Recently in Fidelity to facts Category

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Great artists are so frequently assholes that I have learned to compartmentalize. Ok, so Lord Byron was loathsome in his relations with women; doesn't stop me from admiring his work unstintingly.

Whether such compartmentalization is difficult to maintain or distasteful - probably a bit of both - it's not a popular approach.  People prefer judgments.  There's a pleasing equanimity in being able to say, for example, that because Picasso hated women, Cubism amounted to a visual violence against women - cutting up the planes of their faces and bodies and rearranging them - and that our assessment of Picasso's achievement should be accordingly tempered.  In a world where bad produces bad, we find stability.

Such a world is not the one in which we find ourselves. 

As a result, many people require a certain amount of creative narrative to rationalize situations in which bad produces good.  Maurice Malingue is one such person.

Malingue was the editor of Paul Gaugin's letters to Mette Gad, his wife, and others.  Working in the middle of the last century, Malingue attempted to reconcile aspects of Gauguin's life that were in some tension: on the one hand, he was a genius painter; on the other hand, he was an asshole. 

The facts supporting Paul Gaugin's categorization as an "asshole" are as follows:  After fathering five children, he quit his job, lived apart from his family and contributed little to his family's support or upkeep.  He was openly unfaithful to his wife.  He did not return home either when his favorite daughter, Aline, or his favorite son, Clovis, died, both in their early twenties.  That Gauguin had syphilis, apparently of the variety that leads to madness, is something of a mitigating factor, though he seems to have contracted it after he set himself on the path of abandoning his family.

What Malingue made of these facts is laugh-out-loud funny to today's reader, who is at least 150 years too removed from the Romantics to be reflexively sympathetic to Gauguin's choices.  Malingue has no such scruples.  With a zeal unknown to generation acclimated to a divorce rate of roughly 50%, Malingue - in the Preface to Letters to his Wife and Friends - attacks Gauguin's wife, Mette Gad, and condemns her for expecting Gauguin to support his family:

[Gauguin's] letters constitute the most . . . overwhelming indictments in the trial of Mette Gauguin, who can now be charged with incomprehension of the artist, indifference towards the man, and with having as a wife failed the father of her five children.
. . . .
Mette, in contrast with wives of innumerable artists, found it difficult to contemplate poverty for herself and her children.
. . . .
It is probable that Mette, the daughter of an official, brought up with some degree of mental freedom but in the observance of somewhat rigid moral principles, never could understand how a father of five children could throw up a comfortable position without bothering what was to become of his family. 
Of Gauguin's abandonment of his children, Malingue remarks:

[Gauguin] is a father who suffered keenly in living apart from his children.  Obviously, he could have had them with him if he wanted to.  He renounced his paternal duties deliberately, because constrained to do so by the demands of his art.  The presence of his children would have imposed on him paternal obligations.
As for Gauguin's infidelity, Malingue takes a (dare I suggest typically French?) brazen line:

[Gauguin] plunged into casual amours at Pont-Aven, set up house in Paris with a Javanese, and in Tahiti bedevilled hussies invaded his bed every night.
These "bedevilled hussies" were 14 year-old girls who Gauguin took as his live-in companions.  (In Mario Vargas Llosa's telling - in This Way to Paradise - far from finding his bed "invaded" every night, the aging, broke and syphilitic Gauguin, whose legs were covered with sores, and who lacked money necessary to feed even himself, struggled to find girls willing to live with him.)

Of course, Malingue is full of shit.  Mette might not have been a creative woman, but she was in no way wrong (or even "rigid" in her morals) to expect financial support from her husband and the father of her many children.  Caring for five children might be inconvenient for Paul Gauguin, but the existence of children - not their presence or absence - imposes parental obligations; abandoning one's children geographically does not absolve a parent of responsibilities, however much one's time needs to be devoted to art.  As for adulterous husbands, at a minimum one can demand that they be discrete and steer clear of minors.

In fairness to Malingue, he lived in a different era, when he was not alone in being relatively receptive to justifying the bad acts of a genius, done in the name of his art.  All the same, Malingue's thinking - in any age - is slavish and lazy, the automatic "yes" of a dazzled fan.

Today, the trend is towards the opposite error, of dismissing Gauguin's mastery because he was an adulterous pedophile and a deadbeat dad.  But such reasoning would be equally slavish (to PC standards) and lazy.

We live in a world in which good can come from bad.  In which - Malingue is almost certainly right - Gauguin could desperately miss his children, and yet do nothing to be with them or help them.  In which Gauguin's actions can be wrong and sick, and still the general public is much the better for them.

The accurate narrative is the critical and rigorous one, the one that describes the world in its ambiguity, and that captures and conjures what beauty there is in such a world as ours.  It's not an easy narrative to tell or to absorb, not a narrative that likely to gain popular currency.  And yet it's the narrative in Gauguin's painting; it's the reason, in fact, that Gauguin is great.

(Image of Paul Gauguin's Self-portrait with the Yellow Christ from the National Gallery of Australia website)

Words fail

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The New York Review of Books is a superb publication.  I therefore cannot describe the way it has glossed over Walter J. Ong as anything but shocking. 

Ong posits that changes in human society and development is explained by the differences in human consciousness in oral and literate cultures.  Current neuroscientific work is finding support of Ong's theory.

Ong may turn out to be the great and definitive thinker of the second half of the twentieth century, the person who laid the foundation for our understanding of our own consciousness in a technologized (and technologizing) world.  And yet The New York Review of Books contains merely two reviews of his substantial body of writing, the most recent dating from 1968.

The 1968 review, of Ong's The Presence of the Word, is by Frank Kermode, a writer I admire; yet Kermode doesn't strike me in this review as being at his best.  (His gratuitous rudeness - "If one calls the style of [Ong's essays] highly typographic, it is only a way of saying that they have no style at all" - seems out of place, as well as out of character.)

The crux of Kermode's critique is that Ong's study of the impact of the transition from orality to literacy on humans and their societies sets forth a defective theory of history.  In Kermode's analysis, Ong's theory fails for two reasons: (1) the evidence supporting the Ong's theory equally supports other theories, and (2) Ong organizes his evidence to promote a Catholic agenda.

Neither objection seems terribly cogent.  Humans and their history are incredibly complicated, and the ambiguity of evidence supporting theories of human history is commonplace: we should neither be surprised, nor dismissive, when evidence can support multiple theories.  

Moreover, The Presence of the Word (which I have not read) collects adaptations of talks Ong gave as part of the Terry Lectures, the purpose of which is "that the Christian spirit may be natured [sic] in the fullest light of the world's knowledge."  That Ong's talks in this context have a theological agenda is therefore no surprise.

Ong's most important well-known (and probably most important) work, Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word, cannot be tarred with this brush.  The book lays bare Ong's passion for understanding based on truth.  The accusation of subordinating his scholarship to a missionary agenda is offensive - and unsupported: Kermode's claim that [get exact quote] "Ong values orality because it is holy" fades in the face of Ong's numerous assertions in Orality and Literacy that

without writing, human consciousness cannot achieve its fuller potentials . . . . Literacy is absolutely necessary for the development not only of science but also of history, philosophy, explicative understanding of literature and of any art, and indeed for the explanation of language (including oral speech) itself.
(p. 14-15.)  Whether Ong fundamentally revised his theories since The Presence of the Word, or whether Kermode simply misconstrues Ong, I cannot say; but that The New York Review hasn't reviewed Orality and Literacy (or any of Ong's prodigious output since 1968) is a lapse.

In our current globalized, post-colonial environment, we reject notions of historical change that rely on racial (and increasingly, religious) superiority.  The reason for that rejection is not ideology: we believe it's true.  Ong - like Jared Diamond in Guns, Germs and Steel - offers us a theory of human social development that is race (and religion) neutral - literacy (not race or religion) is the provocateur.  (For Jared Diamond, geography is the culprit.)  No publication purporting to offer an analysis of our times can fail to engage Ong in some capacity.  To ignore Ong is to court irrelevancy.

(Image of Fr. Walter J. Ong from the St. Louis University Walter J. Ong Archives website)

Note to Self

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If I am ever crafting a romantic male lead in a novel, I'll do well - both for character and for reader - to spare him the indignities of chronic constipation. 

I don't get what Gabriel García Márquez was doing, in Love in the Time of Cholera, when he saddled poor Florentino Ariza (as played by Javier Bardem in Mike Newell's movie version, pictured left) with this debility.

Granted, I recognize that the problem is common.  Also, that people who suffer chronic constipation have just as much entitlement as the rest of us to passionate love affairs.  Also, that they can screw a lot.

But I don't like to dwell on it.  When García Márquez conflates constipation and screwing, as he does Florentino Ariza first meets Leona Cassiani, I cringed:

Florentino Ariza remembered a phrase from his childhood, something that the family doctor, his godfather, had said regarding his chronic constipation: "The world is divided into those who can shit and those who cannot." . . . But with what he had learned over the years, Florentino Ariza stated it another way: "The world is divided into those who screw and those who do not."
(p. 183).  Please!  Gabriel!  Spare us!

Throughout, I had problems believing Florentino Ariza as "one who screws" because I just couldn't reconcile the openness required for sexual release with the closedness required for chronic constipation.  And when one of Florentino Ariza's lover takes his enemas with him, I found myself regretting the compassionate capacities of my gender: ladies, there are limits!

Later, when Leona Cassiani gives the aged Florentino Ariza his enemas, I had a hard time with the humiliation and emasculation that redounded to Florentino Ariza from this interaction.  He's going to get up off the enema bed and go woo Fermina Daza?  Really?

When it comes to enemas and a romantic male lead, my feeling is that there's too much realism and not enough magic.

(Image of Javier Bardem in the film version of Love in the Time of Cholera from The Telegraph)

In Zanzibar, skip the signs and grab a book

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During a recent swing through Zanzibar's Stone Town (a UNESCO Heritage Site), I happened upon this sign outside one of the houses:

Residence of the famous Arab trader Hamed B. Muhammad Al-Marjebi (Tipu Tip) who built up a large trading empire in the Eastern Congo in the 19th Century.  With Belgian Colonization of the Congo he returned to Zanzibar where he acquired many clove plantations and built his house.  He died in Zanzibar in 1905 and is buried nearby.
Considering that the sign seems to have been placed on the house by UNESCO, I found it notable for its evasiveness and contribution to revisionist history and general ignorance. 

Tipu Tip was indeed famous.  His men led Henry Morton Stanley to Dr. Livingstone.  According to Charles Miller in The Lunatic Express, Stanley described Tipu Tip in glowing terms:

He was a tall, black-bearded man of negroid complexion, in the prime of life, straight, and quick in his movements, a picture of energy and strength.  He had a fine, intelligent face . . . the air of a well-bred Arab and [was] courtier-like in his manner . . . . I came to the conclusion that he was a remarkable man, the most remarkable man that I had met among the Arabs, Wa-Swahili and half-castes in Africa.
(p. 49.)  But Tipu Tip was not merely famous for his good looks, wit and manners, nor were his clove plantations the source of his notoriety.  Rather, in Miller's words, Tipu Tip

was the Rockefeller-Croesus of the slave industry; the wealth he amassed in the quarter century during which he milked a region half the size of Europe of its people will never be measured.  (The volume he handled, though, is suggested by the size of his caravans; some consisted of two thousand porters and one thousand armed guards.)
. . . .
[Tipu Tip] was always prepared, of course, to field any questions designed to shame his profession.  A favorite rejoinder to missionary critics was that Abraham and Jacob had been slave owners.  Once, when a European reproached him for rescuing an African village from a cannibal raid and then enslaving his beneficiaries, he shrugged his shoulders and replied: "Which would you rather be, a slave or a meal?"
(p. 49-50.)

While I appreciate that no one has ever accused UNESCO staff of cracking a book, I nonetheless charge the agency with the responsibility to do enough research to call a slave trader a slave trader.  What's the point of a "World Heritage Site" if the stink of that heritage's shit is perfumed over with cloves by the time visitors arrive?

Too real for pleasure, too impressive to deny

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Roberto_Bolaño.jpgRoberto Bolaño's 2666 is impressive beyond praise that can be offered in modern English.  Like Milan Kundera, Bolaño's achievement is utterly unique and un-replicable.

At 893 pages in the English edition (apparently over 1,000 in the original Spanish), Bolaño's feat in 2666 is perhaps beyond summarization.  But despite its heft and ambition, I think Bolaño's accomplishment is straightforward: he's modern literature's consummate realist.

Calling Bolaño a "realist" may strike those familiar with his work as odd.  Bolaño, after all, began his writing life as a poet and, as Franscisco Goldman asserts in his New York Review of Books piece, Bolaño seems to have considered himself fundamentally a poet despite his turn to fiction writing.  Indeed, reading 2666 (even in translation) evoked the active visceral engagement that usually only occurs with poetry: the book riled up my guts for irrational and inarticulable reasons, the way a poem might make me want to cry without knowing why.

Because of Bolaño's power to tap into the subliminal and the unconscious, he might readily be termed a stylist, in the model of Anne Enright, whose The Gathering operates similarly, or W.G. Sebold, whose The Emigrants has been reputed to have like power (though I found it merely boring when I read it six years ago).  And, unquestionably, Bolaño's writing classes him among the leading stylists of literature.

But Bolaño distinguishes himself from the poet-stylist set in a significant way.  Most poets and stylists transport the reader from reality: when their writing works, it grips the reader's viscera and pulls him or her into a realm that departs from the quotidian.  The point of such writing is not to depict life realistically, but to evoke (and provoke) feelings, sensations and engagement.

Whereas Bolaño uses poetic-stylist techniques to depict reality.  Indeed, the reality that emerges from 2666 is more "real" than any other attempt at literary realism I have encountered.  As Benjamin Kunkel, writing in The London Review of Books, says of a Bolaño short story called "Enrique Martín":

You don't feel that Enrique Martín is a robust character inhabiting a well-made story; you feel - whether or not any real-life original ever existed - something perhaps more powerful and certainly, in fiction, more unusual: namely, that he is simply a person, and that instead of having a story he had a life.
Reading 2666, I didn't feel that I was inhabiting the world of a story: I felt that I caught in the sweep of 20th century history.  Common themes and characters abounded, yes, but plot was only what I imposed on the events, and indeterminacy was the only honest conclusion.   

Composed of five sub-novellas, 2666 can be read in any order.  I read it in the order in which the novellas were assembled in the English-language edition, but I'm going to read the book again in a different order.  The conviction intrinsic in 2666's construction is the same truth that informs the modern construction of consciousness: however one looks at the facts, doubt must temper clarity because story-lines are imposed, not organic.

To use literature as Bolaño does is a departure from the norm.  His approach cannot be described as "escapist."  My guess is that most people's realities are more escapist than Bolaño's literature.  Nor does Bolaño's technique generate pleasure reading.  The sub-novella, "The Part About the Crimes," in 2666 is almost unbearable to read - just as life is sometimes unbearable to endure.  By depicting reality so . . . realistically, Bolaño has in some sense made the ultimate argument against realism: it's too intense.

And yet, enjoyable or no, Bolaño's triumph is impossible not to admire or praise (however inadequate the English language is for the task).  In taking reality and wrestling it between the covers of a book, where it stays and performs at the command of the conjurer and the whim of the reader, Bolaño has assumed the mantle of a god.  A Greek god, perhaps - flawed and ambiguous and happy to muck around with humans - but the progenitor of one a hell of a branch of literature.

(Image of Roberto Bolaño from The New York Times book review)

The accidental jester

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B_Cole_and_Cranworth.jpgStorytellers don't have to be reliable to be entertaining.  Great narrative voices can be widely off the mark - P.G. Wodehouse's marvelous Bertie Wooster is an example - and yet their own haplessness with facts and reality only deepens our delight in hearing what they have to say.

Lord Cranworth is an interesting example of an entertaining, unreliable narrative voice.  Unlike Bertie Wooster, who is fictional, Lord Cranworth was real.  And diverting further from Bertie Wooster, whose lack of reliability was the conscious intent of his creator, Cranworth didn't mean to be unreliable.

Cranworth has become unreliable in part because the passage of time has rendered so many of his opinions politically incorrect.  "I dislike making contact with a black race which emphatically dissents from the superiority I claim for my race and colour," he writes of Ethiopians.  (Lord Cranworth, Kenya Chronicles 178 (1939)).

But Cranworth has also become unreliable because his account of factual events diverges from other contemporaneous accounts.  Here, for example, is Cranworth's version of the events leading up to the deportation of Galbraith Cole:

Galbraith Cole was one of the earliest pioneers, a brother-in-law of Lord Delamere, and deservedly one of the most popular inhabitants both with black and white.  He had suffered repeatedly from thefts of cattle and sheep from his farm on Lake Elmenteita [sic], abutting the Masai Reserve.  One day he caught a party of Masai red-handed driving off his sheep, and, having a rifle, fired a shot to frighten the delinquents.  By an unfortunate mischance the shot struck one of the party, who subsequently died.  The Government were placed in a position of difficulty.  No local jury would, or indeed could, convict Cole of any major crime, and the tribe in question, with whom the punishment for cattle-stealing from time immemorial had been death, saw no justifiable grounds for complaint.  On the other hand, a considerable opinion at home said that in the interest of our own rule and good name an example must be made.  And again it is hard to dissent from that view.  The Governor decided that it was a case for deportation, unpopular though the course might be.
(Kenya Chronicles at 64).

His account omits several salient facts that Karen Blixen mentions about the event:

When Karen Blixen lectured at Lund University in 1938 she gave an example of Galbraith Cole's unswerving conviction, which a man of less fibre would have easily betrayed.  Like the Masai he had killed, he paid his price without question:

The Judge said to Galbraith, 'It's not, you know, that we don't understand that you shot only to stop the thieves.' 'No,' Galbraith said, 'I shot to kill.  I said that I would do so.'

'Think again, Mr. Cole,' said the judge.  'We are convinced that you only shot to stop them.'

'No, by God,' Galbraith said.  'I shot to kill.'  He was then sentenced to leave the country and, in a way, this really caused his death.
Errol Trzebinksi, Silence Will Speak 76 (1977) (quoting Donald Hannah, Isak Dinesen and Karen Blixen: the mask and the reality 35-36 (1971)).

In highlighting this disparity, I am not so much interested in which version is accurate, but in the relationship between an accurate grasp on facts and the formation of opinions that endure the test of time.  My guess is that Cranworth wasn't just unlucky that public opinion shifted away from his conviction of white superiority; rather, I hazard that a certain disposition on his part to tamper with facts supported the formation of opinions that could not survive the eventual triumph of reality.  Hence, the man could write of his early years in British East Africa:

Settlers were coming in with a steadily increasing flow.  New, beautiful and undeveloped territories were being discovered and occupied.  New crops were being tried out and new possibilities became probabilities almost monthly.  Land values improved with great rapidity and the native population became more prosperous and infinitely happier and safer.  No stigma rested at that time on the white settlers for the work that they were doing.
(Kenya Chronicles at 29 (emphasis added).)

Amusing to read now, but not very credible.

(Photo of Berkeley Cole and Lord Cranworth from Kenya Chronicles)
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This page is an archive of recent entries in the Fidelity to facts category.

Family patterns across generations is the previous category.

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