20 February 2020

The Shootings in Hanau

Current events and political discussions are anathema to me, but I feel compelled to write a few words about the way the media are covering the recent attacks in Germany.

Reading the headlines in the newspapers, one is inclined to think that the shooter in Hanau was some sort of neo-Nazi, another Brenton Tarrant. Take the Associated Press piece written by David McHugh, David Rising, and Frank Jordans as an example (the Globe and Mail  ran it as “Far-right motives suspected after nine people killed in shootings in Germany”).

The authors note that the murderer, Tobias Rathjen, wanted to exterminate most African, Asian, and Middle Eastern nations. The article points to “growing concerns about far-right violence” and quotes Angela Merkel, who says the killings expose the poison of racism in Germany.

What the writers fail to reveal, however, is that Rathjen also believed he'd been under surveillance since he was a child, heard voices in his head, and thought we should fly into the past through a “time loop” and destroy the entire planet in order to prevent the millionfold sufferings of the world from coming into being. I know all this because I found and read Rathjen's "manifesto" online. I would not call it a far-right, political document, but rather the spittle-flecked ravings of a paranoid schizophrenic. He ventures into such strange and disparate subjects as mind control, the domestic production of washing machines, the sequel to Basic Instinct, Jürgen Klinsmann, and the Deutscher Fußball-Bund (German Football Association).

Now why would journalists portray this as an ideologically-motivated attack and omit these kinds of details, details which show that the perpetrator was completely insane? Here I remain silent. Wovon man nicht sprechen kann, darüber muß man schweigen.

A related post: The Decisive Significance of the Truth
Not unrelated: Newspapers Make Me Sick


Wilhelm von Kaulbach, Mentally Ill Patients in the Garden of an Asylum (c. 1834)

13 February 2020

Honest and Deeply Worrying

Mark Boyle, The Way Home; Tales From a Life Without Technology (London: Oneworld Publications, 2019), pp. 26-28:
A few years ago, before I rejected the internet, I was searching online for an image of a wild crab apple, hoping to make a positive identification. Instead of finding photographs of the plum-leaved or hawthorn-leaved crab, the screen was dominated by the trademarked logo of the Apple corporation. Taken aback, I typed in ‘blackberry’ and ‘orange’ to see what would happen. I was offered mobile phone deals. I hadn’t heard of Tinder at the time, but I don’t imagine pictures of wood shavings, bracken, and birch bark would have monopolised the page.

Six months later I read Robert Macfarlane’s Landmarks, his remarkable, place-particularising contribution to a ‘glossary of enchantment for the whole earth’. In it he revealed some of the words that had been deleted from the 2007 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary. They included:
acorn, alder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture, and willow.
In their place, Oxford University Press had added:
attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, Chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player, and voicemail.
The publishing company’s explanation that these are the things that now comprise a child’s life was pragmatic, understandable, honest, and deeply worrying.

In preparation for a life without the internet, a week or so before I unplugged I found a 2000 edition of the Collins English Dictionary; 1785 pages drawn from a ‘Bank of English’ consisting of examples of 323 million words. My own vocabulary has improved since getting it and using it to replace the online dictionaries I had used for years. If I wanted to understand the definition of a word in the past I would simply Google it, and by the time I had exhaled the ‘w’ of ‘now’ I’d have its meaning. But nothing else. Now if I want to find out the year Gerard Manley Hopkins died, my eye is caught by curiosities from hookworm (no thanks) to horn of plenty (another name for cornucopia — yes please) instead of a screenful of carefully targeted adverts.

Reading it is interesting. Only seven years older than the concise Oxford Junior Dictionary, there’s no mention of block-graph, blog, bullet-point, chatroom or MP3 player. There’s no entry either for currel – a word once specific to East Anglia which describes a specifically small stream – or smeuse, which Sussex farmers once called that ‘gap in the base of a hedge made by the regular passage of a small animal’.

The smartphone generation, having never played with them, will not miss words like ‘conkers’. It’s odd – when I was growing up in 1990s Ireland on a working-class council estate on the edgelands of a struggling town, no one ever asked me if I missed anything about the natural world. But the moment I choose bluebells over bullet-points I’ve found that everyone wants to know what I miss most about machines.

Willard Metcalf, Pasture, Old Lyme (1906)

11 February 2020

Death Will Reconcile Us All

Daniel Defoe, A Journal of the Plague Year (London: Folio Society, 1992), p. 179:
Here we may observe, and I hope it will not be amiss to take notice of it, that a near view of death would soon reconcile men of good principles one to another, and that it is chiefly owing to our easy situation in life and our putting these things far from us that our breaches are fomented, ill blood continued, prejudices, breach of charity and of Christian union, so much kept and so far carried on among us as it is. Another plague year would reconcile all these differences; a close conversing with death, or with diseases that threaten death, would scum off the gall from our tempers, remove the animosities among us, and bring us to see with differing eyes than those which we looked on things with before. As the people who had been used to join with the Church were reconciled at this time with the admitting the Dissenters to preach to them, so the Dissenters, who with an uncommon prejudice had broken off from the communion of the Church of England, were now content to come to their parish churches and to conform to the worship which they did not approve of before; but as the terror of the infection abated, those things all returned again to their less desirable channel and to the course they were in before.

I mention this but historically. I have no mind to enter into arguments to move either or both sides to a more charitable compliance one with another. I do not see that it is probable such a discourse would be either suitable or successful; the breaches seem rather to widen, and tend to a widening further, than to closing, and who am I that I should think myself able to influence either one side or other? But this I may repeat again, that 'tis evident death will reconcile us all; on the other side the grave we shall be all brethren again. In heaven, whither I hope we may come from all parties and persuasions, we shall find neither prejudice or scruple; there we shall be of one principle and of one opinion. Why we cannot be content to go hand in hand to the place where we shall join heart and hand without the least hesitation, and with the most complete harmony and affection,—I say, why we cannot do so here I can say nothing to, neither shall I say anything more of it but that it remains to be lamented.

Arnold Böcklin, The Plague (1898)

6 February 2020

Take the Weight Off Your Psyche

Mary Hobson, The Feast; An Autobiography (London: Thorpewood Publishing, 2015), p. 76:
The person who benefits most from any translation is the translator. By the time you have sucked the juice out of every last Russian idea, thrown all the English words into the air which are in any way connected with it, found two that rhyme (sometimes three in Pushkin’s case), shunted them along to the end of the line, while attempting to preserve the music of the thing and rejecting anything that Jane Austen could not have said naturally in prose, continually asking yourself ‘How would Pushkin have said that if he’d been an Englishman?’, you feel as close to the poem as you're likely to get. And to the poet with whom you have now formed a relationship. It is addictive. Somewhere between a crossword and fine art. You'll never stop once you've started. And it has this additional advantage; you can take the weight off your psyche for an hour or two by trying to inhabit someone else’s.

Why is Jane Austen my standard? Because both Pushkin and Jane Austen wrote on the cusp of classicism and romanticism, and they took the best from both. Because they express so much in so few words, because they can both write with such wit and such grace that their profundity is sometimes overlooked.
Hobson began studying Russian when she was 56 and earned a PhD in the subject from London University when she was 74. She offers some advice about learning the language here. Those who speak Russian may be interested in her interview with the BBC World Service; it's beyond me. What little Russian I know comes from watching Leningrad videos: Где же Пушкин в кителе?

Valentin Serov, Alexander Pushkin on a Park Bench (1899)

28 January 2020

Miracles

Ralph Waldo Emerson, entry for November 6, 1828, The Heart of Emerson's Journals, ed. Bliss Perry (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1926), pp. 118-119:
'Miracles have ceased.' Have they indeed? When? They had not ceased this afternoon when I walked into the wood and got into bright, miraculous sunshine, in shelter from the roaring wind. Who sees a pine-cone, or the turpentine exuding from the tree, or a leaf, the unit of vegetation, fall from its bough, as if it said, 'the year is finished' or hears in the quiet, piny glen the chickadee chirping his cheerful note, or walks along the lofty promontory-like ridges which, like natural causeways, traverse the morass, or gazes upward at the rushing clouds, or downward at a moss or a stone and says to himself, 'Miracles have ceased' ? Tell me, good friend, when this hillock on which your foot stands swelled from the level of the sphere by volcanic force; pick up that pebble at your foot; look at its gray sides, its sharp crystal, and tell me what fiery inundation of the world melted the minerals like wax, and, as if the globe were one glowing crucible, gave this stone its shape. There is the truth-speaking pebble itself, to affirm to endless ages the thing was so. Tell me where is the manufactory of this air, so thin, so blue, so restless, which eddies around you, in which your life floats, of which your lungs are but an organ, and which you coin into musical words. I am agitated with curiosity to know the secret of nature. Why cannot geology, why cannot botany speak and tell me what has been, what is, as I run along the forest promontory, and ask when it rose like a blister on heated steel? Then I looked up and saw the sun shining in the vast sky, and heard the wind bellow above and the water glistened in the vale. These were the forces that wrought then and work now. Yes, there they grandly speak to all plainly, in proportion as we are quick to apprehend.

Théodore Rousseau, A Path Among the Rocks (1861)

21 January 2020

Cheap Things Make Cheap Men

Charles Robert Ashbee, Craftsmanship in Competitive Industry; Being a Record of the Workshops of the Guild of Handicraft, and Some Deductions From Their Twenty-One Years' Experience (London: Essex House Press, 1908), pp. 92-93:
When Ruskin nearly half a century ago said that “cheap things made cheap men,” everybody thought the proposition absurd, but when Mr. Joseph Chamberlain suddenly repeated it as his own, in his own great city of Birmingham, at a time when things were getting unpleasantly cheaper and cheaper, it was found to be true. There is nothing like having the shoe pinch for bringing home the truth! The strange thing is that at all other great periods in the world’s history, the great civilizations have accepted this truth as an integral part of their social economy. We, however, have been blinded by the apparent success and the superficial results of our Industrialism from seeing it. But suddenly we are faced with a phenomenon, a monster with two heads, that we had never observed before. A vast output of rotten, useless, sweated, cheap industries, and a vast growth of nerveless, characterless, underfed, cheap men and women. The monster stands face to face with our civilization, it threatens to extinguish our culture, to destroy our life as a people.
A William Morris chair, sturdy and enduring
Free PDF plans available from Popular Woodworking

16 January 2020

Some Write Their Names for Those Behind

Eugene Lee-Hamilton, "The Ladder," Poems and Transcripts (Edinburgh: William Blackwood and Sons, 1878), pp. 10-11:
Life is a ladder which we all must climb;
Some climb alone and some in company;
Some clad in purple, some in tattered rags;
Some climb it followed by their fellow-men
In livery, and some by hungry duns;
Some followed by policemen half the way;
Some climb the ladder boldly, sword in hand,
And others slowly, yawning at each step;
And each man bears a load upon his back:
With one it is a heavy bag of gold;
Another upwards with a load of aches.
Or, worse, a load of evil conscience goes.
All with a weight of care. And all along
The ladder's length are overhanging boughs.
With fruits and flowers for the strong to pluck;
But many, snatching, overreach and fall.
And there are boughs, beneath whose grateful shade
We fain would stop, but we are hurried on,
As in a treadmill, to the journey's end;
And woe to him who looks too far ahead,
Nor feels each step that comes beneath his foot.
Much angry hustling on the way occurs;
The steps are narrow, and the crowd is great:
Some men, in mounting, cling to others' skirts.
But some to others lend a helping hand,
And care but little how they fare themselves.
Some on the ladder write their names for those
Behind to read, but most can leave no trace.
Most climbers drop before they get half-way;
Some, jostled off by treacherous neighbours, fall;
And some jump off, of their own sad accord.
But few are those who reach the topmost bars,
With hair fast whitening as they upward go.
And gathering honours as they take each step;
And when once there, they heave a gentle sigh.
And, scarcely conscious, softly smile — and die.

Maurice Denis, L'Échelle dans le feuillage (1892)

Other poems by Lee-Hamilton:

13 January 2020

We Like the Picture, We Like the Glow

Olive Schreiner, “The Artist's Secret,” Dreams (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1892), pp. 119-122:
There was an artist once, and he painted a picture. Other artists had colours richer and rarer, and painted more notable pictures. He painted his with one colour, there was a wonderful red glow on it; and the people went up and down, saying, “We like the picture, we like the glow.”

The other artists came and said, “Where does he get his colour from?” They asked him; and he smiled and said, “I cannot tell you”; and worked on with his head bent low.

And one went to the far East and bought costly pigments, and made a rare colour and painted, but after a time the picture faded. Another read in the old books, and made a colour rich and rare, but when he had put it on the picture it was dead.

But the artist painted on. Always the work got redder and redder, and the artist grew whiter and whiter. At last one day they found him dead before his picture, and they took him up to bury him. The other men looked about in all the pots and crucibles, but they found nothing they had not.

And when they undressed him to put his grave-clothes on him, they found above his left breast the mark of a wound — it was an old, old wound, that must have been there all his life, for the edges were old and hardened; but Death, who seals all things, had drawn the edges together, and closed it up.

And they buried him. And still the people went about saying, “Where did he find his colour from?”

And it came to pass that after a while the artist was forgotten — but the work lived.

Carlos Schwabe's illustration for this story, taken from the French edition,
tr. Henriette Mirabaud-Thorends (Paris: Ernest Flammarion, 1912), p. 89.
Image credit: Gallica

3 January 2020

A Fine Barn

Ralph Waldo Emerson, undated entry from 1828, The Heart of Emerson's Journals, ed. Bliss Perry (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1926), p. 41:
I like to have a man’s knowledge comprehend more than one class of topics, one row of shelves. I like a man who likes to see a fine barn as well as a good tragedy.
Alex Colville, Windmill and Farm (1947)

12 December 2019

Revolutionary Talent

Louis de Bonald, Pensées sur Divers Sujets, Vol. I (Paris: Adrien Le Clere, 1817), p. 62 (my translation):
Everyone is able to destroy things, but few can rebuild. If we were to give the Tuileries Palace to a troop of monkeys to demolish, the smallest ones would break the windows while the others smashed in the doors and set fire to the wooden beams. The building, no matter how solid, would soon be in ruins. But if we wanted them to erect a cottage, they would not know where to begin. This is because you need to have a plan, an orderly method of thinking and working, if you want to build something; none of that is required to wreak destruction. This is the story of revolutions and the reason why there was so much revolutionary talent to be found, even in the lowest ranks of society. It is a talent that foolish people admire.

Gabriel von Max, Monkeys as Art Critics (1889)