Saturday, February 13, 2016

The Marvels by Brian Selznick


The Marvels (2015) is the third novel by Brian Selznick. It follows the style of Hugo Cabret and Wonderstruck whereby the novel is split into a dual narrative, part pictures, part words. The Marvels (as with the previous novels) has been described as a graphic novel, a description that is rather misleading, especially in the case of The Marvels as it does not have a continuous word-picture unity--the comic style. The book is structured into 3 parts: a picture story, then a word story, then a picture story that acts as a coda to parts 1 and 2. Part 1 uses fine tonal drawings to tell the story of the Marvel family, a family of actors, from 1766 to 1900. The focus on actors is a hint to the reader that this is a novel about imagination and how novels work: it is Calvino for younger readers. Also, the drawings maintain a filmic quality, sometimes viewing from a distance, sometimes developing a facial expression over a number of close-ups: these shifting perspectives again alert the reader to the fact that this is a novel about art and how art works-- how a reader constructs a novel as s/he reads. The first part of the story is a cinema, a narrative of emotional movement. Part 2 opens in 1990 and tells the story of Joseph Jervis, who runs away from school in search of his uncle in London, one with the mysterious name of Albert Nightingale. As the narrative unfolds, connections and re-connections are made to Part 1. The prose in this section is clear and well-constructed. It balances conversation with narration and lightly touches the moving background to Joseph's story: he is in love with his schoolboy friend, George Patel, and his uncle is dying from the later stages of AIDS. Part 3 of The Marvels visually reflects on the bond that develops between Albert and Joseph as they age and merge into a contemporary gay couple, Joseph and George. The whole, though it grows through dislocated parts, finally achieves a wonderful coherence. 

Much has been made in the publicity-hype surrounding The Marvels that this is a novel with a gay theme. (Selzick is gay and the personal connection between author and material has been used almost mercilessly as a selling point!) The publishers (Scholastic) and reviewers have been walking a swaying tight-rope in promoting The Marvels. They have felt the need to stress the gay theme as a sign of the novel's originality and then remove any sense of distress that this might cause by referring to the delicate and implicit nature of the gay relationships. "Can you see the gay theme?" "There, there! "Where, where?" "This is gay." ""Oh no, it isn't." "Oh yes, it is". The end result is a pantomime of criticism. Yes, there are gay relationships. No, they are not really dealt with. Albert Nightingale, like Miss Havisham, is a Dickensian eccentric in modern London. There is a reference in the novel to how Princess Diana visited AIDS clinics and shook the hands of AIDS patients. But there is nothing in the novel that probes the conflicts and triumphs of growing up gay. Joseph's isolation is dwelt upon, yet this isolation is attributed to his dysfunctional family, his distant parents, not to any awareness of sexual difference. He learns his difference through the mirror of his uncle and he accepts that difference. There is little in the novel, however, about how Joseph relates to himself and how his love for George/Blink emerges. Selznick should be praised for innocently placing gay love within children's fiction. Publishers and reviewers should be criticised for making too much of this element: The Marvels is not a breakthrough gay novel.



The real success in The Marvels is Selznick's level of creativity. The text is rich with inter-textual references and Selznick credits his (child) readers with an intelligence in a way that much recent children's fiction does not. (What a shame that Waterstones, for example, tucks The Marvels away in an alcove of recent hardback fiction whilst highlighting the latest piece of dross from David Walliams with an in-your-face table display). There are many visual mysteries in Part 1. Angels in America hovers over the novel and elements from Shakespare's The Winter's Tale weave their way throughout the whole novel. Like Shakespeare's magical tale, The Marvels is a story of lost identity. How fitting it is that Leontes Marvel should book his escape on HMS Perdita. And the picture of Oberon Marvel, as Leontes, embracing Elenora Marvel, as Hermione, in The Winter's Tale, after a sixteen year absence, is cleverly re-imagined as the novel leaps 16 years forward from its modern beginning, in its coda, to the love of George and Joseph as they sit reading in Nightingale House. 

As Antigonus proclaims in The Winter's Tale, "dreams are toys". And as the picture of Ariel and Prospero suggests in The Marvels, this novel is "such stuff as dreams are made of". Recently, the philosopher Alain de Botton attacked the Romantic novel for its failure to do what novels should do: warn about dangers, offer maps of progress, show the good in action. Gabriel Josipovici gave a better analysis when he said that a novel can only do one thing as a fiction, confess its own fictiveness. The Winter's Tale is ever aware that is a fiction, a lie, and as such it can dream redemptive scenes that reality cannot create. New truths are born, like babies, another key motif in Selznick's latest novel. The same is true of The Marvels. It is a novel of fictive possibilities that sees reading and story-telling as a redemptive act-- stories, like dreams woven by the brain, exist to create sanity and hope. 

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Jared French. Artist and Hermeticist.

Jared French was born on February 4th, 1905, in Ossining, New York. Aquarian by birth. He studied music, visual art and literature at Amherst College from 1921-1925. The Amherst motto Terras Irradient would stand as a sign for his life as a painter, "Bring light to the Earth" as would his birth image. French's paintings in egg tempera are lit by radiance and the flux of water is a key archetypal symbol in his visual language. French became the lover and friend of Paul Cadmus and it is Cadmus' small and intimate portrait of him, in 1931, that introduces French to the world. 

In this portrait much is coded. The viewer is placed in the lover's position, gazing down at a rumpled bed, suggesting rest after activity. The flowing, rotating hands intimate fluid energy in balance. And the fingers are bookmarks in an early edition of James Joyce's Ulysses, a book which was smuggled into the USA for the literary minded French. The illegal novel stands for another illegality: the love of two men.

French protected his work avidly. He made few written statements about his art and said little about his life. His life and art was hermetically sealed, consciously so, and he remains an important artist who is mainly mis-understood. As Nancy Grimes has pointed out in Jared French's Myths (1993), French is mistakenly seen as a Magic Realist, an error that goes entirely in the wrong direction as regards his work. Magic Realism sought to present realistic views that had opened up to moments of magic. There is an objectivity underneath Magic Realism. French's main work, from 'Washing the White Blood from Daniel Boone" onwards (1939) woke up to a subjective, hermetical symbolism that told mythological narratives. The paintings awake magic/imagination with reality through emblematic symbolism.

"Washing the White Blood from Daniel Boone" describes a moment in USA history: it is 1778 and Boone has been abducted by the Shawnee and inducted into their life. 



But the historical moment is transfigured by French into an archetypal narrative. Boone, like Pierro della Francesca's Christ, awaits to be baptised. The native figure who holds the cup above Boone's head is modelled on John the Baptist. Piero della Francesca's asexual angels have become masculine warriors. With a touch of humour, an implicit connection is made between French and Francesca, the "French-man" such that the new painting becomes a moment of spiritual crisis in French's personal mind and the American psyche. Two of the attendants, like Greek caryatids support the body of Boone and support his weight easily. Whereas the Renaissance French-man depicted Christ in a moment of prayer, awaiting the Holy Ghost, French's Boone adopts a stature that echoes The Crucifixion. This is a cross-roads moment for the adventurer. There has been a tendency to read the painting as one of "service" in which the black figures serve the needs of the white. Nancy Grimes rightly reads against this view, seeing that the physical Shawnee figures are in control and in the process of awakening Boone. But she possibly goes astray in jumping too quickly into Jungian terms and seeing this as a painting about how the white man/white history must enter the black underworld of the unconscious (as typefied by the black attendants) to be cleansed. There is nothing dark about this painting -- it is a well-lit day -- and there is no hint of the psychic disunity that comes with subconscious immersion. For French, Boone's whiteness alludes to a body clothed from sunlight, but here open to to it. The alchemical ablutio washes away his accumulated psychic dirt and presents him with a new solar consciousness. Boone's uncomfortable pink, fleshly, infant innocence is faced with a mature sexuality, one that he has not yet learnt to face: his gaze looks straight on and does not engage with his attendants, though they all observe him. 

If the figures are read from left to right, the eye starts with the figure holding the towel, passes along the arms of Boone, turns at the figure holding the material towards the figure who washes, then to the figure who pours and the figure who kneels and holds the bowl of water. This kneeling figure begins an upward journey of energy back to the starting point. Hermetically, this movement is the ritual pentagram that invokes water and fits with the painting's focus on psychic and cultural cleansing. In her preface to Jared French's Myths, Nancy Grimes notes that though he was a talented figurative artist like the others in his circle of artists, Cadmus, Perlin and Tooker, French drew his figures according to Renaissance proportions inspired by Leon Battista Alberti. Here is the first point illustrated:


Cadmus
Perlin 
Tooker
French

In a 1941-2 portrait of George Platt Lynes, Grimes correctly recognises Renaissance proportions at work. (See central image of the artistic and sexual trinity). There is no attempt to create real proportions and the figure is calculated by ratios dictated by head size.




Hermetical composition is also at work in "Washing the Blood from Daniel Boone". Boone's figure exists with a square drawn from the forehead to  central points on the caryatid's upper thighs and then to a point between Boone's feet. (Also, the pentagon of figures around Boone relate to a secondary square frame). French's central male drawing follows Renaissance drawings of the ideal man, the Microcosm.


Mid-career, 1940s-1950s, French began a categorisation of his symbolical world. He envisaged 7 categories (rather like the 7 Liberal Arts of the Medieval and Renaissance World). Each of these categories sub-divided into 7 functions giving 49 contents all in all. This hermetical framework, with echoes of the Red Rose of the Rosy Cross and its 49 petals, was a grid of references, some of which became paintings. The category "Creation" was split into Chaos, Decoration, Painting, Prose, Poetry, Music and Sculpture. This is "Music":


It is unfortunate that French's paintings are largely unknown today and surface only superficially in the world of imagery.


This re-creation of "The Double" as a fashion campaign by Dolce and Gabbana is an act of profanity and stupidity.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Patrick Gale, A Place Called Winter and Gay Writing with a Chill.




The usual line taken towards Patrick Gale as a gay UK author is that he is one of those UK novelists who has risen above genre fiction, meaning that his writing has aspired higher than works exemplified by titles such as Wet with My Servant or Coming Out then Coming In (erotic trash fiction written by female writers for an undiscerning gay audience). In truth, Gale has, in his own words, been an author that has dealt largely with orthodox issues, such as family, in his novels. His works have included gay characters, well-drawn gay characters, but have followed the mainstream concerns of fiction. Gale has been accepted as a confident, social novelist suitable for the masses: Notes from an Exhibition and A Perfect Man made the hallowed walls of The Richard and Judy Bookclub in 2008 and 2012--- a good indication that respectability (if not literary worth) has been achieved. (Both novels were selected because they featured Cornwall and Judy and Richard like to holiday there). Gale’s latest novel, A place Called Winter (2015), just released in paperback, is one that would not make The Richard and Judy List and one that qualifies as a serious work of gay fiction.

A Place Called Winter began as an imagined biography of Gale’s great-grandfather Harry Cane. Gaps in the family history became areas for speculation: Why did he suddenly disappear to Canada before The First World War? Why was his return to England after The Second World War so unwelcome? What could have been the skeleton in the cupboard? The result is an intriguing story that investigates fictional sexual identity within the context of real history.

The novel’s central action takes place somewhere in 1908. After a sexual scandal with Hector Browning, Harry Cane is forced to leave wife and child for an isolated life in Canada. The Cane family’s working-class fortune was built on selling horse dung. Harry was educated among the “fllthy” idle and rich. The sexual scandal erupts as sexual dirt that contaminates and can only be dealt with by exile. For Gale, Harry’s quest for a new life and a more honest identity is a kind of alchemical freezing, a putrefaction that Jung once termed “the sentimental winter”. Harry must survive the bitter, outer cold of a desolate outpost called Winter and the sharp, inner chill of his own love for men.

Structurally, the novel is split between Harry’s present in a  therapeutic community and a past that leads up to the present’s turmoil. Chapter One, Bethel, ends with a telling dialogue:

“Do you understand?”
“Yes”.
“Good. Harry?”
“Yes?”
“Tell me who you love.”

It suggests a first person narrative and confession is about to begin. In fact what follows is what begins the novel: a third person narrative in which the author dominates. There is a dilemma at the centre of this novel for Gale. This he alludes to in a sort-of Q and A essay at the close of the book:

“The great challenge in this novel was to write about sexuality while inhabiting the head of a man who realistically would not have had anything like the psycho-sexual vocabulary that we take fro granted now. (APCW, p.364).

Harry is a reserved character, true to the Edwardian period in which he reaches maturity. More was known at the time about homosexuality than reached public ears. Strangely, in an interview, Gale claims that there was no name for male-to-male feelings at the time in which this novel is based. There was: Urning or Uranian, terms adopted by the radical thinker and socialist, Edward Carpenter. In the Bethel episodes that date around 1918-19, Gideon Ormshaw quotes from the revolutionary work of Edward Carpenter. The therapist’s attitudes to Harry and the “compulsive transvestitism” of James/Little Bear/Ursula are based on Carpenter’s Intermediate Types Among Primitive Folk and given that Gideon reads from a pamphlet, not a book, from the American Journal of Religious Psychology (1911) in which Chapter 1 was published. But much understanding remained underground as a result of the 1895 Wilde trial. In his writings, Carpenter cursed the damage done by the gushing, effete behaviour of Wilde, and Harry is very much in keeping with the historical times. He is, like the preferred Uranian portrayed by Carpenter, emotionally reserved, yet physically unrepressed; and unaware of the supportive arguments for homogenic love. Gale draws his version of Harry Cane with great skill and truthfulness. The strong narrative voice captures the pressure and restraint of Harry Cane expertly. It exerts the necessary control. It tells a story that Harry could not really tell. But there is a price to pay for this: conversations are often bleak (which fits) and brief (frustratingly so) and the plotting becomes forced because events cannot emerge out of dialogue and interaction. The romance sections at Strawberry Vale seem like Austen without the verbal wit and the tragic moments resemble Hardy at his heaviest.


A Place Called Winter is an ambitious novel By Gale and a risky one for him as an author. The reception on Amazon indicates a certain amount of perplexity. The many 5 Star Reviews have a lot to say about technique and not much about the gay theme. The lower Star Reviews have nothing much to say about technical aspects and a lot about the shocking gay content! This is a forcefully narrated novel with a sensitive gay theme. Gale should be applauded for taking a risk and placing a gay novel at the heart of his novelistic output. If it has upset the Richard and Judy readers who have liked his ”gay-ish” novels, so much the better. The novel is well-researched and imagined with only a few jarring elements. It is unlikely that The Giggler, at Bethel, would have casually pulled out a pack of Tarot cards, in post-war times, unless this was London and the Modernist circles of W.B.Yeats. Harry visits the Gaiety Theatre to see Gladys Cooper's star-turn when, in fact, she had only a minor role in the gaiety scene and her critical acclaim came after A Place Called Winter finishes. Even so, this novel is highly readable and in the conflict between Harry Cane and Troels Munk, Gale has created a provocative study of masculinity and the intimidation that thrives where self-identity is fragile.



Thursday, January 14, 2016

Lynette Yiadom-Boakye at British Art Show 8

British Art Show 8 recently premiered in Leeds. This quinquennial touring exhibition includes 42 artists this year and its purpose, as ever, is to bring up- and-coming artists into the public eye. By intention, the exhibition curated by Anna Colin and Lydia Yee is a mixed-bag. "A central concern of British Art Show 8 is the changing role and status of the object at a time of increasing convergence between the real and the virtual." One exhibit that clearly shows this focal point is by Lynette Yiadom-Boakye: an octave of 8 "portraits"

Yiadom-Boakye was born in London, in 1977. She studied at Falmouth and the Royal Academy Schools. In 2013, she was short-listed for the Turner Prize. Her heritage links to the UK and Ghana and her work draws upon French Impressionism (Degas and Manet). Though she does not see her work as political, it is almost impossible not to read it as such: here is a female painter defining herself in relation to a male tradition of portraiture and painting Black male and female figures within a history of painting that largely excludes Blackness. The revolutionary act for Yiadom-Boakye, however, is her approach to painting and portraiture. A portrait, by definition, is a representation of a person within a period in time, but the portraits of Yiadom-Boakye are not copies of real people or contexts. Just as history fixes the Black image by race or class--consider the title "Negro slave" and recent desires to re-name such paintings-- Yiadom-Boakye gives her work imaginative titles that "suggest a narrative" and free her work from specificity. Also, portraits are linked to time and sittings and laborious corrections, yet the octave of portraits assembled in British Art Show 8 reveal speed and lightness of touch. A "portrait" for Yiadom-Boakye is a representation of many people, physical details are selected from reality and combined into a virtual portrait at speed (no more than a day of painting) with emphasis falling on elements of technique, such that the result is a deliberate fabrication. The canvases are confidently flat, not built in layers, and representations of what exists in the artist's mind and the mind's eye.


A Radical Under Beechwood, BAS8


The Twice Done, BAS8

There is a paradox at work in the "portraits". A portrait is usually linked to a person. The purpose of a portrait is to preserve that person in paint and memorialise a likeness. The history of portraiture is bound up with celebrity and continuity. But what does a viewer do with a portrait of someone known to the artist, though unknown to the viewer, like this? What is a reality for the artist, here, is make-believe for the viewer. How do you read an unknown?


For a viewer, this can only be a composite of people they have known. The person represented means nothing to them. In a sense, Yiadom-Boakye paints like a minor artist creating images of ordinariness. Yet, the moment those images appear on art gallery walls, they are lifted into a different conversation, claiming space and debating about the history of Black imagery and the fictional lives that have been led or might be led...

The "portraits" of Yiadom-Boakye endow their Black representations with vivacity and this is done through incredible skill. By not being studied masterpieces, they liberate their subjects rather than enslave them to single interpretations.


Leave a Brick under The Maple.




Wednesday, January 06, 2016

The Art of Plagiarism.




In 2005, cases of plagiarism in UK University courses were around 8,000. These increased in 2009-2010 to 17,000. There wasn't much of a change in subsequent years: figures from 2009-2012 showed that 45,000 cases of plagiarism (the main example of misconduct) had occurred. The most up-to-date investigation by The Times newspaper claims an "epidemic" is present with 50,000 cases from from 2013-2016. In fact, that figure is more-or-less consistent with the previous figures of 17,000 per year. There is a significant change, however, according to university sources with a major shift from Type 1 plagiarism (copying work) to Type 2 plagiarism (buying essays and theses over the internet). These figures are deeply concerning, showing the extent to which academic enquiry is being devalued. 

Originality seems to be less important than merely answering a question and getting a good grade. Perhaps, I ought to be shocked at these figures and the trends they show, but I am not. It is the curse of education. Courses for training continuously plagiarise: a course isn't about original thought, it's about the re-cycling of someone else's ideas and stitching together as much second-hand material together as possible. Only this week, a colleague of mine attended a course on "growth mind-sets" in the classroom. The advisor leading the training day cribbed all her illustrations from YouTube, Google Images and psychological research more than a decade old. 

The word "plagiarism" has an interesting history, one that I didn't know much about until I started thinking through this post. The word comes comes from the Latin "to kidnap" and in some contexts "to enslave/chain". It is the forceful taking of someone else's ideas and enslaving them to your own purposes. A few years ago, I remember editing a Nigerian poetry manuscript. One poem ended beautifully with "I sang in my chains like the sea." Clearly, the line had not been recognised by other African writers who had read the poem. To an English or Welsh reader, it is immediately recognisable as the last line in Dylan Thomas's "Fern Hill". Ironically, the "poet" had plagiarised a perfect image of plagiarism (and thought he could get away with it). Every poet is bound to the flux of the mind just as the sea is linked to the pull of the moon and the poet sings against the chains of creativity and what had been written before.

One of my favourite poems in Jee Leong Koh's Steep Tea, is the key-note poem "Attributions". The poem reflects the whole of the volume which takes its roots in other poems, but never plagiarises the originals. "Attributions" raises a question that clearly fascinates Jee Leong Koh: where do words come from and how do we know what it ours (especially in a country where Colonialism and State censorship dictated what you knew as you struggled for individualism)? Is all writing a struggle against plagiarism--the chains that bind us--and a fight to attribute what is ours and what belongs to others. As he puts is, so finely:

Sometimes I cannot find out who first wrote the words I wrote.
(ST, p.36).

In 2013, a major scandal hit the poetry world, in the UK, when poet Christian Ward won the Bourne Poetry Prize with a poem copied from Helen Mort. He attempted to talk his way out of an embarrassing situation by saying, like other poets, he had built his poem out of the skeleton of Mort's poem and never meant to plagiarise it. Apparently, he had submitted a draft (to the competition) that wasn't entirely his work, something of an understatement since only a few words in the winning poem were his own! The controversy generated a discussion on the Write Out Loud blog about what was permissible when using other works as sources. 

When it comes to plagiarism and poetry, there does seem to be a fair degree of hypocrisy. Ward is clearly a fake, yet Hart Crane's copying of an early published poem from the work of Samuel Greenberg is taken as a tribute! The copy of Crane's poem below shows exactly how much was copied from Greenberg (including part of the title). In what sense is this a tribute? Each colour indicates a different Greenberg poem, so Crane's version of Greenberg isn't a lazy attempt at copying, like Ward's, but a deliberate attempt to build a poem out of seven separate poems-- a hiding of sources by burying a poem in copied allusions. 

Emblems of Conduct (1926).

By a peninsula the wanderer sat and sketched
The uneven valley graves. While the apostle gave
Alms to the meek the volcano burst
With
sulphur and aureate rocks
For joy rides in stupendous coverings
Luring the living into
spiritual gates.
Orators follow the universe
And radio the complete
laws to the people.
The apostle conveys thought through discipline.
Bowls and cups fill historians with adorations
Dull lips commemorating
spiritual gates.

The wanderer later chose this spot of rest
Where
marble clouds support the sea
And where was finally born a
chosen hero.
By that time summer and smoke were past.
Dolphins still played, arching the horizons,
But only to build memories of spiritual gates.


When a minor poem cheats, it is plagiarism; when a major poet deceives, it is an hommage

Plagiarism is a complex issue in the Arts. Are found poems plagiarism? What about a cento? What about the practices of Robert Duncan, the Romantic genius, who built a poem out of phrases from Milton's The Reason of Church Government? What about the translations of Pound, which are not translations, but creative mistranslations out of the Latin. What about Homage to Sextus Propertius? Etc. Are all modern poems (written by poets) in exile, as Harold Bloom would argue, stuck in hermetical, kabbalistic ratios with previous works. Perhaps, that's an extreme view, but originality has become a difficult term in modern practices. And what about the visual world of Tumblr where site rips of site, where one site stealing from another site is seen as a "liking" and to be encouraged. Nothing original, just re-cycling of ideas. I recall my annoyance when a Tumblr account lifted examples of my artwork and of other friends. I expected uniform condemnation, but the responses split us. One camp wanted the Tumblr site taken down for plagiarism and breach of copyright. Another camp where flattered and saw it as good publicity.

Plagiarism...originality...creativity...hm...

Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Book of Human Emotions by Tiffany Watt Smith



The massive Eggborough coal fired power station recently announced its closure. On being asked how they felt, the miners chorused, "devastated." A West Sussex family were "devastated" just before Christmas to realise that they would have to leave the country and return to city living in London. The death of Pavel Srnicek, former Newcastle United goalkeeper, left the manager "absolutely devastated". The one and only David Beckham found himself equally "devastated" by the Paris atrocities. The adjective "devastated" has become a media cliche, which many grasp at as if it is the ultimate tragic emotion that can be felt. Unfortunately, for the many, "devastated" isn't an emotion and if the grieving were asked to enlarge on their devastation, they probably would have little to offer as an explanation.

The experience of personal devastation is best described by John Donne in Holy Sonnet XIV. Well aware that devastation means "to be made empty" and refers to warfare and the sacking of homes, Donne describes himself as "an usurpt towne". He longs for God to "enthrall" him, enslave him in effect, and finally "ravish" him, with ravishment carrying a double sense entwined: rapture, rape, intercourse and defilement. As a result of this devastation, in having his male body assaulted like a town, Donne believes that his feminine soul will be made chaste once more.

The contrast between Donne's metaphysical sense of being "devastated" and the modern usage of the word shows how clumsily we approach emotions (as a culture). Though there was a period some years ago during in which "emotional intelligence" became a buzz phrase, the education of emotions has waned. The deterioration has accompanied the dying of the Arts in education. Emotional training or an awareness of "felt form" has no place in the new Govian, Conservative curriculum with its emphasis on facts and bits of knowledge. Teachers now teach students the recognition of similes and how to write a simile rather than how to emotionally respond to a poet's usage of a simile or use a simile to convey a personal, emotional response in their own writing.

Tiffany Watt Smith's The Book of Human Emotions (2015) is a wonderful antidote to the current devastation of education. Written in association with The Wellcome Trust for (mental) health, the book is a collection of short, well-researched, wise and funny essays on emotions and how they relate in real life. The book is compiled in alphabetical order, Abhiman to Zal, from wounded dignity to melancholy. The book benefits from incisive thoughts and clear illustrations...and ranges across emotions from diverse cultures. In her essay on Resentment, Watt Smith captures its depths and dangers, seeing how this emotion underlies the terrorism of organisations such as ISIS; and how the correct response is to pin it down as a low-status bitter response, to deny its fake heroism (exactly how the terrorist recruits: by up-grading spiteful emotions into glorious ideals). The book is also characterised by a witty understanding of language and emotions rooted in words-- Disgruntlement is derived from the grunting of pigs! 

In reading this book, the reader not only discovers a new emotional language, but experiences emotions too. There is Joy in reading Watt Smith's thoughts on Fagu...compassionate care...and Sadness in Awumbuk, the heavy fog left when someone dear departs from a place. For the Baining people of Papua New Guinea, departure is a time for filling bowls with fresh water to absorb the heavy air that is left behind (in the mind and physical world). The Book of Human Emotions is a humane and wise book, one that is emotionally satisfying to read. It is best read an essay per day, at a time allocated for quite thought, or flicked through so as the many surprises gather.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Race War at Oxford, The Colossus of Rhodes.


Four years ago, the Sutton Trust for educational mobility, reported that 4 of the top independent schools and one Cambridge based Six Form College sent as many student to Oxbridge as 2000 other schools. The bias in admissions is not new. The worst aspect of the recent criticism, in December 2015, by the cross-party Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (Oxford continues to discriminate against applicants from lower class backgrounds) is that nothing has changed since the previous damning report.

In 2011, PM David Cameron criticised Oxford’s racist policy for only admitting one Black UK student. Not surprisingly, being educated at Eton (one of the independent schools with privileged access to Oxbridge) and not au fait with details of ethnicity, Cameron got the figures wrong. Only 1 Caribbean student was admitted to Oxford: Caribbean does not equal Black! Laughably, Oxford responded with indignation: its figures showed that it had admitted 27 Black UK students. Is 27 better than 1? Well, yes, 26 better, but hardly much to boast about. That 27 would be only 3% of the students supplied by the elite schools and a minimal percentage of all students admitted to Oxford.

The negative attitude within Oxford University towards lower class students and Black students is entrenched. So, the current race row at Oxford is interesting to watch and survey. Oriel College has a commemorative statue of Cecil Rhodes affixed to its college wall: Cecil Rhodes, founder of apartheid as an acceptable philosophy, the man who legislated for the right of owners to beat their slaves (thus reversing what had been removed by the Anti-Slavery abolitionists earlier in the C19) and the Imperialist who believed that White dominance was an educational necessity. Not the best advocate for an Oxford College, but then, maybe he is: Rhodes stands as a prime example of upper class supremacy, elitism and prejudice.

Should the statue of Rhodes be removed? The emeritus fellow of Magdalene college, R W Johnson thinks not. It would be an act of philistinism, much like the destruction of cultural buildings by Islamic terrorists. That isn’t the best comparison for him, as a Rhodes scholar, to make of the Black leader of the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement. Suggesting that Ntokozo Kwabe (another Rhodes scholar) is a terrorist really evokes the language of apartheid.

The noted Jamaican academic Stuart Hall once commented that what he most disliked about being a Rhodes scholar at Oxford was the “distilled Englishness”. This also finds voice in the protesters against the Rhodes statue—it is a symbol of a prejudiced curriculum at Oxford that upholds White supremacist values.

All of this sounds like Dambudzo Marechera at Oxford. He did not know what to do with Oxford and Oxford did not know what to do with him. He realised that he divorced apartheid for an unhappy Black-White educational marriage. Marechera expressed his views on Oxfordian Rhodes and his liking for young male servants, his “lambs”, by transfiguring him into a Black transvestite in “The Alley”. Marechera also summed up his view of Black students at Oxford, in a mocking version of Fanon's Black Skin White Masks, as “chimpanzees…chittering about Rhodes and bananas.” ("Black Skin What Mask", The House of Hunger p.103). Nothing has changed that much.

Privilege arguing against privilege. Oxford should be re-curricularised? Who cares beyond those at Oxford? Would it change much for many? Not at all. Using Rhodes as a figure-head for an attack means little outside Oxford and the Oxfordonians who want to enter the debate. Most of Rhodes’ precious Englishmen and women will not know his reputation. The whole on-going saga stinks of hypocrisy. If Ntokozo Kwabe is so opposed to Rhodes and Oxford, why did he not refuse the Rhodes scholarship and stay away from Oxford? Because he knew that it would be good for his future career, that is why. Really, it is “let’s have the revolution after I’ve gained what came for”. His argument that the Rhodes scholarship money was just taking what Rhodes plundered from his people is worthy of a future barrister/politician. The principled stand would be stay away from tainted funding. It is all very well for Cameron to pluck fine words about too few students in Oxford, but this is the man who allowed Gove to turn the education curriculum backwards and—in a truly Rhodesian move—enshrine the teaching of "British values". If Cameron truly cared about Black pupil achievement, he would recognise what Fanon once said: you do not go around tilting at statues, you set about “decolonising the mind”. If we—as a culture—were engaged in decolonising the curriculum, indeed, removing the restrictions of a curriculum, opening up the education system at primary and secondary levels such that disadvantaged Black pupils are educated rather than schooled, then there might be less Black pupil failure, more Black pupils ready for Oxford and Cambridge…or better still, thinking students ready for more creative and valued degrees outside Oxford and Cambridge. The notion that Black students are disadvantaged and therefore do not succeed likes to place the fault within the the social background of the students. (In  the past centuries, it was within the mental capacities of the students). The real issue is that the curriculum is the cause of disadvantage, having little for Black students to identify with or take inspiration from. Cameron has no interest in radicalising Oxford, his Oxford, or the dissolution of the private elite establishment that fashioned him and placed him in Oxford. His words are nothing more than beating nanny with a silver teaspoon and the latest Oxford debacle is a storm in a fluted champagne glass.