Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Fernanda and the lesbian





I'm truly sorry about the lack of posts at the moment. But rather than blather on with excuses and explanations, let's seize the moment to barely-more-than-mention one of my most-favourite-ever books, US anthropologist Oscar Lewis' monumental 800-page oral history of lives in poverty in San Juan and New York, La Vida.  (1966; published in this tackily-jacketed Panther edition in 1968.) The interviews on which the book was based, all six thousand pages of them, were translated from Spanish into English by Muna Muñoz Lee, who really ought to get a co-author credit -- but then again maybe the real authors are "Fernanda" and her family. (The real names of both the family and Lewis' own research assistants are concealed.)


The jacket may be a touch exploitative, but Lewis' interviewees certainly let it all hang out. The book is a triumph of furiously exciting narrative.


Here's a taste. Fernanda is living with Erasmo and her three children. She and Erasmo have fights....


*


what's the matter with you?" And Erasmo answered, "Oh, the bitch I keep here bit me." Arturo said, "Good for her. You didn't have to beat her. After all, you're not her father."


Another time we had a fight and I had him arrested. I never did understand what that fight was about. I just know that he came and hit me over the right ear so hard that I felt as if the whole side of my head had exploded. I told him, "Wait a minute, if that's what you want I'll go call the cops." The cops were near and I had him arrested. They kept him in jail about seven days. I said to Arturo, "Tell him to fix the bail himself if he wants to go free, or he can stay in jail for all I care. I won't lift a finger to help him." So Erasmo sent for some money and bailed himself out. Then we made up and went on living together, but I had lost my love for him. When I love I love without limit, but when a man hits me I stop loving him at once.


It was about that time that a lesbian fell in love with me. I didn't pay any attention to her and what happened was Erasmo's fault because that Sunday he wouldn't take me to the movies and I had to go alone. Afterwards I went to a bar in La Marina and sat at a table to read the newspaper. Then that lesbian came and snatched the paper from my hands. I asked her, "Why do you do this?" And she answered, "You think you're tough, don't you?" I said, "I'm not tough but I can take on the toughest." Then she socked me, and we started to fight.


Arturo was in the bar at the time. Somebody said to him, "Look, Arturo, your sister-in-law is fighting." Arturo was very surprised because I really beat her up. She wasn't able to hurt me at all, except for one bite she gave me. I left her all scratched and practically naked. The cops came but the owner of the bar and boy who worked there hid me. They knew I'd never fought before and they all liked me. So the cops started taking away this other woman and she kept saying, "No, I fought with a tiny woman in there and she tore all my clothes off my back."


"Why did you fight?" the policeman asked.


"Because I've always liked that woman and she's never paid any attention to me. I took the newspaper away from her to see if she'd at least talk with me. Because I like her!"


Then Arturo and some others said to her in front of the cops, "Look, that woman you're after is no lesbian. She's a woman through and through. Don't you make any mistake about that, and be careful what you do to her."


Well, she ended up fighting with the cops and they hit her and took her away. She was in jail a month. When she got out she started looking for me everywhere. She meant to cut me if I didn't accept her advances. She came to the bar with a Gem in her hand and another in her hair. When Erasmo saw her he sent for me and said, "Nanda, don't go down to the bar. That woman came in with a Gem and she's threatening to cut you up."


I said, "She is? Then I'll go down all the quicker, because I'm no coward." He insisted, "Look, you'd better not go." Erasmo has always been a sissy. He'll never stand up for anybody. I bet he was at the movies when I was having the fight.


I took my Gem and went to the bar. When they saw me there, the boys bought me a Coke so I could attack her with the bottle if I had to. Then she sent for me to talk with her alone. I sent word back that the one who was in need was the one who did the walking. And she was the one who needed me, not I her. Well, she never paid any more attention to me after that, but we are still enemies. She doesn't say a word to me, nor I to her, when we meet.


I think it's very ugly for two women to do it with each other. If I'd had a taste for that, I'd be sleeping with women and living off the fat of the land. Because women ran after me too, you know, and offered gifts and money and clothes. But I didn't accept them because I never did like that way of life.


I left Erasmo because he was drunk all the time and he kept after the kids. Any little thing the children did bothered him. He just didn't like them ....  But the real reason I left Erasmo was because of Soledad. According to what I was told, Erasmo had fallen in love with her. Soledad was nearly grown by then, and you should have seen her! ...  (pp. 138-139)


*


Here's a couple of pages from later on. Fernanda's daughter Soledad is speaking:



















Lewis put forward the theory that poverty is an identifiable culture transcending national differences. Could be. I recognize many aspects of this La Perla life in the English council estates where I've lived.  Nor was it so very different in the days of Lazarillo de Tormes or Moll Flanders. On the other hand,  the particular poverty of western secular urbanism isn't perhaps very similar to what you'd find in e.g. fourth-world indigenous peoples.


I don't agree with people who use "the culture of poverty" as an excuse for why such a rich nation as the USA has such high levels of poverty, or a reason for not bothering with social programs.




But the first thing, always, is to respect people, not treat them as cases. And if you respect people, then you know they are ingenious survivors and they'll remake their world the way they need to. People in similar circumstances will come up with similar solutions. In very difficult circumstances, the choices get less.





































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Friday, April 21, 2017

blown sphere









It was night. The baby was sleeping soundly,  half in the world. The mother lay in the bed, feeling exhausted, as sleep came over her. Her partner slept deeply, exhausted.


The earth rotated, moving the stars through the branches.


The man was drawn back to consciousness by the need for a pee. He rose unsteadily, put the living-room light on in passing. He left the toilet door open and peed in shadow, half asleep. Even so, he had a good idea about a book he was reading.

Three or four cats, near enough, aware of each other. At the approach of the van, they were disturbed. They moved apart. One scampered. One stalked away. But they remembered. Missing out. They circulated. They saw. At a distance. They sat.

They were asleep. They had been ill all holiday. Now they were both back at school, and the boy went to nursery. He was an early riser. He had his own truck.


The whole city was asleep, but there were always a few trucks, the police... 

She got out of bed, leaving him ticking in his throat. Often, nowadays, she couldn't sleep. She felt the migraine on the border of her day. Might it pass her by? She padded down to the kitchen with her book. She made a small, very mild, instant coffee; tea gave her a migraine. She read the reminders in her own handwriting.  She thought about Jocelyn and the funeral.

He sat at the desk, half-asleep, and read: own pace in life, is trustworthy, loya & diplomatic. samsung. from responsible sources. can kill your unborn child. watercolo. 36g. Equatoria.

He was driving. He was home at last. The estate was quiet although there were a few lights on. Some people might be speeding or on their consoles. In one of the gardens was a moving shadow. That was normal. His gate was open. He decided not to close it in case it disturbed the dog upstairs. Cherry blossom on the path. Did it fall at night?


















Wednesday, April 19, 2017

kite string









Lebanese author Dominique Eddé's 2003 novel Cerf-volant, translated from French by Ros Schwartz as Kite and published by Calcutta-based Seagull Books in 2012.  (This is the second book I've read by this excellent publisher, the first one was Andrea Brady's Mutability: Scripts for Infancy (2013).)

The novel tells, in many short readable chapters by multiple narrators, the story of a love affair between Mali Rashed (née Shami) and Farid Malek. It's also a melancholy, though often comic, portrait of upper-class cultured life in Lebanon and Cairo (and London, Paris, etc) from early in the 20th century up to 2002. Dizzying society gossip, on every topic from the most serious to the most trivial, overwhelms us. It meditates richly on novels, on language (especially French and Arabic), on love, time and memory. The distant connection with Proust is there of course, yet Cerf-volant does not seem very Proustian.

The unfolding history of Lebanon, Egypt, Israel, Palestine and Syria is always in the background and sometimes in the foreground too. (Especially Nasser, the Six-day War, the Lebanese Civil War.)  September 11, al-Qaida and Islamism make it into the last scenes of the book (which are actually nearly at the beginning). It was written before the "Arab Spring", the rise and fall of Mohammed Morsi, the endless Syrian War and the punitive bombings of Gaza in 2014, but the seeds of all these events seem to be present in it. There's even a nod at the increasing confidence of the far Right in Europe, in the form of the outspoken yet charming publisher Paul Braque.


Eddé, a distant relative of a Lebanese president back in the 1930s, was born in 1953, so she is around twenty years younger than Mali. It's quite an impressive feat, to lead us through scenes in the life of someone who is this much older than the author. At least so it would be in a thoroughly naturalistic novel. But Cerf-volant is written according to a different theory of time than clock-time.




An early chapter from Cerf-volant / Kite in French / English / Chinese

http://www.asymptotejournal.com/fiction/dominique-edde-kite/french/
http://www.asymptotejournal.com/fiction/dominique-edde-kite/
http://www.asymptotejournal.com/fiction/dominique-edde-kite/chinese-traditional/

Here's the English version:




'What is a novel?' Mali asked her students.

It was October 1968, shortly after she and Farid had broken up for the first time. She was teaching French that year at a government school in Beirut. She had been given a class of sixteen-year-olds, about sixty boys, most of whom were behind in their studies and had only a smattering of French since they were sitting their baccalaureate in Arabic. Their replies, hesitant at first, came thick and fast. Mali jotted them down. Running on from each other, they read as follows: the novel's a story that's long and wide; it's life but in a book; it's like my uncle who married my aunt without asking for permission; if you observe life carefully, the novel is all around us; it's a story that has a beginning and no end; it's an Arabian Nights; it's when love is a river that meets a dam; I've got a novel, Miss, it begins with some Russians; the novel is full of things that happen at the same time and we don't know why; a novel is so sad it makes you laugh; well, my father says that our defence minister is a novel all by himself; if a novel begins, there's no more rest, that's it; what happened between Abdo and Mohammed the day before yesterday's a novel; the novel's for the French, we Arabs have poetry; Miss, is my sister's death a novel? everyone has novels, there's no need to die; only Allah writes novels; I want to write a novel about Palestine, so that it stays somewhere.

One boy sitting at the back of the class had said nothing. Gazing out of the window, his arms folded, he looked not so much absent as irritated. Yet he was the only one who spoke French. Mali addressed him. 'Ali, I haven't heard anything from you. What is a novel?' He resisted. She insisted. 'It's a story someone tells,' he replied eventually, 'that's all.' 'Give us an example,' she answered, expecting him to give a book title and the name of an author, but that was not how he understood the question. This is what he replied:

It was a winter's day. The sun came and went. The clouds grew bigger. The whole sky was like a stormy sea. Abu Sami pushed his orange cart shouting,'Ten piastres a kilo!' The street was empty, no one could hear him but he paid no attention. He shouted, 'Ten piastres a kilo!' and dreamt of a woman he loved. The hands on the clock were turning, daylight was fading and the clouds were growing darker and darker still. The rain began to fall, the dust turned to mud and Abu Sami's dream came and went, like the sun, its light vanished, he could hardly see the face of the lady he loved. Abu Sami no longer had the strength to shout,'Ten piastres a kilo!' He trundled behind his orange cart in silence. Several oranges rolled off but he didn't pick them up. Just then, an American car pulled up beside him and a lady sitting in the back wound down her window to buy five kilos of oranges. He put the fifty piastres in his pocket and went home with his oranges. A neighbour was waiting for him on his doorstep. He said, 'I have bad news for you, Abu Sami, the dancer is dead.' The dancer was the woman who had been going round and round in his head while he walked. Her name was Camelia. He'd seen her once at Ain el Mraisseh in a cabaret called Chéri. Only once but he loved her.


'There, that's a novel,' grunted Sami, shrugging his shoulders. And as Mali, smiling, wrote down the closing sentences in a notebook, he added in a more conscious, even solemn, tone, 'Once is enough to kindle a dream and a cloud is enough to snuff it out but, for the person telling the story, the dream and the cloud can last a thousand years. The novel doesn't move like an ordinary watch, its hands can stop for an hour on a minute and for a second on twenty years. It's a machine that can gobble a life in two pages.'




*










*




















The sleeve, unfolded. It's been composed by taking a commonplace natural scene (I won't guess from which country), and joining it to its mirror image to produce a perfectly symmetrical hump of yellow flowers.  Since the kite-string appears only on the front of the book and not on the reflex image on the back, it stands revealed as having been super-imposed. And closer inspection shows that the "kite-string" is actually a line of black ink, and even has a little break in it.

Both jacket and book-title refer to an image, in the final pages, of the novel as a kite. The image appears in the middle of a long harangue by the Armenian novelist Dance Vavikian, who begins by quoting the Washington Post.

And look at the bottom of the page, I quote, "Yesterday, a young woman was stoned to death for making a paper plane out of a photo of an Imam." For those who don't understand Arabic, a "paper plane" in English is a kite, and what is a kite? First of all, it's the opposite of a statue, it has the right to go in any direction, to fly, to stop, slow down, eagle-dive, sail, change course, somersault, once, twice, three times, stop upside down, soar again and fly off in the sky, while an unseen hand holds the end of its string, that is a kite. It is a paper cloud that crosses borders, blurs them, pushes them back, it is the wandering ghost of all that we have lost as a result of being afraid of everything and accepting everything. The kite is a novel, it goes here and there not knowing where it goes. ...  (p. 298)
*

Joumana Debs offers a parallel interpretation of the image: the kite (a person's life), controlled by an unseen hand (historical events).

Joumana Debs' essay "Le cerf-volant ou l'évanouissement du rêve arabe",  in Des femmes et de l'écriture. Le bassin méditerranéen (Carmen Boustani and Edmond Jouve, eds). You can read most of it on Google Books:

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=PrLeIht_7RIC&pg=PA67&lpg=PA67&dq=dominique+edde+cerf-volant&source=bl&ots=t3rJaLcw0T&sig=nSMeJ39i1Cv3YZ3y7paxWwhJ0oU&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiCpcK0jbPTAhWmOsAKHT-AD8g4ChDoAQhOMAc#v=onepage&q=dominique%20edde%20cerf-volant&f=false


*

Or isn't the unseen hand, rather, the novelist's? Dance Vavikian, like Dominique Eddé, is a novelist who writes novels. Mali is a novelist who never writes a novel, though we do get to read her unfinished effort, a chapter or two of her grandmother's life in France.

*

The framing of life by historical events, the impact of historical events.... Of course these are important themes. Mali is a passionate supporter of the Palestinian cause, Farid is an activist for the Palestinians. They are politically engaged, but how deeply does this engagement impact their lives? (Even when Farid is shot in the back in Lebanon, he recovers.) Are the ups and downs in Mali's and Farid's love affair really caused by - say - the Six Day War, or are they just coincidental with it? Are Mali's mildly left-wing views skin-deep or are they directly connected with the inner forces that drive her?

In one of the novel's preludes, the characters are milling around on the platform and talking it over. An unspecified speaker asks Farid: "But you, Monsieur Malek, what do you think of a novel that, just when the world is falling apart, hires liveried waiters and English governesses but not a single CIA operative, no al-Qaida members, not a Russian, not a Chechen?"



*


Interview with Dominique Eddé in Le Monde  (in French):


http://www.lemonde.fr/livres/article/2012/01/19/la-beyrouthine_1631746_3260.html


*


Lebanon is a nation of many languages. Because of the civil war, many younger Lebanese writers were displaced and began to write in English. Syrine Hout's book Post-War Anglophone Lebanese Fiction introduces the topic.


https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=KalvAAAAQBAJ&pg=PA203&lpg=PA203&dq=dominique+edde+cerf-volant&source=bl&ots=ivTBMbeRgb&sig=9VY0ZhdE2DzxhYQD_VZZo5yoIIM&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwisloSM7bLTAhVmIsAKHSpmD0g4ChDoAQgyMAI#v=onepage&q=dominique%20edde%20cerf-volant&f=false



















*


Article in the Independent (June 2016) about the controversy caused by French-Lebanese author Amin Maalouf's appearance on Israeli media. Quotes Dominique Eddé at one point.


http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/is-the-backlash-faced-by-french-lebanese-author-for-speaking-to-israeli-media-justified-a7083386.html




*


Dominique Eddé, from a promotion of her 2012 novel Kamal Jann
[Image source: http://www.mandor.fr/archive/2012/02/25/dominique-edde.html]

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Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Sir Walter Scott: Kenilworth (1821) - two notes.









1. Zacharias Yoglan, the Jew, is a minor character in Kenilworth (Volume II, Ch 1). Wayland Smith, the shapeshifting blacksmith/alchemist/swashbuckling retainer, purchases a very rare ingredient from him.


"And vat might your worship vant vith that drug that is not named, mein god, in forty years I have been chemist here?" .... This (black powder) he offered to Wayland, his manner conveying the deepest devotion towards him, though an avaricious and jealous expression which seemed to grudge every grain of which his customer was about to possess himself, disputed ground in his countenance, with the obsequious deference which he desired it should exhibit...


It's pretty disappointing to see Scott falling back on this anti-Semitic stereotype nonsense, only a year or two after he had made some decent effort to go beyond it in Ivanhoe. In that novel, Judaism turned out to be an important topic and in portraying Rebecca Scott began to imagine what it might be like to be a pejoratively-labelled alien in Merrie England. But in Kenilworth Scott's vision is of a dangerous but thrilling society of entrepreneurs, and he has no compunction about chucking in an avaricious Jew in passing, just to underline Wayland's skilled manoeuvring in the City.

It's a shame, maybe, to dwell on this detail from such a brilliant book, but the shame is Scott's.


2. Surprisingly to me, Kenilworth (now more or less forgotten by all but academics) was twice serialized on BBC television.


The 1957 serialization, in six 30 minute episodes, was in 1957, with a young Paul Eddington playing Edmund Tressilian. (The actor later beloved as Jerry in The Good Life and as Jim Hacker in Yes, Minister.) It is apparently lost.


The second serialization, in 1967, consisted of four 45-minute episodes. This time Edmund Tressilian was played by Jeremy Brett, later a memorable Sherlock Holmes for Granada Television. One of the episodes is said to survive. I don't suppose it's very good. But it emphasizes that the once hugely popular author was at that time still an enervated presence within popular culture.







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Monday, April 10, 2017

cherry blossom in Bath







Prunus 'Ukon'. James Street West, Bath (8th April 2017)




'Ukon' is unmistakable for a day or two when the newly-open blossom is a unique creamy-green colour. Thereafter it is not quite so obvious but remains a subtly classy tree, distinguishable by the only-semi-double flowers* and the rather noticeable red eye on the blossom as it ages (though be warned, many other cherry blossoms have red eyes too).


* Therefore distinct from other white blossoms such as Tae-Haku (single) or Shirotae etc (fully double) ...












Prunus 'Pink Perfection', Canterbury Street, Bath (8th April, 2017)

This is the same tree I photographed in bud last week.


http://michaelpeverett.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/cherry-buds.html










The massive double white cherry (Prunus avium 'Plena') in Queen Square, Bath (8th April, 2017)

















Prunus 'Amanogawa' near Pulteney Road South, Bath (9th April, 2017)







...Actually, outside a new-build development on the other side of the railway line, on the path up to the canal. I would have given the street name but Google Maps doesn't know about it yet.







Prunus 'Kanzan' in Victoria Park, Bath (9th April, 2017)


This is the same tree that I photographed in bud last week.


http://michaelpeverett.blogspot.co.uk/2017/04/cherry-buds.html








Avenue of Prunus 'Kanzan' in Victoria Park, Bath (9th April, 2017)











Why Prunus 'Kanzan' might not be the ideal choice for a small garden...




People relaxing in Victoria Park, Bath (8th April 2017 18:37)



Royal Crescent, Bath (8th April 2017 18:38)

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Thursday, April 06, 2017

Félix María de Samaniego: El labrador y la cigüeña / The farmer and the stork







[Image source: https://tesoroinfantil1234.blogspot.co.uk/2012/09/el-labrador-y-ciguena.html]



El labrador y la cigüeña


Un Labrador miraba
Con duelo su sembrado,
Porque gansos y grullas
De su trigo solían hacer pasto.
Armó sin más tardanza
Diestramente sus lazos,
Y cayeron en ellos
La Cigüeña, las grullas y los gansos.
«Señor rústico, dijo
La Cigüeña temblando,
Quíteme las prisiones,
Pues no merezco pena de culpados;
La diosa Ceres sabe
Que, lejos de hacer daño,
Limpio de sabandijas,
De culebras y víboras los campos.»
«Nada me satisface,
Respondió el hombre airado:
Te hallé con delincuentes,
Con ellos morirás entre mis manos.»
La inocente Cigüeña
Tuvo el fin desgraciado,
Que pueden prometerse
Los buenos que se juntan con los malos.



Fábulas I.XVI by Félix María de Samaniego (1745 – 1801)



The farmer and the stork



A farmer looked at the state of his grain with grief at his heart, because geese and cranes made merry with his wheat. So without further delay he skilfully laid his snares, and into them fell the stork, the cranes and the geese.


"Sir countryman," said the stork trembling, "Release me from these bonds, for I do not merit the pains of the guilty. The Goddess Ceres well knows that far from harming your fields I cleanse them of vermin, of snakes and of vipers."


"So nothing," answered the man angrily. "I found you with villains, and by my hand you shall die with them."


The innocent stork suffered the unfortunate end that the good must expect when they consort with the wicked.


*

The fable-form, in Samaniego and probably always, exemplifies the program "to delight and instruct". The two aspects aren't detached, but neither do they flow to the same end; they converse together in a complicated way.

The morals tend to teach tribal values: they promote fear, conformity, diligent labour, knowing your place, being forearmed. They deplore ambition, spontaneity, sensibility, emotion and innovation.

The prudential moral is in sync with the story, the moral is a wise moral, yet we have a freedom whether or not to take the moral.

We learn, if we care to, that this moral is an account of the world's imperfect justice. We see that the stork isn't doing anything bad in consorting with the other birds, and we see that those birds aren't really villains either. They are just pests in the same way that a flower may be called a weed, because it grows where we don't want it. So the fable can even be read as commending keeping company with those whom the world calls villains, and it informs us that this keeping company need not corrupt us; though it warns, too, of how the world may punish us for our temerity. Samaniego's fables are replete with a double irony which probes at both sides of a matter, like Fielding's.


*


This is a winter fable, the time when grain is sown. The fable is perfectly accurate so far as the feeding habits of the three birds are concerned.


Cranes are omnivorous and eat mostly plant food, including grain, with an increased percentage of animal food in summer when feeding their young. Some Common Cranes (Grus grus) winter in Spain.


Geese are herbivorous. They are principally specialist grass-feeders but they do enjoy eating grain sown in winter furrows. Some Greylag Geese (Anser anser) still winter in Spain, though in places like the Guadalquivir Marismas rather than on arid wheat-growing farmland.


Storks like the White Stork (Ciconia ciconia) are entirely carnivorous, feeding on insects, worms, amphibians, small reptiles and mammals etc. Plant food is only ingested by accident. Their presence on farmland is considered beneficial as they eat mice and rats. White Storks remain fairly common in Spain and in central Europe, though their range has declined (last seen in Belgium 1895, Sweden 1955) perhaps due to drainage of wetland. They like to nest in built environments and now find a lot of their food (and nest materials) in rubbish dumps.




*




White Stork / Cigüeña blanca o común / Ciconia ciconia


[Image source: http://waste.ideal.es/ciconia.htm]








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Tuesday, April 04, 2017

cherry buds

Prunus "Pink Perfection", Canterbury Road, Bath, 2nd April 2017




A long spell of mild weather from mid-March onwards has meant a compressed cherry-blossom season with lots of varieties in flower at once.


Perversely, then, this post spares a glance for two later varieties that aren't quite out yet. But already the buds --- if "buds" is the right term for the still tightly furled knops of these two very double varieties ---  are quite an attractive feature in their own right.




Above and below, Prunus "Pink Perfection" buds, a few days before flowering.




Prunus "Pink Perfection", Canterbury Road, Bath, 2nd April 2017


Post update: Below, the same tree a week later:




Prunus 'Pink Perfection', Canterbury Road, Bath (8th April, 2017)












Prunus "Kanzan", Victoria Park, Bath, 2nd April 2017






Above and below, Prunus "Kanzan" buds. 'Kanzan' is normally in blossom a bit earlier than 'Pink Perfection' but in 2017 they are just about in perfect sync.












Prunus "Kanzan", Victoria Park, Bath, 2nd April 2017

Post update: Below, the same tree a week later.


Prunus 'Kanzan', Victoria Park, Bath (9th April, 2017)



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Monday, April 03, 2017

Overboard




Lyttleton Masonic Lodge, New Zealand (c. 1858, eight years after European settlers first came here)


[Image source: http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/photograph/31279/lyttelton-masonic-lodge-interior ]



Walton Hannah: Darkness Visible (1952)





Subtitled: A Revelation and Interpretation of Freemasonry.


The life of the Anglican clergy of the 1950s is almost as shrouded in mystery as the life of freemasons, as far as I'm concerned. So I think this is an interesting book.


Some years ago a brother priest approached me with a view to my becoming a brother Mason. He kept within the law by not asking me outright, but indicated that it would be a very good thing if I did so, and that he would always be glad to propose me. It really comes to the same thing. I replied that I was extremely reluctant to join any organization of which I was allowed to know almost nothing in advance. To which he answered that if everyone felt that way there would be no Masons at all, for no one outside the Craft could possibly discover its secrets, and what was good enough for the bishops who had become Masons ought to be good enough for me.


It was that reply which interested me in the subject. I remembered a Member of Parliament telling me (long after such a revelation could  have been indiscreet) that even at the secret sessions of the House of Commons during the war it was considered too dangerous to reveal top secrets of policy and strategy even to some six hundred trusted M.P.s, and that in general they were occasions for members themselves to discuss such delicate topics as shipping losses and tank deficiencies. Was it then probable or even possible that an organization of some five million people, doubtless including good, bad and indifferent, which had been in existence for over two centuries could really keep the rest of the world in complete darkness as to their secrets? I was intrigued, and started to investigate.


I was surprised at the facility with which information could be unearthed in a manner explained in the first chapter, – and yet increasingly perturbed at the nature of that information. Accordingly I wrote to a Masonic bishop whom I had once met personally setting forth some of these perplexities, mentioning the inclusion of Baal in the secret name of God in the Royal Arch, making it quite clear that I was asking him for guidance as a bishop in a matter which concerned faith and morals.


The reply was more taken up with surprise tinged with indignation that I had discovered supposed secrets than with any anxiety to allay my misgivings. He said very courteously that if I did not like Freemasonry I had better not join, but he was not allowed to discuss these things with any who were not Masons. To which I wrote in return that I was truly appalled at the implications of this remark. I had made a prima facie case (and I then claimed no more) for the Craft being incompatible with Christianity, and appealed to a bishop for guidance. And his reply that he was bound by oath not to refute or even discuss such matters, although they admittedly concerned faith and morals, with any who were not similarly oath-bound to secrecy clearly implied that his Masonic obligation took precedence over his Episcopal oath to banish strange and erroneous doctrine. But there was no reply.


Admit it, you’re hooked. So was I, and so, clearly, was Hannah himself, intoxicated by the self-evident justice of his position.


The bulk of Darkness Visible consists of collated transcripts of masonic rituals. So far as English masonry is concerned, this is more or less a complete liturgy, excluding only certain higher degrees which are not universally practiced. This material (generally said to be secret) is, Hannah informs us, relatively easy to obtain, e.g. from masonic publishers. But their work sometimes abbreviates certain phrases in order to maintain a formal cloak of secrecy. Hannah expands these abbreviations by referring, for example, to the many published exposures of masonry. The result was, at the time, the most complete guide that was easily obtainable. Masons themselves are said to have found it useful.


However, the intended audience was, of course, members of the Church of England. Hannah had raised the question, not by any means a new one, of whether it was appropriate for members of the clergy (including bishops and indeed the then-current archbishop of Canterbury) to be freemasons. Transcripts of masonic ritual were included in order to counter the argument that non-masons lacked the materials to form an opinion. The introductory Part I, written by Hannah, is a formidable polemic against clerical freemasonry.


It is pleasingly written, logical and by its own lights completely persuasive. Freemasonry clearly claims to be a religion, or super-religion. It proclaims as something adequate a body of teaching that pointedly excludes all mention of Christ. Anglican clergy who become masons cannot possibly be acting in accord with their clerical duties. Hannah did not, it seems, receive any answer in his own terms; indeed, it is hard to conceive one. As he anticipated, he met with ad hominem attacks, cold shoulders, light dismissals and a wall of silence. It must have been infuriating, but he had set himself up for that. A few years later he converted to Catholicism (the Roman Catholic church prohibited clerical and indeed lay freemasonry in 1738). Doing so must have adversely affected the impact of his polemic on the Anglican community, but presumably he no longer cared.


Some of the ad hominem attacks may have been justified. He was not exactly a standard country vicar. I have found a biographical note that tells us: “Walton Hannah was born in England ca. 1910. His father, Ian Campbell Hannah, was a teacher of theology, a writer, and a Member of the British House of Commons 1935-1944. His mother, Edith Brand, was an American and developed an international reputation as a painter.” He was clearly well educated and well versed in the ways of the world. He became a priest in the 1930s and from the start his passion was collecting materials about Freemasons and other secret and occult societies. He denies ever having been a mason, but may have used some equivocal methods to gather his material. Some masonic correspondents addressed him as “Brother”.


I have described Hannah’s argument as logical. The hair-raising masonic oaths must be either rashly taken (in advance of knowing what they entail) or else frivolous (since they are sworn on the Bible, that would make them blasphemous anyway). If you accept, as Hannah clearly did, that of two logically contradictory opinions you can only believe one, then you cannot justify clerical freemasonry. Augustinian Christianity, with its emphasis on the moral and spiritual status of right belief, ultimately depends on that sort of logic. It leaves no room for woolly liberal Anglicanism, and no room either for the rapprochement with other churches and religions that, of course, was just then beginning to gather momentum. Though Hannah’s subject is freemasonry, the dubious ground he opposes had analogues in the church’s attitude to many other subjects, and of course far beyond the church walls too.


I take some more homeopathic pillules for my indigestion, and they do me good.


The problem with Hannah’s argument is that, not only may we do things that we cannot justify logically, but we may also say things without any corresponding belief. He makes a good deal, for example, of the middle element of JAH-BUL-ON (which is inscribed on the masonic Altar); it is cognate with the Assyrian deity Baal. (The third element is the Egyptian On or Osiris.) But if these, like the rest of masonic ritual, are merely verbal patterns that the participants can believe anything they like about, then it all becomes much more imponderable. An Augustinian view of belief has difficulty dealing with behaviour that is not grounded in anything so definite as belief. But this aspect of freemasonry was in fact portentous. What it already was in 1952 is what most western religion was tending to become: a sponge not a sword.


The relevance of Hannah’s dilemma to those of us who are not Anglicans or masons may perhaps be made clearer from the following passage. Hannah is considering the response that, whatever view he may take of the words of masonic ritual, his views are of no account because he has not experienced the atmosphere or context of the ritual as actually practised. He says:


A play can be understood, and understood with accuracy by reading it and following the stage directions. Even though it may come to life only by being performed, the meaning and significance of it remain fundamentally unchanged however much different nuances of interpretation are acted into it.


It would be ridiculous to blame Hannah for not being a literary theorist. And while we might not want to use exactly these words, what he says here does represent fairly accurately the principle, embedded deeply in our educational system, on which all readers actually operate when they pick up a volume of Chekhov or Shakespeare. The potential difficulties with this view become manifest when Hannah argues that participating in Masonic ritual is very different from acting in a play:


For the Freemason identifies himself with the mysteries, not in the sense that a good actor identifies himself with his part, but by a solemn oath and in the name of God he participates in the paganism of the play, and associates himself spiritually with it.


This is much as to say, as he does elsewhere (in rebuttal of the argument that a priest going to the masons is merely like a priest mixing with his parishioners down at the local), that “initiation into Masonry is not merely ‘meeting’ people at any level at all. It is joining them – identifying oneself by solemn oath with those people and with their sub-Christian beliefs”. But plainly the distinction between meeting and joining is in fact a blurry one. In popular drama (which today means on a screen) both audience and makers are pushing hard towards the point at which the frame between enacted fiction and real life break down. From one direction this leads us toward reality TV; in the other direction it reflects our desire to enter the fictional frame ourselves and to inhabit it. Our drama moves towards being real event, e.g. economic triumph, violent humiliation, sexual act, endurance test or perhaps even religious ceremony; at the same time as being entertainment and sometimes art. Yes, to imagine oneself participating in the drama does entail jettisoning logical belief, but that’s OK. Like drinking or taking drugs, it’s what keeps things ticking over tolerably for us; in short, it sustains our civilisation. And thus Hannah, though admirably unassailable, bought himself only a shrug of the shoulders.


Some of Hannah’s points depend on a historical orthodoxy that even many Christians will now reject (e.g. the objectionableness of Baal). However, I think this passage, on a fundamental moral dilemma of Masonry, merits consideration from anyone.


Not every Mason, not even every Christian Mason, could reasonably be expected to be a theologian or perhaps to realise even the possibility of his Craft being at variance with the exclusiveness of the Christian faith. Yet surely anyone capable of clear thinking must realise that in Masonry is an inescapable and insoluble moral dilemma.


If Freemasonry claims to possess secrets the knowledge of which would benefit all mankind in enabling a man to lead a higher and more moral life, it is immoral to keep that knowledge to itself.


If Freemasonry does not possess such secrets, it is equally immoral for it claim that it does possess them.


And after all, why should any knowledge about morals and the nature or name of God be kept secret? The Tracing Board Lecture of the first degree attempts an answer, it is true, but an answer which would be scorned as fatuous in an enlightened twentieth century. For this lecture implies that the teachings of Masonry are kept secret for the same reason that higher knowledge was the secret and oathbound possession of the few in ancient Egypt, because it conferred occult powers which might be mis-used in unworthy hands.


But can our democratic and enlightened Masons of to-day think of a better answer? Their own ritual nowhere suggests one, but it is difficult even after the most exhaustive examination to consider that ritual ‘enlightened’. However symbolically the turgid nonsensicalities of its mysteries may be interpreted, this, apparently, must always remain an unexplained mystery. Even to Freemasons.   


Close examination (the sort that you make when you’re typing something out) reveals this not to be a true dilemma at all, since “Masonry does not claim to possess secrets with such straightforward benefits” avoids both horns. The secrets of Masonry, if there really are any, are perhaps better named mysteries. One does not “possess” a mystery; one, well, joins it. As I’m typing up, thinking at the same time of the Rudyard Kipling who wrote “The Church that was at Antioch”, it occurs to me that the general form of the answer that I’m framing can only be: But life is not that simple! The same answer, perhaps, that now seems the best way of defending the “foolishness” of the Cross. 


To end with, we ought to have a sample of the “turgid and nonsensical ritual” itself. From an outsider’s perspective it does seem quite dreary. Even here, in the obligation of a candidate to the Third Degree, potentially sensational content seems to be undercut so that it ends up meaning nothing much at all. I suppose it’s a playscript you need to perform.


And finally, that I will maintain a Master Mason’s honour and carefully preserve it as my own; I will not injure him myself, or knowingly suffer it to be done by others if in my power to prevent it; but on the contrary, will boldly repel the slanderer of his good name, and most strictly respect the chastity of those nearest and dearest to him, in the persons of his wife, his sister, and his child.


All these points I solemnly swear to observe, without evasion, equivocation, or mental reservation of any kind, under no less a penalty, on the violation of any of them, than that of being severed in two, my bowels burned to ashes, and those ashes scattered over the face of the earth and wafted by the four cardinal winds of heaven, that no trace or remembrance may longer be found among men, particularly Master Masons. 







*


The official current Anglican position on freemasonry (General Synod, 1987), which is not dissimilar to Hannah's, is described here:


http://www.anglican.ink/article/freemasonry-and-doctrine-church-england


Despite this there have long been cordial and sometimes close relations between masonry and Anglicanism.


*


Though there are numerous irregular Masonic orders admitting women, mainstream and Grand Lodge masonry excludes women from membership, as per Anderson's Constitutions, which says that candidates must be "good and true men, free-born, and of mature and discreet age and sound judgement, no bondmen, no women, no immoral or scandalous men, but of good report..."


https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freemasonry_and_women











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