Sunday, September 18, 2016

Andrea Wulf – ‘The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science’

After all that Nazism in the last two books, I thought this might be good to read next, being about a German (actually a Prussian) hero. To Henry David Thoreau, John Muir, Charles Darwin and Ernst Haekel, all of whom acknowledged their debt to him; but not to a contemporary Anglophone audience, hence Andrea Wulf’s book, an attempt to redress the balance. Wulf puts Humboldt’s obscurity in the UK and US partly down to ‘anti-German sentiment’ following the two world wars of the twentieth century. She mentions in a footnote that Haekel found himself accused of ‘providing the Nazis with the intellectual foundation for their racial programmes’ because of his ‘stem-trees’ showing a ‘progressive path from “savage” to “civilised” races’, which separated Jews from Caucasians, but placed them on an equal footing (though there is a hierarchy, with some other extant races lower down). Perhaps Humboldt was tarred with this brush, though the argument doesn’t seem to have much to do with him. His work was more to do with what we now think of as ecology (a word coined by Haekel):
Humboldt was the first to explain the fundamental functions of the forest for the ecosystem and climate: the trees’ ability to store water and to enrich the atmosphere with moisture, their protection of the soil, and their cooling effect. He also talked about the impact of trees on the climate through their release of oxygen. The effects of the human species’ intervention were already ‘incalculable’, Humboldt insisted, and could become catastrophic if they continued to disturb the world so ‘brutally’.
The Invention of Nature is quite a long way from being a typical biography. This is partly because the events of its subject’s life were so unevenly spaced (expeditions in his thirties and sixties, writing in between), and partly because it is about the ideas and the legacy as much as it is about the man. A third concern is the context of the time, which is given in some detail (there’s quite a bit about the revolutions in South America in the years after Humboldt’s visit, Napoleon, and development of the USA following the Louisiana Purchase). It’s the kind of mix which doesn’t feed very neatly into a review trying to sum it all up, but for the common reader, who doesn’t bring any great amount of context to the table (for my part, I know a little about John Muir, and have forgotten a lot about Napoleon), it’s all interesting and relevant if you don’t enquire too closely what it is supposed to be relevant to. This engaging, scattershot approach does have one drawback, which is that although the energy and achievements of Humboldt are conveyed clearly, one is left a little cold about the man himself. But perhaps that is a fair response. Darwin, meeting his hero in old age, was disappointed by his incessant chatter, and as a younger man he was, if impressive, scarcely someone you’d want to sit next to at dinner:
Others feared his sharp tongue so much that they did not want to leave a party before Humboldt departed, worried that once they had gone they would be the object of his snide comments. Some thought Humboldt was like a meteor that whizzed through the room. At dinners he held court, jumping from one subject to another. One moment he was talking about shrunken heads, one acquaintance remarked, but by the time a dinner guest, who had asked his neighbour quietly for some salt, had returned to the conversation, Humboldt was lecturing on Assyrian cuneiform script. Humboldt was electrifying, some said, his mind was sharp and his thoughts free of prejudice.
Humbolt’s life’s work was mostly based on an expedition to South America between 1799-1804, spent climbing mountains, crossing plains, observing volcanic eruptions and one enormous earthquake in the first year. For many years after his return to Europe he tried to arrange a similar trip to the Himalayas, but the East India Company wouldn’t grant him permission to go. In 1829 he travelled instead to Russia, through the Urals and (in an unauthorised 3000-mile detour) on to the Altai mountains and back along the Chinese border. While travelling he would measure incessantly, like a good scientist, and came to important conclusions about the effect of climate, and altitude, on vegetation in different areas of the world (not just vegetation – he most impressed the Russians by predicting, correctly, where they would find diamonds in their own soil). The crucial thing was the wide scope of his enquiry, which was in sympathy with (and inspired) the English Romantic poets:
Coleridge [lamented] the loss of what he called the ‘connective powers of the understanding’. They lived in an ‘epoch of division and separation’, of fragmentation and the loss of unity. The problem, he insisted, lay with philosophers and scientists such as René Descartes or Carl Linnaeus, who had turned the understanding of nature into a narrow practice of collecting, classification or mathematical abstraction.
Humboldt did his share of collecting, as Byron noted:
Lord Byron immortalized Humboldt in Don Juan, ridiculing his cynometer, the instrument with which Humboldt had measured the blueness of the sky.
Humboldt, ‘the first of travellers,’ but not
The last, if late accounts be accurate,
Invented, by some name I have forgot,
As well as the sublime discovery’s date,
An airy instrument, with which he sought
To ascertain the atmospheric state,
By measuring ‘the intensity of blue’:
O, Lady Daphne! let me measure you!
However, classification wasn’t what he was interested in. ‘Individual phenomena were only important “in their relation to the whole”’. He wanted to show how things worked together: he ‘“read” plants as others did books – and to him they revealed a global force behind nature, the movements of civilisations as well as landmass.’ Expressing this lyrically was part of his method, branching out into artistic expression as a way of broadening his scientific perspective (Wulf recommends Views of Nature as a good place to start reading Humboldt). Beginning to understand how this global force worked led to an understanding of how plantations and monoculture disrupted it, and he was in favour, along with American president Thomas Jefferson, of subsistence farming, as a way of maintaining diversity. We know that didn’t happen. And we know that Humboldt was right.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

One More Time With Feeling

It opened with a talking head in a taxi, a 3D black-and-white talking head, Warren Ellis with his 3D beard sticking out at you, saying how awkward he felt talking about it as he never usually does in interviews, never usually does at all, and before he could get to his subject the right-hand 3D frame went out of focus and the film crew in the taxi stopped filming but the audio continued over a black screen as the scene disintegrated into technical talk and exasperation. Then another messy, behind-the-scenes scene with Cave in a dressing room, preening in front of a mirror, so the 3D was mostly depth rather than protrusion. The camera captured his entrance, and lingered as he combed his hair with deft flicks. The director asked if they could do another take. Why, what was wrong with that one? There was a degree of protest, as there would be, or it would not be Nick Cave being filmed, his vanity and privacy in conflict. Nothing was wrong, everything you did was great, we’d just really appreciate another go at it.

This is a film which does a lot of lingering, and has a lot of interviews full of uncertainty and pregnant pauses. It verges on shapeless and it holds off almost its entire length from addressing its own subject (its only subject, as director Andrew Dominik says in this interview). This works because we all know, as it was in the news, and no-one watching it will not know. I suppose if you didn’t know, you’d wonder what everyone was tip-toeing around, and it would hook you that way. Nick talks in voice-over about going, for example, into a baker’s to buy, say, a loaf of bread, and one of the other customers in the queue says something to him that he doesn’t catch, so he says ‘What?’ too loudly and angrily, and the other customer says ‘We’re all with you, man,’ and he looks around and the whole queue is looking at him in sympathy and he thinks what nice people, ‘but when did I become an object of pity?’ Told not in recollection, but as a speculative scene that no doubt echoed many real ones. Narrative tricks to keep us on our toes. Listening to Skeleton Tree the following day I noticed two references to hanging around in supermarkets and wondered if the bakery had been an invention, an upgrade. I wondered if the place used in the film as the Cave house is the Cave house in real life, but I think it must be: Dominik talks about filming there, and the shutters are the same as the ones on the cover of Push The Sky Away. It’s a beautiful town house, spacious, white.

Why the speculative mode, the ‘for example’, the ‘say’? Why not tell us about an actual visit to a bakery or supermarket? Isn’t this a documentary? It is and it isn’t. Imagination and storytelling must come into play. Those are the things Nick Cave does, the things that broaden lived experience into work that can have relevance for his audience. He surprised me by saying that this actually matters to him: of course it must, but to acknowledge it is a change from the Cave of the ’80s and ’90s, who would never have been so humble. He talked, too, about the shift away from narrative in his writing. He said he doesn’t believe in stories so much now, he’d rather layer things than have the beginning, middle and end of a single thread. Ah, so that’s why the film is so loose. He said that trauma leaves no space for imagination and creativity, still not saying what the trauma was. His wife Susie found the opposite, that throwing herself into her creative work (dress design) helped, gave her something other than trauma to focus on. Nick said he had to forget his previous perfectionism and let lines in that he would normally have discarded, so the looseness is presumably there in the record too. On first listen, the thing that struck me is how much of it consists of Warren’s soundscapes, with only a few songs, nearer the end, having full band arrangements, as though it starts at the bottom of a murky pool and by its end arrives at the surface, just as the film begins with mess and out-takes and gradually accumulates structure, eventually arriving where a more conventional documentary would have started, at a deserted cliff edge.

It’s funny, too. Near the beginning, Nick’s scathing reference to ‘the 3D black-and-white camera’ which is dogging his steps, or objecting later on that Susie is being filmed emerging from the toilet (‘could you at least get the bowl out of shot?’); Warren’s reassurances to Nick that ‘Your hair looks great!’ or ‘Your hair is even better than it was before!’ This is a film about people getting on with things under the saddest of circumstances, and it goes to some lengths to focus on the getting on rather than the sad circumstances. The scene in which Susie shows and talks about a drawing Arthur did of the cliff where he died, years earlier (aged around 5), is not typical, and is more moving because of it. Nick sits at her side, silent for most of this scene. The most profound reflection, I think, was Nick’s description of the trauma as a fenced-off area to which they, his family, are bound by elastic, and they can carry on with life, but they will always be snapped back (here he snapped his fists together). The one doesn’t invalidate the other, but it colours it, changes it forever. There are some things from which one doesn’t, and doesn’t want to, recover.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Laurent Binet – ‘HHhH’

Let’s look at that last quotation from Look Who’s Back again. Hitler confronts nationalist party leader Holger Apfel: ‘A true German does not wriggle around in legal formulations; he talks straight! The racial idea is the fundament for the preservation of the German Volk.’ ‘He talks straight’ is a common defence of right-wing leaders against reasoned argument (see also: ‘people in this country have had enough of experts’), and yet the irony is that Hitler did not talk straight: he didn’t say he was planning to exterminate all the Jews in Europe, because he knew that world opinion would be against him. HHhH looks at the way this plan came into being, not ideologically, but practically. There is a mass grave at Babi Yar near Kiev, containing over 100,000 bodies. Chapter 111 describes how the victims, all Jews, were herded towards it, and directed by a ‘crammer’ to lie ‘facedown, naked and alive, on top of naked corpses’, before another guard ‘put a bullet in the back of the neck’. It was eventually realised that this was ‘too distressing for the soldiers who must carry it out’, and Reinhard Heydrich, head of the SD (‘SD: Sicherheitsdienst, the security service’), is put in charge of refining the process, which he does first with mobile gas chambers, mentioning ‘better solutions, more advanced and productive’ to the field officers of the SS in chapter 194. Chapter 252, just a short paragraph, tells us that ‘The most appropriate tribute paid by the Nazis to Heydrich’s memory’ was the naming of Aktion Reinhard, ‘the programme to exterminate all Poland’s Jews’, for which the first concentration camps (at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka) were set up. With such subject matter, it seems a little weak to ask the question: what makes this book a novel?
Everyone finds it normal, fudging reality to make a screenplay more dramatic, or adding coherence to the narrative of a character whose real path probably included too many random ups and downs, insufficiently loaded with significance. It’s because of people like that, forever messing with historical truth just to sell their stories, that an old friend, familiar with all these fictional genres and therefore fatally accustomed to these processes of glib falsification, can say to me in innocent surprise: ‘Oh, really, it’s not invented?’
        No, it’s not invented! What would be the point of ‘inventing’ Nazism?
Fair point, but if you want to write about Nazism without inventing anything, why not write a history book? There are several answers to this, I think. One is defamiliarisation: you don’t expect everything in a novel to be literally true, so you spend more time questioning what you’re reading, which makes you more involved. As do the author’s chatty, playful interjections, which point out the limitations of recorded facts when telling a story, and bridge that gap with an account of his own changing relationship with them. He’s obsessed, he gathers far too much material, he minds too much that he can’t establish whether Heydrich’s car was black or green, he lies to us about whether or not he spent a stupid amount of money on a copy of Lina Heydrich’s memoir Leben mit einem Kriegsverbrecher, his girlfriend Natacha features as a long-suffering, sometimes critical presence (‘What do you mean, “The blood rises to his cheeks and he feels his brain swell inside his skull”? You’re making it up!’), and their relationship doesn’t survive the writing of the book. Most movingly, he can’t bring himself to rush the climactic scene, when the heroes are holed up in a church, besieged by the SS. He gives each new paragraph a date in the present (i.e. 2008, when the book was written), indicating that he is drawing out the writing to delay the inevitable end, because he can’t bear it. He admits that he can’t begin to imagine their situation, but the point is broader: no-one today could possibly do so, and this is another reason for not attempting fictionalisation.

The heroes? Oh yes. I haven’t mentioned that the main plot here is variously the ‘assassination’ or ‘assassination attempt’ (Binet tries to maintain a little suspense by alternating the terms) of / upon Heydrich in Prague on 27th May 1942, arranged by Czechoslovakia president-in-exile Edvard Beneš, and carried out by Jozef Gabčík (Slovak) and Jan Kubiš (Czech). They are parachuted in to the country near Prague in chapter 147, which is, in its entirety: ‘So, to cut a long story short, they jumped.’ They are hidden away by the resistance movement, find girlfriends in the daughters of one landlady, and basically sit around for a few months while Binet fills us in on the back story, making us hate Heydrich as much as possible. He has more than enough material for this, and laments that he has so little on the parachutists themselves (‘I’d like to spend my days with the parachutists in the crypt’). They do come into focus during the later scenes, of the assassination attempt and the siege. The attempt is bungled, in that Gabčík’s Sten sub-machine gun jams when he is standing in front of Heydrich’s car. He doesn’t think to fire his pistol, instead running off as Heydrich shoots at him. Meanwhile Kubiš has time to come up behind the car and throw his bomb. Heydrich is injured, and survives, but there are complications arising from the surgery (his spleen was removed), and he dies, on 4th June, with septicaemia the suspected cause.

This is where Hitler’s cunning plan not to announce the Final Solution to the world falls apart somewhat. The reprisals he unleashes after Heydrich’s death are, again, unimaginably awful, but they are seen by the wider world to reveal the true nature of his regime and, in Binet’s account, had the effect of hardening the resolve of the USSR and the USA to defeat him. This is the victory of Gabčík and Kubiš, who saw only the immediate repercussions of the assassination, and didn’t live long enough to see the tide turn. Following a false clue relating to some other parachutists, before discovering the real assassins in the church, the Schupo (police) rather than the SS massacre the inhabitants of the village of Lidice, and destroy all of its physical structures: the ‘cemetery is desecrated, the orchards destroyed, all the buildings burned, and salt thrown over the earth to make sure that nothing can ever grow here.’ It’s too much, too blatant, even though the number of dead (hundreds rather than thousands) pales in comparison with Babi Yar. A reminder that stories usually matter more than bald facts.
In Washington, D.C., the naval secretary declares: ‘If future generations ask us what we were fighting for, we shall tell them the story of Lidice.’ The name of the martyred village is scrawled on the bombs dropped by the Allies on German cities, while in the East, Soviet soldiers do the same on the gun turrets of their T34s. By reacting like the crude psychopath that he is (rather than the head of state that he also is), Hitler will suffer his most devastating defeat in a domain he once mastered: by the end of the month the international propaganda war will be irredeemably lost.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Timur Vermes – ‘Look Who’s Back’

Conditions here were similar to those in the Weimar era, after my release from prison. Here, too, I needed to begin from the very bottom, with the difference that the influence and mores of the effete bourgeoisie had eaten more deeply into the proletariat – in order to establish a certain level of trust Uncle Wolf had to attire himself in the sheep’s clothing of the bourgeoisie even more so than in the past. And in the mornings, as I partook of my müsli and orange juice with linseeds, I could palpably sense an acknowledgement of my past achievements in the looks people afforded me. I was just debating whether to get up and fetch another apple when I heard the Valkyries galloping on their steeds. With a confident movement I had seen performed by a number of young businessmen, I brought out the telephone and raised it to my ear.
        ‘Hitler!’ I said in a commendably discreet voice.
Hitler’s ringtone made me laugh several times, and it may be the best joke here, in this light comedy about the man who brought about the Second World War and the Holocaust. In case you don’t know, the idea is that Hitler finds himself alive, lying in the street, aged 56, in modern-day Berlin. He didn’t shoot himself in April 1945; instead, he time-travelled to 2011. Because it’s impossible that he can actually be Hitler, people assume that he is an actor with an uncanny resemblance (possibly assisted by plastic surgery) who never comes out of character. He attracts the attention of production company Flashlight, who give him a slot on a TV show hosted by Ali Gagmez, apparently based on Ali G, although it doesn’t quite sound like it from his material: ‘Gagmez introduced a few film snippets in which he appeared as a Pole or a Turk and translated their various shortcomings into stage routines’. Ali G was never so straightforward, surely? In any case, Hitler calls Gagmez’s bluff in the speech which follows:
My fellow Germans!
What I,
what we
have just seen
in numerous routines,
is perfectly true.
It is true
that the Turk has no creative genius
and nor
will he ever have.
Gagmez is furious that Hitler agrees with his portrayal of Turks, and takes showrunner Madame Bellini to task: ‘You said he’d disagree with me. He’d get all uptight about Turks on the telly and that sort of shit!’ It’s an interesting moment. For Gagmez, it’s OK to portray Turks as inferior, or to dress up as Hitler and demand that they be taken off the air, but for Hitler to interpret what he’s doing as critical (which it is) and agree with it is not OK at all. He’s one of the few people to get caught out like this: more often the joke is that people get to the brink of agreeing with Hitler, have a think, and back away from it.

Look Who’s Back is much more about the present than the past: it’s a satire on the way we live now, from the ubiquity and amplification of everything that was already famous before the internet (hence Hitler is the ultimate, ahem, Trump card – and I’m reminded that Trump was Patrick Bateman’s hero, way back when), to the dangerous slippages in meaning which can occur when everything is mediated through algorithms based on popularity. Content may be king online, but what about the content of that content? Hitler embarrasses Gagmez and shows him up as a bigot, which translates to huge numbers of hits on YouTube. The more hits it gets, the more the public is invested in it being satire, because otherwise they would be supporting Hitler’s far-right views for real. Is watching a video the same as endorsing it? Not for an individual. But for 10,000 people? 100,000? 1,000,000?* That has to mean something, and nobody has to say what it is. More slippage.

Of course, there was slippage in the Nazi era too, which is reflected in another running joke here: ‘We’re all agreed that the Jews are no laughing matter,’ says Madame Bellini, warning Hitler not to take things too far. His response: ‘“You’re absolutely right,” I concurred, almost relieved. At last here was someone who knew what she was talking about.’ She believes he agrees with her, and vice versa – but he knows not to be too specific about his views in this area, just as during the Second World War the extermination programme was not made public, though its rationale was. Hitler’s most significant encounter in the book is with Holger Apfel, then the leader of the far-right National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD). I don’t know if the libel laws are different in Germany, or whether the calculation was that any publicity attendant on pursuing them would be counter-productive in this case (‘NPD SUES HITLER’ headlines and so forth), but he doesn’t come off well, babbling about disputing the legitimacy of treaties in response to a question about Lebensraum, and here, on race:
        ‘Where,’ I said icily, ‘in your “brochures” is there any mention of the racial idea? The idea of German blood and racial purity?’ […]
        ‘O.K. then. Having a German passport doesn’t make you a German; you’re German by birth, that’s what it says in our—’
        ‘A true German does not wriggle around in legal formulations; he talks straight! The racial idea is the fundament for the preservation of the German Volk. If this is not impressed on the Volk time and again, in fifty years we will no longer have an army, but a bunch of layabouts like the Habsburg Empire.’
The rules are different now. Leaders of extreme parties can’t claim racial purity as a goal, precisely because of the Holocaust. They have to frame their argument in economic terms. But then, that’s what everyone else does too.

____________________

* The trailer for the film has 1,422,074 hits at the moment.

Sunday, August 07, 2016

Han Kang – ‘The Vegetarian’

The ebook edition of The Vegetarian has two covers: one which appears at first glance to be a tranquil image of flowers, but which contains hidden-in-plain-sight elements relating to the book’s concerns (a tongue, a steak, fingers, a fly, and – I think – a feeding tube). This cover is only visible within the book; the one you see online (and on the paperback) has a cleanly severed bird’s wing overlaid on a purple-veined salad leaf, which conveys something of the pain that Yeong-hye, the protagonist, relates to meat, including the damage done to her own veins over many months of intravenous feeding in hospital, and her identification with vegetation (‘I wanted flowers to bloom from my crotch so I spread my legs; I spread them wide’). This is a book about pain, mental illness, anorexia; about constraints, within society, within relationships, within families; and it is a book about abuse of women by men. It is not really about the abuse of animals by meat-eaters, in much the same way that ‘The Metamorphosis’ is not a story about how badly people treat insects. Split into three sections, told from three perspectives (husband, brother-in-law, sister), we rarely hear from Yeong-hye herself, which makes sense as the story follows her descent into unknowability. Nevertheless, the pacing, which is the really stunning thing about this novel, follows a trajectory that mirrors her mental state, from withdrawal, through abandon, to collapse.

The section narrated by Mr Cheong, Yeong-hye’s husband, is almost a comedy of manners, in which rigid South Korean social rules are challenged by her refusal to eat meat, and the withdrawal from wifely duties which follows. They attend a dinner with Mr Cheong’s colleagues and boss, in which her social ineptitude (not wearing a bra, refusing to eat and barely speaking) is a serious embarrassment to him. He tries taking what he wants, raping her in a shockingly casual way, then eventually leaves when it becomes clear that she is not going to return to the role society expects and that he demands. This section is a very spare, pure narrative, following through the single idea that she has renounced meat, seeing where it leads. It’s like Herman Melville’s ‘Bartleby the Scrivener’, which takes the phrase ‘I would prefer not to’, and sees what happens.

The second section, ‘Mongolian Mark’, also unwinds from a single idea (that Yeong-hye’s brother-in-law finds that she has a blue Mongolian mark on her behind, and becomes obsessed with it), but it feels far less constricted by social rules – deliberately transgresses them, in fact. It’s interesting because you can interpret it differently depending on the third section, in which Yeong-hye sinks into mental illness. The brother-in-law, a video artist (who I don’t think is named) dreams of painting her body with flowers, centring on the Mongolian mark. The idea consumes him and he produces sketch after sketch of this, before finally approaching her to do it for real. She agrees, and he does make a beautiful video, before carrying the idea too far and trying to get her to have sex on camera with one of the other artists he shares a space with, who is similarly painted. It is the man who refuses, and the brother-in-law then (after a quick paint job) steps in… It’s all much stranger than the rape in section one, which is perfunctory and small-minded. The flower sex is deeply erotic and blurs all sorts of boundaries, but it is set up to be suspect: the brother-in-law is not only committing adultery with his wife’s sister, he is also neglecting his son, who he was supposed to be looking after on the night it happens. Yeong-hye is more herself during this section of the novel than before or afterwards, but she’s still a relatively blank presence, who is being taken advantage of by a family member. Which is what it all comes back to:
Yeong-hye had been the only victim of their father’s beatings. Such violence wouldn’t have bothered their brother Yeong-ho so much, a boy who went around doling out his own rough justice to the village children. As the eldest daughter, In-hye had been the one who took over from their exhausted mother and made a broth for her father to wash the liquor down, and so he’d always taken a certain care in his dealings with her. Only Yeong-hye, docile and naive, had been unable to deflect their father’s temper or put up any form of resistance.
If you want an explanation, that’s it. But the book doesn’t dwell on it, the point is more in the possibilities and restrictions of each situation: the conventional married couple’s home, the artist’s space, the psychiatric hospital. Behind the first two, male ego. Beyond all three, the mind, which, pushed sufficiently far, can let go its ballast and lift itself out of reach. Of course, losing your mind is not freedom (though losing your life certainly means an end to constraint), but In-hye, left behind in sanity, ends the book jealous of her poor sister:
She’d been unable to forgive her for soaring alone over a boundary she herself could never bring herself to cross, unable to forgive that magnificent irresponsibility that had enabled Yeong-hye to shuck off social constraints and leave her behind, still a prisoner. And before Yeong-hye had broken those bars, she’d never even known they were there.

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