Monday, November 28, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE FRENCH PLACE IN THE BAY OF ISLANDS – Essays From Pompallier’s Printery” Edited by Kate Martin and Brad Mercer (Matou-Matauwhi, $ 69:96)
New Zealand’s colonial past is often told as the story of the interaction of British and Maori. Other Pakeha nationalities have at best limited walk-on parts – a few Yankee whalers, some Danes going to Dannevirke, some Bohemians at Puhoi, that sort of thing.

The reality is that before the British planted their flag, the French were major players in this country as both explorers and traders. After the Treaty of Waitangi and through much of the 19th century, there was still a significant French presence in the form of both French-led Catholic missionaries and the French settlers brought by the Nanto-Bordelaise Company to Akaroa. Naturally – Britain having recently been France’s enemy in the Napoleonic Wars – the British feared and were very suspicious of any possible French intervention in New Zealand. The pattern was set for a tradition of mild Francophobia, even though the French and British were allies in later conflicts such as the Crimean War.

Only in the past thirty or forty years have New Zealand historians paid much attention to the French footprint. Professor John Dunmore led the way with such volumes as The French and the Maori, a collection of essays he edited in 1992. Now there is a respectable number of books about early Franco-Kiwi relations.

The French Place in the Bay of Islands is both the handsomest and one of the most accessible. The Maori translation of its title is given as Te Urunga Mai O Te Iwi Wiwi, reminding us that the Maori name for the French, “Wiwi”, came from Maori recognising “Oui, Oui” as the most common French words they ever heard.

This collection of 17 substantial essays is subtitled Essays from Pompallier’s Printery, and began as papers given at a symposium held in 2004 by New Zealand and French historians, cultural commentators and members of Catholic religious orders. The symposium itself grew out of the return to New Zealand of Bishop Jean-Baptiste Francois Pompallier’s bones in 2002, and the interest that that event aroused in both early missionary activity and the French presence.

As Kate Martin explains in her introduction, Pompallier House at Kororareka (Russell) is the sole surviving missionary printery of any denomination in the country. Built by Pompallier and the Marist fathers in 1841, it was never Pompallier’s residence, but was a working Catholic printery. It was later sold as a private residence and later still gifted to the nation as a building of significant historical interest. The closing essay of the book, by Jeremy Salmond, explains in detail how the building was methodically restored in the 1990s to something like its original state, with post-1841 additions (such as upstairs balconies) removed.

Some contributions are from very well-known writers.

Dame Anne Salmond’s opening essay concerns the French explorer Marion du Fresne, who arrived in New Zealand in the 1770s and whose brief visit ended in bloodshed. Anne Salmond interprets this as massive mutual incomprehension between Maori and French. Du Fresne grossly misinterpreted Maori customs and behaviour because he was too influenced by Rousseau’s ideas of the “noble savage”.

The noted biographer Jessie Munro discusses the spiritual journey of Peata, the Maori woman who became a Catholic nun. The eminent religious historian Peter Lineham explores in detail the different strategies adopted by Catholic and Protestant missionaries in their first evangelisation of Maori, and finds surprising convergences despite mutual antagonism.

Others of the essays are by people who will be known only to religious studies specialists. Father Michael O’Meeghan and Brother Edward Clisby clarify respectively the roles of Marist priests and Marist brothers in early New Zealand, and Pa (Father) Henare Tate gives a detailed account of how traditional Maori spirituality adjusted to Christianity. Philip Parkinson examines the Maori-language anti-Catholic polemics that poured off Protestant presses once Catholic missionaries arrived.

But there are essays on more surprising specialist topics. Ian Hunter on Kororareka as a centre of trade and commerce. Ken Scadden on the French printer Jean Francois Yvert. Dominique Varry on Lyon as the centre of French Catholic printing in the 19th century. Manuka Henare on the rise of Maori literacy after the arrival of Europeans and the way it forged a common Maori identity.

In my own recent book Founders and Keepers, I have a chapter on the reputation of Bishop Pompallier. I have an interest in the way early British settlers saw Pompallier, and particularly his role in the preliminaries to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. (He was not present at the actual signing of the treaty, although a dramatised documentary broadcast in February 2011 erroneously placed him there.)

Protestant missionaries believed (wrongly) that Pompallier influenced Maori to resist British annexation and authority. This unhistorical view has been repeated in some of the recent works of Paul Moon.  One of the best essays on the topic is Peter Low’s “French Bishop, Maori Chiefs, British Treaty”, which gives a nuanced account of  Pompallier’s advice to Maori and which first appeared in Dunmore’s collection The French and the Maori. In The French Place in the Bay of Islands Low recalibrates this earlier essay under the title “Bishop Pompallier and Te Tiriti”. He suggests that Pompallier did advise those Maori who consulted him that they were about to lose some of their power and authority, but that this was not inaccurate advice.

There is only one essay in this collection that I found a little unsatisfactory. That is Garry Clayton’s on New Zealand Francophobia. It tends to stick with 19th century fears of French invasion or takeover of the Pacific, without examining more recent outbreaks of the disease.

That noted, this book is an excellent production. Among other things, its price is justified by its very handsome wide-page, broad-margin presentation and its very many illustrations.

NOTE – Very appropriately, The French Place in the Bay of Islands is available for sale at Pompallier House in Russell, but it can also be purchased on line at    sales@thefrenchplaceinthebay.co.nz

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago. 

“EOTHEN” A.W.Kinglake (first published 1844)

The French and British were out of their natural element when they came to New Zealand in the nineteenth century. And for no other reason than that it concerns a nineteenth century man out of his natural element, I choose this week’s “Something Old”, which of course has nothing to do with New Zealand.

I do not know if it is still true, but Alexander William Kinglake’s Eothen, subtitled Traces of Travel Brought Home from the East, was once one of the most famous travel books in the English language. A.W. Kinglake (1809-1891) was 35 when it was published in 1844. It remained the best-known thing he ever wrote, although he also produced a multi-volumed account of the Crimean War and was (briefly) an MP.

I first read Eothen nearly twenty years ago, when I took a summer holiday on Great Barrier Island. It was a battered old Nelson edition, bought for 50 cents at a jumble sale. As I rolled across the Hauraki Gulf on a foul diesel-smelling ferry, I began reading the book and soon persuaded myself that I was an observant traveller like Kinglake rolling across the Mediterranean. I read it quickly, thoroughly enjoying it. I have recently checked favourite passages. It stands up to renewed scrutiny.

Before I first opened it, I knew it concerned travels in what Europeans would now call the Middle East. I’m not sure why, but for some reason I expected it to be  a purely descriptive work, attuned to refined aesthetic sensibilities – a verbal feast delineating subtle gradations of the colours of the desert and the moods of the sky, perhaps with overtones of mysticism. Maybe it was because of the book’s poncy title, Eothen. It makes it sound like something mysterious, although it merely means “out of the East”.

Very quickly I discovered that Eothen is nothing of the fine aesthetic sort. It is a brisk, lively travel-book by an early Victorian gentleman who chitter-chatters away like Thackeray when he drops those “Dear Reader” asides into his novels.

Kinglake travelled through much of what was then the Ottoman Empire, entering it through the Balkans, visiting Turkey, Cyprus and Palestine, then moving on to Egypt and circling back to Lebanon and Syria before returning home to England. He carried his insular prejudices with him, sometimes serving us caricatures of jabbering foreigners haggling in marketplaces, including Turks (whom he always calls “Osmanlees”) and Muslims in general (whom he always calls “Mussulmans”). He never uses the term Islam. Only “Mohammedanism”, a term that has always been very offensive to Muslims.

Many of the physical details of his journey are fascinating. It is interesting to note how often Kinglake would alter his itinerary to avoid outbreaks of plague in various Middle Eastern centres – a reminder of how different notions of medicine and hygiene were 160 years ago. There are also examples of strange experiences. At one point (in Chapter 17), during a tedious trek across a stretch of desert, Kinglake experiences an aural illusion rather than the more usual optical variety of customary mirages. He is certain he hears church bells ringing, although his reason tells him he is hundreds of miles from any church or bell. He reports that others have experienced the same phenomenon in the same place, but can give no explanation.

As always in travel books, what engages most are the voice and opinions of the author. Kinglake’s early Victorian Protestant prejudices are often in tension with his essential good nature and openness to people. In his description of Easter Week in Jerusalem he is fastidiously amused by the rival squabbling of “Latin” (i.e. Catholic), “Greek” (i.e. Eastern Orthodox) and “Armenian” (i.e. Coptic) Christians around the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. But on balance he is far more understanding of these rival traditions than more literal-minded Evangelical “Bible Christians” of his time would have been.

His amusement at some foreign customs does not blind him to the silliness of some of his fellow British. One devastating chapter (Chapter 8) gives his encounter with the preposterous posing, self-dramatising Lady Hester Stanhope, the niece of Prime Minister William Pitt who became famous for her Eastern travels. The chapter is almost written with a smirk as Kinglake lets the ageing lady condemn herself with her foolish talk and pretensions to occult knowledge. (It must also be added that the chapter still raises the hackles of feminist antiquarians, who want to see Lady Hester as a prototype of the independent woman).

In some passages the glamour of travel is communicated, and Kinglake expresses genuine awe before a famous Eastern monument. But his Preface is almost a manifesto of the modern travel book. He says he will record what he genuinely and subjectively felt in any given situation, and not what traveller-tale custom said he was supposed to feel in the face of some famous vista or building.

This attitude is reinforced by a passage in Chapter 11 which is worth quoting:
            “If one might judge of men’s real thoughts by their writings, it would seem that there are people who can visit an interesting locality, and follow up continuously the exact train of thought that ought to be suggested by the historical associations of the place. A person of this sort can go to Athens, and think of nothing later than the age of Pericles – can live with the Scipios as long as he stays in Rome. I am not thus docile: it is only by snatches, and for a few moments together, that I can readily associate a place with its proper history.

How many modern tourists could echo the same thought as they find themselves quickly distracted from the ancient things the guide-books say they should be admiring?

Kinglake is sometimes amused and sometimes shocked to find how different reality is from the way it has been described by more romantic writers. Masculine illusions about glamorous Eastern harems dissolve before the sordid sight of moon-faced Circassian women being sold as slaves in Cairo. Byronic phrases about a solitary Childe Harold making “the Desert his dwelling place” seem silly when Kinglake experiences the very busy social life of desert-dwelling Arab nomads, which would leave no space for solitary poetic reflections.

This is a very enjoyable book, but inevitably – and in the wake of Edward Said -  more solemn recent critics have condemned it for the crime of “Orientalism”. How dare a European presume to describe the customs and life of people other than his own!! I find one website condemning Eothen for its “Eurocentrizing… and blithe assumptions about ‘women’, ‘Asiatics’ etc.

Fair cop I guess – this is a book of its age. Yet I think the critic must have a tin ear not to recognize Kinglake’s wit and self-awareness. He is fully conscious that he is travelling through other people’s space and looking at what is strange to an Englishman, but customary to other human beings.

The past is another country, and to condemn its perceptions is to assume that we now have no prejudices and make no unexamined assumptions. Eothen is a delightful travel-book by a man who lived in a different age from us.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 
Here’s a really idiotic thing I heard in the staffroom of a secondary school quite a few years ago.

A teacher was distressed by all the images he had seen of famines in Africa and parts of Asia. The hunger-swollen-belly, flies-around-the-mouth World Vision-type appeals really got to him.

But he had a radical and simple problem to the evils of famine.

The British Empire, he said, should be brought back into being.

After all, he said “there were no famines in the British Empire!

The stunning ignorance of this statement is appalling. From the 1840s Irish Famine to the 1944 Bengal Famine, there were plenty of famines in the British Empire. Collectively, they carried away many millions of lives.

In the circumstances, it wasn’t worth arguing the point with this teacher. But on reflection, it didn’t take me long to figure out where his preposterous statement came from.

The British Empire flourished before the age of mass-media live coverage of events, and before television brought us direct feeds from scenes of disaster and despair. Because he had never seen pitiful images of famine in the British Empire, the speaker simply assumed that it never existed.

There’s an obvious moral that can be drawn from this, and it has been drawn in many thoughtful articles. Our perception of reality has been altered by the way television and other modern media present reality to us. When historians go counter-factual, they often ask such questions as – how huge a peace movement would there have been if people in 1916 received a live TV feed of the Battle of Verdun? How much more quickly would slavery have been abolished if every home saw, live, what really happened on slave ships and slave plantations? Would romantic legends of piracy and the Wild West have ever developed if live images had shown the sordid lives of real seaborne criminals and the deadly dull lives of real cowpokes, as opposed to the Hollywood versions?

When people starved to death in parts of the British Empire, there were, at most, terse newspaper reports, insulating readers from reality by their officialese and by the fact that they were merely words on the page.

Something was not seen, apart from by first-hand witnesses. Therefore it did not exist. Therefore it did not become part of general consciousness.

There is another and larger point here. I think when most people are ignorant of much of the past, they assume that the bits they don’t know about were “normality” and therefore something like life as it is now lived. If you live in a peaceable Western-style country, this can easily lead to the assumption that the past was largely peaceable – “the good old days” – apart from the handful of wars that everybody has heard of.

I’m inclined to call this the default setting of most people’s idea of the past.

Last week I was considering Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, with its detailed version of an extremely violent and destructive past which Pinker contrasted with a more peaceable present. He probably overstates his case, but he does have a point. Much of the past was violent and nasty. It was also toilsome (in the absence of labour-saving devices) and allowed an even smaller proportion of the population to enjoy a life of relative ease than is the case now.

For most people the pre-newsreel, pre-mass media past is the past as presented by movies. It is either squeaky clean – with cowboys, knights or Roman soldiers and their women as well-coiffed and cleaned as modern hygiene and make-up can make them. Or, in the opposite fallacy, it is presented as unrelievedly barbaric, as in that Monty Python movie where filth-covered peasants watch a reasonably well-dressed man ride by and one of them remarks “He must be a king of something ‘cos he’s not covered in shit”.

For a smaller group of people, the pre-mass media past means High Culture and great and enduring works of art, from Beethoven’s symphonies to Shakespeare’s plays to the ceiling of the Sistine Capel. Without wishing to sound Marxist about it, the past’s great works of art were produced for a small elite and do not necessarily represent the realities of the world in which they were produced.

As far as the best research can tell us, the pre-mass media past was not more glamorous than the present. Some of it was violent, socially it was very unequal, it had its disasters, and for the people who lived through it, it was simply mundane reality.

And there were famines in the British, French, Spanish, Dutch, Russian and Chinese Empires.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.
“THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE – The Decline of Violence in History and its Causes”  Steven Pinker (Penguin-Allen Lane, $40)

Canadian-born American-resident Steven Pinker, Professor of Psychology at Harvard, is one of the world’s best known academics. His books are best-sellers that explain the nature of mind, brain and language to a mass audience. They are good “vulgarisations” in the sense I used on this blog some weeks back – not devoid of specialist language, not condescending, but not written for an academic in-group either.

Given this, I’ve been surprised that so few New Zealand publications have yet bothered to review Pinker’s latest, The Better Angels of Our Nature, subtitled The Decline of Violence in History and Its Causes. All I’ve spotted so far is one reprint of the English Guardian’s review.

Or maybe it’s not so puzzling after all.

The Better Angels of Our Nature is a whopping 700 large and densely-printed pages of text, followed by a further 100 pages of notes and references. In short, the type of book that most newspaper reviewers are reluctant to take on as an assignment.

I have read this doorstopper over many weeks, stopping to reflect on it and reading and reviewing other books in the intervals. Despite its length, its central argument is a very simple one. Pinker believes that human beings are becoming progressively less violent. He is fully aware that this is counter-intuitive. Our news media constantly tell us about civil war, terrorists, random shootings and feral adolescents. “If it bleeds, it leads”, goes the TV news adage. It’s easy to gain the impression that the present is a uniquely violent time. Besides, it is a demonstrable fact that in absolute numbers – thanks to Hitler, Stalin, Mao and others – more human beings died by violence in the 20th century than in any other century of known history. And we certainly have more efficient means of killing people en masse than ever existed in past ages.

But, says Pinker, this is to think in  absolute numbers. What about proportional numbers? When the Earth’s population was smaller, a far greater proportion of human beings either perpetrated violence or died of it than has been the case for the last 65 years.

To prove his point, Pinker spends the first half of his book chronicling how violent a place the past was, and how much of an everyday experience death by violence was, from the very first hunter-gatherers to the nineteenth century. For example, while the 16th and 17th century Wars of Religion killed fewer people than the Second World War, they killed a much greater proportion of Europe’s population. And besides the fact of war, there were the enduring facts of violence in slavery, predation, looting, persecution, everyday murder and judicial torture, all of which Pinker details. In Europe, you were more likely to be killed by violence in all centuries prior to the 20th century than in the 20th century itself, even taking two world wars and totalitarian regimes into account. The same was true of the rest of the world.

In painting this portrait of the past, Pinker makes many sound points. One is his convincing demolition of the whole “Noble Savage” myth, which has transmuted into the idea of a peaceable natural state before corrupting civilization set in. All the evidence suggests that pre-historic, nomadic and primitive societies were proportionately more violent than later and more settled societies. On this point, Pinker is very anti-Rousseau and comes close to being pro-Hobbes. He rejects Hobbes’ firm and absolutist prescription for government, but accepts Hobbes’ idea that government is absolutely necessary for peaceable human life. Settled states and the development of civil society simply make for less violence. Pinker is happy to use Hobbes’ term – Leviathan – for the necessary supervising government and the system of laws it brings. He calls this the Civilizing Process.

How did our present, relatively peaceful, condition in the West come about? For Pinker it is the result first of what he calls the Humanitarian Revolution, and then of what he calls the Rights Revolution, both deriving from Enlightenment thought two and three centuries ago. As Pinker argues it, shared information means more empathy between races and peoples. This became possible only with mass literacy after the invention of printing, then with mass communications. The franchise widened, Western states became more democratic, people gradually developed the habit of respecting the autonomy of others, various forms of oppression slowly disappeared (racism and slavery; subjection of women; homophobia; mistreatment of children) and we end up with open, pluralistic, democratic societies where rights are respected, violence minimised and people less willing to go to war with other states at a rulers’ whim.

As Pinker calculates it – and largely proves it – liberal, pluralistic, open societies are the least likely to be warmongers.

Pinker does not assume that this revolution in mores is universal. Violence is still endemic in closed, non-democratic, non-pluralistic societies. A capacity for violence is still built into the human brain. In two chapters entitled “Inner Demons” and “Better Angels”, Pinker goes to his speciality – cognition and the brain – and discusses what parts of the brain dispose us to violence, what behaviours and conditions reinforce this, and what parts tend to peaceability. In very Enlightenment fashion he designates empathy, self-control and reason as our chief saviours, riding on the back of good education.

Before I say anything negative, I have to note that Pinker marshals a formidable amount of evidence to make his case. The book bulges with graphs and diagrams showing how, in many areas of life and over the long term, violence is tending down in the West and becoming more and more unacceptable.

On some issues, I admire Pinker’s intellectual honesty. Pinker is an atheist (three of four times he describes himself as “a Jewish atheist”) and has considerable contempt for organized religion, which he identifies with unreasoning dogma and a superstitious past. Religious fanaticism he sees as a contributing factor to much violence. Often, when he hails reforming heroes who helped put an end to forms of violence, he fails to mention that at least some of them were devoutly religious. (On one page, Page 164, I finding him quoting in turn and with approval from Sam Johnson, Jonathan Swift and Blaise Pascal without mentioning their shared Christianity.) Most egregiously, he lauds the abolition of slavery without mentioning the contribution of Evangelicals like William Wilberforce. Yet, given this bias, Pinker nevertheless is logical enough to reject Christopher Hitchens’ slogan that “religion poisons everything”. In his final discussion on the causes of war, he sees religion as, over the long run, a “neutral” factor because religions have been as much involved in promoting peace and rights as they have been in defining enmities.

Similarly, Pinker clearly approves of legalised abortion. He has difficulty negotiating a passage where, having praised respect for all sentient creatures, he has to admit that the child growing in the womb is sentient and capable of feeling pain, especially in the third trimester. But, given this perspective, he has the honesty to debunk the eugenicist argument that legalised abortion led to a decline in criminal violence. The argument, popularised a few years ago, was that rates of violent crime had gone down in the USA in the 1990s because, twenty years previously, abortion was legalised and women were therefore able to dispose of unwanted children who would have grown into resentful criminals. Pinker shows that the argument just doesn’t stack up. Not only was it based on shonky and selective statistics, but it ignored the fact that rates of violent crime in America were tending down well before legalised abortion had had any impact on demographics.

I should also note that, as a liberal who lauds the “rights revolution” and appreciates civility, Pinker can have his surprising moments. He frequently describes the 1960s in America as “licentious” and says that crime rates only came down when firmer policing was established. He has limited tolerance for the extremes of Political Correctness. While he applauds the increased rights of children and the massive decrease in violence against children, he deplores the way regulations now cosset and over-protect children. There’s also a very interesting passage – at the end of an appreciative survey of the women’s movement and the decrease in rape – where he debunks the feminist notion that rape is about “power” (reinforcing patriarchy) more than it is about “sex”. He says there’s something to be said for sensible parents’ advice about how young women can keep themselves modest and safe. I doubt very much if Pinker would approve of the recent “Slut Walks”.

What, then, are my objections?

One is the relatively minor matter of Pinker’s American perspective. All books have to be written from some viewpoint, but there are occasions where Pinker’s concentration on American statistics almost sounds as if he is implying that American life is the world’s norm. I also find it a little disconcerting that Pinker claims to find objective tests for intelligence which show that liberals are more intelligent than conservatives, and classical free-market liberals are more intelligent than left-wing and Greenie liberals. Hmmmmm.

More trying is the matter of Pinker’s historical perspective. Basically he lines up thinkers and leaders over the last three hundred years into two teams of goodies and baddies, respectively “Enlightenment” and “anti-Enlightenment”. Among other things, and being an atheist, this allows him to slide over the massive violence of militantly atheist states like Stalin’s by saying that Communism was more “anti-Enlightenment” than it was atheist. Nevertheless,  because he wants to explain change and progress in terms of defined “teams”, he often fails to acknowledge the complexity of the process of change in society.

Lurking behind this informative book there is, I suspect, a polemical purpose. My hunch is that this atheist academic has been goaded once too often by religious people who have pointed out the massive, and in terms of absolute numbers, unsurpassed destructiveness of recent anti-religious regimes. So out comes Pinker’s killer argument of proportionality and, as a subtext, a return to the attractive scientific myth of Progress in human affairs.

None of this is meant to condemn Pinker’s book or to belittle its importance. The core of its argument is sound and defensible. Civil, tolerant and open societies do promote more peaceful communities. The ubiquity of violence in past ages is often ignored by non-historians who have vague ideas of “the good old days” and who delude themselves that the present is somehow uniquely violent. In the present age, we have much to be grateful for. And civilization can be measured.

Something Old

Not everything worth reading is hot off the press. In this section, Nicholas Reid recommends "something old" that is still well worth reading. "Something old" can mean anything from a venerable and antique classic to a good book first published five or more years ago. 

“THE ANGEL OF THE ASSASSINATION” Joseph Shearing (first published 1935)

After considering Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature, a long, detailed argument about the decrease of human violence, perversity leads me to consider an historical book about something violent. But at least it too has an angel in its title.

I picked up The Angel of the Assassination, a sturdy hardback with thick-paper pages, from a second-hand bookshop some years ago. A first edition, but not expensive – and I doubt that it has been reprinted much since 1935. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and assumed that “Joseph Shearing” was some forgotten non-academic historian of the day. Only now do I discover that “Joseph Shearing” was in fact one of the pseudonyms of Gabrielle Long, the prolific English author of thrillers, historical novels and popular histories. She was better known by her main pseudonym “Marjorie Bowen” under which name, at the age of sixteen, she wrote her first novel The Viper of Milan, a thriller with a Renaissance Italian setting. Published in 1906, when she was 21, it is still considered her best work. This must have been galling for somebody who kept turning them out until she died in her sixties in 1952.

The Angel of the Assassination is one of her works of non-fiction. Briefly, it’s a life of Charlotte Corday or, to give her her full name, Marie-Charlotte Corday d’Armont, the young woman who killed Jean-Paul Marat during the French Revolution. Apparently in her lifetime she was more often called Marie than Charlotte.

She was a direct descendant of the playwright Pierre Corneille, whose tragedies, with their severe classical virtues, she revered. Her father was a very minor noble in provincial Caen and hence an enthusiastic supporter of the reforms in the earlier stages of the revolution, but not of the revolution’s later radical turn. For a short time, she went as a novice into a convent, largely because her father could not afford to keep her. But with the revolution’s suppression of religious houses, she transferred her piety to an idealised concept of the French republic, influenced by a cloudy version of Classicism and the writings of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

She and her provincial circle were Girondins, wanting a kind of decentralised federated France. But in Paris the more radical “Mountain” had taken control of the National Assembly, rounded up and executed the Girondin leaders, and proceeded to prosecute revolution with the maximum of Terror.

Against this background, acting entirely on her own initiative and inspired by her elevated republican ideals, 24-year-old Charlotte travelled to Paris with the aim of killing the “Mountain’s” most ferocious orator Marat. She hoped to kill him in public, to inspire other Girondins, but he was confined to his home by illness. She diligently sought out his address then – poignant detail! – purchased a common, cheap kitchen knife in a Paris arcade.

The 51-year-old Marat lived with his mistress Simonne Evrard and his sister Albertine. On 13 July 1793, Charlotte persuaded them to let her into their apartment under the pretext that she wanted to give Marat details of a vast counter-revolutionary conspiracy. She was admitted to the tiny closet where Marat, who suffered a painful skin disease, sat in his bath writing. One straight and true thrust of the kitchen knife to Marat’s heart and he was dead.

This was either extraordinary skill or extraordinary luck for a young woman who had never practised such violence before. Marat’s mistress and sister threw themselves on her screaming, and would have beaten her bloody if their screams hadn’t summoned revolutionary guards who arrested her at once. When she was arrested it was noted that there was no blood on her clothes. That is how true her knife-thrust had been.

Charlotte was hastily tried by a revolutionary tribunal and guillotined four days after the assassination. All the leading members of the “Mountain” (Danton, Robespierre, Saint-Just, Desmoulins etc.) watched her execution. The obvious retrospective irony is that all of them were, less than a year later, to be executed in their turn as the “Mountain” split into factions, devoured itself, and was later overthrown.

Even Charlotte’s enemies noted her calm and unruffled demeanour during her arrest and trial. The immediate result of her action was an increased round-up and killing of the remaining Girondins. Revolutionary presses wrote scurrilous, fictitious accounts of Charlotte Corday’s sex life to discredit her. But when her corpse was dissected (by order of the state prosecutor), she was found to be virgo intacta.

This story has been told many ways. Our idea of the assassination is irreversibly influenced by Jacques-Louis David’s famous image of the dead Marat, painted within months of the event. It was commissioned and consciously intended as revolutionary propaganda, and interpreted Marat as a martyr. In a way, this tradition was continued, long after the book I’m reviewing, in Peter Weiss’s semi-surreal 1960s German play Marat/Sade (set in a madhouse). Weiss represents Marat as the rough but effective tribune of the people and Charlotte Corday as a jittery neurotic and repressed nymphomaniac. (If you can’t discredit somebody for having a loose sex life, then you can discredit them for being repressed about sex.)

By contrast, Andre Chenier, France’s greatest poet at the time of the revolution, wrote a noble poem in praise of Charlotte. (He was executed later in 1793). Similarly the young German Jean-Adam Lux, who had come to Paris to support the revolution, was disgusted with the Terror, smitten by Charlotte’s final courage, and wrote a pamphlet in her defence. He was executed at once.

“Joseph Shearing” writes to a thesis. She sees Charlotte and her Girondin friends as typifying the vague, sentimental, unrealistic idealism of Rousseau. They were humane and they were brave – at least most of them (like Charlotte, like Madame Roland) went to the guillotine without flinching. They were right to protest against the excesses of the revolution. “Joseph Shearing” paints Marat as the bloodthirsty, sick, scrofulous fanatic, filthy in his personal habits and directly responsible for many murders. Hence, in her view, a man who richly deserved to die. And yet the Girondins lacked all sense of reality. France was then involved in a massive international war. The “Mountain”, for all their many crimes, did at least mobilise the nation for victory. No Danton and Robespierre, no French republic.

What we end up with, then, is the story of noble, righteous and totally impractical provincial idealists at odds with base, filthy, murderous but practical Parisians. I’m almost reminded of 1066 and All That contrasting “wrong but wromantic” Cavaliers with “right but repulsive” Roundheads.

The Angel of the Assassination is written in a brisk, efficient, dramatic style, very descriptive and probably calculated to drive academic experts on the French Revolution spare. There are no footnotes or references. This is popular history. Nevertheless, I think it catches accurately some of the currents of the revolution and it is still worth seeking out. I have found advertisements for it on-line, so there are alternatives to scouring second-hand bookshops.

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 

A reader asked me to comment on the recently-released film Anonymous, which purports to expose the “conspiracy” to palm off the plays of Edward de Vere, Earl of Oxford, as being by a talentless nonentity called William Shakespeare.

I can comment very succinctly.

Whatever the film’s merits as drama or thriller, as history it’s sheer bollocks.

However, that uncouth answer won’t satisfy ardent conspiracy theorists or people who liked the movie, so I’ll have to add a bit more detail.

I base my answer on a number of scholarly books I’ve read on the topic, plus my encounter with books by “alternative authorship” theorists, plus my (pretty good) knowledge of Shakespeare’s plays themselves.

I assure you, I have seen and heard the best arguments “alternative authorship” that people can offer.

Back in 2005 I reviewed for the NZ Listener Brenda James’ The Truth Will Out, which purported to “prove” that Sir Henry Neville wrote Shakespeare’s plays. Its “proof” was laughably slim, yet when it was released it was hailed as the most convincing “alternative authorship” theory so far. (My 2005 review is still on-line on the NZ Listener’s website). In 2010, I had the immense pleasure of reviewing for the Sunday Star-Times Professor James Shapiro’s Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare?, which I ended up nominating as one of the Books of the Year.

If you are at all interested in “alternative authorship” theories about Shakespeare plays, or if you have ever been pestered by somebody who believes them, then I urge you to get hold of Contested Will. Calmly, rationally, without any name-calling or condescension toward “alternative authorship” theorists, Shapiro demolishes one by one all the conspiracy theories.

And they are conspiracy theories, even though “alternative authorship” theorists get annoyed at the term. Remember, there is hard documentary evidence of Shakespeare’s authorship. He was attested as the author of his plays in his own lifetime, and seven years after his death, when the first collected edition of his plays came out (the First Folio), it was preceded by testimonials and verses written by Shakespeare’s friends and admirers, including illustrious people like Ben Jonson. If you want to believe that someone other than Shakespeare wrote the plays, then you have to believe that all these people (plus the printers) were sworn to conceal a secret i.e. that they were a conspiracy.

I leave it to Shapiro’s book to give you the fine details. Suffice it to say that the documentary evidence for Shakespeare is overwhelming, whereas there is no documentary evidence at all for anyone else’s authorship. Note also that we know a great deal about how books were printed in Elizabethan and Jacobean times, and we can chronicle with great accuracy when and in what circumstances most of Shakespeare’s plays were first written, published or performed. (“Most”, not “all” – there are some gaps and genuine mysteries.)

Alternative authorship theorists are, to a man and woman, ignorant of the scholarship that is currently available in these matters – textual analysis, palaeography and the ability to scientifically date texts. What we know from the real scholarship is that the life of no other claimant so far proposed matches the writing of Shakespeare’s plays. They were either too old, too young, dead or nowhere near where the plays were being written and produced.

Shapiro shows convincingly how the whole troop of erroneous theories arose from snobbery. By the late eighteenth century, Shakespeare’s reputation had risen so high that he had come to embody the English nation and seemed more than human. In the circumstances, it was disconcerting to realize that the real Shakespeare was a lower-middle-class boy from the provinces who had never been to university, was not a great power in the land at the time he was alive, and could possibly have been a Catholic. What was wanted was somebody who was aristocratic, glamorous, powerful and preferably Protestant. So, in succession, out came the theories that Shakespeare’s plays were really written by Sir Francis Bacon or the Earl of Southampton or the Earl of Derby or the Earl of Oxford or Sir Henry Neville or the great playwright and Cambridge-graduate Christopher Marlowe or (and even most conspiracy theorists baulked at his one) Queen Elizabeth 1.

All of this assumed, of course, that a lower-middle-class, non-university-educated chap couldn’t possibly have imagination and genius. As Charles Dickens was lower-middle-class and non-university-educated, this presumably means that somebody else wrote David Copperfield.

There is another thing about conspiracy theories. They tend to cancel one another out. Take the example of JFK assassination conspiracy theories, given a great boost by Oliver Stone’s unhistorical film JFK, which in turn was based on the fantasising of Jim Garrison. Those who refuse to accept very good evidence that Lee Harvey Oswald did it present us with theories about the pro-Castro Cubans. Or anti-Castro Cubans. Or the Mafia. Or hired French hitmen. Or dissident American military men and the CIA. Or (and – I’m not kidding – this was the first theory of the crackpot Garrison) homosexuals who were jealous of JFK’s virile, heterosexual appeal. Or various combinations of these groups working in concert.

But if any ONE of these conspiracy theories is true, then ipso facto all the other theories are wrong. So, even before I examine the evidence, I am entitled to say that the great majority of JFK conspiracy theories are wrong. And after reading the evidence, I conclude that they are probably ALL wrong. (I really mean that they are definitely all wrong, but I add the “probably” just in case some hitherto undisclosed real evidence does turn up.)

Now apply this irrefutable logic to conspiracy theories about the authorship of Shakespeare’s plays. If it was Bacon then it can’t have been Oxford. If it was Oxford then it can’t have been Derby. If it was Derby then it can’t have been Southampton. Or Christopher Marlowe. Or Sir Henry Neville. Or Queen Elizabeth 1. Or Mickey Ye Mouse. Ipso facto, the majority of Shakespeare authorship conspiracy theories must be wrong. And all the hard evidence suggests that they are in fact  all wrong.

Let it be made absolutely clear that there is no documentary or material evidence whatsoever connecting Oxford with the writing of Shakespeare’s plays. As James Shapiro has correctly said of the film Conspiracy, it is concocted by people who believe that lack of evidence is evidence.

There is no evidence to connect Oxford with Shakespeare’s plays! Therefore there must have been a conspiracy to suppress the evidence!! Therefore this proves there was a conspiracy!!! Therefore Oxford must have written Shakespeare’s plays!!!!

On these principles I can prove that the Earth is flat, that the Apollo mission never landed on the moon, that actually Ted Kennedy and his drinking buddies were standing on the grassy knoll, that there is a Zionist conspiracy to rule the world and that Michael Jackson was really killed by Peter Pan. (Actually that last one’s probably true.)

There is a side-issue over the part-authorship of some of Shakespeare’s plays. Even the best authorities agree that some of Shakespeare’s plays were probably written in collaboration with other people. Henry VIII was almost certainly written mostly by John Webster, and some of Will’s first plays were re-writings of older plays. And of course nearly all Shakespeare’s plots were borrowed from earlier sources. But these facts about Shakespeare’s working methods are quite separate from theories about Bacon or Oxford or Southampton writing the lot.

I’m not losing sleep over any of this. I rest safe in the knowledge that all reputable experts reject the alternative authorship theories and have the hard evidence on their side. Alternative authorship theories are to Shakespeare scholarship what astrology is to astronomy or numerology is to mathematics. It makes no difference that at various times illustrious people – none of them experts in the field – have championed the Oxfordian or Baconian or Southampton cause. One such illustrious person is the very good actor Derek Jacobi, who contributes to Anonymous. But – sorry – Jacobi is no scholar, no matter how outstanding his BBC performance as Hamlet was.

You can’t keep conspiracy theorists down though. The fact that Shakespeare scholars reject their theories must mean there’s a conspiracy in Academe!!!

Incidentally, the Wikipedia entry on the film Conspiracy is in part a puff for the film, as you would expect, and is certainly not written by Shakespeare experts. But it does at least (a.) note the poor critical reception the film has received and the low box-office return, which led its distributors to limit its release; and (b.) conclude with a list of historical absurdities in the film which, on their own, torpedo its claims to historical credibility.

Trouble is, re-runs and DVD release will doubtless persuade new generations of fantasists that this bollocks is credible.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Something New

We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“RULING PASSIONS” Nick Perry (Otago University Press, $45)

An Open Letter to Professor Nick Perry,
Professor in Film, TV and Media Studies
University of Auckland

Dear Nick Perry,
As a reviewer I don’t often break into direct address to authors like this, but your collection of thirteen essays so interests and intrigues me that I want to argue with it. In my book, that is a sign of its high quality. Only good essays are worth arguing with. If I agreed with everything a book of essays had to offer, it would probably be a very bad book.

Let me clear the ground first before I start arguing.

I read with unalloyed pleasure the first six essays in the book.

I loved the essay about how rugby has been hyped, framed and mythologised in various New Zealand  representations. Ditto the one where you examine shopping as social activity and convention, and take us through the different signifiers of the corner dairy, the department store, the supermarket and the mall.

When you write about the way gambling has been depicted on film, I quickly connected with you, having seen all the films you discuss from The Hustler to Casino. Incidentally, I’m happy to say I saw Louis Malle’s Atlantic City at the movies, so I was not one of those poor sods you mention, who had to see it cut up for commercial television. I also thought how good it would be if somebody could explore, with your sort of focused perception, the mythology of teaching on screen.

When I read your piece on early British television, it was not simply nostalgic recall that put me in sympathy with your views (though there was some of that), but rather your acuteness in situating each programme in its social context. With regard to the way Z Cars was corporatised and London-ised into Softly, Softly I was surprised that you made no mention of the defiantly Liverpool theme music of Z Cars (an adaptation of the Liverpool folk song “Johnny Todd”) which had originally signalled its regionality.

I had similarly enthusiastic responses to your exploration of the social implications of the telephone, and your analysis of the language of Catch 22.

I hope you get the picture by now. I read the first half of this book in a very positive way. Okay, I’ll overlook that occasional, and typically postmodern, straining after puns, from your book title onwards (I do understand that Ruling Passions is as much about how we “rule”, or control, passions as it is about how passions, with a lot of corporate grooming, rule us.) At least you don’t overdo the punning as some of your contemporaries in the postmodern socio-critical field do.

But it was at about the midway point that I began to bog down, and read more negatively. (I was going to say “more critically”, but I hope I read critically all the time.) I freely admit this may have been at least in part the old problem of reading all the essays straight through, from beginning to end of the volume, as a reviewer must. This is the too-many-chocolates-in-the-box phenomenon.

The essays were originally written in different contexts at different times, and each should probably be taken as a separate entity. So it doesn’t in the least faze me that you sometimes repeat ideas, and that you dispute more than once Descartes’ essentialist concept of an unassailable internal identity, inaccessible to external construction. (Though I can’t help feeling it’s a bit rough on poor old Rene, whose purpose was ontological rather than existential).

I think part of the problem was that the essays in the latter half of the volume are more theoretical, more detached from the specific, and where they do deal with the specific they hammer the subject into the ground with a solemnity that may not be warranted. Theoretically, I can agree with your essay on the Montana World of Wearable Art which says that the show is iconic of a paradigm shift in New Zealand’s self-image. But in fact, I wonder if you aren’t investing it with a significance that it cannot bear. I know postmodernists aspire to read a society from a soup-can label, in the way Blake could see the world in a grain of sand. But the soup-can label has to be chosen with care if it is to be truly representative. I’m not sure the Montana World of Wearable Art really is the right soup-can label. You strain at a gnat.

Then, almost inevitably, I come across my old misgivings about postmodernist criticism in its relationship with literature, music and the other arts. For example you point out (on p.201) that Media Studies approaches to television soap operas “subverted the convention of critical disdain for such texts by directing attention towards such structural complexities as multiple plot lines, absence of narrative closure, the problematising of textual boundaries and the genre’s engagement with the cultural circumstances of its audiences.” As a statement of fact, all this is perfectly correct. Of course soap operas can be deconstructed. Of course they tell us much about the society that both consumes and produces them. Of course they are well worth the analysis of a sociologist like you.

But part of me still wants to say “Yes, but they’re still only freaking soap-operas”.

To put it another way, we can map the techniques of soap-operas and legitimately and fruitfully analyse them as sociological data. But turning Humanities studies more towards this and less towards “the canon” means sinking further into the soup of our own time, wallowing in present-ism, and gaining less of the critical perspective for which postmodernism claims to provide a framework.

Please, I beg you, don’t tell me that I am missing the point. I am fully aware that postmodernism and its ultimate heroes, the cyperpunks, blur the distinctions between elite and popular cultures. The paradigm is TV viewing as ‘flow’ complete with ads, station breaks and previews of coming attractions. One doesn’t look at or analyse the individual work. One looks at the constructed context. (Yes, I do like the crack you quote about modern critical theory being “TV watching applied to books.”) But the quest for quality, for “excellence” to use a corporately-abused term, withers. Students learn that the art of criticism is saying clever things about crap – any soup-label will do – rather than lifting themselves out of the cultural Matrix. And buddy, in providing help, postmodernism ain’t no Neo.

I hope I don’t alienate you too much in saying all this. On p.162 you note that (in New Zealand and elsewhere) “what had always been a precarious, British-influenced and literary-derived high culture has progressively yielded to a more explicitly populist, and more obviously mass-media-based, American cultural hegemony”. Again a statement of fact, but one to which my own critical response – even after thirty years as a film-reviewer – is essentially one of resistance. I cannot go with the ‘flow’, TV or otherwise. It is my duty to say that there is something other – and better – than the populist and the mass-media-based. “Read a book with grown-up words in it,” I want to shout. And in fact, of course, so do you, as you have written such a book. This is another paradox with postmodernism criticism. It purports to embrace the popular, the mass, the accessible but (forgive me) it is written in a mandarin prose which implicitly shuts out not only the functionally-illiterate, but the averagely-literate. Its message ain’t its medium.

You probably have me taped as one of those conservative guardians of “high culture” – the sort who were at the height of their influence between the 1940s and 1960s, before Media Studies kicked in, and who were immensely suspicious of what they then called “mass culture”. You’d be partly right, but only partly. I live in the same world you do, consume all forms of media as much as you do, perceive them as critically as you do, and think I am as aware as you are of the social forces that shape them. Yet still my blood still freezes when, in your excellent essay on films about gambling, you write such a sentence (on p.51) as “The Hustler is the better movie – but perhaps The Color of Money is the better social science.” This is because I’m essentially concerned with what is qualitatively “better” (you yourself use this evaluative term), while you are essentially concerned with the “social science”. And (again forgive me), I think where the arts are concerned your type of criticism has the tendency to reduce all things to sociological data, and quality go hang.

Nick, we are singing from different song sheets. In saying what I’ve said, I’ve scratched a tiny pimple on the backside of a huge subject. I’m taking a crack at the whole methodology of postmodernism. I salute you for not drowning in jargon, for arguing rationally, for being so provocative, and for making me get on my hind legs and start fighting.

I hope you appreciate that all this means I enjoyed your book very much.

Please fight back
Best regards
Nicholas Reid

PS By the way, I loved the cover design, Fifi Colston’s cod re-representation of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus from the Wearable Art Show. It really tells me where postmodernism is at. While it purports to thumb its nose at canonical art, it still has to quote from it to assert its own prestige. Parody as the sincerest form of flattery.