Lost Children Archive, Valeria Luiselli (4thEstate)

This is a book born of heartache and a thousand acres of poetry.

Not for these children the blessing of growing up in a suburb somewhere,  getting yelled at about school work or too much screentime.    These are the refugee children, the anonymous ones, named only in the record of their deaths as if death alone brings an entitlement to recognition.  The right to a name is indeed hard earned for these refugee children trying to cross the desert,  to cross a long bridge in a good car and see tall glass buildings. To live in an imaginary world of light.

These are the universal siblings brought together by dire circumstances and the constancy and immanence of death.  They ride atop trains, jump off, run through thickets of gorse and stone, get scratched, bleed, or simply lie down and die of exhaustion and exposure.

“They had walked and swam and hidden and run. They had boarded trains and spent nights sleepless atop gondolas, looking up at the barren, godless sky. The trains like beasts, drilled and scratched their way across jungles, across cities, across places difficult to name. Then, aboard the last train, they had come to this desert, where the incandescent light bent the sky intoa full arch, and time had also bent back on itself.  Time in the desert was an ongoing present tense.”

And if the “barren, godless land” puts you in mind of Eliot, be assured, 21stcentury America  as portrayed in this book is The Wasteland made manifest.  In a nod to this Luiselli raises Eliot’s spectre in The Sixteenth Elegy.

“Unreal desert.  Under the brown fog of a desert dawn, a crowd flows over the iron wall, so many.  None thought the trains would bring so many.  Bodies flow up the ladder and down onto the desert floor.”

In one scene as children cross the desert  a plane passes overhead ironically full of other children.  They two groups will not know each other.   They will never meet.  But inside the plane a little boy sucks his thumb.  He is being  “erased from the fucked up country below him, removed.” As he drifts into sleep his thumb falls from his mouth.     “Finally he shuts his eyes, dreams spaceships.”

In a parallel storyline and universe  a (non-refugee) family try to make their way across the States in a bid to get from somewhere to somewhere else – to record the voices of the lost:  the Apaches,   the children.  A policewoman reprimands the family for breaking the law by letting their five year old travel in the back of the car without the correct designation of child car seat (the age limit is 7 not 5) because ‘we value our children’.   At the same time as someone else’s children are being shot at.

Somehow the author manages to make the book heart achingly sad but not at the same time depressing, perhaps because of the clarity of vision, the dextrous use of language which comes from a great deal of study and reading  thousands of acres of poetry.

But here is something else that occurred to me after reading this book.  For a project of my own I have been researching the teen fiction market. Coming from a poetry background it is not something I have ever felt the need to do before –  short of reading the obligatory Potter for my own kids.  But I asked around,   found some teen fiction titles and read them.

Why do we feel this need to categorise and make things generic for this age group, that age group?   Why do we assume that young people can only read a certain type of story?  But most of all I wondered how children can be allowed to die in the desert trying to get to a better life, but not be considered old enough or mature enough to read their own stories?

This is Book 5 of A Volatile Summer of Reading for my ten books of summer.

Riding the plains on a borrowed horse…

I never made it to the end of War and

Peace. I struggled even to watch the TV series – I’m not sure why. It is not so much the tome-sized tome , the style of address or the massive cast of characters.     It is more an oppressive sense of doom – the doomed world of the Russian aristocracy already in self-destruct from Page 1.  The same with Anna Karenina – the train has in a manner of speaking already left the station.

I had none of this difficulty however with the hugely readable trilogy The Writing on the Wall by Miklós Bánffy, despite comparisons with Tolstoy being inevitable. These books too operate within the twilight of an empire – although this time the Austro-Hungarian empire in the decade leading up to the first world war. Like Tolstoy the author is part of the fabric of the vanishing aristocracy.  There is a love story but it is more a love story to a fading landscape and history, than to any particular woman.   The main character, based on Bánffy himself, spends his time riding from baroque castle to baroque castle, attending balls (which never seem to end before 7 in the morning – what did these people do for sleep) parties and race meetings. Duels are fought over comments considerably less offensive than any trawl of twitter would produce on a given day.

Writing the foreword to the English translation of Bánffy’s work, travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor remembers his own travels in this region when in 1934 aged 19, he walked (as you do) from Holland to Turkey writes:

“… nobody likes having a new nationality forced on them, still less, losing estates by expropriation. This of course is what happened to the descendants of the old feudal landowners of Transylvania.”

“…Though enormously reduced, remnants of these old estates did still exist, and at moments is almost seemed as though nothing had changed. Charm and douceur de vivre was still afloat among the faded décor and the still undiminished libraries.”

Traces of great empires are hard to extinguish – we no longer have a great empire and by ‘we’ I mean anyone on the planet – but we do have societies, environments and a lot left to lose. Strange how you can see the impending destruction of a society only with the benefit of hindsight.  Or perhaps it is less a lack of seeing than knowing what to do, pressed as we are to the front of that speeding train , we elect leaders who sometimes mean well and sometimes don’t. Then sit back and wait for something right to happen. Should we be surprised if it doesn’t? Take away the baroque castles and we all ride those plains on borrowed horses.

 

 

The Lonely City

Olivia Laing, Canongate, 2016

“You can be lonely anywhere , but there is a particular flavor that comes from being lonely in a city”

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If this reads as an entrée into an examination of the work of American artist Edward Hopper (1882- 1967) – among other things, it is.    Looking at Hopper’s work it is hard to avoid a sympathetic response to the situation of his characters as people who are alone in their urban environments, with all the ensuing emotional cost that this involves. Although the artist himself did not like to admit to his paintings as studies of loneliness, Laing finds it hard to separate his work from this idea.

Laing also casts her compassionate eye over the life and work of Andy Warhol (1928-1987), David Wojnarowicz (1954-1992) and Henry Darger (1892-1973), the last to me completely unknown, but perhaps the most extreme in a literal realization of what it means for the personal of the artist to be physically and emotionally isolated, yet still create. Darger’s work was discovered posthumously writing and paintings of a Faustian world, containing scenes of both torment and paradise.

The essential isolation of the human condition! Considering there are so many of us – why is this?   As Laing points out, mere physical proximity is not enough to dispel these feelings, rather it exacerbates them, containing within itself the potential for voyeuristic opportunities to put the viewer in the situation of unauthorized observer of other lives, a situation which Hopper appears to explore in Night Windows.

Living in the country may sometimes be a lonely experience but surely it is harder to feel that sense of complete isolation when other beings are birds, insects, trees, grass. How do we know the pain of other lives? The difficulty … the joys? We don’t.   Those who are artists, painters, poets, musicians, writers of all ilk spend agonizing hours trying to find out. Or perhaps our lonely little planet spinning in its void is so much a part of us – as each of us is part of it – that it is inevitable we should share in the planetary sense of impending oblivion.  Is this what Plath meant when she wrote :

This is the light of the mind, cold and planetary
The trees of the mind are black. The light is blue.
The grasses unload their griefs on my feet as if I were God

(The Moon and the Yew Tree)

If the grasses grieve that we must grieve too. Humanity is not god but it has behaved as an irrational god achieving dominion over its environment then destroying it. What, faced with this relentless destruction, can an individual do? The answer lies in re-establishing broken connections – not in a caustic business sense of networking – but in a sense of identifying life as a shared process. Olivia Laing’s book sheds light on the artworks she travelled to the US to examine, but in the process she found out about herself and it is these insights that enable the reader to connect, as much as the lives and times of the artists she writes about.

Knowledge is not wisdom

Knowledge is knowledge. Wisdom is something else entirely.

Where has knowledge got us? To a point of existential crisis. Technology has brought us medical advances and robotics. It has also brought the nuclear bomb. It has got us mass surveillance at levels of which the Stasi could have only dreamed, with all the ensuing oppression and threat to democratic structures.

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But technology itself is neutral. Super computers can do all sorts of things – they can do nothing on their own. Someone, somewhere has to understand the technology which is governing all our lives – technology over which many of us have only an infant level grasp. It is certainly true that we all need a far greater knowledge of this technology – its limits or lack of limits – than we seem to possess. That is what Edward Snowden risked his freedom and his very life to tell us.

The freedoms that we hopefully envisaged  would come with social networking have soured into commodification and entrapment. After publication of the book  The Satanic Verses brought down a fatwa upon his head, author Salman Rushdie spent half his life trying to outrun extremist attempts to assassinate him and others connected with publication of the work, (which in the case of at least one publisher, succeeded).  In his book Joseph Anton his autobiographical account of this time, Rushdie commented that he would not have stood a chance had the events taken place in the internet age. People are easier to find and easier to control.

We need knowledge but even more than that we need wisdom. Buddhist Philosopher, Daisaku Ikeda, says: “Simply put, knowledge corresponds to the past; it is technology. Wisdom is the future; it is philosophy.”

We need people educated to exhibit foresight and moral balance. Beyond the limits of the spreadsheet, the balance sheet, the nationalist rhetoric lies the still uncharted realm of the philosophy book.  Human beings are human beings. They are not fodder for giant corporates or a collection of data to be stored for some as yet unspecified future use. Unfortunately that is not the message that narrow political views with their shadowy vested interest backers are keen to put across at the moment.

What do massive tech companies want from their employees?   They want people who know how to run massive tech companies. They do not want balanced individuals who have been trained to question authority and think for themselves.   Aye there’s the rub! We are sandwiched in between our increasingly desperate need for people who understand the technologies with which we have so liberally laced our unfree world – a new Bletchley Park peopled with those who can see off alleged hackers and keep our little island safe from viral incursions (at least of the digital variety) – and our need to create a new societal model in which people can think long-term, think their way out of crises situations before they occur, rather than constantly fire-fighting.

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But where there is use, there is abuse. In her book Not for Profit (Princeton University Press, 2010) Martha C. Nussbaum says:

“Educators for economic growth will do more than ignore the arts. They will fear them. For a cultivated and developed sympathy is a particularly dangerous enemy of obtuseness, and moral obtuseness is necessary to carry out programs of economic development that ignore equality.”

A program of economic development that ignores equality is the agenda which got Donald Trump elected to the White House.  Proof, if proof were needed, of the dangers of the dehumanizing effects of modernity coupled with a complete inability to see others as we see ourselves.

When the actor Hugh Laurie accepted his Golden Globe award in January for a performance in the TV series The Night Manager “on behalf of psychopathic billionaires everywhere” we all felt the sharp end of the joke that wasn’t funny. The sociopath has no concept of ‘other’ except as something to be acquired, collected or used.

Here is another worrying thought from Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore:

“aggressive nationalism seeks to blunt the moral conscience, so it needs people who do not recognize the individual, who speak group-speak, who behave and see the world like docile bureaucrats.” (Nationalism, London, Macmillan 1917).

In short, the real crisis shortage of labour is in people who can tell right from wrong. The big votes in 2016 were Brexit and the US election. Did voters in either case exhibit a rounded ability to think about all the political issues affecting the nation, to reason and debate, to make decisions based on sound judgement ?  If our so-called leaders are not doing that …. ? Did voters exhibit the ability to recognize other people as individuals, fellow citizens, regardless of race, religion or gender?   Or were they swayed by any nationalist rhetoric regardless of how illogical?

There may be many and complex reasons for the things that happened in 2016 but top of my list would be the decades long narrowing of the focus of education away from the humanities. Music, poetry and the arts ask us to wonder about our world – they ask us to take time to look inside it and question what we see. It can be said that the sciences do this too but these are concerned more with evidence and proof, rather than spirit and possibility. Science, business, economics, technology are great subjects for knowing how the physical world works, but they are not great at developing empathy. They are not great at teaching us to transcend cultural barriers at recognizing ‘other’.

But as Nussbaum points out, in the UK, since the Thatcher era, humanities departments of Universities have increasingly been under pressure to ‘justify’ themselves in terms of profitability a measurable short-term ‘impact’ being required, over the idea of philosophical development. In fact the very word ‘impact’ raises the bureaucratic spectre of ‘measurable outcomes’. James Rebanks, author of A Shepherd’s Life would be the first to admit that his ‘measurable outcomes’ at school were insignificant.   This did not appear to stop him achieving a double first at Oxford and going on to write several best selling books.