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Posts tagged ‘Writing’

The Literature of Oppression: Part 1

I know many books which have bored their readers, but I know of none which has done real evil.

So said Voltaire in the eighteenth century.  Since then, the world has seen the publication of Mao’s Little Red Book, Qaddafi’s Green Book and Hitler’s Mein Kampf, three books which might be considered as a sort of grotesque canon of totalitarian literature, covering as they do both extremes of the political spectrum, with rogue state oppression somewhere in the middle.  All three were published in the twentieth century, the century in which totalitarian ideology somehow managed to evade reason and irreversibly scar the face of human history.

“[Our purpose is] to ensure that literature and art fit well into the whole revolutionary machine as a component part, that they operate as powerful weapons for uniting and educating the people and for attacking and destroying the enemy, and that they help the people fight the enemy with one heart and one mind.”

The above quotation from Mao’s Little Red Book provides a singularly perverse view of the function of literature and art in society.  It is not often that books are seen as weapons that can be wielded by the forces of oppression, but unfortunately art is an inherently malleable thing, only as benign and constructive as the artist chooses it to be.  As such, we can hardly be surprised if on occasion literature is co-opted by the forces of darkness and used as a tool to further the totalitarian policies of oppressive regimes, all the more so since propaganda is a key element of any dictatorship.  Ultimately, there is no denying that books have been complicit to a certain extent in some of the worst atrocities committed by human beings.

And yet the hideous number of deaths caused by the regimes of twentieth century tyrants does not necessarily refute Voltaire’s point; a book in and of itself can do no harm, unless the reader is of a particularly frail and sensitive disposition.  Of course, that a book is unable to commit genocide of its own volition does not settle the debate over the potential harm caused by books either, in vaguely the same way that a rifle being unable to commit murder on its own does not settle the debate over US gun control (see the laughable simplicity of the NRA’s slogan “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”).  One could argue that Mein Kampf, which is still banned in numerous countries, including Austria and Russia, continues to incite racially aggravated violence across the world, from Greece to Colombia.

Interestingly, Mein Kampf was never banned in Germany, but its publication has been restricted since the end of the Second World War by the state of Bavaria, which owns the copyright to it.  This copyright expires in 2016, seventy years after Hitler’s death, and Bavaria plans to publish an annotated edition of the book before this happens, in an attempt to educate new readers and make it “commercially unattractive” to publish in the future.  The latter may be optimistic, but perhaps this is the best way to proceed.  After all, to ban books, however offensive or inflammatory the content, is to fall into the totalitarian’s trap.  In view of this, the Literature of Oppression series aims to look at some of the worst books ever published by oppressive regimes, not, we hope you will agree, in an attempt to stoke anger or resentment, but in order better to understand the influence they continue to exert, whether or not that influence is still enforced down the barrel of a gun.

The Editors

Book Club: Moby Dick

A few members of the group requested that this article be given a pithy subtitle with a neat humpback whale pun, but sadly this cannot be done for several reasons. Firstly, the play on words was not good enough, but mainly this is because the members did not rally to Melville closely enough to warrant such favours, despite having been granted in excess of two months to read the book.

Several of their points deserve an airing: it is too long, with an infamous 150 pages of technical whaling jargon. Fortunately there are several rejoinders to this, one provided by the narrator, who cries: “Friends, hold my arms! For in the mere act of penning my thoughts of this Leviathan, they weary me, and make me faint”. Predictably, this is the whale’s fault: “Such, and so magnifying, is the virtue of a large and liberal theme! We expand to its bulk. To produce a mighty book, you must choose a mighty theme. No great and enduring volume can ever be written on the flea, though many there be who have tried it.”

The other was provided by the Book Club’s More Constructive Participants, who pointed out the usefulness of knowing what flensing is, at last. Removing blubber from the carcass of a whale (not the whale, of course) was an arduous process, but no longer shrouded in mystery, along with spermaceti (a misunderstood, much maligned and at one point in history, extremely useful substance).

Stubb (one of the caricatured crew members everyone took to) being “somewhat intemperately fond’ of a steak from the ‘small’ of the whale, and the proud owner of ‘epicurean lips’ was another highlight. He gobbles along with “thousands on thousands of sharks, swarming round the dead leviathan”, “Mingling their mumblings with his own mastications”.  Melville then rapidly creates such a strong image of playful, canine sharks that veer from being deeply sinister:

“The few sleepers below in their bunks were often startled by the sharp slapping of their tails against the hull, within a few inches of the sleepers’ hearts. Peering over the side you could just see them (as before you heard them) wallowing in the sullen, black waters, and turning over on their backs as they scooped out huge globular pieces of the whale of the bigness of a human head.”

Before they are made to seem almost skittish: “Though amid all the smoking horror and diabolism of a sea-fight, sharks will be seen longingly gazing up to the ship’s decks, like hungry dogs round a table where red meat is being carved, ready to bolt down every killed man that is tossed to them; and though, while the valiant butchers over the deck-table are thus cannibally carving each other’s live meat with carving-knives all gilded and tasselled, the sharks, also, with their jewel-hilted mouths, are quarrelsomely carving away under the table at the dead meat; and …systematically trotting alongside, to be handy in case a parcel is to be carried anywhere.”

Herein lies Melville’s genius. Such were his technical accomplishments as an author that he could switch between styles: able to whip up the excitement of the first whale chase, to the tense boredom of waiting for a sail, a fin or even a gust at sea as they malinger on the “watery part of the world”. As Ahab sinks deeper into obsession (and to truly love this book, you must be able to appreciate a certain level of obsession), the novelty of heading to sea wears off in Ishmael and his enthusiasm turns to whining amateurism as a sailor, and everyone sinks into madness as time seems to slow down between key points in the narrative*. With the Pequod’s standoffish and competitive attitude with other ships, the crew understandably tire of each other. Of course the White Whale with all of his cunning proves elusive, and is the undoing of them all, bar Ishmael, who clings to his ‘husband’ Queequeg’s coffin until he is rescued and able to tell his story.

The intelligence of the White Whale himself is subsumed by the matter of his whiteness. This, Ishmael claims in Chapter 42 is “an abhorrent mildness, even more loathsome than terrific”. It is an absence of colour, a void into which one can fall or project upon unceasingly, and the chapter that Will Self read effectively in The Big Read of Moby Duck in the spring of 2011 exhibition at Peninsula Arts, the dedicated contemporary art space at Plymouth University. This is available online, and features chapters read by A L Kennedy and China Mieville, though full disclosure; David Cameron reads ‘The Pipe’. Perhaps a pun should feature here. This is a good place to start if this book is still in the maybe/never heap, as the myriad voices keep your mind on that pale gleam on the horizon.

Further reading:

In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrik recounts the real voyage on which Moby Dick was based, which ended in a different kind of disaster.

Leviathan, or Whale by Philip Hoare. Essential for all whale lovers.

* We all agreed on Ishmael’s apex moment: “The skeleton dimensions I shall now proceed to set down are copied verbatim from my right arm, where I had them tattooed; as in my wild wanderings at that period, there was no other secure way of preserving such valuable statistics.” Everyone appreciates that kind of dedication to sperm whales.

The Editors

You can buy the book here.

The interpretation of beaches

I do not think beaches are a good place to read books. The  combination of salt, water and sand are bad for the books in question, worse for a Kindle or an iPad. The sun is bright and hurts the eyes and the act of shading them from its glare with the book is distracting from the book itself. Sun loungers do not support the back enough in any but the least comfortable and most stupid looking positions to be at all workable.

What beaches are really for is sand castles and waves and rock-pools – themselves all genres of their own kind of novel, constantly reworked, shifting, reinterpreted by the passage of time, constructed as much by the people that inhabit the beach as a novel is by the minds that read it playing out the words of the book. Do not go to the beach in search of books, and do not take books to the beach either if you can avoid it. The spirit of the beach and the tales it tells are more open, more wounded, more sapping than those of the novel – more lavish, more ancient.

A cliff is a richer source of narrative than a book, so is sand and so is that old, white tufted woman, the sea. The beach is made up of nothing except stories: how the layers of landscape came to place themselves where they did, the end of traces of animals fossilised into eternity – their bodies impressions only like the names of the great name-stayers of history, preserved in all but their true form, Aristotle, Plato, Socrates, Herodotus – and perhaps more important that which was not preserved. Who knows what it was to take dinner with those men, or to shake their hands: the warmth or coarseness of their grip, the true colour of their cheeks, the smell of their armpits, the shape of their feet. Who knows those things in the living, extra-sensory way that we know everything about someone when we meet them by instinct; things we later cannot describe, things we wish we did not know. Though great men of literature might be preserved as fossils it is only ever in the igneous rock of volcano-man which is paper and which in man’s perverse playground game – paper, scissors, stone – somehow trumps the stone. Who knows what it would have been to see or to hold any of the shapes preserved in cliffs. Certainly not he who does not read the cliff with his mind’s eyes open.

Beaches are not good places to read books. The reading mind if it is a true reader does not need paper and ink and words but will read anything and everything it passes with a critical and practical gaze, dissecting its narrative and characters to form an extrapolated view: it will read the paving stones in the street, the walls of a house, the flickering lamplight of a quiet street at night, it will read the words which have not been written and note them and above all it will be curious, it will be critical. What it does with this knowledge – if it chooses to write it or not – is that mind’s own choice. Nonetheless, the lesson of beaches is that great writers must first be great readers since writing is nothing but reading the world aloud for others.

The Editors

3. Writing and the Future

Some of our most inconsequential writing is about the future.  As a species we have become accustomed to shaping our futures out of fragments of writing, drafting ourselves a patchwork future of to do lists, diary entries, meeting appointments, love letters, agreements, loan documents, websites, instruction manuals, commandments.  The texts we surround ourselves with are glimmers of the myriad futures we choose for ourselves or that we will for ourselves; of the futures we reject for ourselves as well.  Some are fulfilled, some fall away.

Perhaps, there is one eye of vanity on our desire to document the world around us. As though the world we live in is so very different to that of our grandchildren, or our grandparents. The trees still have leaves. The desire to record, to journalise, to document is surely didactic; ‘I have discovered this and I want you to know’, and failing that, ‘I want future-me to know’. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, through the organ of Sherlock Holmes, describes the brain as follows:

“I consider that a man’s brain originally is like a little empty attic, and you have to stock it with such furniture as you choose. A fool takes in all the lumber of every sort that he comes across, so that the knowledge which might be useful to him gets crowded out, or at best is jumbled up with a lot of other things, so that he has a difficulty in laying his hands upon it.”

Instead, and too often, we delegate our memory to others: post-it notes and google.  We give ourselves up too easily to pencil and paper, too often without thought, without memory.  We have lost touch with a long and lovely oral tradition that stems purely from the memory.  As powerful a tool as writing is for development, we are over reliant on it to our detriment if we cease any longer to build a future we can capture in our minds.

 The Editors