May 15, 2008

An Outpost of Progress

Joseph Conrad's modern reputation largely derives from his great masterpiece- the Heart of Darkness- remade into a great modern film, Apocalypse Now, whose themes have been explored and criticised by numerous thinkers, novelists and analysts. It is a wonderful book to which I will return, but perhaps as fascinating is Conrad's earlier colonial short story- An Outpost of Progress in which he reflected on the isolation of the colonial officials dispatched to some remote frontier and their 'civilization' not to mention the 'civilization' of those that came to fetch them back from the mouth of oblivion.

An Outpost of Progress is a work about the periphery. It features two characters, 'two imbeciles' according to the director of the Company who sends them up the Congo river (it is the Belgian Congo we are in here- something that numerous clues and Conrad's own correspondence gives away) to an isolated station in the middle of nowhere. These two men, Carlier and Kayerts, are joined by a third named character, the factotum of the station, Makola, who observes the white men come and go to their destruction with impassive and grim glee. All around them is a world that neither Carlier nor Kayerts understands- the only sounds that they ever hear are the drums from the nearest African village- they cannot read the language of the chieftan and rely on Makola to survey Africa for them and interpret Africans. When he sells their entire set of servants for precious ivory, neither of the two Europeans has the wit to do anything but be asleep.

In part that is their failure to understand Africa, this renders them lonely amidst a vast uncomprehending crowd. In this crowd of strangers, they are Conrad informs us in a state of nature:

They were two perfectly insignificant and incapable individuals, whose existence is only rendered possible through the high organization of civilized crowds. Few men realize that their life, the very essence of their characters, their capabilities and their audacities, are only an expression of their belief in the safety of their surroundings. The courage, the composure, the confidence, the emotions and principles: every great and every insignificant thought belongs to the crowd: to the crowd that believes blindly in the irresistible force of its institutions and its morals, in the power of its police and of its opinion. But the contact with pure unmitigated savagery, with primitive nature and primitive man, brings sudden and profound trouble into the heart. To the sentiment of being alone of one's kind, to the clear perception of the loneliness of one's thoughts, of one's sensations- to the negation of the habitual, which is safe, there is added the affirmation of the unusual, which is dangerous: a suggestion of things vague, uncontrollable and repulsive, whose discomposing intrusion excites the imagination and tries the civilized nerves of the foolish and the wise alike.

Conrad's language is brilliant and he conveys the sense that the European had of Africa, when he believed that the savage was truly savage. But more than that that passage is not so much about the encounter with the primitive savage, as with the primitive loneliness of being unable to communicate. The real focus of the tale is that the silence of the jungle enfolds the two Europeans, as it does we watch them regress to an uncivilized state (a state which is far below that of the African tribes around them!) They cannot see the Africans as their comrades, when the African servants are sold as slaves by Makola, Conrad comments that the two Europeans talked with indignation but felt nothing about the illusion of that suffering. For them it is an illusion because they experience it from a distance, the same distance they would be at were they reading about it in a club in Brussels and exclaim at 'how shocking' it was. They remain detached and isolated.

And as Conrad demonstrates they thus sink into madness. These two inadequates become criminals- they become villains- they become savages. Civilisation, Conrad leaves us in no doubt, is a fortunate condition we are born into- not something that is innate to us. In this sense, the darkness of his Africa, the heart of darkness, is that life, nasty, brutish and short, that the English Philosopher, Thomas Hobbes explored in his Leviathan. But Conrad's state of nature is a reality- the true dystopian reality of his vision is that man is regressing through colonization, blazing a trail for Orwell and others to come, Conrad argued that the terror of colonization lay as much in its effects on the colonizer as on the colonized. Carlier and Kayerts are incompetent buffoons, but being colonizers turns them into villains. Our actions ultimately affect us as much as they affect those we aim them at: of course as Chinua Achebe reminds us there is something racist about only seeing colonization through European eyes, but Conrad was a citizen of a racist age and to find him calling Africans savages is not surprising. What is stunning is his clear vision, a clear vision that sits alongside the great liberals of the 19th Century- John Bright and Richard Cobden (les plus Gladstonian que Gladstone), that colonization would destroy the European colonizer: it would brutalize the brutal and would render the greatest achievement of European civilization- the security and peace that states ensure- vulnerable to the loners on the veldt and the river.

Conrad in this sense anticipates the darkest films from the Western genre- which demonstrate the terrors of the man in a state of nature. If you want to understand this short story by seeing a film, go and see the Searchers by John Ford. For in the vision of John Wayne, willing to murder his neice because she has been captured by the Apache, irreconcilable in his hate, with death in his eyes, you see Carlier and Kayerts's shadows had they but been wise. As fools their destiny is no less dark but more comic- as one ends up on a Cross with his tongue open and his cheek purple- the perfect mockery of colonialism, violence, disrespect and death- in a very European and Christian form. Communication and lack of it is the center of the decay of life for Carlier and Kayerts- they fall because they are unable to communicate with the Africans- and that signal is the last failed sentence, because it demonstrates that now they cannot even communicate with the director who sent them- they have become grotesques, lonely on the cross of their own lack, isolated forever, fixed in disrespect and mockery- fixed in a posture that ridicules the high words they came to enforce. Colonization here ironically turns the colonizers words back on them and in his last posture, the colonist is like a sow eating its own vomit- turning his own high words into high mockery.

May 14, 2008

Where would you go?

James Higham has a rather amusing post up this evening about the battle he would love to reenact- for James its Culloden. It got me thinking though about I suppose a different question, which is if I could go back in time to see something happen, what would I go back to see- its not an easy question to answer. For a start I'd exclude seeing all battles- a battle is a disorientating and unpleasant experience- to see a battle like say Hastings or Naseby, you wouldn't see the historical events taking place, you would see a massive confusing carnage, bloody and uncertain, there would be nothing to admire or enjoy in that! To go back to the past to see something, you would want to see something that was staged for a purpose, that was presented in a sense to you. Personally that for me means two sets of events- the one is a debate, the other a play. If I could go back there are four things which I would love to actually see: the first would be the Putney Debates of 1647, debates about democracy and monarchy that stretched over three days, I studied them for my PhD, they are amazing filled with great rhetoric and stunning thought. They were heavily involved and incredibly tense- at one point a soldier present tells the rest that unless the debate is concluded by the morning, the King will come and get them and hang them all. They were important and about deep principles- the questions of religious obligation, the authority of the state and political promises, the authority of an assembly of the people, the degree to which we can justly destroy rights granted in law, the degree to which war destroys law- all of these things were discussed.

My other three things are perhaps more obvious and well known. Next in line comes the Norway debate of 1940, when every great orator of mid century British politics- Llyold George, Winston Churchill, Leo Amery, Neville Chamberlaine etc- all spoke. Forever in most people's minds it is linked with three great moments- when Amery leaned over to the Labour benches as Arthur Greenwood then acting Labour leader put the motion of no confidence in Chamberlaine and shouted "Speak for England, Arthur", when George called on Churchill to avoid making himself an airraid shelter for other ministers (particularly the Prime Minister, Chamberlaine) to hide under and when Amery again rose to his feet and said (repeating Cromwell's words to the Rump), 'I say now what has only once been said in this house before, Depart I say and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go!'. The upshot of those moments was that Churchill became Prime Minister, and Britain decided, in the words of Lord Keynes, to throw away an empire in order to defeat Naziism.

Thirdly, well who could ask anyone to name a moment to go back and see and not appreciate this. The opening night of my favourite Shakespeare play, which happens to be the one I studied as an A-Level student, Othello. I would love to see how Shakespeare himself made those lines on that wooden O appear, love to see the way it was set up, love to appreciate the skill of those immortal words- lines that even Milton acknowledged were as perfect as pyramids (and praise from Milton for poetry is like praise from Einstein for physics!) . Imagine being in the audience as Iago, Othello, Desdamona and the like strode into the world's consciousness for the first ever time- imagine the wealth of theatrical experience available to the Englishman of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century- seeing Macbeth, Lear, Richard III, Henry IV, Henry V and all the rest for the first time ever- not to mention the works of Jonson, Marlowe, Fletcher et al- not to mention the poetry of Sidney and Spencer- not to mention if one had lived long enough to see Milton's Comus and in an exceptionally long life to be there for the Restoration and the plays of Aphra Behn and others. If I could I would see them all- if you reduce me to one- its Shakespeare and its Othello.

The fourth moment I would see is a different kind of moment- a moment which in a sense gave birth to all the others. I would love to have been present when Socrates gathered around him his pupils and talked- and argued and questioned truth. I would love to have seen his trial, partly to know who out of Plato and Xenophon got it right, whose account was accurate. But more to have known the man- in many ways our modern pursuit of knowledge, our modern enterprise and consciousness is still a Greek dream and if it is the dream of any one man, is the dream of Socrates. Ancient Athens was an incredible place- this was a place where at a drinking party one could find, so Plato has us beleive, Aristophanes and Socrates might be joined by Alcibiades. The forefathers of history- Herodotus and Thucydides thrived and lived at the same time as the great playwright Euripides (imagine being in the theatre for Euripides and Aristophanes- there were Greeks who were). If one place holds my imagination and the imagination of the West, it is Athens and it is that era. If I could go back.... that's where I'd go....

but I'd be back here pretty quickly- all of those places would be pretty smelly. Nostalgia is a good thing until you remember that they all lacked anaesthetics!

and I didn't mention the sermon on the mount, or the Don Pacifico debate, or meeting Bede, or watching Feynman give a paper to Einstein, Pauli, Fermi et al or the Lincoln Douglas debates or the first performance of Pushkin's Boris Godunov or or or or or....- truth is I am a glutton for the past, I'd be always travelling back in time had I the chance, perhaps its better that I don't...

Oh and furthermore its a frivolous pipe dream!

Ok guys, I've done mine where would you go?

May 13, 2008

A small death

We all have our favourite haunts. One of mine was Unsworth's Bookshop, on the Euston Road just opposite the British Library. It was a bookshop which sold excellent academic books for cheap prices- I remember getting Kevin Sharpe's Personal Rule of Charles I for a fiver for example- and was one of my favourite places to go to in London when I felt my purse needed lightening: or rather it was one of the most dangerous places for me in London as when I visited I couldn't leave without spending at least twenty pounds that I didn't have! Well its closed or it has been replaced by a poorer bookseller whose range isn't as good.

Good second hand bookshops are not ten a penny- I am lucky enough to know another one in London (My Back Pages, just opposite Balham Tube, if you are ever in Balham it is a must visit, I know another one whose name I have forgotten in Clapham that always have interesting books on offer!) but they are being replaced by discount shops who specialise in remainders of Frank Lampard's biography for fifty pence. There are other good bookshops around- Foyles in central London is a great place- but if there is one cause I think we should all turn to its supporting our local bookshop. There is something special about a good bookshop- the experience of browsing in a shop is totally different to doing it online- and to be good a bookshop needs to have the ability to be browsable- to have a good selection. They need to provoke you to want to read something- I often spend time looking for things in bookshops that I don't know I will find, just scanning across the titles and picking out interesting ones- looking at the authors to check their credentials and the acknowledgements page and then considering whether to read it or not. I like places that are eccentric- where you can see a particular interest in the seller reflected in the books he or she sells. The kind of shop where you can do that is the kind of shop that needs protecting and preserving- unfortunately more and more bookshops are going down the best seller route (witness the Books Etc near Victoria whose selection of classic novels can only be described as looking like a flower wilting without water or attention!) but they needn't: we ought to vote with our feet. Time to support good bookshops- afterall we'd miss them if they all vanished.

May 12, 2008

Winston at work

Winston Churchill has as this essay from the New York Review of Books makes clear always divided opinion. Many in his own lifetime echoed the anecdote made by Asquith who said that a fairy had come down at Churchill's birth and showered him with all possible gifts, accept that is for judgement. Many like Asquith imagine that Churchill was an undisciplined rover, an inspired genius who did not have the ballast to achieve the highest office. What is interesting is that Churchill did have the ballast to take on the burdens of office- and an important mistake in the article above suggests exactly why he was. Geoffrey Wheatcroft suggests that

One day Churchill would win the Nobel Prize for literature (largely on the strength of The Second World War, much of which, as David Reynolds has shown in his splendid book In Command of History, was ghostwritten)

Actually Wheatcroft gives the wrong impression of what Reynolds argues that Churchill did. The book was researched and written largely by others: but Churchill altered the wording, or added the key document. Reynolds prints passages before and after Churchill with his pencil went through it: and he demonstrates that Churchill kept a real control over the text. He changed crucial words which changed the entire sense of the text. In reality what Churchill proved himself to be was a competent writer: he was of course a best selling journalist and his writing, somewhere in a no-man's land between Macaulay and Gibbon not to mention the occasional touch of sentimentality, is definitely reasonable. But even more than a competent writer, he proved himself a master of delegation. He was not a historian- so Maurice Ashley did the research, what he was was a master of drafting, and one of the most known politicians of his age. He was able to get official documents and help that noone else could have got, he managed to alter the text to make it reflect things that he thought had happened, and also to give the dry work of the researchers the lightness of touch of a journalist and political speaker. In reality, Churchill's accomplishment when writing his histories was his insight into himself and his audience: he knew what he was doing, delegated what he needed to and kept the final draft to himself- in that sense what Reynolds shows is that his history proved, not that he was a great writer, but that he was a good organiser and a good politician.

May 11, 2008

The Ideology of Gymnastics in Hungary

Ignazc Clair was the first person to introduce Gymnastics into Hungary as a sport in the early 19th Century when he founded the Gymnastics society. Gymnastics developed in Hungary to a huge extent over the 19th Century- but more interesting perhaps than the fact of its development and its popularity are the reasons why it developed at that particular point. As Miklos Hadas argues in a perceptive, but often dense, article, written for the Fall 07 issue of the Journal of Social History, the timing of the rise of Hungarian gymnastics was no accident and tells us something very interesting about the process that we call modernisation.

There are two separate processes that Hadas identifies: both of which deserve some attention from us. The first is that the rise of gymnastics represented a change in the class structure of society. As society became more urbanised and more bourgeois the kinds of physical exercise preferred by people changed radically. The old aristocratic exercises such as duelling and hunting became less relevant, as the world shifted. Hunting obviously was not as important within the city of Budapest as within a country estate outside. Duelling too harked back to an honour code and an ideal of chivalric masculinity that was passing out in Burke's 'age of oeconomists'. They were replaced by gymnastics and sport. If you turn to examine the memberships of the gymnastic and sporting societies of Hungary in the century, you find that the majority of their membership were not aristocratic but were middle class- were bourgeois. As the Hungarian middle class grew, so did the obsession with personal sporting excellence.

When the bourgeois moved to exalting sports, they moved to exalting a different model of society. A duel is very different from a fencing match- and even more different from an individual athletic exercise. If I duel, I do so in order to harm my opponent- there is at least a significant risk of doing so. Fencing and to an even greater extent, rowing, and most of all gymnastics are not really about the other, the competition, as they are about the improvement of one's own standard. A duel is an important signifier when your rivals are few and very important- in the bourgeois world of late 19th Century Budapest however, your rival on the gymnastic stage is not likely to be your rival in the boardroom. Rather you use gymnastics to develop yourself as an instrument of self advancement- you do it in order to train yourself.

It is no surprise- and Hadas adopts a fairly Marxian framework based on class analysis to argue this- a framework that has its limitations but also invites us to learn a lot- that this craze for gymnastics took place at the same time as a craze for education. Over the 18th Century, the educative works of modern Europe from the great philosophers of the age- Locke and Rousseau instantly come to mind- were translated and taken on by Hungarians in order to form a new Hungarian citizendry. Rousseau in particular had a great influence through his novel Emile on the way that Hungarians thought about education. Education in Rousseau's view was a way of forming a person to live in a corrupt society- he argued that a vigorous and natural education would lead to a true citizen, whose world would not include amour-propre, the destructive self love- but instead be filled with true feelings towards society and himself. Hungarians shared that aspiration- as did others around Europe- just think of Arnold's Rugby and its description in Tom Brown's Schooldays. Education for them was a training- and it was a mental training. You placed within the individual dispositions through their education- raised them to the higher pleasures. In the classical world of the 19th Century middle class- one of the obvious ways to do that was through training not merely the mind but the body- through gymnastics in particular, through an exercise that promoted self analysis and self criticism and attention to detail amidst monotonous activity.

I don't entirely buy Hadas's thesis- I think he overstates the structural element to this. But I do think that the core is right- we are looking at a change within society and an accompanying change in mindset- and the invention of competitive sport is a part of that. It is a useful part for us because it throws light on the way that the bourgeoise of the 19th Century beleived that education formed the perfect citizen- that it implanted beneficent dispositions within the child in order to the fulfilment of society's ideal. What we are seeing in the development of 19th Century sport is the consequences of the Emilisation of society: hence amongst the most notable offspring of Rousseau should be counted the Olympic Games and the proud history of Hungarian Gymnastics!