Primo Levi’s book, ‘The drowned and the saved’ is an account (an analysis really) – of living through horror: he tells us of his and others’ experiences of surviving terrifying incarceration in a concentration camp. He reveals the chilling aftermath of those experiences. He cannot ‘forgive’ that which was done to him but he refuses to countenance the vice of hatred.
In the final chapter of his book – a conclusion – Primo Levi considers what might be, for him, the most appropriate way of communicating such a devastating and ominous warning from history; he wants the young to know what happened and he wants them to know this vividly. But he is pessimistic; he notes that even by the 1980s the events he wants people to confront were ‘matters’ now associated with their grandparents: such matters were already ‘distant’, ‘blurred’ and ‘historical’. The contemporary young were besieged, in his view, by ‘today’s problems’: the nuclear threat, unemployment, technologies which are frenetically innovative – and so on. He was not sure that he – or others who wish that the knowledge of the horrors should not be diluted or left to wither and die – would be ‘listened to’. But nonetheless and despite his reservations Primo Levi thought that people like himself and similar others have, as he put it, ‘a duty’ to tell their story and a resolve that they must be heard. He asserts that ‘we’ collectively have been the witnesses of a terrible and unexpected event that happened in Europe – in a country, Germany, that had just experienced ‘the fervid cultural flowering of Weimar’: it was a civilisation that came to follow the figure and violently seductive performances of Adolf Hitler. He, Hitler, was obeyed and his praises were sung by such a civilised people right up to the catastrophe …
In the wake of the Nazi disaster that befell Europe, Levi recognises that it can happen again, and it can happen anywhere. And it has. Levi writes:
‘ … it is not very probable that all the factors that unleashed the Nazi madness will again occur simultaneously but precursory signs loom before us. Violence, ‘useful’ or ‘useless’, is there before our eyes.’
And he continues:
‘It only awaits its new rendition of a Hitler (there is no dearth of candidates) to organise it, legalise it, declare it necessary and mandatory – and so contaminate the world. Few countries can be considered immune to a further tide of violence generated by intolerance, lust for power, economic difficulties … political fanaticism and racialist attritions …’
His words foretell what has happened to Ukraine and its people.
But as Levi says, ‘Satan is not necessary.’ And he continues his concluding remarks by countering the notion that somehow war and violence are inevitable. He writes:
‘ … there is no need for war or violences under any circumstances. There do not exist problems that cannot be solved around a table, provided there is goodwill and reciprocal trust; or even reciprocal fear.’
I think he must be correct. There do not exist problems that cannot be solved through the hard work and moral resolve which can sustain a ‘good will’ – and which is allied to some basis of trust. However, the best humanistic psychologists recognise that there are, amongst us, people who really do live through the darkest regions of the human soul. They live in the realms of the sadist and the cold cold psychopath. They are unimaginative people who successfully overlook – or are immune to – the suffering of others. They are versions of Nietzsche’s iconoclastic ‘human, all too human’. And this wretched condition appears to be ‘at work’ in the leadership of Russia.
“This is not war anymore,” said, Dmytro Gurin, a Ukrainian MP. “This is not army against army. It is carpet bombing. It is Russia against humanity.”
My mother was born in Teplitz – an attractive town – that is now in the Czech Republic. Her first language was German. However, when the Nazi troops entered the Sudetenland in 1938 she and her parents knew that they were in danger. Then – and not long after – in 1939 – they became refugees. They lost everything and found a kind of refuge in the UK. My mother never really recovered and I was brought up in the dark shadow of her underlying, unceasing trauma. (I have never been persuaded that anyone can ever quite understand what it is to be made a refugee and ‘lose’ everything.)
Now, another catastrophe has been inflicted on Europe. Now more than a million souls – innocent, harmless souls – have, like my forebears, been made refugees.
But I am very angry. I have had to listen to a truly deplorable set of senior politicians in the UK who have shown an appalling lack of empathy and imagination concerning the reality of the Ukrainian refugees. I can scarcely believe it possible that they are so mean-spirited. I wrote (yet again) to my local MP – simply to set out exactly what I thought of the current Home Secretary’s unconscionable response to the crisis. This is what I wrote:
I am one of your constituents in South West Surrey and I am shocked and appalled by the Home Secretary’s response to the dreadful humanitarian crisis that has befallen millions of people in Ukraine. I have been left almost speechless by the failure of the Rt. Hon. Priti Patel to fulfil the most basic obligations, duties and requirements commensurate with her role. I am afraid that she has both misjudged the public mood and ignored the basic ethos of decency, consideration and compassion that is supposed to characterise our democracy. Like many of my friends and neighbours we implore you to demand that she waive the visa requirements and allow so many desperate people to seek refuge in our country.I cannot overstate how strongly I feel on this matter.
I do thank you for the efforts that you – along with a number of other senior conservative MPs – have already made on behalf of people like myself; notwithstanding I do think the Home Secretary should jettison her dogmatic and cruel stance. But, surely, we can do better as a nation …can’t we?
In my own mind, she has ceased to be Priti Patel. Instead, she is Priti Cruel.
Post Script: I think we need to rid ourselves of the unprincipled leadership of the Conservative party.
Footnote: The photo shows an excerpt from a large art work concerned with ‘conflict’. The excerpt makes a reference to the unspeakable and evil leader of Russia.
Not long ago, I received a ‘call for papers’ message concerning an inaugural conference to be held in the newly establish ‘Centre for the Study of Art and Conflict’ at the University for the Creative Arts. The conference would be convened to address the question: ‘what is the role of artistic practice in transforming individuals and societies in contexts of conflict?‘
I thought seriously about the question and then submitted an outline of a paper I wished to give. Although the conference organisers received a copy of my proposed paper I heard nothing more from them. I was not invited to give my paper! Since then a few months have passed and now, precisely because of the context of the real conflict in Ukraine, I updated the outline of the unwanted paper. Here is what I proposed, albeit unsuccessfully, to present to the conference:
Title: ‘From dematerialisation to de-radicalisation: an excerpt from a philosophical critique of art’.
Overall, it is now fanciful to believe that art has anything more than a peripheral role in ‘transforming’ individuals and societies in contexts of conflict.
Not so long ago it was possible to identify certain practices and manifestations of art that appear to have played a successful role in achieving such transformations. For example, in opposition to the class-based, oppressive and limiting culture of post-war Britain, the ‘counter-culture’ – with its striking new forms of art, theatre, films and literature – assisted in effecting forms of ‘societal’ liberation – such as the women’s movement, gay liberation and a more generalised freedom of expression. Although it is possible to think that these new forms of art were in the avant-garde of the social transformations it is not clear what was cause and what was effect. The radical arts may have actually been provoked by social, technological and ideological forces that preceded their manifestation.
Moreover, as Heidegger had already presciently noted, the dominant metaphor with which to characterise those emerging times was in terms of mining; everything was becoming ‘seized upon’ and mined for what it might yield. And, in no time at all, art and artistic practices were themselves being seized upon to further the interests of power, efficiency – and ultimately – the emergence of a more of less full-blown neo-liberalism – now identified by anthropologists as a global phenomenon. The arts – and especially ‘advanced’ art – were increasingly enmeshed in the market system. Worse, their role in the aestheticisation of reality, the proliferation of image-saturation, and the deceptive seductions of media culture constituted a departure or rupture from flesh-and-blood material reality. If anything, art has now come to consolidate, accentuate and collude with the differing nuances of neo-liberal practices and culture. Rather than catalyse significant individual or societal change it serves to sustain superficiality, deception and diversion.
Any number of case studies illustrate this thesis but here I mention just three: First, Elena Ferrante in her ‘The story of the lost child’ concludes that any so-called radical ‘art’ if not backed by organised power and collective struggle ‘is just performance’; Second, Adam Curtis in his brilliantly persuasive ‘Can’t get you out of my head’ finds installed a new ‘counter-ideology’ – an ideology that is sceptical of any ‘progressive programme’ – or of any genuinely ‘subversive’ art – an ideology that is marked by pessimism and nihilism. Third, the rise and fall of the ‘International Times’ – the radical ‘alternative-culture’ publication of the 1960s and 1970s demonstrated, ultimately, the hopeless belief that ‘somehow the old power structures and forms of social order would just disappear.’ In truth it is the power nexus of the political/economic order that really matters.
Unless of course, I am wrong: maybe the arts are now usefully and very successfully rendering people, as docile and distracted, as entertained and info-tained beings – and is thereby effecting a de-radicalising transformation: People are now mesmerised by their screens, are rendered the subjects of iconico-mania, and, de facto, are the unwitting recipients of countless environing ‘vessels of affect’ – keeping all of them (all of us) sufficiently happy and pleasured. In other words, the arts are, in the social context of conflict, enabling an anti-revolution – in large part because they turn ‘reality’ into an alluring social spectacle.
However, by way of redemption, Heidegger also posted a tantalising proposition. He held that we are all dimly aware that, as he put it, the world is ‘ungrounded’; there is no reason why we should do what ‘one does’ – i.e. why we should conduct ourselves as we do. God has not ordained it nor does our nature require it. And, for me, this is the psychological and physical space in which the artist can always move; in so doing, who knows what truth he or she will reveal? Who knows what transfigurations may come be actualised? Plainly some artists do use their talents, media profiles and performances to transform the consciousness, ideologies and belief systems of individuals – and even societies. Most recently for example, as a result of the appalling and evil invasion of Ukraine, some well-known figures in the field of Ukrainian music – such as Slava and Korolova – have done their utmost to foreground the realities of the conflict and to counter the false narratives that have become installed in various peoples’ minds.
So, to the question, ‘what is the role of artistic practice in transforming individuals and societies in contexts of conflict?’, I think it is worth revisiting Iris Murdoch’s belief that, although art is in fact a very different form of practice compared with philosophy, both are truth-seeking and truth-revealing activities. On her account it becomes relatively easy to insist that art necessarily plays a role in transforming individuals and societies in situations of conflict because the truths that they can reveal have the power to change minds, promote specific values and influence conduct. It is likely that some forms of art may be more effective change-agents than others: Music – and the moving image as well as forms of documentary – may stand a far greater chance that the sheer obliqueness of so much Conceptual art. And, just as Dostoyevsky pointed out that psychology is a double-edged sword and can be used by whomsoever to commend or condemn a person, so the arts, too, can be used to unsettle and radicalise or conversely to sustain repressive values. They can expose that which is morally and politically deplorable or they can serve the ‘oppressor’.
I shall conclude this brief essay by referring to a first-hand account which rather highlights the de-radicalisation of a form of art that was once considered replete with transformative potential. It is the case of ‘advanced’ art – the kind of art that finds its way into the ‘leading’ museum and gallery spaces of ‘Fine Art’. Just as I was beginning an MA in Fine Art Practice in the autumn of 2019, Will Gompertz was responding to the glamour and pizzazz of the Venice Biennale. This is what he wrote:
‘This week’s invitation only ‘Private View” of the Venice Biennale (which opens today) was one weird affair. It was like being dropped into the middle of a Wes Anderson movie. The place was heaving with characters. Artists, posers, dealers, curators, billionaires, bureaucrats, fakes, freeloaders, snobs, journalists, pseuds, hustlers, and narcissists all cramming themselves into tiny spaces and noisy halls to get a glimpse of some box-fresh contemporary art.
They are not a hip crowd like you might find at Coachella or XJAZZ in Berlin. They are more clamorous than glamorous. Art is a shared interest but not the thing that truly binds them. Money and status are the currencies that count. You don’t need both, but you sure as hell need one or the other.’
All this means that the artist – if he or she is serious – has to have a very sophisticated knowledge of his or her value system, their ideological stance – and, on top of this, to have absolutely clarity about their underlying intentions. They have to have a deep level of personal insight – and that’s not easy …
Post Script: The word ‘dematerialisation’ was chosen by Lucy Lippard to characterise the shift in art that took place in the 1960s – and which referred to the fact that art was now supposed to be as much, if not more, about provoking ‘thinking’ and not just ‘looking’.
End note: I was moved to revisit the outline of the paper because I noticed that, despite the intense media coverage of the invasion of Ukraine, the University for the Creative Arts campus in Farnham seemed almost oblivious to the crisis. I had, at the very least, expected to see some posters about the conflict or expressions of support for the people of Ukraine – but none were on display. I had the distinct feeling that the ‘creatives’ were happily detached or insulated from a profoundly disturbing reality. I asked one young artist why there was not one single reference to the events in Ukraine. ‘To tell you the truth,’ she replied, ‘I don’t watch the news.’
How strange are those different moments or episodes in our past that somehow remain intact and which, for any number of reasons, remain forged and fixed – as if embalmed in the amber of our memories. How strange, too, that these precise memories are so varied in nature and so faithful a companion.
I can still recall, clearly, an unfolding moment on a summer’s day outside a Jacobean mansion during which a police officer declared to me that, ‘principles don’t pay the rent’; Or my father opening his newspaper and showing me a photograph of a burnt-out tank and the charred head of an Iraqi soldier: ‘Look at this poor blighter,’ he said. I looked. Or, a colleague standing in front of me in my study at work simply asserting that I was ‘damaged goods’. I remember particular moments from my school days – such as the remark made by my maths teacher on seeing that I had a black eye: ‘Did she scratch you as well?’ he joked. Or an elegant, strangely poetic, passing move in a football match in which my older brother came to score a goal. Or the moment I more or less successfully stained the ear-drum of a locust during a Zoology exam at University.
Yes! A great number of specific disparate ‘things’ come to be etched in memory. A greater number of details are forgotten.
One very clear memory I have concerns an evening to which parents were invited at the Weydon Secondary School in Farnham, Surrey. Weydon School was (and is) a large comprehensive school – a typical, rather utilitarian school, which, at best, had (and has) a limited aesthetic appeal. That didn’t matter though: it achieved good academic results. (Both my daughters attended the school.) The long-ago evening featured a show by the pupils of art and drama and performance. (The English are very creative and very strong in these forms of cultural expression and the pupils at the school were impressively good. )
At some point in the middle of the show, a boy, aged about 16, silently walked along a dimly lit central catwalk that jutted out and into the audience. His style of walking was resolute; somehow, he looked determined but resigned. He looked into the distance. He stopped at the end of the catwalk – a lone figure. Now he was lit by a single spotlight. He paused. He made a defined – almost emphatic gesture – that was deeply ambiguous. His silent gesture struck me forcibly.
Then, unaided and completely alone, he recited the poem ‘Refugee blues’; It was stark, remarkable, desperate and telling. His recitation was perfect. At the end he paused; he looked down, turned around – and then left. At no point did he look at the audience. The audience remained silent. It was a perfect performance.
Here is the poem.
Say this city has ten million souls, Some are living in mansions, some are living in holes: Yet there’s no place for us, my dear, yet there’s no place for us.
Once we had a country and we thought it fair, Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there: We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.
In the village churchyard there grows an old yew, Every spring it blossoms anew: Old passports can’t do that, my dear, old passports can’t do that.
The consul banged the table and said, “If you’ve got no passport you’re officially dead”: But we are still alive, my dear, but we are still alive.
Went to a committee; they offered me a chair; Asked me politely to return next year: But where shall we go to-day, my dear, but where shall we go to-day?
Came to a public meeting; the speaker got up and said; “If we let them in, they will steal our daily bread”: He was talking of you and me, my dear, he was talking of you and me.
Thought I heard the thunder rumbling in the sky; It was Hitler over Europe, saying, “They must die”: O we were in his mind, my dear, O we were in his mind.
Saw a poodle in a jacket fastened with a pin, Saw a door opened and a cat let in: But they weren’t German Jews, my dear, but they weren’t German Jews.
Went down the harbour and stood upon the quay, Saw the fish swimming as if they were free: Only ten feet away, my dear, only ten feet away.
Walked through a wood, saw the birds in the trees; They had no politicians and sang at their ease: They weren’t the human race, my dear, they weren’t the human race.
Dreamed I saw a building with a thousand floors, A thousand windows and a thousand doors: Not one of them was ours, my dear, not one of them was ours.
Stood on a great plain in the falling snow; Ten thousand soldiers marched to and fro: Looking for you and me, my dear, looking for you and me.
Of course, day by day, the news tells me and shows me that there is a deadly thunder rumbling in the sky. It is an unspeakable thunder. The thunder rumbles over Ukraine and its cities. And there are streams of refugees who hear the verse:
‘Once we had a country and we thought it fair, Look in the atlas and you’ll find it there: We cannot go there now, my dear, we cannot go there now.’
I first met Rosalie almost 3 years ago. She was studying for a Master Degree in ‘Language and Culture’ at Goldsmiths University in South East London, and she was specialising in bilingual learning. In her case, she was particularly focused on the learning of both Chinese and English. She wished to draw from my experience in anthropology – in part to consider the contrasting approaches to education in both China and the UK and because of my approach to ethnography – and so we began a series of lengthy conversations that lasted until she had completed her degree.
I learned a great deal from my encounters with Rosalie. In fact, I began to realise that she was quite unlike me: Rosalie is a relatively young mother, born and raised in the city of Zhong Xiang in Hubei Province, China. She described Zhong Xiang as a ‘small city’: however, it has well over 1 million inhabitants: so, from my point of view, that makes it a rather large city! But it was the enigmatic nature of her psyche – a psyche always mysterious and unfathomable – that made her, in some deep sense, unknowable. Rosalie, though, impressed me. She struck me as a determined and resolute person – who was not afraid to come to the UK and confront the challenge of studying for a very demanding Masters degree. After successful completion of her studies (and when travel became possible again), she returned, with her 9-year-old daughter Emily and new-born son, to China. Not long after this she resumed conversations with me via Zoom. She declared that she missed aspects of the English educational ethos and wanted to continue supporting her children’s bilingual development.
Our most recent conversation returned to the theme of education. Immediately prior to this we had touched on the subject of our values – and then we moved on to consider the contribution that we had (or had not) made to society. At this point Rosalie then said:
‘The person who I think contributes a great deal to society is Zhang Guimei, a woman of Manchu ethnicity, who is a Chinese educator and the founder and principal of Huaping High School for Girls.’
I replied: ‘Rose, I have not heard of Zhang Guimei …’
To which Rosalie said:
‘She has recently been honoured in China. The school she founded is located in a poor mountainous region in Yunnan province and it’s China’s first and only free public high school for girls.’
‘But who, exactly, is Zhang Guimei?’ I asked.
And Rosalie went on to tell me something about this remarkable and inspirational woman who had done a great deal to improve the lot of disadvantaged girls: I learned that Zhang Guimei was born in 1957, the twelfth child of a family within which she endured hardship and the loss of both her parents by the time she was aged 17. However, after first working for the Forestry Bureau, she moved into the education sector; she began teaching in Huaping County National Middle School in Lijiang and was soon promoted to the position of head teacher as a result of her excellent work. But, it was in this part of China that she discovered the fact that ‘many girls just disappeared before finishing their studies.’ They were often either forced into work or obliged to marry at a very young age.
Until she had mentioned it, I not heard of the city of Lijiang nor did I have anything but the slightest idea of the geography of Yunnan province. Rosalie told me that Yunnan is a landlocked area in the South East of China and borders Vietnam and Myanmar (it’s also thought to be where the drinking of tea originated!). Then, she explained that: ‘Lijiang lies in the shadow of the great Jade Dragon snow mountain,’ and she went on to make reference to a study by Zhu (2020) who noted that the region had ‘long been influenced by backwardness and patriarchal thinking. Therefore, girls’ right to education had not been well realised.’ In response to this, and to the fact that she saw ‘destitution everywhere‘, Zhang Guimei committed herself to bringing about change; She set about the task of providing a valued and lasting education for the otherwise deprived girls. And so began her lifelong devotion to improving female education in China.
As our conversation continued I learned that, in order to raise the funds for establishing a school, Zhang Guimei spent her summer and winter holidays on the streets of the provincial capital city Kunming, asking people to donate money. However she only managed to accumulate a very small amount. Happily, though, her story became known in Beijing and her ambitious dream to start a school for girls was drawn to the attention of the public. In due course, the governments of Lijiang and Huaping county allocated sufficient funds for her to open the Huaping High School for Girls.
Again, Rosalie referred me to Zhu’s (2020) study of the development of the school and quoted him as follows: ‘At the beginning of the school’s establishment, the school faced difficulties – such as poor teaching facilities, difficult living conditions for teachers and students, and a lack of money for students’ living expenses.’ However, both through Zhang Guimei’s committed educational leadership and help from the Huaping County Government (in the form of financial assistance) the female high school students were able to enjoy a free high school education. What is more, Zhang Guimei insisted that tuition and accommodation fees would all be free.
Rosalie highlighted the fact that the school effectively challenges the current education system. Girls can enter the school based on their ‘will’ without the entrance examination. What is more, the students have achieved impressive and outstanding outcomes and Rosalie moved on to summarise exactly why she thinks so highly of Zhang Guimei:
‘It is for two main reasons that I think Zhang Guimei has made a valuable contribution to society. First, because of the school, she has dramatically transformed the life chances of many young disadvantaged girls in one part of China.‘ Then she paused for a moment or two before continuing by saying: ‘Second, she herself is an example of ‘triumph over adversity.’ She’s a tigerish woman – who insists, to this day, on very strict discipline (for example, every girl in the school has to have the same uniform haircut) but, she’s an excellent role model for girls and women; she’s not only inspirational but she also demonstrates remarkable fortitude: for example, although she suffers from a number of diseases she sustains an exceptional daily work-routine – which begins in the early morning at 5 am and lasts until 12:30 am at night.’
Rosalie told me that it was through her own studies in education that she learned about Zhang Guimei’s work – and her example was so powerful that she, too, wished (when her family circumstances permit) to work in educational settings.
I subsequently discovered that, not surprisingly, Zhang Guimei (who has long been a member of the Communist party) has received many awards in recognition of her pioneering achievements. Most recently, in 2020, she was honoured as a ‘Moving China Person of 2020’ by the China Media Group and then, in 2021, her outstanding work saw her receive the esteemed ‘July 1 Medal’ from the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party. In the light or her lifetime’s dedication to improving the life chances of less privileged girls these awards are thoroughly deserved. She is often quoted as saying: ‘A girl can influence the next three generations. An educated and responsible mother will never let their children drop out of school. My goal is to prevent poverty from passing down from generation to generation.’
Reference: Zhu, H. (2020) Hope for Girls’ Education in Poverty- Stricken Areas: The School-Running Experience and Process of Huaping Girls’ High School in Yunnan, China, Science Insights Education Frontiers, 6(2):653-667
Footnote: The ‘July 1 Medal‘ is a decoration of the People’s Republic of China awarded by the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, party leader and state paramount leader. It is the highest award given to the Chinese Communist Party members, constituted on July 22, 2017. The ‘July 1 Medal‘ – established by the Communist Party is bestowed on party members who have been seen to make outstanding contributions to the practice of ‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics.’
In Antonio Iturbe’s (2012) book, ‘The librarian of Auschwitz’ we learn something about the extraordinary story of Dita Kraus, who was imprisoned by the Nazis in Auschwitz-Birkenau. Whilst there, she meets an older fellow prisoner, Fredy Hirsch, who appoints her as his librarian. When he does so, he remarks: ‘But it is dangerous. Very dangerous. Handling books here is no game. If the SS catches anyone with a book they execute them.’ Dita, who is aged just 14, is then shown the library. It consisted of eight books. That was all. She encountered the particular books – the sum total of the library – in the following order:
An unbound atlas, with a few pages missing A Basic Treatise on Geometry ‘A Short History of the World’ by H. G. Wells A Russian Grammar A French novel (which turns out to be ‘The Count of Monte Cristo’ by Alexander Dumas) ‘New Paths to Psychoanalytic Therapy’ by Sigmund Freud A second Russian novel lacking a cover and finally, ‘The adventures of the good soldier Svejk’ by Jaroslav Hasek
In this horrifyingly dark place, these eight books served as a reminder of less dreadful and sombre times; and, despite the sheer misery and relentless suffering endured by the prisoners, the books also reminded their readers that words had a magic – and a power that was ultimately louder than guns. Later in the text, Iturbe tells us that:
‘When they are lined up, the books form a tiny row, a modest display of veterans. But over these past months, they’ve enabled hundreds of children to walk through the geography of the world, get close to history, and learn maths. And also to be drawn into the intricacies of fiction and therefore to amplify their lives many times over. Not bad for a handful of old books.’
As I dwelt on the content of ‘The librarian of Auschwitz’ I began to think about the prospect of creating a library containing just 8 books. More specifically, I began to think of eight books that might, taken together and with no others available, be sufficient to lift people’s spirits and enrich their consciousness. In short, I thought about creating the smallest library in the world. After thinking about this carefully for two days or so (and clarifying the purpose of my ‘library’) I reached a temporary conclusion: This is what I chose:
‘The Republic’ by Plato ‘The Odyssey’ by Homer ‘Anna Karenina’ by LeoTolstoy ‘Swann’s way’ by Marcel Proust ‘The glass bead game’ by Hermann Hesse ‘Men of Ideas’ – a collection of discussions between Bryan Magee (the editor) and a number of leading philosophers An illustrated guide to Japanese gardens ‘A letter for Tiger’ by Janosch
Jo, my wife, has also been addressing this question. The eight books she chose book are:
‘A survival guide’ ‘A book on the human body and cures for ill health’ ‘Learning to live’ by Luc Ferry ‘A thousand splendid suns’ by Kaled Hosseini ‘A compendium on world architecture’ ‘The God of small things’ by Arundhati Roy ‘A book about travel that is filled with humorous anecdotes’ ‘The adventures of Alice in Wonderland – a pop book’
(She is still to ‘track down’ some of the exact titles and authors.)
I think that the choices different people would make in addressing such a question would make for a wonderful documentary. But that, for the moment is an aside. I have asked one of my friends, Peter V. which books he would choose. I am pretty certain that amongst his 8 texts would be something by Joseph Conrad and another by Thomas Hardy. Perhaps he might include a play by Shakespeare or a work on military history or one of the ‘war poets’ …
In fact, I would be very interested to know which 8 books anyone would choose. But, I realise that it’s not an easy question and it is made more difficult because it is not entirely clear what purpose the library is to serve. At this stage I am thinking that the ‘smallest library in the world’ is for people who do not have access to any other reading – and who might benefit from and be enriched by the range of content in the books. I suppose it is up to the person making the choices what books they think may, taken together, express that which is valued (or useful and uplifting) in human affairs. I should add that I have long been influenced by Freud’s recognition that words were once thought to be magic and that words have the power both to create frames of mind and to ‘conjure’ up all sorts of emotions – both positive and negative. I have also often wondered at the way great stories – such as Homer’s Odyssey – can provoke the delights of imagination, and in so doing, make life simply wonderful.
In the end, I was more than pleased to leave the great city – the ‘city of light’. After a while, the taut compression of time and space, the overwhelming and unremitting presence of stone and concrete and tarmac – it had all become oppressive. And perhaps it was the simple fact of seeing the falling autumn leaves that spoke silently of nature and her seasons, of landscapes and those places where the sky meets the land: yes, perhaps it was these that served as outriders to my departure.
During my stay, though, I had seen a partial re-construction of Marcel Proust’s bedroom; near to the almost lugubrious and decidedly sombre room that they had re-created, the museum curators had thoughtfully placed a bench upon which visitors could sit; it was there, contemplating the blue bed-cover and the writer’s furniture, that I was able to listen to a few extracts from his continuous novel, ‘In search of lost time.’ As I listened to the readings, I was reminded of my past – a past that seemed to be marked by or condemned to the endless pressure of the march of time; by contrast, Proust’s writing showed how delightful it is to ‘take time’ and to explore the character and quality of our conscious ‘being-in-the-world’. The effect upon me was plain and simple: I resolved to leave the city, return to the quietude of my home town in England, and re-read Proust’s writing. And this I did.
At the same time – and whilst I was back in England – I was alerted to some sensitive discussions on travel writing and of our engagement with the particular phenomena of place. In the course of this I encountered William L. Heat-Moon’s book, ‘Blue highways: a journey into America’: whilst big cities such as New York, Paris and London attract the majority of tourists, smaller towns, as Heat-Moon shows, have just as much to offer; through his writing, he restores to us the magic and mystery of small ordinary towns. These are the places that are overlooked, passed over – or worse, ridiculed and derogated because, on the surface, they have none of the obvious glamour of those great cities. But pause for a moment and look carefully at the detail of these ‘ordinary’ places – and in no time at all they unveil themselves: they are full of the exceptional and extraordinary. And, like the undramatic town in which I live, there is in each to be found a gem on main-street, a jewel in the backstreets – and a tale, like no other, to be told in the most modest of dwellings.
Proust too – in certain respects – focuses on the ordinary – and he works a very special kind of magic on the objects and scenes and encounters with the almost ‘ordinary’. And, as I read him, I tried to identify exactly what it is about his writing that is so special; it seems to me that he explores the data of all our senses, the bouquets of rose, the sight of amber, the feel of lace, then, the film of consciousness through which we experience the world about us – then, too, he expresses psychological insights as well as his acute perceptions of the character of human beings. He delights in the foibles and irrationalities of the people around him. His writing strikes me as ‘complete’. On top of this, his engagement with and disclosures about his childhood memories and experiences in the small Norman town of ‘Combray’ even seem to serve as proto-theories that anticipate the work of any number of major French intellectual figures; And, by way of outcome, he invites his reader to extend Heat-Moon’s appreciation of the charms of the ‘ordinary.’
Farnham is where I live; in its way it is unremarkable – ordinary. People retire to Farnham or leave the pressures of the city for Farnham. It is not quite Proust’s Combray nor somewhere along a ‘blue American highway’. It is, I think, despite the deformations caused by over-development, despite its wholly unimaginative local politics, a successful town. It has a long – a very long and auspicious history; in its time, it has enjoyed the presence of a variety of notable figures; there are plaques, on a wall in the heart of the town, that name many of these; some written histories of the town exist – but, like all histories, they never quite ‘get on the inside’ of people’s experiences.
I walk through, and in, and around Farnham. I walk in the afternoons, I walk at night.
Today, in the serene shadow of Proust, it is the end of November. Night has fallen. The earlier moments of twilight have silently shrouded themselves in the first misty darks of the night. Alone, I am walking the long straight path on the southern edge of the park, Farnham park. All about me are the fallen leaves of autumn. Palmate, or ovoid – or the heart-shaped leaves of the elegant limes – or in shapes I could not give a name to – they lay, quite still, in their softly, slowly dying colours: the autumn colours of transparent gold-ochre or fading burnt sienna. Chrome yellow too. Yes, these leaves have learned the art of dying. There is a stillness, and everywhere a stillness: a hymn to the silence; but this silence … it seems to portend something – a calm before … but there is no storm. All is at rest. Tranquil, reposeful – not even the stirring of a zephyr. Then, a rustle in the shadows and for a moment my heart quickens; someone – a shroud – a spectre – a man, passes by; a lone dog barks somewhere in the distance – and I remember the words of a long-ago song that keeps me company in the sleepless hours: I remember the line: ‘One too many mornings and a thousand miles behind‘.
From the path I can look across the town. dimly lit, docile, tamed – a town settled, now in the restorative hours. It rests in a confidence born of the sediments of history and its untroubled aesthetics. Wealth too.
Yes: Perhaps, in its way, it is a successful town. Perhaps it is a model for how things might work. Not a city – nor the limiting ethos of the village – but a town with a history and buildings to match and those many lives – now happy in the beautiful soft amber-and-gold lights of their living rooms and kitchens. The mood of those lights reminded me of a moment yesterday: in the afternoon, under a bright cool sky, a soft mist was hanging over the town – like a mood of such sweet sorrow. It seemed as if a painter had glazed the dry (or almost dry) shades of the trees he had formed on his canvas with the faintest of cool greys – and blended the whole with the gentlest of brushstrokes – the one in the other.
Again, the song – and the line from the song. And how much I regret the loss of that past, my past: now, I am more than ‘one too many mornings’ and a far far greater distance – I am far more than a thousand miles behind …
In fact, a warning not just from Anthropology: Scholars in various disciplines including philosophy as well as anthropology have reprised Walter Benjamin’s concern that ‘cultures’ – along with their ideas and manifestations of progress – are built on the ‘rubble’ of the past. For example, one ageing political philosopher reported that he had ‘already’ lived through six philosophical fashions each of which proposed the fatal shortcomings of any that had preceded them. The anthropologists warn us not to be quite so ready to find fault with past achievements; one obvious example is the doctrine of human rights which lies at the heart of humanism.
I was reminded of all this when I saw the riveting film, ‘Barbara Rubin and the NY (New York) underground explosion‘. In effect, the film demonstrated the experimental ‘no-holds barred’ extraordinary achievements of the young film maker during her relatively brief moments of film-making in New York City (and New York state) during the 1960s. In a way Rubin conformed to Benjamin’s observation in the sense that she was committed to breaking the established conventions in which art might have found itself – but, at the same time, the film also shows us how a rather more diffident art-making culture has now come to displace the sheer brazen inventiveness of the alternative or ‘counter-culture’ that once held sway more than 50 years ago. I was re-invigorated by the film and my first response was to buy an old vintage copy of International Times. I would like to re-present some of that older style of communicating. It certainly would make for a great deal of fun and the delights of expressing a more genuine creative freedom.
The art show in the James Hockey Gallery of the University for the Creative Arts, (UCA Farnham), was entitled ‘Coming up for air – responding to climate and sustainability’. A text accompanying the exhibition situated it against the backdrop of an enduring concern with ‘climate change’ – as well as the challenge of finding ways to engage, sustainably, with our local contexts. However, and perhaps wisely (given the idiosyncrasies and apparent individuality of contemporary artists) we were also told that ‘the works on show do not seek to illustrate this subject’; instead we, the visitor, were invited, through the stimulus of whatever it was we would encounter, to ‘wrestle with these contexts and ideas, their contradictions or paradoxes.’ The onus was on us to make some sort of intellectual effort if we were fully to appreciate the distinct meanings of the show.
I am not at all sure that I would have been able to grasp the fact that this was an exhibition taking as its aim a collection of works of art that would surface pressing problems to do with the global and local issues intrinsic to climate-change and sustainability. I say that from the outset because my first impression was contingent upon the presentation of the work: overall, it had an immediate, obvious and alluring aesthetic appeal. It was almost spectacular. In short, it looked pleasing to the eye – and had about it the seductive bouquet redolent of a quiet hyper-reality; it conformed beautifully to the conventions of ‘advanced’ or ‘elite’ art and reflected the ‘dematerialisation’ of such art that has been so confidently and normatively established since the mid-1960s. However, if it was radical and focused on the intimacies of the local this was not immediately apparent: the exhibition was placed in an institutional context that is, at the very least, somewhat detached from the local; the gallery itself is, de facto, rather exclusionary: and Pierre Bourdieu was almost certainly correct when he contended that the ethos and preserve of contemporary art is mysteriously esoteric – and more than a little estranged from the hard-pressed practical concerns of ‘ordinary’ people; the spaces and places of advanced art – such as the gallery in which ‘Coming up for air’ found itself – remain charming but more or less mystifying.
Nevermind: I took the staging of the work in good faith and, after my initial perceptions, I began to engage with the questions that the various works raised. Some were amusing and ironic, some were redolent of a distant mythology, some were formal and so ‘unnatural’ as to make me wonder whether the artist was playing with the whole idea of his or her alienation from the way our cultural world is configured. But for me the work that surfaced, most effectively, the big ecological, environmental and existential questions of our day was a short film; it showed some of the things resulting from the detonation of nuclear bombs. On seeing the film I was once again struck by the fact that a strange kind of beauty finds itself attached to the actual flash of the explosion and the rising cloud of chemical dust. Here though, is a profound warning: the visual obscures the real. And so this film (rather like the famous film,‘Threads’) got to the heart of the matter – and related directly to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger and the subsequent paradigmatic work of the artist Joseph Beuys. Heidegger’s philosophy came to grapple with the problem of our ‘technical being’, its culmination in weapons of mass destruction and, thereby, the possibility that this enduring aspect of our being had the potential to destroy humanity itself. Beuy’s successfully re-framed the height, breadth and depth of art by expanding its identity, its reach and its transformative potentials.
Since the aim of the exhibition was to provoke a serious response to both global and local environmental and quality-of-life issues I thought it sensible to surface those aspects of Heidegger’s philosophy that, for me, were catalysed by the short black-and-white film and which confront us with the ‘deep’ ecological problems of our time. So, for Heidegger, anxiety, alienation and the problem of authenticity permeate our modern ‘being in the world’. He argued that we are part and parcel of the world of nature, or, put more generally, the cosmos. However, we have become alienated from this ‘interconnectedness’. He thought that the overall problem with modern culture is precisely that we have lost our cosmic roots and become detached from the whole. Increasingly, we have come, especially with and through the advance of science and an allied way of ‘thinking (a mind-set), to set ourselves in some sort of ‘apartness’ to ‘the world’: on the one hand, there is the ‘human’, and, on the other, everything else. This alienation is particularly apparent in modern culture – and one of the reasons it happens is that we have, compared with heretofore, built up a much more intricate technical society.
As the Heideggerian scholar William Barrett puts it: ‘We’re more encased in the sheer human [especially technical] framework of things compared with earlier times.’
Barrett goes on to say that:
‘The later Heidegger is centrally concerned with … the problem of technology. He feels that one of the tasks of philosophers in our period is to try to think through what technology involves. Modern thinking is too superficial, too inauthentic, with regard to the subject of technology … It makes no sense, Heidegger said, for humans at this particular juncture of history, to be for or against technology. We’re committed to technology. If you removed it the whole civilisation would collapse … On the other hand, there is the fact, which the atomic bomb has brought before human consciousness generally, that technology has drastic possibilities. Hitherto people protested against technology as a cause of local nuisance – unemployment, pollution and so on – but the notion that humanity could self-destruct showed us the fearful possibilities within the technical complex.’
And he continues:
‘ … Heidegger was concerned with thinking through to where, in the historical destiny of humanity, the roots of our technical being lie, and where it may be carrying [us]’; he felt that the dominant metaphor which could be used to describe our time was that of mining: everything was (and is) to be ‘set upon’ for that which it might yield. Underneath it all ‘we’ have found ourselves in the grip of obvious or less obvious forms of exploitation.
Plainly, then, Heidegger was worried: he was worried about where our ‘technical being’ was headed …
The philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, extends Barrett’s discussion and finds that, indeed, the roots of our technical being lie in ‘efficiency’ – which is tightly linked to the understanding of ourselves as ‘separate’; we are locked into a predominant mode of being that is wedded to ‘efficiency’ -and the examples are obvious: a more efficient way of threatening people with obliteration, (the atom bomb), of killing enemies (the machine gun), of controlling water (dams and water courses), a more efficient way of communicating (Facebook), ‘InDesign’ as a more efficient way of producing highly attractive publications, applied psychology as the means to developing ever more efficient way of disciplining people, the promise of ‘AI’ as a more efficient way of solving problems, and more and more ‘apps’ to make health and wealth and pleasure readily available etc. etc. To this we ought to add the idea of ‘effectiveness’: our technologies emerge from a seemingly endless push for efficiency and effectiveness; this lies at the very heart of that form of our human being that has progressively dislodged itself from nature and the cosmos. Efficiency links to the ‘will to power’ and the mastery of, in principle, everything: the beauty of nature, as Jackson Browne put it, has been ‘tortured into power’.
The black-and-white film of the nuclear explosion therefore pinpoints, in principle, the apotheosis of technical thinking; by extension, it reveals how the underlying quest for efficiency has brought us to where we are – at both global and local levels. And it was the late Joseph Beuys who grasped the devastating implications of technical thinking; in response, he launched a focus and practice of art as a therapeutic ‘reconnection’ – a form of ‘de-alienation’ from our disrupted and unsettled being-in-the-world. In1982, against the background of his environmental and political activism, he began what was a perhaps his most celebrated work – the planting of 7,000 oak trees around the city of Kassel in central Germany. Beuys hoped that his ‘7000 Eichen’ would serve as a conduit for re-connecting the citizens of the heavily bombed city with their natural environment. But perhaps more profoundly he wanted to offer them alternatives to the cultural and societal zeitgeist that had taken them into the lunatic and catastrophic war in the first place. As each tree was planted, it was paired with a pillar of basalt – a strategy designed to symbolise the destruction that had befallen the bombed city. Forty years later it appears to have worked: Stay close to the rhythms of nature; feel the earth in your hands, watch the mini-ecologies of the riverbank, listen to the music of the spheres …
Beuy’s pioneering work and his challenge to our ways of engaging with the world inevitably raises a question about the very staging of ‘Coming up for air’ in a well-lit rectangular gallery situated within a modern university for the creative arts: I cannot but ask of the show: Does the actual setting really connect with anything local, with anything close to home? Does the work – in its various and distinct forms – have much to do with local issues – except in an oblique and relatively abstract way? Worse, does the work essentially highlight the embeddedness of the artists in the advanced capitalist neo-liberal ethos of prizing sheer individuality – and does it serve to amplify their profiles in the highly mediated world of ‘look at me’ and of ‘Please, I do so want to be somebody?’ It inevitably raises questions about integrity and authenticity. It raises questions about what game is really being played.
In the face of these questions, I had to make an effort to ‘see’ the local but the effort was rewarded: it was discernible in representations of strange excavations or in a bizarre ironical dysfunctional mini wind turbine; it did ‘show up’ in many (conceivably all) of the separate works. It showed up in intricate patternings and moments of intimate delicacy. To the extent that there were some direct references to the ‘local’ – that is, to the actual town in which the exhibition took place – it reminded me of the town’s diminished sensitivity to any form of eco-consciousness and its failure to take proper care of its environment: Over time, the town (a place that the estate agents enthusiastically proclaim ‘has it all’) has manifestly suffered from ‘over-development’; it has degraded itself. The streets in the heart of the town are crammed with cars (often big fat cars) with the inevitable result that the air is suffused with noxious and toxic substances. ‘Coming up for air’, then, is pointedly ironical. But perhaps the most ironic and dismal part of this is the way the town has allowed a site of ‘strategic visual importance’ (an open field adjacent to and abutting the University for the Creative Arts itself) to become a housing estate. The estate is virtually without any architectural or aesthetic merit. Worse, there is little if any evidence that the design of the overall environment embodies the restorative sensibility that Joseph Beuys pioneered. I think this is perfectly emblematic of the problem intrinsic to capitalism that Rosa Luxembourg identified more than a century ago: it is founded on the need for continual growth – and the importunate necessity of more production and more consumption. Sadly, the trajectory of the town itself serves as a case study – a micro-study – highlighting the wider global problem of the neo-liberal (or even the state-controlled) models of political economy.
However, and notwithstanding, ‘Coming up for air’ may well highlight a crisis in contemporary art; It is this: Since we are in a world saturated with images – and since we have become so used to art-images as surprising, or interesting, or unexpected or original – that any message, anything really worth saying, is trumped by the ‘presentation’ and thereby effectively negated. I get the impression that we are more and more the children of Susan Sontag and oblivious to her serious reservations about the vast repository of pure image that we cannot but consume. In consequence, we systematically sleepwalk into a kind of de-sensitisation. And, on top of this, isn’t there something odd about an art institution that profiles and prides itself as the efficient provider and producer of large numbers of people who will come to service the ‘creative industries’ – and, thereby, promote the seductions of the object-fetish? If we take the issues of global and local sustainability seriously then surely a radical questioning of the basic ethos of art and the cultures of the art institution is absolutely essential. We have to ask: How well do they model the moral and ecological values that they espouse? What role do they actually play in the ruination or preservation of our ecosystems?
There is, though, a counter-argument to my concerns that the art on display is more a way of conforming to the norms and blandishments of ‘advanced’ art than of ‘really’ dealing seriously with the global and/or local concerns with sustainability. The argument has been well put by Iris Murdoch: writing as both a philosopher and a literary artist she stated, flatly and sententiously, that the artist has no ‘duty to society’. Instead, the artist has ‘a duty to art ‘- to ‘truth-telling in his or her chosen medium’. In other words, quietly or subtly, loudly or spectacularly, insouciantly or soberly, the artist has to find a way of communicating the truth as he or she sees it. And Murdoch adds: ‘If serious art is a primary aim then some sort of justice is a primary aim.’ It follows that the art of any lasting value is ultimately concerned with the good in opposition to evil, the worthwhile instead of the meretricious – and, enticingly, always enjoys and expresses some sort of erotic charge. Murdoch’s is a reassuring voice. For her, art ‘goes deeper’ than philosophy – and, provided the artist counters the seductions of narcissism and has a go at truth-telling and truth-revealing, then his or her art is destined to be a precious thing. ‘Coming up for air’ may be a moment for clear critical reflection or a polished masquerade in which the art ‘show’ is a performance which nicely conceals an ideology of self-interest.
I spent three weeks in Paris. I walked the city. The style, the elegance – it’s still there. During my time in the ‘city of light’ I visited the ‘Musee Carnavalet’ on two separate occasions. This particular museum is devoted to the history of Paris. Admission is free and the exhibits are often breathtaking. Quite why I find them so mesmerising I do not really know – but the reconstructions of the 18th century drawing rooms that were once enjoyed by the nobility and the cultural elite of the city are sublime.
I looked at window displays and sometimes I felt as if I were a child from a novel by Dickens or perhaps more appropriately, a spectre from the writings of Victor Hugo, a child looking at the things, all just out of reach, the things he can never have. I saw the most gorgeous confections and some of the most desirable objects imaginable. And then I saw a wonderful poster for a famous film. It reminded me of the birth of the ‘cool’ …