Wednesday, June 30, 2010

History for Dummies

There was a moment in the 1967 film of Marlowe's Doctor Faustus when Richard Burton, as Faustus, looks at Elizabeth Taylor gadded up as Helen of Troy and asks, "Is this the face that launched a thousand ships?" Whereat Vernon Young shouted from the audience, "Not bloody likely!"

Cable TV's The History Channel has had its share of criticism since its creation in 1995. For awhile it became known as The Hitler Channel because of its seeming preoccupation with World War II. Whenever newsreel footage is available, Woodrow Wilson's famous remark at seeing the film The Birth of a Nation, "history written by lightning" remains applicable.

But when the period being treated predates the invention of the motion picture, the channel's producers resort to what is variously called "re-enactments" or "dramatic reconstructions" of whatever historical moment is being examined, usually by some credentialed historian. These visual aids consist of nothing more than a handful of actors outfitted in period costume performing silent vignettes for the camera. These re-enactments are considered necessary because such television programs, that are supposed to be informative or (Lord help us) educational, must now also strive to be entertaining. The old "talking heads" style of presenting information directly by a speaker who is always focused on someone or something just to one side of the camera, is no longer considered enough to hold a viewer's attention.

So we are confronted, while listening to a historian telling us about the life of Cleopatra, with a vaguely Hispanic-looking woman with a large nose and garish eye makeup, who is supposed to be the Queen of the Nile but who looks more like a cross-dresser at Mardi Gras. Worse, when a famous battle is depicted, the dozen or so "re-enactors" employed to represent the action give no sense whatever of the scale of the event.* CGI is sometimes used to make up for the lack of larger numbers of actors, But the trouble with these dramatic reconstructions is that they are mostly distractions from the factual historical and/or archaeological material being presented. If the producers of these re-enactments did not intend their work to be criticized the same way that films are judged, they certainly intended the short scenes that they shoot to be accepted on face value - as little more than illustrations.

Lately I notice they are resorting to colorizing original black-and-white newsreel footage, ostensibly to attract a younger audience that refuses to accept the reality of anything not in living color. But the vulgarity of adding realistic-looking colors, frame by frame, to perfectly acceptable (and authentic) black-and-white film is just one more insult to history. The only thing that these programs can count on is the legions of uninformed viewers too young to know any better.

I no longer remember the provenance of the anecdote, but some years ago a student approached a college professor after a screening of Carl Dreyer's silent classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc and exclaimed at how lucky we are that there were cameras around "in those days."

* When Busby Berkeley was coaxed out of retirement in the late 1960s to direct a Campbell's Soup commercial, he asked for a hundred dancers. When he was told that the 30-second commercial did not have the budget for that many dancers, he said he could make fifty look like a hundred.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Problems With Music 1

A piece of music inspires expectations in listeners with its very first notes. And bad music does nothing but gratify every one of those expectations. Listeners can predict from the first few notes what the notes that follow will be, and so on until the piece is over. There is some comfort in that predictability, and it accounts for much of what passes for popular music.

Good music, on the other hand, frustrates the listeners' expectations. But it makes them think about what they were expecting and why they expected it. It surprises listeners with each succeeding note and takes them in directions they have never expected to go. Most listeners find this lack of predictability in good music disturbing, which accounts for its unpopularity.

But even acquired tastes in music can be rigidly conservative. When I was in college, and routinely burning the midnight oil, I would listen to a Denver classical radio station, KVOD FM, which had a late night request line. I would look into my dog-eared Schwann catalog and request music that the station rarely, if ever, played, by the likes of Bartok, Mompou, or Panufnik. I was fed up with the same old Mozart, Brahms, and Tchaikovsky that they played every day.

Most of the time, the station would play my requests, no matter how arcane some of them were. But sometimes they would not. On one particular night, I was awake until dawn and never heard the piece I requested. So I phoned the radio station to find out why. The person I spoke to put me on hold, which is always a bad sign, and someone else got on the line. She explained to me apologetically that if my request had been played, other listeners would call to complain. I was stunned.

It showed me that even someone sophisticated enough to appreciate a Brahms symphony would refuse to listen to a Bartók concerto or a Webern sonata - because it didn't sound familiar, it didn't sound like it belonged to the same tradition (even though it did), or to any tradition he could identify, it wasn't culturally pre-digested, it wasn't safe. If I had called and complained whenever the station played Tchaikovsky (not because he was modern but because he was a rotten composer), they would likely have considered me crazy.

Saturday, June 26, 2010


If a singer performs a cover of a classic song, doesn't he have have an obligation to perform it the way the composer intended? When Aaron Neville performed the Randy Newman song, "Louisiana 1927," he altered the line, "isn't it a shame what the river has done to this poor crackers' land?" The word "cracker"was replaced by Neville, who was loath to offend white people (whereas Newman was not), with the word "farmer." He deprived the song of some of its idiomatic power, but such an alteration is minor, and has little or no effect on the sense of the song.

When Philippine pop singer Regine Velasquez recorded a cover of the Gordon Lightfoot song "Pussywillows, Cattails", the title was changed to "Weeping Willows Cattails" without explanation. But the explanation is obvious. Ms Velasquez, known as "Asia's Songbird," whether the rest of Asia knows it or not, did not want to use the word "pussy," lest her fans, who evidently know enough naughty English, think she was referring to a vagina, and not to the furry catkins of a budding willow tree - which probably none of them have seen. They have likely never seen a weeping willow either, so the alteration is additionally nonsensical.

Lightfoot's beautiful song is all about the telltale signs - in a northern climate - of the "warm breath of Spring," a season that doesn't exist in the Philippines. He was also playing with the cat metaphor in both words. What amazed me was that Velasquez liked the song enough that she was willing to record it in such a stupidly bowdlerized version, just to prevent some ignoramuses from sniggering at the perfectly harmless word pussywillow.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The Road to Recovery

I watch the news every day on CNN or the BBC. Since I have to follow the currency exchange rates, I also get some idea of the state of the world economy. I listen to the stock market pundits and prognosticators examining the daily data who assure me that the world is recovering from the financial crisis.

Two metaphors spring to mind when I listen to them. The first is that they remind me of big game hunters who want me to believe that they are also conservationists. They want the animals that they hunt to remain plentiful and not endangered so they can go on slaughtering them for sport.

Evidently there are many people who are actually waiting for the world economy to return to "normal," oblivious of the lesson that the crash should have taught them: that returning to normal will lead inevitably to another disaster. Former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan refused to call for regulation of banks and trusted that the "invisible hand" in the market would fix whatever imbalances might arise. His total failure to see the coming disaster not only revealed Greenspan's inadequacies as Fed Chairman but the unreliability of our economic model.

Contemporary society seems more and more to be populated by the rich and the erstwhile rich. I am astonished that so many apparently intelligent people continue to participate in the enormous swindle called capitalism. They are the same people who flock to Las Vegas and walk around inside the gigantic casinos wondering who pays for it all.

But there is one other metaphor that this "road to recovery" reminds me of. When my mother was working as a nurse's aide forty years ago, she became acquainted with a patient, a man who had been admitted for an operation to repair what is jocularly known as "pink sock," or rectal prolapse, to re-attach his rectum inside his anus. The condition occurs usually through exceptionally rough anal sex.

My mother described with amusement how, during his stay in the hospital, the patient's sole visitor was his doting boyfriend, bringing flowers and anxiously awaiting his lover's recovery.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Third Sunday in June

In the opening scene of Robert Graves's great historical novel The Golden Fleece (published as Hercules, My Shipmate in the U.S.), one of the surviving Argonauts has come ashore on an island ruled by women. He is interrogated by a priestess who is disgusted by his stories of men taking the upper hand in his world, even of being on top during sex. When she has heard enough, the priestess decides that the man should be killed lest his dangerous ideas should be spread among her own menfolk. He is carried away and, in characteristic Gravesian fashion, "torn to pieces," like Orpheus, by maenads or nereids of nymphs, or whatever the young women called themselves.

Historically, the role that men play in the conception and nurturing of children has been a nebulous one. It was not until fairly recently (a few thousand years ago, that is) that a man's role in procreation was discovered. Prior to that moment, which was an enormous turning point in human history, women held the mystery of life exclusively among themselves. This would explain the preponderance of female figurines that have been found in excavations of early totemistic village sites, that indicate a central, all-powerful earth goddess dominating the spiritual lives of prehistoric cultures.

In a supplement to his monumental 12-volume study of world mythology, The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion, James Frazer warned against interpreting the dominance of goddesses in the oldest myths as an indication of the dominance of women in prehistoric societies, or what he called "gynocracies". But it is a fact that the further back in time you go in mythology, the less important gods become, until, in the oldest mythologies, there are no gods at all and only an all-powerful earth mother left.

Even if there were no proof to the contention that women enjoyed a more prominent role in ancient societies, there is plenty of proof in human psychology of such a prominence. The first word uttered by every human being is almost invariably the word for mother, from whom all warmth, affection and nourishment comes.

Robert Graves carried the transition from the matriarchal to the patriarchal a little too far, in his learned but nearly incomprehensible book, The White Goddess. I agree with Randall Jarrell that if it helped Graves to write the poem, "To Juan at the Winter Solstice," then it was worth writing. But Graves has contributed to our understanding of the historical/psychological conflict between the male and female principles, and how considerably the female has been disenfranchised in the last three thousand years.

Father's Day was an afterthought, a holiday, like Kwanzaa, created for people who felt left out, an obligatory nod to the Y chromosome. It is also a late development of the developed world, where fathers are more important in our age of two-income households.* In the U.S., the idea for the holiday was first introduced in 1908, but was met with derision in some quarters. Mother's Day had been an official tradition from 1912, but Father's Day was not passed into law until 1972. It has since become, like all holidays, a commercial occasion for buying greeting cards and gifts.

In poor countries, fathers are exceptional when they participate in the life of the families that they played a part in creating. But where matrimony is usually a personal arrangement, fatherhood is only acknowledged in exceptional cases, and then only as a means of support. In a majority of cases, the family unit consists of mothers and their children. Influenced by American traditions, Father's Day is observed here in the Philippines, but without enthusiasm. Reverence for a person who is too often not around is an awkward practice, at best.

* According to, while Mother's Day is the busiest day for phone calls in the U.S., Father's Day is the busiest for collect calls.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Talking to the Dead

If you have ever seen the dead body of someone familiar to you - a friend or a family member - you must have noticed how little the earthly remains resembled the person you knew. What had become of all the things that made that person a living individual - his voice, his laugh, his smile? Were they merely the product of his being alive, of his heart beating, his breathing, his consciousness? And where did all those things go when he died? Did they simply stop when his heart stopped?

There is an American television personality named John Edward (born John Edward McGee, Jr.) who has become very successful as a "psychic medium," specializing in communicating with the dead. He has a popular cable TV program currently airing on WE, Women's Entertainment, TV, in which he talks to audience members and, he claims, their dead loved ones. He has been criticized widely for preying on people's grief and interfering with their need for "closure". He has published several best-selling books and appears regularly on talk shows, always ready to demonstrate his special skill. While most of his appearances are presented in an affirmative light, some people have spoken of remaining "open" to such completely unprovable ideas as talking to the dead.

Talking to the dead is based on some dubious assumptions. The first of those assumptions is that there is a next world. The second assumption is personal immortality, as when Bob dies he remains conscious and wakes up, still Bob, in the next world. The third assumption is that Bob can communicate through a medium or some other living intermediary who is in sole possession of the faculty, although he may claim that everyone possesses it but, of course, doesn't know how to use it.

I reject the first assumption on several grounds, not the least of which is my personal revulsion at any and all hereafters. Having been faced long ago with the choice between God and Man, I chose Man, as have every other left-leaning person in the world. The second assumption is blazingly silly. The third assumption is only supportable if one accepts the first two.

But even if it were possible to talk to the dead, wouldn't it lead to revelations more significant than Bob loves you and likes the Lakers to go all the way? If the dead had some pressing reason to go to all the apparent trouble of communicating with the living, wouldn't it be because there was a story that needed to be told, some wrong righted, some mystery solved? Wouldn't someone like John Edward be able to end once and for all some of the great controversies of history?

I don't suppose there is any harm in what John Edward is doing. He is a confidence man, but he wouldn't be making so much money if people didn't give it to him. They must be getting something in return. And is Edward any different from a tele-evangelist? Talking to God is not much different from talking to the dead.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

As He Pleased

The latest offensive in Afghanistan has produced civilian casualties due to misdirected missiles or, that old bugbear, "faulty intelligence". While some observers are insisting that such things are an unavoidable consequence of counter-insurgent warfare, others, including military leaders, are trying to assure us that there is such a thing as a "controlled" war.

Some time before World War II (it is arguable precisely when), the concept of "total war" was born when military strategists decided to cross the line that distinguished combatants from civilians. By the time WWII was nearly over, the number of civilians killed far exceeded the number of military casualties. But the issue of the morality of the direct targeting of civilians was hotly contested.

Vera Brittain (1893-1970), whose personal loss of her brother, fiancé, and two close friends in World War I made her an outspoken pacifist, published a pamphlet during World War II which George Orwell examined in the following article, published in his As I Please column in Tribune for 19 May 1944.

As I Please

Miss Vera Brittain's pamphlet, Seed of Chaos, is an eloquent attack on indiscriminate or "obliteration" bombing. "Owing to the R.A.F. raids," she says, "thousands of helpless and innocent people in German, Italian and German occupied cities are being subjected to agonising forms of death and injury comparable to the worst tortures of the Middle Ages." Various well-known opponents of bombing such as General Franco and Major-General Fuller, are brought out in support of this. Miss Brittain is not, however, taking the pacifist standpoint. She is willing and anxious to win the war, apparently. She merely wishes us to stick to "legitimate" methods of war and abandon civilian bombing, which she fears will blacken our reputation in the eyes of posterity. Her pamphlet is issued by the Bombing Restriction Committee, which has issued others with similar titles.

Now, no one in his right senses regards bombing, or any other operation of war, with anything but disgust. On the other hand, no decent person cares tuppence for the opinion of posterity. And there is something very distasteful in accepting war as an instrument and at the same time wanting to dodge responsibility for its more obviously barbarous features. Pacifism is a tenable position, provided that you are willing to take the consequences. But all talk of "limiting" or "humanising" war is sheer humbug, based on the fact that the average human being never bothers to examine catchwords.

The catchwords used in this connection are "killing civilians," "massacre of women and children" and "destruction of our cultural heritage." It is tacitly assumed that air bombing does more of this kind of thing than ground warfare.

When you look a bit closer, the first question that strikes you is: Why is it worse to kill civilians than soldiers? Obviously one must not kill children if it is in no way avoidable, but it is only in propaganda pamphlets that every bomb drops on a school or an orphanage. A bomb kills a cross-section of the population; but not quite a representative selection, because the children and expectant mothers are usually the first to be evacuated, and some of the young men will be away to the army. Probably a disproportionately large number of bomb victims will be middle aged. (Up to date, German bombs have killed between six and seven thousand children in this country. This is, I believe, less than the number killed in road accidents in the same period.) On the other hand, "normal" or "legitimate" warfare picks out and slaughters all the healthiest and bravest of the young male population. Every time a German submarine goes to the bottom about fifty young men of fine physique and good nerve are suffocated. Yet people who would hold up their hands at the very words "Civilian bombing" will repeat with satisfaction such phrases as "We are winning the Battle of the Atlantic." Heaven knows how many people our blitz on Germany and the occupied countries has killed and will kill, but you can be quite certain it will never come anywhere near the slaughter that has happened on the Russian front.

War is not avoidable at this stage of history, and since it has to happen it does not seem to me a bad thing that others should be killed besides young men. I wrote in 1937: "Sometimes it is a comfort to me to think that the aeroplane is altering the conditions of war. Perhaps when the next great war comes we may see that sight unprecedented in all history, a jingo with a bullet hole in him." We haven't yet seen that (it is perhaps a contradiction in terms), but at any rate the suffering of this war has been shared out more evenly than that of the last one was. The immunity of the civilian, one of the things that have made war possible, has been shattered. Unlike Miss Brittain, I don't regret that. I can't feel that war is "humanised" by being confined to the slaughter of the young and becomes "barbarous" when the old get killed as well.

As to international agreements to "limit" war, they are never kept when it pays to break them. Long before the last war the nations had agreed not to use gas,* but they used it all the same. This time they have refrained, merely because gas is comparatively ineffective in a war of movements, while its use against civilian populations would be sure to provoke reprisals in kind. Against an enemy who can't hit back, e.g., the Abyssinians, it is used readily enough. War is of its nature barbarous, it is best to admit that. If we see ourselves as the savages we are,m some improvement is possible, or at least thinkable.

*Editorial note: I recently watched a fascinating program on the History Channel about the chemist Fritz Haber, who invented synthetic ammonia, which made mass production of explosives possible just prior to World War I, in which it was used to devastating effect. He was then instrumental in the creation of various poison gasses that were used against British, French and eventually American soldiers in the trenches. Haber's wife, also a chemist, felt so much guilt over her own and her husband's part in the mass destruction that she committed suicide in 1915. Haber, a converted Jew, had to flee Germany when the Nazis came to power. He died in Switzerland in 1934. He did not live to see the ultimate irony of his invention of the cyanide formula "Zyklon B" being used to gas Jews, some of whom were his relations.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Swimmer part five

Ever since he failed to find the reef he thought he saw and the boat he was sure he had glimpsed, the lost swimmer has become conscious of the gulf he hangs over. At least the empty but navigable plain which surrounds him horizontally spreads itself beneath the sun's broad eye. Finding his way home again, back to life, will be a matter of simple luck or simple physics. A puff of wind here, an eddy there, and he will be reunited with his boat. If for a moment he were able to raise himself only fifty feet above the water, he would spot it at once and the entire traumatic incident would be at an end.

Beneath him, though, lies a dimension which absolutely refuses to reduce itself to a matter of simple physics. The seabed is roughly 1,000 meters away - perhaps 1,500 if he is farther from land than he thought. A mile of water, in short. The swimmer tries to remember what a mile looks like. The entire length of Oxford Street, centre Point to Marble Arch, but stood on end. As he contemplates this, something unseen like a gush of sepia roars soundlessly up at him from below, without warning, blotting out the sunlit layer which swathes him. This chill black torrent is overwhelming in its despair. It is as though a microscopic ghost had arisen from every test and skeleton of the uncounted radiolaria and plankton bedded on the bottom and had suddenly joined in a great upward fume. Far, far below, the basalt itself is calling in a language of eons and its empty message echoes up and spreads around him in a freezing, inky pool. This tectonic voice paralyzes him. It mocks all human hope. It is worse than his first panic, worse even than the threat of death.

James Hamilton-Paterson, Nine-Tenths: The Sea and Its Threshholds