Literature as History

February 16, 2017 § Leave a comment

img_0822I am reading Matthew Beaumont’s Nightwalking: A Nocturnal History of London.  This nocturnal history of London was constructed through literature.  He relies on everything from Geoffrey Chaucer to Charles Dickens to William Shakespeare, amongst others to reconstruct the nocturnal London, though he focuses particularly on the 16th and 17th centuries.  The Amazon reviews are about what you would expect, especially the negative ones.  They castigate Beaumont for writing ‘history’ using ‘literature.’  And you can see the logic here.  Literature isn’t history, it’s make-believe. It’s fiction.  And I can certainly hear some of my professors saying the exact same thing.

I use fiction a fair lot when teaching.  I assign ‘history’ for my students to read besides the textbook, but I also make wide use of fiction.  This is true both in the case of literature and film.  So how is literature history, you ask?

Literature is a reflection of the time in which it is written.  This is true of historical fiction and non-historical fiction.  The historical fiction of our era is a reflection of our attempt to find a way through changing and complex times.  It is a reaching back for something simpler (as we imagine the past to be), or for an explanation of the world through the past.   Literature, like film, reflects the mood of the times, the neuroses we, as a society, carry.  What fascinates, puzzles, and frustrates us.  It is, in many ways it is the id to our rational ego.

So Beaumont reconstructs a history of London through fiction, and in so doing, he discovers what London’s nighttime meant to writers in their time and their place in London’s past.  Chaucer’s 14th century London is a very different beast from Shakespeare’s 16th and 17th century version, just as his is different from Charles Dickens’ 19th century London, which is different from Zadie Smith’s 20th and 21st century London. But each of those authors reflect the city as it was in those times and those places.

And while their stories may be fictitious, the city they are set in is not.  Each of these authors takes great effort to reflect London, the London they knew, to their reader.  And this is the point of using literature as an historical text.  Fictitious as the stories may be, their settings are not.

And so Beaumont’s nocturnal journey through London after dark is, in fact, a history.

How We Remember: Siblings and Memory

November 9, 2015 § 15 Comments

My wife and I are watching the BBC show Indian Summers. It’s about the British Raj in 1930s India and its summer retreat at Simla, in the foothills of the Himilayas.  The show centres around Ralph Whelan, an orphan who has risen in the British civil service in India to become the Personal Secretary to the viceroy, as well as his sister, Alice who has mysteriously shown up in Simla, leaving behind some murkiness.  Alice, you see, was married, and she claimed her husband is dead.  However, it turns out he is not.  I don’t know how this turns out yet, we’re only 5 episodes in.

But what interests me is the relationship between siblings.  Ralph is the elder child, though it’s not entirely clear how big a difference in age there is between he and Alice.  Nevertheless, it is big enough to make a huge difference in their upbringing.  It’s also not clear when their parents died.  Both Ralph and Alice were born in India, but Alice was sent back to England when she was 8, presumably when their parents died.  She has only recently returned to the colony.  Ralph, it appears, has spent most of his life in India.

The memories of Ralph and Alice of their childhood are radically different.  In the first episode, Ralph manages to have dug out a rocking horse that Alice apparently loved as a child.  She has no recollection of it.  And this sets the pattern. Every time Ralph recalls something from their childhood, Alice responds with a blank look.  At one point, she says “I didn’t have the same upbringing” as Ralph did.

I found myself thinking about the relationship between siblings and memory.  Halbwachs notes the social aspect of memory, how we actually form our memories in society, not individually.  In her acknowledgements to her graphic novel, Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic, Alison Bechdel provides a hint to the disparate memories of siblings when she thanks her family for not objecting to her publishing the book.  In Fun Home, Bechdel ponders her father’s death against the discovery that he was closeted, all the while she figures out her own sexuality and comes out.  Her memory of the events, and the way it is told, is carefully curated. She controls the entire story, obviously, as its her story.  But, clearly, the hint is that her siblings (to say nothing of her mother) might remember things differently.

Even in my own family, largely due to the 5 1/2 years separating me from my younger sister and the 12 1/2 years between my brother and I, it often feels like we grew up in three different families.  I remember things differently than my sister, and we both remember events differently than our brother does.  Even events all three of us clearly remember, there are wide disparities in how we remember things go down.

As the experiences of the fictitious Whelan siblings, the real Bechdels, and me and my siblings, the existence and function of memory in a family counters Halbwachs’ claims about the formation of a collective memory.  Indeed, given the strife that tends to exist in almost all families, it is clear that perhaps the formation of memories and narratives in families works differently tan in wider society.

Irish History

April 23, 2015 § 4 Comments

It’s the tail end of the semester, and I’m marking stacks upon stacks of papers.  I am teaching Irish History this semester, for the 5th time in the past 3 years.  Irish history tends to depress me, as it is largely a story of imperialism and resistance, with great atrocity on both sides.  The Famine, in particular, gets me down.  The ambiguity of Irish history is difficult to come to terms with, as well.  It’s also very hard to teach Irish history, especially here in the diaspora.  Whenever I’ve taught Irish history, my class is overwhelmingly (over 90%) comprised of the sons and daughters of the diaspora.

It’s difficult because we of the diaspora have been raised on simplistic narratives of British malfeasance and Irish heroism; these stories are deeply ingrained in the American and Canadian Irish diasporas.  But, Irish history is massively complicated.  My students have a hard time dealing with the fact that the Irish continually lose when they rebel, in large part because of in-fighting or because only a small part of the country rises up.  I explain, partly to remind myself, that this is because the idea of Ireland as a country is a 19th-century creation, growing out of the Catholic Emancipation and Repeal movements led by Daniel O’Connell.

O’Connell is the one who re-drew the “Irish nation” from one that was Protestant (the Ascendancy, of course) to one that was Catholic.  But even then, Ireland was a divided nation, by religion (as it was during the Ascendancy, obviously).  So the idea of a unified Ireland is an elusive one.

My students handed in papers on Sebastian Barry’s brilliant novel, A Long, Long Waylast week.  It is the tale of young Willie Dunne, the son of the Chief of Police of Dublin, who enlists in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in the First World War.  Willie is shipped off to Flanders to fight the Germans, like a few hundred thousand of his fellow Irish Catholics did.  But, he is subjected to British anti-Irish attitudes on the part of many of his commanding officers.  And when he’s home on furlough at Easter 1916, he’s pressed into action against the rebels at the GPO in Dublin.  He’s confused.  He doesn’t understand who he’s fighting, thinking, at first, maybe the Germans have invaded Ireland.  When he realizes he’s shooting at fellow Irish men, he’s even more confused.  And, like most Irish Catholics, he gets radicalized in the aftermath of the Easter Rising, when the British respond with draconian punishments for the rebel leaders.  This leads to a rift with his father, who is a Unionist, despite being Catholic.

One of my students writes of an epiphany he has had regarding Irish history.  He says it’s easy to be anti-British when you read and learn about the atrocities they committed in Ireland.  But, when you learn of the brutality of the rebels during the Irish Revolution, things become more complicated.  He’s left rather conflicted about Irish history, about the justness of either side, or the moral evil of both sides.

Of course, it need not be an either/or situation. I always fall back on Joep Leerson’s idea that ambiguity is part and parcel of Irish history, it is a “both/and” situation.  And, ultimately, I have been reminded as to why I love Irish history: it is ambiguous, it is complicated, it is not simple.

And I suppose this is why I love teaching; feeling worn out from teaching all this Irish history, I am energized reading of my student’s epiphany.

The Dangers of the Internet of Everything

April 1, 2015 § 2 Comments

Courtney Barnett is this week’s sensation.  She’s an indie rocker from Sydney, Australia, and she’s making it big in the UK, and even here in the US.  She plays retro 90s guitar rock, for the most part.  Close your eyes and it’s 1996 still.  That’s not a bad thing, she also writes great songs, she tells stories, most of them autobiographical, and mostly funny.  Her music is catchy as all get out.  Rolling Stone is drooling, giving her new album, Sometimes I Sit and Think, and Sometimes I Just Sit, 4.5 stars.  But RS‘s review also steps a bit off the deep end in this 90s revivalist kick.  In the loudest song on the album, Barnett plays around with gender stereotypes and her frustrating life pre-stardom.  The chorus goes:

Put me on a pedestal/And I’ll only disappoint you
Tell me that I’m special/And I promise to exploit you
Gimme all your money/And I’ll make origami, honey.

RS calls this “so-totally-Nineties anti-corporate lyrics.”  Fat load of good the alleged anti-corporate tenor of the 90s did.  On Sunday, Evgeny Morozov commented on a new app, FitCoin, in The Guardian.  FitCoin, based on BitCoin, seeks to monetize our visits to the gym and other attempts at fitness.  FitCoin “is the first Proof of Human Work digital currency,” in the words of the app’s designers.  That’s right, using FitCoin, you can earn digital currency, which you can then use with participating sponsors like Adidas for discounts on gear, etc.

As Morozov argues:

FitCoin might fail but the principle behind it is indicative of the broader transformation of social life under conditions of permanent connectivity and instant commodification: what was previously done for pleasure or merely to conform to social norms is now firmly guided by the logic of the market. The other logics don’t disappear but they become secondary to the monetary incentive.

The ability to measure all our activities remotely is opening up new avenues for speculation, as anyone – from corporations to insurance firms to governments – can now design sly compensatory schemes to elicit desired behaviour from consumers chasing a quick buck. As a result, even the most mundane of daily activities can be linked to global financial markets. Eventually, we’ll all be trading in derivatives that link our entitlement to receive specific medical services to our physical behaviour. This is how fitness and health are gradually subsumed by the realm of money and finance.

Wonderful.  Sign me up.  Morozov rightly notes the dangers of this, though I think anyone with a pulse would recognize the inherent dangers in the commodification of basic human behaviour such as working out.  Or whatever.  This works, in many ways, on the same principle as newspaper websites.  Take, for example, my local daily, The Boston Globe.  I have discussed the descent into stupidity by the resident conservative columnist, Jeff Jacoby.  Jacoby, however, is a very intelligent man, and is capable of making complex arguments.  But he doesn’t any more.  His descent is tied to the larger descent of The Globe into irrelevance for anyone with a working brain.  This is made all the more bizarre when one remembers that Boston is also served by the populist, right-wing tabloid, The Boston Herald.  I guess The Globe wants to be a liberal tabloid.  In this descent to stupid, The Globe has realized which columnists and stories get the most clicks, and therefore make the most revenue. Jacoby works, because he riles people up.  And then there’s Kevin Cullen, who likes to use words like “punk” to describe Whitey Bulger (yes, he’s still carping on Bulger).

Thus, The Globe continues its race to the bottom because people want tabloid-level articles on the Boston Marathon Bombing Trial, or the murder trial of former Patriots star Aaron Hernandez.  Real news gets pushed deeper and deeper down the webpage.  In the physical newspaper, real news is buried deeper and deeper as the front page is dominated by these two trials, as well as Cullen’s vapidity and Jacoby’s cage-rattling.  The Globe makes more money off this than real news.

Human behaviour in terms of a newspaper is commodified, but we, the humans who follow the clickbait do not benefit economically.  FitCoin, on the other hand, takes that economic benefit and puts it into our digital wallet.  And many people will think this is a great thing.  But it is not.  Tying all human behaviour into ‘the internet of things’ will necessarily lead to the monetization of our behaviour, and this will lead to the “triumph of market logic” in all aspects into our social lives.  As Morozov argues,

[I]f permanent connectivity is essential for that logic to exercise control over our lives, then the only autonomy worth fighting for – both for individuals and institutions – would be an autonomy that thrives on opacity, ignorance and disconnection. A right to connect is important – so is the right to disconnect.

In other words, we enter into the type of world imagined by Dave Eggers in his 2013 best-seller, The Circle.  In it, Mae Holland gets a job at The Circle, an internet of things corporation, thanks to the fact her college roommate is an executive there.  Mae, as she climbs up the corporate ladder, is seduced by The Circle and its various apps that allow her to track every single aspect of her life in the cloud and on social media, from her health, to her late night escapes to kayak in San Francisco Bay, to her sex life and her parents’ health.  Her ex-boyfriend, meanwhile, is a craftsman and objects to Mae’s attempts to popularize his hand-crafted woodwork and wants nothing more than exist outside the all-seeing eye of The Circle and the internet.   Meanwhile, first politicians, then nearly everyone wears body cameras for transparency.  Then cameras are embedded everywhere, in the eyes of The Circle’s CEOs, this is good, because, like with Google Street View, people can travel the world without leaving their living room.  But, cameras everywhere lead to a surveillance state.  Mae, meanwhile, becomes increasingly embedded, and loses her critical ability to see what is happening.

Then there’s Mark Zuckerberg’s Internet.org, complete with the slogan, “The More We Connect, The Better It Gets.”  The TV ads for Internet.org are what I would call creepy.  They are set in the Developing World, and focus on people, usually young people or children, who build things like windmills, effectively inventing it for their part of the world.  Then the narrator of the video informs us that they don’t have the internet, and asks us to imagine what we lose globally because Mehtar and Mostek don’t have the internet.

And while certainly, the internet can be a good thing.  It can democratize.  It can get news out of places like Egypt during the Revolution there in 2011, which I watched unfold in real time on Twitter.  Or with the Ferguson protests last summer, which I also watched in real time on Twitter.  And it can bring knowledge to Mehtar and Mostek.  And maybe Zuckerberg really just wants to bring the internet to everyone.  But the internet also Americanizes the world. And it commodifies the world.  And there is a sniff of imperialism in these ads.

Belgian rapper Stromae has a brand new video for his track “Carmen.” In it, Stromae is caught in a hell of internet addiction, driven by love and consumer culture (you need to scroll down to the bottom of the page to see the video)

Eggers’ dystopia is fiction.  The FitCoin future and commodification of everything is very real.  And why should we be surprised?  As Tony Judt argues in his brilliant Ill Fares the Landsometime in the 1980s, during the era of Margaret Thatcher and Reaganomics, western society became completely and totally obsessed with money.  The end result of this is that, despite the alleged anti-corporatism of the 90s (honestly, I am not entirely sure what this is about, even counter-culture superstars like Nirvana were on major labels), is the monetization of everything.  Greed drives us.  And as the game proceeds, it will be harder and harder to opt out.  Morozov’s “right to disconnect” will disappear.

The International Museum of Folklore

February 13, 2015 § 6 Comments

In his Remembering the Year of the French: Irish Folk History & Social Memory, Guy Beiner talks a lot about folklore in Connacht, the western-most Irish province.  This is where the failed 1798 French invasion took place, and Beiner attempts an archaeology of the folklore of the region in relation to the invasion and its relation to the wider 1798 Rebellion in Ireland.

I’ve never really worked in the realm of folklore, but I’ve always been fascinated by it, dating back to my undergrad years, though my profs were all insistent that folklore did not belong in a history class. In grad school, I read Ian McKaye’s book, The Quest of the Folk: Antimodernism and Cultural Selection in Twentieth-Century Nova Scotia, which was about the collection of Scots and Irish folklore, especially in Cape Breton by Helen Creighton and others in the early decades of the 20th century, around the same time that folklorists were running all over Ireland, England, Scotland, the United States, and various other countries, collecting the folk stories of the region.

Beiner argues that

It is often claimed that modernization struck a deathblow to ‘traditional’ oral culture.  Yet, developments in communication and information technologies also provided new media for the transmission and documentation of folklore.

Beiner goes on to discuss all the ways in which modern technology has aided in the collection and dissemination of traditional cultures and folklores.  But he is clearly overlooking the fact that modernization DID work to kill traditional oral culture, a point made brilliantly by Angela Bourke in her The Burning of Bridget Cleary: A True Story.  This point is made all the more clearly by Keith Basso in his Wisdom Sits in Places: Landscape and Languages Among the Western Apache.  Most of the events described by Basso, in terms of his ethnographic amongst the Western Apache of Arizona, take place in the late 1970s and early 1980s, yet his book was published in 1995.  In his epilogue, Basso notes the massive change that had come to the community of Cibecue in the fifteen years between his ethnographic work and the book, and what is clear is that modern technology and modern life was killing the traditional way of life for the Western Apache, and with that, traditional relations to the land and the ancestors, which came through in what could be called folklore.

Ireland was no different (nor was any other folk culture anywhere).  Modernization has worked to kill traditional oral culture.  And while the stories still exist, and we can sill read them and listen to story-tellers, the culture they describe no longer exists.  Folklore, through the very act of collection in the early 20th century, was made static and museumized.  It became something to be fetishized and studied, and ceased to be a living thing.

Margaret Atwood: CanCon Queen

March 13, 2014 § Leave a comment

Last weekend, I read Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, the second of her dystopian trilogy (Oryx & Crake is the first part and MaddAddam is part three).  I mentioned Oryx & Crake briefly in my post in January about my 2013 reading.  There I noted I’ve never been an Atwood fan.  But this trilogy is making me re-think my position.  I spent a lot of time with both Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood simply overwhelmed with the world Atwood has created for this trilogy.  I can see influences from outside sources, and with her previous fascinations with dystopia, most notably in The Handmaid’s Tale, but mostly I’m just impressed that Atwood could invent this alternate universe.

At any rate. Throughout The Year of the Flood, I appreciated reading a Canadian author, maybe out of a sense of missing home, or maybe just enjoying Atwood’s sly humour.  The religious cult that is at the centre of this book, God’s Gardeners, have sanctified various ecologists, biologists, zoologists, and others who worked to protect the animals and the environment.  God’s Gardeners are a pacifist, vegan sect who believe in the sanctity of all life, incorporating various aspects of Christianity, Buddhism, and the scientific revolution into their belief systems.   When Adam One, the leader of God’s Gardeners gives a speech for the Feast of Saint Dian Fossey, Atwood slyly slips in Canadian content:

Today is Saint Dian’s Day, consecrated to interspecies empathy.  On this day, we invoke Saint Jerome of Lions, Saint Robert Brown of Mice, and Saint Christopher Smart of Cats; also Saint Farley Mowat of Wolves, and the Ikhwan al-Safa and their Letter of the Animals.  But especially Saint Dian Fossey, who gave her life while defending the Gorillas from ruthless exploitation.  She laboured for a Peaceable Kingdom, in which all Life would be respected.

“Saint” Farley Mowat is one of Canada’s best-loved authors, at least he used to be.  He’s still kicking around at age 92, but he reached the pinnacle of his fame in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s.  He is most known for his work on the Inuit of the Canadian Arctic and the wolves of the Canadian tundra.  For me, though, he is the author of the children’s lit Canadian classic, The Dog Who Wouldn’t Be.  I loved that book when I was a child.

The “peaceable kingdom,” is a biblical reference, yes.  But it is also a reference to Canada, the land of “peace, order, and good government,” according to the Constitution (though the latter has been lacking since January 2006).

The Spanish Civil War: On Memory and Forgetting

March 10, 2014 § Leave a comment

photoI have just finished reading Jeremy Treglown’s fantastic Franco’s Crypt: Spanish Culture and Memory since 1936.  Treglown is a literary critic, so he approaches history and memory in a manner rather different than a historian, nonetheless, there is definite overlap in methodologies.  I must say, I was originally concerned when I picked up the book and read this on the dust jacket: “True or False: Memory is not the same thing as History.”  Um, yeah, true. No kidding.  But, the whims of publishers are rather different than the arguments of authors.

Treglown does a fantastic job of dealing with the complexities of the Spanish Civil War of 1936-9 and then the long Francoist dictatorship from 1939 until the Generalisimo’s death in 1975 and the transition to democracy that followed.  Treglown works very hard against the myth that Republicans = Good and Nationalists = bad during the Civil War.  He also works hard against the myth that Franco’s régime was purely repressive and oppressive vis-à-vis art and artists, noting that a great amount of art (film, literature, music, visual art, sculpture) emerged in Francoist Spain.  This is not to say that Treglown paints a rosy picture of Francoist Spain.  He doesn’t.  He doesn’t glorify Franco, but he seeks to complicate the dictator and the community of artists in Spain during and since the Civil War.  He also deals with the complexity of characters like Camilo José Cela.

Cela was a nationalist soldier during the Civil War, and later worked as the censor for the Francoist state.  And yet, he was also himself a novelist, and remarkably blunt and sensitive in his work. He began a literary journal in 1956 “as a way of countering cultural officialdom and giving space to the ideas of Spanish writers living abroad.” A noble sentiment, given that most of those expat Spanish writers were expatriates due to the Civil War and Franco’s dictatorship.

Treglown points to Cela’s most famous work, San Camilo, 1936.  While San Camilo, 1936, has been criticised for a lack of morality, both due to the amount of time the characters spend in brothels and Cela’s avoidance of the larger issues of the war, it is in the details that the novel works.  Cela shows the moral and actual ambiguity of war, in Treglown’s words:

Above all, San Camilo, 1936 grieves for Spain, gazing at a graveyard full of flowers of all colors, ignoring the shouts of “¡Viva la república!” and “¡Viva España!” because “it is no use being too enthusiastic when melancholy nests in the heart.

But what mostly interests me about Treglown’s discussion about San Camilo, 1936 is the intersection between memory and forgetting.  As Cela writes, “No one knows whether it is better to remember or to forget.  Memory is sad and forgetting on the other hand usually repairs and heals.” Nevertheless, as Treglown notes, San Camilo, 1936, is essentially a “puzzled, angry act of commemoration.”  In other words, Cela and his characters remain ambivalent with what is to be done with trauma, history and memory.

I find Cela’ claims about the virtues of forgetting to be interesting.  We live in an era that seems to believe the opposite in many ways.  In our times, cultural historical memories have been exhumed and examined in public.  Sometimes this takes the form of commemoration, (such as in Cork, Ireland, in the summer of 1997, marking the 150th anniversary of the Famine) or commissions of Truth and Reconciliation (such as in South Africa after Apartheid).  Treglown himself recounts attempts by the caretakers of Franco’s memory to maintain his dignity, three decades later at the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), a huge monument outside of Madrid to honour the Nationalist fallen of the Civil War.  Meanwhile, since the end of the dictatorship in 1975, the Spanish have attempted to exhume the bodies of massacred Republican soldiers and sympathisers.  Indeed, the balance of power has tipped in favour of the Republicans, to the point where the atrocities committed by them during the Civil War have been whitewashed, just as the Francoists whitewashed the Nationalist atrocities.

Cela’s words, however, led me to think about Marc Bloch’s blistering Strange Defeat: A Statement of Evidence Written in 1940, about the quick Fall of France at the start of the Second World War.  Bloch, a captain in the French Army and the country’s most famous historian, wrote this on the run from the Nazis (who eventually killed him).  Strange Defeat is a searing book, almost painful to read, written by a fierce French patriot stunned and shocked his nation collapsed in defeat at the hands of the Nazis.  Bloch blames France’s political and military leaders for failing to have prepared for modern warfare.  And while Bloch remains an annaliste (the school of historical scholarship Bloch pioneered) in writing Strange Defeat, the immediacy of the events he’s describing and his anger and fury are clear.

Bloch was too close to the events, and too involved, to provide a long-view analysis of the Fall of France (nor, for that matter, did he wish to).  The same can be said of Cela, a Nobel laureate.  San Camilo, 1936 was published in 1969, thirty years after the end of the Civil War, while Franco was still alive and in power.  Cela, like Bloch, was involved in the events his novel attempts (or doesn’t attempt) to deal with, and his view on the past, memory, and forgetting is perhaps not surprising.

My grandfather, Rodney Browne, was 17 when he joined the Royal Canadian Air Force in 1943. He was a tail gunner, which meant his chances of survival were pretty slim. And yet he did survive, and he came home to Montréal in 1945 with the conclusion of the war.  But he was traumatised, deeply.  He suffered silently, primarily by drinking.  And he was restless, unable to settle into a job or family life, until his late 40s/early 50s, nearly thirty years after the war.  By the time I was born, Rod was settled, married again, and he was a good grandfather.  It is from him that I gained an historical consciousness about the Irish in Montréal.  He didn’t talk about his past much, and he never talked about the war.  I later found out that this was pretty common for men of his generation who served in the Second World War.  He didn’t want to remember, which is why he drank when he got home, trying to obliterate those memories.

So maybe, it is the generation who lives through the worst of the trauma that wishes to forget, to never have to think of the atrocities they saw or committed.  It is their descendants who feel the need to excavate these memories.  Either way, these are not complete thoughts on memory, commemorations, and forgetting.  Memory and forgetting remain incredibly powerful tools in historical scholarship.

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