LINES OF THE DAY

". . . But the past does not exist independently from the present. Indeed, the past is only past because there is a present, just as I can point to something over there only because I am here. But nothing is inherently over there or here. In that sense, the past has no content. The past -- or more accurately, pastness -- is a position. Thus, in no way can we identify the past as past." p. 15

". . . But we may want to keep in mind that deeds and words are not as distinguishable as often we presume. History does not belong only to its narrators, professional or amateur. While some of us debate what history is or was, others take it into their own hands." p. 153

Silencing the Past: Power and the Production of History (1995) by Michel-Rolph Trouillot

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Splendid! An Interview With Amitav Ghosh

Ghosh's final volume in the Ibis Trilogy, Flood of Fire, is published this week in the UK, and will be here too, at the end of the summer.



I have so enjoyed and admired the first two volumes, Sea of Poppies (2008 and River of Smoke (2011).  This trilogy is what the finest of historical fiction writers, who also respect the history of their subject can accomplish. This subject is something that neither fiction writers or military historians who write in English have much treated: this vast canvas of India, China, the British Empire and the circumstances of the first Opium War.

November 1839: British ships blow up four Chinese junks, initiating the first Opium War.
It's a bit brave these days for a writer to cite Lawrence Durrell as a formative influence, since the revelations that he abused his daughter, but Ghosh does it.


Ghosh, who was about to turn 50 when he embarked on the [Ibis] trilogy, says he found it daunting: “For the next 10 years, this was what I was going to do. But I also knew that I had to set myself something really difficult and ambitious. And that has proved to be the case. I was determined that the individual books should stand alone – it’s indefensible, aesthetically, for it be just one huge book chopped into three. One of my favourite experiences was reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet in Alexandria. I love his writing and it is strange how he is kind of forgotten now. He had an incredible range and the books capture all aspects of a cosmopolitan life in the eastern Mediterranean. They do articulate with each other so that you get glimpses of characters across books, but they are not all meshed together. If I had a model, that was it.”
Ghosh gives large credit to Walter Scott, too, as an influence on writing his own historical fiction:

Ghosh was born in Calcutta in 1956 and was brought up in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka as his family moved around with his ex-soldier father on various secondments to the Indian government. The peripatetic life meant that books became particularly important to him – one early childhood favourite was Richmal Crompton’s Just William series before he moved on to the novels of Sir Walter Scott, for many the inventor of the historical novel as we know it today. “Scott had a huge influence on many early 19th-century Indian writers and I found his books utterly absorbing and remember curling up in bed with them at boarding school”. He was at the prestigious Doon School where Vikram Seth, a pupil a couple of years ahead of him, came back to teach and they talked a lot about writing to each other. “Not long ago I went back there and looked at those same editions of Scott in the library. I was the last person to have checked them out.”
I still have this edition of Fiedler's book on my shelves.  I've read it -- and many of the books he mentions in it -- many, many times. I spent my undergrad sophomore year looking for, and reading, every novel he mentions in this study of American literature and culture. Fortunately the library was that of the U of Wisconsin so the books were to be had.
That last sentence is sad: there's so much contemporary writers could learn from Scott about how to write good historical fiction; yet, not only do these writers not read Scott, many of them don't know who he is/was; if any do know who Scott was all they know is Ivanhoe, sneering at him in second-hand via Mark Twain blaming Scott for the American South.  (Twain also sneers at James Fenimore Cooper, without whom Twain would never have had a writing career from whose classics his own Huck Finn is descended in an undeviating line, as Leslie Fiedler brilliantly traces in Love and Death in the American Novel.)  For these writers, historical fiction is the same as history, and they don't believe in either of these practices as a discipline, with modes and standards.  Like their fiction, to them history is just something to make up, without even observing the realities of the period.

Ghosh is aware of discipline, as he has a Ph.D. from Oxford in Social Anthropology, a subject that demands travel and writing skills.  He's changed off writing fiction (for which he's been nominated for, and won, many awards including the Arthur C. Clarke Award for The Calcutta Chromosome (1997)  with non-fiction on occasion:
. . . . In an Antique Land (1992) was a broadly non-fiction study emerging from his studies that investigated the relationship between Egypt and India, alternating his experiences of living in villages and towns in the Nile Delta with an imagined history of an 11th‑century Jewish trader and his slaves. Different again, The Calcutta Chromosome won the 1997 Arthur C Clarke award, but Ghosh says he never thought of the book “as being science fiction. It is in many ways a historical novel that is projected into the future as well as the past. And what does such labelling achieve anyway? It just separates what is called the literary mainstream from this other kind of writing. Who are among the most memorable writers from the mid to late 20th century? John Wyndham, Arthur C Clarke, Ursula Le Guin, Doris Lessing. And from the supposed mainstream who reads Angus Wilson today? To the literary establishment Lessing’s later books, about planets and so on, were a kind of embarrassment. But she very strenuously resisted that sort of partitioning and these writers have staying power because they were saying things about society that was in many ways more perceptive than what the literary mainstream was saying.”
It does seem odd that Ghosh gives Naipaul so much credit for the surge of India's literary scene, since Naipaul didn't respect India and Indians, of which he wrote


dismissively and pessimistically in his Indian Trilogy: An Area of Darkness (1964), India: A Wounded Civilization (1975) and A Million Mutinies Now (1990). India and Indians were not pleased with him in those days. Nor is Naipaul an Indian, but a Trinidadian. But this seems to have passed from the UK's and India's literary memory.

Now it's with Ghosh -- and Vikram Seth -- that British Indians and India literary writers are liking to be displeased, calling them middle brow hacks who peddle pablum to the white middle class. Nevermind that this so-called white middle-class has shrunk to pathetic size and doesn't much like reading anything anyway, at least books that feature adults facing adult problems which are not solved by a (white) chosen one or a super hero.

However, this reader enjoys and admires both Ghosh and Seth's books, as well as Scott and Cooper, and Durrell's Alexandria Quartet too.  I even admire and enjoy Twain.




History On the Agenda - Jefferson Davis

Among the many things to which I'm looking forward this week is the drive along the Gulf Coast to and from Mobile.  I've always loved this stretch of different from everywhere else USA since my first car trip along that route from Louisiana to West Florida back in 1977.  It was a revelation that not all of the USA was like the urban northeast, the rural midwest and the Spanish-inflected southwest.  In other words it was my first experience of the South, but even from that drive I understood that all the South wasn't the same.  The Gulf is a separate ecology, geographically, biologically and culturally -- and separate too from the Caribbean.  This was before the hideous casino-box store-outlet architecture and economy took over this once gloriously attractive part of the world, of course.

Photograph of Beauvoir from the years of JD's residency.

In keeping with that ugliness takeover, I have requested the driver to halt for a bit in Biloxi so we can visit Beauvoir, the beachfront mansion a very wealthy widow gifted Jefferson Davis sometime back around 1877 -- to the outrage of her children who fought the gift in the courts, but lost -- and where he mostly lived out the remaining years of his life. (He expired, however, in another mansion, not in Mississippi, but in New Orleans, in the Garden District, on Charles Street.) 




Also located at the Beauvoir site is Jefferson Davis Presidential Library HaHAHaHOHOHo O No!  But yes.

To which at least 14 million of FEMA money was handed over to the Sons of the Confederacy of Mississippi to reconstruct after Hurricane Katrina.

Among this historic site's claims to hyper historic bogosity, docents inform the visitors, among other preposterosities, that there were platoons and platoons of African American volunteers in the army of the CSA -- an army they needed only because the evil northern aggressors had invaded their glorious peaceful south.  Why yes, this is where our tax money goes -- to Mississippi in order that it can fund lies about the federal government -- which provides the money in the first place -- and the Civil War.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Meandering in History From Daniel Boone to the End of the World

Among the several stanzas in Byron's Don Juan given over to Daniel Boone are


these lines, though Mr. Boone would not have cared for Byron's spelling of his name:

Of the great names which in our faces stare,
The General Boon, back-woodsman of Kentucky,
Was happiest amongst mortals any where;
For killing nothing but a bear or buck, he
Enjoyed the lonely vigorous, harmless days
Of his old age in wilds of deepest maze.

What I like about this statue of Boone at Boone, North Carolina is he's wearing a beaver hat, not a Davy Crocket coonskin or any other kind of fur.  He was adamant about not doing that, despite dressing all the rest of himself as Indians did.  He was appreciative of dogs and they abilities too. Visual depictions of him were more than inaccurate in many ways, even those supposedly made while he was still living.
Even stranger than attempting to hold in mind that Daniel Boone and the signature, sophisticated, cultured, highly educated and cosmopolitan English Romantics had connection is that Gilbert Imlay, who conned Boone of money, land and equipment, was the lover of Mary Wollstoncraft, and fathered a daughter with her, Fanny. As he absconded from the Kentucky frontier and his obligations to Boone, so did Imlay abscond from Mary and Fanny, leaving them alone and penniless. So, then, did Shelly and Mary Godwin, Byron and Coleridge, discuss often a utopian society, they could create in the mode they fantasized would be a Boonian settlement on the banks of some river meandering through the frontier woods that were already long gone.



Daniel Boone was, of course, the model for James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo - Leatherstocking - Hawkeye.

I've been thinking about Daniel Boone as well as Natty Bumppo, and how both of them react to the wanton killing of animals and birds (such as the heart-rending description of the Passenger Pigeon genocide in The Pioneers (1823) ), and First Peoples, by this news of horror coming out of New Mexico, that the British Barclay's Bank wishes to build a whole city of 100,000 in the desert outside of Albuquerque  that will suck up desperately needed water amid warnings of a future megadrought -- water that is already earmarked and fought over.  This is why I have no hope for the future because irrational and stupid greed always trumps anything merely factual and intelligent.

Where this is

Barclays expects to put this




Saturday, May 16, 2015

History in the Making -Minnesota Orchestra Broadcasting Concert Live From Havana

We're listening to this history-making live-in-concert via streaming. It seemed to be running on Cuban time, meaning things didn't start on time the way surely Minnesotans at least calculate such things.  But for Cuba it began astonishingly on the tick.

 It was 1:01 p.m. Wednesday when Delta Flight 8876 hit the tarmac at José Martí International Airport in Havana.


Habanera ticket holders waiting to enter the teatro natcional for last night's concert.

Last night's sold-out house.
Since there's no direct or compatible digital links to the U.S. the technical end of this has been very complicated.  The signals are being sent to Switzerland first, and then to the U.S.

The Minnesotans have learned the use of hand fans as well, since the Teatro Nacional is only lightly A/Ced.

They opened with the Cuban National Anthem, "El Himno de Bayamo", followed with the"Star Spangled Banner."

The orchestra began the program with classic Cuban composer Cartula's "Danson" , but they sound so gallego! i.e. like saying "Pat Boone has no soul."  Last night they did Beethoven.  Tonight, at least so far, the program is Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story.

This event is, well, astounding.  Here is a description of last night's concert.  One can't help but wish though, that the Minnesota public radio announcer understood Cuba's music culture better and 'got it' that Cuba has brilliant national classical music orchestras -- that this is not the first time Cubans are hearing this music, played by brilliant musicians.



Queer History

Here the countdown is already happening and the annual excitement that is Gay Pride in June is already building.  What used to be a Gay Pride weekend, and then week, has expanded.  Gay couples -- even groups -- from other countries and states are visibly plumping up the usual tourist hordes on the sidewalks and in the restaurants.

Thus this recently published book fits right into the current ambience,  Double Lives – A History of Sex and Secrecy at Westminster by Michael Block.



The many well known Brit politicos who were gay or bi sexual include Winston Churchill.  That was a surprise to me, at least.


From the Guardian's Books section: .
There are now 32 openly gay MPs, but for much of the 20th century many politicians were forced to lead complex, clandestine sexual lives. Michael Bloch tells their stories and salutes their powers of subterfuge. . . . 
As a young cavalry officer, the Old Harrovian Winston Churchill was accused of having “participated in acts of gross immorality of the Oscar Wilde type” with fellow cadets at Sandhurst; but he successfully sued his accuser for libel, and there is no evidence that, as an adult, he engaged in physical homosexual relationships. Yet he was far from being straightforwardly heterosexual. Although he worshipped his beautiful American mother, he showed a lifelong aversion to women. (In Churchill’s only novel Savrola, the obviously autobiographical hero has a purely chaste relationship with the heroine, obviously based on Churchill’s mother.) He seems to have had a low sex drive, and married rather cold-bloodedly, aged 33, for social and dynastic reasons, just after being appointed to Asquith’s cabinet. Though he came to depend on his “Clemmie” in many ways, she was often exasperated by his emotional unresponsiveness and treatment of her as a child-bearer and housekeeper, and more than once considered leaving him. 



Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Reading Wednesday - The Fifth Heart by Dan Simmons - No Spoilers

Dan Simmons is well known as the author of such expansive science fiction and fantasy novels such as the Hyperion and the Endymion series. The list of his novels is long, and almost all their titles a classical references, meaning classical in the sense of Greco-Roman mythology as seen above, or 19th century English and American literary canon, from Drood (Charles Dickens) to Carrion Comfort (Gerard Manley Hopkins) and The Hollow Man (which whether or not in T.S. Eliot it was "Men" still brings the poet to mind) -- and even Endymion, beyond the Greek myth is also a poem by Keats).


Simon's latest novel, The Fifth Heart (2015), mashes together several nineteenth  bold-face names in American and English Gilded Age fiction and history, authors and characters alike. This is a fin-de-siècle era meta novel of genres, a text constructed upon a variety of narrative and point of view modes. *

The tale's hub is the 1885 mysterious suicide of Clover Adams, historian Henry Adams wife. The narrative opens in 1893 with Sherlock Holmes, who is in the midst of his three-year disappearance after the events at Reichenbach Falls;  he's accepted the assignment -- presented to him by whom? --  to investigate what Holmes has been assured was not a suicide but Clover's murder. Though Holmes appears certain from the very beginning of the novel that Clover was murdered, suicide is also a theme from the first pages.

Present from the beginning too, is Henry James, who introduces Holmes to John and Clara Hay, Sherlock's companion, so-to-speak in his assignment, and who narrates in the manner of his own novels, as the detached, but invested observer, such as Fanny Assingham in The Golden Bowl.  However, there other narrations going on in this novel, to which drawing the reader's attention the narrative voice(s?) go out its / their way to do.

Among the historical figures we have the character of John Hay, who was the unpaid second secretary to President Lincoln during the Civil War, serving as assistant to the official secretary, John George Nicholay.  After the war, Hay tried his hand at journalism, worked abroad for the state department, co-authored with Nicholay the ten- volume Abraham Lincoln: A History (1890).  Hay married banking magnate Amasa Stone's wealthy daughter, Clara Louise Stone, in 1874, making a salary moot for the rest of his life. Settled in Washington D.C., he served in various capacities at elevated levels of government, including as Secretary of State for presidents McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.


Clara Stone Hay by Anders Zorn (1860–1920),

Clarence King on far right. King was an American geologist, mountaineer, and author. He served as the first director of the United States Geological Survey from 1879 to 1881. He also was perpetually broke. Adams and Hays often bailed him out.


Henry Adams, my favorite American historian, invented the discipline of medieval history for academia in the United States at Harvard. He wrote the brilliant multi-volume history of the administrations of Jefferson and Madison, which as great-grandson and grandson of the two Adams POTUSes, he was in the most excellent of positions to do. He wrote copiously for the high end journals of the day and also for newspapers, particularly in the run-up to the Civil War. His quirky, self-embittered Education of  Henry Adams covers a lot of the ground leading up to the Civil War, and the war as conducted abroad, who, as son and private secretory to Francis Adams, a senator and once presidential candidate for the Free Soil party, and the head of the Lincoln's Legation to St. James, put Henry again in the best position to do. He wrote two anonymously published novels, both of which are rumored to have a female figure modeled on Clover Adams.The political novel, Democracy, was vicious about presidents Grant and Garfield.  Some say that Andrew Johnson was also satirized in Democracy -- but it's not possible to satirize the disaster that Johnson and his administration were. As an Adams, with a brother who was very good at making money, Henry Adams was a comfortably wealthy fellow.

Hay and Clara, Henry Adams and Clover, in company with the most manly of them all, Clarence King (King could give Theodore Roosevelt more than a run for the money in the outdoor manliness race), formed the most select of social circle clubs, calling themselves The Five of Hearts. Adams and Hay were such close friends their mansions were built adjacently, on D.C.'s H Street. It was their friend, Clarence King, who, without an abode of his own, presented the Five of Hearts club with the famous five hearts-embossed tea set and stationary. Receiving a summons on that stationary to drink tea on H Street would bring even "a president running barefoot across town in the snow" -- though the White House was just across Lafayette Square from the club's H Street mansions, so such an invitation might not quite as much a heart stopper as the clubbers believed.

The American class system is a strong theme running through The Fifth Heart. Henry and Clover, John and Clara, Clarence King, by the advantages of birth, possess the wealth and power that put them at the apex of privilege.  Henry James, by virtue of his own family's solidly middle-class intellectual affiliations, is among the intellectual and artistic elite, acceptable to the company of the highest-toned aristocrats. However, James lived mostly abroad because the U.S. is too raw for him. Naturally then, it is James who meditates on who is and who is not a gentleman and what a gentleman is and does. Neither is he manly, nor is he rich -- he frets constantly about his lack of financial and popular success. And there's that shifty, unidentified narrator, who keeps drawing attention to -- we presume -- himself, and who narrates extensively upon the others' speculations about who belongs and who doesn't. Finally there's Sherlock, who is no gentleman at all, not even American, and, unlike the others, a character.

Also, Sherlock is tall.

Presumably then, the title itself says that in some way The Fifth Heart is in dialectic with the Five of Hearts club.  We should keep in mind that the average of the combined heights of all five of the members of The Five of Hearts Club was 5 feet 3 inches. These were little people.  Their room for drinking tea with their Hearts tea set was made with furniture and other furnishings scaled to their littleness. They were little in other ways: anti-semitic (Adams), anti-woman (King) and anti-immigrant (Hay). They were snobs, mean with their snobbery, and provincial in their snobbery, for all their traveling in other climes and acquisition of the most rare, expensive and beautiful objects of art and decoration. They could have come out of James's The Golden Bowl, Daisy Miller and The Americans.

This is a novel all of whose elements (except, perhaps Holmes) are of great import to me as an historian, particularly Henry and Clover Adams.  Hay, like Nicholay and Adams, are essential to the understanding of so much American history. For a long time Henry James was my favorite novelists. A novelist who mapped many of his characters directly upon the people he knew. This includes the Adamses, as in his short story, "Pandora", in which the central figure is Henry Adams.

I personally am certain that Clover Adams tragically took her own life.

Melancholia, as the disturbances brought by depression and bi-polarity were known as in those days, ran in her family on the maternal side.  She and Henry were no longer as close as they had been initially. Much of that was Henry Adams's own bitter disappointment that his great historical studies of early America, Jefferson's and Madison's administrations, did not achieve praise and wide readership. It is also hinted the bitterness came because he'd never become POTUS, or even a Senator.  (It was said among various of his contemporaries that born with a silver spoon in his mouth, Henry Adams expected the presidency would be given to him on a silver platter, nothing he had to work to get.) Another contribution was his sense that he was born into a world for which he hadn't received the training to be successful -- something that happens to many people as they age, and the world changes rapidly.

Ultimately a self-centered fellow, Henry didn't, or couldn't, provide Clover the tender attention she should have been receiving -- and as well, schooled in New England repression, she rejected attention, comfort and succor.

That Adams's eyes wandered to other, more happy and lively women -- happier and livelier than himself too -- is not anything for which it seems Clover's suicide should be blamed. It was another symptom of her illness, not the cause of suicide. Moreover there are barely even hints that the very physically fastidious Adams ever was physically unfaithful. If infatuation caused Clover's suicide there would have been few wives left alive in the Washington of that era, including Clara Hay. The historical record shows that in 1887, James Tuttleton wrote:
John Hay fell in love with Nannie Lodge, the beautiful wife of Senator Henry Cabot Lodge. Their affair was conducted by indirections so circumspect, in the gossipy Washington society of the time, that their usually “thwarted assignations” could only have caused them both continual frustration. 
There's also a great deal about both Hay and Adams's later life love affairs in Clover Adams: A Gilded and Heartbreaking Life (2012) by Natalie Dykstra.

Henry Adams commissioned this mourning memorial to his wife, Marian (Clover) Hooper Adams. 
More than likely the death of her dearly beloved father triggered a deep depression from which Clover never recovered.

I recoil from mash up fiction generally, but this one, with the characters it has, the historical era, was an exception, so much so I went out of my way to obtain a copy.

-------------------------------

*  Just as a great deal of The Fifth Heart's text is built out from the previous works of Doyle and James, and books about them, and the central figures, such as The Five of Hearts: An Intimate Portrait of Henry Adams and His Friends 1880-1918  by Patricia O'Toole (1990).


Saturday, May 9, 2015

Film - Ex Machina - Spoiler Free

Ex Machina, an sf film that has been touted more than once as the best film to be released so far in 2015, opened here some weeks before last week's national roll-out. I saw it soon after PBS began airing Wolf Hall, with which Ex Machina has more than a little in common with Henry VIII's quest for the perfect woman/queen/wife, who all turn into disappointments, sooner, usually, than later, with the exception of Jane Seymour, who quickly provided the king with a son and then removes herself by selflessly dying.

Though Ex Machina's Nathan, king of technology, has a different coloring, his build resembles Henry VIII
Caleb, with his employer, the genius god Nathan. Nathan partly constructed Ava the AI via Calebs porn preferences, which he suveilled and mined, in order to make Ava's Turing Test as complex as possible.
However, Ex Machina and Wolf Hall share another quality, which is male rivals who jostle and jar to prove themselves the smartest, most powerful guy in the room. Wolf Hall's King Henry VIII prided himself on his learning as well as his majesty, and Ex Machina's Nathan, who sets in motion all the action that is the film, as founder-coder of the most successful search engine, the most wealthy man in the world, is arguably much more powerful than a king, and as capricious, entitledly vicious and cruel as any king. Nathan wrote that code when he was 13, and now is obsessed with his AI project. Nathan's brought his younger employee, Caleb, to his Norwegian Fortress of Solitude to perform the Turing Test on Ava (Eve) his latest AI prototype. Is she the AI singularity or not?  Caleb is a different type than Nathan, but he too is very, very smart.

Nathan and Caleb are performing their nerds' version of this.
Part of the film is about the outsmarting game Nathan and Caleb play on each other.

It's also about being God. Nathan, who is an obnoxious though very smart egoist, is enthralled by Caleb calling him God, though Caleb repeatedly corrects his employer with what he actually said, which was that the ability to create actual artificial intelligence would be "like a god, not God." As Caleb is all about the semantics of everything, mechanical and human, this is an essential difference of definition, but Nathan is going with God being himself, thank you, because he's smarter than everyone else.

Which brings us to the title of the film, Ex Machina, from Deus ex Machina, drama's god from the machine . . . .

Does the capacity to create a fully, independently functional, self-aware, artificial consciousness of free will make the man God?  Then we must think, "God is dead," and has been dead a long time before the present of this film.  Our tech-obsessed society killed God, putting the mechanically built God in humanity's God's place.

It is a commonplace that (male) humanity kills its father-God.  But what have females done with fathers and God, other than serve?

Two AIs.  One talks, the other doesn't. One survives, the other doesn't.  It matters not whether the AI has the capacity to talk when they both are programmed to be female.  Like Lucifer, Eve will rebel.
Was it Nathan or Caleb who proved himself the smartest guy in the room?  The answer is irrelevant.  What matters is the next question: what happens now?

Beyond, or below, God, there are many question thrown up by Ex Machina, via the very smart scripting and photography, particularly about what makes up gender, at least of what qualifies as the feminine and the female -- and even, as we see by the still above, ethnicity. These are the questions most critics and reviewers have focused on, though a quick google-through will show they don't all agree on what those questions about men and women are, or what they signify.

Ex Machina, so say the critics, is a movie about ideas, in the best traditions of science fiction, as well as a magnificently constructed and photographed film. So it is, and thus  I went to see Ex Machina again this week. It was a sparsely attended late morning screening; all the audience with the exception of two elderly out-of-town hetero couples and me, were white men between the ages of 20-something and mid-30's.  In the meantime mothers and fathers of all colors and heritages and ages were streaming into the theater down the corridor, young kids in tow, to see Avengers: Age of Ultron.  If anyone were to ask,  I'd suggest instead of Ultron,  Ex Machina, anytime -- if the questioner is older than 11.