Derek Alton Walcott, poet: born (Castries, St Lucia) 23 Jan 1930, died 17 Mar 2017
Sea grapes are a type of grapes indigenous to Caribbean Sea that has particularly bitter and sour taste. The title of this poem is obscure in terms of the connection between the content and the title. However, the important message or the theme of the poem lies within the sour taste of sea grapes. Furthermore, Derek Walcott was born and raised in the Caribbean, and his experiences around there inspired many of his writings. Walcott was engrossed in Greek mythology, and mentioned about it frequently in his work, comparing and contrasting it with the present situations and problems. This poem, “Sea Grapes,” written by Derek Walcott, illustrates that conflicts between obsession and responsibility must be solved, weaving them to ancient Greek myth and the hero by using allegory and metaphor.
Guardian obituary, here
On 25 January the Metropolitan Council of Budapest decided (by 19 votes to 3) to remove the statue of the Marxist philosopher Georg Lukács from the 13th District and replace it with a statue of King Stephen, the founder of the Hungarian nation. The proposal was put by a member of the neo-fascist Jobbik Party, Marcell Tokody. Last year, despite opposition, Lukács’s house which has served as an open archive since his death in 1971 was closed by the authorities. The fate of the documents in the archive, many of which have yet to be translated in languages other than their original Hungarian or German, is unclear.
In the history of 20th century Marxism Lukács is a central figure. He is certainly not without his critics but some of his writings, particularly History and Class Consciousness, are seminal works of Marxism and have stood the test of time. We should not standby and allow the barbarians of the Hungarian right, and their odious leader Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, to destroy his legacy.
Please sign the petition:
(the author of these few words lived in Hungary from 1991 to 2000 and is currently working on a full length study of Lukács and his legacy)
From: Felix Stalder
Date: 2 January 2017
Subject: <nettime> John_Berger (5 November 1926 – 2 January 2017)
John Berger is dead. He died today, at the age of 90. Obits are surely
being written right now. However, Sally Potter’s birthday thoughts
from last November seem a more apt and personal way of remembering.
“Ways of Seeing was, together with Robert Hughes’ “Shock of the New”,
one of the first books about art I read as teenager. It stayed with me
As if as a testament to his continued relevance, the LA Review of
Books published today a long article on his theory of art.
That theory evolved considerably between the 1950s and the 2010s.
Yet two threads hold it together with the tenacity of spider silk: a
critique of the political economy of art and a sophisticated account
of its human value, each rooted in a committed but elastic Marxism.
A Marxist art criticism of any real subtlety has to be elastic,
because it must deal with a problem Marx himself diagnosed but
failed to solve. Berger puts it like this:
A question which Marx posed but could not answer: If art in the last
analysis is a superstructure of an economic base, why does its power
to move us endure long after the base has been transformed? Why,
asked Marx, do we still look towards Greek art as an ideal? He began
to answer the question […] and then broke off the manuscript and
was far too occupied ever to return to the question.
H/t: Bruce R
As the old year of 2016 is now dying, here are some of my favourite pieces of writing about death.
This came to mind because of the very recent death of Richard Adams. The death scene which ends Watership Down – well, there must be a German word which describes knowing something is sentimental, yet still being moved by it. Disneyschmerz perhaps? The nature-loving agnostic imagines an afterlife with as false a comfort as angels escorting the departed to heaven yet a rabbit soul eternally scampering through the beech woods has great charm. By now the reader has come to like and respect Hazel and enjoy the rabbit’s eye view of the English countryside, in whose pockets between roads, housing and farms the rabbits make their lives.
One chilly, blustery morning in March, I cannot tell exactly how many springs later, Hazel was dozing and waking in his burrow. He had spent a good deal of time there lately, for he felt the cold and could not seem to smell or run so well as in days gone by. He had been dreaming in a confused way — something about rain and elder bloom ~ when he woke to realize that there was a rabbit lying quietly beside him — no doubt some young buck who had come to ask his advice. The sentry in the run outside should not really have let him in without asking first. Never mind, thought Hazel. He raised his head and said, “Do you want to talk to me?”
“Yes, that’s what I’ve come for,” replied the other. “You know me, don’t you?”
“Yes, of course,” said Hazel, hoping he would be able to remember his name in a moment. Then he saw that in the darkness of the burrow the stranger’s ears were shining with a faint silver light. “Yes, my lord,” he said, “Yes, I know you.”
“You’ve been feeling tired,” said the stranger, “but I can do something about that. I’ve come to ask whether you’d care to join my Owsla. We shall be glad to have you and you’ll enjoy it. If you’re ready, we might go along now.”
They went out past the young sentry, who paid the visitor no attention. The sun was shining and in spite of the cold there were a few bucks and does at silflay, keeping out of the wind as they nibbled the shoots of spring grass. It seemed to Hazel that he would not be needing his body any more, so he left it lying on the edge of the ditch, but stopped for a moment to watch his rabbits and to try to get used to the extraordinary feeling that strength and speed were flowing inexhaustibly out of him into their sleek young bodies and healthy senses.
“You needn’t worry about them,” said his companion. “They’ll be all right — and thousands like them. If you’ll come along, I’ll show you what I mean.”
He reached the top of the bank in a single, powerful leap. Hazel followed; and together they slipped away, running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom.
Shakespeare was much obsessed with deaths – 74 of them in his plays. Someone did a play which featured them all.
These death scenes though are mostly violent sword stabbings, with the occasional strangulation and poisoning so I’ll quote the death of Falstaff reported in Henry V.
ACT II SCENE III London. Before a tavern.
Enter PISTOL, Hostess, NYM, BARDOLPH, and BOY
HOSTESS Prithee, honey-sweet husband, let me bring thee to Staines.
PISTOL No; for my manly heart doth yearn.
BARDOLPH Be blithe: Nym, rouse thy vaunting veins:
BOY Bristle thy courage up; for Falstaff he is dead,
And we must yearn therefore.
BARDOLPH Would I were with him, wheresome’er he is, either in heaven or in hell!
HOSTESS Nay, sure, he’s not in hell: he’s in Arthur’s bosom, if ever man went to Arthur’s bosom. A’ made a finer end and went away an it had been any christom child; a’ parted even just between twelve and one, even at the turning o’ the tide: for after I saw him fumble with the sheets and play withflowers and smile upon his fingers’ ends, I knew there was but one way; for his nose was as sharp as a pen, and a’ babbled of green fields. ‘How now, sir John!’ quoth I ‘what, man! be o’ good cheer.’ So a’ cried out ‘God, God, God!’ three or four times. Now I, to comfort him, bid him a’ should not think of God; I hoped there was no need to trouble himself with any such thoughts yet. So a’ bade me lay more clothes on his feet: I put my hand into the bed and felt them, and they were as cold as any stone; then I felt to his knees, and they were as cold as any stone, and so upward and upward, and all was as cold as any stone.
The Hostess would have been accustomed to tend the dying at a time when the women of the household did the nursing.
The Death of the Mrs Proudie from The Last Chronicle of Barset by Anthony Trollope
Trollope wrote 6 volumes about Cathedral politics in Barsetshire. One day in his club he overheard two men complaining that he was reintroducing the same old characters, including Mrs Proudie and how tired they were of it. So he told the men that he would kill her off that day.
Mrs Proudie of much reforming Evangelical energy has dominated her husband the bishop to carry out her will to the point of utterly humiliating him so they are now bitterly estranged.
Mrs. Proudie’s own maid, Mrs. Draper by name, came to him and said that she had knocked twice at Mrs. Proudie’s door and would knock again. Two minutes after that she returned, running into the room with her arms extended, and exclaiming, “Oh, heavens, sir; mistress is dead!” Mr. Thumble, hardly knowing what he was about, followed the woman into the bedroom, and there he found himself standing awestruck before the corpse of her who had so lately been the presiding spirit of the palace.
The body was still resting on its legs, leaning against the end of the side of the bed, while one of the arms was close clasped round the bed-post. The mouth was rigidly closed, but the eyes were open as though staring at him. Nevertheless there could be no doubt from the first glance that the woman was dead. ..
The bishop when he had heard the tidings of his wife’s death walked back to his seat over the fire, ….. But there was no sound; not a word, nor a moan, nor a sob. It was as though he also were dead, but that a slight irregular movement of his fingers on the top of his bald head, told her [Mrs Draper] that his mind and body were still active. ..
She had in some ways, and at certain periods of his life, been very good to him. …..She had never been idle. She had never been fond of pleasure. She had neglected no acknowledged duty. He did not doubt that she was now on her way to heaven. He took his hands down from his head, and clasping them together, said a little prayer. It may be doubted whether he quite knew for what he was praying. The idea of praying for her soul, now that she was dead, would have scandalized him. He certainly was not praying for his own soul. I think he was praying that God might save him from being glad that his wife was dead.
(As a strict Protestant, Bishop Proudie would not pray for a soul whose destiny is decided at death.)
A Very Easy Death by Simone de Beauvoir
After a long agony of being treated for cancer, Simone de Beauvoir’s mother finally dies. Her sister, Poupette, is at the death bed. De Beauvoir was an atheist, her mother a devout Catholic.
Maman had almost lost consciousness. Suddenly she cried, “I can’t breathe!” her mouth opened, her eyes stared wide, huge in that wasted, ravaged face: with a spasm she entered into coma..
Poupette rang me up: I did not answer. The operator went on ringing for half an hour before I woke. Meanwhile Poupette went back to Maman; already she was no longer there – her heart was beating and she breathed, sitting there with glassy eyes that saw nothing. And then it was over. “The doctors said she would go out like a candle: it wasn’t like that, it wasn’t like that at all,” said my sister, sobbing.
But, Madame,” replied the nurse, “I assure you it was a very easy death.”
“Maman” though religious did not ask for a priest – de Beauvoir concludes:-
“She knew what she ought to have said to God – “Heal me. But Thy will be done: I acquiesce in death.” She did not acquiesce. In this moment of truth she did not choose to utter insincere words…
Maman loved loved life as I love it and in the face of death she had the same feeling of rebellion that I have. During her last days I received many letters with remarks on my most recent book: “If you had not lost your faith death would not terrify you so,” wrote the devout, with rancorous commiseration. Well-intentioned readers urged, “Disappearing is not of the least importance: your works will remain.” And inwardly I told them all that they were wrong. Religion could do no more for my mother than the hope of posthumous success could for me. Whether you think of it as heavenly or as earthly, if you love life immortality is no consolation for death.
A devout Christian, C S Lewis did take consolation in his wife’s immortality though the whole of A Grief Observed is about the despair and misery at his loss of faith he undergoes after her painful death (cancer again). He longs for her undeath but at the end thinks she has been transfigured into something resembling pure intelligence, away from her torturing body:-
How wicked it would be, if we could, to call the dead back! She said not to me but to the chaplain, “I am at peace with God.” She smiled, but not at me. Poi si torno all’ eterna fontana.
The last words in Italian being Dante’s view of his beloved Beatrice in a blissful afterlife.
Lewis’s view of death is harsher in Till We Have Faces, a surprisingly feminist work. Orual the heroine is about to enter into single combat with an enemy which will decide the fate of their city. Her father, the king and a cruel brute, has been lying helpless with a stroke. She is in the royal Bedchamber, searching out armour.
And it was when we were most busied that the Fox’s voice from behind said, “It’s finished.” We turned and looked. The thing on the bead which had been half-alive for so long was dead; had died (if he understood it) seeing a girl ransacking his armoury.
“Peace be upon him,” said Bardia. “We’ll be done here very shortly. Then the women can come to wash the body.” And we turned again at once to settle the matter of the hauberks.
And so the thing I had thought of for so many years at last slipped by in a huddle of business which was, at that moment, of more consequence. An hour later, when I looked back, it astonished me. Yet I have often noticed since how much less stir nearly everyone’s death makes than you expect. Men better loved and more worthy loving than my father go down making only a small eddy.
How the world shrugs off our death is brutally stated by A E Housman’s in Is My Team Ploughing:-
So to all, a long and healthy life, and then a quick and easy death, causing the least amount of nuisance and hassle.
The Hangover by Kingsley Amis (from Everyday Drinking – The Distilled Kingsley Amis, Bloomsbury 2008):
What a subject! And, in very truth, for once, a ‘strangely neglected’ one. Oh, I know you can hardly open a newspaper or magazine without coming across a set of instructions – most of them unoriginal, some of them quite unhelpful and one or two of them actually harmful – on how to cure this virtually pandemic ailment. But such discussions concentrate exclusively on physical manifestations, as if one were treating a mere illness. They omit the psychological, moral, emotional, spiritual aspects: all that vast, vague, awful, shimmering metaphysical superstructure that makes the hangover a (fortunately) unique route to self-knowledge and self-realisation.
Imaginative literature is not much better. There are poems and songs about drinking, of course, but none to speak of about getting drunk, let alone having been drunk. Novelists go into the subject more deeply and extensively, but tend to straddle the target, either polishing off the hero’s hangover in a few sentences or, so to speak, making it the whole of the novel. In the latter case, the hero will almost certainly be a dipsomaniac, who is not as most men are and never less so than on the morning after. This vital difference, together with much else, is firmly brought out in Charles Jackson’s marvellous and horrifying The Lost Weekend, the best fictional account of alcoholism I have read.
A few writers can be taken as metaphorically illuminating the world of the hangover while ostensibly dealing with something else. Perhaps Franz Kafka’s story The Metamorphosis, which starts with the hero waking up to find he has turned into a man-sized cockroach, is the best literary treatment of all. The central image could hardly be better chosen, and there is a telling touch in the nasty way everybody goes on at the chap. (I can find no information about Kafka’s drinking history.)
It is not my job, or anyway, I absolutely decline to attempt a full, direct description of the Metaphysical Hangover: no fun to write or read. But I hope something of this will emerge by implication from my list of counter-measures. Before I get on to that, however, I must deal with the Physical Hangover, which is, in any case, the logical one to tackle first, and the dispersal of which will notably alleviate the other – mind and body as we have already seen, being nowhere more intimately connected than in the sphere of drink. Here, then, is how to cope with:
THE PHYSICAL HANGOVER
1. Immediately on waking, start telling yourself how lucky you are to be feeling so bloody awful. This recognises the truth that if you do not feel bloody awful after a hefty night, then you are still drunk and must sober up in a waking state before hangover dawns.
2. If your wife or other partner is beside you, and (of course) is willing, perform the sexual act as vigorously as you can. The exercise will do you good, and – on the assumption that you enjoy sex – you will feel toned up emotionally, thus delivering a hit-and-run raid on your Metaphysical Hangover (M.H.) before you formally declare war on it.
WARNINGS. (i) If you are in bed with somebody you should not be in bed with, and have in the least degree a bad conscience about this, abstain. Guilt and shame are prominent constituents of the M.H., and will certainly be sharpened by indulgence on such an occasion.
(ii) For the same generic reason, do not take the matter into your own hands if you awake by yourself.
3. Having of course omitted to drink all that water before retiring, drink a lot of it now, more than you need to satisfy your immediate thirst. Alcohol is a notorious dehydrant, and a considerable part of your Physical Hangover (P.H.) comes from the lack of water in your cells.
At this point I must assume that you can devote at least a good part of the day to yourself and your condition. Those who inescapably have to get up and do something can stay in bed only as long as they dare, get up, shave, take a hot bath or shower (more of this later), breakfast off an unsweetened grapefruit (more of this later) and coffee, and clear off, with the intention of getting as drunk at lunchtime as they dare. Let me just observe in passing that the reason why so many professional artists drink a lot is not necessarily very much to do with the artistic temperament, etc. It is simply that they can afford to, because they can normally take a large part of a day off to deal with the ravages. So, then:
4. Stay in bed until you can stand it no longer. Simple fatigue is another great constituent of the P.H.
5. Refrain, at all costs, from taking a cold shower. It may bring temporary relief, but in my own and others’ experience it will give your Metaphysical Hangover a tremendous boost after about half an hour, in extreme cases making you feel like a creature from another planet. Perhaps this is the result of having dealt another shock to your already shocked system. The ideal arrangement, very much worth the trouble and expense if you are anything of a serious drinker, is a shower fixed over the bath. Run a bath as hot as you can bear and lie in it as long as you can bear. When it becomes too much, stand up and have a hot shower, then lie down again and repeat the sequence. This is time well spent.
Warning: Do not do this unless you are quite sure your heart and the rest of you will stand it. I would find it most disagreeable to be accused of precipitating your death, especially in court.
6. Shave. A drag, true, and you may well cut yourself, but it is a calming exercise and will lift your morale (another sideswipe at your M.H.)
7. Whatever the state of your stomach, do not take an alkalising agent such as bicarbonate of soda. Better to take unsweetened fruit juice or a grapefruit without sugar. The reasoning behind this is that your stomach, on receiving a further dose of acid, will say to itself, ‘Oh. I see: we need more alkaline,’ and proceed to neutralise itself. Bicarbonate will make it say: ‘Oh, I see: we need more acid,’ and do you further damage.
If you find this unconvincing, take heed of what happened one morning when, with a kingly hangover, I took bicarbonate with a vodka chaser. My companion said: ‘Let’s see what’s happening in your stomach,’ and poured the remnant of the vodka into the remnant of the bicarbonate solution. The mixture turned black and gave off smoke.
8. Eat nothing, or nothing else. Give your digestion the morning off. You may drink coffee, though do not expect this to do anything for you beyond making you feel more wide awake.
9. Try not to smoke. That nicotine has contributed to your P.H.is a view held by many people, including myself.
10. By now you will have shot a good deal of the morning. Get through the rest of it somehow, avoiding the society of your fellows. Talk is tiring. Go for a walk or sit or lie about in the fresh air. At 11am or so, see if you fancy the idea of a Polish Bison (hot Bovril and vodka). It is still worthwhile without the vodka. You can start working on your M.H. any time you like.
11. About 12:30pm, firmly take a hair (or better, in Cyril Connolly’s phrase, a tuft) of the dog that bit you. The dog, by the way, is of no particular breed; there is no obligation to go for the same drink as the one you were mainly punishing the night before. Many will favour the Bloody Mary. Others swear by the Underburg. For the ignorant, this is a highly alcoholic bitters rather resembling Fernet Branca, but in my experience more usually effective. It comes in miniature bottles holding about a pub double, and should be put down in one. The effect on one’s insides after a few seconds is rather like that of throwing a cricket ball into an empty bath, and the resulting mild convulsions and cries of shock are well worth witnessing. But, thereafter, a comforting glow supervenes, and very often a marked turn for the better. By now, one way or another, you will be readier to face the rest of mankind and a convivial lunchtime can well result. Eat what you like within reason, avoiding anything greasy or rich. If your Physical Hangover is still with you afterwards, go to bed.
Before going on to the M.H., I will, for completeness’s sake, mention three supposed hangover cures, all described as infallible by those who told me about them, though I have not tried any of them. The first two are hard to come by:
• Go down the mine on the early-morning shift at the coal-face.
• Go up for half an hour in an open aeroplane (needless to say, with a non-hungover person at the controls).
• Known as Donald Watt’s Jolt, this consists of a tumbler of some sweet liqueur, Benedictine or Grand Marnier, taken in lieu of breakfast. Its inventor told me that with one of them inside him, he once spent three-quarters of an hour at a freezing bus-stop ‘without turning a hair’. It is true that the sugar in the drink will give you energy and the alcohol alcohol.
At this point, younger readers may relax the unremitting attention with which they have followed the above. They are mostly strangers to the Metaphysical Hangover. But they will grin or jeer at their peril. Let them rest assured that, as they grow older, the Metaphysical Hangover will more and more come to fill the gap left by their progressively less severe Physical Hangover. And of the two, incomparably, the more dreadful is…
THE METAPHYSICAL HANGOVER
1. Deal thoroughly with your P.H.
2. When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is and there is no use crying over spilt milk. If this works, if you can convince yourself, you need do no more, as provided in the remarkably philosophical:
G.P.9: He who truly believes he has a hangover has no hangover.
3. If necessary then, embark on either the M.H. Literature Course or the M.H. Music Course or both in succession (not simultaneously). Going off and gazing at some painting, building or bit of statuary might do you good, too, but most people, I think, will find such things unimmediate for this — perhaps any — purpose. The structure of both Courses, HANGOVER READING and HANGOVER LISTENING, rests on the principle that you must feel worse emotionally before you start to feel better. A good cry is the initial aim.
Begin with verse, if you have any taste for it. Any really gloomy stuff that you admire will do. My own choice would tend to include the final scene of Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines 606 to the end, with what is probably the most poignant moment in all our literature coming at lines 624-6. The trouble here, though, is that today of all days you do not want to be reminded of how inferior you are to the man next door, let alone to a chap like Milton. Safer to pick somebody less horribly great. I would plump for the poems of A.E. Houseman and/or R.S. Thomas, not that they are in the least interchangeable. Matthew Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum is good, too, if a little long for the purpose.
Switch to prose with the same principles of selection. I suggest Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich. It is not gloomy exactly, but its picture of life in a Russian labour camp will do you the important service of suggesting that there are plenty of people who have a bloody sight more to put up with than you (or I) have or ever will have, and who put up with it, if not cheerfully, at any rate in no mood of self-pity.
Turn now to stuff that suggests there may be some point to living after all. Battle poems come in rather well here: Macaulay’s Horatius, for instance. Or, should you feel that this selection is getting a bit British (for the Roman virtues Macaulay celebrates have very much that sort of flavour), try Chesterton’s Lepanto. The naval victory in 1571 of the forces of the Papal League over the Turks and their allies was accomplished without the assistance of a single Anglo-Saxon (or Protestant). Try not to mind the way Chesterton makes some play with the fact that this was a vicrory of Christians over Moslems.
By this time you could well be finding it conceivable that you might smile again some day. However, defer funny stuff for the moment. Try a good thriller or action story, which will start to wean you from self-observation and the darker emotions. Turn to comedy only after that; but it must be white – i.e. not black – comedy: P.G. Wodehouse, Stephen Leacock, Captain Marryat, Anthony Powell (not Evelyn Waugh), Peter De Vries (not The Blood of the Lamb, which, though very funny, has its real place in the tearful catagory, and a distinguished one). I am not suggesting that these writings are comparable in other ways than that they make unwillingness to laugh seem a little pompous and absurd.
Here, the trap is to set your sights too high. On the argument tentatively advanced against unduly great literature, give a wide berth to anyone like Mozart. Go for someone who is merely a towering genius. Tchaikovsky would be my best buy, and his Sixth Symphony (the Pathetique) my individual selection. After various false consolations have been set aside, its last movement really does what the composer intended and, in an amazingly non-dreary way, evokes total despair: sonic M.H. if ever I heard it.
Alternatively, or next, try Tchaikovsky’s successor, Sibelius. The Swan of Tuonela comes to mind, often recommended though it curiously is (or was in my youth) as a seduction battleground-piece (scope for a little article there). Better still for the purpose, I think, is the same composer’s incidental music to Maeterlinck’s play, Pelléas and Mélisande: not to be confused with Debussy’s opera of that name. The last section of the Sibelius, in particular, carries the ever-so-slightly phoney and overdone pathos that is exactly what you want in your present state.
If you can stand vocal music, I strongly recommend Brahms’s Alto Rhapsody – not an alto sax, you peasant, but a contralto voice, with men’s choir and full orchestra. By what must be pure chance, the words sung, from a – between you and me, rather crappy – poem of Goethe’s, Harzreise im Winter, sound like an only slightly metaphorical account of a hangover. They begin, “Aber abseits we ist’s?” — all right, I am only copying it off the record sleeve; they begin “But who is that (standing) apart?/His path is lost in the undergrowth”, and end with an appeal to God to “open the clouded vista over the thousand springs beside the thirsty one in the desert”. That last phrase gets a lot in. You can restore some of your fallen dignity by telling yourself that you too are a Duerstender in der Wueste. This is a piece that would fetch tears from a stone, especially a half-stoned stone, and nobody without a record of it in his possession should dare to say that he likes music. The Kathleen Ferrier version is still unequalled after twenty years.
Turn now to something lively and extrovert, but be careful. Quite a lot of stuff that appears to be so at first inspection has a nasty habit of sneaking in odd blows to the emotional solar plexus; ballet music (except Tchaikovsky) and overtures to light operas and such are much safer – Suppé, if you have no objection to being reminded of school sports days here and there, is fine. Or better, Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto, which would make a zombie dance.
Jazz is not much good for your M.H., and pop will probably worsen your P.H. But if you really feel that life could not possibly be gloomier, try any slow Miles Davis track. It will suggest to you that, however gloomy life may be, it cannot possibly be as gloomy as Davis makes it out to be. There is also the likely bonus to be gained from hearing some bystander refer to Davis as Miles instead of Davis. The surge of adrenalin at this piece of trendy pseudo-familiarity will buck up your system, and striking the offender to the ground will restore your belief in your own masculinity, rugged force, etc.
Warning: Make quite sure that Davis’s sometime partner, John Coltrane, is not “playing” his saxophone on any track you choose. He will suggest to you, in the strongest terms, that life is exactly what you are at present taking it to be: cheap, futile and meaningless.
* Wine maketh merry: but money answereth all things — ECCLESIASTES
I never tasted [whisky], except once for experiment at the inn at Inverary…It was strong but not pungent…What was the process I had no opportunity of inquiring, nor do I wish to improve the art of making poison pleasant — – SAMUEL JOHNSON
Dale Street reviews Kasztner’s Crime by Paul Bogdanor (Transaction Publishers 2016)
Was Rezso Kasztner, leader of the Budapest-based Jewish Relief and Rescue Committee during the Nazi occupation of Hungary, a hero who saved the lives of tens or even hundreds of thousands of Jews from the Holocaust? Or was he a collaborator who knowingly played an indispensable role in assisting the Nazis in the deportation and murder of nearly 500,000 Hungarian Jews in a matter of weeks?
To answer that question Paul Bogdanor has examined previously unused documentation, including Kasztner’s private papers, and evidence provided by Kasztner himself in two libel trials held in Israel in the 1950s. Bogdanor’s answer is summed up in the title of his recently published book: Kasztner’s Crime. (Bogdanor’s own politics are certainly not socialist. His personal webpage is the cyberspace equivalent of “The Black Book of Communism”.)
Bogdanor concludes that Kasztner deliberately withheld information about Auschwitz from Jewish communities in Budapest and the Hungarian provinces, and then misled them into believing that the Nazis were deporting them to another part of Hungary rather than to Auschwitz. Kasztner also undermined and blocked rescue activities organised by other Jewish activists, knowingly delivered hostages to the Nazi SS, misled foreign contacts about the fate of Hungarian Jews, and betrayed to the Gestapo Jewish paratroopers sent to help organise resistance in Hungary.
After the war Kasztner gave evidence at the Nuremberg Trials in defence of high-ranking Nazi war criminals who, as he knew full well, had played a central role in the Holocaust. Bogdanor describes Kasztner as “a high-level informer for the Gestapo” and “a collaborator in the genocide of his own people”. He was someone who had been “recruited by the Nazis as a collaborator” and who “betrayed his duty to rescue the victims and placed himself at the service of the murderers.” Kasztner occupies an almost iconic status in those “anti-Zionist” versions of history which claim that Zionists collaborated with the Nazis in carrying out the Holocaust, as part of their “strategy” to achieve the creation of Israel.
The most notorious example of this is Jim Allen’s play ‘Perdition’. Dating from 1987, it purports to be a dramatised version of a libel trial dealing with the role played by a Dr. Yaron (i.e. Kasztner by another name) in Nazi-occupied Hungary. Allen described his play as: “The most lethal attack on Zionism ever written, because it touches at the heart of the most abiding myth of modern history, the Holocaust. Because it says quite plainly that privileged Jewish leaders collaborated in the extermination of their own kind in order to help bring about a Zionist state, Israel, which is itself racist.”
In summing up the play’s central argument, one of the characters talks of “the Zionist knife in the Nazi fist”, describes Israel as “coined in the blood and tears of Hungarian Jewry”, and claims: “To save your hides, you (Zionists) practically led them (Jews) to the gas chambers of Auschwitz.”
The play treats Yaron/Kasztner not as an individual but as the embodiment of Zionism per se. The now defunct Flame magazine summed up the central argument of the play: “There is a story here which the Zionists do not want you to know … about the role of the Zionist movement in the war and its collaboration with the Nazi regime. The Zionist leadership of Hungary bought their freedom in a shameful deal with Eichmann, whilst the Jews of Hungary were led to the gas chambers.”
“The Zionist movement stands accused of sacrificing the majority of the Jews in Hungary so as to save a thousand Jews to fulfil the Zionist conquest of Palestine. Clearly, the Zionist movement regarded the establishment of the state of Israel as a higher priority than saving their brethren from the concentration camps.”
Bogdanor makes passing mention of the controversy about ‘Perdition” and the identification of Kasztner as “the avatar of a Zionist-Nazi conspiracy to murder the Jews of Europe in order to justify creating the ‘fascist’ state of Israel.” Bogdanor’s riposte: “such ideas, if they can be dignified as such, have no contact with reality.”
In Nazi-occupied Hungary, there was no “neat” dividing line between bad Zionists (or bad Zionist leaders) and good anti-Zionists. On all sides there were people foolishly thinking Jews could benefit from trying to do deals with the Nazis. The Budapest Judenrat (Jewish Council), for example, was created by anti-Zionist community leaders acting under instructions from the Nazis in March of 1944.
It “demanded blind obedience to the Nazis from the Jewish community” and was “enlisted in Eichmann’s effort to deceive the widest strata of Jewry.” By 24 April it was “summoning selected Jews for ‘internment’ – which in reality meant death – at the hands of the Nazis.” Only in mid-June did it reverse its “previous decision to handle news of the slaughter [in Auschwitz] confidentially” and begin to “circulate the eye-witness report [of Auschwitz] among the Hungarian elite.”
Far from being the ultimate expression of Zionism, Kasztner himself repeatedly came into conflict with other Zionist activists who were doing exactly what ‘Perdition’ claimed they were not doing, i.e. opposing the Nazis and trying to save Jewish lives.
In late 1943, Hungarian Zionists began organising an armed underground movement in preparation for a possible Nazi occupation. The movement was to be open to all Zionist parties (apart from the Revisionists) and to non-Zionists. But Kasztner scuppered the plans for armed resistance in favour of “negotiations” with the Nazis. Hungarian Zionists also helped to smuggle Jews out of Poland and Austria and issued them with forged Hungarian ID papers, as well as providing financial support to Jews in the Polish ghettoes and Jews in hiding in Austria.
Kasztner wanted an end to such activities, for fear that they would jeopardise his “negotiations” with the Nazis. But the Zionist youth ignored Kasztner’s instructions and continued their activities, with the support of most of the Hungarian Zionist leaders. When the deportations of Jews began in Hungary itself, Hungarian Zionist youth activists set about encouraging Jews to flee the Nazi-created ghettoes in Budapest and the provinces. Again, Kasztner sought to undermine and block such activities. Other Zionists organised “protected houses” in Budapest (i.e. houses covered by Swiss diplomatic immunity, or by the protection of other foreign missions) and children’s homes with Red Cross extraterritorial status which provided safety for thousands of Jews.
As Bogdanor points out, the number of Jewish lives saved by Zionists without any help from Kasztner is an indication of how many more could have been saved if Kasztner, as head of the Relief and Rescue Committee, had not placed himself at the service of the Nazis. The gap between Kasztner and the broader Zionist movement is further underlined by the fact that in mid-April of 1944 the entire Hungarian Zionist movement was banned by the Nazis. Kasztner’s Relief and Rescue Committee, on the other hand, enjoyed the patronage first of the Abwehr and then of the SS.
The terrifying possibility of a Trump victory tomorrow is mitigated only by a certain perverse amusement at the sheer narcissism and witless buffoonery of this vainglorious mountebank. And there is one voice in particular that should now be raised in scathing denunciation: that of Philip Roth, the magesterial chronicler of American mores, society and politics of the last century, whose counterfactual book The Plot Against America describes (through the eyes of a young New York Jewish boy), the events following the victory of the Nazi sympathising celebrity Charles Lindbergh in the 1940 presidential election.
Of course, in reality Frankin Roosevelt won, and Lindberg wasn’t even on the ballot (the Republican candidate was the businessman Wendell Willkie), but he was the leader of the hugely popular ‘America First’ isolationist anti-war movement, and the idea of him winning the Republican nomination and then the presidency itself, is not ridiculously far-fetched. Indeed, with the rise of Trump, Roth’s alternative history looks far less outlandish than it did when the book was first published in 2004.
It should also be noted that on the evidence of his infamous Des Moines speech of September 11th 1941, Lindbergh appears to have been a less egotistical, more thoughtful and probably more personally honest individual than Trump:
So why have we heard nothing from Roth in the course of the present tragicomic presidential contest? Surely, Trump is perfect Roth material – and Clinton also worthy of his forensic scorn?
The sad answer may be found in Roth’s 2007 Exit Ghost, which opens on the eve of the 2004 US election and contains a description of the protagonist Nathan Zuckerman’s withdrawal from political involvement – and, indeed, from much of contemporary life. Roth has never made any secret of the fact that Zuckerman is an alter ego for himself. The following gives us a taste of what we’re missing, and the reason why that is so:
I had been an avid voter all my life, one who’d never pulled a Republican lever for any office on any ballot. I had campaigned for Stevenson as a college student and had my juvenile expectations dismantled when Eisenhower trounced him, first in ’52 and then again in ’56; and I could not believe what I saw when a creature so rooted in his ruthless pathology, so transparently fraudulent and malicious as Nixon, defeated Humphrey in ’68, and when, in the eighties, a self assured knucklehead whose unsurpassable hollowness and hackneyed sentiments and absolute blindness to every historical complexity became the object of national worship and, esteemed as a “great communicator” no less, won each of two terms in a landslide. And was there ever an election like Gore versus Bush, resolved in treacherous ways that it was, so perfectly calculated to quash the last shameful vestige of a law-abiding citizen’s naiveté? I’d hardly held myself aloof from the antagonisms of partisan politics, but now, having lived enthralled by America for nearly three-quarters of a century, I had decided no longer to be overtaken every four years by the emotions of a child — the emotions of a child and the pain of an adult. At least not so long as I holed up in my cabin, where I could manage to remain in America without America’s ever again being absorbed in me. Aside from writing books and studying once again, for a final go-round, the first great writers I read, all the rest that once mattered most no longer mattered at all, and I dispelled a good half, if not more, of a lifetime’s allegiances and pursuits. After 9/11 I pulled the plug on the contradictions. Otherwise, I told myself, you’ll become the exemplary letter-to-the editor madman, the village grouch, manifesting the syndrome in all its seething ridiculousness: ranting and raving while you read the paper, and at night, on the phone with friends, roaring indignantly about the pernicious profitability for which a wounded nation’s authentic patriotism was about to be exploited by an imbecilic king, and in a republic, a king in a free country with all the slogans with which American children are raised. The despising without remission that constitutes. The despising without remission that constitutes being a conscientious citizen in the reign of George W. Bush was not for one who had developed a strong interest in surviving as reasonably serene — and so I began to annihilate the abiding wish to find out. I cancelled magazine subscriptions, stopped reading the Times, even stopped picking up the occasional copy of the Boston Globe when I went down to the general store. The only paper I saw regularly was the Berkshire Eagle, a local weekly. I used TV to watch baseball, the radio to listen to music, and that was it.
I’ve just attended a long overdue tribute to the great poet of Birmingham and the Midlands, Roy Fisher. Roy himself couldn’t be there, but sent greetings. Four poets who admire the man and his work – Luke Kennard, Ian McMillan, Peter Robinson and Jacqui Rowe – read and explored Roy’s poems, written over 55 years. I was pleased that the opening reading – by Ian McMillan – was Roy’s powerful evocation of a favourite jazz pianist, the now nearly forgotten Joe Sullivan. The evening closed with a recording of Roy himself playing superb jazz piano, accompanying the Birmingham singer Ruby Turner. I suggest listening to Mr Sullivan himself, before reading Roy’s poem:
The Thing About Joe Sullivan
By Roy Fisher (1965)
The pianist Joe Sullivan,
jamming sound against idea
hard as it can go
florid and dangerous
slams at the beat, or hovers,
drumming, along its spikes;
in his time almost the only
one of them to ignore
the chance of easing down,
walking it leisurely,
he’ll strut, with gambling shapes,
underpinning by James P.,
amble, and stride over
gulfs of his own leaving, perilously
toppling octaves down to where
the chords grow fat again
and ride hard-edged, most lucidly
voiced, and in good inversions even when
the piano seems at risk of being
hammered the next second into scrap
For all that, he won’t swing
like all the others;
disregards mere continuity,
the snakecharming business,
the ‘masturbator’s rhythm’
under the long variations:
Sullivan can gut a sequence
In one chorus-
-approach, development, climax, discard-
And sound magnanimous,
The mannerism of intensity
often with him seems true,
too much to be said, the mood
pressing in right at the start, then
running among stock forms
that could play themselves
and moving there with such
quickness of intellect
that shapes flaw and fuse,
altering without much sign,
so wrapped up in thoroughness
it can sound bluff, bustling,
just big-handed stuff-
belied by what drives him in
to make rigid, display,
shout and abscond, rather
than just let it come, let it go-
And that thing is his mood:
A feeling violent and ordinary
That runs in standard forms so
wrapped up in clarity
that fingers following his
through figures that sound obvious
find corners everywhere,
marks of invention, wakefulness;
the rapid and perverse
tracks that ordinary feelings
make when they get driven
hard enough against time.
From Dale Street:
Just a quick reminder about the quality of Scottish-nationalist politics and journalism.
“Now when London is threatened
With devastation from the air
I realise, horror atrophying me,
That I hardly care.
“The leprous swine in London town
And their Anglo-Scots accomplices
Are, as they have always been
Scotland’s only enemies.”
(On The Imminent Destruction Of London, June 1940)
Biteback Publishing, 2016, pp. 320.
By Dale Street (this review also appears on the Workers Liberty website)
Dave Rich’s The Left’s Jewish Problem – Jeremy Corbyn, Israel and Anti-semitism is not quite what its subtitle suggests it is. But that does not make the book, published a fortnight ago, any the less worth reading.
The focus of the book is not Corbyn. At its core is an attempt to provide an explanation of “how and why antisemitism appears on the left, and an appeal to the left to understand, identify and expel antisemitism from its politics.”
The antisemitism in question is not the ‘traditional’ racist version. It is an antisemitism which is rooted in “ways of thinking about Jews, Zionism and Israel”, albeit one which frequently incorporates anti-semitic stereotypes and tropes. The paradoxical result is that its proponents “believe anti-semitic stereotypes about Jews, while not feeling any visceral hostility towards them and while thinking of themselves as anti-racists.”
The historical starting point of Rich’s explanation is the emergence of the New Left in the 1950s and 1960s. The New Left, argues Rich, turned away from traditional class politics and focused instead on identity politics and anti-colonial struggles in the Third World. In its most extreme form, this involved writing off the working class as the decisive agent of social change. Instead, “Third World struggles were the new focus of world revolution”, and armed conflict was the highest form of those struggles.
Especially in the aftermath of Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, this way of looking at the world increasingly identified Israel as a bastion of imperialist oppression. The Palestinians, on the other hand, were allocated a place in the front ranks of the anti-imperialist forces. Two other factors reinforced this overly simplistic and ultimately anti-semitic conceptualisation of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Firstly, the Soviet Union relaunched a massive state-run “anti-Zionist” campaign based on thinly disguised — and sometimes not even that — antisemitism. Traditional anti-semitic themes — rich, powerful, cruel, manipulative Jews — were recast in the language of “anti-Zionism”. The Soviet campaign portrayed Israel itself as an outpost and bridgehead of US imperialism in the Middle East. It was ultra- aggressive, ultra-expansionist and committed to the military conquest of the surrounding Arab states.
Secondly, British Young Liberals, trying to replicate the success of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, recast Israel as an apartheid state in which the indigenous Arab population suffered the same levels of discrimination as Blacks in South Africa. Rich writes: “The Young Liberals established an enduring template for left-wing anti-Zionism in Britain. … It is common to blame Trotskyists and other Marxists for the spread of anti-Zionism on the left. In reality, this movement was kick-started by Young Liberals and Arab nationalist activists, funded by Arab governments.”
Peter Hain, a future Labour MP but then a leading figure in the Young Liberals, played a particularly prominent role in the creation of this “anti-Zionist” template: “The world cannot allow its shame over its historic persecution of Jews to rationalise the present persecution of the Palestinians. The case for the replacement of Israel by a democratic secular state of Palestine must be put uncompromisingly.”
“They (Israeli Jews) can recognise now that the tide of history is against their brand of greedy oppression, or they can dig in and invite a bloodbath. … [Israel keeps Palestinians] in far more oppressive conditions in fact than many black South Africans live.”
By the mid-1970s the main elements of what now — and long since — passes for “anti-Zionism” on sections of the British left were already in place. Zionism was not just another nationalism. It was a uniquely evil ideology, inherently racist, and necessarily genocidal. Israel was an “illegitimate” apartheid state, a colonial enterprise equated to the dispossession of the Palestinians, and incapable of reform.
Rich goes on to provide examples of how such themes were amplified and built upon in subsequent years. If Israel was, as claimed, an apartheid state, then it was a “legitimate” target for a comprehensive programme of boycott, disinvestment and sanctions. This has now “climaxed” in the decision of some British union to boycott the Histadrut, the Israeli trade union federation. If Zionism was, as claimed, a form of racism, then it was “legitimate” for Student Unions to refuse to fund Jewish Societies which failed to disavow Zionism.
The mid-1970s and the mid-1980s saw repeated attempts to ban Jewish societies on this basis. If Zionism was, as claimed, inherently genocidal, then it was “legitimate” to equate it with Nazism — an equation which became increasingly common in sections of the left press and on placards on pro-Palestine demonstrations. And if Israel and Zionism were guilty as claimed, then a common “anti-imperialism” made it “legitimate” to ally with forces hostile to the most basic values of the left. This found expression in the SWP-Muslim Association of Britain alliance in the Stop the War Coalition.
As the ultimate example of this “way of thinking about Jews, Zionism and Israel” Rich quotes from a letter published by the Morning Star, written by a veteran reader and Communist Party member: “Israel, and all that Israel has done and is doing, is an affront to all those millions who fought and died fighting fascism before, during and after the war against fascism. … A few years ago [an Italian partisan who survived Dachau] committed suicide. He left a note saying that the good Jews were all killed in the concentration camps.”
As Rich points out, such “ways of thinking about Jews, Zionism and Israel” bring those sections of the left which espouse them into conflict with most Jews in Britain (and the world): “Israel’s existence is an important part of what it means to be Jewish today. The idea that Israel shouldn’t exist or that Zionism was a racist, colonial endeavour rather than a legitimate expression of Jewish nationhood, cuts to the heart of British Jews’ sense of identity of who they are.”
Rich concludes: “There has been a breakdown in trust and understanding between British Jews, the Labour Party, and the broader left. There are parts of the left where most Jews feel unwelcome or uncomfortable. … It’s not too late to bring this relationship back to health.”
Despite the book’s subtitle, Corbyn himself appears only spasmodically in the book. Rich rightly criticises Corbyn for various statements on Israel which he has made over the years and for his patronage of campaigns which have served as incubators for left antisemitism. Corbyn’s inability to understand left antisemitism is also highlighted by Rich. Corbyn seems to hold the view that left antisemitism is an oxymoron – only the far right can be anti-semitic – and that accusations of antisemitism are raised in bad faith to undermine criticism of Israel.
More open to challenge is Rich’s description of Corbyn as being “ambiguous” on Israel’s right to exist. It is certainly true that the Labour Movement Campaign for Palestine which Corbyn supported in the early 1980s was rabidly hostile to Israel’s existence. (The campaign was set up by Tony Greenstein.) But Corbyn’s overall record has been one of backing a “two states solution”.
But Rich is not overly concerned with Corbyn’s own views on Israel and antisemitism. For Rich, Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader “symbolises” — and Rich uses the word on more than one occasion — something more profound. Corbyn’s “political home” was the New Left which spawned left antisemitism. His election as party leader means that “what was once on the fringes of the left” is now centre-stage. Corbyn’s election was “the ultimate New Left triumph rather than a return to Old Labour.”
This is true in the sense that some people around Corbyn, including ones in senior positions, espouse the left antisemitism which began to emerge in the years of the New Left and then spread like a cancer in subsequent years. But it is also very wrong, in the sense that the primary factor which galvanised support for Corbyn’s leadership bid was the fact that he was seen as, and presented himself as, the pre-Blairite Old-Labour anti-austerity leadership contender.
In an isolated moment of clutching at straws to back up an argument, Rich even cites preposterous claims by arch-Stalinist Andrew Murray and his fellow traveller Lindsey German that the Stop the War Coalition — now little more than a rump and a website — was the decisive factor in Corbyn’s
Such secondary criticisms apart, Rich’s book is a valuable summary of the historical development of left antisemitism in Britain: not just a timely reminder of older arguments but also a source of new insights into its emergence. And no-one should be put off reading Rich’s book by the fulsome praise which Nick Cohen has heaped upon it, albeit at the expense of ignoring and misrepresenting what Rich has actually written: “How a party that was once proud of its anti-fascist traditions became the natural home for creeps, cranks and conspiracists is the subject of Dave Rich’s authoritative history of left antisemitism. … Representatives of the darkest left factions control Labour and much of the trade union movement, and dominate the intelligentsia.”
Cohen once wrote a serious critique of sections of the far left at a certain stage of their degeneration. But now he just bumbles along as a political court jester and professional Mr. Angry. Rich, by contrast, is trying to open up a political argument.