Monday, December 21, 2009

Lambrusco Socialism

Lambrusco doesn’t have a good rep, not even back home. ‘It’s the Coca-Cola of wines’, said to me once the mother of a high school friend. ‘Shut up, old bag’, is the comeback that I didn’t quite muster the wit to utter on the day. So it’s a sparkling red: sue me. Sue all of us, citizens of those parts of Emilia, Lombardy and Veneto where the Lambrusco grapes have been harvested for the last couple of thousand years, give or take.

When I was a kid, every year come November my grandfather would buy a few large demijohns of freshly produced Lambrusco and we’d bottle it together using a lever-operated corker, a simple but elegant machine designed to squeeze the greased cork whilst pushing it into the top of the bottle. It would take us the best part of a weekend to fill the little room under the stairs with fifty or so bottles of thick brown or green glass, and it was tremendous fun. I vividly remember the cocktail of smells, as well as the wine’s taste, naturally, which was far from forbidden. On the Sundays of our visits I was always allowed a finger or so in my glass - the colour of the local red Lambrusco is so potent that even four-fifths of water aren’t enough to quite turn it pink. And then on those occasions when we had cappelletti there was the ritual of bev’r in vin, that is to say, serve some cappelletti in a little bowl ahead of the main course and pour half a glass or so of Lambrusco directly into the hot beef and chicken stock.

Lambrusco has been part of the popular Mantuan diet for centuries, but in fact of every local diet, because the cuisine of the area is peculiar in this: the rich and the poor ate the same foods and drank the same drinks. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that the income disparities in the old Dukedom were any less crushing than in the rest of the North or the country as a whole - more than a few de facto forms of serfdom were alive and well when my mother was born, in 1931 - but there was no rich cuisine and poor cuisine: everybody read from the same recipe book. The menu of the most important meal of the year - dinner on Christmas Eve - is emblematic in this regard: marinated eel and pumpkin tortelli are dishes that anybody could afford to make. And that’s the reason why to this day in posh restaurants throughout the province, and especially to the South-East, across the Po, where Lombardy meets with Veneto and Emilia, the specialities are the very same that my grandmother and my great-grandmother used to prepare and be revered for in their lifetimes, poverty and all.

That fundamental cultural commonality was the basis of an egalitarianism of sorts, the same egalitarianism that the fierce reactionary Giovanni Guareschi struggled to uphold in his books, in which the archest of arch-enemies - the Christian Democratic priest Don Camillo and the Communist Mayor Peppone - joined forces whenever big city people came to town to tell the locals how to run things. Food and drink were a common language and along with religion they presided over the natural order of things, which was that some people owned the land, and profited from it, and some other people worked the land. It had been like that for as long as anybody could remember, and when push came to shove not even Peppone himself believed that it could or in fact should change.

My great-great uncle, Arturo Magnoni

This was true also of nonna’s family. She had just turned six years old when her mother died, and her father - a farm labourer and a proud socialist - was left to raise six children on his own, but not once did he, in his words, ‘climb the steps of the town hall’, that is to say, ask for financial help or services from the municipality or the state. Indeed, archconservatives like Don Brash would find much to like in his reliance on ‘community and family mechanisms of support’. Such were the paradoxes of grafting Marxist ideas in a society whose mindset was so atavistically patriarchal and feudal.

It went like this: there were the landowner (padrone), the renter (affittuario), the sharecropper (mezzadro) and the farm labourer (bracciante). The owner would do none of the work; the sharecropper and the renter would do most of the work, and share the proceeds with the owner or pay him a fixed fee, respectively; and the labourers picked up whatever seasonal work was available, for meagre pay. When no such work existed, for example following the devastating frosts of 1929 and 1930, or due to the work shortages of 1945, very limited solidarity mechanisms kicked in and some extra work was found or manufactured so that the labourer population - on which the system depended in the good years - could survive and not be forced to relocate, or at least not permanently, but mostly they were left on their own devices. Somehow the poverty never became unendurable for too many, seeing that the province never experienced mass emigration, unlike nearby Veneto, but it would be a bold person who called it a just society, or who didn’t see the merit of the post-war reforms that gradually ensured a measure of redistribution of the land to the people who worked it.

Guareschi was such a man, of course, and I’ll advance some other time a very partial defence of his appalling conservatism - like Pasolini, he believed that there was something worth salvaging in a rural culture that had remained virtually unchanged for centuries only to crash head-first against the brick wall of history. To me, besides the language and the stories it’s the flavours, the mnemonic glue of a lived tradition, the one thing I could carry with me on the other side of the planet. So this week for Christmas Justine and I are making cappelletti and yes, we’ll drink Lambrusco, and yes, it will be a nostalgic and sentimental gesture, but it’ll have something going for it as well: the sense of our beginnings, of a long and exhausting history with the occasional moment of cheer - for the food is glorious and quite frankly so is the wine.

During the last two trips home I had the opportunity to visit my cousin Bruno on the job as he helped make Lambrusco at the local winery, the Cantina Sociale di Quistello. I saw the farmers (including some distant relatives) arrive with their trailers loaded with grapes, help unload and wait for the must to be extracted, its sugar content tested and the results written in a journal to calculate their pay, just like the old sharecroppers who took their milk to the dairies - in Mum’s village there used to be one in every street - or their grapes to other wineries like this one: cantine sociali, that is to say local cooperatives, and in that model of communal work and shared resources the Left found a useful blueprint for reforming economic relations in the regions where it had a majority after the war.

But enough of that, for heaven's sake, it’s the holidays. Buy yourself a bottle of dry Lambrusco, it goes with everything. Seriously, my dad enjoyed dunking cake in it. What further endorsement could you possibly want?

I leave you with nonna’s recipe for cappelletti, and with my best wishes for the New Year. Cheers.

For the stock: half a chicken, 400g of chuck steak - or the piece that in Italian is referred to as the priest's hat, some butchers will know where to cut that - one clove of garlic, one onion, a celery stick, a carrot. Dump everything in when the water is still cold, bring to the boil then let simmer for three to four hours.

For the pasta: 4 eggs, 400 g of flour. Serves 4-5 people, add one egg and 100g of flour for each extra person. Make a fountain with the flour, break the eggs in the middle and incorporate using a fork. Once the fork no longer does the trick, knead by hand until the dough is even and smooth. Roll with a pin or with a pasta machine until it’s quite thin.

For the filling: One onion, one clove of garlic, 350 grams of lean beef meat, two sausages, one chicken kidney. Boil in a small pot with water for three hours. Remove garlic and onion and mix in a food processor. Add breadcrumbs, one egg and some Parmesan to the mixture and mix it some more by hand. If it’s too dry to mix with ease, add a tablespoon or two of the liquid from the small pot.

Cut the pasta in squares about 4-5 cm long. Place a little bit of filling on each square, then fashion the cappelletti as shown in the pictures on this web page. Leave to set for a few hours, preferably overnight. Bring the stock to the boil and cook the cappelletti for 10 minutes or so.


Before I go, Jolisa has revisited the Ihimaera saga in a terrific post that I urge you to peruse. I must also encourage you to visit Memory, Amnesia and Politics a new blog by Kathy Korcheck that maps from the outset a number of issues of memory studies that firmly belong in the public conversation. I had been waiting for somebody to set up such a blog since well before I kicked off mine. The wine label at the top is by none other than Fortunato Depero.

Monday, December 14, 2009

2012, 2025

Someone once said that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.
(Fredric Jameson)

If you see a representation of the biblical Flood and there appear to be survivors outside of Noah’s immediate family, you can be assured that their safety is but temporary: they huddle, they try to keep each other warm, but the rising seas are going to get to them in the end. Michelangelo’s example above takes the unusual form of a character study of those momentary survivors, but in the more recent iconography - the subject was especially popular in the 19th century - it is more common for the event to be represented on a larger scale in which the helpless humanity is relegated to the bottom or to a corner of the image, like in the following renditions by Messrs Géricault, Turner and Danby,

The Deluge by Théodore Géricault. 1818. Louvre, Paris.

The Deluge by J. M. W. Turner. 1804-1805. Tate Gallery, London.

The Deluge by Francis Danby. 1837-1839. Tate Gallery, London.

while the human element all but disappears in this painting by the English Romantic John Martin:

The Deluge by John Martin. 1834.

Martin rather enjoyed painting scenes of destruction (Sodom and Gomorrah, God’s wrath on Judgment Day and the Seventh Plague of Egypt are notable examples), but he also knew that catastrophes can only be understood in a temporal sequence that includes the moment before, a sharp image and sense of the order about to be ruptured. Hence the remarkable Eve of the Deluge, a painting whose meaning is precisely mapped by its title.

The Eve of the Deluge by John Martin. 1840. Royal Collection, Windsor

Enter disaster movies, in which the spectators are invariably expected to sit through an elaborate and lengthy lead up to that which they already know will happen, for it was foretold in the trailers and in the posters outside the theatre. Yet this first act is essential, for it constructs and populates the world or microcosm that is going to be destroyed. And if this world has people in it - which it always does - their morality is laid bare, for after all disasters in movies, even when they purport to strike at random, are inextricably linked to quasi-biblical ideas of sin, redemption and retribution.

Having read a handful of reviews, it seems that the common complaint regarding Roland Emmerich’s 2012 is that it fails precisely in establishing a credible frame, and it’s hard to disagree: bad science, plot holes so big you could fly a giant Russian cargo plane through them, a gallery of cliché-laden characters and what is quite possibly the worst last line in the history of cinema ('No more pull-ups') are the stuff of unwitting parody, nor is the film anywhere near smart enough to graduate to actual parody, or do so consistently enough. At times it feels as if one is invited to laugh along with the filmmakers at a less sophisticated sector of the target audience, which is never very appealing. So why bother? For me personally, it’s that Mr Emmerich and his backers can be relied upon to offer the latest and most powerful in the industry’s apocalyptic imaginings. That they fail to ground them in a coherent narrative or to produce what anybody in their right mind might be persuaded to call good films is largely inconsequential, for that is the overriding frame, the interpretive key: images of the end of days that are produced at enormous cost and with great accomplishment to entertain a mass global audience, within a mode of representation that claims immediacy and transparency, that is, a direct and unmediated cross-cultural appeal. As if to say: when the time comes, whomever you are and wherever you might live, this is what the end of the world will look like.

The painters of the flood made a similar claim to a universal vision and to an a-human point of view hovering outside of the catastrophe, but it was grounded in tradition and divine authority, not primarily in the deployment of the technology of representation itself. Here Emmerich is unabashedly iconoclastic, and deals a couple of clever if a little ham-fisted blows to the forces that used to claim a monopoly on the apocalyptic, namely religion and the military. I’m talking about two sequences included in the movie trailers: the destruction of the White House by the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy, propelled inland on the crest of a colossal tsunami, and the crumbling of Saint Peter’s and the Vatican, beginning with a crack across the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel that neatly severs the connection between God and Man.

Thus cinema emerges alone - not primarily in the sense of an art, but as an industry at the heart of contemporary capital flows - in charge of representing and therefore making possible the end of the world. For although the catastrophe in 2012 is due to solar activity and a whole heap of rogue neutrinos, hence emphatically not man-made, it is quite impossible to conceive of a terminal event without plugging into the imaginary of the latest economic crisis of our late, late capitalism.

But of course a crisis in capitalism is never a crisis of capitalism, quite the opposite: anything that threatens and erodes political and social institutions pushes us closer to the neoliberal brink, as the local example of the monetary crisis of 1984 or the share market collapse of 1987 both serving as launching pads for the Rogernomes makes very clear. Now the old trolls are at it again, in the form of former Labour finance minister David Caygill, and former Reserve Bank governor Don Brash, the two most recognisable names behind the 2025 Taskforce, and it’s even more painful to watch their contortions in light of the conspicuous absence of impending doom.

For what’s a shock doctrine without a decent shock? The global financial crisis notwithstanding, New Zealand is doing relatively well - the first taskforce report, released earlier this month, says so itself:
[…] for many people life in New Zealand is good, and our material living standards have increased enormously – in the last decade alone, real wages have increased substantially and overall living standards of the average New Zealander (at least as proxied by real GDP per capita) have increased by 21 percent.
Hence the need to manufacture a crisis, which taking the cue from our ambitious Prime Minister is formulated as follows: we must catch up with the per capita income of Australians by the year 2025. And how are we going to do that? Why, but by enacting more neoliberal reforms in the mould of the ones that brought us to our knees and opened up that gap in the first place.

A number of mainstream commentators have understandably focussed - much like the reviewers of 2012 - on the disarming stupidity of the proposition. I give you Messrs Rudman, Armstrong and Gaynor, heck, I’ll throw in Garth George for the same low, low price. But far fewer have remarked, with the notable exception of Tapu Misa, what an intensely vicious document the report is. Just exactly how vicious? I bothered to read it cover to cover, and I have had to ask John Cusack to portray my reaction.

The core recommendation of the report is to all but dismantle our welfare system and the public provision of social services: deregulate, privatise, drastically reduce spending and enshrine in legislation the requirement that all future increases in spending be subject to the prior approval of Treasury, much like the setting of the interest rates has been taken out of the hands of politicians in line with the dominant monetarist orthodoxy. Now the authors of the report will tell you that the idea that these reforms are designed to benefit the rich is ‘a pervasive myth’:
This is a programme to improve substantially the lot of the ordinary New Zealander. We all have a huge stake in its adoption, but none more so than the least skilled, least able, least mobile among us. New Zealanders care about those people.

The outcome of all this intense caring will be familiar to the New Zealanders who lived through Rogernomics, or alternatively to those who have access to a library and to Alister Barry’s heart-rending documentaries. But even if one were to somehow concede the point that the reforms failed to benefit the working class and the unemployed because they weren’t implemented boldly enough, the authors spell out in very precise terms what they mean by benefit under their New Economic Order, mark 2. Here’s an excerpt from the section on pensions:
Mean-testing of age pensions is a fraught issue, and something of a double-edged sword. There is a risk that poorly done means-testing could further discourage private savings by middle income people. A better outcome all round would be achieved if the pension was to once again be regarded by all concerned as a safety net: there for those unable to provide for themselves in times of infirmity, but with most people taking pride in their ability to support themselves through work, private savings and the assistance of family.
The same "every man for himself" logic applies naturally to the benefits for the disabled and the unemployed:
Ambitious welfare reform measures should be undertaken as a matter of priority to reduce the very large number of people of working age currently receiving welfare benefits.
Note that the authors don’t suggest reducing the need for those benefits, just their provision. As if cutting government spending alone created jobs or opportunities for meaningful social participation, or as if the country hadn’t abandoned its cornerstone policy objective of securing full-employment precisely as a result of neoliberal reforms. But beyond that, nowhere does the document address social equality - not just in terms of income, but also of access to opportunities - as a public good worthy of being protected. Quite the contrary: in the name of the sad-arse, greedy nonsense that we must catch up with the income of Australians, the taskforce demands that we further reduce whatever safety nets and welfare provisions we have left, without pausing to consider that, if we had to pay for things that across the Tasman they get for free out of those same incomes, then the metric would be meaningless in the first place.

Yet it’s not the collapse in logic that is most striking, but rather the deep affective dissonance at the heart of the taskforce's claim to be thinking of the most vulnerable members of our society when they promote ‘greater self-reliance and greater use of family, community and market mechanisms for support’.

It's easy enough to dismiss the report as the token concession to a coalition party whose support stands at less than two per cent and as such is unlikely to ever be implemented, but it's an appealing narrative, and in marginally less benign times we might soon find it foisted upon us again - for it's such a persistent, convenient lie. And besides there's that a-human point of view hovering outside of the catastrophe again, outside of society and the number of those affected. Like Emmerich, Brash et al. cannot tell the whole story, or demonstrate any measure of compassion or understanding of the social, because they lack the means of expressing it. They can only think and speak in large, cleansing tableaux of shock and discontinuity, mock-revolutions that give the already rich and powerful an even greater share of money and power.

As it happens, both projects are slated for sequels. In 2012's case, a television series charting the fortunes of the survivors to be entitled 2013, whereas Taskforce fans can look forward to two more reports, presumably on the not unfounded basis that a lie told often enough might just start to sound true. But it's a reminder too of how fiercely contested that piece of our history is that goes under the name of the New Zealand Experiment. We'll need to keep telling each other those stories if we don't wish to become someone else's country - theirs.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Psycho-Cybernetics (and Ghosts)

The nervous system and the automatic machine are fundamentally alike in that they are devices which make decisions on the basis of decisions they have made in the past.

(Norbert Wiener)

Beauty is only skin deep, but ugly goes clean to the bone.

(Dorothy Parker)

In one of my all-time most formative books, How We Became Posthuman, Katherine Hayles has described and traced the origins of an important strand in the contemporary ways of thinking about ourselves to the twin revolutions of information theory and cybernetics. She also showed that, as is so often the case, the original thinkers who came up with those paradigm-shifting ideas - this time in the areas of engineering and computer science - demonstrated from the outset a keen understanding of the broader implications of their discoveries. Indeed, Norbert Wiener’s Human Use of Human Beings appears just as cogent and compelling today as it must have been when it was published, in 1950 - possibly more so. Other books along the way haven’t stood the test of time quite so well, but as always I’m just as interested in those.

The vintage of this one - 1960 - shows it took just over a decade for the fundamental insights of cybernetics to be recycled wholesale into pop-psychology and the self-help movement. The central proposition of Maxwell Maltz's Psycho-Cybernetics is that our consciousness avails itself of an impersonal servo-mechanism - which others call the unconscious - to achieve its goals. These goals in turn are mental pictures produced by the imagination, chief amongst them the self-image, which sets ‘the limits for the accomplishment of any particular goals’ and outlines therefore the ‘area of the possible’ (p. ix). So it’s up to you (or, more precisely, your conscious foremind) to form a self-image that is success-oriented, thus turning your creative mechanism into a success mechanism as opposed to a failure mechanism (p. x).

While its rhetoric has shifted somewhat, self-help literature still employs many of these ideas concerning self-image psychology and the visualisation of a set of personal goals around which to construct one’s identity. But it shouldn’t surprise us that it was a plastic surgeon who articulated them first. Besides observing that changing a person’s appearance can ‘cut deep into the psyche as well’, causing significant improvements in a patient’s personality and outlook, in the course of his practice Dr. Maltz found nonetheless that
in some cases, the patients continued to feel inadequate and experienced feelings of inferiority. In short, these "failures" continued to feel, act and behave just as if they still had an ugly face. (p. vi)
Beauty is more than skin deep, concludes Maltz, and if an exterior change isn’t accompanied by a change in the patient’s image of self, those feelings of inadequacy are not going to go away. Fortunately it just so happens that you can make cosmetic changes to your psyche that will make you a better, happier person.

Psycho-cybernetic interventions are twofold, then: first you remove unwanted memories that are unpleasant (ugly) and unproductive (in that they cannot provide useful negative feedback), then you replace them with 'synthetic experience', that is to say a vivid, detailed imagining of who you want to be and what you want to achieve, which your mind - which after all feeds on images - will be compelled to regard as true.

It’s pretty much all there is to it, except in order to expand the advice to book-length Maltz goes into various degrees of sometimes confusing detail, amongst a plethora of platitudinous section titles like 'More years of life and more life into your years' or 'Crisis brings power', and broadening his perspective to include pseudo-scientific notions such as the life force and an extrasensory universal consciousness. We’re at the threshold of the New Age, but under the firm tutelage of cybernetics and a new science of mind that was just then being born. It’s the world of Philip Dick’s simulacra.

The implications for memory are significant, and bear directly on our recent discussions on witnessing history and being faithful to authentic experience. If you could reinvent yourself, rewrite your life story, would you bother to include your failures, traumas and transgressions? Here’s what Maltz has to say - in what seems like a direct response to a comment of Carl Dyke’s from last week - under the headline 'Let sleeping dogs lie':
Our errors, mistakes, failures, and sometimes even our humiliations, were necessary steps in the learning process. However, they were meant to be means to an end—and not an end in themselves. When they have served their purpose, they should be forgotten. If we consciously dwell upon the error, or consciously feel guilty about the error, and keep berating ourselves because of it, then—unwittingly—the error or failure itself becomes the "goal" which is consciously held in imagination and memory. The unhappiest of mortals is that man who insists upon reliving the past, over and over in imagination—continually criticising himself for past mistakes—continually condemning himself for past sins. (p. 66)

What Maltz suggests instead, with a startling surgical metaphor, is to give yourself ‘a spiritual face-lift’ in order to ‘remove your emotional scars’. This operation, to be completely successful, has to leave absolutely no trace. So for instance - and please believe me when I say that this is the actual example in the book - a woman who had been counselled by her minister or psychiatrist to forgive her philandering husband needs to do more than that: she must actually forget the incident altogether. Then and only then will (marital) harmony be restored.

Taking our cue from Carl’s discussion of a therapeutic approach to history, we could call this therapeutic memory. But instead of launching all too predictably into questioning its value, I want to highlight a set of connections which again feed back into the discussion we’ve had in the last few posts. For the nineteen-sixties were also the decade of the death of the author, a turn of events that Italo Calvino linked explicitly to the ideas of Shannon, Weiner, Turing and von Neumann.

In a lecture originally delivered in November of 1967 in Turin and other cities and later published as an essay entitled ‘Cybernetics and Ghosts’, Calvino described writing as the work of a servo-mechanism, a goal-oriented act whose outcome is not predetermined by the tightly bound subjective I of the author, but rather takes place at the intersection of culture, language and probability. The idea, which had already been put forward more radically by Borges in 1940 - in the Library of Babel, you will recall, there are no writers or authors, just perennially perplexed readers - is based on a less crude understanding of cybernetics than Maltz’s, but shares some of the same fundamental propositions. Chiefly, that there is knowledge which exists outside of us, floating in the culture and obeying the rules of language, and that its discovery amounts to stumbling upon something which was already there. Furthermore, this is just as true now, in our highly complex and densely symbolic societies, as it was for the first storyteller of the tribe.
The storyteller began to put forth words, not because he thought others might reply with other, predictable words, but to test the extent to which words could fit with one another, could give birth to one another, in order to extract an explanation of the world from the thread of every possible spoken narrative, and from the arabesque that nouns and verbs, subjects and predicates performed as they unfolded from one another. (p. 4)

Ultimately it’s not just the author, but the individual itself which dissolves into the act of speaking/writing. ‘The psychological person,’ explains Calvino paraphrasing Tel Quel, ‘is replaced by a linguistic or even a grammatical person, defined solely by his place in the discourse’ (p. 5). And if stories obey the rules of language and grammar, why not personal histories, why not History? What stops us then from rewriting all of our selves and society itself, playing with its vocabulary until we have found a hopefully more just and better functioning narrative? And if it were possible, wouldn’t it be worth sacrificing memory, opening up your already-written-past for endless reinvention? So long as it is what it takes.

I won’t attempt to answer that. I turn to Psycho-Cybernetics again and ask myself instead: what kind of object is this? A quaint little book, remarkably still in print - although the new cover leaves out the fantastic piece of sloganeering in the picture at the top of the page, making no mention of Maltz’s original profession - it hardly resembles the building block of a new utopia. Its tone is frequently shrill, asking you to reserve your judgment on it for at least 21 days, during which time you should reread chapter two at least three times a week. It leaves a pitifully token amount of room to write some words of your own at the end of each chapter. At page 156 it abruptly cuts to a commercial, this one,

and then again at the very end it hawks a programme designed to ‘GIVE YOUR CHILD A SUPERIOR MIND’. Says the coupon: ‘If I am not convinced that it can show me how to increase my child’s intelligence and potential for success, I may return it within 30 days, and owe nothing’. I am not reassured by this, I think I can see some cracks in the edifice. Or perhaps it’s the ghosts of the id evoked by Calvino in a counterargument to his own terse cybernetic vision:
The power of modern literature lies in its willingness to give a voice to what has remained unexpressed in the social or individual unconscious: this is the gauntlet it throws down time and again. The more enlightened our houses are, the more their walls ooze ghosts. Dreams of progress and reason are haunted by nightmares. (p. 17)

Maltz said nothing about ghosts or nightmares. His franchise has now been taken over by a former martial arts champion who dresses like Fu-Manchu and is available to come to speak at your company for a fee.

Maxwell Maltz. Psycho-Cybernetics - A New Way to Get More Living Out of Life. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1960.

Italo Calvino. 'Cybernetics and Ghosts', tr. Patrick Creagh. In The Uses of Literature (San Diego, New York, London: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1986), pp. 3 - 27.

Monday, November 30, 2009

In the Shadow of No Towers

Art Spiegelman

Although it didn’t happen entirely by design, there was a thread that ran through the last few posts on this blog. It had to do with a commitment to memory and truth, truth in memory - as exemplified by the writings of Primo Levi - versus some of its opposites, in the form of defective histories, literary plagiarism, conspiracy theories. And it all culminated last week in a discussion of 9/11 Truther Richard Gage’s presentation at Te Papa, which had an interesting by-product: my first ever bag of hate mail.

I’ve struggled to process that. I don’t want to tar all of Gage’s supporters with that particular brush - indeed, the handful who showed up in the comments kept it perfectly civil, and I thank them for it - but what the few emails I received seemed to have in common, aside from the hate part, was a sense of ownership of History (with a capital aitch to go along with the tee in Truth): who was I to question the motives of the Truthers, or even dare to mention 9/11, non-American, non-affected person that I am?

And it’s not an entirely unreasonable point. There are victims’ families who belong to the Truther movement: isn’t their desire to pursue an alternative interpretation of the events enough to legitimise it, and defuse all (my) objections, including those based on logic and reason? But then if one were to concede that point, History would immediately dissolve into several histories, and Truth would break down into many truths, because naturally there are victims’ families who side with the official explanation of what happened on 9/11, as well as others pursuing different investigations into the responsibilities of government. Truthers would have difficulties with this, for their notion of history is predicated not on complexity and plurality, but on exclusion: of logic, of evidence to the contrary, of the right of certain others to speak.

Beyond that, the idea that you can claim ownership of your own history and your own truth remains very contentious. After all, the Holocaust either did or did not happen, 9/11 either was an inside job or it wasn’t, we either put a man on the moon or we didn’t. Observe however how it all changes if we substitute the word memory for the word history: you can so own your memory. And bearing testimony, what Carl referred to in the comments to last week’s post as the heroism of witness, is precisely the role that the Truthers seek to fulfil. To testify - the religious overtones are not casual - signals that you possess the truth within yourself and your desire to convince others of it. Then comes the verdict, which again is of a binary nature: either X committed crime Y or they didn’t.

And so it happens that the word memory has colonised the debate concerning history and the social. Notions like postmemory (Marianne Hirsch), prosthetic memory (Alison Landsberg) or the ethics of memory (Avishai Margalit) seek to account for how personal memory is transmitted within a society, constituting its own political subjects, and they paint a predominantly positive picture: they say that yes, we can meaningfully access the experience of others, and use that secondary memory (with its attendant empathy) to forge a better sense of justice. Take the television series Roots (1977), for example, says Landsberg: did it not reconnect present-day America with a past that could not otherwise be accessed except through documents frozen in the historical archive? And isn’t there profound value in this? I suppose so. But she doesn’t make the counter-example. How about DW Griffith’s enormously successful The Birth of a Nation (1915)? Did it not glorify the KKK, which used it for several decades as a recruiting tool, and did it not lead in the years following its release to a boom in the Klan’s membership?

So the more fundamental problem remains of how to discriminate between authentic and inauthentic memory, therefore - due to the semantic slippage that I described - between true and false history. Here postmodernity leaves us in a lurch of our own making, forced to deal with complexity and plurality, to abhor simplification, universalisations and those dastardly metanarratives that just refuse to die, all the while steering clear of the pitfalls of Denial or Truthering.

And how do we do that?

I don’t think the answer lies in rejecting postmodernity, or in going all in and choosing your illusions. It seems to me that you could usefully deconstruct each and every human attempt to make history, showing how it is a product of its linguistic and disciplinary framework, of the epoch and the society in which it took place, and at the same time look at the state of our knowledge of a certain historical event and conclude (if it is indeed the case) that as of this day we know enough. Enough to say that the Holocaust and the Killing Fields happened, or that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed, or that the Twin Towers fell because they were hit by fucking planes. We shall never cease to want to know more about these events, to seek to understand them better, and indeed I think one could make a case that the historical record too needs to be curated, maintained, so that the documents and the testimonies can continue to speak to us and inform our relationship with the past.

The work of memory is central to this, and direct witness accounts such as Levi’s will always be a key to understanding the Holocaust in a broader and deeper sense than its mechanics and its accounting alone. But so too will the Truthers record speak to us, as it already does, of our struggle to make sense of the present as it unfolded, and of the full extent of our shortcomings. Hopefully the historian/curator of the future will turn and say yes, but look, they also came up with this:

Art Spiegelman’s Maus is a second-generation Holocaust memoir, hence a classic work of postmemory according to Hirsch’s definition; not so In the Shadow of No Towers, where the trauma is entirely his own. And if the earlier work had already been a stroke of formal genius, beginning with the choice of representing the Jews as mice, the Poles as pigs and the Germans as cats, In the Shadow goes farther, employing a wide range of different styles and pulling the characters from the early history of the genre that were already an overt influence of Maus into the comic itself. Indeed the book version of the series of ten large-scale pages published between 2002 and 2003 in Die Zeit includes reproductions of those original sources - ranging from Lyonel Feininger's Kin-derKids (1906) to George McManus’ Bringing Up Father (1921) - and an essay by Spiegelman on the influence that they had on his work.

Interestingly, Spiegelman reveals - both in the introduction and in one of the instalments of the series - that for a time he too had been obsessed with various theories pointing to the attacks having been an inside job. And I say interestingly, because In the Shadow is also an implicit refutation of the Truther movement, and it starts with form: a chaotic jumble of anachronistic and idiosyncratic styles competing to tell their own version of the story, a single Truth - if only concerning the author’s state of mind - each bursting into the frame of the other, failing to stabilise into a coherent picture. There is no clarity, no finality, and not just because the end of the story had yet to be written. The last page in the series fades nearly to black, accompanied by the reflection that the image seared in Spiegelman’s mind of ‘the looming North Tower’s glowing bones just before it vaporized’ (which he had observed first-hand on the day) is getting ‘smaller every day’, and with a sardonic farewell: ‘Happy Anniversary’. There is no consolation prize of owning your own Truth.

By the time Spiegelman concluded his series, 9/11 had been successfully warped into an engine of political consensus and colonial expansion - the War in Iraq was not yet one year old. No doubt In the Shadow's bleakness was accentuated by its being deprived of a voice at home, having to reside in exile on the newspapers and magazines of old Europe - Spiegelman was effectively at this time a Pulitzer Prize-winning political dissident - but the invective has deeper meaning. It leverages the author’s personal experience and trauma to question how American society allowed itself to be manipulated and deprived of agency, and poses again the imperative of Maus, but also of Levi: you must be true to memory.

Art Spiegelman. In The Shadow of No Towers. London: Viking, 2004.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Truth Comes to Aotearoa

But now the Falling Man is falling through more than the blank blue sky. He is falling through the vast spaces of memory and picking up speed.

Tom Junod, 'The Falling Man'

I had some misgivings about attending the presentation given at Te Papa last Saturday by Richard Gage, founder of Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth. In the first instance I was reluctant to engage, to be counted amongst those present. I also doubted that a live performance by a Truther would be much more revealing or informative than the materials regularly dumped on the Web by the movement. But Matthew Dentith was going, so at least I might get to meet him, and at the last minute curiosity got the better of me. What would it be like to see Richard Gage in action? Would he maintain in front of a large and receptive audience the patina of reasonableness of his media performances, or would he crack at least a little bit and give us a glimpse of the seething madness within?

If anything, I was the one who cracked: I simply wasn't prepared for how genuinely upsetting the experience would turn out to be. My half-formed thoughts were that these weren't Holocaust deniers, and that I could handle a two-hour slideshow on the 'controlled demolition hypothesis' just fine. It would be all about the manner in which the buildings came down, nothing to get terribly worked up about. But of course I didn't get into my topic because I enjoy seeing memory being torn to shreds, and moreover this particular story had plenty of people still in it: quite literally embedded in the buildings, scattered amongst the evidence that Mr. Gage rattled at us in order to prove his theory: namely, that the Twin Towers and World Trace Centre Building 7 didn't come down as a result of the attacks and the subsequent fires, but rather by means of controlled demolition, with bombs that had been planted months in advance at the behest of the US government.

In an important respect, what I witnessed on the day was a most interesting - if decidedly chilling - experiment in the psychology of mass persuasion. At the beginning of his presentation, Gage took an informal poll of where his audience stood on the issue, and besides the undecideds and those who agreed with him already, 29 people in the theatre (out of about 300) sided with the official explanation of the cause of the collapses. A far smaller sample than in the population at large, one hopes, but still amounting to a sizeable percentage of individuals not yet convinced by the Truthers’ argument. At the end of the presentation, this number had gone down to three, and that’s including Matthew and myself. So what happened during those two hours?

What happened is that a man took the stage, unopposed. And make no mistake, Richard Gage is not a brilliant man, nor is he especially well spoken; besides, his arguments are dishonest, logically flawed and more often than not downright laughable. But he had our attention, a compelling story to tell and visual aids, and that was enough. This should really make us question the role of our national museum in providing that pulpit, but that’s an issue that I’ll get to at the end. That substantial and measurable swing in opinion in however small a sample - in effect a manipulation of memory and understanding - needs to be accounted for.

So, is it possible that people were convinced because there is merit in Gage’s argument? Not really. His contention rests on two main tenets: that the collapse of the three buildings exhibits all the characteristics of a controlled demolition (this is also the only area in which Gage can claim any expertise), and the discovery in some of the materials in the rubble of 'nanothermite', a highly explosive material supposedly developed by the Pentagon at the end of the last century. This nanothermite is in fact the only piece of ostensibly hard evidence provided during the presentation, and we might as well deal with it first: in fact, no such material was found. Some minuscule paint chips handed in by the public almost six years after the event and tested by a, shall we say, less-than-independent group of scientists were found to include traces that reminded the researchers themselves of nanothermite thought to have been produced at the Livermore Labs and elsewhere. So, no real evidence that the stuff was there. What we do have in fact is some pretty strong evidence that it wasn’t: seismographs that didn’t register the explosions claimed by Gage immediately prior to the buildings collapsing, and the rather elementary observation that the several tonnes of highly explosive powder that supposedly laced the buildings weren’t set off in the massive fires that followed the plane hits.

What about the fact that the buildings crumbled the way that they did? Again, I can think of steel-reinforced buildings that collapsed upon their footprint in a matter of seconds no later than last April. Should it make us conclude that the earthquake at L’Aquila was a massive insurance fraud perpetrated with high-tech explosives? Hardly. But to the extent that I’m willing to give Gage some due, it is this: if in fact the Twin Towers weren’t supposed to come down in that manner, not even after a plane hit them - just like the building at Via Campo di Fossa 6 b in L’Aquila that the Italian authorities are investigating wasn’t supposed to implode during an earthquake of that magnitude - and there are deficiencies in the design and responsibilities that the official reports haven’t adequately pursued, it sounds just like the thing that a concerned group of architects and engineers might want to publicly address.

But clearly this is not the case here. While earlier that day Gage had done his level best to engage Kim Hill in a radio interview on the 'evidence' alone, claiming ‘we don’t speculate, we’re technical building professionals,’ most of his presentation consisted in fact of a broad range of wild speculations. And the pieces of evidence thus accumulated - in a process of painstaking selection to suit the hypothesis that would be familiar to anybody who’s read Foucault’s Pendulum - collectively implicate in the conspiracy and the subsequent cover-up the following organizations (at my own and likely very incomplete count): the CIA, the Pentagon, the United States Government, all major media as far afield as the BBC, the owner and insurer of the WTC, ACE elevators and the security company responsible for monitoring the coming and goings at the buildings, plus - in an accessory capacity - the boards of the major banks, military contractors, oil firms and really anybody who stood to make money and gain influence from the economic destabilisation that occurred and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

There’s a question here that I don’t hear enough from the debunkers, who in the main tend to engage the Truthers, as I just have, on their so-called evidence. And the question is: why? Why would the conspirators bother to demolish the three buildings - thereby multiplying exponentially the number of co-conspirators, and the chances of getting caught - instead of just leaving them ravaged and unsalvageable, to be finished off by the municipality at a later stage? Or, if they felt that they had to in order to perfect their shock and awe design, why demolish them in a controlled manner? Why not plant explosives designed to make them fall more like a structural engineer would expect them to, slowly and ungracefully, not to mention no doubt more destructively?

To understand what might be going on here, and get to the part where I describe the effect that Gage’s presentation had on me, I have to reproduce the image below, and engage in a questionable act of manipulation of my own. If you saw this photograph in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, you're unlikely to have forgotten it, even though it was subsequently banished from the media in America and overseas under circumstances explored by Tom Junod in a remarkable piece for The Esquire and then by Henry Singer in his documentary The Falling Man

Image by Richard Drew.
What is it that is so arresting about this photograph, what does it capture that we didn't already know, that we couldn't process solely through the horrific reports that some of the victims - believed to be as many as two hundred - were driven to jump off the towers? I think it is its impossibly orderly, self-contained narrative, that cries against the furious anguish of that moment, producing a dissonance that is both aesthetic and affective: we see beauty where we cannot bear to see it, defiance where there was none. For the image isn't real. Writes Junod:
Photographs lie. Even great photographs. Especially great photographs. The Falling Man in Richard Drew's picture fell in the manner suggested by the photograph for only a fraction of a second, and then kept falling. The photograph functioned as a study of doomed verticality, a fantasia of straight lines, with a human being slivered at the center, like a spike. In truth, however, the Falling Man fell with neither the precision of an arrow nor the grace of an Olympic diver. He fell like everyone else, like all the other jumpers -- trying to hold on to the life he was leaving, which is to say that he fell desperately, inelegantly. In Drew's famous photograph, his humanity is in accord with the lines of the buildings. In the rest of the sequence -- the eleven outtakes -- his humanity stands apart. He is not augmented by aesthetics; he is merely human, and his humanity, startled and in some cases horizontal, obliterates everything else in the frame.

This is the breakdown of the Baudrillardian hyperreality: where a society develops instruments of representation that are just too powerful, and in that excess, in that surplus capacity for knowledge and understanding, finds itself unable to formulate definitive statements about the real.

Naomi Mandel has called the Holocaust ‘the most thoroughly documented atrocity in human history’, but the extent of this documentation hasn’t thwarted the Deniers, and neither has the picture-perfect record of that September morning of eight years ago prevented the Truthers from exercising their right to construct their own reality - a reality that the vast majority of the people in the room at Te Papa found compelling enough to say yes, this is what actually happened. For there is always an interstice, a space of dissonance, like the unbearably graceful pose of the man in freefall, or the far too orderly manner in which the buildings came down: just like in a controlled demolition, as if it had been staged.

That is the area - is it even gray? - occupied by the Truthers. And here I am, engaging with it, dissecting it, but I can tell you that my reaction on the day was of revulsion, and to be perfectly honest I left the museum quite shaken. There was a point, perhaps halfway through the talk, when Gage’s arguments ceased to be just grotesque and stupid, and struck me as something altogether darker. Weren’t they after all human remains, fragments of bone propelled onto the roofs of buildings several hundred meters away, which he was talking about with scarcely concealed glee, adding them to the ledger of his ‘incontrovertible truths’?

The activism of the Truthers is supposed to be motivated by a sense of justice denied, a monstrous crime gone unpunished, but there was no compassion in Gage’s voice and gestures. I compared it in my head to Marco Paolini’s impassioned ‘civil oration’ dedicated to the victims of the Vajont Dam tragedy, another crime with a similar human toll but far more mundane causes - incompetence and greed. Paolini’s too is an indictment, it too relies on data and numbers and argumentation, but it is also capable of conveying pity and a profound sense of human pain and loss. In his harrowing reconstruction of those final moments, in the tearful description of the wall of wind that preceded the arrival of the water, tearing the clothes off the people madly attempting to flee, is the naked commitment of the chronicler who undertakes to tell the whole story and be a servant to memory.

At quite the opposite pole stands Richard Gage, in whom I saw another Friedrich Sieburg: a technician who taught himself to ignore anyone’s truth but his own, another pseudo-historian with an agenda. I have no doubt that if he had come to New Zealand to argue that the Holocaust never happened, the doors of our national museum would have remained firmly shut. But are the Truthers all that different? Isn’t theirs too in fact a logic of hatred - for what else but hatred can lead to such dazzling incomprehension? If I am right - and even as I write these last few lines I struggle to make my mind up conclusively on this - then it would explain how I felt on the day that sense of being party to something so insidious, dangerous and wrong. And if you agree, perhaps you’ll join me in letting the museum know how you feel.

Tom Junod. 'The Falling Man'. The Esquire, September 2003.
Naomi Mandel, ‘Rethinking ‘‘After Auschwitz’’: Against a Rhetoric of the Unspeakable in Holocaust Writing.’ In
boundary 2 (2001), pp. 203-228. The quotation in the post is from page 205.
The Falling Man (dir. Henry Singer, USA 2006).

With thanks to Matthew Dentith who helped me confirm some of the details of the presentation.

To lodge a complaint with Te Papa about this event, you can email events manager Mere Boynton or write to her at

Te Papa Tongarewa
PO Box 467

Monday, November 16, 2009


I'm not nearly as pessimistic as you seem to be. I reckon we'll continue generating fresh content for millennia to come. Ideas are plentiful, and new combinations thereof even more so. Leave them alone, and they will come home, wagging their footnotes behind them.

Jolisa Gracewood

Copy from one, it's plagiarism; copy from two, it's research.

Wilson Mizner

The French poet and critic Pierre Menard (d. 1939) has left us a small and largely unremarkable body of works, save for one that is of peculiar but enduring interest - a contemporary critic called it in fact ‘perhaps the most significant writing of our time’: his fragments from Don Quixote. In this undertaking, Menard set out not to update or revise Cervantes’ source, that is to say write a contemporary Quixote, but rather compose the Quixote itself, and not simply by copying it, either, but rather by producing a number of pages which coincided word for word and line for line with those of Miguel de Cervantes.

Initially, Menard's method was to be relatively simple: Learn Spanish, return to Catholicism, fight against the Moor or the Turk, forget the history of Europe from 1602 onwards - in other words be Miguel de Cervantes, but he discarded it as too easy. Being somehow Cervantes and arriving thereby at the Quixote: that looked to Menard less challenging (and therefore less interesting) than continuing to be Pierre Menard and coming to the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard.

The result, while verbally identical to the Cervantes text, is almost infinitely richer. Cervantes, for instance, wrote the following (Part I, Chapter IX):
...truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor.
Written in the seventeenth century by the “ingenious layman” Miguel de Cervantes, this strikes us as a merely rhetorical praise of history. Menard, on the other hand, writes the following:
...truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor.
History, the mother of truth: the idea is exceptional. Menard, a contemporary of William James, defines history not as a delving into reality but as the very foundation of reality. Historical truth, for Menard, is not “what happened”; it is what we believe happened. The final phrases - exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future’s counsellor - are brazenly pragmatic, and yet so richly suggestive for those who seek to understand what came after, the postmodern and our most troubled dealings with history and the past.

But Menard’s example says a thing or two about authorship, as well. The news media and a fair chunk of the blogosphere in New Zealand have been preoccupied over the last ten days or so by the discovery by Jolisa Gracewood of a number of unacknowledged quotations from various sources in Witi Ihimaera’s latest novel, The Trowenna Sea. When put in front of the list of correspondences found by Dr. Gracewood, Ihimaera swiftly apologised and volunteered to submit himself to arbitration with his employer, the University of Auckland. Yet he was adamant in his contention to the New Zealand Listener that he hadn’t committed plagiarism, but merely a series of ‘oversights’, and the University quickly reached the same conclusion, as did his publisher. We look forward to the second edition - which will no doubt rectify these lapses - and move on, for there is nothing to see here.

Or is there?

The discussion at Public Address following Jolisa’s two successive blog posts on the subject (here and here) was decidedly and in some respects surprisingly lively, as were the interjections of some who wished to reflect more broadly on contemporary notions of authorship and originality across different media. More particularly, David Cauchi made a case for painting and Philip Matthews another for film, inviting the rest of the commenters to ponder the following question: are the domains of literature, criticism and journalism clinging to antiquated notions of what constitutes creativity, and how originality should be measured and understood?

Consider what my alma mater has to say on the subject of plagiarism:
Plagiarism undermines academic integrity simply because it is a form of lying, stealing and mistreating others. Plagiarism involves stealing other people’s intellectual property and lying about whose work it is. This is why plagiarism is prohibited at Victoria.
Intellectual property, that is to say the private ownership of words and ideas: it doesn’t sound like the kind of relationship with knowledge that a place of higher learning ought to foster, does it? Besides, how do you even steal words, or ideas? They are hardly gone after you have taken them. How about ‘lying about whose work it is,’ then? Perhaps that’s the crux of the matter. Producing knowledge requires an effort, is work. If anybody could simply claim the credit for the work of anybody else then the knowledge industry - which is regulated by market relations that monetise this credit in various ways - would cease to function. But surely the social good lies in the knowledge itself, not in its attribution, and besides the example of the anonymous authors of so much oral poetry, traditional music and contemporary street art, it is quite possible to imagine a utopian socialist knowledge industry where ideas circulate freely, thus facilitating and accelerating the production of more knowledge.

Because in truth, how can you locate the point of origin of an idea or a certain sequence of words except in the culture itself? Roland Barthes, circa 1968, in 'The Death of the Author':
The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture. […] [T]he writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original.
The following year, Michel Foucault began his essay 'What is an author?' by posing a question originally formulated by Samuel Beckett: 'What does it matter who is speaking?' to which Barthes had replied in advance:
writing is the destruction of every voice, of every point of origin. Writing is that neutral, composite, oblique space where our subject slips away, the negative where all identity is lost, starting with the very identity of the body writing.

Now I don't want to reduce these two essays and their peculiar conversation to a couple of easy-to-digest snippets, nor ignore the specific historical and cultural conditions in which they were produced, at a time when what Foucault dubbed 'the-man-and-his-work-criticism' held full sway. But one could legitimately ask: if an understanding of intertextuality and the ideas of the death of the author and the author-function have been around for so long, why haven't they changed the way the publishing industry operates, or forced a rethinking of what constitutes plagiarism in publishing and academia? Is it simply a case of those critics and those ideas having been cast aside?

I would say yes, and no. On the one hand, yes, the publishing industry has changed its ways not a jot, nor did Barthes or Foucault themselves to my knowledge ever renounce their name on the cover or the customary protections and moral rights afforded to a published author. Ditto Ihimaera. Hell, even Bansky has claimed these, albeit 'against his better judgment'. But I think more profoundly the idea that authorship and its integrity matter has proved equally as resilient. Pierre Menard himself tell us that we can’t quite dispense completely with it - even as he goes about turning it upside down - by showing how differently we would have to read Don Quixote if we knew it to have been written by a 20th century Frenchman as opposed to a 17th century Spaniard.

Of course, you say? Well, yes. But consider how electronic writing and the Internet were meant to change all this, further unsettling traditional ideas concerning just who it is who does the writing and possibly killing the author all over again by circulating near-infinite variations on a near-infinite number of texts without a discernible point of origin, or a shred of attribution. This remains a source of anxiety, but I would argue it really hasn't happened yet. If anything, people who write on the Web have developed a whole new and highly sophisticated sensitivity towards issues of textual attribution and historicity. I've touched in the past by way of example upon the edit history of Wikipedia entries, which shows an attention to intricate philological issues on the part of a writing community that consists largely - and I mean this in the most non-derogatory way possible - of amateurs.

The vast majority of bloggers are also very careful to credit their sources, and the manner in which they do so is interesting, for the hyperlinks provided often point to the pages where each discovery took place. It’s only by means of further jumps, following an Ariadne’s thread of sorts, that one is likely to get to the source proper, the location where that particular text came to be. Or not, of course, there’s always the possibility that one or more of the pages might have expired by then, but that for once doesn’t matter: it’s in that pattern of connections, however provisional and unstable, that one can glimpse a new way of mapping the space where authorship and readership come to coexist.

I want to talk about this again, and to discuss what the author-function of a blogger, amongst others, might be. I suspect we’ll find it is highly plastic and I’ll go as far as to reserve a word to describe this, authoriety, an empty and extremely-unlikely-to-be-of-any-use-to-anybody term that perhaps some of you might help me fill - I have but vaguest of ideas at present, save for the fact that I think it would be an interesting question to explore.

But in the meantime, what of Ihimaera’s indiscretions? Would it even matter that he neglected to credit those sources, were it not for the legal framework within which the publishing industry operates, or the possibly antiquated notions of originality and individuality that we choose to entertain in this particular medium? I think that even under those conditions it does, it would. For crediting a source, the site where some particular words came together in the way that they did, means also preserving a trace of the text’s place within the culture that produced it, of its genealogy.

Consider a remote and fanciful future where Menard’s Quixote survived while Cervantes’ didn’t, and furthermore there was no knowledge that the earlier of the two books had even been written. This is the kind of loss - of metadata, of history, of memory - that you would be measuring every day.

Jorge Luis Borges, ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’, tr. Andrew Hurley. In Collected Fictions (New York and London: Penguin Books, 1998), pp. 88-95. I hardly need to point out that the contents of the post until the cover of Ihimaera’s novel are heavily plagiar… oh shut up it’s a mash up, okay? Anyhow, it’s all from Borges’ story, and it’s only seven pages long, so it’s not hard to figure out which words are mine and which are his (the good ones are his). Go read it. The young man in the picture at the top is JLB in 1921. He wrote Pierre Menard in 1939.

Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, tr. Stephen Heath (New York: Noonday, 1977), pp. 142-148. The text is available online here.

Michel Foucault, ‘What is An Author?’, tr. Josué V. Harari. In The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: Pantheon Books, 1984, pp. 101-120). Both quotations in the post are from p. 101.

Jolisa Gracewood, ‘Keeping It Real’, in The New Zealand Listener of November 14-20, 2009, pp. 18-19.

Guy Somerset, ‘The Incredible Likeness of Being’, in The New Zealand Listener of November 14-20, 2009, pp. 15-19.

Service announcement: I have uploaded on YouTube a video of the ending of The Truce covered in last week's post, followed by the lines that were left out in the film. But more importantly, you really should read the poem that Harvest Bird contributed last night.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Canto of Ulysses

When I hear people talk about virtual reality I sometimes cast my mind back to a Friday night in the winter of 1997 and a train trip from Vicenza to Milan. I was alone in the carriage, reading Primo Levi's If This Is a Man, and by the time we arrived at destination I must have been nearly in a trance because when I raised my eyes from the book it truly felt like I had been brought back from somewhere else. Not from Levi's prison camp, let me be clear - there is no representation that could approximate that experience, and it would be obscene of me to claim otherwise - but from a place other than that train carriage at that time, somewhere in between; a place of sadness and consternation, of suffocating moral pain. Nothing before or since, including my earlier readings of the book, has had quite the same effect, or has transported me as far.

Levi died a likely self-inflicted death on April 11th, 1987. The biographical notes appended to the 1989 Einaudi edition of If This Is a Man abstain from making that determination, stating tersely that he 'died in his home in Turin'. The mere hypothesis of such an epitaph must have seemed so desperately far-fetched to him when he began scribbling the first passages of his account on clandestine bits of paper during his imprisonment at the satellite Auschwitz camp of Monowitz. No sooner did he write those notes that he had to destroy them, for their confiscation would have meant an accusation of espionage and certain death: 'I write what I would not dare tell anyone' (p. 146). And in those words written, then destroyed, but still committed to memory one can find the kernel of the moral imperative that helped sustain him: you must remember, bear witness and make others remember that which they have not experienced.

I say that it was a form of sustenance but in the end, Levi is careful to tell us, his survival was due to a series of fortuitous events, the last of which was his falling ill with scarlet fever on the eve of the forced evacuation of Monowitz and the death march that killed so many of his remaining fellow prisoners. Earlier, he had been chosen due to his professional background to work in a kommando attached to a chemical laboratory of the Buna factory served by the Camp, and the relatively less brutal conditions were also instrumental in enabling him to survive during the final winter of the war.

It is in the early days of this assignment that takes place the chapter in the book known as The Canto of Ulysses, in which Levi is chosen by Jean, the kommando's pikolo (the kapo's assistant), to accompany him to fetch the daily ration of soup. Carrying the pot was tiring but the task involved first of all an unencumbered walk to the kitchens that could be made to last up to an hour and thus constituted a rare and precious moment of rest. During the walk Jean, already fluent in German and French, expresses his desire to learn Italian some day, to which Primo responds - for there might not be another day - with a crash course based on a recitation from memory of the twenty-sixth canto of Dante's Inferno.

…The canto of Ulysses. Who knows how or why it comes into my mind. but we have no time to change, this hour is already less than an hour. If Jean is intelligent he will understand. He will understand – today I feel capable of so much. […] Jean pays great attention and I begin, slowly and accurately:

'Then of that age-old fire the loftier horn

Began to mutter and move, as a wavering flame

Wrestles against the wind and is over-worn;

And, like a speaking tongue vibrant to frame
Language, the tip of it flickering to and fro

Threw out a voice and answered: "When I came…"'
(p. 118)

The following three pages must rate amongst the highest in any literature, and are very dear to me. They are pages filled with surprise and wonder at finding the words of a dead poet so relevant, the plight and punishment of Ulysses so pertinent to his present situation, that fate ‘that pleased Another’ so close to his and theirs. Even more significantly, for a few moments Levi succeeds, in conversation with another, in rescuing culture from the shipwreck of history and in filling that space with memory and meaning, which had been designed to destroy them. The second half of the chapter takes you there, on that walk, its rhythms matching Levi’s growing anxiety to reach the end of the canto and its essential revelations before he and Jean make it to the kitchen. (Or is it in fact the kitchen that draws inexorably closer to them?)
I keep Pikolo back, it is vitally necessary and urgent that he listen, that he understand this ‘as pleased Another’ before it is too late. Tomorrow he or I might be dead, or we might never see each other again, I must tell him, I must explain to him about the Middle Ages, about the so human and so necessary and yet unexpected anachronism, but still more, something gigantic that I myself have only just seen, in a flash of intuition, perhaps the reason for our fate, for our being here today… (p. 121)

But there is no more time for explanations or interpretations, no time except to hurry and get to that last line just in time to reach the soup queue and the ‘sordid, ragged crowd’ of carriers from the other kommandos, in perfect unison with Ulysses and his crew as they plunge under the waves one last time: ‘And over our heads the hollow seas closed up.’ Auschwitz has burst into the conversation, and demands to have the final word.

William Blake, Ulysses and Diomedes in Hell

It is heart-rending to speculate on the circumstances of Levi’s death, on whether that same sea closed up over his head four decades later, claiming him as another victim (as Ferdinando Camon and Elie Wiesel put it), another one of the drowned. His dear friend Natalia Ginzburg phrased it most pithily of all: 'L’ha ucciso il ricordo', it was remembering that killed him, perhaps the same duty to memory that helped to sustain him in his daily struggle at Monowitz. Others suggested at the time that it had been just the opposite, that it was the work of the deniers and the threat it posed to the fundamental integrity of that memory. I suspect Levi himself might counter that it doesn’t matter, in the end, that survival had never been a question of moral fibre, and that his own death wouldn’t count as a defeat. Surely having absolved the obligation to write - that ‘atrocious privilege’ - and the manner in which he did it, afforded him the right to make one final choice, as a free man, neither prisoner nor victim.

Either way, of the pain that he carried very few of us can speak. But where does that leave our obligation, our duty to memory? Besides the many ways of unbecoming, besides the national amnesties and the sanitised corporate histories, besides the vile work of the deniers - that justly commands our condemnation - I worry about the small gestures, the minute revisions, the seemingly insignificant omissions which yet mean that our rememberance is being diluted, that we are gradually blurring its contours and washing out the atrocities, the complicities, the ambiguities. It can happen so subtly, just by losing an accent, leaving out a scene. Or a few lines of poetry.

My friend Giacomo Lichtner reminded me last week of the epilogue of Francesco Rosi’s 1997 film adaptation of The Truce (La tregua), the book that documents Levi’s arduous nine-month journey back to Italy after the liberation of Monowitz. Here Levi, played by John Turturro, returns to his apartment in Turin and sits down facing the camera to recite the titular poem of his earlier memoir, reproduced here in Stuart Woolf’s translation (I've uploaded the film segment here, and you can listen to the poem in Italian here):

You who live safe
In your warm houses,
You who find, returning in the evening,
Hot food and friendly faces:

Consider if this is a man
Who works in the mud
Who does not know peace
Who fights for a scrap of bread
Who dies because of a yes or a no.
Consider if this is a woman,
Without hair and without name
With no more strength to remember,
Her eyes empty and her womb cold
Like a frog in winter.

Meditate that this came about:
I commend these words to you.
Carve them in your hearts
At home, in the street,
Going to bed, rising;
Repeat them to your children,

Or may your house fall apart,
May illness impede you,
May your children turn their faces from you.

Except in the film the poem is truncated, leaving out that curse and blunting the sheer force of that challenge to us: remember this, or else your families will crumble and your society will cease to exist. It is a singular indignity, for a man who had once staked his whole being on his capacity to get to the end of somebody else’s poetry, and would have given his lunch, his daily sustenance, in exchange for some of the missing lines he had forgotten. And all this for what? To end a film perhaps half a minute sooner, and on a less uncomfortable note.

Primo Levi. If This Is a Man and The Truce, tr. by Stuart Woolf. London: Abacus, 1987.