to listen to what I considered raucous noise. In my faulty and confused memory, I initially thought that Sidney Poitier starred as the WWII vet and frustrated and forbearing English teacher in a tough inner-city American school, but as I replayed parts of the movie in my mind, Sydney Poitier was the leader of the hard-nosed gang and Glenn Ford was the teacher. I had superimposed a movie forty years later, “To Sir, with Love” onto 1955.

Long in the tooth indeed! I decided my memory had been ruined by loud music. After all, everyone needs a scapegoat. By the time I completed graduate school and began my career teaching philosophy, I left a concert by Bob Dylan at Massey Hall at the beginning of the second half because Dylan had switched from acoustic to an electric guitar; the din gave me an instant headache. Indeed, The Times They Were a-Changing and I could not keep up to the speed.

So I attend the jazz series concerts at Koerner Hall that combine rhythm and melody. Yesterday evening, I listened to the virtuoso drumming of Jason Marsalis. He is truly a genius and makes playing percussion much more than keeping the beat. He not only has mastered all the skills, but has turned drumming into a versatile medium of self-expression as Marcus Roberts sometimes boogy-woogied and other times wildly improvised on the ivories along with all the other jazz greats, young as well as old, who join him and without exception are virtuoso performers. At times it appeared that Roberts used a device on his lap which I guessed must have been a Braille reader that perhaps reminded him of the itinerary for the evening. But that is just a guess and I could not figure out why there seemed to be a bit of confusion in transitioning from one number to another in the second half.

Rodney Jordan was brilliant as the bassist and never seemed to even glance at the music on his stand. He was both the least ostentatious and modest musician of the bunch while always seeming to respond, as if on cue, to whatever music he heard around him – until he played his own solo. Wow! In the back tier of the jazz ensemble sat the incomparable Randall Haywood playing trumpet along with Alphonso Horne. The two were absolutely brilliant. Horne plays with a lot of swagger while Haywood is both bold and retiring at one and the same time. Corey Wilcox dominated the middle tier, not simply because he is a very big man, but his tuba seems enormous and then he switches to trumpet and even the horn. What a versatile and virtuoso performer! Surprisingly, Caleb Mason on trombone almost kept up. Joe Goldberg on clarinet (and sometimes alto sax), whom Marcus Roberts introduced as a former physics major, centred the front tier. Tissa Khosla, who evidently cooks the band remarkable Indian food, played a baritone (and sometimes tenor) sax on his left (our right). Ricardo Pascal was on Goldberg’s right playing on the tenor and soprano sax.

We heard a lot of diamond-toothed Jelly Roll Morton who predated my maturing ear. (The band played “Doctor Jazz” and “The Pearls” – Roberts said that the latter had been written by Morton for a girl he fell for in Europe). Louis Armstrong also dominated in the repertoire.

I walk away from an evening of such brilliant jazz feeling inspired and blessing the luck of almost eight decades of life. How can you listen to Duke Ellington’s music without being buoyed up! Marcus Roberts said last night that jazz lies at the soul of America and is always new and renewable. I think it is the most democratic music for it allows each individual musician to play “his own horn” while working in an ensemble and playing off as well as with the others. Everyone is given a voice. That is why it is the music of equal opportunity and brashness in the face of adversity. It is also a music of stable rhythms and clarity in the sound. You can hear every note, especially from the sax players.

As yesterday proved, the old can be new again, for democracy has a built-in reverence for tradition and the rule of law, but not as a set of prison bars, but as standard setting and discipline, as a framework within which individuals can grow and thrive. Democracy is NOT populism. Democracy depends on a depth of knowledge of one’s tradition and one’s contemporary environment. If it is great jazz, it is never superficial where mouthing what first comes into your mind can be mistaken for “telling it as it is.” Jazz is not postmodernist where everything is said to be of equal value. Democracy is built on standards and a dedication to protecting and enhancing those standards and allowing each individual to realize his or her full potential.

When I return in subsequent blogs to dissecting the internal and external dynamics of so-called “democracy” in Iran, please keep this in mind. Does the democracy deliver tambour and constantly renew itself by providing a decorative interlacing dialectic between the society and the supporting columns and foundations that raise that society up as well as hold it together? Do the rhythms and counter-rhythms play off one another and with one another, or does one side of the tension turn into a disloyal opposition intent on serving as a spoiler rather than a creative counter? Is the repetition and dominant rhythm one of a military band that ensures that everyone marches to the same tune, or is the beat there to ensure a constitutional core that facilitates spontaneity and creativity? Is the conversation one of call and response or does it display deaf ears that turn away from the language of the other? Does the political system cultivate listening or deafen us to the voices of others? In other words, as the miasma bubbles up in a volcanic changing environment, do we experience flight in the face of real or imagined fears, away from freedom, or does the prospect of change and renewal inspire a move towards freedom?

I do not mean to put down the mambo and the samba, rhumba or calypso, but jazz is the soul of America, as Marcus Roberts declared, because it and it alone reveres riffing and improvisation. America par excellence is the country of discovery, of invention. Are we promoting multiplicity or insisting upon uniformity? Are we revering dynamism or stasis? Are we insisting upon strict and confining boundaries or a realm which challenges and alters those boundaries? Do we revere blackness, the revelations of the dark side, or does that just scare the bejeebies out of us? And then do we wear hoods over our heads and white robes in the elusive and eternally unsuccessful, indeed absolutely stupid pursuit of absolute purity, terrific and necessary for the lab but irrelevant to the brutal confusions and chaos of everyday life? Do we understand that democracy has far more to do with the experience of Black Americans, as much as we owe to the white founders, some of whom owned slaves, who read David Hume, John Locke and Adam Smith and were children of the Scottish enlightenment? For though jazz is about invention and improvisation, that creativity requires standards of excellence, mastery of foundations. That is why Marcus Roberts is so dedicated to the preservation and renewal of the greats who founded the jazz tradition. Are those who inspire us – Gershwin and Stravinsky, Matisse and Picasso – ones who loved jazz? Is the political music open-ended or does it lead us to a dead end? Do we build by mastering a legacy or turning that heritage into idolatry?

Is our language of discourse one about frontiers or about closed and walled-off spaces? Is it about cross-fertilization of differences or about the restrictive boundaries? I, of course, in writing about Iran, will also be writing about Canada and the U.S.

Colm Tóibín on the 1916 Irish Easter Uprising

Colm Tóibín on the 1916 Irish Easter Uprising

by

Howard Adelman

Colm Tóibín wrote a very interesting and insightful piece on the 1916 Irish Easter uprising for the London Review of Books titled, “After I am hanged my portrait will be interesting.” The reference http://www.lrb.co.uk/v38/n07/colm-toibin/after-i-am-hanged-my-portrait-will-be-interesting was sent to me by one of my readers in response to my blog on the mini-series “Rebellion;” I opened the response and read the Tóibín article yesterday evening.

Colm began by referring to Henry James’ depiction of his ancestral tribe in his novel, The Princess Casamassima in a letter to a Bostonian friend. Ireland “seems to me an example of a country more emancipated from every bond, not only of despotism but of ordinary law, than any so-called civilised country was before – a country revelling in odious forms of irresponsibility & licence. And surely, how can one speak of the Irish as a ‘great people’? I see no greatness, nor any kind of superiority in them, & they seem to me an inferior and 3rd rate race, whose virtues are of the cheapest and shallowest order, while their vices are peculiarly cowardly and ferocious. They have been abominably treated in the past – but their wrongs appear, to me, in our time, to have occupied the conscience of England only too much to the exclusion of other things.”

In my blog, I had referred to the clash between two camps, the realist (Jimmy Mahon, the socialist leader of the Irish Citizens Army played by Brian Gleeson) and the romantic (Patrick Pearse, the poet orator and leader of the rebellion played by Marcus Lamb), the two polar opposites within the rebellious ranks. However, I totally missed the allusion of this premise in the series to Henry James’ thesis that it was only when the two polar opposites joined forces, that the action could begin and the rebellion take off. James in his preface in the novel wrote of his own romantic hero, Hyacinth Robinson, that the action could only take place when he became “‘most acquainted with destiny in the form of a lively inward revolution.’ For any action to take place, the novel needs another force, which emerges as the more determined and unconflicted figure of Paul Muniment, who is all outwardness, decisiveness and manliness, with politics that are focused, thought-out, physical, set against Robinson’s ambiguous sexual and social presence. But drama in the novel can only occur when Hyacinth’s bookishness, his soul and his soft feeling, have been lured into the orbit of cold steel and hard strategy. The novel’s energy is released when these opposites cease to move against each other, or cease even to run in tandem, but merge, to become aspects of a single burning emotion.”

Colm via James and his novel provides the historical background and context missing in the series, such as the role of Millbank Prison by the Thames that held the Fenian rebels who had initiated the raids from post-bellum America into Canada from 1866 to 1871. The Fenian Brotherhood’s attacks on British army forts and customs posts in Canada, all ending in failure, within Upper Canada and subsequently Ontario, strengthened the Orange Order (still the dominant force in my home province when I was a kid). Those raids from the modern founders of terrorism helped lead to Confederation in 1867, the same year that Alfred Nobel invented dynamite. For if the realists brought discipline and organization, the romantics brought a desire for and an expertise in notoriety and theatricality.

The “Revolution” series did bring out the radical rhetoric that made death and dying for a cause a romantic aspiration in the face of those who had white milk in their arteries and veins instead of red blood. The ruthlessness of the rebels, the dramatization of conspiratorial action, was present early on, but not the guile. So in 1885 the Fenians blew up half of Westminster and the Tower in London using Alfred Nobel’s wicked invention. But it would be the disciplined, focused, selfless and implacable Irish-American, Thomas J. Clarke, who had set up an elaborate bomb factory in Birmingham, and was caught, charged with treason and conspiracy, who would make the difference. He initiated the conspiratorial web from his prison cell in Millbank that set off the 1916 Irish Easter Rising. It was from that prison cell that he wrote his archetypal prison memoir and its depiction of the horrific conditions and the combined stupidity and lack of compassion of the British, and contrasted that with the camaraderie and courage of the prisoners in subverting their jailers. That memoir directly lead to the creation of Amnesty International that would campaign for the release of the prisoners, with the unintended consequence of allowing the rebels to return to Ireland to engage in much more effective Irish revolutionary activity.

Henry James had referred to Ireland as an “accursed isle, “where literature, art, conversation, and society had all been murdered in the name of an ardent nationalism.” In 1907, Joseph Conrad wrote and published the thriller The Secret Agent that would outsell Heart of Darkness. According to Colm Tóibín, Sir Robert Anderson, the police commissioner who had played such an important role in his insistence on treating the rebels as felons rather than political prisoners, as the British army general does in the five part series, published Sidelights on the Home Rule Movement, which inspired Joseph Conrad’s treatise on terrorism. But in Conrad’s foreword to the 1920 edition, he claimed it was the “Greenwich Bomb Outrage” of February 1894 that had inspired him. But it could have been both. When Martial Bourdin blew himself up in Greenwich Park accidentally with his own terrorist bomb (I witnessed the same type of event in Jerusalem in 1978 when a Palestinian terrorist blew himself up outside my classroom window when I was teaching a class on Hegel at Hebrew University), Conrad called this incident “a blood-stained inanity of so fatuous a kind that it was impossible to fathom its origin by any reasonable or even unreasonable process of thought.” But it is precisely such irrational acts of theatricality, when combined with disciplined political calculation, that, according to Henry James, sets off revolutions.

Responsibility for the planning of the rising was given by Patrick Pearse to Tom Clarke (the tobacconist played by Lalor Roddy in the series) who was killed by the firing squad on the first day of the executions (3 May 1916) alongside Pearse himself, and Séan Mac Diamada, also known as Séan Macdermott, played by Sean Fox, who was killed by the firing squad on the final day of the executions on 12 May 1916. None of these leaders during WWI came within a shadow’s breath of the charismatic and clever, audacious and super-intelligent nineteenth century Irish firebrand, Charles Stewart Parnell. But in the series, the combination of characters, together with an obtuse British leadership, provide the spark that would lead to both a failure in the battle for Dublin by the rebels and a victory by their successors in the war for independence. There is no hint in the series that I recall, and hence the criticisms of lack of context, that both Patrick Pearse and James Joyce, in the footsteps of their fathers, revered Parnell.

Colm fills it in. “The clash between the two (Joyce and Pearse) over ideas of language and cultural identity would make its way into the encounter between Gabriel Conroy and Miss Ivors in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’.” For Joyce deplored the romanticism of the Irish nationalists, particularly the cultural nationalists like William Butler Yeats and Lady Gregory. The clash between the cosmopolitans and the nationalists ripples through Joyce’s Artist as a Young Man where Stephen Dedalus is denounced by an ideologue who romanticizes dying as a hero for a nationalistic cause. James Joyce, on the other hand, revered “the reality of experience” and “the uncreated conscience” rather than the romanticism of a dream – make Ireland, or America, great again. Romantic longings appeal to a reified Irish (or American) essence.

Colm also brings out information that I never knew and that is entirely ignored and even contradicted in the series. Pearse liked talking (and sleeping) with young boys. Colm quotes his 1909 poem, “Little Lad of Tricks.”

Little lad of the tricks
Full well I know
That you have been in mischief:
Confess your fault truly.
I forgive you, child
Of the soft red mouth:
I will not condemn anyone
For a sin not understood.
Raise your comely head
Till I kiss your mouth:
If either of us is the better of that
I am the better of it.
There is a fragrance in your kiss
That I have not found yet
In the kisses of women
Or in the honey of their bodies.

Though a reactionary of old age pensions and a strong opponent of Irish emigration, Pearse revered women and did not denigrate their role, as Pearse does in the series. Pearse promoted women for the board of the National University of Ireland. Mercurial, solitary and protean, Pearse evolved into a leading revolutionary who, narcissistically, fell in love with this new emerging messianic and somewhat reckless image of himself as having transformed from a dreamer to a man of action. And he was propelled by a dream of martyrdom rather than victory. When his portrait was requested for a pamphlet, Pearse wrote, “I think a portrait of Emmet would be better (as well as handsomer) on the cover. After I am hanged my portrait will be interesting, but not before.” This evolutionary development from romantic poet and political orator to romantic rebel and political martyr was understandably also ignored by the series.

Colm also displays his intimate knowledge of the inner workings and political struggles of the Irish independence movement and portrays how a rag tag group of rebels divided among Irish Volunteers, the Irish Citizen Army, the Gaelic Athletic Association and Redmond’s National Volunteers transformed itself into a divided but effective revolutionary force, which eventually wins, more because of the stupidity of the British command structure than the discipline, organization and wisdom of the revolutionaries whose 1916 Easter rising was such a tremendous failure as a military operation, but such a successful advertisement for rebellion in the face of British obstinacy and perfidy.

Colm and the series both fill in the divisions between the archbishop of Dublin, William Walsh (Barry McGovern) – protection of the church must be our first priority – and the need to identify with the people – the position of the archbishop’s secretary portrayed as Monsignor Mulcahy (Gus McDonagh) rather than Father Michael Curran, but I found this identification somewhat confusing in the series. It was also not clear to me, as Colm points out, that Pearse’s reading of the proclamation in front of the Post Office was met by a small and uninspired crowd. Though that was how it was portrayed in the movie, I thought that this was the product of series budget shortfall rather than a mimetic version of what actually took place.

Colm also makes clear that the choices of properties to occupy ignored seats of power in favour of symbolic locations, and the choice of the centre of the main shopping area and close to Dublin’s north side slums, led to a large number of civilian casualties, unintentionally or otherwise, when combined with the British use of artillery and large guns clearly in breach of the norms of just war. This barrage that killed a large number of civilians took place in spite of the fact that 200,000 Irishmen were serving in the front lines in Europe and the lives of their relatives would be sacrificed to British indifference to Irish lives. This is conveyed in one dramatic moment with the death of the Irish fusilier’s young boy.

Colm reminds us that the rebellion had cultural as well as political consequences. I remember as an undergraduate reading Sean O’Casey’s 1925 comic portrayal, The Plough and the Stars which captured the rhetorical romanticism of the revolt – I never read or saw the earlier Shadow of a Gunman. The scene of the looter with “a new hat on her head, a fox fur around her neck over her shawl, three umbrellas under her right arm, and a box of biscuits under her left” has a variation in the series, but without O’Casey’s depiction of her comic relish in her acquisitions.

Colm should be read in juxtaposition to the series, for he supplies context and richness, though he largely ignores the feminist message of the series. That context is important the morning after a rhetorical clown with stock phrases like, “We – no I – will make America great again,” is repeated for the umpteenth time by the now presumptive Republican presidential candidate. The advertisement for myself rings out once again like one of those barker ads, but without the promise that, “I will refund your money.” Men in coal mines will be proud once again to work as miners – environmental consequences be damned. Just as Trump won against the prognostications of virtually all the pundits, he could beat Hillary. She is vulnerable. The appeal to ignorance is powerful.

God bless America. Who else will if Donald Trump wins?

Skin

Skin

by

Howard Adelman

There were two queries about Friday’s blog. Both, from different angles, were about the meaning of the expression, “by the skin of our (or your) teeth.” The essence of both comments claimed that the expression was nonsensical since teeth do not have skin. However, it is precisely because teeth are not covered by skin that the expression is such a terrific metaphor, even if, through overuse, the subtlety of the meaning is often lost.

Escaping a catastrophe by the skin of one’s teeth means an escape by the thinnest of margins, Further, the escape was without any costs or wounds to our flesh. The reason for the escape was not because of our own efforts, but by chance or happenstance. Luck saved us rather than effort. The result is that we can breathe a very large, “Whew!” The expression, “by the skin of our teeth,” conveys all of that. The margins of salvation were so close or thin that they could not even be seen. Further, the event was full of irony, for all along until the denouement, we may have been “gritting our teeth.” We were anticipating huge costs in the drama of the build up. But, in the end, there were no real costs comparatively. We could breathe a sigh of relief. The escape took place “in a flash,” almost out of nowhere. The whole scenario reversed itself.

In other situations, you may affirm your initiative and effort in escaping a disastrous situation. Instead of fate determining the result, your own ingenuity will. Confronting frustrating obstacles, you may assert that, “there is more than one way to skin a cat.” Leaving chance aside, in other circumstances there may be costs, even serious ones. But you do not have to pay those costs because you do not have a stake in what is taking place. There is no “skin off your back.” “There is no skin off my nose.” You or I escape without consequences, not because of chance when the anxiety level was very high, not because of relying on one’s own flexibility and inventiveness, but because the situation was a matter of indifference to you.

In the opposite circumstances, when you do have a great stake in the game, when the situation may be significant and impose large costs, and when, rather than being indifferent and rather than being able to rely on your personal ingenuity, you are confronted by a “banana skin,” by circumstances which are, at the very least, embarrassing and may, over the long run, be very costly, the circumstances are not of your own making, but placed in your way as you waltzed along and did not anticipate the situation in which you could slip up. On the other hand, in some situations, there is salvation rather than a crash. That salvation does not come by way of chance. Nor does a disaster come about because of an unanticipated barrier thrown your way. You are saved by a deliberate intervention by another who “saved your skin.” Your neck was rescued by the efforts of that Other.

“Skin” in these many expressions can have such opposite meanings. Instead of saving you, the Other may take advantage of you in a skin game, that is, cheat or swindle you. Or you may yourself become involved in a boiler operation or a skin game. But if you are the victim rather than the victimizer, the chances are that, when it’s over and you realize that you have been had, you may want to “skin someone alive.” Perhaps even more, for to skin someone alive, confusedly, does not mean killing them, but simply taking a “strip” off their “hide,” giving them a severe scolding or dressing them down. You are so angry that, although you might have murderous thoughts, your imagined actions entail only a burst of shouts. In the case of, “I could have skinned her alive,” you imagine an action to express how angry you feel.

But sometimes, when you are the one being skinned, you may not react with anger at the Other, but with rage at oneself, with disgust at your naiveté and how easily you were taken so that you feel like or may even actually “skin a goat,” that is, retch (doesn’t a goat when he or she is bleating sound like it is retching?) and vomit. When you consider yourself the prime cause of your own injuries in the short or long term, then you skin up. Not only have you f…ed up, but you have scraped your skin, or, much more seriously if you skin up over the years by smoking cigarettes, you may ruin your insides and initiate a cancer that may sometimes be terminal. You have really skinned up.

But whether you injure yourself or another, in assessing the fault line for the cause of your troubles, you may be given advice to “buck up” and also not to trust another. Sometimes one is offered advice not to rely on others, to be an independent agent and to rely only on oneself. Do your own dirty work, as the saying goes; “skin your own skunk.” Everyone is responsible for his or her own actions and neither chance, nor voluntary intervention, should determine the results.

And, of course, the original expression and its variations are paradoxical. For, on different occasions, you have “skin in the game.” There is a cost. In some contexts, the costs can even be measured, so getting by may cost a “couple of skins,” a few dollars. And when you buy a used car, you may get “skinned,” or overcharged. That is why a skinhead is not simply a person without hair on his scalp, someone who has shaved his head, but someone who deliberately removes that hair to demonstrate that in the most sensitive part of his body, the person is willing to engage in violence and risk suffering very serious wounds to his flesh. In fact, skinheads often accompany the shaving of their head with body piercings and tattoos to signal that willingness to bear the scars of the flesh, that, unlike the person who escapes by “the skin of their teeth,” they do not want to escape scrapes, but to encounter and even encourage them.

Skinheads have thin skin. If you have a “thik skin,” it means that insults run off you like light drops of rain. You are immune from being wounded by any defamatory remark. You do not escape wounds to the flesh by chance or luck and by the thinnest of margins, but by developing over the years a thick skin that it is very difficult to penetrate by biting words. In an opposite meaning, someone is sensitive to barbs if he allows those insults or certain types of behaviour to irritate and even “get under his skin.”

But you may escape a sense of personal injury for another reason – you have confidence in yourself and who you are. You do not feel hurt because you are insensitive, but because “you are comfortable in your skin.” However, if one is neither insensitive nor full of self-confidence, then many situations may frighten you, may make your skin or flesh crawl, and even make you “jump out of your skin.” In situations where you are dreadfully afflicted and may even lose a “ton of money,” then you may be described as having been “totally skinned.” On the other hand, rather than being an individual of supreme self-confidence, you may be a bluffer, a poseur, someone trying to convey confidence, strength and courage that you do really have and, therefore, only acting as an “ass in a lion’s skin.” You are simply a fool.

Some expressions or skin metaphors have no subtlety at all. You are “all skin and bones” simply means you are thin or “skinny.” If you are “soaked to the skin,” it means that rain has penetrated your protective layer of clothing. On the other hand, you may dismiss the powerful physical attraction of another person because they look exquisite but that does not really count since “beauty is only skin deep.” Beauty is superficial. What counts is character. And beauty is no revelation of character. There is another way to put down physical beauty and its power by actually denigrating it and relegating what you see as actually, or metaphorically, only a “skin flick.”

In this plethora of uses and associations, we are not getting to “the heart of the matter.” We are not getting “beneath the skin.” The situation can be described at a deeper level. Dabbling in and enjoying, though often crying and deploring, the surface of politics, the pursuit of position and power, the campaign to get elected, allows us to easily get caught up in the posturing and give and take that we see and observe. But there are the forces we do not see or even perceive, for the surface phenomena are only the eruptions of contending forces beneath.

So for the next while, I want to go beneath the skin, beneath the crust of the earth, and explain what is taking place in the grinding together and the gaps as forces push in different directions, towards or against the fault lines. But sometimes those forces overlap, one submerging the other beneath. In these areas of contention, I want to make an effort to understand the pressures at work of which the eruptions on the skin are only symptoms of the stresses and strains beneath the surface. But I will do so in a very specific time, 1947 after WWII, and in a very specific place, Palestine.