"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Doing Good and Living Well–Indian Music


In the Spring of 1966 I first heard Indian music – Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akhbar Khan – and was never the same.  It was passionate, evocative, sensuous, profound and climactic.   Where had I been?  Why had I not heard this music before?  How could such a powerful, intricate, complex, and challenging music have been hidden?

Indian music was not the reason I decided to go to India – that had been decided for me by the organization that sent me (and in fact until the last minute I was to go to Algeria because of my fluent French.  I couldn’t believe my good fortune when I discovered that India was the perfect place for me at the time – demanding, exciting, kaleidoscopic, and brilliant – and learned that three months after deployment to Algeria, all Americans were declared persona non grata and given 48 hours to leave the country. 

One of the first things I did, however, after getting installed in my rooftop flat on Peddar Road in Bombay, 15 floors up with a commanding view of the city, the Towers of Silence, the Gateway of India and the ghats climbing to Poona and beyond, was to engage a sitar teacher.  I had no previous musical experience, and I figured that at the very least I would be able to listen to this magical music.  It turned out that I had a very good ear, and before I could play note, I enjoyed tuning the instrument, strumming the principal strings and hearing the sympathetic vibrations of the thin strings beneath.  My guru (as I called him) bought me a Calcutta-made sitar, a finely polished, elegantly simple instrument that I kept in a specially-made covering. 

I didn’t stay in Bombay long enough to get into the music, for I was transferred to Delhi; but there I engaged a friend of my Bombay teacher – they both had been pupils of Ravi Shankar – and for three years studied with him.  I never learned well.  As I said, I have little musical ability other than a good ear, and although I managed creditably on the first, slow, contemplative movement, the alaap, I had difficulty with the syncopated rhythms of the second, the jhaala, and was totally befuddled by the complex 8, 10, 12, 14, or 16 beat rhythmic cycles.  I told my guru that I would be quite happy if I left India with a decent understanding of the alaap movements of a few ragas.  At least then I would know the note scales and the tonal feeling of the music.  Each raga of course is different, major and minor keys, differing note scales, some played in the morning, others in the evening, and getting the feel of the raga and developing my own feel in the improvisational first movement would be a major accomplishment.

My Delhi guru bought me a new sitar, this time a gussied up, fancy hand-carved one again from Calcutta – the Cadillac of sitars, he said, and he was right – it was the chrome and fins version of Indian instruments.  However, it had an even more rounded, resonating sound, and it was magnificent.

My teacher and I had a true guru-chela relationship.  Basically in return from learning from the great man, I would be his slave.  I bought him whiskey, new synthetic Terylene pastel-colored kurtas with silver buttons.  I drove him wherever he wanted, whenever he wanted, with whomever he chose.  I picked him up and a cluster of totally bagged up women from his house in the Muslim quarter of Old Delhi, saw a charming group of attractive young women emerge from the bags 100 yards out of the colony, and drove them all to musical events where my guru played.  It was wonderful, and the exchange was in my favor.

The best times were when I went with him alone, a sarod player and a tabla player for jugalbandi – two principal instruments playing together, or playing off each other in solo riffs, close fretting, tight, competitive rhythmic patterns….all until 3 or 4 in the morning.  Ragas never seemed to have a specific starting or ending point.  Tuning gradually and progressively turned into the first notes of the alaap, and the raga was over when it was over.  No rules.

My guru spoke very little English which helped out my Hindustani a lot; so by the end of my four years in India and three with him, my Hindi was far, far better than my music.  I also got to be a part of the Muslim community in Delhi, a very rare thing for foreigners, most of whom fit the stereotype of living within vast houses one no different from the next.  I somehow knew that this avenue of music would lead me farther into India than most.

About two months prior to leaving India in 1973, I was invited to a South Indian classical music concert in Delhi; and I had the same reaction as I did to my first raga in 1966.  Where have I been?  Where has this music been?  It was so different from North Indian music – different instruments, the veena, flute, mridungam, kanjira, Jew’s harp, various other percussion instruments, and a swaying, pulsing rhythm that had a completely different feel.  It was again, a magical moment.  I listened to nothing else during my remaining time in India, searching out South Indian concerts wherever I could.  My guru was not of much help, of course, but I was successful nonetheless.  I made a number of unnecessary field trips to the South just to hear the music.

And just before leaving, I had my final musical epiphany – ghazals – Indian semi-classical vocals.  We were invited via friends to a mehfil, a musical gathering at someone’s home, in this case a very wealthy Indian patron of the arts.  She had a protegee, a young girl from Bombay just beginning her musical career.  When she started to sing, it was angelic – as pure and beautiful a voice as I and the others had ever heard.  It was graceful and lilting, moving from high notes to lower ones with perfect ease and phrasing.  She sang two songs and stopped.  “More, more…Please!”, we urged; but that was all she knew, she was just beginning, and Mrs. Naag simply wanted us to hear the sweet voice of this girl she had found.

I had never paid any attention to Indian popular music.  It blared out from every tea stall and bus station; in every restaurant, from loudspeakers at all markets.  The female voices were always in falsetto and the vocals simply became part of the noisy street scene of India; but when I heard what real vocals were supposed to be, I was once again transformed.  I listened to nothing but ghazals, and over the years after India bought them in India and especially Bangladesh.

I spent only four years in India, but they were probably the most important or influential of my life.  India is still with me, very much alive, especially when I hear the music, or smell incense, or Indian cooking.  There is too much too tell because there was so much to see, hear, smell, and feel.  I had thought that I was through writing about India and my travels, but when I realized that I had not yet written about music, I knew that I simply had been tapping the wrong seam in the mine of my memory.

Tennessee Williams and Chekhov


Tennessee Williams revered Chekhov, especially The Seagull, and wrote his own version of the play called The Notebook of Trigorin

Before reading this review from The Independent (London) 2008, I re-read The Seagull, and drew my own conclusions about why TW liked the play so much. 

Here, then, is a London review (in italics) of a relatively recent production with my comments annotated:

The two main female characters of The Seagull also had much in common with Williams's archetypal woman and girl. Arkadina is similar to his domineering mother, Edwina, full of deluded grandeur, and Nina, whom Constantin loves and whom Trigorin seduces, recalls Williams's fragile sister, Rose, who inspired Laura in The Glass Menagerie and Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire….

I don’t agree with the reviewer here.  Arkadia may be like his mother, Edwina, and the closest dramatic representation of her is Amanda in Glass Menagerie.  However Amanda and Arkadia are very different.  Arkadia is if anything more like the Princess Del Lago of Sweet Bird of Youth, an aging actress looking for continuing recognition and acclaim and perhaps even love or some kind of mothering affection that she feels for Chance near the end of the play when she realizes, in a mini-epiphany, that she can care for someone other than herself.

Arkadia in a way is reminiscent of Mrs. Venable of Suddenly Last Summer, who has this incestuous love for her son, Sebastian; but it is Constantin in The Seagull, who has the stronger feelings and attachment to his mother than the other way around. Nevertheless she says to her son:

My dear, my reckless boy….you’re mine, mine.  This forehead’s mine, these eyes are mine, this lovely silky hair’s mine too.  You’re mine, all of you….I’m the only one who appreciates you, I’m the only one who tells you the truth, my wonderful darling….You won’t desert me, will you?

So, Arkadia is certainly responsible for encouraging the clinging relationship of her son to her, but she does not exhibit an “unhealthy” love in any other way.  She certainly does not travel around Europe with him, dominating and monopolizing his time like Mrs. Venable with Sebastian.

Nina is somewhat reminiscent of Laura in Glass or Alma in Eccentricities of a Nightingale in that all three women love or at least have a fantasy love for an elusive man; but Nina is stronger – she deliberately leaves her small town and follows Trigorin to Moscow.  She eventually returns after an unhappy relationship, but comes home as a refuge, probably temporary, rather than the the total emotional and psychological retreat of Laura or the promiscuous fugue of Alma.

I see nothing of Blanche in Nina; and Trigorin did not seduce Nina.  She left because she was unhappy with the tame pursuits of Treplev and feeling constrained as an actress with the provincial character of the town.  She returns unhappy and “tired”, but she is not the defeated, totally disillusioned person as Laura or Blanche.

Williams's resentment of the overbearing woman who demands love but doesn't give it emerges in an Arkadina who, rather than sumptuously self-absorbed, is blatantly exhibitionistic and cruel. When, in this version, Constantin presents his play on a makeshift outdoor stage, Arkadina actually climbs onto it and, declaring that it is dangerous, tries to stop the "worthless" play. Later, while denying her son and brother the money they need to live with dignity ("my son is handsome enough to be attractive in rags"), she prattles about her Paris hat, a necessity for "an actress in my position," and says she would rather appear naked than in costumes that displease her...

Once again, this seems off the mark.  Williams never in his memoirs or other confessions, ever held the resentments of his mother suggested here.  Yes, she was as conservative and demanding of him as the pastor fathers in his plays, but she was not the overbearing woman who dominated his life.  Amanda, Laura’s mother, was the same way, and she certainly reflected the character of Edwina – she wanted, through her conservative views, to protect her daughter.

Arkadia is simply not the overbearing character described in this review.  She is eccentric, but far more self-serving and egotistical (as The Princess Del Lago) than overbearing or domineering.  

While the relationship between Arkadia and her son, Treplev, is reminiscent of TW and perhaps the most characteristic of all, as I mention above, it is more the problem of Treplev than his mother – she is not out to destroy, denigrate purposefully, than she is trumpeting her own successes or validating her own greatness.

This new, fiercer Arkadina is matched by a Trigorin who bites back. When Arkadina claims that she meant to help Constantin by being truthful, Trigorin retorts, "Since when could you take truth?" He tells everyone that the bottle on her dressing table, labelled "elixir," is actually hair dye. Trigorin's sex life is also more complicated. When Arkadina fears that he will leave her, she tells him that she has come across a love-letter and a sexy photo from a "a long-haired youth," but that his secrets "will remain my secrets... until the day you betray me."

The implications that Trigorin is bi-sexual suggested here may be reaching a bit far; for it is clear that he has strong heterosexual feelings both for Arkadia and especially Nina.  Arkadia is simply playing whatever card she can to keep Trigorin.  She is not Blanche or Maggie who betrayed homosexual lovers and destroyed them.

Crocker [Director]is less interested in that aspect than in what he feels is a legitimate addition to Trigorin's personality: "In The Seagull Trigorin is weak and submissive, he doesn't himself understand why he stays with Arkadina. Here he has a more highly developed feminine side, he's bisexual, and she is given a hold on him."

Don’t agree at all.

Besides the sex and verbal violence, there's an elegiac, even despairing tone to much of the writing. The lake takes on a greater symbolic weight of death and mystery: "What the lake tells us is what God tells us – we just don't know his language." The most extraordinary change is the ending, which not only goes beyond the point at which Chekhov stopped The Seagull, but alters the nature of its reality, suddenly dissolving the separation between actors and audience.

"It's one of the things that most excited me about the play," says Crocker. "It goes into an entirely different dimension." It is a moment in this story of people who love and destroy one another which sums up what Williams described as his "longing... to bring [Chekhov] more closely, more audibly to you", when we can almost see him reaching out his hand.

There is a great difference between the writing of Chekhov and Williams.  Many critics have noted that Chekhov has a flat, prosaic style, which engages the reader/audience progressively, but has none of the theatrical (some say melodramatic) turns of Williams.  I prefer Williams, perhaps because he is closer to my culture and times, but more so because there is more connection between his characters as I have suggested above, more explicit emotional reasoning.  It is not at all clear to me why Treplev should have committed suicide.  There was nothing compelling about his frustrations with his writing (he apparently was not as good writer, not as good as Trigorin at least, and knew it, and should have accepted it); nor his pursuit of Nina – if there are any dubious sexual relationships in the play, the Nina-Treplev one is the one most notable.  Trigorin is no real mystery – full of himself at the beginning, and presumably at the end (we lose sight of him).  I have discussed Arkadia at length above, and find her less interesting than any of Williams’ women.  Doctor Dorn might be a Val who is the sexually attractive male, but nothing is made of it.

The other love relationships appear more like a Shakespearean comedy without the wit and pith.  Yes, as one character comments, everyone is struggling with love – Arkadia for Trigorin, Masha for Treplev, Nina for Treplev and Trigorin, Polina for Dorn – but nothing ever really happens.

There is more to the Williams-Chekhov literary relationship – symbolism, staging, etc; but I will write more about their thematic similarities in a later blog.



As many of you know, my love of oysters has no bounds.  I am magnetically drawn to them, pulled towards them at any time of day or night as I pass restaurants that serve them.  If they are piled high in a storefront window, like a few in Georgetown, it takes an effort not to stop. 

One of my favorite pastimes in Paris (or any other city, for that matter) was to stop in every fish market.  I wanted to open the oysters right then and there and suck them down – the briny, succulent Fines de Claires, the meaty Belons, the Praires.  My fantasies wouldn’t stop there.  I wanted all shellfish – the wonderful phylogeny of shrimp - ecrevisses, crevettes, langoustine, langoustes, homards – each bigger than the previous, fresh, delicious.  Or the hundreds of types of fish, all attractively laid out; and the octopus, squid, clams, mussels, sea urchins.  When I went into the many brasseries of Paris, I always ogled the seafood platters ordered by large groups of diners – all the above-mentioned seafood piled high on a bed of ice garnished with seaweed. Yummy.

Chinatown markets have fewer shellfish, but they are wonderful, and seem to have more tanks with fresh fish in them.  There are many in the Richmond area of SF and in downtown Chinatown.  The smell is funkier, the fish are grosser looking, but I can’t resist, and head for the nearest restaurant to eat them.

Which leads me to ribs.  I am spending the summer in Mississippi, participating in the Tennessee Williams Centennial festival in Columbus, and loving every minute; and I eat ribs almost every night.  To me, they are the oysters of the South – such variety of taste, texture, consistency.  I have travelled 50 miles to get the ribs at the Central Service Station Restaurant in Eupora, a converted gas station that serves delicious ribs.  I have eaten them at the Pit and Cone, and especially at Hanks, my favorite.  His ribs are smoked just right, the meat falls off the bone (you can eat them with a fork, favored by this New Englander), there is relatively little fat (relative is the term for fat in the South), they are tender, succulent, and absolutely perfect.

The ribs at Pit and Cone are tighter, more heavily smoked, almost like ham, and delicious, a totally different taste than the others.  I don’t mind working at them a bit to gnaw off the meat, it’s well worth it.

Because the ribs are so delicious, I have rarely moved off that mark, but tonight I want to try the brisket.  I am looking forward to it – the beef is smoked until tender, then pulled (apparently pulling is far better than slicing because it keeps the moisture).  I have tried he smoked turkey, and it was delicious, but turkey having relatively little fat, it was a bit dry. 

I still have the pulled pork BBQ which I know is different from state to state.  I first had it in North Carolina, and it was tangy and vinegary.  I had it in East Tennessee, probably the best I have had because it was the juiciest, most smoky and tender.  Love it.

After every rib meal, I keep thinking that I really shouldn’t eat this stuff every night, and I think up all kinds of rationalizations for the fat – I won’t be down here forever, I eat no breakfast and a tomato salad only for lunch; well, there’s really not that much fat on Hank’s ribs…but the real reason is the blinking neon sign in front of Hanks:



Monday, August 29, 2011

Othello–Who was Responsible?


I have been re-reading A.C. Bradley’s book Shakespearean Tragedy (1904) and his lectures on Othello:


Bradley agrees most of us that Iago was a cunning, highly intelligent, perceptive, and "evil" character; but that the character of Othello was such that once the idea was planted, it took quick and easy hold.  In other words, it was at least both the conniving of Iago and the character of Othello that caused the downfall; and perhaps of the two it was perhaps the latter that was more important. Bradley does admit, however, that it took cunning to perceive the cracks in Othello's character ("one not easily jealous, but, being wrought, Perplexed in the extreme", ), and the power of the play is the progressive and inevitable destruction of Othello only made possible by Iago. 

He also suggests that Desdemona, as reticent, obedient, innocently trusting, and weak as any of Shakespeare's women was as important in Othello's downfall.  She didn't see the tragedy coming, loved and trusted even more simply and purely than Othello.

Desdemona is helplessly passive. She can do nothing whatever. She cannot retaliate even in speech; no, not even in silent feeling. And the chief reason of her helplessness only makes the sight of her suffering more exquisitely painful. She is helpless because her nature is infinitely sweet and her love absolute. I would not challenge Mr. Swinburne's statement that we pity Othello even more than Desdemona; but we watch Desdemona with more unmitigated distress. We are never wholly uninfluenced by the feeling that Othello is a man contending with another man; but Desdemona's suffering is like that of the most loving of dumb creatures tortured without cause by the being he adores.

Bradley makes a particular point of talking of fortune, which plays an important role in the success of Iago's plot.  Had any one thing (and Bradley quotes many chance happenings - i.e. had Othello not come in at just the moment when Cassio and Desdemona were in "intimate conversation", etc.) not happened (or happened) the plot would have been derailed, suggesting that the tragedy was less in the plotting than in the character. 

Again and again a chance word from Desdemona, a chance meeting of Othello and Cassio, a question which starts to our lips and which anyone but Othello would have asked, would have destroyed Iago's plot and ended his life. In their stead, Desdemona drops her handkerchief at the moment most favourable to him, Cassio blunders into the presence of Othello only to find him in a swoon, Bianca arrives precisely when she is wanted to complete Othello's deception and incense his anger into fury. All this and much more seems to us quite natural, so potent is the art of the dramatist; but it confounds us with a feeling, such as we experience in the Oedipus Tyrannus, that for these star-crossed mortals — both [Greek characters] — there is no escape from fate, and even with a feeling, absent from that play, that fate has taken sides with villainy

Bradley suggests:

1. Othello, although the complete soldier/statesman we talked about, was also a poet and a romantic; and thus his love for Desdemona, coming at a later stage in his life was perhaps overly-romantic, leading to illusion or lack of the usual acuity he had on the battlefield.  This is an interesting take, for I had assumed that because Othello was the consummate soldier/statesman, he should have known better.

2. "His tragedy lies in this — that his whole nature was indisposed to jealousy, and yet was such that he was unusually open to deception, and, if once wrought to passion, likely to act with little reflection, with no delay, and in the most decisive manner conceivable."

3. "He comes to have his life crowned with the final glory of love, a love as strange, adventurous and romantic as any passage of his eventful history, filling his heart with tenderness and his imagination with ecstasy. For there is no love, not that of Romeo in his youth, more steeped in imagination than Othello's."  And it is this imagination - this perhaps over-idealized love - which leaves him open to deception and jealousy.

4. "The sources of danger in this character are revealed but too clearly by the story. In the first place, Othello's mind, for all its poetry, is very simple. He is not observant. His nature tends outward. He is quite free from introspection, and is not given to reflection. Emotion excites his imagination, but it confuses and dulls his intellect. On this side he is the very opposite of Hamlet, with whom, however, he shares a great openness and trustfulness of nature. In addition, he has little experience of the corrupt products of civilised life, and is ignorant of European women."

5. "...For all his dignity and massive calm (and he has greater dignity than any other of Shakespeare's men), he is by nature full of the most vehement passion."

6. "Othello's nature is all of one piece. His trust, where he trusts, is absolute. Hesitation is almost impossible to him. He is extremely self-reliant, and decides and acts instantaneously. If stirred to indignation, as "in Aleppo once," he answers with one lightning stroke. Love, if he loves, must be to him the heaven where either he must live or bear no life. If such a passion as jealousy seizes him, it will swell into a well-nigh incontrollable flood. He will press for immediate conviction or immediate relief. Convinced, he will act with the authority of a judge and the swiftness of a man in mortal pain. Undeceived, he will do like execution on himself. "

7. "Iago does not bring these warnings to a husband who had lived with a wife for months and years and knew her like his sister or his bosom-friend. Nor is there any ground in Othello's character for supposing that, if he had been such a man, he would have felt and acted as he does in the play. But he was newly married; in the circumstances he cannot have known much of Desdemona before his marriage; and further he was conscious of being under the spell of a feeling which can give glory to the truth but can also give it to a dream. "

Now, with all this having been said, Bradley of course acknowledges the perverse genius of Iago:

Othello, we have seen, was trustful, and thorough in his trust. He put entire confidence in the honesty of Iago, who had not only been his companion in arms, but, as he believed, had just proved his faithfulness in the matter of the marriage. This confidence was misplaced, and we happen to know it; but it was no sign of stupidity in Othello. For his opinion of Iago was the opinion of practically everyone who knew him: and that opinion was that Iago was before all things "honest," his very faults being those of excess in honesty. This being so, even if Othello had not been trustful and simple, it would have been quite unnatural in him to be unmoved by the warnings of so honest a friend, warnings offered with extreme reluctance and manifestly from a sense of a friend's duty. Any husband would have been troubled by them." 

Iago knew his reputation and used it to his ultimately successful ends.

However, here is where I have trouble: Iago's success is due to: 1) his own reputation; 2) chance and fortuitousness; 3) Desdemona's innocence and reticence; 4) Othello's character. Therefore, we have to give less "credit" to the brilliance, ingenuity, and cunning of Iago than these other factors.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Paul Theroux’s ‘The Tao of Travel’, Part II


In his book Theroux quotes or cites a number of other travel writers, and I found these interesting in their own right and interesting because they were Theroux’s choices.

Ibn Battuta, along with Marco Polo, is considered one of the first travel writers.  In twenty-three years (1325-1354) he went on the haj to Mecca and kept going in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East.  He was known as the only known medieval traveller who visited the countries of every Muslim ruler of this time, as well as such infidel  places s Constantinople, Ceylon, and China.  Called the greatest traveller the world has ever seen, Ibn Battuta’s journeying has been estimated at 75,000 miles.

Richard Burton is my particular hero (more to come) because not only did he travel under the most difficult conditions, but could speak 20 languages, was so fluent in culture that he could pass for natives, was totally intrepid, suffering the most horrible diseases (almost went blind and deaf while searching for the source of the Nile) and never quit.  He even visited Salt Lake City because he wanted to study the polygamy of the Mormons.  He went on to be an ambassador.  His wife, in a fit of pique, destroyed many of his notes, writings, and files. 

Paul Du Chaillu, set off to West Africa in 1855, when he was 20 years old. “I travelled”, he wrote, “always on foot, and unaccompanied by other white men – about 8000 miles.  I shot, stuffed, and brought home over 2000 birds…and I killed upwards of 1000 quadrupeds….I suffered fifty attacks of the African fever…Of famine, continued exposers to the heavy tropical rains, and attacks of ferocious ants and venomous flies, it is not worthwhile to speak.

Theroux does not mention Mungo Park who preceded Du Chaillu by about 70 years, and his accounts are even more amazing.  He was commissioned to find the source of the Nile, made many trips, and had the most harrowing experiences – robbed, taken as a slave for barter, near death from wounds and disease.

C.M. Doughty (Travels in Arabia Deserta) travelled in 1878 through the most desolate and harshest landscape on earth. Along with Wilfred Theisiger (The Empty Quarter), he describes the beauty, solitude, and sheer fortitude and will it took to travel in this area.  Both writers captured the culture and incredible perceptions of the Arab Nomads, and the accounts are compelling.

Of all my travels, the one I remember most was that in the Sahara desert in Mauritania.  Riding on barely-visible tracks, dipping down like boat on a big wave into the dunes to find traction to keep going, rattling over Mars-scapes of red dirt and rock, sitting under a full moon on the terrace of the prefet in a small oasis, the dunes shadowed by the moon and the black sky filled with stars was stunning.  I had no doubt then about the power of the desert and felt there was a good reason that religions had sprung up from them.

T.E. Lawrence, travelling in Arabia.

His The Seven Pillars of Wisdom and Burton’s account of his penetration into the holiest of holies in Mecca were two amazing works of ethnography.  So detailed in fact, that I had to skim much of them; but still, seminal works of ethnography and travel.

Geoffrey Moorhouse: The Fearful Void (1974).  No one had ever crossed the Sahara from west to east, an almost 4000 mile journey from the Atlantic to the Nile.  Moorhouse decided to do it, less to be the first person to achieve it than to examine “the bases of fear, to explore the extremity of human experience”

“I was a man who had lived with fear for nearly forty years.”  Fear of the unknown, of emptiness, of death. And he wants to conquer it.  “The Sahara fulfilled the required conditions perfectly.  Not only did the hazards of the desert represent ultimate forms of my fears, but I was almost a stranger to it.”

He makes 2000 miles, then abandons the trip in Mali because he ran out of water.  Dying of thirst, he luckily finds a group of nomads.  He was given a pot of liquid to drink. “There was all manner of filth floating on top of the water…strands of hair from the waterbag, fragments of dung from the bottom of some well; but the water itself was clear…..It was the most wonderful thing that had happened to me in my life”

I have the greatest respect for Moorhouse, for I suffer from the same fears, but have never challenged them, just read about others’ experience.  I have read Shackleton many times, read the accounts of Dougal Robertson and others who have survived months on rafts afloat in the ocean, or the accounts of Thesiger and Doughty and their travels in uncharted deserts, or the tales of Joshua Slocum and his travels around the world, or modern sailors like Chichester, fighting their way around Cape Horn alone, and have only been amazed at their will and courage.

Theroux adds a quote from Albert Camus from his Notebooks (1935-42):

What gives value to travel is fear.  It is the fact that, a certain moment, when we are so far from our own country…we are seized by a vague fear, and the instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits.  This is the most obvious benefit of travel.  At that moment we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being.  We come across a cascade of light and there is eternity.  This is why we should not say that we travel for pleasure.  There is no pleasure in travelling.

Bruce Chatwin and my hero, Werner Herzog, had become friends, and Chatwin’s biographer wrote:

“When they first met in Melbourne in 1984…their talks had begun with a discussion on the restorative powers of walking.  ‘He had an almost immediate rapport with me’, said Herzog, ‘when I explained to him that tourism is a mortal sin, but walking on foot is a virtue….

Theroux recounts an interview with Herzog:

Herzog’s belief in solvitur ambulando is unshakeable.  ‘I personally would rather do the existentially essential things in life on foot.  If you live in England and your girlfriend is in Sicily, and it clear to you that you want to marry her, then you should walk to Sicily to propose,. For these things travel by car or airplane, is not the right thing’.

Here is what V.S. Naipaul wrote about India in 1963:

“So goodbye to shit and sweepers; goodbye to people who tolerate everything; goodbye to all the refusal to act; goodbye to the absence of dignity; goodbye to poverty; goodbye to caste and that curious pettiness which permeates that vast country; goodbye to people who, though consulting astrologers, have no sense of their destiny as men….It is an unbelievable, frightening, sad country.  Probably all has to change.  Not only must caste go, but all those sloppy Indian garments; all those saris and lungis; all that squatting on the floor to eat, to write, to serve in a shop, to piss”

I was in India in 1968-73, and I have to admit that I shared most of Naipaul’s thoughts.  I did not at all agree with his conclusion about a ‘frightening, sad country’.  I loved India for all its less attractive elements.  Taken as a whole – which Naipaul did not, at least in this letter – it was a remarkable place; and guess what?  India has changed.  The caste system is slowly being dismantled; Western dress has replaced the sari and lungi, squatting is only done in the rural areas.

Again, to be honest, I was on a World Bank mission to India to explore the possibilities of promoting low cost latrines – relatively simple affairs which would eliminate the need for sweepers to take away headloads of shit, and the infamous “dry latrines” which were no more than a corner of a courtyard where everybody shat.  My Indian colleague told me that we were going to inspect dry latrines and when we arrived at one compound, he said, “See…Dry latrine”.  Of course I saw nothing, then was pointed to the defecation corner where 10 squatting men were shitting. 

I thought of the expression “Don’t shit where you eat”, and yet here it was.  At that moment after years of accepting cultural relativism at face value, I said to myself: “Wrong.  No cultural relativism here.  Disgusting.  Period”.

This is a great book for anyone who has travelled; and I really recommend all Theroux’s travel books which, like all great travel writers, is more personal memoir and autobiography than travelogue.

'The Tao Of Travel' - The Existential Dimensions of Traveling Alone

In The Tao of Travel  Paul Theroux writes of the existential dimensions of travel – why we travel; how we react to danger, loneliness, foreign places, uncertain circumstances, and a lack of any familiar context; and most importantly about travel as a means of personal and objective discovery.  

Travel for Theroux never incidental, but central.  Travelling alone, removed from family, friends, and responsibility with no one to turn to, no one to trust, and no one to provide support, confidence, or simple help - jettisoning every piece of personal baggage, cutting all social, cultural, and intimate ties - is the only way in a prescribed and predictable life to allow for discovery if not epiphany. 

Image result for images the tao of travel
You go away for a long time and return a different person – you never come all the way back.
Travel is at its best a solitary enterprise: to see, to examine, to assess, you have to be all alone and unencumbered…..It is hard to see clearly or to think straight in the company of other people.  What is required is the lucidity of loneliness to capture that vision which, however banal, seems in your private mood to be special and worthy of interest.
Travel which is nearly always seen as an attempt to escape from the ego, is in my opinion, just the opposite.  Nothing induces concentration or inspires memory like an alien landscape or foreign culture.  It is simply not possible (as romantics think) to lose yourself in an exotic place.  Much more likely is an experience of intense nostalgia, a harking back to an earlier stage of your life….What makes the whole experience vivid and sometimes thrilling is the juxtaposition of the present and the past.
Individual travel is a personal privilege.  For weeks or months at a time, one can travel on one's own, freed from domestic and professional responsibilities and so unconcerned about them, they cease to exist.  The traveler begins to see things through his own eyes, and reflect on them with a perspective unencumbered by family, home, nation, friends. Returning home, the traveler, having become solitary, independent, unattached, and guilt-free for so long can only seem strange and indifferent to his wife and children. 

At the same time such willing detachment brings home and family into relief, not with regret, but with appreciation.  
A painful part of travel, the most emotional for me in may respects, is the sight of people leading ordinary lives, especially people at work or with their families; or ones in uniform, or laden with equipment, or paying bills.
There are times when what is left behind is very hard to forget or ignore.  Sometimes it is the place that is not welcoming or the circumstance of leaving stressful; but the sight of people going about their normal lives is indeed painful.  What was so pedestrian, routine, and boring - the very reasons for travel - becomes essential and necessary.  The traveler suddenly longs for the routine, the comfortable, and the uneventful life he has left.  Travel is never always exciting or guilt-free, or completely disassociated from the past; and in that persistence it can be remorseful and unhappy. There is no way to be completely free from the tangle of responsibilities, affections, and concerns he supposes were left on the tarmac. 

They intrude on his solitariness, his new, clean personality, and the limitless adventures and romances before him.  They put a brake on his optimism.  Such structural change is only vanity.  It never happens. Travel is only a temporary respite.  No matter how profound the insight, it is bound to be consumed the minute the traveler opens the front door. 

At the same time, the traveler has been changed if only momentarily.  Just as there was no way for him to ignore the past, there is equally no way for him to forget who he was 'there', or to return completely to his familiar life.  

No love affair is incidental, and one in a foreign place with someone who is just as foreign to it as the traveler, is unique. Both lovers are freer from inhibition and guilt than they would be at home. They will only be seen by passers-by.  They are in no hurry.  Nothing reminds them of home or service.  The strangeness of the room, the hotel, and the city is protective, insulating and exciting.  
Travel holds the magical possibility of reinvention: that you might find a place you love, to begin a new life and never go home.
Perhaps the most intense travel story of personal discovery is Peter Matthiessen's The Snow Leopard, an account of this travels with the biologist George Schaller into the high Himalayas in search of the rare, almost mythical cat, the snow leopard.  Schaller was a scientist who wanted to observe the elusive animal in the wild.  Matthiessen was a writer who initially was only intending to chronicle the trip, but the journey became much more personal as he found something spiritual in the mountains. The book is an account of the real snow leopard and a quest for the mythical and ultimately spiritual one. 

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However one can never reinvent oneself. We are all programmed and conditioned to such a degree that what we were, we are; but at the same time, it is hard not feel that it is possible.  Conformity can only be a social construct as easily defied as it was adopted.  There is no reason why not to live in another place with another person, in another life.  

Yet Theroux's 'magical possibility of reinvention' is only that. Changing even the most insignificant habit or attitude is troublesome, difficult, and near impossible.  Anything more elemental is indeed fantasy.  Travel encourages a willing suspension of disbelief, a temporary pause in rational judgment, an irresponsible dive. 
To a greater or lesser extent there goes on in every person a struggle between two forces: the longing for privacy and the urge to go places: introversion, that is, interest directed within oneself toward one’s own inner live of vigorous thought and fancy; and extroversion, interest directed outward, toward the external world of people and tangible values (Vladimir Nabokov 1982)
Life is always a balance between the two; and the distinction and the complementarity between them is no more apparent than when one travels alone. Solitary travel forces introspection and by so doing encourages more social interaction than ever before.  Facing fears, insecurities, and doubts is inescapable and inevitable if one travels alone.  There is no refuge except in the company of others. Waiters, chambermaids, and taxi drivers as well as professional colleagues provide temporary respite from introspection. 

Such moments of respite in turn increase solitary reflection.  If sociability is a resort rather than a satisfaction, what does it say about character? The traveler experiences events in a continuous loop - introversion-extroversion, pleasure-guilt, responsibility-freedom, privacy-engagement.  The disassociation and foreignness of travel enable the wheel to turn. 

George Steiner disagreed and wrote that such presumed introspection via solitariness is a vanity:
Human beings need to learn to be each other’s guests on this small planet. We usually focus on the ethical imperative of hospitality, on the obligation to be a generous host. When we travel, though, we are asking for hospitality. There’s great vulnerability in this. It also requires considerable strength. To be a good guest — like being a good host — one needs to be secure in one’s own premises: where you stand, who you are. This means we tend to romanticize travel as a lonely pursuit. In fact, a much deeper virtue arises from the demands it makes on us as social beings.
 Africa brings out the best and the worst in travellers. 
Africa seemingly incomplete and so empty, is a place for travelers to create personal myths and indulge themselves in fantasies of atonement and redemption, melodramas of suffering, of strength – binding up wounds, feeding the hungry, looking after refugees, making long journeys in expensive Land Rovers, recreating stereotypes, even living out a whole cosmology of creation and destruction.  That’s why many travelers in Africa are determined to see it not as fifty-three countries but rather as a single, troubled, landscape
Africa has always been a source of challenge – fighting undisciplined crowds in dark, mosquito-ridden, corrupt airports, crime, indiscipline, insecurity, disease, and accident.  In his book The Last Train to Zona Verde Theroux writes of a moment when he realizes he has had enough.  The rewards of travel - the romance, adventure, challenges, and personal insights - no longer outweigh the hazards, troubles, and the sheer inconvenience of Africa.  

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Theroux never had a service motive for traveling to Africa; and never wrote about any particular 'fantasy of atonement and redemption'.  He saw himself as a latter day Ibn Battuta, Mungo Park, Richard Burton, and Paul du Chaillu who explored the continent before any other Asian or European; and a 20th century apostle of self-revelation in the best tradition of memorists and autobiographers. 

Yet there are many visitors to Africa who go because of religious commitment, faith, or progressive concern.  They are missionaries, aid workers, development experts, and humanitarians who find the greatest challenges in Africa.  It is the most blighted, poor, corrupt, and pestilential place on earth; and the most deserving of assistance.  It is hard for any of them to disaggregate the continent and to deal with it as a collection of diverse countries.  Personal philosophy and purpose deny this particular reality. 

There are great travel writers like V.S.Naipaul, an erstwhile friend and mentor of Theroux who had nothing but impatience with the Third World. 

V.S. Naipaul wrote about India in 1963: 
So goodbye to shit and sweepers; goodbye to people who tolerate everything; goodbye to the absence of dignity; goodbye to poverty; goodbye to cast and that curious pettiness which permeates that vast country; goodbye to people who, though consulting astrologers, have no sense of their destiny as men...It is an unbelievable, frightening, sad country.  Probably all this has to change.  Not only must caste go, but all those sloppy Indian garments; all those saris and lungis; all that squatting on the floor to eat, write, to serve in a shop, to piss.
Image result for images v.s. naipaul

There are few travel writers who are as bitterly misanthropic as Naipaul, and most share Theroux's  view that travel is at best epiphanic and even at its most ordinary insightful and revealing.  The accounts of Doughty's travels in Arabia's Empty Quarter, T.E. Lawrence's Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Moorehouse's stories of Africa, and Chatwin's reflections on Australia, are all in the same vein. 

Travel is indeed a serious enterprise - or at least can be. 

IReclaiming Travel, an article in the New York Times (7.8.12) the authors Stavans and Ellison talk about how travel has become commonplace and mundane, far from the voyages of discovery of travellers past:
For the most fortunate among us, our travels are now routine, devoted mainly to entertainment and personal enrichment. We have turned travel into something ordinary, deprived it of allegorical grandeur. We have made it a business: the business of being on the move. Whatever impels us to travel, it is no longer the oracle, the pilgrimage or the gods. It is the compulsion to be elsewhere, anywhere but here.
We should return to travel with a serious purpose, the authors write, force ourselves out of the complacent apathy of convenient travel, and discover what Theroux, Matthiessen, Nabokov, Greene, and so many others have found:
St. Augustine believed that “because God has made us for Himself, our hearts are restless until they rest in Him.” We often think of restlessness as a malady. Thus, we urgently need to reclaim the etymology of restlessness — “stirring constantly, desirous of action” — to signal our curiosity toward what isn’t us, to explore outside the confines of our own environment. Getting lost isn’t a curse. Not knowing where we are, what to eat, how to speak the language can certainly make us anxious and uneasy. But anxiety is part of any person’s quest to find the parameters of life’s possibilities.
 Image result for images st. augustine saint

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Brutus and the NeoCons


I began reading Shakespeare’s Histories because I felt that they would give me fundamental insights that no factual history could give.  I felt that a poet/dramatist’s insights into those aspects of human nature that underlie the persistent cycles of history would be worth more than simply observing current events in these cycles.

I have not been disappointed.  As Jan Kott has observed, if you laid all the Histories down in chronological order, you would find the same pattern of incessant and insistent plotting to accede to power; the same venality and brutality to retain it; and the same inevitable mistakes and errors that lead to fall, usurpation, or transfer of power.   Human nature – aggressive, determined, willful, purposeful, and blood-oriented – is the common denominator to all.

Granted this inexorable pursuit, retention, and loss of power, there are still some interesting political constructions in Shakespeare which shed light on current events.  As A.D. Nuttall (Shakespeare The Thinker) writes about Julius Caesar:

Some historians have described the assassins of Caesar as young men “high” on Greek political theory, on stories of tyrants justly slain, who mistakenly thought there would be popular acclaim for their action.

Does this sound familiar?  The NeoCons in the George W. Bush administration had exactly the same thoughts, reading of history, and political intentions.  Led by Wolfowitz, these young politicos were convinced that the tyrant (Saddam Hussein) had to be overthrown, that democracy had to be instituted for the public good, and that once he was, there would be popular acclaim for United States action.   We know now (and some of us then) that these assumptions were flawed.

Brutus (II.i. 10-34) attempts to make the case, but hedges his bets:  Caesar must go because absolute power corrupts absolutely (Shakespeare anticipating Lord Acton) as foreseen by the Greeks.  Yet, he is a good man, and who is to say whether all men in power will become corrupted? In response to the committed and unwavering Cassius, Brutus wonders:

I know no personal cause to spurn  at him/But for the general.  He would be crown’d;/How that might change his nature, there’s the question.

Antony, of course, the most canny politician of them all (and most eloquent orator) is behind the plot for his own personal ends (Brutus, it seems, is indeed honorable in his willingness to sacrifice his friend’s life for the Republic; and Cassius is more practical and Stoic in his approach to the matter).

In any case, when reading these passages describing the debate before the murder of Caesar, I was reminded of Wolfowitz and his arguments for the establishment of a liberal democracy as a higher good.  He and his colleagues believed – that their ideas were not simply political theories, but anointed truths, not very different from the Biblical beliefs of the legions of Christian missionaries now and since the time of Pizarro.

Modern American and European history, not to mention recent and ancient Asian history, is replete with examples of leaders constructing arguments to go to war – the search for a casus belli.  Lyndon Johnson distorted the incidents in the Gulf of Tonkin because he was influence by his own NeoCons – McNamara et. al. – who believed that the establishment of American-style liberal democracy was a higher good, an anointed political ideal.

Henry V in Shakespeare’s play of that name goes through historical and intellectual gymnastics to show that he had a legitimate reason to attack France and by so doing to distract attention from the internal, national disputes that were raging.  Henry V has his casus belli, however, flimsy, with the French ambassador’s insult with the gift of the tennis balls. Does this sound familiar? 

Bolingbroke goes through the same gyrations to show that he is the legitimate heir to the throne and not Richard II.  York is no different when he presents his complex claim to power urging supremacy over the Lancastrians.  In fact, his claim has more validity than that of the Lancastrian Henry VI; but the ensuing War of the Roses is fought more over emotive symbols and allegiances than rational claims.  In 1 Henry VI the claimants exhaust their intellectual and historical arguments and pluck roses from the garden – white of York, red of Lancaster – to symbolize the claims of their families.  From then on, rational legitimacy is forgotten, and the Civil War is fought over symbols and primitive allegiances. How different is this from modern history?  Nuttall cites the case of Nazi Germany where the populace was moved by Hitler’s National Socialism, and whereas he may have made rational cases for the reincorporation of the Rhineland, and other German-populated territories, the public was was soon emotionally behind the symbol of Nazi-ism.  In American, politicians have always “wrapped themselves in the flag” and have drawn on public reserves of patriotism to fuel their wars and adventurism.

It is sometimes said that political leaders require “a demonized Other” to retain control of their citizens.  If the people are to be ruled they must first be scared.  This is very nearly the situation at the beginning of Henry V.  The King desperately needs a war with France if he is to control such as Scroop and Grey. So far, so cynical.  Richard II lost control of Mowbray and Bullingbrook; Henry VI will lose control of Yorkist and Lancastrian nobles.  If civil war really is the worst thing of all, and if picking a fight with France is the only way to avoid civil war, we may have moved from cynical power politics to an obscure, unlovable duty.

Nuttall analyzes this phenomenon, illustrated in Shakespeare (as above in the War of the Roses) where emotions dictate action, rather than the other way around:

Perhaps Shakespeare  is actually truer to the general character of such movements – i.e. not what happened, but what would happen – than the academic historians are.  Historians are pre-set to find the causes of events and are perhaps too little prepared to recognize where movements are not so much the product of precedent conditions as self-energizing…Think of the difference between sober historical accounts of the start of WWI, and Bertrand Russell’s observation  that his compatriots had become irrational, as if they wanted to die…

Another incident relevant to today is found in Julius Caesar when after Brutus’ speech, a Plebian says “You be our Caesar!”, a presaging echo of the later Civil War when after Oliver Cromwell has been successful in establishing a democracy, his colleagues say the same thing – You be Ruler. There seems to be, according to Shakespeare and modern history, a tendency of the citizenry to acclaim and vote for dictatorial rulers.

Truly frightening powers were  given to Adolf Hitler by due democratic process.  Democracy can do many things.  It can even commit suicide.

Julius Caesar is set at a turning point in Roman history.  We watch the process, as the Republican period gives way to the Imperial.  We see these [democratic] rights forming in a later play, Coriolanus.

This is all no different than today.  Modern American history has reflected this same ebb and flow, and while there have been no such extremes of Empire vs. Democracy, the power of the Presidency vs. the Congress/Parliament/People has continued.  Currently in the United States with the Congress (the People’s representatives) shown to be venal, partisan, and irrational, there may be a move towards a stronger Presidency (although not in the coming 2012 election).

So, once again, Shakespeare has, 400 years ago, described and illustrated through his plays, the recurrent, predictable, and irresistible themes of world politics.  Reading Shakespeare is a must for all idealists, One World Utopians, and political optimists.  Until human nature has been changed through recombinant DNA and interface with the computer, thus creating a totally new human being, we are destined – or doomed – to repeat history.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Shakespeare’s and Tennessee Williams’ Women


An article in the 2003 Edition of Tennessee Williams Literary Journal by George Hovis entitled “Fifty Percent Illusion” takes a feminist, anti-historical, and very politically correct position concerning Blanche, Lucretia Collins, and Amanda (I would include Laura and Alma as well).  These women act the way they do, according to Hovis (who I think correctly interprets Williams), because of the repressive mores of the Southern Belle era and the equally repressive nature of the Episcopal Church.

Amanda and Blanche adopt the role of the belle in an effort to survive within a social milieu in which they are disempowered (my italics).  Unlike Lucretia, they both adopt the role as a means of literal survival by securing economic and social stability.  More importantly, in the case of Blanche, she performs subtle transformations in the role of the belle and thereby effects a revolution within the gender consciousness of Williams’ audience.

All these women understand their role as Southern belles and their means for survival (finding a socially acceptable and productive mate); but all three (four if one includes Laura) fail.  Hovis, and more importantly, Williams blame society for their failure and demise.  I understand, but I disagree.  Shakespeare’s women were all subservient to men and in today’s lingo “second class citizens”, but all of them understood that they could achieve great power within this system.  They schemed, they fought, they protected their interests and especially those of their children.  In other words, it is hard to have sympathy for the wilting and shrinking violets of Williams when the women of Shakespeare were heroic.  Think of Margaret who fought for the instatement of her son to the throne of England, despite the machinations of her weak husband, Henry VI.  Think about the mother of Richard III and Edward IV who was strong and outspoken in her virulent condemnation of Richard.  Think of the mother of Elizabeth, the wife of Edward IV; or the mother of the murdered (by Richard) Henry VI.  Think of Cleopatra; Portia, the wife of Julius Caesar; Lady Macbeth; Goneril and Regan; and perhaps especially Cordelia who mounts an armed invasion to vindicate her father although he has spurned her.  And then there is Joan of Arc, La Pucelle.  The list goes on.  These women were all born, raised, reared in a “repressive” society and rather than wilt under its repression, thrived under it.  Whether they were successful or not, they were undaunted in their aims.

We know that Gertrude, Hamlet’s mother was a deeply sexual being, and followed the path of her sexual desires and political ambitions by marrying Hamlet’s uncle.  She was unashamed of these desires, and unashamed of the way she, as a woman, could consolidate power while being sexually gratified.  Hamlet has a problem with her actions, but that is his problem, not hers.  She acted perfectly within the social mores and political structures of the time.  No psychosexual neuroses.  OK, there is Ophelia, but her schizophrenia and suicide cannot be laid to a conflict between morality and sexuality as it often is in Williams.  Her madness and suicide has been the source of much discussion over the decades, but no one, I believe, would compare her to the women of Williams. 

As Faulkner had, Tennessee Williams recognized the psychic damage done to Southern women by this stereotype of the belle and its attendant demand of sexual purity….(Hovis)

First, who said that Caddy and her illegitimate daughter, Miss Quentin, suffered under the same Southern belle yoke?  Neither one had sexual repressions and neither seemed to struggle or suffer under it.  It was the son/brother Quentin who could not bear the changes that were happening in his family and to himself and he was the one who committed suicide.  Was the hatred of  Rosa Coldfield, a spinster, for Thomas Sutpen due to these Southern belle traditions.  No indeed.

The more I read about Tennessee Williams from his memoirs, conversations, and essays, I know that he put a lot of himself into these plays; and therefore I can understand his characters, their motivations, and the consequences of their actions.  Williams’ plays are really about him and therefore have validity, power, and meaning.  I can only say that I prefer Shakespeare.  I learn more from him about the human condition and about human nature from him.