March 01, 2008

Anne Boleyn

I haven't seen the Other Boleyn Girl yet, but as an early modernist I suppose I'm obliged to at some point! I do think though that its interesting that its this aspect of Anne's story that we highlight in drama and in movies- the recent Henry VIII series on the BBC was similar. Anne Boleyn for those who don't know successfully managed the transition from being Henry's queen's lady in waiting to Henry's mistress to his wife and queen. But in a way that's the least interesting thing about her: Boleyn was an incredibly interesting woman in her own right, without thinking about her connection with Henry. She was a patron of the careers of many Protestants at Henry's court- and though we don't know how much influence she had on Henry's policy in the Reformation, there is a good case for saying that she was one of the drivers behind the Reformation. She was also an incredibly intelligent woman- Henry was attracted by her intelligence at first but then repulsed by the fact that she refused to bow to him all the time, by her temper and her sharpness. Her fall which flowed from her character and her enthusiasm for Protestantism in some ways is much more interesting than her rise- pretty women attract compliments and royal patrons all the time- but Anne wasn't just a pretty woman, she was an intelligent, skilful player of the court game, with an ideological coterie around her of radical protestants and a strong temper and sense of herself. I doubt we'll see that in the movie (except maybe as a negative and an adjunct to her charm)- and I do think its interesting that whenever you see this queen displayed on screen, her sexiness is emphasized at the expense of her intelligence. Partly that's because cinema likes a pretty body more than an interesting mind- but partly one suspects a residual sexism in the way that we approach Anne. We don't see the intelligent woman, as much as the sexy schemer.

February 29, 2008

Artistic Beauty

An interesting article in today's Boston Globe makes me re-think the whole concept of artistic beauty. We often think that artistic beauty is an objective standard: that there are some things, a landscape by Constable or Van Gogh that just have as part of their inherent nature, beauty. That's true to an extent. The article in the Boston Globe though draws attention to research that casts doubt on the status of artistic judgement or rather on what it is actually judging. The study involved people judging the respective merits of various types of wine- the people were invited to rank the wines in order to merit. They did, and the orders of merit followed the prices that they were told that the wine cost, but what the scientists didn't tell them was that all the wine cost exactly the same ammount because they were exactly the same wine. Consequently the right judgement was that the wine had the same degree of merit because it was the same wine.

But why did people judge it differently? Well lets go backwards a little, why do we find anything artistic beautiful. Its quite clear why I find a beautiful woman beautiful (and others might find a beautiful man beautiful)- there is a clear evolutionary reason and though types of beauty change over time, I don't need to be taught that. But I do need to be taught about art, about music and about wine. We all learn about that, whether its through school, the guides at museums or art galleries or even friends and families- our taste is inherited from other people. And our taste is a way of communicating with other people- we tend to respect people who see the same piece of art in the same way as we do. I do it with books: one of my best friends from Oxford is a friend who I realised I had to know when she spoke about how much she loved Jane Austen. Many of my other friends are friends because of what they and I mutually like- that I'm sure is true of some of the readers of this blog and some of the blogs I also visit regularly. Shared appreciation is a means of communication.

So lets come back to the wine. To what extent are we, when we respond to art, responding not so much to the art, as attempting to say something about ourselves. There are genuine likes and dislikes- we all have them. Part of those likes and dislikes are disagreements about what in the real world constitutes a desirable value- your well written sentence and mine may be different entities. You may applaud say William F. Buckley's perambulations through language, I may like the plainer style of George Orwell. The point though is that to some degree our artistic judgements are also social. They are judgements about conventions. In that sense the people, who were studied by the scientists in the study reported by the Boston Globe, acted perfectly rationally. Price is a conventional market of quality- it is what a person will agree to pay for something and the higher the price, the higher the conventional merit assigned. So when I say to you that conventionally this wine is thought to be better than this, there are strong reasons for you agreeing. As recognising artistic beauty is in part a means of showing you 'get it', then recognising the beauty of the higher priced wine and its superiority to the lower priced wine, shows that you 'get it' and are part of the group that 'gets it'.

I'm not suggesting that all judgements like this are social judgements- just that in part they all are. What is interesting about this study is that it shows how far the idea of artistic beauty is a language with which we demonstrate our taste and personality to others. Its a signifier of what we beleive ourselves or want ourselves to be.

February 28, 2008

Now ain't the time for your tears: Orlando Figes's The Whisperers

Sofia Antonov-Ovseyenko was arrested on 14th October 1937, she wrote a letter to her husband Vladimir, not knowing that he too had been arrested on the same day.

M[oscow] 16/X. Prison
My darling. I do not know if you will receive this, but somehow I sense that I am writing to you for the last time. Do you recall how we always said that if someone in our country was arrested it must be for good reason, for some crime- that is for something? No doubt there is something in my case as well but what it is I do not know. Everything I know, you know as well, because our lives have been inseperable and harmonious. Whatever happens to me now, I shall always be thankful for the day we met. I lived in the reflection of your glory and was proud of it. For the last three days I have been thinking through my life, preparing for death. I cannot think of anything (apart from the normal shortcomings that differentiate a human being from an 'angel') that could be considered criminal either in relation to other human beings or in relation to our state and government... I thought exactly as you thought- and is there anybody more dedicated than you are to our party and country? You know what is in my heart, you know the truth of my actions, of my thoughts and words. But the fact that I am here must mean that I have committed some wrong- what I do not know... I cannot bear the thought that you might not believe me... It has been oppressing me for three days now. It burns inside my brain. I know your intolerance of all dishonesty, but even you can be mistaken. Lenin was mistaken too it seems. So please believe me when I say that I did nothing wrong. Beleive me, my loved one... One more thing: it is time for Valichka (Sofia's daughter) to join the Komsomol (youth Communist party). This will no doubt stand in her way. My heart is full of sorrow at the thought she will think her mother is a scoundrel. The full horror of my situation is that people do not beleive me. I cannot live like that... I beg forgiveness from everyone I love for bringing them such misfortune... Forgive me my loved one. If only I knew that you beleived me and forgave me! Your Sofia
Reading that letter, I do not know of any conceivable human reaction but to weep. But of course the fate of Sofia was the fate of millions of Russians, arrested and taken to Labour camps and some of them shot, during the Stalinist terror of the 1930s and 1940s. Orlando Figes, the British historian of Russia, has produced in his new book an account of their lives, particularly the lives of Russia's 'twentieth century' generation who were born in the twenties and lived into the nineties and 2000s. These children lived through the destruction of their parent's lives through the purges, fought in the Second World War, lived through the resumption of Stalinist terror in the forties, then were disorientated by the Kruschev thaw and retired as the Soviet Union trembled and collapsed in the eighties and nineties. The average age of the people that Figes interviewed in coming up with his latest book- The Whisperers was eighty- and his team interviewed them in 2002.

The book takes the form of a series of thematic chapters based around time periods or types of experience under Stalin. What Figes has done is to leave the contemporary accounts to speak for themselves. This is as much a collection of documents as a history- it is a history because Figes provides a compelling narrative, but the long quotations and Figes's approach which is to provide personal stories and accounts of moments of the Soviet past, gives that historical account a wonderful vividness. Again and again, you think that you cannot see a grimmer reality, time after time the barbarity of the Stalinist regime stuns you. For example, at one point during the war, those who turned up 20 minutes late for work were prosecuted for desertion from the domestic front. Tragic stories multiply and following families through the Soviet era you see how unending suffering repeated generation unto generation. Particularly sad though is not the direct destruction of lives: but the realisation that around everyone who went into the machinery of death left behind them mothers, daughters, sons, husbands, fathers, wives and other family members. Family members who immediatly acquired a stigma to their names- but who also lost their family member. Children in particular were left as orphans, often waking up one morning without parents and struggling to continue in schools. Teachers emerge as the heroes of Figes's story. Ida Slavina lost her mother and father, within five months both were arrested. From then on, she was passed round between the families of her classmates, eventually she found a job as a cleaner and worked there in order to raise the money to rent a small room. She was assisted by her teacher Klavdiia Alekseyeva. Klavdiia stopped anyone denouncing 'enemies of the people' in the classroom and noone was expelled for their parents' arrest at school, she sought to inspire her pupils by telling them their parents wanted them to continue at school. In some cases she directly supported them, for example she paid eleven children's school fees so they could continue to stay at school.

Relationships between people changed as a result of the terror. Many prisoners when eventually released just could not come back to families. The terror went on as the pace of urbanisation was raised. Often several families were packed into small living quarters. There was effectively no privacy and the realisation that anyone might inform on you, meant that families kept themselves to themselves. Guarding their portion of the kitchen sink intensely and not speaking to each other about anything that might give them away. In a society where you might be arrested for an anti-Soviet joke, it was not worth saying anything to anyone else. Children were brought up implicitly to keep secrets about their parents, conversations would stop or change direction if someone not from the family came into the room. Figes shows how people were thrown back on their families: for fear that others might hand them into the secret police. Though even families might split- he has stories of children being sent away as their parents were arrested and seeing aunts and uncles shut doors in their faces, terrified of being seen as an enemy of the people. The society of whisperers that was created- hence the title of the book- was a society where private life had to retreat. Everything according to the state was public: and that meant that people withdrew into their internal world- sometimes scribbling diaries in code- in order to protect themselves from being arrested.

Figes's book is a masterpiece because it sketches the unknown, to me, dimensions of this totalitarian silence. But he also sketches its development. The Second World war brought a new kind of liberty and solidarity. The state had to relax its controls. Priests for example were allowed to function once more and prisoners in the Gulag had their conditions relaxed slightly. Many children of enemies of the people were permitted to take up key jobs in order to aid the war effort. Those who had been purged felt useless and suddenly the war gave them a sense of purpose- their contribution they often said was to work hard in the Gulag, to work hard in the army. This kind of sentiment made the war a uniquely liberating experience for the Soviet population- whilst of course being horrific in its other effects. But the forties saw another burst of repression as again people were rounded up and taken into the Gulag. Figes wonderfully creates through the testimony of the individuals who he documents the sense that persisted right through to the present day, that someone was following them and that somehow any period of grace would be ended. Its something that endures today. It definitely effected the population's understanding of the Kruschev thaw as well- and the population were right because under Brezhnev Stalin was rehabilitated. The Soviet state was also very keen not to rehabilitate those it had arrested unjustly. Rehabilitation did happen in the 1950s, and many especially Communist party members desired it fervently: to have a clean passport was something that everyone wanted, because it was a signal that they would not be arrested again. But even then the sense persisted- a population lived with a paranoia about the state, about everyone else in their society sometimes even about their own children.

'One death is a tragedy, a million is a statistic', that quote is attributed to Stalin, and it sums up something that is actually very true. What I found particularly poignant about Figes's book is that he brings alive some of those individual stories- some of those tragic stories. Bob Dylan's song about the death of Hattie Carroll told us repeatedly that now ain't the time for your tears as his story dived further into tragedy, this book feels like on every page it has written that now ain't the time for your tears. The stories just stand on each other, one after the other, and the immensity of Stalin's crimes is demonstrated because though we only have a fraction here of the estimate of his effects, we can see the devastation of what he did. Bringing to life these personal stories creates for me at least a much more real sense of what those statistics mean. It also creates a sense of the historical scale of what happened- for the consequences of the Stalinist terror doubled and redoubled down the generations. Millions were imprisoned which meant that millions of children grew up as orphans effectively, millions of relationships were damaged, millions of lives were destroyed, millions of families were left with a traumatic memory of fear and terror. A French psychologist travelling to Russia in the 1970s said he had never seen a population with so many facial tics- he wasn't wrong, I suspect just as the effect of the first and second war endures in the rest of Europe, the effect of the terror endures in Russia. But much more profoundly because the tyranny which created the terror lasted right up until the 1990s- though there were thaws, the Communist party remained in control till Yeltsin and under President Putin efforts are being made to rehabilitate Joseph Stalin and deny the purges. (One reason why I cannot abide or support Putin, is the thought that he wants Russian textbooks to under report the Terror, having read this testimony I'm not sure what words can convey how objectionable Putin's comments about exageration of the Stalin regime's evil are.)

I don't think I can convey the immense nature of what this book does- Figes's reporting isn't central to it, he has done a good job but its a self effacing job. Ultimately the quality of the book is in the collection of primary evidence about the Terror and how it effected people- there are so many other aspects to it as well- he concentrates on the Kulaks and the way they were stigmatised for no reason, on the role of women and the Spartan lives of the early Bolsheviks compared to the new generation of Bolsheviks coming through in the thirties. I just don't have space. But I do have space to say this- go back and read the letter with which I began this review, reread it and remember that millions of Russians in the 1930s could have and did write letters like that. Many of them like Sofia who were committed communists, others who weren't but all incredulous that they had been arrested because they were not guilty. Some of them though lied, they told their children as they went that they weren't guilty so that their kids could fit into Soviet society. Remember that, oh and remember that many Russian citizens only found out what had happened to their arrested family members in the eighties and nineties when the archives were finally opened: wives waited twenty or thirty years for husbands who had been shot the night that they were arrested. Remember and remember that every time you remember, now ain't the time for your tears, there is so much more to remember and to weep over.

February 26, 2008

Unproductive work

James Higham rightly points to some ludicrous research investigations- into whether men and women differ evolutionarily in the ways that they perceive colour or into the ways in which owning a cat reduces heart disease or an over consumption of marzipan leads to death- in one of his latest articles. I do agree with James that there are some areas of research, particularly in the humanities that I don't understand, but it is worth remembering that research that often looks useless can turn out to be anything but. Much research activity in the sciences and arts that has looked useless in the past actually turned out to be very useful in the end. One of the inventors of chaos theory for example, used to love taking planes to random places, just in order to look out the window and sketch cloud formations. Fractals, an underlying part of current mathematics, were invented in 1917 before they could ever actually be used or tested. Research is a fairly hit and miss activity and an anomaly, which seems trivial, may be a way into a subject which leads eventually to the discovery of a new way of thinking. Take the cat research that James laughs at, he might well be right to laugh at it, but say that I generated through that a way of understanding companionship to have physical and neurological results which ultimately saved people's life and enabled us to understand the human organism in a better way, would he be laughing then?

I am not saying James is wrong to question all this, just its worth bearing in mind the ways that research can often be productive even when to an outsider it seems stupid or perverse. There are every day things which once established- say the chemicals inside marzipan and what it is that kills a human being when over consumed- that can help us in solving other more inaccessible problems. Going from a different angle, often elucidates things that others don't understand and its always worth asking why a certain piece of research is being done before rejecting it immediatly.

February 25, 2008

Eastern Promises

David Cronenberg is one of Hollywood's leading figures at the moment. The History of Violence, his last film, is a truly astonishing piece of work that stars Viggo Mortensen and Maria Bello. It examines the ways that people are not what they seem and family life masks all sorts of compromises between violence and civility. Eastern Promises is another film about the dark underbelly of life- again Mortensen is a figure trapped between civility and darkness, violins and violence- and again Cronenberg wants us to examine the way that we live our lives and what lies just beyond our vision, round the corner, out of sight, behind our backs, in the dark crannies of consciousness. He wants us to remember that everywhere you go, a rat is only 6 metres away from you, despite the cleanliness of the surfaces you are eating off, there are rodents in the dark chewing at the things you throw away.

Cronenberg's canvass is wider in Eastern Promises. It is London- the city of immigrants- in many ways the defining city of our era. London is my city- and its wonderful to see a director use it as his canvass, without needing to provide Big Ben and the monumental architecture of neo-Gothic Victorians. Rather Cronenberg focuses on London as it really exists- or it really exists alongside that other existance in Westminster- the London of the East End, of Brixton and of suburbia. Its this London, filled with resturants, bars, drab barber shops and costcutter supermarkets, windy and rainy and dirty that he focuses on. Its a London filled with immigrants from every nation on earth, selling their own food and drink, socialising amongst themselves, talking in their own languages, and communicating with the wider society as well.

The sense of this city's social architecture and the way that so many groups co-exist on its fringes owes something to films like Martin Scorsese's Goodfellas. Here, as in Goodfellas, we see a family involved in the mob from an ethnic minority that essentially runs that community inside London. There is a patriarch, Semyon and his objectionable son Kiril. Into this world comes Naomi Watts's Anna. Anna turns up in their world because as a midwife in a hospital she delivered a child from a mother- this child was different though because the mother died without providing any data to recover who she was. And Anna therefore embarks on a search to find out who the baby is and where its relatives live- a search which takes her directly into the world of the Russian mafia and into the lives of these three characters, Semyon, his son Kiril and his driver (played by Mortensen).

The stage is set, and it would be unfair to tell the rest of the plot, suffice it to say that several murders are involved, that there is copious reference to the illegal world of smuggling and of prostitution and that the solution to it all is complex and allows us to reevaluate at least one of the major characters. Its a stunning film. The acting in particular is good. Mortensen has never been better- or rather if you have only seen him as Aragorn in the Lord of the Rings, you have missed out on his extraordinary work for Cronenberg. He has such presence on screen that its difficult to take your eyes off him and he inhabits his character entirely. Watts again is an actress of real class, she has done it before (Mullhulland Drive is one of the best performances by any actress for years) and though the part doesn't require extraordinary work, she does what she is required to do.

In my judgement this isn't up there with the History of Violence, there is something slightly more random and slightly more normal about this film than about that masterpiece where an innocent world just blew up in front of you. But its still well worth seeing- this film shows us a real cinematic intelligence striving with a very contemporary issue. The way that our societies have become fractured and separated and the way that even in a small space like London, stories of unbelievable brutality may be happening just next door or down the street without you knowing. In part this is a fable of urban life- a Jack the Ripper de nos jours- reminding us that these are mean streets and the key to this film is that you have to be mean in part to walk down them yourself.

February 24, 2008

The Peshawar Spring?

There has been a lot of euphoria about Pakistan's election results- see for example here. And there is lots to be euphoric about- the extremists have been routed as have the military and liberal democratic parties seem to have won the polls. But lets not get over exuberant. Pakistan still has a long way to go before it becomes a liberal democracy- and furthermore we have been here before with all the parties involved. Both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto (now dead whose husband, Asif Ali Zardawi, nicknamed Mr. 10% for his corrupt activities when she was last Prime Minister) had had goes at ruling Pakistan and neither made a particularly good fist of it before. It was under Benazir that the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan, it was under Sharif that they cemented that power. Furthermore both parties have until now, hated each other, accusing each other, rightly, of corruption. We should not imagine such attitudes are going to be dropped.

Pakistan's problems go much further than a one-off election can resolve. Good government is a part of liberal democracy as well democratic institutions. Take one example, last year when the earthquakes hit northern Afghanistan, the effort, as File on 4 (the radio 4 documentary program) found to help many of the poor caught in the tragedy was organised by religious charities with political connections to terrorist organisations. Radical Islam was being spread by aid. That's a function of the fact that the Pakistani state is weak in many parts of its territory. Under 50% of the population are literate and under 40% of women are literate (according to the CIA). Debt is still over 50% of GDP. Its terrifying to think of the prospects for a democratic regime where only 49% can read election literature and in some regions that will be far lower. Furthermore the government to come faces real problems- how to diminish public debt, how to cope with a fall in the US economy (a fifth of Pakistan's exports go to the US, a twentieth go to the UK, so a fall in those two economies could prove disastrous), how to cope with the Taliban and the tribal areas? Furthermore what will any future administration's relations be with the army and with President Musharraf? Sharif was not a success as Prime Minister- and the leadership of Bhutto's old party is still confused.

I'm not saying that the elections in Pakistan weren't a good thing- they were. But lets reign back on the euphoria. Pakistan is going to need a hell of a lot of luck and help and aid to acheive a proper stable democracy any time soon. Furthermore its going to need patience from its allies- should we as Senator Obama reccomended invade to kill militants, then we could risk making any government in power even more unpopular. Pakistan is a vast place. There are areas which are incredibly peaceful. There are other areas where it is less so. Part of the problem for us as Westerners looking at Pakistan is to remember how vast and how complex it is- and also to try and keep sober. Not everything in as disastrous as it seems, not everything is as great as it seems. There are signs of hope in Pakistan, but to turn this into a real Peshawar Spring will require many more years of luck yet.