The abuse of language

Further to the Stasi’s use of language, OK, this is shooting fish in a barrel, but among an endless list of crimes for which Tweety McTangerine will burn in hell is his own distinctive desecration of language.

Well he said, you’ll be the greatest president in the history of, but you know what, I’ll take that also, but that you could be. But he said, will be the greatest president but I would also accept the other. In other words, if you do your job, but I accept that. Then I watched him interviewed and it was like he never even was here. It’s incredible. I watched him interviewed a week later and it’s like he was never in my office. And you can even say that.

Roll over Shakespeare.

The “enemy of the American people” has naturally been having a field day in assessing the first 100 days. Spoilt for choice, I will content myself with citing the excellent Hadley Freeman.

Among my various Tweety posts, perhaps this is most apposite.

Update: another classic speech:

I have broken more Elton John records, he seems to have a lot of records. And I, by the way, I don’t have a musical instrument. I don’t have a guitar or an organ. No organ. Elton has an organ. And lots of other people helping. No we’ve broken a lot of records. We’ve broken virtually every record. Because you know, look I only need this space. They need much more room. For basketball, for hockey and all of the sports, they need a lot of room. We don’t need it. We have people in that space. So we break all of these records. Really we do it without like, the musical instruments. This is the only musical: the mouth. And hopefully the brain attached to the mouth. Right? The brain, more important than the mouth, is the brain. The brain is much more important.

A new threat to civilization

After the courgette crisis, a new threat looms, prompting “social media hysteria”: a national hummus shortage. Oh no, whatever are we going to do?!

A survey in 2013 marked Britain as the hummus capital of Europe, with 41% of people having pots in the fridge, almost twice as many as any other country.

Without underestimating the rise of the chattering classes, this looks like a dodgy statistic to me.

Anyway, the Middle East would seem to have more pressing problems right now, even if we don’t.

Lives under the GDR

*See also sequel here*

The experiences of Eastern European countries under “socialism”, not to mention the Soviet Union and China, were all very different.

From a comfortable distance, looking at the GDR can seem voyeuristic, some kind of Stasi porn. But perhaps it’s more like “What would we have done?”—as Neil MacGregor asks in Germany: memories of a nation, full of insights on successive eras.

I guess I’m also trying to atone for my lack of curiosity as a touring muso on early trips to the GDR. In 1980 I played Elektra with Welsh National Opera in East Berlin and Dresden. With John Eliot Gardiner, in 1985 we did Israel in Egypt in Halle, staying in Leipzig—apart from Michael Chance’s divine rendition of Thou shalt bring them in, my main memory is the whole orchestra and choir descending on Peters bookshop like locusts, to spend our over-generous Ostmark subsistence allowance (OK, unlike locusts) by buying up their entire stock of, ur, texts—sorry, I mean urtexts. In 1987 we did a memorable Matthew Passion in East Berlin (note also Hildi’s story).

My readings are also stimulated by my experience of China.

In Leipzig, I already mentioned the fine Forum of Contemporary History, and the Stasi Museum at the Runde Ecke is suitably disturbing. On the exceptional degree of surveillance under the Stasi, I can’t address the literature in German, but two books in English make useful introductions:

  • Anna Funder, Stasiland, a brilliant piece of writing,

and

File

Garton Ash notes how Stasi is chasing Hitler fast as “Germany’s best export product”:

Ironically, this worldwide identification of Germany with another version of evil is a result of democratic Germany’s own exemplary commitment to expose all the facts about its second twentieth-century dictatorship, not brushing anything under the carpet. (229)

In 1979, when many Western observers were downplaying or ignoring the Stasi, I felt impelled to insist: this is still a secret police state. Don’t forget the Stasi! In 2009, I want to say: yes, but East Germany was not only the Stasi. (230)

The opening up the Stasi records had enormous consequences:

You must imagine conversations like this talking place every evening, in kitchens and sitting-rooms all over Germany. Painful encounters, truth-telling, friendship-demolishing, life-haunting. (105)

The file ponders the wider problems of writing about people’s lives, and memory:

I must explore not just a file but a life: the life of the person I was then. This, in case you were wondering, is not the same as “my life”. What we call “my life” is but a constantly rewritten version of our own past. “My life” is the mental autobiography with which and by which we all live. What really happened is quite another matter. (20)

He notes

the sheer difficulty of reconstructing how you really thought and felt. How much easier to do it to other people! (37)

The very act of opening the door itself changes the buried artefacts, like an archaeologist letting in fresh air to a sealed Egyptian tomb. […] There is no way back now to your own earlier memory of that person, that event. (96)

Now the galling thing is to discover how much I have forgotten of my own life.
Even today, when I have this minute documentary record—the file, the diary, the letters—I can still only grope towards an imaginative reconstruction of that past me. For each individual self is built, like Renan’s nations, through this continuous remixing of memory and forgetting. But if I can’t even work out what I myself was like fifteen years ago, what chance have I of writing anyone else’s history? (221)

Indeed, my process of writing about people’s lives in China has made me unpack the blurred lines of my own story.

As Garton Ash comes face to face with the people who had informed on him, he experiences constant moral doubts.

As I leave I can see in her eyes that this will haunt her. Not, I think, because of the mere fact of collaboration—she was, after all, a communist in a communist state—but because working with the secret police, being down in the files as an informer, is low and mean. All this is such a far, far cry from the high ideals of that brave and proud Jewish girl who set out, a whole lifetime ago, to fight for a better world. And, of course, there will still be the lingering fear of exposure, if not through me then perhaps through someone else.

I now almost wish I had never confronted her. By what right, for what good purpose, did I deny an old lady, who had suffered so much, the grace of selective forgetting? (129)

He notes the irony in the careers of West German academics:

Cultured, liberal men in their thirties or forties, they are scrupulous pathologists of history, trained on the corpses of the Gestapo and SS. Theirs, too, is a peculiarly German story: to spend the first half of your life professionally analyzing one German dictatorship, and the second half professionally analyzing the next, while all the time living in a peaceful, prosperous German democracy. (196)

West Germans, who never themselves had to make the agonizing choices of those who live in a dictatorship, now sit in easy judgement, dismissing East Germany as a country of Stasi spies. […]
Certainly this operation has not torn East German society apart in the way some feared it would. In an agony of despair at being exposed as a Stasi collaborator, one Professor Heinz Brandt reportedly smashed to pieces his unique collection of garden gnomes, including, we are told, the only known specimen of a female gnome. Somehow a perfect image for the end of East Germany. (199)

Two schools of old wisdom face each other across the valley of the files. On one side, there is the old wisdom of the Jewish tradition: to remember is the secret of redemption. And that of George Santayana, so often quoted in relation to Nazism: those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it. On the other hand, there is the profound insight of the historian Ernest Renan that every nation is a community both of shared memory and of shared forgetting. (200)

He recognizes the accident of birth:

I was just so lucky. Lucky in the country of my birth. Lucky in my privileged background, my parents, my education. Lucky in true friends like James and Werner. Lucky in my Juliet. Lucky in my choice of profession. Lucky, too, in my cause. For the Central European struggle against communism was a good cause. Born a few years earlier, and I might have been backing the Khmer Rouge against the Americans. Born in a poor family in Bad Kleinen, East Germany, and I might have been Lieutenant Wendt. […]
What you find here is less malice than human weakness, a vast anthology of human weakness. And when you talk to those involved, what you find is less deliberate dishonesty than our almost infinite capacity for self-deception.
If only I had met, on this search, a single clearly evil person. But they were all just weak, shaped by circumstance, self-deceiving; human, all too human. Yet the sum of all their actions was a great evil. It’s true what people often say: we, who have never faced these choices, can never know how we would have acted in their position, or would act in another dictatorship. So who are we to condemn? But equally: who are we to forgive? “Do not forgive,” writes the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert,
Do not forgive, for truly it is not in your power to forgive
In the name of those who were betrayed at dawn.
These Stasi officers and informers had victims. Only their victims have the right to forgive. (223–4)

He notes people’s withdrawal into private lives:

Intelligent, well-educated, well-informed through watching Western television, they nonetheless devoted virtually all their energies to their private lives, and particularly to extending, decorating and maintaining their cottage on a small lake some half-an-hour’s drive from Berlin. […] My friend Andrea too, concentrated on private life, bringing up her small children in the charmed atmosphere of a run-down old villa on the very outskirts of Berlin. There were lazy afternoons in the garden, bicycle-rides, sailing and swimming in the lakes. (66)

The intersection of family and political history is well described in

a microcosm of modern Germany. I’m also most impressed by

—not least by the author’s amazing counter-cultural parents: compared to the lives of my own parents, theirs have been anything but drab. And then there’s

  • Hester Vaizey, Born in the GDR: living in the shadow of the Wall
    .

To return to The file, Garton Ash observes the insidious use of language:

The process for which English has no word but German has two long ones: Geschichtsaufarbeitung and Vergangenheitsbewältigung. “Treating”, “working through”, “coming to terms with”, or even “overcoming” the past. The second round of German past-beating, refined through the experience of the first round, after Hitler. (194)

Another distinctive mouthful with echoes of China is Parteiüberprüfungsgesprach, “a ‘scrutinizing conversation’, a kind of confession for loyal comrades” (Red Love, p.212).

And after my citation of an over-generous definition of the Chinese term dundian, in German not just words but definitions can be expansive too. Abschöpfung is

laboriously defined in the 1985 Stasi dictionary as “systematic conduct of conversations for the targeted exploitation of the knowledge, information and possibilities of other persons for gaining information”. The nearest English equivalent, I suppose, is “pumping”. (108)

Garton Ash goes on to ponder the surveillance system of his own country:

The domestic spies in a free country live in this professional paradox: they infringe our liberties in order to protect them. But we have another paradox: we support the system by questioning it. That’s where I stand. (220)

And

Thirty years ago, when I went to live in East Germany, I was sure that I was travelling from a free country to an unfree one. I wanted my East German friends to enjoy more of what we had. Now they do. In fact, East Germans today have their individual privacy better protected by the state than we do in Britain. Precisely because German lawmakers and judges know what it was like to live in a Stasi state, and before that in a Nazi one, they have guarded these things more jealously than we, the British, who have taken them for granted. You value health most when you have been sick.
I say again: of course Britain is not a Stasi state. We have democratically elected representatives, independent judges and a free press, through whom and with whom these excesses can be rolled back. But if the Stasi now serves as a warning ghost, scaring us into action, it will have done some good after all. (232)

German fictional treatments of the period include

  • Christa Wolf, They divided the sky, and
  • Eugen Ruge, In times of fading light.

And then there are films like Barbara (2012)

and The lives of others, perceptively reviewed by Garton Ash.

Going back a little further, among innumerable portraits of ordinary German lives compromised, warped, under Nazism, I admire

  • Hans Fallada, Alone in Berlin.

***

The nuance and detail of studies like those of Garton Ash contrast with Dikötter’s blunt and pitiless agenda in exposing the undeniable iniquities of the Maoist system.

While China and Germany were utterly different, parallels are explored by

  • Stephan Feuchtwang, After the event: the transmission of grievous loss in Germany, China and Taiwan,

and by Ian Johnson.

But for China, archives, and even memory, remain hard to access. For the Maoist era, the literature on the famine is growing—note especially Wu Wenguang’s memory project. Among fictional treatments, few films are as verismo as The blue kite and To live, or (for the last throes of Maoism) the films of Jia Zhangke. Chinese novels too either tend towards magical realism or over-dramatizing.

Our modern ears

You think I know Fuck Nothing—but I know FUCK ALL!

Almost anyone knows more than I do about punk, Country, film music, and so on. But when I write about them, however naively, my own narrow classical upbringing only serves as a reminder of what a very basic part of the soundscape all such popular genres are for anyone born since around 1900. This is just as true for WAM performers and the Li family Daoists—and even for scholars who interpret them. We really can’t bury our heads (ears) in the sand any longer, or unhear the sounds all around us.

But that’s only one rationale for the growing role of popular music in ethnomusicology since at least the 1960s—from Wilfrid Mellers on the Beatles or the wide-ranging studies of Susan McClary, to all the important work on genres in Asia and Africa, and so on. More fundamentally, I return to “delighting in all manifestations of the Terpischorean muse“: all kinds of musicking in all societies  should be treated on an equal footing—Amy Winehouse, Erbarme dich, and Daoist ritual really do deserve to be part of the same celebration (for a great playlist, see here).

* * *

That’s very different from the old cliché of “music is an international language”. For better and for worse, it really isn’t (see here, and here): in any tiny region of the world there is incomprehension, with music (and culture generally) delineating barriers as much as commonalities—and that’s what I’d like to overcome.

Daoist ritual in Hunan

Along with regions like Fujian, Jiangxi, and south Jiangsu, Hunan is among the hotspots for research on Daoist ritual—which, as elsewhere, is part of a whole range of mutually related ritual and paraliturgical activity, including Buddhist ritual specialists, mediums, and so on.

Any such province represents a vast area, for which it is hard to encapsulate all the individual reports on particular villages or Daoist “altars”. As ever, most such studies, setting forth from sinological historiography, focus on documenting ancient ritual texts and artefacts; less common is detailed ethnography on how ritual life adapts in a constantly changing society—so we learn a lot more about ritual manuals and titles than about migration and motor-bikes. So this vast body of research, that should be of such significance for the anthropology of religion, still seems an autonomous zone fated to remain adrift from wider fields of enquiry,

Much of the scholarship on Hunan has received handsome long-term funding from the Chiang Ching-kuo Foundation in Taiwan, with early results published in Minsu quyi.

Outsiders like me may feel in need of an overview. Alain Arrault has edited a useful volume of articles:

  • Interdisciplinary studies on the central region of Hunan, Cahiers d’Extrême-Asie 19 (2010)

including thoughtful overviews from him and Georges Favraud, including discussions of the thorny issue of “Meishan culture”. Another major topic is statuary, on which there is detailed research by Alain and others (see e.g. here and here).

With Chen Zi’ai 陈子艾, Alain Arrault is co-editor of a substantial related collection derived from a 2006 conference,

  • Xiangzhong zongjiao yu xiangtu shehui 湘中宗教与乡土社会,

still awaiting publication.

Another grand maître of Hunan Daoist studies is Patrice Fava, with his fine film Han Xin’s revenge as well as many books and articles.
Chen Demei

Chen Demei, protagonist of Han Xin’s revenge.

One of the most fruitful sites has been Yangyuan village in Lengshuijiang municipality. Apart from the fine work of Mark Meulenbeld, Lü Yongsheng 呂永昇 and Li Xinwu 李新吾 have published major works:

  • Shidao heyi: Xiangzhong Meishan Yangyuan Zhangtande keyi yu chuancheng 師道合一:湘中梅山楊源張壇的科儀與傳承, Daojiao yishi congshu (Taipei: Xinwenfeng, 2015), and
  • Jiazhu yu dizhu: Xiangzhong xiangcunde daojiao yishi yu keyi <家主>與<地主>——湘中鄉村的道教儀式與科儀 (Hong Kong: Keji daxue Huanan yanjiu zhongxin, 2015).

Further volumes are planned in the Daojiao yishi congshu series on the Daoism of the Yao people in Lanshan (on which note also the work of Zhao Shufeng 赵书峰)—the ethnic minorities in the western areas of Hunan also having rich ritual traditions.

Under the rubric of ethnomusicology—which should no longer be considered as a separate topic!—are more ethnographic articles by scholars like Qi Kun 齊琨, such as

  • “Xianghuo shenghuo: guanyu Hunan Lengshuijiangshi Jinzhuxiang Yangyuancun shijiao yu daojiao zhiyizhede diaocha 香火生活: 關於湖南冷水江市金竹山鄉楊源村師教與道教執儀者的調查.” Zhongguo yinyuexue 2014.3: 75–85.

and ongoing work by Wu Fan.

A distinct topic is Hengshan in eastern Hunan (the southern Hengshan, not the northern one that has caused such confusion for the Li family Daoists!). Georges Favraud does detailed work on monastic Daoists there. But while the image of Hengshan and its deity is widespread throughout Hunan, its priests have little or no contact with the rituals of the household Daoists elsewhere in the province.

What I’d still like to see is a summary of all this fine work for the non-specialist, addressing groupings of ritual styles among all these bands—and incorporating them within the complex social context of all the periods in which they and their patrons have lived since 1900.

* * *

Meanwhile, as I often observe, studies of Daoist ritual in north China still lag far behind. If only we had such detail for provinces like Gansu, surely one of the most rewarding areas for such research (for preliminary clues, see my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, ch.6).

 

Carnegie Hall: David Sedaris and Li Manshan

In her 2010 interview with David Sedaris, Hadley Freeman (also wonderful) relates this story:

When David Sedaris appeared at Carnegie Hall in 2002, a reporter from the New York Observer asked his father Lou whether he had ever expected to see him playing Carnegie Hall. “Well,” his dad replied, “I expected to see him cleaning Carnegie Hall.”

On losing a Daoist in Times square
For me this inevitably recalls the Li family Daoists’ Carnegie Hall gig in 2009 (my book, pp.330–331). We had a couple of days to rehearse there. They took this seriously, discussing how to adapt their programme for the audience.

The Daoists brought some of their heady Shanxi liquor (“white spirit”, how very true), and at last I could return the compliment by finding a Western tipple they could seriously relate to—tequila. We dusted off our old stories, joking constantly as they patiently fielded my usual tedious academic questions. Jet-lagged, we often found ourselves meeting up outside the hotel around 3am for a cigarette or three as we watched the street cleaners clearing up the debris of the night’s excesses.

The daily walk to and from the Carnegie Hall was a challenge to my abilities to marshal Chinese peasants in inner-city jungles, anxiously totting them up every time we crossed a busy junction.

But one afternoon as I counted them in through the door of the hotel, someone was missing. Uh-oh, it’s Li Manshan—I’ve mislaid a National Treasure. In a panic, I retraced our steps with his younger brother Third Tiger, looking for a needle in a haystack; I remember chatting with him until we got to Times Square, but then…? As I asked a couple of cops if they’d seen a lost-looking old Chinese guy, they replied with a polite shrug, “Sure bud, we’ll keep an eye out for him.”

After the longest fifteen minutes of my life we came across him standing peacefully at the kerb gazing up at the skyscrapers, without a care in the world. Striding up to him I exclaimed, “I dunno whether to give you a hug or a slap!”

This calls for a song, or two

I don’t mean to go too far down the route of silly puns—there’s a wealth of other sites for that—but in the spirit of Keats and Chapman:

There’s this Englishman sharing a train compartment with two young guys from Sweden—Sven, and his friend Olf, who’s dressed in drainpipe trousers and brothel creepers.

After spitting on the floor and sneering at the English guy, Olf goes off to the buffet car to get a can of beer. After one swig he spews it up all over the compartment and lets out a torrent of foul abuse.
“What’s up with him?”, the Englishman asks Sven.
Sven bursts into song:

Rude Olf the Ted loathes train beer.

Oh well, I guess I have to do the old Mary Poppins one too:

Gandhi, with his hunched gait, walked barefoot, so that the soles of his feet became hard. With his frail form, he led a spiritual life, but his diet gave him bad breath. All of which made him (altogether now) a

Stoopy calloused fragile mystic, vexed by halitosis.