Landmarks

Reluctant as I am to play into the hands of the fatuous “Paul Nuttall and the UKIPs”, this local landmark in Bedford Park may seem to suggest that the continent, with its fancy foreign monuments like those of Pisa and indeed Paris, isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be.

pillarbox

The leaning pillarbox* of Chiswick.

Left-leaning too, you note… Is this the kind of subversion that scares off a certain old friend of mine?!

Did you hear about Karl Marx’s vegetable garden?
It’s a Communist plot.

QMZ pose 1993

Identity parade: the usual suspects.

 

* For younger readers whose grasp of Old English is less than perfect, a “pillarbox” was an ancient device into which were inserted objects called “letters”, written on paper (often with a “pen”) and enclosed in an “envelope” with a “stamp” attached. By a mysterious alchemical process, the addressee would often receive such missives within the space of a mere few days.

More useful socialist vocabulary

I’ve mentioned several distinctive terms in the vocabulary of former socialist countries, like China and the GDR. But still more usefully:

It’s good to learn that what is called caffé corretto in Italy (an espresso “corrected”, with grappa, or what the Chinese term with blunt accuracy dub “white spirit”) was known in Communist Albania as a Lumumba. (Garton Ash, The file, p.45). Well, you do need a snifter to get through all those Norman Wisdom films. (Cf. elsewhere in north Europe, where it is a somewhat different beverage).

This is rather in the spirit (sic) of the cubalibre[1] one of my favourite tipples in Spain as a change from my standard G&T. By contrast with the mealy-mouthed measures of English pubs (which should come with a microscope), both are notable because you are presented with a large tumbler into which the waiter pours an unlimited quantity of gin/rum/bacardi, leaving only a token amount of room for a casual dash of tonic/coke.

The cubalibre is quite familiar to our Spanish waiter, but I always enjoy the little ritual we go through whereby he looks enquiringly at the range of spirits behind the bar while I specify, with one of my few fluent phrases,

Con Ron, por favor!

Back in Blighty, the Spanish influence on my own domestic aperitifs is clear in my generous measures from the Azure Cloud Bottle—to which my address on the home page pays fitting homage. I ring the changes by buying the occasional bottle of Tanqueray, purely in homage to Amy.

In China, where the 1957 Anti-Rightist backlash following the Hundred Flowers movement was prompted in no small measure by the recent Hungarian uprising, the threat of liberal agitation was charmingly known as Goulash deviationism. That sounds funny to us now, even if at the time it was a taint that could ruin people’s lives and destroy whole families.

The Lumumba never caught on in China—why ever would you want to dilute white spirit? But they did stage a rally to protest his killing in 1961:

[1] “Free Cuba”—descriptive or prescriptive?! Cf. the British tabloid headline “Free Nelson Mandela”, to which a reader wrote in, “I dunno what a Nelson Mandela is, but if it’s free, can I have one please?”

Venice: daily life in a theme park

On brief trips to Venice, the dream of timeless aesthetic delight may override reflection on social change. My 2012 stay there with the Li band was largely untrammelled by such thoughts—partly because I was preoccupied with my daily tasks as minder, roadie, and stage manager. Like most visitors, I was just thrilled to be there, especially with them.

Some months later, staying with Li Manshan in his village, I go online to show his next-door neighbour some images of this magical place, unimaginable to Yanggao dwellers. As I reinforce the myth, the Li band’s visit there indeed seems like a miracle.

But Venice makes a notable example of the conflict between image and ethnography. Among the vast corpus of writings, Jan Morris’s Venice is a classic. I realise I should also seek writings by Venetians, or at least Italians, to supplement the outsider perspective. But here I’ll dip into Polly Coles’s book The politics of washing: real life in Venice (2013), which explores “the uneasy relationship between the Venice in which a few thousand people live out their daily lives and the Venice that is an impossibly beautiful stage set”.

It may seem like living in a museum, or a theme park. Most of the twenty million visitors each year are day-trippers. Over the past three decades the fixed population has dwindled from 120,000 to 55,000—fewer than a thousand years ago.

Yet despite the constant fall in population, real people also live here. One may dismiss their real lives as merely “hideous encounters with domestic necessity”, to cite Compton Mackenzie’s wonderful recollection of his meeting with Henry James. Beset by ordering washing machines and taking the kids to school, Polly Coles begins to feel guilty about the sheer quantity of art that she has not looked at since she became a resident. “The Venetian dream lasts only as long as you can keep it detached from reality and, most particularly, from the reality of modern Italy”. Finding a haberdashery shop shutting down, Polly Coles observes the ineluctable usurping of the variety of suppliers of daily needs by shops selling pizza, ice cream, glass, and masks—a monoculture in which “people are constantly re-enacting the same limited roles: as purveyors or consumers of the city as museum or playground”. “What kind of beauty is barren? Is dead beautiful?

gondola maker

Squiero at San Trovaso. My photo, 2012.

After a while one almost forgets “the inestimable privilege of a daily life without cars”. Greetings between friends are no less gentle, kind, and humorous than in any Italian town. Given that thousands of strangers are traipsing through their living room (literally) every day, I’m amazed how courteous and laidback Venetian dwellers are; one feels no more ripped off than elsewhere. While they are long accustomed to outsiders (they have no choice), perhaps it’s partly because one can never be in a hurry here—although residents and “infantilized” tourists can still be recognised from their pace, their whole body language. As Polly Coles observes, the shared necessity of walking lends an illusion of classlessness.

By contrast, she also comments well on the wider issue (in Italian, and other European languages) of choosing lei or tu, as opposed to the deceptively classless English “you” (pp.155–9). Meanwhile, the Venetian language (rather than dialect) seems cool, indeed zany (an English borrowing from Venetian), with lots of z and weird stuff going on (see also here). I like drio (“busy”).

Not only are the sestieri like separate villages, but even recently I heard of a 100-year old woman who had only ventured twice as far as San Marco.

While Venice has long been celebrated as a racial and cultural melting-pot, Alexander Lee’s The ugly Renaissance can warn us against celebrating its multi-culturalism too naively. Polly Coles goes on to note the current ethnic contradictions, with its white tourists serviced by East European cleaners and African street vendors (163–70). She’s good on ritual too—like her dissection of Midnight Mass in San Marco during acqua alta, “neither hushed nor holy”, with a “general air of distraction” (pp.111–113). And Carnival: “somebody has organized an enormous party in your backyard but it’s not your party and you don’t know any of the guests”.

After my stay there with the Li band in April 2012, I went back that August to flat-sit on the Guidecca for friends, allowing me time both to reflect on Venice and continue writing my book.

home
From my diary:

Senses heightened, changing light—large drops of rain, clouds, sunset, gulls bobbing on the waves. Simple pleasures. How long might it be before one began taking for granted the panorama of churches and pastel palaces and windows and balconies and bridges? Even the street signs are delightful.

Guidecca

I emerge from a narrow vicolo into a broad campo. Many canals are as narrow as alleys too.

Just using the wooden shutters is a delight, with their little head of a man, like a chess piece, to hold them in place.

shutter
Where does all this arty sensibility get us? How does listening to Monteverdi in an elegant flat on the Giudecca differ from listening to Abba in a council flat on the North Circular with flying geese on the walls? The shared goal, presumably, is happiness.

Supposing some waggish sculptor decided to pre-empt the pigeons by designing a pigeon on top of Our Lord’s head at the apex of a church, would a pigeon come and perch on that too? How many pigeons would he have to sculpt on top of each other for the pigeons to decide, “Stuff this for a lark“? Or would it only be grist to their mill?

It comes as a relief to see some typical ugly modern buildings on the Giudecca, tucked away behind the elegant facade. The walk to my local supermarket, through miniature courtyards bedecked with flowers, has to be the most picturesque ever—but once inside, the standard produce of daily necessities brings a welcome semblance of normality.

From a certain distance on what passes as terra firma, the sight of passengers on a vaporetto evokes a silent search for truth, some mysterious voyage, a pact. I don’t think this comes entirely from Don’t Look Now. Of course it’s not quite like that for the passengers on the vaporetto (cf. Coles, pp.118–24).

Cruise liners have become common, another nail in the coffin. One morning as I emerge from the flat I have a surreal vision. Usually I’m blessed with a wonderful glimpse of the Zattere across the canal through the archway at the end of my narrow alleyway, but today all I can see is a gleaming white tower-block, seemingly constructed overnight, obliterating the pristine view, blocking out the sky “like a genetically reconstructed dinosaur that has escaped from Jurassic Park and is wreaking havoc in the world of human beings” (Coles). And it’s moving too—or is it the Giudecca moving?

I hope it would be unfair to say that the Chinese are adopting tourism wholeheartedly as an unmitigated blessing, but the march of “progress” and “development” seems unstoppable—compounded by the commodifying agendas of cultural heritage projects. All this is one reason why even scholars of Daoism might pause before adding to the unchanging image of ancient grandeur, and incorporate ethnography into their accounts.

Ashiq: the last troubadour

Liu Xiangchen 刘湘晨 is an outstanding film-maker based in Urumqi in Xinjiang. On Monday at SOAS, as part of a conference on Islamic soundscapes in China (itself part of an excellent project[1] he attended a screening of his Ashiq: the last troubadour (122 mins), one of several films by him on various ethnic groups in Xinjiang.

Filmed mainly between 2003 and 2007, the four-hour version of Ashiq was shown last year at the splendid Shanghai Centre for Ritual Music, with a detailed discussion.

Here’s an 8-minute trailer:

and an introduction.

The “exotic” ethnic minorities are always a more popular research topic than the somewhat mundane Han Chinese; I would say, only I’d sound like the UKIPs, that the Han Chinese have become a minority in their own country—which would be just as absurd, given that, in the face of vast Han Chinese immigration to Xinjiang, it is precisely the Uyghurs who feel threatened. But I envy scholars of the minorities the stunning scenery, and the costumes—and if they no longer wear them, they’re used to being asked to put them on for the cameras…

I’m now a little confused about what ashiq actually means among the Uyghurs. Simply stated, they are Sufi mendicants who congregate at the shrines of Islamic saints. From the youtube blurb:

Some ashiq are ironworkers, others are beggars, merchants, grave diggers, barbers, woman ashiq, Sheikh (the Islamic clergy) and so on.

As Rachel Harris notes, [2] the term may be a rather modern usage for people once more commonly known as dervishes or qalandar. It’s taxonomy again.

Liu described them as marginalized, a minority themselves, but it looks like a substantial phenomenon. And marginalization is their very raison d’être: they thrive on flouting social norms. The subtitle “the last troubadour” seems unsuitable, not only since the use of a (largely secular) term like troubadour is hardly useful, but because the film doesn’t seem to show that they are dying out. Maybe they are, but it repeats a mantra chanted by anthropologists since early times, claiming to have discovered a pristine tradition that is endangered, rather than noting constant change.

For an outsider, the film, like that of De Martino in south Italy, may also shock. For the total novice, it will just amaze: didn’t the CCP destroy religion over sixty years ago—all the more in Xinjiang or Tibet? At least it shows what a huge task the CCP faces. Are we to celebrate the slow spread of state education and modernization?

The nomination of the ashiq for Intangible Cultural Heritage status is captioned early in the film without comment, though (like that of the Uyghur meshrep) [3] it will seem so very incongruous; perhaps it serves as a kind of amulet to protect the film from official criticism. As with the Han Chinese, a majority of genres selected for the ICH are grounded in ritual, impossible to reconcile with the state’s goals without destroying them—which may indeed be the idea. It is the duty of the ethnographer to reflect such micro-societies faithfully, like any other. It goes without saying that it is no use to regard them purely as “musical cultures” detached from their social roots.

The conceit of academic objectivity may make ethnographers seem to refrain from either celebration or criticism, yet at the same time (to return to De Martino), some may be shocked, pondering the link between religion and poverty—an obstacle to those social changes that can genuinely improve people’s lives, health, life-expectancy, and so on?

I gave an instance for the Han Chinese in my Shaanbei book (p.86):

Back in the county-town, returning to our hostel one evening, we switch on the TV to find a documentary about coal-mining accidents, which are reported nightly. There are some rather fine investigative programmes on TV these days, and one main theme of this one is how the response of the village Communist Party leadership, rather than considering improving safety measures, has been to give funds to construct a new village temple in the hope of divine protection. OK, in this case the programme happens to fit into an agenda of rationalism against superstition, a view we sometimes feel inclined to challenge, but tonight I can only go along with the presenter’s lament.

One doesn’t have to be a Maoist apparatchik to worry about this. Observers will draw their own conclusions.

Returning to the Uyghurs, the gender issue is sobering too. There’s one fine scene of a group of female ashiq, but as Rachel Harris (whose next book, including a study of female religious groups, I await eagerly) pointed out at the screening, only a female film-maker could get proper access to such groups—like Rahilä Dawut.

The film suggests so many complex issues. It gives full coverage to songs, and texts, not just sonic icing on the cake. The ashiq aren’t big on cake, but some weed helps them commune.

Their basic accompaniment is the sapaye, paired sticks pierced with metal rings, played in a kind of stylized self-flagellation, notable in various degrees in both Islamic and Han Chinese ritual cultures (for one gory instance from Fujian, see Ken Dean’s film Bored in heaven).

The tear-stained faces of the ashiq as they sing may remind us that the expression of suffering is a quasi-universal feature of music-making. But it’s always culturally mediated, with differing implications; Rachel Harris again explores the significance of “performative tears” both for Uyghur and other cultures.

The sudden, startling, introduction of scenes from the bustling modern capital of Urumqi is effective. I didn’t pick up hints to change in the rural scene, which must be constantly occurring too, so the film may seem merely to suggest a contrast between (“backward”?) rural traditions and harsh urban commodification. But the structure works well, right down to the final scenes with a birth and a death, the latter in an extraordinary landscape.

I pen these thoughts as a mere outsider. Talking of which, one also wonders how all this relates to the old rejection of ethnographic outsiders, summarized by Nettl as “You will never understand our music”. But here, as with the late great Zhou Ji 周吉 (1943–2008), one of the consultants on the film, Uyghurs seem to have few reservations about certain Han Chinese (or Westerners, indeed) documenting their lives—as long as they are clearly in sympathy and willing to engage fully. Liu Xiangchen, though not himself Uyghur, was also advised by Dilmurat Omar of the Institute of Ethnology and Sociology at Xinjiang Normal University.

[1] I am grateful to Rachel Harris, estimable authority on Uyghur culture and music, for pointing me towards several sources. As usual, it goes without saying that I am entirely responsible for my interpretations here.
[2] “Theory and practice in contemporary Central Asian Maqām traditions” (forthcoming).
[3] Rachel Harris, “ ‘A weekly meshrep to tackle religious extremism’: Intangible Cultural Heritage in Xinjiang” (forthcoming).

Taranta, poverty, and orientalism

Watching Ernesto De Martino’s 1959 footage of healing sessions for possessed women in south Italy, one may feel almost voyeuristic.

Below I cite Stephen Bennetts, Review of Ernesto De Martino, The Land of Remorse: a study of Southern Italian tarantism[1]

First published in 1961, The Land of Remorse is a classic of anthropological detective work. Was this bizarre phenomenon really caused by the bite of the tarantula, or was it instead a mere “superstitious relic”, or a localised form of psychosis prevalent among illiterate Southern Italian peasants? Almost sixty years ago, in 1959, a group of scholars arrived in the small town of Galatina to unravel the riddle. They comprised a historian of religion (De Martino), neuropsychiatrist, toxicologist, psychologist, anthropologist, ethnomusicologist, social worker and photographer.

It soon became clear that the research team was documenting the last vestiges of the cult, which by now had retreated to an isolated pocket of peasant society in Salento, the stiletto heel of Southern Italy. Tarantism still persisted in its classical form in the music and dance therapy sessions conducted in the home, whilst the partly Christianised form of the cult, amputated of its musical and dance component, continued in the grotesque and histrionic displays at the Chapel of St Paul, as possessed tarantati arrived for the feast day of Saint Paul to ask the saint for healing.

In De Martino’s analysis, the mythology of the taranta and the catharsis of the possession state provide a framework in which personal psychological tensions common throughout Southern Italian peasant society could be publicly dramatised. Private sufferings caused by unhappy love, bereavement, sexual frustration, or subaltern social status were transfigured into annually recurring possession states which were culturally determined, rather than being the result of a real spider bite. The ritualised healing through dance and music provided victims with psychological closure and reintegration back into the community, at least until the summer of the following year.

[According to one Salentine authority, the last episode of tarantism involving actual possession took place in 1993, but the last living practitioner died in 2000. Yet “tarantism” has recently taken on another curious form. The current Southern Italian folk revival and associated pizzica dance craze incorporate a grab bag of different impulses: re-emergent Southern regionalism, the reevaluation of a peasant past which is now distant enough for young Southern Italians to romanticise rather than feel ashamed of, and a rejection by the Italian anti-globalisation movement of the television-fixated “cultural homogenization” of Berlusconian Italy. De Martino’s book has now achieved cult status beyond the academy; go to many folk concerts in Southern Italy today and you will find it on sale alongside tambourines, castanets and other accoutrements of the recently exhumed Southern Italian past. In a process which has been aptly described as “proletarian exoticisation”, De Martino’s plain female peasant tarantate have given way in contemporary reworkings of the theme to video clips featuring dissociated but picturesque young beauties writhing to the latest tarantella folk hit. Within the current Salentine folk revival, De Martino functions as a kind of symbolic fetish, validating an isolated area of Southern Italy which almost nobody had heard of until the “rediscovery” of tarantism and tarantella ten years ago suddenly put Salento on the map.]

Along with more detached ethnographic observations, one easily discerns severe social problems here—not least poverty, and not just the role of the church. Urban Chinese observing rural Chinese ritual may be beset by similar, prescriptive, responses—which will be secondary for foreign fieldworkers, more entranced by the persistence, perhaps exoticism, of religious practice there. That’s partly why study of the practices of “primitive” ethnic minorities are so fashionable.

De Martino’s work, though focused on religion, makes a successor to Carlo Levi’s 1945 book Christ stopped at Eboli, and even James Agee’s 1941 Let us now praise famous men, with the photos by Walker Evans. Accounts like these are a world away from the idealizing of peasant communities often implied in Chinese cultural studies. But both types have their own agendas. Meanwhile, brave Chinese journalists have blazed a trail, with village surveys like those for Anhui, and a substantial body of work on the famines around 1960—on which more soon.

We may contrast the anthropology/ethnography of religion with pious insiders’ views of religion. Of course a participant or “believer’s” own account will be important material. But if in the description the ethnographer promotes her own “belief”, that is dangerous: more like propaganda. Empathy is to be desired, evangelism to be avoided. Good histories of Christianity or Islam are unlikely to come from the standpoint of proponents for such beliefs.

So what is, or should be, the anthropologist’s view on religion? While showing how it works in the society, one doesn’t have to promote it as entirely beneficial there, or to that of other societies. Of course our picture is blurred by the quest for ancient oriental wisdom, which may even follow on from hippy mysticism. It is remarkable how commonly this still plays a role in studies of Daoism.

Some scholars make a case for the superiority of Daoism as a world view, over other religions and other world views. Not only is this not the job of the ethnographer, but it may flaw the whole research enterprise. What we learn from such accounts is what a Western scholar, of a particular upbringing and taste, thinks about Daoism; not what Daoism in society is like.

To repeat, it is different to develop a certain empathy with one’s subjects than to come from a standpoint of evangelical zeal. In the course of an ethnographic relationship one will doubtless begin to explain their mindset, their backstory, and so on. But the study of Daoists is mainly to be done with the same kind of anthropological curiosity that one would bring to the study of any other group, such as Party cadres or sex workers (funny how those two random examples seem to make suitable bedfellows. I didn’t say that).

Participant observation brings many benefits. In the case of religion, to participate fully in the life of Daoists will certainly confer insights—but there is no single type of Daoist, and even participation is only one aspect of the duties of the scholar. One should observe not only how religious activities inspire local patrons, or bring social cohesion, but how people may ignore or oppose them. I’m not even arguing with evangelism, necessarily; just that it blurs proper scholarship.

Study of oriental religion risks exoticizing. Even if the scholar avoids the trap of “Just look at this rare ritual I’ve stumbled across/gained unique access to”, rituals may yet be portrayed as “special”, ancient, mystical, and so on—whether they are or not, and downplaying their routine nature. This kind of social behaviour is normal. The visitor may stumble (once) across something supposedly rare, but more likely it will be repeated again and again—always adapting over time.

[1] Weekend Australian, Review section, 28–29 January 2006.

The art of translation

Burlesque-oni (who may now seem like a more benign, cultured, dignified, humane, sophisticated, intellectual, and honest prototype for Tweety McTangerine)

SO UNFAIR!!!

is alleged to have described Angela Merkel as a “culona inchiavabile”. This was magnificently rendered in English as

unfuckable lard-arse.

Fine as the original Italian is, this is a splendid translation. Of all the possibilities for culona (“big arse”) and inchiavabile (“unscrewable”), it must have taken considerable artistry to come up with “unfuckable lard-arse”. Imagine the translator, worn down by years of work at tedious political committees rendering the minutiae of financial subsidies, finally able to spread his wings and exercise his dormant mastery of idiom.

Better still, Auntie’s former rottweiler-in-chief Jeremy Paxman raised the issue in his interview with Berlusconi, enquiring in his measured patrician tones,

“Mr Berlusconi, is it true that you once described Angela Merkel as an unfuckable lard-arse?”

Such translation puts in context my strivings to render ancient Daoist texts.

More fucking gondolas

Another gratuitous spinoff from the Li band’s trip to Venice (cf. Scunthorpe and Venice, and indeed Venice: daily life in a theme park):

A lesser-known gem of Monty Python is Away from it all,

with all the lovingly recreated stereotypes eventually exposed in the escalating breakdown of John Cleese’s voiceover.

Several of us recall seeing this in the cinema as a trailer before The life of Brian.