27 Oct 2020

On Travel/Writing (with a Deleuzian Punchline)

 Have monogrammed trunk will travel 

 
To consider travel writing is one thing: but to conceive of literature as travel is something else; something a bit more philosophically interesting, a bit more Deleuzean ...
 
For Deleuze understood that penser c'est voyager and that the true nomad doesn't need to traipse around the world or migrate here and there; that they move even when standing still and that the most vital trips are in intensity, not space. 
 
Deleuze hinged his theory of travel upon observations from several writers, including: 
 
(i) Fitzgerald, who insisted that travelling - even to remote islands or the darkest jungles - never amounts to a real break if one takes along one's old beliefs, memories, and habits of thought ... 
 
(ii) Beckett, who described it as dumb to travel simply for the pleasure of travelling itself; there had to be a destination of some kind ...
 
(iii) Proust, who said that upon waking the true dreamer has to go and check things out in the world; i.e., what motivates their desire to travel is not to discover new lands, but to confirm the reality of their own nightmares and visions. [1]     
 
Deleuze was also a serious reader of D. H. Lawrence - and Lawrence was both a great traveller and a great writer, frequently overtaken by the necessity to move, although, amusingly, his own savage pilgrimage ultimately brought him to the conclusion that travel is a splendid lesson in disillusion. [2]
 
Of course, that hasn't stopped Lawrence scholars packing their suitcases and floating from international conference to conference, in order to endlessly discuss Lawrence's world tour and talk about his uncanny ability to connect with the so-called spirit of place
 
For as Deleuze once joked, that's how academics travel - by generating a lot of hot air ...   
 
 
Notes
 
[1] Gilles Deleuze: 'Letter to Serge Daney: Optimism, Pessimism, and Travel', Negotiations 1972-1990, trans. Martin Joughin (Columbia University Press, 1995), pp. 77-78.  
 
[2] Readers interested in knowing more about Lawrence's thoughts on travel can click here for a related post to this one.  

This post is for Adam Peter Lang.
 
 

26 Oct 2020

On the Limits of Staying Afloat

 Flying Carp Books (2019)

 
To be fair, Nigel Baines defines himself as a cartoonist and illustrator, rather than a writer, and his graphic memoir, Afloat, which documents his experience of caring for someone with dementia, interspersed with reflections on his childhood, gerontology, and the death of a beloved parent (in this case, the woman he refers to throughout as mum), is more successful as a pictorial project, than as a written work.   
 
Indeed, one wonders why he didn't simply produce a wordless book in the style of Frans Masereel or Lynd Ward: I think that might have worked better. 
 
For I sometimes found the narrator's voice intrusive and slightly flippant in tone. I also think that the silence of the text would have nicely echoed the silence that the demented subject often slips into. Further, as Baines himself notes, often the most important thing in graphic novels - as in life - happens in the spaces between panels and the silences between words; that's where stories unfold.  
 
Having said that, perhaps it's necessary to provide some autobiographical background and maybe the personal element is something that's all too often missing in my own musings on this topic.
 
However, you have to exercise caution with such material. Otherwise, as is the case here, you end up telling us too much about yourself and not enough about the ravishing violence of dementia. In his attempt to stay afloat, Baines misses the opportunity - at the risk of drowning - to really plumb the depths of pain, loss, and the other profoundly monstrous aspects of life lived in extremis.    


Thanks to Catherine Brown for kindly gifting me this book. 


24 Oct 2020

Welcome to Free Town (Beware of the Bears!)

(PublicAffairs, 2020)
 
 
I.
 
Although vaguely sympathetic to the principles of libertarian philosophy, I certainly wouldn't call myself a libertarian and think that even freedom becomes problematic when turned into an ideal: I can see why limits might be placed upon individual liberty and I accept the need for some form of minimal state
 
Thus it is that Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling's new book attracted my interest ... 
 
 
II. 
 
A Libertarian Walks Into a Bear (2020) amusingly exposes the shortcomings of libertarian politics put in to practice; in this case, the attempt to establish a self-governing, small-town utopia in rural New Hampshire, in which everyone marches to the beat of a different drum and no one pays taxes. 
 
Twenty years ago, a group of self-styled free radicals came up with the Free Town Project; a plan to take over a small community of roughly a thousand souls and shape it in their own image. In 2004, they moved to Grafton, NH, a sparsely populated settlement with only one main road running through it and quickly took control - just like the corrupt New York City police officers who dominated Garrison, NJ, in the movie Cop Land (1997). 

The first thing they did was cut public funding by 30 percent, negatively impacting the schoolhouse, the library, and the fire department. State and federal laws were still on the books, but no longer enforced. Citizens were free to carry whatever weapons they liked, ignore hunting regulations, and dispose of their own garbage however they saw fit.
 
Soon, with rubbish piling up and sensing an opportunity, the local bears decided to move into town and an ideologically-driven social experiment conducted by quirky individuals who had met over the internet in dubious chatrooms where they discussed Ayn Rand, came up against grizzly reality. 
 
It seems that autonomous individuals don't always self-regulate and assist one another - they don't even empty their bins! Living free often means living an impoverished existence in which one is always at risk - if not from bears and potholes, then from one's neighbours (New Hampshire has the highest per capita rate of ownership for fully automatic weapons). 
 
As Hongoltz-Hetling notes, despite all their best efforts, the 200-odd libertarians who had promised to create a robust and dynamic private sector, had instead made an already poor town much worse off - and overrun with aggressive and increasingly bold black bears, whilst those now in positions of authority argued whether they should or should not do something about it. 
 
(Surely it was up to each individual to defend themselves and their property? Isn't bear management just another statist attempt at control?)         
 
Ultimately, the New Town project failed because no one - or, at least, no one in their right mind - wants to encounter a huge hungry bear in their backyard. 
 
As Patrick Blanchfield concludes in an excellent review of Hongoltz-Hetling's book, whether libertarians wish to accept it or not, "when it comes to certain kinds of problems, the response must be collective, supported by public effort, and dominated by something other than too-tidy-by-half invocations of market rationality and the maximization of individual personal freedom."
 
 
 
    
See:
 
Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, A Libertarian Walks into a Bear, (PublicAffairs, 2020).

Patrick Blanchfield, 'The Town That Went Feral', The New Republic, (Oct 13, 2020): click here to read online. 


22 Oct 2020

Fowl, Strange, and Unnatural: The Case of Rehan and Haleema Baig

 

 
The recently reported case of Rehan Baig - a 37 year-old man from Bradford, West Yorkshire, involving the filmed sexual assault of some pet chickens - has, rightly, provoked many outraged (though often punning) headlines; for despite the perversely comic nature of the act, there's nothing very funny about animal cruelty and the zoosadistic pleasure that it provides.    
 
Having said that, there's nothing particularly novel either about a man having penetrative sex with a chicken; avisodomy is long established and widely practiced within human culture, not least of all because of the unique opportunity afforded to enjoy a post-coital roast dinner [1].
 
And I'm not just referring to ancient cultures where many people farmed the land and lived in close proximity with animals; several Parisian brothels in the modern period would offer clients the use of a chicken or turkey as a kind of erotic appetiser or feathered fluffer. The trick was to ring the bird's neck, or cut its throat, just prior to ejaculation, so that the spasms of the dying fowl intensified one's own orgasm [2]
 
Anyway, returning to the case of Mr Baig ... 
 
Having been found guilty of unspeakable acts of cruelty and sexual depravity, he was sentenced to three years in prison and banned from owning any animals in the future. His wife, Haleema, who pleaded guilty to three counts of aiding and abetting, avoided prison - receiving a six-month suspended sentence - because the judge believed she may have acted under coercion (though he noted she appeared to gain some pleasure from the acts recorded on video involving not only the brown and white chickens, but an unidentified dog).  
 
 
Notes
 
[1] Due to the anatomical disparity between man and fowl, the latter will invariably be killed during intercourse, whereas larger animals with compatible sex organs - such as sheep and goats - can be penetrated without too great a risk of injury or death. It's somewhat surprising, therefore, that in many ancient cultures acts of bestiality committed with poultry were regarded as less serious than those carried out with mammals (presumably because birds rank lower in the order of life).
 
[2] I seem to remember that Sade describes the procedure in loving detail somewhere or other in his writings. And American pornographer Larry Flynt confesses in his autobiography to having sex with one of his grandmother's hens, aged nine, before wringing its neck and throwing the body into the local creek. Many years later, he would build a three-foot replica of the bird with whom he lost his virginity in memorial. See An Unseemly Man, (Bloomsbury Publishing, 1997).  
 
   

21 Oct 2020

Je fixais des vertiges


 
I woke up this morning to discover that the room was spinning around and whilst Bataille might imagine vertigo as a pathway to the Void and a fall into ecstatic joy, I have no interest in touching the impossible or experiencing dizziness to the point of trembling, thank you very much. 
 
Right now, I just want to make the whirling world stand still, as Rimbaud would say ...
 
 
See: Rimbaud, 'Délires II: Alchimie du verbe', Une saison en enfer (1873): click here.
 
 

19 Oct 2020

Reflections on the Killing of a Porcupine

Sterling silver brooch inspired by Wharton Esherick's 
woodcut illustration for D. H. Lawrence's  
Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine (Centaur Press, 1925)
 
 
I.
 
Perhaps due to a lingering sense of shame, Lawrence somewhat disingenuously calls his essay 'Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine' [1], when, in fact, the animal in question was very deliberatey killed by his own hand ...   

When he first encounters a large porcupine [2] on his ranch in New Mexico, D. H. decides to leave the poor creature alone; despite finding him repugnant and full of the same squalor that he identifies in bugs:
 
"The animal had raised all its hairs and bristles, so that by the light of the moon it seemed to have a tall, swaying, moonlit aureole arching its back as it went. That seemed curiously fearsome, as if the animal were emitting itself demon-like on the air.
      It waddled very slowly, with its spiky spoon-tail steering flat, behind the round bear-like mound of its back. It had a lumbering, beetle's, squalid motion, unpleasant. I followed it into the darkness of the timber, and there, squat like a great tick, it began scrapily to creep up a pine-trunk. [...]
      I stood near and watched, disliking the presence of the creature. [...]
      And he watched me. When he had got nearly the height of a man [...] he hesitated, and slithered down. Evidently he had decided, either that I was harmless, or else that it was risky to go up any further, when I could knock him off so easily with a pole. So he slithered podgily down again, and waddled away with the same bestial, stupid motion of that white-spiky repulsive spoon-tail. He was as big as a middle-sized pig: or more like a bear.
      I let him go. He was repugnant. He made a certain squalor in the moonlight of the Rocky Mountains. As all savagery has a touch of squalor, that makes one a little sick at the stomach."     
 
What's interesting here is how Lawrence uses the language of repulsion in order not merely to express his feelings at the time, but to justify his later action. Indeed, although he lets the porcupine go, he is already considering killing the animal: "Everyone says, porcupines should be killed; the Indians, Mexicans, Americans all the same. [...] It is a duty to kill the things." 
 
The only reason he didn't do so is because "it seemed almost more squalid to pick up a pine-bough and push him over, hit him and kill him". In other words, "the dislike of killing him was greater than the dislike of him".
 
Eventually, however, Lawrence overcomes what some would characterise as squeamishness and others see as an ethical disdain for violence and, on another clear moonlit night, he makes his first kill among the grasses and wildflowers: 
 
"There he lumbered, with his white spoon-tail spiked with bristles [...] His long, long hairs above the quills quivering with a dim grey gleam, like a bush.
      And again I disliked him."  
 
 After first seeking approval from his wife, Frieda, Lawrence goes to get his rifle from the house:
 
"Now never in my life had I shot at any living thing: I never wanted to. I always felt guns very repugnant: sinister, mean. With difficulty I had fired once or twice at a target: but resented doing even so much. Other people could shoot if they wanted to. Myself, individually, it was repugnant to me even to try.
      But something slowly hardens in a man's soul. And I knew now, it had hardened in mine. I found the gun, and with rather trembling hands, got it loaded. Then I pulled back the trigger and followed the porcupine. It was still lumbering through the grass. Coming near, I aimed."
 
Unfortunately, the trigger sticks - or, at any rate, Lawrence tells us that it sticks, perhaps for dramatic effect. So he has to release the trigger, aim and fire again. However, whilst the gun goes off with a bang this time, he misses, and the porcuine goes scuttling away:
 
"I got another shell in place, and followed. This time I fired full into the mound of his round back, below the glistening grey halo. He seemed to stumble on to his hidden nose, and struggled a few strides, ducking his head under like a hedgehog."    
 
The gun being empty and having no more shells to hand, Lawrence runs to fetch a wooden pole: "The porcupine was lying still, with subsiding halo. He stirred faintly. So I turned him and hit him hard over the nose; or where, in the dark, his nose should have been. And it was done. He was dead."
 
After again seeking reassurance from Frieda that he did the right thing, Lawrence concludes: "Things like the porcupine, one must be able to shoot them, if they get in one's way. One must be able to shoot [...] and to kill."   
 
 
II.
 
So, what then are we to make of this hardening of the soul and this volte-face on the question of killing animals, rather than simply let them be and acknowledge their right to life? I have to admit, I'm kind of disappointed ...
 
I much prefer the Lawrence who rejects the voices in his head telling him that real men feel no compunction about killing animals; the Lawrence who felt honoured by the presence of a snake drinking at his water-trough, for example [3]; or the Lawrence who mourns the death of a mountain lion killed by hunters: "What a gap in the world, the missing white-frost face of that slim yellow mountain lion!" [4] 
 
And I like the Lawrence who mocks Italian hunters in their velveteen corduroys, striding around the countryside shooting little birds - sparrows, robins, finches, etc. - in order to display their virility [5], rather than the one who mocks Buddhists for only eating rice and refusing to devour animals; or the Lawrence who talks about the need for man to establish himself upon the earth via the subjugation and/or destruction of "the lower orders of life".

As for the poor porcupine, he wasn't even eaten by the Lawrence's. Instead, they buried it, only for some other wild animal to dig up the body and consume it; "for two days later there lay the spines and bones spread out, with the long skeletons of the porcupine-hands". Soon, another porcupine - bigger and blacker-looking - appears at the tiny ranch: "That too is to be shot", writes Lawrence.  
 
 
Notes
 
[1] D. H. Lawrence, 'Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine', in Refections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, ed. Michael Herbert, (Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 347-63. Lines quoted are on pp. 349, 352, 353, and 354.    

[2] The North American porcupine is a large, stocky rodent, usually dark brown or black in colour with white highlights. Short-sighted and slow-moving, its most distinguishing feature, of course, is a thick coat of quills, which can number up to 30,000 in a fully-grown animal and which cover its entire body except for face, feet and underbelly. Quills are essentially modified hairs formed into sharp, hollow spines and are used defensively (although, like skunks, porcupines can also produce a distinctively unpleasant odour to warn off would-be predators). Contrary to popular legend, they cannot shoot their quills. Porcupines are solitary herbivores and largely nocturnal. They range all over North America and usually make their homes in hollow trees or dry rocky areas. They are preyed upon by wolves, bears, mountain lions, and fishers. Many farmers and ranchers continue to consider them a pest.     

[3] D. H. Lawrence, 'Snake', The Poems Vol. I, ed. Christopher Pollnitz, (Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 303-05. Admittedly, Lawrence throws a log at the snake in order to scare him away, but he immediately regrets it: "I thought how paltry, how vulgar, what a mean act!"  

[4] D. H. Lawrence, 'Mountain Lion', The Poems Vol. I, ibid., pp. 351-52.

[5] D. H. Lawrence. 'Man is a Hunter', in Sketches of Etruscan Places and Other Italian Essays, ed. Simonetta de Filippis, (Cambridge University Press, 1992), pp. 217-21.

To read an earlier (related) post on the prickly politics of Lawrence's vitalism in the above essay, click here.  


16 Oct 2020

How Kindness Gives Way to Cruelty

That's gotta hurt! 
 
 
I. Man and Mutt
 
One of the most harrowing scenes in D. H. Lawrence's work appears not in his fiction, but in 'Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine' ...

In this extraordinary essay, Lawrence tells of how one day a "big, bushy, rather handsome sandy-red dog" wandered on to his New Mexican ranch, clearly in distress, having had an encounter with a porcupine: "his whole muzzle set round with white spines, like some ghastly growth; like an unnatural beard".
 
Lawrence continues:
 
"He waited while I went up to him, wagging his tail and whimpering, and ducking his head, and dancing. He daren't rub his nose with his paws anymore: it hurt too much. I patted his head and looked at his nose, and he whimpered loudly. 
      He must have had thirty quills, or more, sticking out of his nose, all the way round: the white, ugly ends of the quills protruding an inch, sometimes more, sometimes less, from his already swollen, blood-puffed muzzle. 
    [...] Then the fun began. I got him in the yard: and he drank up the whole half-gallon of the chicken's sour milk. Then I started pulling out the quills. He was a big, bushy, handsome dog, but his nerve was gone, and every time I got a quill out, he gave a yelp. Some long quills were fairly easy. But the shorter ones, near his lips, were deep in, and hard to get hold of, and hard to pull out when you did get hold of them. And with every one that came out, came a little spurt of blood and another yelp and writhe.
      The dog wanted the quills out: but his nerve was gone. Every time he saw my hand coming to his nose, he jerked his head away. I quieted him, and stealthily managed to jerk out another quill, with the blood all over my fingers. But with every one that came out, he grew more tiresome. I tried and tried and tried to get hold of another quill, and he jerked and jerked, and writhed and whimpered, and ran under the porch floor."
 
As one might imagine, it was "a curiously unpleasant, nerve-trying job", with the dog whimpering and jerking his head this way and that. And so, after struggling for a couple of hours and extracting some twenty quills, Lawrence gave up: 
 
"It was impossible to quiet the creature, and I had had enough. His nose on the top was clear: a punctured, puffy blood-darkened mess; and his lips were clear. But just on his round little chin [...] was still a bunch of white quills, eight or nine deep in.
      We let him go, and he dived under the porch, and there he lay invisible: save for the end of his bushy, foxy tail, which moved when we came near. Towards noon he emerged, ate up the chicken food, and stood with that doggish look of dejection, and fear, and friendliness, and greediness, wagging his tail.
      But I had had enough.
      'Go home!' I said. 'Go home! Go home to your master, and let him finish for you.'"
      
Unfortunately, the dog doesn't want to go - and it's at this point kindness is superseded by cruelty:

"He was not going to leave the place. 
      And I! I simply did not want him.
      And so I picked up a stone. He dropped his tail, and swerved towards the house. I knew what he was going to do. He was going to dive under the porch, and there stick, haunting the place.
      I dropped my stone, and found a good stick under the cedar tree. [...] 
      I could not bear to have that dog around any more. Going quietly to him, I suddenly gave him one hard hit with the stick, crying  'Go home!' He turned quickly, and the end of the stick caught him on his sore nose. With a fierce yelp, he went off like a wolf, downhill, like a flash, gone. And I stood in the field full of pangs of regret, at having hit him, unintentionally, on his sore nose."
        
 
II. Mann und Mutter
 
I thought of this scene the other morning when attending to my mother, for whom I care. 
 
Admittedly, she's not a big bushy dog and has never required my assistance in removing a face full of porcupine quills. But she is 94 and in the advanced stages of Alzheimer's, thus fully dependent upon my help. And she is now inarticulate, like an animal, only able to offer a continuous series of moans and groans and shout out gibberish. 
 
And whilst her nerve hasn't gone, her mind has, making it impossible for me to reason with her, when, for example, trying to wash her, or feed her, or change her dressings and - like the poor creature Lawrence writes of - she won't shut the fuck up and she won't stay still, constantly babbling and twisting this way and that, turning the provision of care into a curiously unpleasant, nerve-trying job ...
 
And there are times when, like Lawrence, I feel I have reached the end of my tether and can't bear to be around my mother; times, even, when I too feel like picking up a large stone or a good stick ...  
 
And that, whilst a terrible confession, is an important realisation: in the end, kindness will always give way to cruelty - which is why abuse is rife within care homes, hospitals, and other institutions in which vulnerable individuals are housed. The suffering of others can trigger violence as a kind of defence mechanism and, ironically, the most inhumane acts are often a sign that one is too sensitive, not that one lacks compassion. 
 
 
See: D. H. Lawrence, 'Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine', in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, ed. Michael Herbert, (Cambridge University Press, 1988), pp. 350-52.   


15 Oct 2020

A Brief Note on the Question of Scale in the Work of D. H. Lawrence

Okay, one last time: these are small, 
but the ones out there are far away.
 
 
As a mortal being, man is a creature of time and space. That is to say, one bound by certain limits and defined by certain coordinates and measurements. Man, therefore, is not so much the measure of all things, as measured by all things and Lawrence insists on the importance of man knowing his limits; of accepting that he ends where his fingers and toes stop. 
 
Having said that, Lawrence also asserts that man has a transcendent quality and is like a rose; "perfected in the realm of the absolute, the other-world of bliss" [RDP 9]. When we blossom into singular being, we do so off the scale; "absolved from time and space" [RDP 9]
 
That’s why Lawrence hates talk of the average man or woman, perfectly cut to size, and rejects ideals of equality and social perfection. The average, he says, is a pure abstraction; "the reduction of the human being to a mathematical unit" [RDP 63]
 
However, Lawrence certainly believes in a scale of values and what Nietzsche termed an order of rank. Every man and every woman may be a star, but they exist in relation to one another and must fall into place according to their status: "The small are as perfect as the great, because each is itself and in its own place. But the great are none the less great, the small the small. And the joy of each is that it is so." [RDP 103] 
 
Thus, there’s a very real social scale operating within the Lawrentian universe, only he insists that it’s a natural hierarchy. There must, says Lawrence, be a system of some sort and there must be different classes; "either that, or amorphous nothingness" [RDP 111]. And the individual’s place within this system is determined by the degree of power - or life - that they manifest in the world: "The only thing to do is to realise what is higher, and what is lower, in the cycles of existence." [RDP 352] 
 
This has nothing to do with size or even physical strength, but everything to do with vitality or what Lawrence sometimes calls vividness. A tiny ant, for example, belongs to a higher cycle of existence than a giant redwood because it is more alive and, if it comes to a contest, "the little ant will devour the life of the huge tree" [RDP 357]
 
Similarly, this is why Hepburn is right to insist to Hannele – much to her irritation – that, ultimately, he is greater than even the tallest mountain [Fox 137-38].
 
 
See:

D. H. Lawrence, Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, ed. Michael Herbert, (Cambridge University Press, 1988). Lines quoted are from the following four essays: 'Love', 'Democracy', Education of the People', and 'Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine'.
 
D. H. Lawrence, 'The Captain's Doll', in The Fox, The Captain's Doll, The Ladybird, ed. Dieter Mehl, (Cambridge University Press, 1992). 
 
 
Notes 
 
The image is from an episode of Father Ted entitled 'Hell' [S02/E01], dir. Declan Lowney, written by Graham Linehan and Arthur Mathews, in which Ted uses some toy cows to try to explain issues of scale and perspective to Dougal whilst on holiday in a caravan. The episode originally aired on 8 March 1996. Click here to watch the iconic scene on YouTube.  
 
This post was inspired by Catherine Brown's presentation - 'D. H. Lawrence and the Sense of Scale' - to the D. H. Lawrence Society (14-10-20).


14 Oct 2020

In Memory of Martin White: the Man Who Loved Butterflies

Martin White inspecting a homemade butterfly breeding pod
Photo: Fabio de Paola / The Guardian (2020)
 
 
Patrick Barkham's piece in The Guardian yesterday on Martin White - a butterfly devotee and maverick rewilder who, sadly, died earlier this week - was both fascinating and moving to read: click here.   
 
White was a man prepared to break the law and place himself at odds with the scientific establishment in order to help the beautiful insects he loved and singlehandedly try to reverse the rapid extinction of British wildlife. One can't help admiring his efforts, despite concerns raised from opponents who feel that whilst well-intentioned, White's methods are counterproductive and potentially do more harm than good.  
 
For clearly, as Barkham points out, whilst the experts in nature conservation have had some success, broadly speaking, they've failed - big time:  
 
"Britain has lost more of its nature than most other countries in the world. Almost every species or measurable wild habitat produces a graph plummeting downwards. Over the last 70 years, 98% of wildflower meadows in England and Wales have been destroyed; three-quarters of ponds and heaths have vanished; half the remaining fragments of ancient woods have been obliterated. The creatures inside this habitat have gone too: since 1970, more than half of Britain's farmland birds have disappeared, while a quarter of mammals are endangered and three-quarters of butterfly species have declined. Overall one in 10 species are threatened with extinction; 500 species have already disappeared from England." 
 
This dramatic and depressing loss of biodiversity - which has only accelerated in the 21st century - shows that whatever it is we've been doing to save wildlife and protect (what remains of) the countryside clearly isn't working. 
 
So perhaps we need aurelians like Martin White breeding native butterflies in their backyards for (re-)introduction at suitable sites around the country. I respect professional conservationists and understand the importance of data gathering and habitat management, but something else - something more - needs to be done at this point, otherwise none of us will ever see a mazarine blue or purple emperor ... 

 
 
 

13 Oct 2020

Of Bakers and Ballerinas (We Are All Prostitutes)


 
Such was the vociferous outcry in reaction to the above ad trying to encourage more young people to retrain and find employment in cyber security, that it was almost immediately withdrawn. 
 
And it wasn't just the usual suspects in the arts taking offense on social media; even the Culture Secretary found it crass and a Downing Street spokesperson described it as inappropriate, although, actually, Fatima's next job might be in this field and, like many of us, she may very well be blissfully unaware of where life will eventually take her.
 
And so, we might ask, what's the problem here? 
 
How many aspiring ballet dancers actually succeed and fulfil their ambition? I believe that the average figure for those who actively pursue a career and become full-time professionals is around ten percent. So nine-out-of-ten are probably going to be disappointed and have to earn their living some other way at some point - maybe even Fatima; and maybe even in cyber security!
 
And the same is true, of course, for all those would-be singers, actors, poets, and professional athletes out there. To succeed in the arts, or in showbiz, or in the world of sport, requires extraordinary talent, dedication, and a network of support. And probably a fair degree of luck. 
 
Those critics who say that the CyberFirst programme is all about denigrating the arts and crushing the hopes and dreams of young people are, I'm afraid, overreacting. And this, tweeted from the shadow mental health minister, Rosena Allin-Khan, is just laughably absurd in all its wokery: "Fatima, you be you. Don't let anyone else tell you that you aren't good enough because you don't conform to their preconceived social norms."      

Interestingly, the ad is now being run with a picture of a baker and so far, there are no complaints ... What does that tell us about the world we live in? I mean it's true, man does not live by bread alone, but I don't see why the skilled artisan who makes my croissants in the morning should be valued less than a dancer pirouetting on stage to the delight of mostly wealthy spectators. 
 
In the end, as someone once sang many years ago, we are all prostitutes ...    


Note: the image of 'Fatima' is a detail from a photograph by Krys Alex featuring Desire'e Kelley, a dancer at the Vibez in Motion Dance Studio, Atlanta, Georgia, published on Instagram in July 2017.
 

9 Oct 2020

D. H. Lawrence and Trans Issues

Image of D. H. Lawrence from Dawn of the Unread, Issue 7
Transgender Pride Flag designed by Monica Helms with added trans symbol


Those who think J. K. Rowling a hateful transphobe (which she isn't), had probably better look away now as we discuss D. H. Lawrence's essentialism in relation to questions of sex and gender identity.
 
For whilst Lawrence clearly understands the role that culture plays in, for example, the construction of feminine identity - see the article 'Give Her a Pattern' [1] - and concedes that you can have cocksure women and hensure men [2], he nevertheless insists that biology ultimately plays a determining role and that this forecloses the possibility of transitioning from one sex to another, no matter how extensive the hormone treatment, how radical the surgery, or how convincing the end result may be.
 
In Fantasia of the Unconscious, Lawrence writes:  
 
"A child is born with one sex only, and remains always single in his sex. There is no inter-mingling, only a great change of rôles is possible. But man in the female rôle is still male. 
      Sex - that is to say, maleness and femaleness - is present from the moment of birth, and in every act or deed of every child. [...] 
      We are all wrong when we say there is no vital difference between the sexes. There is every difference. Every bit, every cell in a boy is male, every cell is female in a woman, and must remain so. Women can never feel or know as men do. Man, acting in the passive or feminine polarity, is still man, and he doesn't have one single unmanly feeling." [3]

It's thus pretty clear where Lawrence would stand vis-à-vis the current debate around trans issues. And just to make this even clearer, we might read the following passage on organ transplantation (including xenotransplantation) in relation to sex reassignment surgery: 
 
"Every nose, every stomach is different, actually, from every other nose and stomach. [...] Noses and stomachs are not interchangeable. You might perhaps graft the end of one man's nose on the nose of another man. But the grafted gentleman would not thereby have a dual identity. His essential self would remain the same: a little disfigured, perhaps, but not metamorphosed. Whatever tricks you may perform, of grafting one bit of an individual on another, you don't produce a new individual, a new type. You only produce a disfigured, patched-up individual. [...] 
      It is sickening to hear scientists rambling on about the interchange of tissue and members from one individual to another. They have at last reached the old alchemistic fantasy of producing the homunculus. They hope to take the hind leg of a pig and by happy grafting produce a marvellous composite individual, a fused erection of living tissue which will at last prove that man can make man, and that therefore he isn't divine at all [...]" [4] 
 
Again, I think it clear what Lawrence would say about the idea of sex change operations: he would not approve, not accept, and scornfully dismiss. In the same essay, Lawrence also indicates that he would regard those seeking medical assistance to transition from one sex to another as being mentally ill in some manner: 
 
"The truth about man, before he falls into imbecility, is that each one is just himself. [...] Every man has his own identity, which he preserves till he falls into imbecility or worse. Upon this clue of his own identity every man is fashioned. And the clue of a man's own identity is a man's own self or soul, that which is incommutable and incommunicable in him. Every man, while he remains a man and does not lapse into disintegration, becoming a lump of chaos, is truly himself, no matter how many fantastic attitudes he may assume. True it is, that man goes and gets a host of ideas in his head, and proceeds to reconstruct himself according to those ideas. But he never actually succeeds in this business of reconstructing himself out of his own head, until he has gone cracked. And then he may prance on all fours [...] or do as he likes. But whilst he remains sane the buzzing ideas in his head will never allow him to change or metamorphose his own identity: modify, yes; but never change. While a man remains sane he remains himself and nothing but himself, no matter how fantastically he may attitudinise according to some pet idea." [5] 
 
Clinically speaking, I don't know how fair or accurate an assessment this is, but it should be noted that transsexualism is no longer classified as a mental disorder, but regarded as a sexual health issue. And it's somewhat surprising - if not disappointing - that a writer whose fiction is so profoundly queer and so richly perverse, should also reaffirm conventional notions of identity, integrity, and sanity.   
 
 
Notes
 
[1] 'Give Her a Pattern' can be found in Late Essays and Articles, ed. James T. Boulton, (Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 160-65. Whilst arguing that womanhood is in part an adaptation to male ideals and fantasies, Lawrence nevertheless insists that beneath this pattern lies "a real human being of the feminine sex" who comes with her own logic of emotion.   

[2] 'Cocksure Women and Hensure Men' can also be found in Late Essays and Articles, pp. 123-27. 
 
In this piece, Lawrence makes a dubious comparison between human beings and chickens in order to advance his argument that whilst a woman can certainly act in a cocksure manner, it's best if she retain her hen-like nature; "quietly and busily clucking around, laying her eggs and mothering her chickens". Similarly, whilst men today are often "timid, tremulous, rather soft and submissive", it's preferable that they be cocksure and boss the human farmyard. Indeed, Lawrence says that when the sexes play one another's role and throw the natural order out of scheme, it invariably has tragic consequences.  

[3] D. H. Lawrence, Fantasia of the Unconscious, ed. Bruce Steele, (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 131. 
 
This may or may not be true, but Lawrence is obliged by the terms of his own philosophy, based on vital polarity and sexual otherness, to believe this. The amusing thing, however, is the fragility of this metaphysic. For although he insists on the essential and immutable nature of sex, Lawrence also says it's important to keep boys and girls apart in virgin purity, as even casual mixing and familiarity threatens their "male and female integrity" and risks the "dynamic magic of life" [ibid., 132].    

[4] D. H. Lawrence, 'Education of the People', in Reflections on the Death of a Porcupine and Other Essays, ed. Michael Herbert, (Cambridge University Press, 1988), p. 101. 

[5] Ibid., pp. 101-102. 

  

6 Oct 2020

Reflections on TB in the Age of Coronavirus

Chest x-ray of a patient with tuberculosis 
showing a lesion in the upper-right lung 
Zephyr / Science Photo Library
 
 
One of the positive aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic is that it has obliged people to consider all things virological, including how tiny parasitic agents evolve and cross from one species to another, infecting and exploiting host cells, etc.
 
One of the negative aspects - and this, ironically, as a consequence of knowing too much thanks to a 24-hour news media that is obsessed with the coronavirus - is that almost the entire world seems to have gone mad and is gripped by fear. 
 
In the past, when people knew much less about viruses and disease in general, they may have been concerned about catching something nasty and falling mortally ill, but there was no mass hysteria and the population didn't isolate themselves indoors, or walk around outside wearing masks and obsessively squirting hand gel.  
 
In 1920, for example, when the average life expectancy for a man in the UK was under fifty and for a woman fifty-four - and when we were only just emerging from the post-War flu pandemic that affected a quarter of the population, killing 228,000 British citizens - infectious diseases were the leading cause of death in young and middle-aged people. 
 
Polio, diptheria, measles, and mumps may now have been largely eradicated in the UK thanks to programmes of immunisation, but they were very serious illnesses a century ago. As was tuberculosis; a bacterial disease that was "by far the biggest and most consistent killer in Western Europe throughout the nineteenth and the first half of the twentieth centuries" [1]
 
 
II. 
 
According to David Ellis, in the year that D. H. Lawrence died, 1930, there were 50,000 registered deaths from TB in Great Britain; a figure higher than the present number of deaths associated with Covid-19, but also a figure that showed a significant decline from earlier years thanks to improved living conditions and better palliative care.   

Like the coranvirus, TB "is chiefly spread by droplets of sputum when the infected person coughs in the presence of others, with repeated close contact an important factor" [2]. But citizens in 1930 weren't ordered by their government to socially distance and obey the rule of six. Apparently, they accepted that disease and dying were a normal part of life and, whilst naturally wishing to remain healthy and avoid infection, they understood that risk can never be eliminated entirely.
 
Oh, and before anybody mistakenly says that consumption is old news in the Age of Coronavirus, it's worth remembering that one quarter of the world's population is thought to have a latent infection with TB and that in 2018 there were more than 10 million active cases, resulting in 1.5 million fatalities. 
 
TB thus remains the deadliest of all infectious diseases afflicting mankind and if we in the West don't seem to care about this, it's probably because the majority of the cases are in Asia and Africa (I think we all know that if Covid-19 had politely respected borders and stayed in China it would have received very little media attention).   
 
 
Notes

[1] David Ellis, Death and the Author, (Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 10.
 
[2] Ibid., p. 14.  


5 Oct 2020

D. H. Lawrence is all the Rage

 James K. Walker and an outsider art style portrait of DHL
 
I. 
 
There are not many joyous events to look forward to in November: All Souls' Day, Bonfire Night, and Katxu's birthday - that's really about it. However, I'm pleased to announce an addition to this short list; a presentation by bibliophile and promiscuous homotextual James Walker to the D. H. Lawrence London Group [1].  

James - a teacher, writer, and critic who describes himself as a digital storyteller - has assembled two major projects of note in collaboration with Paul Fillingham: The Sillitoe Trail (2012-13), which explored the enduring relevance of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning; and Dawn of the Unread (2014-16), a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham's literary heritage.
 
He is currently working on a transmedia project that will digitally recreate D. H. Lawrence's savage pilgrimage. It's this project - which James likes to describe as a Memory Theatre - which he'll be discussing in November, with particular reference to the subject of rage within the life and work of Lawrence. 
 
This obviously excites my interest, as I've recently been researching the ancient Greek concept of thymos (anger) which Plato named as one of the three constituent parts of the human psyche; the others being logos (reason) and eros (sexual desire) and which Peter Sloterdijk locates as central within Western history, arguing that an active form of this emotion - i.e., free of ressentiment - might actually be something vital and productive.
 
And so, without wishing to anticipate in too great a detail what James might be planning to say, here are a few thoughts on Lawrence and rage that I'm hoping he'll develop ... 
 
 
II.
 
James isn't, of course, the first to have noticed (and been amused by) Lawrence's semi-permanent fury with himself, with others, and with the world at large. 
 
Geoff Dyer, for example, picked up on this in his study of Lawrence entitled Out of Sheer Rage (1997) and, twelve years prior, Anthony Burgess had offered his own passionate appreciation of Lawrence in an episode of The South Bank Show which aired on 20 January 1985 under the title 'The Rage of D. H. Lawrence' [2].  
 
I don't know why Lawrence was so often so angry; some commentators have suggested it was symptomatic of his TB [3]; others take a more psychological approach and discuss Lawrence and his work in terms of behavioural disorders such as social anxiety disorder and intermittant explosive disorder. 
 
Again, I have no idea if Lawrence was bipolar, although he did seem to swing from periods of depression to periods marked by an abnormally elevated mood - but then, who doesn't? 
 
And it's important to note that Lawrence - perhaps aware of his own public image - often played up his anger for comic effect, as in the famous letter to Edward Garnett in which he curses his critics and fellow countrymen: 
 
"Curse the blasted, jelly-boned swines, the slimy, the belly-wriggling invertebrates, the miserable sodding rotters, the flaming sods, the snivelling, dribbling, dithering palsied pulse-less lot that make up England today. They've got white of egg in their veins, and their spunk is that watery it's a marvel they can breed. They can but frog-spawn - the gibberers! God, how I hate them! God curse them, funkers. God blast them, wish-wash. Exterminate them, slime." [4]
   
Only someone with no sense of humour would mistake this for genuine anger; it's Lawrence doing what writers love to do most, i.e., play with words.

Having said that, I think we can characterise even Lady Chatterley's Lover as a thymotic text and not simply an erotic novel or piece of romantic fiction. It's as much about Mellors raging against the class system, industrial capitalism, modern technology, poaching cats, crying children, ex-wives and girlfriends, lesbians, and contemporary art, as it is about Connie's sexual awakening. 
 
And I think we should also mention that there were occasions when Lawrence's rage was genuine and took a nasty, violent turn. I'm sure James will refer to the verbal and physical abuse suffered by Lawrence's wife Frieda, for example, and the incident involving poor Bibbles the dog (readers who would like reminding of these things can go to a post on the subject by clicking here).      


III.
 
Anger is an energy, as John Lydon once sang [5]. And, as a matter of fact, he's right; those experiencing rage have high levels of adrenaline and this increases physical strength and sharpens senses, whilst also inhibiting the sensation of pain. 
 
Rage, in other words, enables individuals to do things that they might otherwise be incapable of (and if you don't believe me or Rotten, ask Dr. Bruce Banner).  
 
And with that, it's over to you James ...
 

Notes

[1]  James Walker's presentation to the Lawrence London Group is via Zoom on 26 November 2020, between 6.30 and 8.30 pm local time. For further details of the event and for information on the DHL London Group, visit Catherine Brown's website by clicking here.  
 
[2] Readers who are interested in watching this episode of The South Bank Show [S08/E11] can find it on YouTube in four parts: click here for part 1.

[3] Katherine Mansfield, who was herself consumptive and "subject to outbursts of uncontrollable rage", also believed this. See David Ellis, Death and the Author, (Oxford University Press, 2008) p. 15. 

[4] D. H. Lawrence, letter to Edward Garnett, dated 3 July 1912, in The Letters of D. H. Lawrence, Vol. I, ed. James T. Boulton, (Cambridge University Press, 1979), pp.420-22. Lines quoted are on p. 422. 
 
[5] Play 'Rise', by Public Image Ltd., a single release from the album Album (Virgin Records, 1986), by clicking here.


3 Oct 2020

D. H. Lawrence's Daimonic Dendrophilia

Wallace Smith: Illustration for 
Fantazius Mallare (1922)


I have discussed D. H. Lawrence's dendrophilia elsewhere on Torpedo the Ark [click here] and readers will surely recall the scene in Women in Love in which Birkin enters into a state of erotic delirium whilst surrounded by various plants, bushes, and young trees: 
 
"The soft sharp boughs beat upon him, as he moved in keen pangs against them, threw little cold showers of drops on his belly, and beat his loins with their clusters of soft-sharp needles [...] and then to sting one's thigh against the living dark bristles of the fir-boughs; and then to feel the light whip of the hazel on one's shoulders, stinging, and then to clasp the silvery birch-trunk against one's breast, its smoothness, its hardness, its vital knots and ridges - this was good, this was all very good, very satisfying. [...] He knew now where he belonged. He knew where to plant himself, his seed: – along with the trees, in the folds of the delicious fresh growing leaves. This was his place, his marriage place." [1]
 
So one might imagined that Lawrence would have loved the above image by the American artist Wallace Smith for Ben Hecht's controversial novel Fantazius Mallare: A Mysterious Oath (1922) [2], showing a man having sex with a tree. 
 
Only you would be mistaken: Lawrence hated the novel and hated the illustrations by Smith. In a letter-cum-review of the work written shortly after publication - having had a copy of the book sent to him by a friend - Lawrence says this:
 
"Many thanks for sending me the Ben Hecht book. I read it through. But I'm sorry, it didn't thrill me a bit, neither the pictures nor the text. It all seems to me so would-be. Think of the malice, the sheer malice of a Beardsley drawing, the wit, and the venom of the mockery. These drawings are so completely without irony, so crass, so strained, and so would-be. It isn't that they've got anything to reveal at all. That man's coition with a tree, for example. There's nothing in it but the author's attempt to be startling. Whereas if he wanted to be really wicked he'd see that even a tree has its own daimon, and a man might lie with the daimon of a tree. Beardsley saw these things. But it takes imagination." [3]   
 
That, I think, is very interesting - particularly the part about the daimonic aspect of a tree and the possibility of a human being forming an erotic relationship with such, thereby adding an occult element to Lawrence's dendrophilia. 
 
I think Lawrence is right to suggest that a sexual encounter between any two objects involves a "contact between two alien natures" [4] and is always therefore as much a violent struggle as it is a sensual delight. And, personally, I dislike Smith's drawing because it anthropomorphises the tree; by having it take on a distinctly all-too-human female form he produces a heteronormative rather than truly transgressive artwork. 
 
 
Notes
 
[1] D. H. Lawrence, Women in Love, ed. David Farmer, Lindeth Vasey and John Worthen, (Cambridge University Press, 1987), pp. 107-08. 

[2] Those interested in reading Hecht's novel and taking a look at Smith's illustrations can do so thanks to Project Gutenberg: click here.

[3] D. H. Lawrence, 'Review of Fantazius Mallare: A Mysterious Oath, by Ben Hecht', in Introductions and Reviews, ed. N. H. Reeve and John Worthen, (Cambridge University Press, 2005), p. 215 
 
[4] Ibid.,  p. 216. 


1 Oct 2020

Blasse Tage: Attempt at a New Translation and Notes Towards a Theory of Translation

Mascha Kaléko (1907-1975) 
Photo: Deutsches Literaturarchiv (Marbach)
 
 
I. 
 
Whilst I'm appreciative of Andreas Nolte's efforts at bringing the work of German-Jewish poet Mascha Kaléko to a much wider (English-speaking) audience, I have to admit I'm not always comfortable with his attempts to translate her verses line by line and word for word; "keeping the content unchanged, using similar phrases and syntax, and trying to maintain the poet's often very strict meter and rhyming scheme" [1].  

It's not that this nothing added, nothing taken away approach sometimes results in a rather odd-sounding English that troubles me. Rather, it's the implication that by staying as "close and true to the original" verse as he could manage, he somehow channels the spirit of the author. For Nolte subscribes to a myth of presence; i.e., the belief that if one listens closely enough one can hear the voice (and know the thoughts) of the dead speaker behind and within the text. 
 
It's because Nolte believes in linguistic transparency, universal themes, and timeless emotions, that he also believes Kaléko's work and his ultra-faithful translations "can still reach deep into the hearts and minds of today's readers". It's because I don't believe in such things and don't subscribe to a myth of authorial presence - i.e., don't care about communing with the holy ghost of Kaléko and doing justice to her emotional sincerity - that I prefer translations that Nolte would probably dismiss as loose depictions and prosaic deviations. 
 
 
II. 
 
For me, as for Paul Ricoeur, translation is primarily a work of remembrance and a work of mourning [2]. In other words, one attempts to salvage something from the past (and, just to make it even more difficult, from a past spoken in another language) and one learns to come to terms with loss; for inavariably in the attempt to carry across one will leave something behind (no one is infallible and no translation is ever perfect - it's simply fantasy to believe otherwise). 
 
I also think that sometimes one expresses one's fidelity to a writer one loves by an act that seems to smack of betrayal. There's simply no point in attempting a literal translation of individual words and working line by line - what matters is the text itself and the vision of the world expressed. That's what you must try to translate and this sometimes requires being a bit devious and a bit daring. A good translator, in my view, is always prepared to take a risk and work with a smile on their face; aware of their own limitations, but not apologetic for them. 
 
And to those who assert that being able to speak and read only one language fluently prohibits one from ever really being a translator - You merely interepret other people's translations - I'd remind them of Thomas Kuhn's remark that even knowing two (or more) languages does not automatically make one a translator: it might be a necessary skill, but it's not a sufficient condition.
 
 
III. 
 
Finally, we come to my attempt to translate one of Mascha Kaléko's most famous poems. I provide the original German afterwards so that readers who wish to judge the success or failure of my effort can do so, but, please note, this is a first draft only and there are certain lines - including the final line - which I will doubtless revise.  
 
 
Faded Days
 
All our faded days
Accrete in silent nights
Forming a great grey wall.
Stone sits upon stone seamlessly.
All sorrows of vacant time
Are locked within the soul.  
 
 Dreams arrive and dissolve
 As day breaks in ghostly fashion.
 In us remains the eternally hesitant
 Grasping for coloured shards,
 And in the shadows of faded days
 We live, because undying.   
 
 
Blasse Tage [3]
 
Alle unsre blassen Tage 
Türmen sich in stiller Nacht 
Hoch zu einer großen Mauer. 
Stein fügt immer sich an Stein. 
Alle leeren Stunden Trauer 
Schließt sich in die Seele ein. 
 
Träume kommen und zerfließen 
Gleich Gespenstern, wird es Tag. 
In uns bleibt das ewig zage 
Fassen nach den bunten Scherben, 
Und im Schatten blasser Tage 
Leben wir, weil wir nicht sterben.
 
 
Notes
 
[1] Andreas Nolte, Mascha: The Poems of Mascha Kaléko, (Fomite, 2017), lines quoted above are on pp. 7, 25, and 21.  
 
[2] Paul Ricoeur, On Translation, trans. Eileen Brennan, (Routledge, 2006).   

[3] This verse was originally published in Mascha Kaléko, Das lyrische Stenogrammheft, (Rowohlt Verlag, 1933). It can also be found Mascha Kaléko: Sämtliche Werke und Briefe (Deutscher Taschenbuch Verlag, 2012).  
 
Musical bonus: Dota Kehr, Blasse Tage (feat. Uta Köbernick), based on the poem by Mascha Kaléko: click here.