Sexual politics

Kate Millett, Henry Miller, Anaïs Nin

Miller

God’s gift to women (not).

With feminist critiques having made such progress, and becoming so well publicised, it’s worth returning to

While the whole book is brilliant, here I want to focus on her reasoned deflation of Henry Miller (1891–1980). At the time it must have seemed somewhat outspoken, but re-reading it now I realise it’s utterly reasonable.

In Part III, “The literary reflection”, Millett scrutinises D.H. Lawrence, Henry Miller, and Norman Mailer in turn—classic instances of dragging the icon to the trash—with a contrasting final chapter on Jean Genet.

I read Tropic of Cancer, Tropic of Capricorn, and the Rosy crucifixion trilogy in my early 20s (As You Do), but thankfully I first read Sexual politics soon after. Miller’s time-frame is earlier than I realised. I inadvertently tend to associate him with the heady excesses of the bebop era, but born in the 19th century (!), his classic works refer to the 1920s and 30s. In a way I’m happy to be reminded that sexual intercourse didn’t really begin in 1963.

It’s great that Millett was able to unpack Miller’s works rather soon after they had been lauded on the grounds of “sexual freedom”. As depictions of the adrenalin buzz of New York and Paris, Miller’s novels are exhilarating—as long as you can blank out the misogyny, which is a tall order. But exhilaration is gendered too. Miller may have written as a boast, but we may read his works as a confession.

Indeed, Millett opens Chapter One by unpacking a typically “colourful” passage from Sexus—“a male assertion of dominance over a weak, compliant, and rather unintelligent female”. I’m sure few of Miller’s critics would deny the allure of casual sex per se [non-gendered pronoun. * Well done—Ed.], but for him, sexuality is dirty, and can only be so.

* (It’s a sign of the changing times that the default male pronoun of the first sentence of the Preface now leaps out at us:

Before the reader is shunted through the relatively uncharted, often even hypothetical territory which lies before him…)

Millett’s main chapter on Miller begins charitably:

Certain writers are persistently misunderstood. Henry Miller is surely one of the major figures of American literature living today, yet academic pedantry still dismisses him as beneath scholarly attention.

Rather than representing the new “sexual freedom”, Millett finds him

a compendium of American sexual neuroses, and his value lies not in freeing us from such afflictions but in having had the honesty to express and dramatise them. […] What Miller did articulate was the disgust, the contempt, the hostility, the violence, and the sense of filth with which our culture, or more specifically, its masculine sensibility, surrounds sexuality. And women too, for somehow it is women upon whom this onerous burden of sexuality falls.

She notes that despite evidence that he is “fleetingly conscious” of such things, we are unlikely to be persuaded that Miller the man is any wiser than Miller the character.

Her measured introduction out of the way, Millett proceeds to demolish Miller’s misogyny, his “air of juvenile egotism” and impersonal, degrading, encounters devoid of communication:

Miller’s genuine originality consists in revealing and recording a group of related sexual attitudes which, despite their enormous prevalence and power, had never (or never so explicitly) been given literary expression before. Of course, these attitudes are no more the whole truth than chivalry, or courtly, or romantic love were—but Miller’s attitudes do constitute a kind of cultural data heretofore carefully concealed beneath our traditional sanctities.

Millett observes the “cultural homosexuality which has ruled that love, friendship, affection—all forms of companionship, emotional or intellectual—are restricted to males”. Miller at least lays bare the “game” of confirming male power. In writing against conventional morality he shows his parasitic dependency on it.

Since his mission is to inform “cunt” just how it’s ridiculed and despised in the men’s house, women perhaps owe Miller some gratitude for letting them know.

We might now regard his oeuvre as “Grab ‘em by the pussy” serialized for posh people. Boys will be boys, eh.

Millett concludes

In a great many respects Miller is avant-garde and a highly inventive artist, but his most original contribution to sexual attitudes is confined to giving expression to an ancient sentiment of contempt. […]

The impulse to see even women as human beings may occur momentarily—a fleeting urge—but the terrible needs of adolescent narcissism are much greater.

Her brilliant final paragraph reads:

While the release of such inhibited emotion, however poisonous, is beyond question advantageous, the very expression of such lavish contempt, and disgust, as Miller has unleashed, and made fashionable, can come to be an end in itself, eventually harmful, perhaps even malignant. To provide unlimited scope for masculine aggression, although it may finally bring the situation out into the open, will hardly solve the dilemma of our sexual politics. Miller does have something highly important to tell us; his virulent sexism is beyond question an honest contribution to social and psychological understanding which we can hardly afford to ignore. But to confuse this neurotic hostility, this frank abuse, with sanity, is pitiable. To confuse it with freedom were vicious, were it not so very sad.

And then came the internet… No wonder it has taken such determined efforts to reclaim the c-word.

In music, Millett’s deflation of Miller was soon to be echoed in Susan McClary’s unpacking of the gender imbalance in WAM, with Beethoven as chief witness for the prosecution.

* * *

I still think Millett’s critique is the Last Word, but inevitably the discussion has continued. Most subsequent feminists build perceptively on her themes, and I hesitate to discuss glossy contrarians such as Erica Jong, yet her discussions have a certain relevance.

The devil at large: Erica Jong on Henry Miller (1993) is a “celebration” of his work (reviewed e.g. here, and here; for a succinct exchange, see here).

Reading Miller’s ouevre whole, and with critiques of her own work in mind, Jong views him as a kindred spirit (a “disappointed romantic”, a “prophet”, “always looking for the secret of life”). While she concurs with some of Millett’s points, she takes issue with her—or at least with caricatures of her analysis.

Relevant to the current discussion is Chapter 7, “Must we burn Henry Miller? Miller and the feminist critique”. While Jong balks at “feminist zealotry”, and falls for Miller’s “ruthless honesty”, she expresses strong support for feminist agendas.

* * *

Yet, though Miller generally concealed it beneath the detritus of cynical one-night stands, he did seek enduring bonds—with women who would submit to his will, to own and degrade? A more complex picture emerges in the diaries of Anaïs Nin (1903–77), alongside her many biographies.

Nin journalNin was an articulate, talented, independent, sensitive, psychologically attuned, sensual woman. One might think that such attributes would make her safe from Miller attentions, and that of all people, Nin would see right through his narcissistic misogyny. True, she boldly put psychology into practice, engaging in carnal relationships with her analysts; and having been abandoned in childhood by her father, she embarked, confidently, on an affair with him in her 30s—which at least inspired the headline “Sins of the Nins“.

A distressingly enduring pattern emerges. Do women’s choices consist only of boring husbands or predatory men? If Miller was happy to prey on women he perceived as fucktoys, Nin had loftier expectations. In their relationships, he could have tried harder, while she may have been frustrated by the available material.

Nin’s Paris diaries for 1931–34 cover the most intense period of her relationship with Miller and his then wife June—whom she found “the most beautiful woman on earth”. Relevant passages are assembled and augmented in Henry and June (1986)—with Nin’s relationships with her husband Hugo and psychoanalyst René Allendy thickening the plot.

Left: Anaïs Nin c1920; right, June Miller, c1933.

Her journals are full of praise for Henry’s genius. She supported him in Paris, and found a mission in helping him publish—the old “muse” trap. At the same time, he appreciated the originality of her work. Their affair was intense, and communicative.

But she and June were totally enchanted by each other. Nin’s sensual, nuanced descriptions make a complete contrast to Miller’s accounts of degrading conquests.

Her “intense adoration” of Miller did indeed give way to disillusionment: she described him as “crude, egotistic, imitative, childishly irresponsible, a madman”.

Still, does all this suggest that Miller was deceiving his readers, even himself, about his need for human communication? And how might Millett have incorporated this into her account? Sadly, she only mentions Nin in a brief footnote, although the relevant first volume of her journals was published in 1966. Still, Millett might have wanted to refine her maxim that

Miller’s hunt is a primitive find, fuck, and forget.

* * *

For a younger generation pondering gender issues anew, one might hope that Millett has stood the test of time better than Miller. For the decline in Miller’s reputation, see e.g. this article from 2016.

Readers are no longer shocked by the sex; it’s the sexism they shrink from now.

For a roundup of some posts from the gender category, see here—including Vera and Doris, and Dressing modestly.

Daoist non-action

Hanfeizi, Liezi, Martin Gabel, Walt Disney—but not quite Miles Davis

Don’t just do something, stand there!

Ancient Chinese thought is replete with the virtues of Daoist non-action (wuwei 無為)—both personal and political (cf. Confucius and Laozi, as well as Liezi).

However, it took a long time to enter the language of Western, um, philosophy. Thanks to the intrepid researchers of quoteinvestigator.com, we have a drôle list of candidates for the popular expression “Don’t just do something, stand there!”. I might have guessed Miles Davis, whose minimal style prompted him to dispense sage advice like “Don’t play what’s there, play what’s not there“.

But rather, the site adduces Martin Gabel (1945), Adlai Stevenson citing Dwight D. Eisenhower (1956), Elvis Presley, and Clint Eastwood. A likely vehicle for the popularising of the phrase may have been the White Rabbit in Walt Disney’s Alice in wonderland (1951):

I’ve already cited Disney as a Zen-like source of wisdom (see note here).

As to the ancient Chinese political extension of wuwei, in the words of the wiki page, Hanfeizi’s ideal “enlightened ruler strikes terror into his ministers by doing nothing”. Pace Tweety McTangerine, dismantling the entire apparatus of humane democratic government in order to maintain the brute power of an evil kleptocracy really doesn’t count.

See also How to bibleAncient Chinese humour, and The Tao of Pooh.

 

 

 

 

How to bible

I don’t wanna get into specifics

—Jacques Derrida, oh no wait, it was none other than Tweety McTangerine

Bible

From Twitter.

Struggling to meet the challenge of identifying particular texts that you consider to encapsulate the deepest Ancient Wisdom of the Daoist and Buddhist canons? Well, doughty sinologists can just take their lead from the Orange Baby-in-Chief (for the brilliant Sarah Cooper, see note here):

I note that the attempt in the late Qing dynasty to condense the cavernous Ming Daoist Canon into the Daozang jiyao, a snappy version containing a mere 218 volumes, was even less succinct than the Bolton Choral Society’s failed fugal contribution to the Summarise Proust competition.

Returning neatly to our opening theme, a fugue well worth practising together is the splendid Handelian pastiche Donald Trump is a wanker.

Bomba: resistance and celebration

Bomba

Scene from La bomba.

AOCThe wise, principled Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (@AOC) is always an inspiration.

Combining politics with culture, AOC recently tweeted clips of Puerto Rican bomba  from the protests ignited by the police murder of George Floyd: *

So I’m prompted to do a very basic reccy on the genre. In Puerto Rico the effects of the devastating hurricane in 2017 have been compounded by the paltry US government response. Among various performance genres there, bomba (“barrel”) is not only a celebration but, developed by slaves on the sugar plantations, has a long history of expressing dissent—a call to resistance. Yet another instance of “serious music“!

This documentary highlights the political functions of bomba:

Like the related development plena, it’s based on the interplay between drummers and dancers, the latter leading, with topical improvised sung verses and choruses. And like flamenco, it’s based on family traditions. The piquetes dance figures are mainly in duple metres, such as Sicá, Cuembé, and Holandés, as well as the triple Yubá—all with derivatives.

See also here; and for more from AOC—including a documentary, and her own dance moves as a fine rebuke to staid conservatives—click here.

 

* Brief resumé for any visiting Martians: Police Departments mount novel defence against accusations of gross brutality by providing copious new evidence of gross brutality; and just when you thought he couldn’t possibly get any more offensive, destructive, morally deficient, and infantile, the Orange Baby-in-Chief continues to surpass himself with callous divisive inarticulate rants, providing the wonderful Sarah Cooper (MUST WATCH!) with endless material, such as this.

In the kitchen 2

risotto

Not my risotto, obvs—mine turns out more like this:

beans

Loth as I am to venture into areas about which I know Fuck Nothing (punk and art spring to mind), here’s a little jeu d’esprit on cuisine.

Unlike many people, I’m all too accustomed to solitude (cf. On visiting a hermit), so apart from not being able to enjoy my daily swim, my routine has hardly changed—including my activities in the kitchen.

Bearing in mind that pampered Grauniad readers like me have been panicking for some years about the shortage of hummus and avocados (“and other mysterious things that add up to nothing much when it comes to making meals”—Love, Nina), I must confess that I do now tend to stockpile. I recklessly bought two whole tins of baked beans the other day, and—undeterred by the fascist futurist fulminations of Marinetti—I now snap up pasta with unprecedented relish.

leftover wineThe present anxiety is having one influence on my culinary repertoire: a welcome comeback gig for risotto, a simple and versatile dish that I had cruelly neglected for several years. It’s a pleasure to relearn the subleties of proportions and timing (not entirely like jazz)—frying the leeks (onions, whatever), and then turning up the heat to add the rice and then the white wine; then lowering the heat as I gradually add the stock. Then toying with various combos of vegetables del giorno—lovingly picked by the migrants upon whom our so-called government temporarily finds itself dependent, just like “our” NHS. * All topped off (the risotto, not the migrants) with freshly-grated parmesan. That’s cheese, BTW.

Some last-minute lemon (or if you’re feeling really racy, lime), and rocket, can be pleasing too. Then, turning off the heat, cover and leave to stand (It Says ‘ere). Practice makes perfect.

And as a change from my legendary dinner parties [legendary in the sense that they never existed?—Ed.], I don’t even have to share it—YAY! Imagine if we started to realise that all that frantic economic and social activity was overestimated all along. Don’t be tempted to make enough risotto to last for several meals, though—it’s a kinda one-off (一次性) thing, like…

To borrow from Molvania, this fine main course is

followed by a fruit sorbet, designed to help cleanse the palate in preparation for dessert which, unfortunately, also happens to be fruit sorbet.

For more on cuisine, see Prick with a fork, and, for the regime on Mount Athos, Ritual, food, and chastisement. For more Italian menus, click here; and for the priceless headline “Bake Off winner discovers you can buy cake from shops”, here. See also Alexei Sayle on his youthful epiphany in Hungary (“Now I saw what a salad really could be under socialism”). For Alan Bennett’s culinary wisdom, see Love, Nina; and for some other accomplishments not commonly associated with him, here. For changing dietary wisdom, see here.

While my qualifications for writing about cooking are nugatory, they are more impressive than those of Tweety McTangerine in dispensing medical, or indeed any, advice:

* Note to so-called UK government: STOP CALLING IT “OUR” NHS, FFS! YOU’VE BEEN DOING YOUR UTMOST TO DESTROY IT FOR A DECADE! See also “How to suddenly support the NHS”, recent instalment in the fine series of guides by Rachel Parris (here, from 5.00; cf. Is Jacob Rees Mogg as much fun as he seems?). Also cf. “our European friends”, on whom see Stewart Lee. For more Tory mendacity, see here.

BTW, these may be trying times for anyone, of whatever age, asked what day of the week it is, or the name of the Prime Minister. On the recent return of the latter, the old Brezhnev joke may be apposite.

The c-word

also starring fatuous asterisks, bendy bananas, and the b-word (bi)

Lee

How is the poor reader expected to differentiate between b******* and b*******?

Talking of The end of the f***ing world, the prissy prurience of the tabloids’ use of asterisks is brilliantly demolished by David Marsh in this article from the fine Guardian series Mind your language, prompted by the John Terry trial—citing a reader:

 I never cease to be amazed by newspapers which shyly make him say “f***ing black c***”, leaving intact the one word which aroused Mr Ferdinand’s wrath,

and calling on the unlikely couple of Charlotte Brontë and Ken Loach. See also this LRB review of a book on a 1923 trial revolving around women’s use of “foul language”, class, and the uses and abuses of literacy—with a pre-echo of Paul Kratochvil’s splendid story in a quote from 1930: “soldiers used the word ‘fucking’ so often that it was merely a warning that ‘a noun is coming’ “.

Moreover, reclaiming “the c-word (cunt)” has been a concern of feminists—as discussed in this post (from another useful site), citing authors from Germaine Greer to Laurie Penny. See also this article from Rachel Braier; the wiki article is useful too. And do admire the work of the Profane Embroidery Group.

In Stewart Lee‘s latest book March of the lemmings (2019—not aka The bumper book of  Stewart Lee jokes: jolly japes for all the family) he pursues the style of How I escaped my certain fate with typically expansive Teutonic footnotes to the script of his show Content provider [or should that be C***ent provider?]. In one of these, warming to several topics, he reflects on the efficacity of his “so-called comedy” with purposeful, insistent use of “the c-word (cunt)”—which I hereby feel obliged to emulate.

First we should hear him doing the live version that prompted this tirade, since it gains so much from his masterly inflection, timbre, timing, and delivery. See this charming little clip—or, with more context (from around 7.46):

And it isn’t, to be fair, you know, and I think—look, we’re gonna leave the EU, that is happening, and I think people have gotta put their differences behind them now and try and make it work. And I—I don’t know if you can make massive generalisations about people that voted to leave Europe anyway, because people voted to leave Europe for all sorts of different reasons, you know, and it wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe. Cunts did as well, didn’t they? Stupid fucking cunts. Racists, and cunts, and people with legitimate anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe.*

So here’s the footnote:

* How does this joke, which drew tears and cheers, even though I say it myself, night after night for the best part of two years, work? (1) Firstly, shock. I rarely swear on stage, and compared to most edgelord stand-ups, my swears count is probably only one level up from the sort of acts who market themselves as “clean” to get gigs at hospices run by born-again Christians. So it is a funny shock to hear me abandon my usual vocabulary and say the c-word (cunt). The c-word (cunt) is probably a way-too-heavy word to use here, and the deployment of such a disproportionately heavy weapon is part of what makes choosing to do [it] so funny. (2) The structure of the bit has a relationship with the much-touted idea that liberal Remainers should look outside their bubble and seek to understand the fears and concerns that drove 17.4 million people to vote Leave (“People voted to leave Europe for all sorts of different reasons, and it wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe…”), but then subverts the progression of thought by just calling them the c-word (cunts). To quote an old Lee and Herring routine, or possibly Viz’s Mr Logic, “Our expectations were subverted, from whence the humour arose”. (3) This second idea is then given what we in the trade call a “topper” by doubling back on the original premise and conceding that some Leave voters may also have “legitimate anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe”. There is then a second topper, in the form of a letter from a punter [“Dear Palace Theatre, Southend, please inform the “comedian”, and I use that word advisedly, Stewart Lee, who I had the misfortune of being taken along by friends to see last night, that I actually voted to leave Europe and I am neither a racist nor a cunt. Merely someone with genuine anxieties about ever-closer political ties to Europe. Yours, A. Cunt, Burnham-on-Crouch.”], which is a real letter (with the name changed) received during an early stage of the show at the 2016 Edinburgh Fringe try-outs, which just replays the joke again but in a funny voice and with more swearing, and with the town the complainer comes from changed to some local place every night—in this case, Burnham-on-Crouch.

By now the c-word (cunt) has long become a veritable mantra. The ever-expanding footnote goes on to do battle with Lee’s critics, with a plea for context:

The Tory Brexiteer and Sun columnist Tony Parson, in the February 2019 edition of GQ, the sort of style and status bible Patrick Bateman in American Psycho would read in between dismembering prostitutes in a penthouse apartment, wrote, on the subject of the c-word (cunt):

In the little corner of Essex where I grew up,”c***” was practically a punctuation mark among men and boys [see above—SJ]. It was in the foul air we breathed. But it grates now. It feels like the rancid tip of a cesspit that is the modern male attitude to women. And what I find bewildering is that it is not just thick ignorant oafs who use the c-word with such abandon. It is the woke. It is the enlightened. It is the professionally sensitive. It is the Guardian columnist, the BBC-approved comedian who can be guaranteed to dress to the left. “It wasn’t just racists that voted to leave Europe,” Stewart Lee recently quipped, “C***s did as well. Stupid fucking [sic!] c***s.” Does Lee’s use of the word sound rational or healthy? Does it provoke tears of mirth? Do you think it might persuade the 17.4m who voted to leave the European Union—the largest vote for anything in the history of this country—they were wrong? Some of my best friends are Remainers, but such spittle-flecked fury when using the word “c***s” makes Brexit sound like the very least of Lee’s problems.

Obviously, like Julia Hartley-Brewer and other Conservative Twitter types who alighted on the Brexit bit, Parson removed the qualifying section that followed it, where I acknowledge the out-of-touch nature of the so-called liberal elite in London, which in turn buys me some leeway, and also makes the subsequent attack on the so-called non-liberal non-elite more of a surprise; and Parson, presumably knowing little of my work, doesn’t appreciate that the use of the c-word (cunt) reads to my audience here in a comical way precisely because using it is so out of character. It is not the swear word in and of itself that brought the house down nightly. It has to have context.

And of course, the word isn’t delivered with “relish”, and it isn’t “spittle-flecked” either. The c-word (cunt) is delivered here with a kind of despairing calm, as if the cuntishness of the Brexit c-words (cunts) was just a sad matter of fact. When I was directing Richard Thomas’s Jerry Springer: the opera at the National Theatre in 2003 (as I am sure I have written before), we were given the benefit of the theatre’s voice coach for one session, who took the singers aside to teach them to enunciate all the libretto’s swear words and curses, to spit them out with relish. I waited for the session to subside, respectfully, and then had to unravel the work that had been done. The swear words weren’t necessarily to be sung in that spirit at all. For the most part, they represented the disenfranchised Americans working, in heightened emotional states, at the edges of the limited vocabulary that was available to them, and had to be used to convey not simply hate and venom, but also love, hope, despair and longing, the feelings expressed in Richard’s music. If I’d really wanted this particular c-word (cunt) to read with spittle-flecked relish, you’d have known about it. There’d have been spittle on the lens. I’m not averse to spitting on stage (on an imaginary Graham Norton, for example), so a lens would hold no terrors for me. To me, the c-word (cunt) here was mainly about how utter despair drove the beaten and frustrated Remainer character on stage (me) to the outer limits of his inarticulacy, painstakingly logical arguments against Brexit having broken down into mere swears.

And I didn’t “quip” the line either. One thing you will never see me doing is quipping. My work is too laborious and self-aware to ever include a comic device as light-hearted as a “quip”, and if I see one, I usually have it surgically removed from my script, or at least quarantined between ironic inverted commas (“Oh yeah, I can do jokes”). [Here’s a rare, and sadly very funny, example—SJ] And obviously, the bit was not in any way intended to “persuade the 17.4m who voted to leave the European Union—the largest vote for anything in the history of this country—they were wrong”, so it is stupid to criticise it for failing to achieve something it never set out to do. That’s like saying that Fawlty towers, for example, was written to encourage hoteliers to control their tempers; or that the very funny playground joke that ends with the line “Lemon entry, my dear Watson” was written to encourage Sherlock Holmes to keep suitable anal-sex lubricants close to hand for his congress with Watson, rather than relying on whatever out-of-date fruit preserves he could find in his larder.

Maybe I came onto Parson’s radar of late because I talked about Brexit, which he and his employer the Sun support, or because I am now one of those “cultural figures” that informed commentators like him are supposed to know about (“God! Haven’t you heard of Stewart Lee, Tony? I can’t believe it!”), who get praised in the London Review of Books, and get called the greatest living stand-ups in The Times, irrespective of their perceived market penetration or popularity. For Parson I am a “woke… enlightened… professionally sensitive… BBC-approved comedian who can be guaranteed to dress to the left”, which is hardly news, as it’s essentially what I describe myself as on stage, having done lazy Parson’s work for him.

Nonetheless, it’s odd to be called out as evidence of “the rancid tip of a cesspit that is the modern male attitude to women” in a magazine whose website has a “Hottest Woman of the Week” feature. It’s such an odd phrase, “the rancid tip of a cesspit”, that I had to go online and google pictures of cesspits to make sure I had understood what one was.

In my newspaper columns, I deliberately try to mangle my metaphors, writing in character as a man with imposter syndrome who is out of his depth in a posh newspaper and is trying to overcompensate with complex language that is beyond him. But Parson’s incoherence, as brilliantly parodied each month in Viz, is effortless. A cesspit is, literally, a pit full of cess. It can’t have a tip as it is not a conical solid. The only way a cesspit could have a tip is if it were somehow upended and its contents swiftly hardened in some kind of large-scale commercial drying unit, and the remaining cylinder or cuboid (depending on the shape of the pit that had moulded the cess within it) then sharpened at one end, perhaps using an enormous pencil sharpener rotated by shire horses on some kind of mill harness, or by Parson himself, until it formed the rancid tip Parson described. The only way a cesspit could have a natural tip would be if the body of the cesspit itself were conical, which perhaps they were “in the little corner of Essex where Parson grew up.

In fact, there is an Essex folk-song, collected by the archivist Shirley Collins inthe ’50s from the old traveller singer Gonad Bushell, that goes:

I’m a Billericay gypsy, Billericay is my home,
My house it is a caravan, my cesspit is a cone,
And if I want to see the cess become a rancid tip,
I tip the cesspit upside down, then dry and sharpen it!
And the curlew is a-calling in the morning.
[This is worthy of Stella Gibbons—e.g. Cold Comfort Farm, or her brilliant Britten pastiche—SJ]

Parson may have a point about the c-word (cunt), though I don’t really think my Brexit bit is hugely relevant to his discussion, and seems to be cranked in as part of some kind of twisted vengeance. Out of academic curiosity, I wondered what the dictionary definition of the c-word (cunt) was, and to my surprise, when I turned to it, there was just a massive picture of Tony Parson’s face. And it had all arrows pointing towards it as well.

Imagine writing the sort of space-filling shit Parson does, day after day. At least my columns are supposed to be stupid.

bendy

Back at the routine, Lee moves on ineluctably to the Brexiteers’ fatuous topos of bendy bananas (demolished e.g. here; also a theme of his columns, such as here and here, the latter included in March of the lemmings):

People did vote to leave Europe for all different sorts of—they did, don’t snigger away down there—they voted for all, you know, not everyone that voted to leave Europe wanted to see Britain immediately descend into being an unaccountable single-party state, exploiting people’s worst prejudices to maintain power indefinitely. Some people just wanted bendy bananas, didn’t they? “Oh no, I only wanted bendy bananas, and now there’s this chaotic inferno of hate.” “Oh well, never mind, at least the bananas are all bendy again, aren’t they?” Like they always fucking were.

In the second half of the show he adapts the Brexit material into an “I don’t know if you can make massive generalisations about Americans who voted for Trump…” routine:

Not all Americans who voted for Trump wanted to see America immediately descend into being an unaccountable single-party state, exploiting people’s worst prejudices to maintain power indefinitely. Some Americans just wanted to be allowed to wear their Ku Klux Klan outfits to church, didn’t they?

And still the footnotes to the script persist. Like How I escaped my certain fate, Lee’s comments are worth reading in full.

For more, see numerous posts under the Lee tag—and Ladies and gentlemen, Lenny Bruce!! For lying xenophobic misogynistic politicians, see also under Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson, with his sinister henchman The Haunted Pencil (e.g. here and here), as well as the Tweety tag. Click here for two erudite literary jokes; and for what in Chinese, charmingly, is “the b-word (bi)”, see Forms of addressInterpreting pinyin, and Changing language.

A diary clash

huiyishi

Now for another linguistic interlude. I’ve already cited several stories from our fieldworkers’ joke manual (note the Chinese jokes tag; and for a roundup, see here). This old one further illustrates the riches of Chinese punning, and has a hint of the underdog vanquishing pompous male privilege…

It thrives on the homophonous pronunciation of the acronyms for Journalists’ Association (jixie 记协) and Sex-Workers’ Association (jixie 妓协), suggesting parallels with our own airline acronyms.

The verbal creativity may work better in Chinese than in English, but here I loosely adapt a version that I found online (see—the riches of the Chinese web aren’t limited to The Thoughts of Uncle Xi):

The Journalists’ Association and the Sex-Workers’ Association are both staying in the same hotel for their respective meetings. Both groups need to use the conference room at the same time. The hotel manager initially suggests they combine their meetings into one, but they argue their cases before him.

The Secretary-General of the Journalists’ Association observes proudly, “We journalists are uncrowned kings—how can a gang of women dependent on men compare with us?”

But the Secretary-General of the Sex-Workers’ Association retorts, “What’s the big deal about you journalists? A gang of guys sneaking in to see us—you’re all talk! How can you compete with us? Huh!”

The journalist goes on, “So we’re adversaries with different weapons, eh? We use the pen (bi), and we’re looking for manuscripts (gao).”

The sex worker points out, “Well, we use pussy (bi), and we’re looking for a shag (gao)!”

“We welcome both long and short manuscripts.”

“We’re fine turning both long and short tricks too.”

“We offer preferential rates for our manuscripts.”

“And so do we for tricks.”

In the end the hotel manager can only allow the Sex-Workers’ Association to use the conference room.

记者协会与妓女协会同在一个宾馆召开会议,同样要用会议室。记协秘书长联系会议室,妓协秘书长也在联系会议室。宾馆老板一听,都是开会,也都是叫一个名字,也不管是妓协和记协,对两位秘书长说:《干脆把两个会议合在一起开吧。》

记协秘书长坚决不答应说:《我们记协的记者是无冕之王。你们妓协是什么,你们是一帮女人,靠男人生活,能和我们比?》

妓协秘书长不服气地说:《你们记协有什么了不起。你们的记们,那个暗地里不来找我们的妓,一帮男人光是嘴上的劲。怎能是我们的对手。哼!》

记协秘书长说:《是不是对手,武器不一样,我们用的是笔,要的是稿。》

妓协秘书长说:《我们用的也是×,要的是搞。》

记协秘书长说:《我们长稿短稿都欢迎。》

妓协秘书长说:《我们长搞短搞都能行。》

记协秘书长说:《我们稿费从优。》

妓协秘书长说:《我们搞费也优。》

年轻漂亮的妓协副秘书长在一旁帮腔说:《我们怎样搞都适应,反正比你们强。》

这话气得记协秘书长《唉唉》直叹息。看来记协还得归妓协领导。因而再不言语。宾馆老板一看没法,只得把会议室让给妓协先开会了。

I note en passant that the present incumbent of the White House seems to have more time for sex workers than for journalists.

Some great Chinese stammerers

 

As a card-carrying stammerer, I’m always on the lookout for fellow-sufferers—not least in China.*

I’ve already described my encounter with a stammering shawm player in Shaanbei (here, under “Status and disability”), and suggested a motto for the Chinese Stammerers’ Association, as well as noting an entertainingly crap Chinese therapy. I’ve noted how the public nature of Chinese life may force the stammerer to confront the issue.

Now (thanks to NBL on languagelog) I learn of the illustrious stammerer Deng Ai 鄧艾 (197–264 CE), a military general in the Romance of the three kingdoms (Sanguo yanyi 三國演義).**

On further study, this clue leads to a whole world of Sanguo nerds, largely through the medium of video gaming…

Chapter 107 of the Romance of the three kingdoms reads:

The other man is presently a lower official. His name is Deng Ai […]. He lost his father when he was young, but he always harbored great ambitions. Whenever he saw mountains or valleys, he would instinctively point out the best places to station troops, store grain, or stage an ambush. Everyone else laughed at him, but Sima Yi appreciated his talent and came to include him when discussing military strategy. Deng Ai has a speech defect. He always stutters when he’s trying to speak, so that whenever he had to make a report he couldn’t help saying ‘Ai Ai…’.*** Sima Yi once teased him about it, asking him, “You’re always saying ‘Ai Ai’. How many Ai’s are there?”

But Deng Ai immediately replied, “They say O Phoenix, O Phoenix, when there’s only one phoenix.” From this, you can see that he has a quick and alert mind. You must watch out for these two people.

姓鄧,名艾,字士載。幼年失父,素有大志。但見高山大澤,輒窺度指畫,何處可以屯兵,何處可以積糧,何處可以埋伏。人皆笑之,獨司馬懿奇其才,遂令參贊軍機。艾爲人口吃,每奏事必稱『艾,艾』。懿戲謂曰:『卿稱艾艾,當有幾艾?』
艾應聲曰:『鳳兮鳳兮,故是一鳳。』其資性敏捷,大抵如此。二人深可畏也。

Putting down a heckler with a quote from the Analects of Confucius—now that’s niche! Beat that, Stewart Lee. Later, as Deng Ai rose to power, he mastered his stammer, addressing his troops—another tough gig.

Here’s a typically cute Chinese video!

Actually, this illustrates how a certain insider knowledge on a seemingly technical topic may illuminate our studies—such as geographical and topographic features in early literature, or the availability of materials for painting or sculpture; or for Daoist ritual, how participant observation, an understanding of vocal, percussive, and instrumental melody in performance, should be a basic aspect of research. “Yeah?”

* * *

Some useful Chinese sites (like this) list many other illustrious Chinese stammerers, ancient and modern. Starting with the early legalist philosopher Hanfeizi 韓非子, and the poet Sima Xiangru 司馬相如, there’s a g-glut [measure word] from the pre-Tang era. For the aficionado of Tang poetry we have Meng Jiao 孟郊, writing (and stammering) in the aftermath of the cataclysmic An Lushan rebellion. (In a post on stammering songs I speculate whether there’s a link between fluency and social trauma.)

Celebrated 20th-century stammerers (putting aside Wang Guowei, who seems to belong in Confucius’s “deliberate” category) include the philosopher Feng Youlan 馮友蘭, influential both within and beyond China.

gjg

Gu Jiegang and his family, 1954.

Most notable for my tastes is the folklorist Gu Jiegang 顾颉刚 (1893–1980), to whose 1925 fieldwork on Miaofengshan one often refers [Innit though—Ed.]. He might have made a drôle companion to interpret my own questions in the field. Lu Xun abruptly goes right down in my estimation as I learn that in their literary feud he uncharitably took the piss out of Gu’s impediment (B-b-bastard).

But my favourite reference to early Chinese stammering has to be a passage from Sima Qian’s Records of the grand historian (Shiji), to which Hannibal Taubes alerted me. It appears in the biography of Chancellor Zhang 張丞相列傳, referring to the stammering minister Zhou Chang:

及帝欲廢太子,而立戚姬子如意為太子,大臣固爭之,莫能得;上以留侯策即止。而周昌廷爭之彊,上問其說,昌為人吃,又盛怒,曰:臣口不能言,然臣期期知其不可。陛下雖欲廢太子,臣期期不奉詔。上欣然而笑。既罷,呂后側耳於東箱聽,見周昌,為跪謝曰:微君,太子幾廢。

In Nienhauser’s 2008 translation (p.213):

When the Emperor wanted to depose the heir and install Ju-yi, the son of Beauty Ch’i, as the heir, the great ministers firmly challenged this, but none was able to win him over. The Emperor [eventually] because of the Marquis of Liu’s strategy desisted. But Chou Ch’ang having been mighty in the court disputes, the Sovereign asked him for his arguments. Ch’ang was a man with a stutter and furthermore was filled with anger. He said, “My mouth cannot speak, but surely I kn-kn-know this is not permissible! Even if Your Majesty wants to depose the Heir, your subject surely will n-n-not accept the decree!” The sovereign laughed delightedly. After [court] had been dismissed, Empress Lü, who had been eavesdropping from the chambers on the eastern side, saw Chou Ch’ang, knelt down to him, and thanked him.“Without you, Sir, the Heir would certainly have been deposed.”

More um, fluently, Joseph Needham and Christoph Harbsmeier (Science and civilisation in China, volume 7: the social background, part 1, pp. 43–4) translate the relevant passage thus:

“I cannot get the words out of my mouth.” he replied. “But I know it will n-n-n-ever do! Although Your Majesty wishes to remove the heir apparent, I shall n-n-n-ever obey such an order.”

Indeed, even for those who are otherwise fluent, having to speak truth to power before a capricious amoral emperor might bring on a speech impediment. One inevitably thinks of the current wranglings around the White House—for my Hollywood screenplay I have Michael Palin lined up as Zhou Chang, with a bit part for Stormy Daniels as Concubine Ji.

While the great Han scholar Michael Loewe was introducing me to the riches of the Shiji all those decades ago, he somehow omitted to draw my attention to this—out of tact, perhaps?!

This topos is sometimes combined with an allusion to the Deng Ai story in the phrase qiqi aiai 期期艾艾.

Note also the fine songs about the Coronavirus by the stammerer Zhang Gasong.

So we can add such luminaries to the list of historical stammerers like Moses and Demosthenes, and later Marilyn Monroe and Ed Balls. One of those niche pub-quiz topics, like left-handed calligraphers, or Norman Wisdom and Albania.

But what about the suffering workers, eh?!

 

* BTW, more colloquial than the standard kouchi 口吃 is jieba 结巴 (jiejiebaba!), but still more common in north China is jieka 结卡.

** See, I Have No Kulture (paltry excuse: I’ve been busy with Tang poetry and Daoist ritual under Maoism).

*** Call me a pedant, but while it’s perfectly possible to stammer on a vowel (and a diphthong), written Chinese doesn’t capture the likely nature of the impediment here. Repeating whole syllables or words is less common than repeating initial c-c-consonants.

For swing voters

Sedaris

The great David Sedaris (now with his own tag in the sidebar) wrote this piece as early as 2008 in the run-up to the US election, but has recycled it since—and never has it been more apposite than now:

The flight attendant comes down the aisle with her food cart and, eventually, parks it beside my seat. “Can I interest you in the chicken?” she asks. “Or would you prefer the platter of shit with bits of broken glass in it?”

To be undecided in this election is to pause for a moment and then ask how the chicken is cooked.

 

See here for an election slogan from Ukraine…

 

Ravel: an enchanted Prom

Rattle’s Ravel, or Ravel’s rattle

Ravel prom

After Boléro as a pulsating early overture the previous week, S-S-Simon‘s Ravel Prom was a delight from start to finish.

Even the opening Ma mère l’Oyein the expanded ballet version (1912), less often heard than the suite—was charming, chiming with the childlike world of L’enfant et les sortilèges after the interval. Here too there’s a magic garden, a princess, and birdsong. Ravel’s orientalism, like that of Debussy, was inspired by hearing gamelan at the 1889 Exposition universelle. Indeed, the organum of the oboes at the beginning and end of L’enfant reminds me of the sheng mouth-organ.

Chinoiserie is prominent in Shéhérazade too. Last year at the Proms Marianne Crebassa sang it exquisitely; in a week when we rejoiced in Aretha Franklin and Madonna, Magdalena Kožená’s singing was further cause for celebration of the wonders of the human voice.

L’enfant et les sortilèges (first performed in 1925, but not heard in Britain until 1958!) is an enchanted, enchanting lyric fantasy. In the story the protagonist is 6 or 7 years old—the same age as the girls for whom Ravel wrote the original piano pieces of Ma mère l’Oye. 

Whereas Colette wrote the text in eight days, Ravel worked on it over several years—she was in awe of the way he brought her libretto to life. Full of variety, the piece blends the comic drôlerie of the furniture, with ragtime and foxtrot, and the astounding fire aria, with the moving scene of shepherds and shepherdesses from the wallpaper leading into the boy’s poignant duet with the storybook princess.

The cat duet leads into a magical evocation of the garden. Here Ravel’s music anticipates Messiaen‘s use of birdsong and the ondes martenot, with evocative use of a slide whistle (Sachs-Hornbostel 421.221.312!—the cheese grater escapes me, though). Now it’s the turn of the animals and birds to indict the boy’s casual cruelties.

Amidst all the quirky virtuosic pastiche, and ravishing orchestration, the moments of tendresse register all the deeper, as he reflects on his errors; redeeming himself at last, the final chorus is a moving atonement.

If only a certain other public figure in the news could be converted from infantile petulant tantrums…

* * *

Both as player and concert-goer, I do admire conductors who trust to memory, dispensing with a distracting score, as S-Simon did for the first half.

As of 2020, apart from memory, the only trace of the concert is this brief excerpt.

A different kind of song


As if we needed further evidence of the refined tastes of Tweety McTangerine in the cultural sphere (let alone his fawning admiration for dictators expert in brutal repression):

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/nov/13/you-are-the-light-philippines-duterte-sings-love-song-for-trump

Call me old-fashioned, but as love songs go, I still prefer Bill Bailey’s version

The duck lies shredded in a pancake,
Soaking in the hoisin of your lies…

And we can only sigh to recall the days not so long gone when there was taste at the White House (for more on Aretha, see here):

Dressing modestly

Fan
The splendid Jiayang Fan recently found her thoughtful TV interview on the flapdoodle over the 19th Party Congress and Uncle Xi subjected to an impertinent appraisal from an unreconstructed commentator on Chinese Twitter. As she comments,

My fav Chinese social media criticism: I can’t trust anything Jiayang Fan says or writes due to the ugliness of her necklace collection.

Fan Tweet

Perhaps the Twitter pundit might consider this entirely representative sample of the Chinese population more trustworthy, with their tasteful neckwear:

CCP

Of course, this photo doesn’t tell the whole story, since also modestly “holding up half the sky” are a charming and tastefully attired Red Detachment of Women silently and obligingly serving tea—so that’s all right then.

tea ladies

While one hopes there was an element of tongue-in-cheek about the Chinese comment, it evokes the fatuous appraisals of female politicians’ accessorising favoured by the Daily Mail. Perhaps Ms Fan might try wearing a full burqa next time, to further obviate any criticism of the shade of her eye-liner—even if it arouses the ire of Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Johnson. Gah, choices…

komuso
Another option might be to adopt the old ruse of Japanese komusō 虛無僧 monks playing the shakuhachi end-blown flute—which they might also use as a weapon. I note that many komusō were spies for the Shogunate, and some were merely disguised as priests; and they were abolished in 1871 for “meddling in earthly affairs and not the emptiness of being”. Anyway, it beats me how wearing a basket on your head might be considered an effective disguise, but hey, maybe I should stick to Chinese culture.

A judgement such as the Twitter comment may seem to be based merely on grounds of taste, but it shades into still more fatuous opinions on decency. Since we’re not holding our breaths for wise guidance on dress-codes from the Chinese or US leaderships, study sessions may be in order—based on the Everyday Sexism project, Hadley Freeman (note her fine article “Why not just ban women?”; Hell, Tweety McTangerine could have worn a mankini for his inauguration—we couldn’t possibly think less of him), perennial discussions on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s hour, and comedians like the great Bridget Christie. That’s just a random sample of UK media—not to mention a wealth of research and websites on the beleaguered status of women in China.

Like I’d know.

On visual culture

As with my remarks on punk and so on,

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

Or to adapt it to the topic in hand,

You think I know Shag Nothing, but I know CHAGALL!

More genteel would be the old “I Don’t Know Much About Art, But I Know What I Like!” (groan from Myles). So, following Myles, I write this in the spirit of The Plain People of Ireland. As often, I’m seeking clues relevant to my own areas of study, making connections that can easily get buried beneath our individual specialities. Perhaps this post might be entitled Renaissance art for Dummies in the Field of Daoist Ritual Studies—not one of their bestsellers, I suspect.

Sassetta: St Francis giving his cloak to a poor soldier.

I first came across

  • Michael Baxandall, Painting and experience in fifteenth-century Italy: a primer in the social history of pictorial style (1st edition 1972)

while browsing Rod Conway Morris’s library in Venice, along with Horatio E. Brown’s splendidly-titled Some Venetian knockers.

It’s my kind of book, full of the practical detail of materials, technical skill, and patronage, as well as exploring changing perceptions. Quite short, and eminently readable, it gains much from having grown out of a series of lectures that he gave. It addresses issues that I hardly find in discussions of Chinese ritual and music (for any period), so I’d like to explore it at a certain length.

Baxandall opens by encapsulating, in plain and elegant language,** issues that, um, scholars of Daoist ritual (of all periods) should absorb:

A 15th-century painting is the deposit of a social relationship.
On one side there was the painter who made the picture, or at least supervised its making. On the other side there was somebody else who asked him to make it, provided funds for him to make it, reckoned on using it in some way or other. Both parties worked within institutions and conventions—commercial, religious, perceptual, in the widest sense social—that were different from ours and influenced the forms of what they together made.

He observes that

The picture trade was a very different thing from that in our own late romantic condition, in which painters paint what they think best and then look round for a buyer.

Exploring the mismatch between our concepts of “public” and “private”, he notes that

Private men’s commissions often had very public roles, often in public places. A more relevant distinction is between commissions controlled by large corporate institutions like the offices of cathedral works and commissions from individual men or small groups of people: collective or communal undertaking on the one hand, personal initiatives on the other. The painter was typically, though not invariably, employed by an individual or small group. […] In this he differed from the sculptor, who often worked for large commercial enterprises. (p.5)

He meshes all this with detailed technical discussion, like the use of ultramarine:

The exotic and dangerous character of ultramarine was a means of accent that we, for whom dark blue is probably no more striking than scarlet or vermilion, are likely to miss. (p.11)

Thus in the Sassetta painting above, the gown St Francis gives away is an ultramarine gown.

The contracts point to a sophistication about blues, a capacity to discriminate between one and another, with which our own culture does not equip us.

Baxandall notes change over the course of the Quattrocento:

While precious pigments become less prominent, a demand for pictorial skill becomes more so. […] It seems that clients were becoming less anxious to flaunt sheer opulence of material.

But he goes on:

It would be futile to account for this sort of development simply within the history of art. The diminishing role of gold in paintings is part of a general movement in western Europe at this time towards a kind of selective inhibition about display, and this show itself in many other kinds of behaviour too. It was just as conspicuous in the client’s clothes, for instance, which were abandoning gilt fabrics and gaudy hues for the restrained black of Burgundy. This was a fashion with elusive moral overtones.
[…]
The general shift away from gilt splendour must have had very complex and discrete sources indeed—a frightening social mobility with its problem of dissociating itself from the flashy new rich; the acute physical shortage of gold in the fifteenth century; a classical distaste for sensuous licence now seeping out from neo-Ciceronian humanism, reinforcing the more accessible sorts of Christian asceticism; in the case of dress, obscure technical reasons for the best quality of Dutch cloth being black anyway; above all, perhaps, the sheer rhythm of fashionable reaction. (pp.14–15)

To show how skill was becoming the natural alternative to precious pigment, and might now be understood as a conspicuous index of consumption, he returns to “the money of painting”—the costing of painting-materials, and frame, as against labour and skill.

You will no longer be surprised to learn that the Quattrocento division of labour between master and disciples (pp.19–23) reminds me of Daoist ritual specialists.

Baxandall goes on to note the differences in patrons’ demands for panel paintings and frescoes. He attempts to address the issue (even for the time of creation) of public response to painting:

The difficulty is that it is at any time eccentric to set down on paper a verbal response to the complex non-verbal stimulations paintings are designed to provide: the very fact of doing so must make a man untypical. (pp.24–5)

Aesthetic terms expressed in words are contingent, varying from age to age, and anyway elusive. Even with the vocabulary of such accounts, discussing that of a Milanese agent, Baxandall notes:

the problem of virile and sweet and air having different nuances for him than for us, but there is also the difficulty that he saw the pictures differently from us.

He goes on to explore different kinds of viewers’ own exercise of skill in appreciating a painting, with their different backgrounds:

… the equipment that the fifteenth-century painter’s public brought to complex visual stimulations like pictures. One is talking not about all fifteenth-century people, but about those whose response to works of art was important to the artist—the patronizing classes, one might say. […] The peasants and the urban poor play a very small part in the Renaissance culture that most interests us now, which may be deplorable but is a fact that must be accepted. […] So a certain profession, for instance, leads a man [sic—SJ] to discriminate particularly effectively in identifiable areas. (p.39)

Whatever [the painter’s] own specialized professional skills, he is himself a member of the society he works for and shares its visual experience and habit. (p.40)

And given that “most 15th-century pictures are religious pictures”, he asks in detail,

What is the religious function of religious pictures?

His answer, in brief, is that they were used “as respectively lucid, vivid and readily accessible stimuli to meditation on the Bible and the lives of Saints.” But he goes on to enquire:

What sort of painting would the religious public for pictures have found lucid, vividly memorable, and emotionally moving?
[…]
The fifteenth-century experience of a painting was not the painting we see now so much as a marriage between the painting and the beholder’s previous visualizing activity on the same matter. (pp.40–45)

Again he makes the crucial point:

15th-century pictorial development happened within fifteenth-century classes of emotional experience.

Alongside colour, he discusses the beholders’ appreciation of gesture and groupings, adducing dance and sacred drama.

It is doubtful if we have the right predispositions to see such refined innuendo at all spontaneously. (p.76)

And apart from their basic level of piety (largely lost to us today), many of the “patronizing classes” would have assessed the work partly through their knowledge of geometry and the harmonic series.

In Part III Baxandall attempts to sketch the “cognitive style” of the time, with the reservation that

A society’s visual practices are, in the nature of things, not all or even mostly represented in verbal records. (p.109)

Finally he reverses his main argument—that “the forms and styles of painting respond to social circumstances” (and so “noting bits of social convention that may sharpen our perception of the pictures”)—by suggesting that “the forms and styles of painting may sharpen our perception of the society” (p.151).

An old painting is the record of visual activity. One has to learn to read it, just as one has to learn to read a text from a different culture, even when one knows, in a limited sense, the language; both language and pictorial representations are conventional activities. […]

In sum,

Social history and art history are continuous, each offering necessary insights into the other.

Such reflections seem more sophisticated than the “autonomous”, timeless approaches still common in both WAM and Daoist ritual. To be fair, we are quite busy trying to document ritual sequences, hereditary titles, and so on—but the Renaissance scholars have just as much nitty-gritty to deal with too.

* * *

Carpaccio

Carpaccio: Baptism of the Selenites, c1504–7 (detail). San Giorgio degli Schiavoni, Venice.

(The painting features a shawm band that I’d love to hear! For Venice’s musical contacts with the East, see e.g. here).

Baxandall ends with a caveat:

One will not approach the paintings on the philistine level of the illustrated social history.

I don’t think he quite had in mind

  • Alexander Lee, The ugly renaissance: sex, greed, violence and depravity in an age of beauty (2014),

a less technical, more sociological book with a firm political agenda that some may find more appealing than others (cf. this review of Catherine Fletcher, The beauty and the terror: an alternative history of the Italian Renaissance (2020).

Poking around beneath the glamorous surface image of the Renaissance, seemingly “an age of beauty and brilliance populated by men and women of angelic perfection”, he observes:

If the Renaissance is to be understood, it is necessary to acknowledge not just the awe-inspiring idealism of its cultural artefacts but also the realities which its artists endeavoured to conceal or reconfigure.

Lowe explores the brutal social universe in which artists were immersed. Like Baxandall, he explores the relationship between artist and his assistants and apprentices:

The relationship was naturally based on work, and hence could often be punctuated by squabbles, or even dismissal. Michelangelo continually had trouble with his assistants, and had to sack several for poor workmanship, laziness, or even—in one particular case—because the lad in question was “a stuck-up little turd”.

Given that patrons were as important as artists in shaping the form and direction of Renaissance art,

Rather than being seduced by the splendor of the works they commissioned, it is essential to uncover the world behind the paintings; a world that was populated not by the perfect mastery of colour and harmony that is usually associated with the Renaissance, but by ambition, greed, rape, and murder.

He shows the often dubious motives of patrons. They often valued a commission “for the contribution it could make to reshaping the image of often extremely disreputable men”. Such works “were intended more to conceal the brutality, corruption, and violence on which power and influence were based than to celebrate the culture and learning of art’s greatest consumers”.

Lowe also seriously questions the image of the period as one of “discovery” of the wider world:

In their dealings with Jews, Muslims, black Africans, and the Americas, the people of the Renaissance were not only much less open towards different cultures than has commonly been supposed, but were willing to use fresh experiences and new currents of thought to justify and encourage prejudice, persecution, and exploitation at every level.

I suspect such angles may not go unchallenged, but I find it refreshing. And these unpackings again augment my comments on the “Golden Age nostalgia” of the heritage industry in China.

* * *

jue

China: jue libation vessel, Shang/Zhou dynasty.

Reception history has perhaps become a rather more established feature of visual culture (including the history of art) than for musical culture. The term “visual culture” itself reflects a more mature holistic approach, like that of “soundscape” for ritual music in China, and indeed the whole inclusive brief of ethnomusicology.

As I dip into Marcia Pointon’s History of art; a student’s handbook, she soon observes:

The meanings of the painting will be determined by where, how and by whom it is consumed.
[..]
Art historians are interested not only with objects with but with processes. […They] concern themselves with visual communication whatever its intended audiences or consumers.
[…]
Art historians investigate the origins, the connections between “high” and “low”, and the ways in which imagery such as this contributes to our understanding of a period of historical time, whether in the present or in the far distant past.

On one hand, as with music, we envy earlier viewers/audiences their familiarity with subjects/languages that we can no longer interpret easily, if at all. At the same time we have also lost the shock of the new.

We’re familiar with the idea of restoring old paintings to their original colours—negating their history?—but we can’t perform a similar operation on our eyes and minds. Doubtless there’s a vast scholarly literature on this, but one might be reluctant to remove the patina from Shang bronzes, restoring them to the condition of glossy Italian kitchenware. For patina, see also Richard Taruskin’s comments on Gardiner’s Schumann.

Just as most people who experienced art in 15th-century “Italy” had access mainly to those works on public display in their particular city, so, long before CDs and youtube, Leipzig dwellers heard little music apart from Bach and the pieces by other composers that he selected, mostly within the Leipzig tradition. Some creators themselves might be so lucky as to travel, gaining a certain experience of other styles. And in both art forms, a majority of such work was contemporary—even the instruments that baroque musicians played were mostly modern.

To try and get to grips with what art and music meant at the time doesn’t make us able to experience it as did the “consumers” of the day—we can’t unsee Monet, TV, or skyscrapers any more than we can unhear Mahler and punk. And I hope our teeth are in a better state.

* * *

I also admire

  • Michael Jacobs, Everything is happening: journey into a painting (2015), [1]

on Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656)—with chapters by his friend Ed Vulliamy added after Jacobs’ untimely death. As Vulliamy observes,

In this half-book, beyond a fragment, we have not only a typically Jacobs-esque narrative of his life with Velázquez—one of chance encounters, aperitifs, musings and restless autobiography—but also this manifesto for the liberation of how we look at painting. (p.146)

Jaccobs does that thing that people always do in blurbs:

cutting a picaresque swathe

—and the picaro simile is fitting. Jacobs was constantly deploring the “sunless” world of academia. He documents the shift in art history that was then occurring widely in scholarship:

Many of the younger lecturers and researchers, conscious perhaps of the lingering popular image of their discipline as a precious and elitist pursuit, began adopting what rapidly became the prevailing art-historical methodology—a pseudo-Marxist one. People who might once have become connoisseurs in tweeds reinvented themselves as boiler-suited proselytisers dedicated to exposing in art revealing traces of the social conditions of a period, often resorting in the process to a hermetic prose peppered with terms I had first come across in Foucault, such as “discourses” and “the gaze”. (p.44)

Oh all right then, I’ll go for a hat-trick:

You think I know Fuck Nothing, but I know FOUCAULT!

(Note on pronunciation: whereas I can only hear “You think I know Fuck Nothing, but I know FUCK ALL!” in the caricature-Nazi accent of Karl Böhm, the above bon mot clearly belongs on the foam-specked lips of an angry young Alexei Sayle.)

By contrast with the treatments of Baxendall and Lowe (themselves quite different), Jacobs’ approach is based on including “us”, the viewers, as agents in the picture—whatever his reservations, he was inspired by Foucault.

Proust, writing on Rembrandt, had spoken about paintings as being not just beautiful objects but also the thoughts they inspired in their viewers. [Svetlana] Alpers was cited as saying that “looking at a work in a museum and looking at other people looking at a work in a museum is like taking part in the life story of this work and contributing to it.”

Still, Jacobs ploughed his own furrow. As Paul Stirton recalls,

Michael always believed in the wonder of looking. Yes, there may be a profound message in a painting, but Michael didn’t want to dress it up in philosophical trappings. By all means approach a painting in a scholarly manner, but never lose the wonder. (pp.179–80)

In his book about artists’ colonies at the end of the nineteenth century, The good and simple life, he is scathing about how most painters wanting to live that life considered “the downtrodden country folk … as little more than quaint components of the rural scene. Their social conscience was as little stirred by them as by pipe-playing goatherds in the Roman Campagna.” At moments, though he is the antithesis of a “political” art critic, Michael’s writing reads like Walter Benjamin fresh from his Frankfurt School, but with a glass of Sangria in his hand. (p.182)

From both his own experience and Thomas Struth’s photos of the public response to Las Meninas over several days, Jacobs recalls

All the faces of the bored, the transfixed, the distracted, the deeply serious, the adults whose only concern was to get the perfect snap, the school children who were wondering when their ordeal would be over, the others who fooled around or diligently made notes, the few whose lives were being transformed. (pp.69–70)

So (suitably) like Monty Python’s Proust sketch, Jacobs never quite got as far as discussing the painting “itself”—not so much due to his death, as by virtue of his propensity to dwell on personal reminiscences on modern Spanish history and his own relationship with it and the painting.

He remarks wryly on the images of Spain current in his youth, reminding me of images of China, not to mention Away from it all. He recalls a train journey in the early years of Spain’s transition to democracy, when he was reading a book that

gave no hint of Spain’s repressive military regime, but instead referred to the country’s “growing agricultural and industrial prosperity” and to the “happy coexistence of the old and the new”.
The book’s role as a catalyst for my early, life-changing Spanish journeys was due entirely to its black-and-white photos, which neglected this supposedly modern and prosperous country in favour of basket-laden donkeys, adobe-walled farms, palm groves, sun-scorched white alleys and other such images that endowed Spain with a predominantly medieval and African look. Even Madrid, so regularly criticized by past travellers for its brash modernity, was made to seem more exotic and rural than any other western city I had seen. The sole street-scene was one of a large flock of sheep being herded in front of a neo-Baroque, cathedral-like post-office building popularly dubbed “Our Lady of the Post”. (p.60)

He discusses the fortunes of Las Meninas during the civil war, as well as more recent events:

… closed shops wherever you looked, restaurants offering “crisis menus”, daily protests, and graffiti and posters revealing grievances with everyone and everything, from the monarchy, to the banks, to the multinationals, to the European Community, to the politicians who made Spain the country with the the highest number of politicians per capita in Europe. (p.72)

And he describes the painting’s changing frames and settings:

The Sala Velázquez was like a shrine. […] On entering this inner sanctuary, people took off their hats, spoke in low voices, and tiptoed around so as not to destroy the atmosphere of worshipful solemnity. Every so often someone would be observed bursting into tears.
There were of course others visitors who disliked this room’s churchlike theatricality and the sentimentally nationalistic and mindless emotional reactions it inspired. (p.115)

So as it stands, Jacobs’ book is concerned more with reception history than with the society of the time of the creation of Las Meninas (though he explored this elsewhere, and doubtless had voluminous notes on the painting to supplement existing research). Background on the society of Velazquez’s day is provided mainly by Vulliamy’s fine Introduction. Evoking Lowe, he notes that Seville, far from “the great Babylon of Spain, map of all nations”,

was also headquarters of the Inquisition. Indeed, the “Golden Age” which followed the unification of Spain in 1492 was accomplished, writes Michael Jacobs, “in a spirit of brutal fanaticism”, with the expulsion or enforced conversion of Andalucia’s many Moors and Jews. This dogmatism and what we would now call “ethnic cleansing” [here Vulliamy writes with traumatic personal experience in Bosnia] had a major and insidious demographic impact on the city, yet Seville remained characterized by “an architecture … of great contrasts”, wrote Michael, “for alongside the Muslim-inspired love of decorative arts richness is an inherently Spanish love of the austere”.

    * * *

GL Ten Kings

Yama King painting from Ten Kings series, North Gaoluo 1990.

All these books incorporate ethnography and reception history far more than the fusty old reified appreciation of “autonomous” objets d’art. For China,

  • Craig Clunas, Art in China (1st edition 1997)

makes a useful, wide-ranging, and thoughtful introduction, exploring themes like genres, techniques, functions, patrons, markets, producers, class, and gender.

For instance, discussing a wooden sculpture of the female deity Guanyin from Shanxi carved c1200CE, he describes its original multi-coloured decoration:

All this added to the immediacy of the image for worshippers, but it was covered over at some point, probably about 300–400 years later in the Ming dynasty (1368–1644), when it was painted gold in imitation of a gilded metal sculpture. Such an aesthetic change must have gone hand in hand with some change in the understanding of what a successful image ought to look like, a change at the level of both popular belief and the attitudes of religious professionals which is as yet hardly understood. (pp.56–7)

Whereas much scholarship remains based on artefacts in museums and galleries, fieldwork reveals a vast further repository of images still used in ritual practice. One thinks of the vast hoard of religious statuettes found in rural Hunan, subject of fine research.

And apart from statues and temple murals, ritual paintings depicting the Ten Kings and the punishments of the underworld—hung out for temple fairs and funerals—suggest comparisons with Christian equivalents in medieval and Renaissance art. And they too must have changed their meanings for audiences over recent centuries. At least, illiterate rural audiences would be affected rather deeply, and modern viewers may be underwhelmed now that they are saturated with horror films and video games. But we learn rather little about this from the scholarship; Daoist culture tends to be reified. Meanwhile, household ritual specialists have continue to perform Ten Kings scriptures for funerals.

It reminds me, challenged as I am in the field of visual culture, that ritual images through the ages also need unpacking—assessing changing meanings there too, including early sources for music iconography.

This has a lot to do with reception history. Such studies of visual culture may feed into our experience of Bach and all kinds of early and folk music. If even scholars of WAM and Renaissance painting feel it germane, then studies of Chinese musical cultures, and of Daoist ritual, shouldn’t lag behind.

* * *

But I’d like to end with some more populist vignettes (“Typical!”) on the meanings of art.

Among the numerous virtues of Alan Bennett is his accessible promotion of painting, found in Untold Stories (pp.453–514) [2] notably a talk he gave for the National Gallery, with the fine title “Going to the pictures”. These essays are also a passionate plea for culture to remain accessible, a rebuke to mercenary philistine governments.

He recalls an inauspicious early lecture he gave at Oxford on Richard II:

At the conclusion of this less than exciting paper I asked if there were any questions. There was an endless silence until finally one timid undergraduate at the back put up his hand.
“Could you tell me where you bought your shoes?”

 We’ve all been there. But his remarks on painting are priceless:

Somewhere in the National Gallery I’d like there to be a notice saying, “You don’t have to like everything”. When you’re appointed a trustee, the director, Neil MacGregor, takes you round on an introductory tour. Mine was at 9am, when I find it hard to look the milkman in the eye, let alone a Titian.

We were passing through the North Wing, I remember, and Neil was about to take me into one of the rooms when I said, “Oh, I don’t like Dutch pictures”, thereby seeming to dismiss Vermeer, De Hooch and indeed Rembrandt. And I saw a look of brief alarm pass over his face as if to say. “Who is this joker we’ve appointed?”

He cites his play A question of attribution, about (Michael Jacobs’ teacher) Anthony Blunt:

“What am I supposed to feel?” asks the policeman about going into the National Gallery.
“What do you feel?” asks Blunt.
“Baffled,” says Chubb, “and also knackered” … this last remark very much from the heart.
[… Blunt] tries to explain that the history of art shouldn’t be seen as simply a progress towards accurate or realistic reprentatation.
“Do we say Giotto isn’t a patch on Michelangelo because his figures are less lifelike?”
“Michelangelo?” says Chubb. “I don’t think his figures are lifelike frankly. The women aren’t. They’re just like men with tits. And the tits look as if they’ve been put on with an ice cream scoop. Has nobody pointed that out?”
“Not quite in those terms.”

In a *** passage AB blends hilarity with insight, evoking Baxandall:

In A Question of Attribution the Queen is made to have some doubts about paintings of the Annunciation.
“There are quite a lot of them,” says the Queen. “When we visited Florence we were taken round the art gallery there and well … I won’t say Annunciations were two a penny but they were certainly quite thick on the ground. And not all of them very convincing. My husband remarked that one of them looked to him like the messenger arriving from Littlewoods Pools. And that the Virgin was protesting that she had put a cross for no publicity.”
This last remark, though given to the Duke of Edinburgh, was actually another flag of distress, stemming from my unsuccessful attempts to assimilate and remember an article about the various positions of the Virgin’s hand, which are an elaborate semaphore of her feelings, a semaphore instantly understandable to contemporaries but, short of elaborate exposition, lost on us today. It’s a pretty out-of-the-way corner of art history but it leads me on to another question and another worry.
Floundering through some unreadable work on art history I’ve sometimes allowed myself the philistine thought that these elaborate expositions—gestures echoing other gestures, one picture calling up another and all underpinned with classical myth—that surely contemporaries could not have had all this at their fingertips or grasped by instinct what we can only attain by painstaking study and explication, and that this is pictures being given what’s been called “over meaning”. What made me repent, though, was when I started to think about my childhood and going to a different kind of pictures, the cinema.
When I was a boy we went to the pictures at least twice a week as most families did then, regardless of the merits of the film. I must have seen Citizen Kane when it came round for the first time, but with no thought that, apart from it being more boring, this was a different order of picture from George Formby, say, or Will Hay. And going to the pictures like this, unthinkingly, taking what was on offer week in week out was, I can see now, a sort of education, and induction into the subtle and complicated and not always conventional moral scheme that prevailed in the world of the cinema then, and which persisted with very little change until the early sixties.

Unpacking the complex attributes of two stock characters, he concludes:

The 20th-century audience had only to see a stock character on the screen to know instinctively what moral luggage he or she was carrying, the past they had, the future they could expect. And this was after, if one includes the silent films, not more than thirty years of going to the pictures. In the sixteenth century the audience or congregation would have been going to the pictures for 500 years at least, so how much more instinctive and instantaneous would their responses have been, how readily and unthinkingly they would been able to decode their pictures—just as, as a not very precocious child of eight, I could decode mine.
And while it’s not yet true that the films of the thirties and forties would need decoding for a child of the present day, nevertheless that time may come; the period of settled morality and accepted beliefs which produced such films is as much over now as is the set of beliefs and assumptions that produced an allegory as complicated and difficult, for us at any rate, as Bronzino’s Allegory of Venus and Cupid.

For a similar case, see here.

* * *

Apart from any intrinsic merit this little tour of visual culture may have, for me it also suggests several angles barely explored for Daoist ritual.

OK then, just one last aperçu—this time from Kenneth Clark (thanks, Rod). On the contrast between and reified art and social reception, here’s his typically urbane formulation in Civilization:

At some time in the 9th century one could have looked down the Seine and seen the prow of a Viking ship coming up the river. Looked at today in the British Museum, it is a powerful work of art; but to the mother of a family trying to settle down in her little hut, it would have seemed less agreeable.

 

On behalf of the splendid Craig ClunasI accept full responsibility for any inanities in this post. If you all play your cards right, I promise not to do this kind of thing too often.
Craig and any other art historians who have managed to read this far might care to exact revenge by writing Specious Flapdoodle
[famous 19th-century Baptist pastor—Ed.] about early music or Daoist ritual… 

 

** Not, may I just say, the kind of moronic homespun language used by one maniacal Führer about another: “smart cookie” or “total nut-job”? Roll over Cicero.

 

[1] Some stimulating reviews may be found herehere, and here.
[2] Online excerpts include http://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/i-know-what-i-like-but-im-not-sure-about-art-1620866.html and https://www.lrb.co.uk/v20/n07/alan-bennett/alan-bennett-chooses-four-paintings-for-schools.

More wordplay

This little digest is partly by way of cajoling my friend Nick, distinguished tenor
[cheap at the price], into unleashing his amazing opera anagrams on the world.

Wordplay in English and other languages (not least Chinese) displays dazzling and indeed warped creativity. For “constrained writing”, the oeuvre of Oulipo is most celebrated.

I’ll content myself with one anagram, on Mike Keith’s fine site, an extraordinary version of Dante’s Inferno:

This is a simultaneous anagram and translation. The English text is both an anagram of and an approximate translation of the first four tercets of Canto III of Dante’s Inferno, from the original 13th-century Italian.

Original:
Per me si va ne la citta dolente
Per me si va ne l’etterno dolore
Per me si va tra la perduta gente.

Giustizia mosse il mio alto fattore;
Fecemi la divina podestate,
La somma sapienza e ‘l primo amore.

Dinanzi a me non fuor cose create
Se non etterne, e io etterno duro.
LASCIATE OGNE SPERANZA, VOI CH’INTRATE.

Queste parole di colore oscuro
vid’ io scritte al sommo d’una porta;
per ch’io: “Maestro, il senso lor m’e duro.”

Anagram:
I am a portal to a sad place.
I am a cover to eternal fire.
Go, see our pit ooze craven memories.

Elite persistence moved some creator;
Divine omnipotence created me;
I am solo orgies of primal love.

Listen: ere me no denizens used our portal
I quit not, and I last eternal.
FOREGO ALL HOPE, ALL MEN THAT ENTER.

Crazed and curious, in a daze I sat
To see man pour out over a portal;
So I said: “Master, I cannot see its import.”

For more succinct anagrams, see Igor Stravinsky; Charles MackerrasDarcey Bussell—and Maidstone (an unlikely venue for their rendition of the Rite of Spring).

* * *

Among palindromes, [1] I’ve always been fond of

T. Eliot, top bard, notes putrid tang emanating, is sad. “I’d assign it a
name: gnat dirt upset on drab pot toilet”

—attributed to Alastair Read rather than W.H. Auden, it seems.

I like the sound of the Finnish palindrome with 10,102 words—even if, as one commentator candidly observes, “It’s really not that much fun.” We can limber up with some shorter ones (here), like

saippuakuppinippukauppias—soap cup batch trader
[SJ: Aha, perhaps this is useful as Elk lubricant?]

The following are to be found on the sites
http://palindromist.org (“Wary, Alpine Zen: I Play Raw”) and
http://www.cadaeic.net/palind.htm

They can be elegant and suggestive:

Rot, cello collector!

Mao bore Jeroboam.

No more Cicero, mon! [the Rastafarian has had his fill of the classics.]

 Overheard at the flea-market:
“Camel bible, Mac?”
“Cameraware, Mac?”

or the fine

An igloo costs a lot, Ed!
Amen. One made to last! So cool, Gina!

Now Derek can kiss Anais A. Nin, as I, an ass (I, knackered) won.
[extra points for proper names, as Mike Keith notes—the more evocative the better]

Olson, I won—see Saratoga repossess opera! Go, Tara, see Snow in Oslo.

Ajar? Aha! Maybe, Dan, omelet is opposite lemonade, by a Maharaja!

Some men interpret nine memos.

And longer ones like

“Traci, to regard nine men in drag,” Eric (in a play or an ironic art spot) warned, “I am not so bad.” “I’d never even seen knees … never even did a Boston maiden raw,” tops Traci, “nor in a royal panic. I regard nine men in drag —erotic art.”

Or a poem:

Amen, Icy Cinema [title and poem are separate palindromes]
Amen, I can!
I stop elastic ire
To see La Dolce Vita.

Covet?
I moisten nose,
Sonnets I omit, evocative clod!

Ale? Esoteric?
It’s ale! Pots in a cinema!

There are word-unit palindromes too:

You swallow pills for anxious days and nights, and days, anxious for pills, swallow you.

And sure enough, some have risen to the challenge of the palindromic haiku (work in progress), like this one by Ailihphilia (sic):

Oak, dove, temple: hymn
In mutual autumn, in my
Helpmete vodka. O!

Or some by Dalibor.

And then for the gourmet, there’s the menu from the “Moor Room”, a restaurant for palindromists:

Do, O Food [main course]
Tangy gnat
Koalas a la OK
La emu meal
Salad, alas

Gorge Grog [drinks]
Regal lager
Lemon o’ Mel

Desserts Stressed
Sugar a Gus
Bananas an’ a Nab

Some entries from “Drown In Word”, the (fictional) palindromic dictionary:
Gigolo:  Solo gig.
Paranoia:  I, on a rap.
Semantic:  It names.
Pa Plato:  Total pap.

This (from here) is pleasing:

palindromes

I note that “fear of palindromes” is Aibohphobia.

Finally, the erudite David Hughes, himself no mean songster, draws my attention to this:

* * *

True, while any sophisticated artistic activity (which perhaps excludes the KKK songbook and poetry competition) may be seen as a bulwark against philistinism, none of this quite butters any parsnips in the task that currently confronts us—to resist with every pore the barbarity of the putrid tang emanating from the drab pot toilet of the White House. T. Eliot, top bard, would have been sad too. I’d assign it a name, all right.

 

[1] See e.g.
http://www.cadaeic.net/palind.htm
http://www.cadaeic.net/silopolis.htm
https://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-2762,00.html
https://www.dailydot.com/debug/worlds-longest-palindrome-sentence/

Edible, intangible, dodgy

*For a whole host of related posts, see heritage tag in sidebar!*

Mars bar

One of the more entertaining excursions of UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) project is in the field of cuisine, under whose august portals “Mediterranean diet” has been loftily inscribed.

Among many fun BTL comments there is one from a certain Nickov:

Might have a stab at protecting the Bristol Channel Diet:
Gregg’s pasties, white cider and chlamydia.

I also eagerly await an application from the Glasgow cultural authorities (whoever they might be) to, um, preserve the venerable deep-fried Mars bar.

What of Spotted Dick, I hear you cry? And I now note that Fray Bentos is not just a real place, but another UNESCO world heritage site!

I was musing on all this during my recent trip to Lisbon, whose fine cuisine hardly fits into the Mediterranean gastronomic jigsaw.

While we’re on the topic of transmission, this important corrective doesn’t entirely confound the popular cliché that Bach’s music fell out of use after his death. His sons, and their audiences, might not have taken kindly to being told to continue performing their father’s music—though doubtless ICH funding would have influenced their attitude.

Were one to be at all jocular (surely not?—Ed.), one could query many ancient cultural traditions. Where might UNESCO stand on [1] wife-beating? Or indeed FGM? And whatever happened to child chimney-sweeps? Witch-burning, a tradition eradicated in most parts of the world, is also seriously endangered. Molvania has nice comments on all this kind of flapdoodle.

Thanks to Helen Rees (herself a great authority on the ICH) for alerting me to this article, succinctly broaching such issues:

  • Richard Kurin, “Safeguarding Intangible Cultural Heritage in the 2003 UNESCO Convention: a critical appraisal”, Museum 56.1 (2004), pp.66–77.

(pp.69–71:)

The definition, as given in the Convention, can encompass a broader range of activity than the framers assumed. Such cultural forms as rap music, Australian cricket, modern dance, post-modernist architectural knowledge, and karaoke bars all symbolize cultural communities (albeit not necessarily ethnically or regionally) and pass on their own traditions (though not usually genealogically). (69–71)

Not all intangible cultural heritage is recognized for the purposes of the Convention. To be recognized, intangible cultural heritage must be consistent with human rights, exhibit
 the need for mutual respect between communities, and be sustainable. This is a very high and one might say unrealistic and imposing standard.

Understandably, UNESCO does not want to support or encourage practices inimical to human rights such as slavery, infanticide, or torture. Yet the standard is not without controversy. Is female genital mutilation a legitimate part of intangible cultural heritage to be recognized by the Convention or not? Is a religious tradition that includes Brahmins, but excludes non-Brahmins disqualified as intangible cultural heritage because of its discriminatory quality? Is a musical tradition where only men play instruments and only women sing inequitable, and thus contrary to human rights accords? Determining what is allowable or not as intangible cultural heritage under the Convention will be a difficult task.

Similarly problematic is the “mutual respect” clause in the Convention. Intangible cultural heritage is by definition something used for community self-definition. Many cultural communities though, define themselves in opposition or resistance to others. Their very identity as a people or community relies on their victory over or defeat by others. Their defining songs and tales may celebrate the glory of empire, victorious kings, religious conversion, or alternatively resistance to perceived injustice, martyrdom and defeat—not the mutual respect of peoples. The Convention’s standard is quite idealistic, seeing culture as generally hopeful and positive, born not of historical struggle and conflict but of a varied flowering of diverse cultural ways. Including the “mutual respect” standard can however disqualify much of the world’s traditional culture from coverage by the Convention.

Kurin goes on to query the problematic standard of “sustainability”:

The whole treaty is about safeguarding heritage thought to be endangered to some degree or other. The very fact that a tradition is endangered means that it is not sustainable in its current form or in its current context—hence the need for national or international intervention. Yet by definition a tradition to be recognized as intangible cultural heritage under the Convention and thus worthy of safeguarding, must itself also be sustainable. The provision, though well meaning, is confusing. Sustainability here is an ideal to be achieved, not an eligibility requirement for action.

(pp.73–5:)

Surely no one rationally envisions the Convention as safeguarding the transmission of intangible cultural heritage through such coercive forms as legally requiring the sons and daughters who practise a tradition to continue in their parents’ footsteps. No cultural treaty should ensure results through the denial of freedom promised under human-rights accords, with the opportunity for social, cultural, and economic mobility.

Culture changes and evolves. Practices of the past are discarded when they cease to be functionally useful or symbolically meaningful to a community. UNESCO and Member States need not guarantee through financial and symbolic rewards the survival of those customs and practices, beliefs and traditions that the community itself wants to discard. Nor should they encourage particularly harmful practices, or “freeze” cultural practices in the guise of preserving cultural diversity or defending against cultural globalization.

The Convention tends to reduce intangible cultural heritage to a list of largely expressive traditions, atomistically recognized and conceived. The actions it proposes miss the larger, holistic aspect of culture—the very characteristic that makes culture intangible. This is the intricate and complex web of meaningful social actions undertaken by individuals, groups, and institutions. Thousands of human cultures today face a myriad of challenges. Whether they survive or flourish depends upon so many things—the freedom and desire of culture bearers, an adequate environment, a sustaining economic system, a political context within which their very existence is at least tolerated. Actions to safeguard “tangibilized” inventoried items of cultural production are unlikely to safeguard adequately the larger, deeper, more diffuse intangible cultural patterns and contexts. Saving songs may not protect the ways of life of their singers, or the appreciation due by listeners. Far greater more holistic and systematic action is likely to be required.

Two recent books contain useful case-studies and references:

  • Michael Dylan Foster and Lisa Gilman (eds), UNESCO on the ground: local perspectives on Intangible Cultural Heritage (2015) (review here)
  • Christina Maags and Marina Svensson (eds), Chinese heritage in the making: experiences, negotiations and contestations (2018)

The Introduction to the latter gives some nuanced perspectives:

As several authors have pointed out, the adoption of the intangible heritage discourse means that many cultural practices, including religious rituals that were seen as “superstitious” practices in the past, are now celebrated as heritage. In this heritagization process many of them have been reconstructed and reinterpreted, and some have had their religious aspects downplayed or ignored. (18–19)

Heritage listings and management is not an innocent and non-political celebration of heritage and culture, but a selective process that leads to hierarchies and exclusion. It can furthermore be used as a tool of governance to control and manage tradition, cultural practices, and religion, and to steer people’s memories, sense of place, and identities in certain ways. Several scholars have pointed out that the use of culture and intangible cultural heritage can be a softer and less visible way of “rendering individuals governable”. The listing, reification, and celebration of certain cultural practices can thus be a tool of governance, especially when individuals and communities are excluded from decision-making but still come to internalize the validation of the selected practices and behaviours. In the context of China, ICH could be seen as a new form of governance and a way to control religious and ethnic communities in particular. (20)

The heritage boom in China is partly driven by the central state and by local governments that are motivated by both ideological and economic considerations. The top-down heritagization process has, however, given rise to new stakeholders who may have their own agendas and express different views. At the same time, the language of heritage has also opened up space for individual citizens and local communities to celebrate and safeguard their own traditions and local history. Individual citizens and communities are experiencing, performing, and documenting heritage in a more bottom-up way, sometimes outside of the state narrative, at the same time as many actors try to capitalize on the official heritage discourse in order to gain legitimacy for their own history and traditions. (28)

I’m sure theorists have been beavering away at unpacking the prescriptive assumption that all tradition must be “good”. Conversely, ethnography avoids prescription—I prefer to devote my energies to documenting the traditions themselves, as I find them, rather than awarding prizes on questionable aesthetic and theoretical grounds, or leading them down the tortuous path of state institutionalisation and commodification.

Meanwhile I find similar concerns expressed for flamencology:

Something is wrong with any interpretative method that reifies genres and objectifies abstractions to the point that events in the present are reduced to reflections of the past.

So I’m not alone in my reservations. See also e.g. this review of a volume on UNESCO on the ground:

  • Valdimar Tr. Hafstein, “Intangible Heritage as diagnosis, safeguarding as treatment”, Journal of Folklore Research 52.2–3 (2015),

with its opening

Patient: “What is it, Doctor?”
Doctor: “There’s no easy way to break this to you: you have heritage.”
Patient: “Heritage? Are you serious? What kind?”
Doctor: “Intangible. I’m sorry.”
Patient: “Intangible heritage… How bad is it?”
Doctor: “It is in urgent needs of safeguarding. It is already metacultural.”
Patient: “What’s the prognosis?”
Doctor: “Intangible heritage is chronic, I’m afraid.” […]

* * *

Here, and in the thoughtful analysis of Heritage movements by John Butt, there are many lessons for China, which are unlikely to be learned. In the south of Fujian province—alongside the extraordinary Hokkien traditions of Daoist ritual, processions with god statues borne aloft on sedans, and nanyin chamber ballads—vicious chronic inter-village feuds are a hallowed part of the local heritage.

In China at least, one must observe that the ICH is a state agency to trumpet the grandeur of ancient Chinese culture, rather than a dispassionate body supporting scholarly research; except in the most hackneyed of terms, it can hardly confront the most basic aspect of such cultures—their traumatic fortunes through successive upheavals since the 1940s. And where do spirit mediums (anchors in maintaining local ritual life, among both the ethnic minorities and the Han Chinese), cults, and sectarian groups stand here? Perhaps fortunately for them, they seem most unlikely to be offered the poisoned chalice of ICH status.

I’ve introduced Ka-ming Wu’s thoughtful analysis of heritage projects in Shaanbei here. While we always need to understand the involvement/intrusion of the state, I’m still concerned that all the attention that scholars (both Chinese and foreign) currently lavish on a state institution distracts them from studying local cultures themselves (of which ICH may or may not be a part). Even those who are sensitive to the flaws of the system may be driven by the agenda of studying it; even noting the way it may be utilized by local agents, it’s still the focus. In a short space of time, it has dominated the discourse. Contrast, for instance, the vast bibliography on ICH with the virtually non-existent studies of the numerous local Daoist lineages in Gansu province and their rituals in changing society. Look, here I am myself having to go on about ICH when I could be writing about the Daoists!

Conversely, the ICH has recently begun to play a significant role in many local cultures, and it is now likely to be included in the remit of fieldworkers. It has become significant among amateur ritual associations in Hebei (first of my main field sites), which otherwise were becoming partly moribund (though for enduring ritual functions, see here).

But fortunately even the Chinese state seems unable to transform local cultures into one big glossy Disneyland. Much ritual activity tends to be spared the double-edged sword of attention from party-state cultural initiatives.While the Li family Daoists in north Shanxi are nominally part of the ICH system, their livelihood and activities remain almost solely dependent on providing funerary services for their local clients—for those who are still left behind in the villages, that is.

My concern is still that the ICH is neither so all-pervasive nor as malleable as some studies suggest.

If all this commodification and reification is a distressing distortion of Han Chinese cultures, it’s still worse for minority traditions such as those of the Tibetans and Uyghurs, for whom the political agenda to sinicise and tame is even clearer: for the Uyghurs, do read this fine recent report.

[1] As in “Where do you stand on Donald Trump?” “On his windpipe.”

The great British tradition

In order to satisfy their new bedfellows, the “government” of the “United” “Kingdom” needs more time to insert some suitably misogynistic details into the Queen’s Speech. Perhaps aficionados of calendrical rituals can look forward to more parades too…

One obstacle to the prompt delivery of the Speech is a fine technical detail—just the kind that I relish:

Also known as the gracious speech [sic—SJ], it was historically written on vellum with ink that takes three days to dry. Although it is now written on thick goatskin parchment [YAY! Getting down with the kids—SJ], this also needs several days to dry, meaning a speech cannot be amended at the last minute.

I rest my case. Go on, Queenie, just tweet it. We all know how well that works

Resting case

Resting my case. After Li band tour, Paris.

 

Michelle Obama

Meanwhile (see my previous post), the passionate engagement, dignity, and basic human decency of Michelle Obama are desperately needed in these disturbing times.

We may indeed have reservations about her husband’s legacy, and his current conformity to the distressing rule of enrichment (a trail blazed more predictably by our own former “socialist” leader), but if only we had appreciated him more at the time—all the more so, given the dangerous pompous immoral self-serving infantile sulky posturings of his successor.

Even as an orator, while her hubby is no slouch himself, Michelle is in another league. Her passion was movingly evinced in her speeches to schoolgirls on her visits to Britain since 2009:

Now I realize all this is a clichéd bleeding-heart liberal do-gooder Guardian reader’s take, and I quite get the surly defensiveness of the fusty conservative stuck in the 1950s, before their birthright was threatened by uppity women and foreigners, when (or so they thought) the unwashed classes still knew their place. For a fine article on the antithesis to inspirational women like Michelle, see here—and note several BTL comments that throw out the baby with the bathwater by “refusing to be told what to think”.

Anyone unmoved by Michelle’s speeches has a heart of stone. Her inspiration is already bearing fruit here. Still,

Peccable musical sensibilities

I guess we should be grateful—nothing focuses the mind like having a vindictive sulky misogynistic illiterate baby as Philistine-in-chief in the White House. Some of his advisers were concerned that withdrawing from the climate agreement “might damage his credibility”. Where have they been?

Sure, we have worse things to worry about than his highly peccable aesthetic sensibilities, but they evidently developed early. In “his” 1987 book The Art of the Deal, Trump wrote:

In the second grade I actually gave a teacher a black eye—I punched my music teacher because I didn’t think he knew anything about music and I almost got expelled.

I’d love to know more about this music teacher—just how little is it possible to know about music? Can it be that the young boy’s ire was caused by the inexplicable absence from the syllabus of the late Beethoven string quartets, which as we all know would later form his core listening?

But unseriously though folks, this is a fine spoof. I particularly love

bachs-goldberg-variations-1457709453

stravinskys-rite-of-spring-1457709448

barbers-adagio-for-strings-1457709451.jpg

Such is Trumpolini’s classical erudition that he should appreciate this fugue by “W.T.F. Bach” (lesser-known brother of P.D.Q.)—a must for your local choir:

Like Dudley Moore’s psalm, what makes this so brilliant is the incongruity between the juxtaposition of text and the solemn musical pastiche of baroque grandeur.

And if you think translating medieval Daoist texts is difficult, spare a thought for interpreters, trying to make sense of Tweety’s mangling of the English language. At least culona inchiavabile can be transformed into something even more evocative.

Back in Blighty, I see Bumbling Boris (aka Boris Piccaninny Watermelon Letterbox Cake Disaster Weightloss Haircut Bullshit Wall-Spaffer Johnson) has escaped again, leaping back into the fray by welcoming a kindred spirit to Britain with more blithe inanities—but he’s got The Latin, so that’s all right then. Imagine Conservative Central Office:

“How did he get out? I thought we packed him off to Bongo-Bongo Land.”

Homage to Nina Hagen

 

Nina

I unfairly tucked away the mind-blowing Naturträne in a post setting forth from Viv Albertine and the Slits, but Nina Hagen richly deserves her own homage.

Rather like the leader of the free world shoving the prime minister of Montenegro aside in Brussels:

(The only logical explanation is that he somehow mistook the occasion for a beauty queen molestation contest with a prize of unlimited ketchup-drenched steaks),

Nina elbows the competition out of the way. In her case the competition includes Maria Callas, Kate Bush, Sid Vicious, and Lady Gaga. As one YouTube BTL comment observes, she could be Klaus Nomi’s sister.

Pre-punk, while still in the GDR, her early song Du hast den farbfilm Vergessen (1974) is nuanced:

With all due respect to free healthcare, she is one of the great things to come out of the GDR—which she did, of course, inevitably. Even if the GDR “didn’t always have enough bananas” (my book, p.147), at least Honecker could pat himself on the back for inadvertently nurturing a superstar.

Whether or not you subscribe to Nina’s Weltanschauung, her vocal technique is, um, breathtaking. Here’s a live version of Naturträne:

Some more BTL comments:

This is what comes out when you stuff highly talented kids with best education and at one point they start to think for themselves.

Please, when I die I want to be reincarnated as her mic.

She gives Sid Vicious a run for his money in My way (this also from 1978):

And listen how she subverts Somewhere over the rainbow:

Good to see the Leipzig Big Band accompanying her instead of Bach for a change. I’m not sure I’m quite ready for her version of Erbarme Dich, though. OK, she belongs to a particular moment in time—but expressive culture always does, like Bach.

The von Trump family

The recent visit of the Addams family, sorry I mean Trump family, to the Pope afforded ample fodder for the “enemy of the people”:

Pope

Did Tweety’s hapless advisors fail to point out that it wasn’t a Godfather-themed Halloween party? Not to mention the gender angle:

Either I’m not a woman or my female share of timeless wisdom comes with a mutant variation, because rich girls in luxe outfits hanging round a bunch of guys and saying nothing doesn’t exude much intelligence, let alone “power”, to me. Maybe I’m misreading what “feminine power” means in this context. Is it something biological—like when your internalised resentment at patriarchy coils so tightly into your Kegel muscles that your eyes start glistening? Flicking male hands away from you may indeed be a symptom.

Among several gems from US TV, Jimmy Fallon was good:

Everyone in the US was watching closely and looking for some white smoke to see if we had a new president.

Signoffs and other cross-pond drôlerie

In our daily badinage on orchestral tours of the US of A in the Good Old Days, we got into the habit of handing over to each other by imitating CNN’s signalling style:

And they say there could be more revelations to come. Wolf.

[Wolf Blitzer, [1] of course, was an “anchor”. Considering that Britannia Rule the Waves (just dig that funky optative verb there, folks—”You Wish”, as the Argot of Yoof [2] would have it), it’s curious how we don’t much go in for anchors. [3]  I guess we consider them beneath us…]

Rather like my teacher Paul’s empirical use of classifiers, we interpreted it as a fixed signoff at the end of every sentence, which led us to:

I thought the Adagio was really too slow last night. Wolf.

I’m starving. Let’s go eat. [4] Wolf.

Usually, rather than an interrogative (“Wolf?”), it’s declaimed confidently in the matter-of-fact descending fourth tone.

It does seem wise to keep such signals simple:

On stage at the end of a concert, among ourselves we would also adopt the brilliant casual signoff,

Well folks, I guess that’s just about it for tonight!

This works particularly well after an obscure or meditative work. Like:

Join us next time for another wacky episode of Ockeghem’s Marian Antiphons!

For an equally zany intro for such pieces, see here; and PDQ Bach is also essential listening. Wolf.

 

[1] OK, we Brits have our own proud tradition of silly names, but American names are in a class of their own. Following the credits at the end of a Hollywood movie is like reading an avant-garde poem, plunging into an exotic cornucopia containing all the cultures of the world. Though if Tweety has anything to do with it, there will be no more films, no more culture, no more world. Nothing, as Stewart Lee observes.

[2] The Argot of Yoof: a popular media pub, always packed at lunchtime. Near the somewhat quieter Aardvark and Climbing Boot.

[3] Unless you count Piers Morgan, who tries unsuccessfully to lose the initial W.

[4] For me at least, there’s an illicit thrill in uttering the formulation “go eat”. Similarly for “Can I get” instead of “May I have”—a quick web search reveals mainly  the usual pompous British indignation yearning for ethnic purity, though one writer suggests rather elusively that “Shakespeare probably would have loved it” (as in the little-known line from Romeo and Juliet: “Can I get a Diavola and a supersize Coke to go?”). Can I get or May I have, that is the question. See also my thoughts on “Who is this?”.

Hope for our future

Amidst all the recent plague of misogynistic claptrap—exemplified by the Neanderthal spewings from Tweety McTangerine—all is not lost.

One of the very most inspiring stories of recent months concerned the brilliant ripostes (here) by indignant young female football players at a County Durham primary school to the Football Association’s advice (“naïve rather than sexist”???) on ways of recruiting more girls to the sport. Call me a Guardian reader if you will, but FFS, even The Sun expressed wholehearted admiration for the girls’ protests!

Their letters are just brilliant.

We aren’t brainless Barbie dolls.

Whether or not they’ve read the feminist classics yet (in pretty pink covers, perhaps, FA?), or even listened to Bridget Christie, they’re on the case, making mature cogent arguments way beyond the infantile rants of the leader of the Free World. There’s hope yet.

football letter

For ancient Chinese female footballers, see here; and for more on women’s football, here.

Also inspiring is a recent complaint by a 7-year-old girl about a sexist road sign. For more hope for our future, see here.

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.

Punctuation for truck drivers

commas

A complex and costly new legal ruling (or here) vindicates us nerdy language pedants. It’s brought devotees of the numinous Oxford comma out of the woodwork.

To show the risks of eschewing the Oxford comma, here’s another party game—you can make up your own lists from the template:

I’d like to thank my parents, Mother Teresa and the pope

I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty

I dedicate this book to my parents, Martin Amis and JK Rowling

I have been inspired by my parents, Donald Trump and Barbara Cartland.

The theme is further explored in several articles on the languagelog site.

See, punctuation rules OK. Or is that punctuation rules, OK?

Learning the piano

By contrast with the Sonatas and Interludes of John Cage, and as part of my occasional series on music acquisition, and also on language learning, here’s Milton Jones:

I used to wonder if, in China, young piano players used to have to learn “Knife and Fork”.

Doubtless a formative early piece for Lang Lang.

Zhou and Nixon

For broader perspectives on the learning process in world music, albeit with fewer jokes, see the fine documentary series Growing into music.

Trumps

With such cultural refinement at the Helm, who needs the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, eh???

Take a flying jump

A glowing paean from one Führer to another—Tweety McTangerine (yes, the Mango Trumpolini himself) on another Great Helmsman:

You have to give him credit. How many young guys—he was like 26 or 25 when his father died—take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden… he goes in, he takes over, he’s the boss… It’s incredible. He wiped out the uncle, he wiped out this one, that one. This guy doesn’t play games.

That’s how it’s often cited, but in the interests of scrupulous balance, the fuller transcript puts it in context:

If you look at North Korea—this guy, he’s like a maniac, OK? And you have to give him credit. How many young guys—he was like 26 or 25 when his father died—take over these tough generals, and all of a sudden—you know, it’s pretty amazing when you think of it. How does he do that? Even though it is a culture and it’s a cultural thing, he goes in, he takes over, and he’s the boss… It’s incredible. He wiped out the uncle, he wiped out this one, that one. I mean, this guy doesn’t play games. And we can’t play games with him. Because he really does have missiles. And he really does have nukes.

“It is a culture and it’s a cultural thing” (like the KKK and NRA, eh?)—there, who says he doesn’t do eloquent anthropological refection? Eat your heart out, Bourdieu. This guy, he’s like a maniac, OK?

kim

This photo reminds me of a classic story, perhaps originally from the USSR, but widely shared in this Chinese adaptation (Fieldworkers’ joke manual no.23). Diplomatic as ever, I shall cunningly disguise the identity of the butt of the joke, notoriously dim, by calling him Lee Beng.

Deng Xiaoping, Jiang Zemin, and Lee Beng are taking a flight together with a group of schoolkids when the plane develops a fault and begins an alarming descent.

There are only three parachutes on board, so Deng Xiaoping grabs one, straps it on his back, and loftily declaring “The People need me!” he leaps out; soon his parachute unfurls and he glides down to earth. Jiang Zemin follows suit.

Lee Beng gets the idea, so he too grabs a bundle, straps it on his back, and exclaiming “The People need me!” he throws himself out after them.

One of the schoolkids looks down as he hurtles earthwards and cries out, “Waah! Uncle Lee’s got my satchel!”

Coming back to the leaders who inspired this post, one can but dream.

More on taxonomy

As with feminist punkvocal styles of the worldthe organology of the world’s instrumentarium, and indeed any other human activity, the taxonomies made by ordinary people are evident from their fine discriminations of nuance between pop genres that may seem arcane to the outsider—like acid house, drum and bass, grunge, indie, metal, Northern soul (“Naa, I’m not into the Manchester sound, guys”), rap, hip-hop, and even trainers, FFS  (don’t ask me…).

And just the same goes for rural dwellers’ perceptions of ceremonial genres and ritual activity in any single county of China: shawm bands, geomancers and spirit mediums (distinctions within the latter partly gender-based), [1] amateur sects, temple priests, occupational household ritual specialists, inner and outer altars, civil and martial altars, Buddhist Daoists and Daoist Buddhists (I kid you not), [2] “northern” and “southern” ritual wind bands around Beijing[3] opera troupes, singers, bards, beggars….

Taxonomy is not merely the preserve of the fusty academic; it’s part of what makes us all human.

Such perceptions can also arouse passionate and bitter disputes—never more so than between, and within, religions (if less so in China, notwithstanding imperial persecutions). But classification doesn’t have to equate with building walls. Whereas the brutish black-and-white (sic) xenophobia of a certain Tangerine fuckwit suggests that his sensibilities may not be so finely tuned, taxonomy can also reveal connections and build bridges.

 

[1] For just one region, see Adam Chau, Miraculous response, pp.54–8.
[2] See several reports in the Daojiao yishi congshu series, and Overmyer, Ethnography in China.
[3] See also my In search of the folk Daoists of north China, Appendix 1.

Myles: a glowing paean, or The life of O’Brien

Flann

For a Parisian deviation, see here.

What’s all this fuss about Flann O’Brien, I hear you ask. (One perceptive tribute by Kevin McMahon is penned entirely in the form of a Mylesian pub conversation). [1] Padraig Colman, in a fine series of detailed tributes, sums him up dispassionately as “a morose drunk who led an uneventful life as a senior civil servant in Dublin”. For anyone not O’Fay with O’Brien (as the Great Man must have said somewhere?), here’s a little resumé, before you plunge into sundry other posts under the Myles tag.

Well, for one thing, as fellow Flanneurs will know, he was an astute observer of “Poor suffering Hugh Manity”, that’s why. He was a dedicated chronicler of the Hugh Mann condition—a common and distressing affliction. He had a keen ear for the conversation of The Plain People of Ireland, The Brother, and insufferable bores of any Ilk, whether pretentious or just trite. He had the Cut of their Jib, whatever that is. His intolerance of cant (and doubtless Kant) has brought him a cult following [Autospell running amok?—Ed.].

Apart from The Man Who Has Read It In Manuscript, another snowclone that is constantly on the lips of the aficionado is

The Man Who Spoke Irish At A Time When It Was Neither Profitable Nor Popular.

This meretricious character inevitably takes a bow in the Myles na Gopaleen Catechism of Cliché,

a unique compendium of all that is nauseating in contemporary writing. Compiled without regard to expense or the feelings of the public.

Of what was any deceased citizen you like to mention typical?
Of all that is best in Irish life.

Correct. With what qualities did he endear himself to all who knew him?
His charm of manner and unfailing kindness.

Yes. But with what particularly did he impress all those he came in contact with?
His sterling qualities of mind, loftiness of intellect and unswerving devotion to the national cause.

What article of his was always at the disposal of the national language?
His purse.

And what more abstract assistance was readily offered to those who sought it?
The fruit of his wide reading and profound erudition.

At what time did he speak Irish?
At a time when it was neither profitable nor popular.

With what cause did he never disguise the fact that his sympathies lay?
The cause of national independence.

And at what time?
At a time when lesser men were content with the rôle of time-server and sycophant.

What was he in his declining years?
Though frail of health, indefatigable in his exertions on behalf of his less fortunate fellow men.

Whom did he marry in 1879?
A Leitrim Lady.

And at what literary work was he engaged at the time of his death?
His monumental work on The Oghams of Tipperary.

And of what nature is his loss?
Well-nigh irreparable.

For my own tributes to the Catechism style, see here, here, and indeed here.

Looby describes Myles as

a postmodernist at a time when it was neither profitable nor popular,

and McMahon signs off with a flourish:

When did you start reading this stuff?
At a time when it was neither profitable nor popular.

(Go, and never darken my towels again—Rufus T. Firefly)

What with our Psalm, and our Sermon, I hereby declare our impertinent sequence of Trois petites liturgies quorate.

OK, watch this, now I’m going to make a subtle transition (and Myles would have relished the voiceover to Away from it all):

Gondolas, gondolas, gondolas. Everywhere… gondolas.
But there’s more to Venice than gondolas […]
We pause to reflect that despite its cathedrals,
its palaces, its bustling markets,
and its priceless legacy of renaissance art,
the one thing that Venice truly lacks—is leprechauns.
[scene changes] But there’s no shortage of leprechauns here:
Yes, Ireland, the emerald island…

Here we are again. Normal service resumed. A critic, and a critic of critics, Flann O’Brien discussed art, music, and theatre acutely—sometimes even more acutely than this:

Literary criticism
My grasp of what he wrote and meant
Was sometimes only five or six %.
The rest was only words and sound—
My reference is to Ezra £.

He would have enjoyed my Heifetz story too.

His Keats and Chapman series is full of shameless yet often arcane puns:

“My dear girl”, he said, “You have been living in F. Huehl’s pair o’dice.”
When she was gone he turned to Chapman.
“F. Huehl and his Monet are soon parted,” he observed.

Some more from Groucho:

“Sir, you try my patience!”
“I don’t mind if I do—you must come over and try mine sometime.”

For all his withering disdain for pretension, Myles’s essays are liberally sprinkled with French, German, and what Peter Cook, in a not-unMylesian sketch, called “The Latin”:

(or for surly purists, the full authentic urtext here).

Nor is the Catechism of Cliché limited to English. It becomes increasingly unhinged (as one does):

Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?
Mulieres eorum.

And one for the Jesuit sinologist, methinks:

Noli me quidere?
Tang.

And, for the Indologist, no trawl through the Milesian ouevre would be complete without

Ubi nemo mi lacessit (inquit Gandhi)?
In Poona.

In 2016, writing in The Irish Times (since Myles’s day, allegedly an organ otherwise less hilarious than The China Daily), Frank McNally did a rather good sequel on the elections. Indeed, it’s a fun game to play. One day, if you don’t watch your step, I may regale you with my very own Catechism of Orchestral Cliché. You have been warned. [Oh all right then, if you insist—here you are. Now I’ve even penned a Catechism of Chinese Cliché. Is nothing sacred?]

On my visits to Germany I constantly giggle at Myles’s Buchhandlung service:

A visit that I paid to the house of a newly married friend the other day set me thinking. My friend is a man of great wealth and vulgarity. […] Whether he can read or not, I do not know, but some savage faculty of observation told him that most respectable and estimable people usually had a lot of books in their houses. So he bought several book-cases and paid some rascally middleman to stuff them with all manner of new books, some of them very costly volumes on the subject of French landscape painting.
I noticed on my visit that not one of them had ever been opened or touched, and remarked the fact.
“When I get settled down properly,” said the fool, “I’ll have to catch up on my reading.”
This is what set me thinking. Why would a wealthy person like this be put to the trouble of pretending to read at all? Why not [pay] a professional book-handler to go in and suitably maul his library for so-much per shelf? Such a person, if properly qualified, could make a fortune.

Tweety McTangerine take note…

And we haven’t even discussed At-swim-two-birds or The third policeman, Begob. Here one may even detect a certain affinity with Cold comfort farm. As Myles observed,

It goes without Synge that many of my writings are very fine indeed.

I can only deplore the paucity in his oeuvre of allusions to fieldwork reports on Daoist ritual. And vice versa. Still, it is pleasant to imagine the travails of the Chinese translator of these great works.

Flann O’Brien survived longer than Hašek, but drank himself to an early grave (“But it’s not even closing time yet!”, I hear him exclaim) in 1966—sadly not in time to reflect

If I had all the money I’ve spent on drink—I’d spend it on drink.

A Pint of Plain is Your Only Man

There are some nice radio and TV tributes online, like

and the only filmed interview with the Great Man, here. And even interviews with people who knew him, here.

One last time—Altogether Now:

At what time did he speak Irish?
At a time when it was neither profitable nor popular.
And of what nature is his loss?
Well-nigh irreparable.
So what capital adornment do I take off to him?
(It’s your turn.)

 

[1] Other discussions include https://vulpeslibris.wordpress.com/2011/04/06/the-best-of-myles-by-flann-obrien/ and Robert Looby at http://www.ricorso.net/rx/az-data/authors/o/OBrien_F/xtras/xtra5.htm. Note also the egregious Flann O’Brien society, with its weighty bibliography.

Worrying echoes from history

Another “Remind you of anybody?” exchange from Duck Soup:

Minister of Finance: “Here is the Treasury Department’s report, sir. I hope you’ll find it clear.”
Rufus T. Firefly: “Clear? Huh! Why, a four-year-old child could understand this report. [to secretary] Run out and find me a four-year-old child, I can’t make head or tail of it.”

Note: Either Firefly or Tweety is a caricature. The more far-fetched one is quite capable of writing his own gags, better than we could ever dream up. And to what avail are our easy jibes?