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London life

 

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42 again

Following my recent post on the meaning of life, I recalled Georges Perec’s great novel, Life: A User’s Manual, which I first encountered in a 1987 book review by Paul Auster in the New York Times, here.

If anyone can be called the central character in this shifting, kaleidoscopic work, it would have to be Percival Bartlebooth, an eccentric English millionaire whose insane and useless 50-year project serves as an emblem for the book as a whole. Realizing as a young man that his wealth has doomed him to a life of boredom, Bartlebooth undertakes to study the art of watercolor with Serge Valene for a period of 10 years. Although he has no aptitude whatsoever for painting, he eventually reaches a satisfactory level of competence. Then, in the company of a servant, he sets out on a 20-year voyage around the world with the sole intention of painting watercolors of 500 different harbors and seaports.

As soon as one of these pictures is finished, he sends it to a man in Paris by the name of Gaspard Winckler, who also lives in the building. Winckler is an expert puzzle-maker whom Bartlebooth has hired to turn the watercolors into 750-piece jigsaw puzzles. One by one, the puzzles are made and stored in wooden boxes. When Bartlebooth returns from his travels and settles back into his apartment, he will methodically go about putting the puzzles together in chronological order. By means of an elaborate chemical process, the borders of the puzzle pieces have been glued together in such a way that the seams are no longer visible, thus restoring the watercolor to its original integrity. The painting, good as new, can then be removed from its wooden backing and sent to the place where it was originally executed. There it will be dipped into a detergent solution that eliminates all traces of the painting, yielding a clean and unmarked sheet of paper.

In other words, Bartlebooth will be left with nothing, the same thing he started with.

The idea of wasting the second half of your life trying to make sense of all you did in the first half I have found to be increasingly insightful as I age.

FWIW, Auster’s 1987 review appears to have been plagiarized, without any acknowledgement, in this 1999 post.




RIP: IHT

This week the death was announced of The International Herald Tribune, and her replacement by the International Edition of The New York Times.   Born in Paris in 1887, the deceased reached maturity in 1967, when she became jointly and equally owned by The Washington Post and The New York Times.  From then to 2003 were her glory years, perhaps because neither newspaper parent was able to impose their own, provincial culture on the cosmopolitan IHT editorial team in Paris.   Here is Hendrik Hertzberg:

The first time I ever went anywhere outside the United States was in 1960. I was seventeen, I was by myself, and I was in Paris. At the earliest possible moment, I did four things. I sat down at a little table at an outdoor café. I ordered a glass of red wine. I lit a Gauloises. And I opened up my copy, freshly bought, of the Herald Tribune. Only then did I no longer feel like a tourist or a high-school kid. I was suddenly something better: an American in Paris.”

But no marketing manager can stomach a brand he does not control, so the NYT broke up the marriage with The Post in order to take full control of the IHT in 2003.  The IHT was never the same since.  Editorial control seemed to shift from Paris to Manhattan.   The content seemed suddenly to be centred on events in New York, instead of on the world itself.   New Yorkers don’t like to think of themselves as provincial, but they often are.  The arts section is now a mash-up of the NYT arts section, for instance.

And for all their prizes, the editors of the NYT seems to lack some basic newspaper management skills.  Why change the font?   Why, one has to ask, must the cartoon page shift its position in the paper from day to day, like some permanent floating crap game?     Now, in just a few days under its new name, the newspaper’s op-ed page has shifted elsewere in the paper.    It seems that the editors mis-understand the nature of a newspaper – indeed, THIS newspaper – in the life of its readers, if they think we don’t care about such matters.

Now, instead of a paper written for and by English-speaking readers around the world, it has become a paper written by journalists in New York City for readers from New York City.  The world’s loss, alas.




The Yogyakartan Candidate

An explanation of Bam’s aloof style and strategic cunning in terms of the idioms of traditional Javanese kingship, by Edward Fox in Aeon Magazine, here.   Fox could also have mentioned the first-term Cabinet of Rivals as another example of this idiom, absorbing one’s enemies.

An excerpt:

The Javanese have a word for this kind of bearing. They call it halus. The nearest literal equivalent in English might be ‘chivalrous’, which means not just finely mannered, but implies a complete code of noble behaviour and conduct. The American anthropologist Clifford Geertz, who wrote some of the most important studies of Javanese culture in English, defined halus in The Religion of Java (1976) as:

“Formality of bearing, restraint of expression, and bodily self-discipline … spontaneity or naturalness of gesture or speech is fitting only for those ‘not yet Javanese’ — ie, the mad, the simple-minded, and children.”

Even now, four decades after leaving Java, Obama exemplifies halus behaviour par excellence.

Halus is also the key characteristic of Javanese kingship, a tradition still followed by rulers of the modern state of Indonesia. During my period of study in Indonesia, I discovered that halus is the fundamental outward sign or proof of a ruler’s legitimacy. The tradition is described in ancient Javanese literature and in studies by modern anthropologists. The spirit of the halus ruler must burn with a constant flame, that is without (any outward) turbulence. In his classic essay, ‘The Idea of Power in Javanese Culture’ (1990), the Indonesian scholar Benedict Anderson describes the ruler’s halus as:

“The quality of not being disturbed, spotted, uneven, or discoloured. Smoothness of spirit means self-control, smoothness of appearance means beauty and elegance, smoothness of behaviour means politeness and sensitivity. Conversely, the antithetical quality of being kasar means lack of control, irregularity, imbalance, disharmony, ugliness, coarseness, and impurity.”

One can see the clear distinction between Obama’s ostensibly aloof style of political negotiation in contrast to the aggressive, backslapping, physically overbearing political style of a president such as Lyndon Johnson.

Traditionally, the Javanese ruler triumphs over his adversary without even appearing to exert himself. His adversary must have been defeated already, as a consequence of the ruler’s total command over natural and human forces. This is a common theme in traditional Javanese drama, where the halus hero effortlessly triumphs over his kasar (literally, unrefined or uncivilised) enemy. ‘In the traditional battle scenes,’ Anderson notes:

“The contrast between the two becomes strikingly apparent in the slow, smooth, impassive and elegant movements of the satria [hero], who scarcely stirs from his place, and the acrobatic leaps, somersaults, shrieks, taunts, lunges, and rapid sallies of his demonic opponent. The clash is especially well-symbolised at the moment when the satria [hero] stands perfectly still, eyes downcast, apparently defenceless, while his demonic adversary repeatedly strikes at him with dagger, club, or sword — but to no avail. The concentrated power of the satria [hero] makes him invulnerable.”

Even to seem to exert himself is vulgar, yet he wins. This style of confrontation echoes that first famous live TV debate in the election of 2012 between Obama and Romney, in which Obama seemed passive, with eyes downcast, apparently defenceless (some alleged ‘broken’) in the face of his enemy, only to triumph in later debates and in the election itself.

Like a Javanese king, Obama has never taken on a political fight that he has not, arguably, already won

But such a disposition is not just external posturing. Halus in a Javanese ruler is the outward sign of a visible inner harmony which gathers and concentrates power in him personally. In the West, we might call this charisma. Crucially, in the Javanese idea of kingship, the ruler does not conquer opposing political forces, but absorbs them all under himself. In the words of Anderson again, the Javanese ruler has ‘the ability to contain opposites and to absorb his adversaries’. The goal is a unity of power that spreads throughout the kingdom. To allow a multiplicity of contending forces in the kingdom is a sign of weakness. Power is achieved through spiritual discipline — yoga-like and ascetic practices. The ruler seeks nothing for himself; if he acquires wealth, it is a by-product of power. To actively seek wealth is a spiritual weakness, as is selfishness or any other personal motive other than the good of the kingdom.”

 




One day in the life . . .

Khan-Tengri Mountain at sunset

. . . of Boris N. Delone (1890-1980), Russian mathematician, moutaineer, and polymath, member of a famous family of mathematicians and physicists, whose grandson was a dissident poet:

July 6, 1975, Delone spends a cold night (-25 degrees C) in a tent on a glacier under the beautiful peak of Khan Tengri (7000 m, the Tien Shan mountain system, Central Asia) [pictured, at sunset] at a height of about 4200 m.  In the morning a helicopter picks him up to take him to Przhevalsk (now Karakol), a Kyrgyz city at the eastern tip of Lake Issyk-Kul.  From Przhevalsk he takes a local flight  to Frunze (now Bishkek), the capital of Kyrgyzstan, where the heat exceeds 40 degrees C.   After queuing up for a few hours and with the help of some “kind people” and the Academy of Sciences membership card he succeeds in purchasing an air ticket to Moscow.   Late at night he arrives at Domodedovo airport in Moscow, from which he still needs to go to his country house near Abramtsevo (Moscow oblast).   Taking the last commuter train, he arrives at the necessary station at around 2 am; from there it is another three kilometers to his house, half of which are in a dark dense forest.  He loses his way and, after roaming around the night forest for a long time, leaves his heavy rucksack in a familiar secluded place.  Only in the morning does Delone succeed in getting home safely.”  (page 13).

In that year, 1975, Boris Delone was 85 years old.

Delone-Boris-Nikolaevich

Reference:

N. P. Dolbilin [2011]: Boris Nikolaevich Delone (Delaunay): Life and Work. Proceedings of the Steklov Institute of Mathematics, 275: 1-14.  Published in Russian in Trudy Matematicheskogo Instituta imeni V. A. Steklov, 2011, 275:  7-21.  A pre-print version of the paper is here.

 




Shadows

Writer Pico Iyer tells of his life being shadowed by – followed and pre-figured by the spirit of – Graham Greene, here. I’m no fan of Greene’s writing, but the shadowing I can appreciate. Many writers have spoken of similar shadowing and even possession – William Burroughs, Patricia Highsmith, Hilary Mantel, for instance. Highsmith’s Ripley, she came to feel, was a real spiritual presence, existent outside her books and her imagination.




Flugtag for Denglisch

Our English language correspondent writes:

Apparently, the continuing growth of Denglisch has caused concern in Germany. Angst over Denglisch? Surely the zeitgeist favours schadenfreude, even in festschrifts. A common personal Gotterdammerung happens when, succumbing to wanderlust, a guy finds himself in a bauhaus bierkeller, nursing a weissbier – and also a friendly fraulein, who first says “Halt!“, but then whispers, “Vorsprung durch Technik, honeybunch“. Result: no more sturm und drang, but lots of eine kleine nachtmusik!




Underground Languages

Conversations overheard on the London Underground in:

Afrikaans, Amharic, Arabic, Cantonese, Catalan, Czech, Dutch, English*, Farsi, Finnish, French, German, Gujarati, Hausa, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Norwegian, Polish, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Swahili, Swedish, Tagalog, Thai, Urdu, isiZulu.

* Overheard regional variants of English from:  Australia, Britain (Brummie, Estuary, Geordie, Glasgow-Scottish, Mancunian, Edinburgh-Scottish, RP, Sarf Lonon, Scouse, Ulster, West Country), Canada, Eire, New Zealand, South Africa, USA (Barst’n, Bronx, Brooklyn, ‘Gisland, Midwest, Northeastern, Southern).




My heart remains in Orchard Street

Just recalled this sad break-up letter from John Vorwald to the Lower East Side, published two years ago.

Dear Lower East Side,

I don’t know how to say this.

It’s over.

For years I defended you.  I stood by you — faithful to a fault. When people said you were dirty or unkempt, I called it character. When they said you were running with a shady crowd and staying out too late, I said it was a phase. And when they shook their heads and said you’d sold out, I’d say you’d come back around.

But I was wrong.

Recently, on the corner of Rivington and Ludlow (the once-proud site of the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique” album cover), a photo shoot was taking place. Two rugged men — shaved heads, chiseled jaws, cultivated stubble — were decked out in full prep-school regalia. Tweed plaid pants, sweater vest, looming crest. Pose, flash, pose. A bearded photographer angled for an incongruous blend of uptown couture and downtown street grit. Princeton ghettoway. Slytherin in the City. Call it what you like.

At that moment, I knew two things were true: Somewhere, someplace, Lou Reed was crying. And you and I were finished.

Sure, we’ve had our good times; you’ve been there for me. When I was coming off a breakup with a sleepier borough, you gave me your stripped-wire energy. I loved your pulse — the crackle and hum that only downtown Manhattan could provide (shut up, Fort Greene). Who needed pretty brownstones and an inferiority complex? I had your tenement castles. Forget backyard gardens; I had your grid of fire escapes, my own urban picket fence.

I’ll always remember our early days. I wasn’t exactly promiscuous, but I’d been around — Greenpoint, SoHo, East Village, Boerum Hill. You reminded me of a gracefully aging rocker, grizzled and sage. I admit it, I liked the cougar in you.

By the early 2000s your renaissance was well under way, but it was your past lives that spoke to guys like me. A simple walk along Orchard Street conjured nickel-and-dime vaudeville, turn-of-the-century Jewish grandparents, ’70s punk, bargain leather and the odor of garbage and sour beer. Richard Price once described you as a modern-day Byzantium. You were more like my very own Alexandria, richer for your rag-and-bone ruins. So, I nestled into a fourth-floor perch over Ludlow and listened to the street pop like a 45 track, like so many broken bottles.

It was perfect. For a while.

True, I’m no Reagan-era squatter. My forebears did not immigrate to your streets. But I know a thing or three about you now. Only a few years ago, you’d reserve your special mayhem for the weekends. Amateur nights in your arms — a beautiful mess. All trussed up like a ’50s-era pinup model, you were the Queen Bee welcoming one and all with a knowing wink. We were still O.K. then, you and I. I knew that the workweek was our time, when I could still catch glimpses of the real you: the Chinese ladies returning from the Essex Street Market, the local kids playing ball at Roosevelt Park, the tattooed cartoonist stationed in the window across the courtyard. Even the din of bands rehearsing in errant basements along Ludlow.

Then they came — your new friends.

You gussied yourself up with shiny new hardware: Thor, Fat Baby, Spitzer’s. Hordes of banker boys in J. Press checked shirt/chino uniforms and manicured necklines swarmed to you faster than to the promise of a government bailout. They enjoyed sausage-party dinners at Schiller’s (“It’s like Pastis, but edgy!”), used winter as a verb and eyed sun-speckled Germans and Australians “on holiday.”

Toothsome Upper East Side girl packs (never fewer than four) tarted up in too-new Lilly Pulitzer dresses and slurped down sugar-free Red Bull and Grey Gooses at the Stanton Social. Hipster millennials, rocking extra-skinny jeans, oversize Elton John glasses and cocked-back fedoras, turned Pianos and Welcome to the Johnsons into their own private Thompson Twins video. Hold me now. Hold my heart.

At first you shrugged, as if to say, “Can I help it if I’m so popular?” The truth is, you liked the attention. And who could blame you? Wasn’t it better than the heady days of strung-out junkies on every corner? So, I tried looking in the other direction. I took whole weekends away. I’d leave you to your affairs — the girls and the boys.

I told myself that you’d get it out of your system, that you’d grow out of it. I visited neighbors — precious NoLIta, wizened East Vil — but I kept coming back to you, forgiving your indiscretions. Then, one day, I realized we had both changed. Truth is, you like the new you, this Guitar Hero version of yourself: the mallternative bands, the squeaky-clean beer halls, the rooftop parties at glass hotels. And me? Well, I could say that the ironic T-shirts have lost some of their charm (they have), or that I am not like them (I’m not). But, really, isn’t the awful truth that yours is a love only for the very young and carefree? And I am decidedly neither.

So, as the new year dawns, I must vow to leave you, dear L.E.S.

Not sure yet where I’ll end up. I should let you know that I’ve been seeing someone, someone a little less flashy, someone who isn’t trying nearly so hard, and — it must be said — someone who actually enjoys the company of an older man. No, it doesn’t matter who. What matters is that we’ve come to the end, my lovely Loisaida. I know I’ll miss you, and the spell you once cast over me. But as an old flame of yours named Lou Reed once said, “There’s a bit of magic in everything, and then some loss to even things out.”

Regretfully,

 

John Vorwald

The photo shows The Lower East Side Tenement Museum, Orchard Street, New York (photo credit: Sheila Scarborough).




Romani ite domum!

Rory Stewart, with his personal experience of foreign military adventures, writes an insightful post about the Roman occupation of Britain, after visiting Hadrian’s Wall:

But for me the walk along the wall was an unsettling revelation. It is easy in Cumbria to feel a connection to our Norse and Anglo-Saxon past: we can worship in a Saxon church in Morland; my cottage follows a Viking floor-plan; our dialect can be understood by a Dane; Norse words like fell and beck are part of our modern vocabulary; and there is, I imagine, Scandinavian blood in all of us. But, the wall is the most dramatic reminder of our Celtic-roman history. And it suggests things far more alien, extravagant and brutal than I had ever imagined.

I have heard historians describe the wall – as ‘a permeable trading post’ – and emphasize how much melding there was between the British and Roman populations. But at Wallsend, the excavations have revealed a line of fortification, hundreds of yards wide – a ten foot turf wall, followed by a twelve foot ditch, followed by a berm set with spikes and thorns, then a fifteen foot stone wall, then another ten foot mound, another fifteen foot vallum ditch and a ten foot mound. These fortifications run almost unbroken for eighty miles and they do not suggest to me gentle inter-cultural communication.

I once lived in a fortified camp in Al Amara in provincial Iraq, with five hundred British soldiers, surrounded by a line of giant sand-bags. The nearest neighbouring camp was in Basra, sixty miles away. But in the Roman wall, there was a manned tower every three hundred yards, a castle every mile, a fort – with a garrison the size of ours in Al Amara – every seven miles, and an additional line of large forts, two miles South (as at Vindolanda and Corbridge), and other smaller outposts, just North (as at Bewcastle). These were auxiliary positions. There were also three full legions in Britain – more than in any other comparable province of the Roman Empire. And the Romans held these positions not like us in Amara, for three years, but for three hundred years.

There are some British details but overwhelmingly the inscriptions, the clothes, the buildings, even the shoes, found along the wall, are relentlessly Roman. In the North-West, the British continued to live a life in round-houses, similar to those that existed long before the Roman arrival. A Libyan could become an Emperor but very few ethnic Britons were given jobs in the Roman Empire. Even the auxiliaries may not have been as integrated into British life as we imagine. The Syrian archers beyond Housesteads worshipped a Syrian God; the Batavians in Vindolanda were like Gurkhas – a separate ethnic military elite – and they have left notes, referring contemptuously to the ‘britunculli’ – the pathetic little Britons.

Why did Rome maintain this cripplingly expensive occupation? The smaller walls on the German, Saharan and Iraqi frontiers protected Rome from millions of people in Africa, Europe and Asia. But in this case, there was only a sparsely populated Scotland beyond. Britain never posed a serious threat to the Roman empire; and it never brought in enough revenue to justify the expense of holding it. 

. . .

If Britain had really had the comfortable relationship with Rome which some imagine, more would have survived (as it did in France for example).  But when the legions left in 410 AD, almost four hundred years of Roman civilization collapsed overnight. Within a decade, from Cumbria to Kent, there was no coinage, the potteries and aqueducts had stopped, the villas had been abandoned, writing had largely been forgotten. And for us no trace remained except for some ditches to inconvenience the plough, and this great symbol of the brutality, the stubbornness and pride of Empire, reduced to a stone quarry, eighty miles long, which could be robbed, for fifteen hundred years, for house, and barn, and dry-stone wall.”