". . . 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

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Past & Present: Rome & Islam, Vita Sackville-West -- Dr. John & Louis Armstrong

I am reading along in an interesting UK Guardian article tagged 'history.' El V calls out, "I'm reading a Guardian article that I bet you'd like." I say, "I bet I'm reading it right now." He says, "About the end of the Roman empire an the rise of Islam?" I say, "Ay-up." By Tom Holland, others might find it of interest too, so here it is. The article focuses on several writers: Ibin Hisham, Nennius, Asimov, Herbert, J.R.R. Tolkien.

I don't know about anyone else but I "hear" these words in the voice of the fellow who narrates the BBC's A History of the World in One Hundred Objects.

Yet it is a curious feature of the transformation of the Roman world into something recognisably medieval that it bred extraordinary tales even as it impoverished the ability of contemporaries to keep a record of them. "The greatest, perhaps, and most awful scene, in the history of mankind": so Gibbon described his theme. He was hardly exaggerating: the decline and fall of the Roman empire was a convulsion so momentous that even today its influence on stories with an abiding popular purchase remains greater, perhaps, than that of any other episode in history. It can take an effort, though, to recognise this. In most of the narratives informed by the world of late antiquity, from world religions to recent science-fiction and fantasy novels, the context provided by the fall of Rome's empire has tended to be disguised or occluded.

Vita Sackville West wrote Grand Canyon, a speculative novel, during World War II. After having watched the Island at War series, reading about this novel's supposition makes me flush with trepidation. What a juxtaposition it must be to read Grand Canyon right before or right after the author's Orlando. It has been re-released as an e-book.

I was intrigued this month by a strange and striking novel from Vita Sackville-West, coming from digital imprint Bello. Grand Canyon (£7.99), first published in 1942, opens in misleadingly sedate form with an encounter between two middle-aged English guests, a woman and a man, strangers to one another, and both staying at a hotel by Arizona's Grand Canyon. But from this unremarkable beginning, the book develops not into a novel of social observation but into a startling piece of speculative fiction, in which the Germans have won the second world war in Europe and the continent is now in Nazi hands. The two middle-aged hotel guests are exiles from a country to which they can never return, while America itself is poised for attack from Nazi forces, with the Grand Canyon a nexus for the opening battle. The second half of the novel takes another major twist that pushes the story further still into the realms of the fantastical. It's a curious read, written with the urgency and pain of wartime, and it fired me with a fresh interest

New Orleans, another great city that cyclically falls and rises, always in mind, past and present, tonight. Dr. John at BAM, performing with the NOLA greats, and performing the NOLA greats -- Louis Armstrong.  It's gonna be a gathering of the tribes.


Foxessa said...

Oooo. Here's a review of the history of the era referred to in the article, In the Shadow of the Swords by Tom Holland, which comes out in the UK in June.

[ " But running like a stream of molten lava beneath the narrative of Holland's history is an even more intriguing story. This is a history of the history as it were, telling how the warrior-dominated Empires of Antiquity were transformed into the first monotheistic states; how the old inclusive conquest states, with their comparatively simple desire for submission and tribute were replaced by states which imposed systems of total belief and demanded exclusive loyalty. As Holland reveals this was a slow, incremental achievement by literate and inventive clerics, teachers and jurists. On the one hand they are heroes, proving to the world that the pen is mightier than the sword, building a world dominated by passionate beliefs, schools, hospices and hospitals (rather than theatres, fora and amphitheatres) but they are also the villains, the crabby, jealous, legalistic men who forge prisons from the bricks of religion. We observe the Eastern Roman Empire morphing itself into Byzantium, first with the closure of the last pagan temples and schools of philosophy, then with a slow tightening of the definitions of Christian Orthodoxy, which will progressively condemn Jews and Samaritans before advancing to exclude the so-called Arian, Monophysite or Nestorian churches. In the same period the Talmudic schools of Mesopotamia create modern Judaism and Sassanian Iran becomes the homeland of a national, priest-ridden Zoroastrian orthodoxy. Many of its rituals, the habit of five daily prayers, of an obsessive dental hygiene and intolerance of dissent (which led to the martyrdom of such a God-loving individual as the prophet Mani) will be grafted into early Islam. This is wonderful, hard-hitting analysis, elegantly tied into the unfolding narrative of events, with each religious establishment exposed in all its glory and treacherous realpolitik.

Holland has also set himself a third task, as judge of the traditional Muslim narrative. He explains that the traditional story of Islamic origins and the life of the Prophet was only written down a hundred years after the events occurred, and was edited by writers whose primary motivation was theological, and who needed to ground their own political and legal innovations by creating retrospective case history. This is true enough, and as he also demonstrates this happened all over the ancient world, but the craft of the historian is to surely sift and winnow, not to throw the baby out with the bath-water. But instead of interpreting the traditions, Holland follows the brilliant, challenging ideas that Patricia Crone threw into the goldfish bowl of Islamic scholarship a few decades ago to stir things. In essence the full deconstructionist interpretation of nascent Islam denies the existence of pre-Islamic Mecca, tries to divide the Prophet Muhammad into two characters (along the obvious fault line of the different tone of the revelations from Mecca and Medina) and imagines early Islam as a Jewish-Christian heresy aspiring to conquer the Holy Land. They also tend to site non-Muslim sources in preference to anything that can be seen to have been composed in Abbasid Baghdad. But interestingly enough, Holland's vivid selection of non-Muslim texts all prove broadly supportive of the traditional narrative of events – even the most remarkable chance find of them all, a humble receipt for sheep paid over to a very early Arab military detachment operating in Egypt. " ]

Love, C.

K. said...

What did you think of Island At War? It took a while to get going and the situations and characters were on the stock side, but it improved as it went along. I thought that the policeman was the most compelling character.

Have you seen Any Human Heart, with Matthew Macfayden and Jim Broadbent. Not to be missed. William Boyd's novel was one of those rare books that I hated to see come to an end.

Foxessa said...

The actress who plays Jane Bates in Downton Abbey, has a secondary role in this, as the oldest daughter of one of the three families the series follows. Lawrence Fox is a German soldier, he who plays Inspector Lewis’s DCI. He's the most dishy-swoon for white actor going at the moment, at least in quality television.

I watch Island at War very slowly, even though there are only six episodes in the series. It's so tense I could handle only about a third or half an episode each viewing before needing to leave it. I felt the same thing with the Wish Me Luck series, of English women who go to France to join the Resistance, spy on the Occupiers and report back to England. The tension is so great -- so believable -- your stomach knots up and your teeth grind, and you have to leave your seat and walk out of the room. At least if you are me you do.

The World War II German occupation of the Channel Islands even when fictionalized, is filled with terror on behalf of the people, and particularly of the characters we get to know. It's a German occupation, and we know so much about how their occupations were managed that the fear is more than justified. Watching the constant threat to the characters, particularly the women, and how the women are pressured constantly to be 'nice' to the Germans, from the highest ranking officers to the common conscriptee is more than one can hardly stand. It's particularly awful because we know how trapped the women were. Either you cooperate or you and / or your family will suffer for it, you likely will be forced, and even if forced your community will despise you (and your family) as a collaborator, and may suffer violence at the hands of your neighbors just as you do from the hands of the Germans. Rape = collaboration. Incarceration and denial of food by the Germans for your family = fraternization.

And the decisions you must make everyday, for yourself, your family, your friends and maybe even people you don’t know, the pressure to make the right decision, when ultimately there is no right decision because you are in a prison and have no agency, no control and nowhere to go to be free for even a moment from the enemy. The senator makes a wrong decision. He knows it. It will weigh on him for the rest of his life. But there is no likelihood that if he’d made a different choice the young man who is spying would not have been captured and executed anyway. Where could he go?

Foxessa said...

And who can you trust? Is the fellow who is making a killing helping the Germans run a black market an exploiter of his community's hardship, or is helping by getting food available? Is he a spy for them, or is he a spy for you, or is he just a selfish sob out for whatever he can get for himself?

This is all what happens in war.

I had been looking at some of the actions of the Romans when they first came to conquer and occupy England. Slowly squeezing the Britons until there was nothing else to squeeze out of them except sale of their very bodies on the slave market. Forcing the Britons to take a loan for "improvements" which then the Brits were forced to pay back at exhorbitant interest in taxes, kind and labor, for generations.

Occupation is hardly ever fair, much less kind, far more likely to be cruel. People hate you taking away their things, whether their crops, their children, their land, their animals, their flags, their names, their religion, their administrative systems, their culture -- no matter how gentle the occupier thinks his occupation is. Occupation breeds by its very fact hatred and non-cooperation. And it is always the women and children who suffer most, who are punished by everyone in every way they can manage.

This is not to say by any means that Island At War is not a good series. It is very good, in fact. Which is why it is so hard to watch. It was more popular here than in the UK, supposedly because the UK television viewing audience had been saturated with WWII programming.

The people of the Channel Islands didn't like it much though:

[ " ... the series faced widespread criticism in the local press due to inaccuracy, mispronunciation of names (for example, 'Mahy' was pronounced 'Mah-hee' rather than the correct 'Ma'yee') and the fact that the series was filmed not on the islands themselves, but the Isle of Man." ]

Wherever it was shot, the landscapes are beautiful. How much more that beauty hurts when occupied by such a vile enemy.

We've been so lucky to not suffer any occupations here, she says ironically, thinking about the Native Americans, or say the forcible sterilization of up toward 34% of childbearing age Puerto Rican women starting during a period in the 1940's. When it comes to the so-called Reconstruction occupation of the secessionists, it was their choice to start a war, and their occupation wasn't harsh or even long, despite their revisionist fantasies. Maybe if there had indeed been an actual occupation by victors of the losers we wouldn't still be fighting the Civil War even now. I don't know, but the occupation was so mild that despite the loss of life in battles, the former CSA never accepted it in fact had lost the war of rebellion and southern aggression, or even that they fired the first shots -- or even that they made the war in order conquer the entire hemisphere for slavery.