Against the interpreters

Japan PortraitsJapan Portraits by Carl Randall
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has a foreword by zoologist Desmond Morris, whose book
The Naked Ape
made me very angry. He talks about ‘bizarre’ Zen gardens (oh those crazy Japanese!!) and ‘mentally blinkered citizens isolated in a personal cocoon amidst the swarm of humanity’. Characteristically unromantic, unedifying stuff as I’m sure he would proudly agree. His analysis flattens Randall’s experience and response into a literal carnography, a flesh-viewing. It leaves no space to wonder about the black box of the monkey’s brain.

Then it has an introduction by Donald Ritchie, who talks gloatingly about his own feelings towards ‘Japan’ and how Westerners in general feel about Japan. He is concerned to see and point out those feelings in Randall’s drawings, and to point out those that feature attractive women who give him a nostalgia sense of ‘euphoria’. How nice for you, Don.

Just in case you were unsure, this is JAPAN THROUGH THE EYES OF A WESTERNER. I assume Randall is happy with the emphasis, but the self-centring and self-obsessing it implies does not reflect my experience of his work. I do not see hoardes of maladjusted primates (Desmond) or pleasant shadows of my own (or Randall’s) lust (Ritchie). Randall’s attempts to see the Japanese involve the intense scrutiny that walking through the streets cannot provide. His view atomises the crowd, but gives each person a rich inner life by insistently painting every detail of their face, pulling us helplessly into empathy

The strongest exception to this is perhaps the painting in Roppongi Nightclub, where dead-eyed revellers seem to raise their robotic arms in a nihilist salute. Lonely diners and social tea-drinkers elsewhere positively glow with the exciting mystery of fellow humans. In the ‘Tokkaido Highway’ section of the book exotic tourist Japan erupts irresistibly into gorgeous colour, fighting with the startled travellers’ interrupted sense of self as they seek the continuity of identity in the refuge of their phones. In Randall’s drawings, it is as if the subject is caught consciously in the act of being; through the miniaturist’s technique of realising every item of minutia, he creates moments that feel vividly lived by viewer AND viewed, moments of connection in which the artist is humbled by his endeavour to see and know, and the subject is elevated by her monumental, self-knowing personhood.

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Encounters in a language

The Penguin Book of English Short StoriesThe Penguin Book of English Short Stories by Christopher Dolley
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

First read in 2007

Thus Dolley washes his hands. I can almost hear the snort he might give me if I took issue with him for including stories by James Joyce, and indeed that ‘minor talent’ Katherine Mansfield in a collection of ‘English’ short stories. So readers, there is no help from our editor here; if we dislike what we find there is no point in appealing to him.

We kick off with ‘The Signalman’ a morbid, fatalistic little story full of physical description by Dickens that is neither here nor there. One man meets another man. Later on there’s another fellow in a walk on part. The tale does its trick and ends.

Then we have Thomas Hardy with ‘The Withered Arm’, of which I managed four pages before skipping ahead to Joseph Conrad’s ‘An Outpost of Progress’, about a pair of stupid, greedy, ignorant white men at an ivory trading post somewhere in Africa. Unsurprisingly the fools lose their minds and turn on each other. Before that they enjoy lording over the jungle and admiring the beautiful muscles of African people. The theme continues with Kipling’s ‘At the End of the Passage’ about some more white guys going crazy in some anonymous colony. Being a colonist is such a rough gig!

To H.G Wells’ The Country of the Blind, which I feel is an interesting idea buried under an excess of expository detail. Our protagonist is an unpleasant fellow, while the folk he stumbles across in the mountains are peaceful and organised. Yet somehow, Wells seems to side with the bellicose invader after all, celebrating the beauty he sees and his escape from the benighted (though gentle) savages.

If you’re feeling empire-fatigue, brace yourself for another march through W Somerset Maugham’s effort ‘The Force of Circumstance’ which is set in Malaysia, and traces the demise of an unconventionally joyful marriage, ruined because Guy hasn’t told Doris that before she moved out from glorious England to be his deliriously happy wife, he bought a fifteen year old native girl to live with him as his wife-slave. The former wife-slave keeps hanging around with her (and Guy’s) children and upsetting things, until Doris finds out and after thinking things over, tells Guy she’s not angry with him at all, he’s never done anything wrong, but she just can’t face having sex with him as the the image of ‘those thin black arms of hers round you’ ‘fills [her] with a physical nausea’. She says ‘I think of you holding those little black babies in your arms. Oh, it’s loathsome.’ So, Doris manages to blame herself, apologises profusely, and leaves Guy to himself. Once she’s gone, he is miserable, but graciously allows his former slave wife to return to him. Ladies and Gentlemen of the jury, Maugham stands before you accused by me of apologising for
#1 child abuse
#2 colonial slavery
#3 victim blaming
#4 misogyny
but of course, it was all under ‘force of circumstance’, so do go easy on the poor chap.

Finally we are through the desert/wilderness/jungle (ha! irony!), we can refresh ourselves at the oasis of Joyce’s many-themed, classic story ‘The Dead’ without getting into a froth. In fact the action takes place around a cosy Christmas party so we can rest here in comfort. I’m not even going to talk about it; it’s so good I wouldn’t want to spoil. You can find it in Dubliners. Woolf’s short, sweet, experimental piece ‘Kew Gardens’ follows and the same applies; it appears in collections of her stories elsewhere.

Next comes Lawrence with Fanny and Annie, which merits feminist analysis. The protagonist of this story knowingly, self-destructively enters a marriage that benefits the man and strips her of freedom and potential for self-actualisation. Lawrence seems to justify this outcome. Fanny feels that she is fated to marry Harry, to feel desire for him and be overwhelmed by him. I don’t find this victim-blaming story at all credible.

Another rest for us on our dismal voyage follows in Katherine Mansfield’s beautiful, original, evocative story ‘The Voyage’, told from the viewpoint of a young girl travelling with her grandmother. This story is like a bank vault full of gold. Images of light and dark, childhood and adulthood, life and death shimmer and glow under its subtle surface. I found this helpful and interesting post about it

And the remaining stories are all various shades of good! Aldous Huxley puts in a nuanced, clever and unconventional murder mystery ‘The Gioconda Smile’, and Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene put in entertaining efforts.

Finally, Angus Wilson’s ‘Raspberry Jam’ deserves some attention as a surprise in this collection. It’s a story against misogyny, heteronormativity, beauty-as-goodness and mental health ableism. It celebrates child agency, kindness and empathy. I just don’t know why it all goes so horribly wrong at the end. What happened Angus?!

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New York disembodied

New York Vertical Portable Format EditionNew York Vertical Portable Format Edition by Horst Hamann
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The premise of this book is that New York is markedly vertical and thus is interestingly captured when a vertical perspective is adopted. As is customary in photography books there is nothing much written. The preface mentions a few topics that might lead somewhere, such as immigration, but lets them drop, wandering on through vacant, adjective-heavy sentences of praise, questioning nothing and nobody. At the end, Hamann provides technical insight into his process.

But no one is looking at the photographs, as if there is nothing to say about them; they are left to ‘speak’ for themselves. So, what has happened with the twist? I am ready to admit that I like perspectives that push against the natural shape of the visual field, I enjoy the vertigo they induce and the potential they offer for disruption and interrogation. To force someone out of their way of seeing is to awaken critical consciousness. The problem here is that it tends to go back to sleep. Hamann has sliced the view so as to make it less human, less alive. This might make space to critique or explore the life it offers, to meditate on alienation, verticalised (stacked, perhaps) refashionings of community, but the project here is unquestionably to glorify, and what is implicitly glorified is ‘financial potency’ and the verticality of power structures.

In the visual field are our sisters and brothers, the stuff of our lives. Beyond it, stretched up out of it, are these towering ‘cathedrals of capitalism’. Hamann suggests that they are beautiful and I am obediently able to see the harmony of their lines and forms: but beauty must be questioned as an exclusive standard, something determined and imposed by a hierarchical, carceral culture. Here beauty is propaganda, like socialist kitsch, fascist poetry.

What is forgotten here is that the body is also vertical. The body is the determinant of all meaningful architechtural thought. Hamann has given us a city in the shape of the human body, exhibiting space after space empty of bodies and thoughts of bodies. Inside all these spires are bodies, lives, persons, which Hamann has snapped out of existence. This city is a corpse, disembodied, dehumanised. Its angle foreshadows the diagnosis of Hito Steyerl: Colonisation is now in 3D. Our lives are defined by surveillance and class war is waged from above, from these towers and their cousins now scattered all over the globe.

The photographs are presented on the right hand on each spread, facing a famous NYC quote. The latter range from the pathetic: ‘You belong to New York instantly. You belong to it as much in five seconds as in five years’ (Tom Wolfe) to the witty: ‘When it’s three o’clock in New York it’s still 1938 in London’ (Bette Midler) to the vacuous: ‘New York is New York is New York (Wolfgang Joop). My favourite is Simone de Beauvoir’s, ‘There is something in the New York air that makes sleep useless’ because this is precisely what I felt.

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Photography monographs II

Andre KerteszAndre Kertesz by Noel Bourcier
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Noel Bourcier, who has written the biography and commentary for this beautifully designed little volume, says that having gone off to war, Kertesz recognised himself as a ‘peace-loving, romantic young man’. This is exactly the appeal of Kertesz! Not that particular young man, not romance or Romance per se, but self recognition. That is what moves him to photograph, and what moves the viewer; somehow a compassionate, appreciative, conflicted, amused, clever, curious self is endlessly reflected in his work, sometimes divided, faceted, intellectualised and formal, but still laughingly personal, and other times whole, warm, ineffable, reaching beyond what can be described.

Kertesz had a gift like Renoir of making each of his human subjects transcendent, of recognising and engaging our sympathy with the person in front of us and the character or sign they inhabit as the subject. When he photographs ballet dancers, the double illusion doubles empathy, because it expands the scope of the intimately human. We see what Barthes calls ‘the filmic’, the arbitrariness and chosen-ness, deliberateness of illusion, and we are interested in the people behind and behind, the selves. There are so many people in this photograph, and the hubbub of dialogue between them makes glorious music.

Fans of Cartier-Bresson will enjoy Kertesz’s ‘state of grace with chance’ or more accurately his sensitivity to visual coalescence and serendipitous juxtapositions, and his ever-creative use of the foreground. I can’t think of a photographer I love more. Generous eye, kind seer, thank you for your poetry.

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Photography monographs I

Ralph Eugene MeatyardRalph Eugene Meatyard by Judith Keller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is a beautifully designed edition, with superb commentary on Meatyard’s complex, intellectual images. He is often associated with the writers of Beat literature, his contemporaries, with whom he shared an interest in spiritual themes (I’m indebted to my friend Loni Reynolds whose thesis awakened my sensitivity to this crucial aspect of the Beats). This is perhaps most obvious when, as in the image above, he transforms his children into ragged, ghostly, discomforting angels. Usually symbolic, his work is also aesthetically strong; he used Ansel Adams’ zone system and the tonal range of his images gives formal elegance to the starkest of his subjects, creating a sense of detachment. It’s not surprising that frames, glass and mirrors frequently appear, like a constant reminder of the artist’s consciousness.

It’s odd that this now seems naive and heavy-handed. The artist one senses behind this camera is emotionless, tyrannical, authoritarian, rigorously shaping and defining the scene/seen. I’m reminded that Impressionism and Expressionism in painting were in some ways responses to the rise of photography. The camera has the power to deny subjectivity and impose its eye as truth-maker. This is precisely what I feel happens with Meatyard, and even when his children gaze fiercely back, there is something subjected about them.

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Here’s something you didn’t learn in school…

Economix: How and Why Our Economy Works (and Doesn't Work), in Words and PicturesEconomix: How and Why Our Economy Works (and Doesn’t Work), in Words and Pictures by Michael Goodwin
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

These days everyone’s worried about the economy! The economy is the biggest issue for voters! Won’t somebody puh-leeeeeese think of the economy?

I don’t know about you, but I don’t remember anyone ever explaining anything about this economy to me in eleven years of compulsory education. Every politician confidently promises to fix it and everyone has an opinion on it, but most of us rely heavily on clued-up commentators to translate market jargon into baby-talk we can nod along to, and believe that it’s all over our heads, it’s in the hands of the academics, the math-grads and (oh dear) the bankers who actually understand those crazy equations.

Knowing about economics is powerful knowledge; those who control wealth benefit from our ignorance. Michael Goodwin has collaborated with illustrator Dan E Burr to create a textbook simple and entertaining enough to explain economics and its chequered history to a teenager. I can’t even articulate how great I think this concept is. Goodwin has totally done his bit towards saving the world here. He makes the absurdities of our economic system look absurd. He exposes its hypocrites and its bare-faced liars, and points out the gaping holes in economic theories that are not just taken seriously but used to justify government and international policies.

A couple of years ago I picked up and read The Wealth of Nations and I seem to have read various other relevant historical and critical texts like
Prosperity without Growth
Thinking Fast and Slow
(which deals harshly with classical economics and critiques stock broking as… worse than pointless). I’ve studied ethics and philosophy of science and read about climate change and its causes. I teach physics. Economix doesn’t have much news for me, but it condenses a giant fuzzily grasped cloud of what I more-or-less knew into a work of blazing clarity, making it communicable and useable for me. It could convey this knowledge to anyone without the hundreds of head-scratching hours of multidisciplinary study I have apparently spent garnering it! And it’s funny. It deserves laurels. It deserves to be read. Preferably by everyone.

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Inventing a sacred

The Temple Of My FamiliarThe Temple Of My Familiar by Alice Walker
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“Obenjomade, clean out your ears: THE WHITE MAN IS STILL HERE. Even when he leaves, he is not gone.”

“Obenjomade, cup your endearingly large ears: EVERYONE ALL OVER THE WORLD KNOWS EVERYTHING THERE IS TO KNOW ABOUT THE WHITE MAN. That’s the essential meaning of television. BUT THEY KNOW NEXT TO NOTHING ABOUT THEMSELVES.”

“If you tear out the tongue of another, you have a tongue in your hand for the rest of your life. You are responsible, therefore, for all that person might have said.”

Folk Memory, Matriarchy and Writing Back

Through the Black woman Lissie and the Latina/First Nation woman Zede, Walker speculates about pre-colonisation African and American societies, with anarchist and matriarchal or segregated organisations. She does this in a beautiful, poetic, magical realist style, freely imagining and reimagining myths and relationships between groups and even species. I think a number of reviewers have not understood or enjoyed this aspect of the book. I think it’s about opening human possibilities into a space of folk-memory rather than a utopian future. Since kyriarchy has constructed human history we should not accept its interpretation. If myths and meta-narratives shape us, we urgently need to rewrite those that have deformed us. In particular, I love her rewriting of the Adam and Eve story to address the racism of Western Christianity and remove blame from Woman. This writing back is Walker’s answer to the quote above. The White man is still here even after he has left, so we have to replace him with something. We need an antidote to his poison.

Beauty and Play

I love the way Alice Walker sees the beauty in everything and always chooses the beauty, without censoring the painful truth. I love the simple values she upholds: love & care & pleasure & health & spiritual wholeness. It’s so un-elitist and sensible compared to (usually really privileged) authors and their characters who are sunk in malaise and can find nothing to satisfy them in a comfortable existence. Walker’s mode of description and appreciation of bodies, especially Black women’s bodies, is radical because it dismantles the Whiteness, thin-ness and general hegemony of beauty. The contrast becomes explicit when a male character Suwelo describes a woman who Walker earlier described in a totally different way: his conventional description of her performance of femininity in terms of male sexuality is exactly what we expect. He reads Carlotta’s high heels sexually, in contrast to Walker’s earlier description of dressing up as play.

Black History

When I read about the life in which Lissie was an African child/woman sold into slavery I had to slow down, I was sitting on the tube and I found myself stopping to stare into space repeatedly. The story of the nursing mothers whose babies had been taken or killed offering their milk to feed children and salve wounds is so moving. On reading to the end of this chapter, to the part about women being raped and impregnated on the middle passage and the slavers being paid extra for pregnant women, I could not continue with the book and had to sit still on the train until I got to my stop. Although I have read about this before, Walker’s folk-memory telling brought it inside me for the first time – it is inside all of us, in the sense that memory and memes inhabit us communally, and in the sense of history creating us and the circumstances of our lives: in my case, the wealth and comfort I enjoy rests on the backs of those women and men who were stolen and enslaved.

Health and Environment, Colonialism and Academia

I think this book, in many ways is about how to live, and Walker is obviously angry about the way Black people in particular have been cut off from health and harmony with the Earth by poverty, slavery and the theft of their lands.

“’Like the Hopi in your country, most ancient Africans thought of the earth as a body that needs all its organs and bones and blood in order to function properly. The ore miners were forced out, the theory goes. They went north.’ ‘Yes,’ said Fanny, frowning, ‘and unfortunately in about 1492 they continued West’”

One of my favourite characters in the book is Fanny Nzingha, the granddaughter of Celie, protagonist of The Colour Purple. She is involved in many serious conversations about colonialism. In a way, she is the book’s criticizer, while Lissie is its source of hope and restoration. She represents the awakened, angry consciousness of injustice for me. I was happy that she found her African sister Nzingha Anne.

“’In the United States there is the maddening illusion of freedom without substance. It’s never solid, unequivocal, irrevocable. So much depends on the horrid politicians the white majority elects. Black people have the oddest feeling, I think, of forever running in place’”

This is an incredible book that successfully synthesises a huge wealth of ideas. It’s really beyond me to do it justice in a review.

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