Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Sihwald in the Snow and in Gessner's Art

Here is a photo taken yesterday afternoon outside my home in a village south west of Zürich.

You can see the beginning of the Silhwald or Sihl Forest.  The trees rise up a steep incline that forms  a part of a ridge of hills, known as the Albis.  On the top of the hill you can spot a wooden tower, a relic from the Thirty Years War that devastated northern and central Europe in the 17th century and left a third of the German speaking population dead.  The Sihwald forms the oldest and largest mixed deciduous and evergreen forest in central Switzerland.  A place of tranquility and natural beauty, it also possesses cultural and artistic significance.

Here is a photo of my wife, Esther, just as she enters the forest.  In the distance you can see a house, the home of Daniella and Mischa and their children.  It reminds me of what the home of Hansel and Gretel must have looked like, and it is the last inhabited house in the forest proper.    

For centuries the Sihlwald was the property of the Fraumunster nunnery.  The nuns became incredibly rich and earned an income from selling the wood of the forest as fire-wood to the inhabitants of Zürich.  During the Reformation the forest became the property of the city.  One of the most important positions became that of the Sihlherr, or Master of the Forest.  His job was to ensure an endless supply of wood for building and for fires.  In the 19th century the Silhwald became a locally protected reserve and in 2009 it became a National Park.  Today it is preserved by a policy of minimal maintainance.  No branch is cut unless it forms a danger to human life or unless is carries a contagious disease.  If a tree falls, it is left to rot where it fell.

In the 18th century Salomon Gessner acquired the position of Master of the Forest.  The job came with a summer-house deep in the forest.  Besides being the most translated poet of the 18th century, Gessner was a journalist of continent wide fame, a leading ceramicist and a famous painter.  At some future point I will post an article about his many talents.  For now let us briefly consider his artistic work. Gessner was instrumental in the development of the sentimental landscape painting.  He used the Sihlwald, with its caves and steep hills, its river and many small waterfalls,  as his inspiration, but he idealized the forest and populated it with Arcadian temples and Grecian nudes. Though influenced by the ideals of the Enlightenment, one can see the beginnings of romanticism in Gessner’s landscapes of the Sihlwald, with his worship of the woods and his stress on the interiority of the subjective experience of nature.

Today Gessner is little more than a footnote in the History of Art, but his influence on later artists of Northern Romanticism, like Arnold Brocklin, was huge.  Next month Zürich’s Kunsthaus will host a large Gessner exhibition, which is sure to reclaim his reputation somewhat.

The exhibition will be accompanied by a full catalogue, to be published in February.

Read more essays on Switzerland in my ebook.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Westerbork Concentration Camp - Holocaust Memorial Day

January 27th marks International Holocaust Memorial Day, a date chosen as it marks the anniversary of the Russian army liberating Auschwitz in 1945.  Last spring my family and I, together with some friends, visited the former concentration camp at Westerbork, a thirty minute drive from the city of Groningen in The Netherlands. Between 1942 and 1945 the German occupying authorities moved over 100,000 Dutch Jews, a few hundred Roma and Sinti and dozens of Dutch resistance fighters to this relatively isolated place. Among them were Anne Frank and her family. Some stayed for years, most for weeks or months. All but a few hundred were transported to the east, to places like Auschwitz and Sobibor, to be murdered. Westerbork was the gateway to death.

Dear All,
Finally it has come. We are on the list. We had hoped that despite everything we could see each other again soon, but alas this won’t happen for a while. We hope God will protect you. We must remain strong. A big kiss to everyone,

This heart-breaking postcard, written by a camp inmate upon finding her name on the list for transportation, hangs near the entrance to The Memorial Centre Camp Westerbork Museum. The museum exhibits a collection of photos, objects and audio interviews with survivors as well as unique film footage of the camp. The names of the 102,000 victims are continually projected on a screen. Some of the objects, like school reports from the children in the camp’s school can be touched and picked up.

Most texts have English translations and further translations can be requested. The museum includes an excellent library of the holocaust and Dutch Jewish culture and the bookstore includes works in English. The site of the camp itself is a two and a half kilometer walk from the museum, along a path that winds through the wood. Motorized vehicles are banned because of the presence of a large radio telescope which today skirts the camp’s edge. A wire fence surrounds the perimeter of the camp. Signs on stones indicate where the barracks and various buildings used to be. One watchtower has been rebuilt. One can stroll along the Boulevard of Misery, the former main road that ran alongside the railway track, from where over 107,000 were loaded onto the trains to begin the journey to the east. The place where roll-call used to be taken now contains 102,000 small stones, each stone representing one Jew, Roma, Sinti or Dutch resistance fighter sent from this dreadful place to be murdered by the Nazis. In a far corner of the camp one can see the outline of the punishment barrack where Anne Frank and her family were incarcerated among resistance fighters and other “convicts”. They were considered to be criminals for disobeying the Nazis by hiding in their attic space in Amsterdam, and were held in a prison within a prison. Near the entrance to the camp stands the only original building still in existence. It was a private house until 2007. Once upon a time it was the residence of the Camp Commander, SS Obersturmfuhrer Albert Konrad Gemmeker.

Unlike the more infamous death camps in Eastern Europe, Westerbork was a “humane” camp. Prisoners were housed in terribly crowded barracks, and there was no escape from the continuous hustle and bustle, but no prisoners were beaten or worked to death here. Uniquely, in 1944 Gemmeker ordered the German Jewish photographer Rudolf Breslauer to film daily life in the camp. The documentary was never completed but Breslauer did shoot over 90 minutes of film. Some of the unedited footage can be viewed at the museum. It gives us an insight into life in the huge prison. The camp included a farm, a number of small factories, a school, a dental clinic and a post office. Just like in the outside world, people fell in and out love, were unfaithful, got married and gave birth in the camp. The camp hospital was the largest and one of the best in Holland, well staffed and well equipped, with patients receiving the best care possible. The fact that these same patients had all been earmarked for extermination led the historian of the Dutch holocaust, Jacques Presser, to describe the hospital as being both the most useful and most useless institution. Commander Gemmeker was regarded as a gentleman who never mistreated a prisoner and was known to love children. After one particular difficult birth he sent to Groningen hospital for an incubator for the newly born baby. He checked with the medical personnel regularly to ensure that the baby was being well provided for and seemed happy when the infant began to put on weight. Yet when the baby weighed six pounds it was put on a train to a “labour camp” and its death.

Opportunities for recreation existed and the camp boasted a shop, a hairdresser, a café and an orchestra with some of Holland’s finest musicians. Jewish German comedian and director Max Ehrlich founded a cabaret. With stage designs by Leo Kok, text and lyrics by Willy Rosen, music by Erich Ziegler and starring many of the crème de la crème of German and Dutch theatrical world, the cabaret became the best in the country, if not in the whole of Europe. Performances took place on a stage built from the ruins of a local synagogue. Camp inmates attended the performances, but the front rows were reserved for Gemmeker and the SS. Adolph Eichmann, engineer of the Final Solution, attended one performance and was struck by the beauty of the Dutch dancer Catherina Frank, one of the so called "Westerbork Dancing Girls". Her husband, Jacques, had just been deported to Sobibor following the birth of their only child. Eichmann, smitten by her beauty, arranged that she would be deported with her baby son to Theresienstadt to be held in relatively decent conditions.

A genuine “Theatre of the Absurd”, or perhaps “Theatre of Despair”, Ehrlich and his troupe hoped that they could save their lives by keeping the SS laughing. Actress Camilla Spira described the futility: “volleys of laughter… the moment when they saw us the people forgot everything……the next morning they went to their death.” The mystic and diarist Etty Hillisum captured the desperation of the troupe’s plight: “Willy Rosen …. looks like a walking corpse. A little while ago he was on the list for transport, but he sang his lungs out for a few nights in a row … the commander, who valued art, found it wonderful and Willy Rosen was spared”. But not for long.

Once a week, on a Tuesday morning, a train with cattle cars filled with over 1,000 Jewish prisoners left Westerbork for the annihilation camps in the east. Some victims were in their eighties, others were just a few months old. Etty Hillisum wrote of how “babies suffering from pneumonia are shoved into a car, where they mew like lost lambs separated from their mothers.” When the last train departed in September 1944, the Nazis had achieved their aim: the once thriving community of Dutch Jewry had been annihilated.

Gemmeker allowed the internal workings of the camp to be organised by a staff made up of Jewish, mainly German, prisoners. These German inmates, led by the Dienstleiter Kurt Schlesinger, came to form an elite with the power of life or death over other prisoners. One division, the Ordnungdienst, led by the Austrian Jew Arthur Pisk, formed a Jewish Police and kept order in the camp, which gave them the nickname the Jewish SS. For the most part they were despised by the Dutch Jews. Every week, at Gemmeker’s command, they drew up a list for transportation for the following Tuesday. On Mondays the camp’s helpless population was gripped by dread and panic, the prisoners suspecting that those whose names appeared on the list for transportation the following day faced a worse situation than the one they were presently living in.

Eventually most of the Jewish camp police, as well as the theatrical stars and musical talents, would be sent to their deaths in Poland. Photographer Rudolf Breslauer was murdered in Auschwitz. Max Ehrlich was put on the final train to Auschwitz, where he was gassed. Another passenger on the same train was Anne Frank. She would die in Bergen-Belsen just weeks before its liberation. Shortly after he married a camp inmate, Leo Kok was deported with his wife to Theresienstadt. She survived the war but he was transferred to Auschwitz and perished. Willy Rosen was sent to Auschwitz via Theresiendstadt too. He died in the gas chamber together with his mother. Etty Hillisum and her parents and brother were killed in Auschwitz. Jacques Frank saw his new born son only once and was sent to Sobibor and gassed upon arrival. Catherina Frank and their son survived the war in Theresiendstadt. When the Canadians liberated the camp in April 1945, Kurt Schlesinger and Arthur Pisk were among the 876 survivors. Albert Konrad Gemmeker, the gentleman camp commander, was put on trial after the war in nearby Assen. For his part in over 100,000 murders he served six years in prison, then returned to his native Dusseldorf to live out the rest of his life.

Camp Westerbork is only a couple of hours north of the tourist attractions of Amsterdam. The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam receives thousands of visitors every year, as does the Jewish History Museum. But when my family and I visited Westerbork last spring we encountered only about a dozen people in the museum; in the camp itself we were, surprisingly, entirely alone. Strolling along the restored pathways of the camp, stopping at the Boulevard of Misery, where thousands walked for the last time on Dutch soil, was a melancholic and ghostly experience.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Cafe Odeon and Cafe Terrasse in Zürich

Although I love East Asian culture, during ten years of living in Japan I often missed the ambience of old style European cafes.  Now, having lived nearly a decade in Central Europe, I still relish the atmosphere in the historical cafes of Zürich's Old Town.  Few will argue against the view that Cafe Odeon is the premier cafe in the city's history.

Opened in 1911 as a Viennese, Jugendstil cafe, Albert Einstein was among the first guests.  He lectured at the nearby Federal Institute of Technology.  Instead of just taking his coffee breaks at the Odeon, seeing as he never had more than a handful of students, he ended up giving his lectures there too. Benito Mussolini, the future Fascist dictator of Italy, dropped in as well while visiting Zürich.  The Dutch dancer Mata Hari, who would eventually be executed by the Allies as a German spy during World War One, once danced in the upstairs dancing room.

Some of the Odeon's most famous nights occurred during World War One: in one corner sat the Russian exiles, mostly communists.  Lenin himself held court here, with comrades Kamanev and Trotsky and an assortment of other Bolsheviks and Mensheviks.  The Odeon was a frequent stop off point during James Joyce's nightly pub crawls, together with his English friend, the artist Frank Budgen.  Stefan Zweig, the Austrian novelist, and his compatriot, playwright Frank Wedekind, were regulars.  The noisiest guests were the Dada crowd: a gaggle of young Rumanians like the confident and witty Tristan Tzara and the quiet, friendly artist Marcel Janco,  as well as the German contingent like the argumentative German doctor and poet Richard Huelsenbeck and the other worldly poet Hugo Ball and his partner, the dancer and singer Emmy Hennings.  While the rest of Europe engaged in continent wide butchery, Cafe Odeon rocked to the sound of Rumanian song, Russia political tirades, German poetry and Dublin accented streams of consciousness. Those were the days, certainly.

Cafe Odeon continued to attract artists, poets and musicians after the war.  Toscanini and Puccini were spotted here while visiting the nearby opera house and during the late 1920s Herman Hesse became a regular.  From 1928 until 1932 Hesse spent part of every year in Zürich while writing his novel Steppenwolf.  The Odeon became his favourite watering hole.  He even wrote an Ode to Cafe Odeon which was printed in a limited edition.  Thomas Mann was a frequent visitor to Zürich and after the Nazis came to power he settled in Zürich; Bertolt Brecht was also forced to flee from the Nazis and became a frequent visitor to Zürich, living here for a year after the war.  Both men could often be found in Cafe Odeon, Brecht keeping an eager eye out for beautiful young women and Mann keping an eye out for beautiful young men.  In 1957 a Swiss movie was made called Cafe Odeon, and during the 1960s and early 1970s the Swiss writers Friedrich Durenmatt and Max Frisch continued the tradition by which the Odeon has come to be renowned as a magnet for writers.

Alas, the cafe fell on hard times in the mid-seventies and acquired a bad reputation for heroin dealing, which led to it being closed down.  But it reopened in the early 1980s, much to the relief of just about everybody in Zürich.  True, it is much reduced in size and it is but a shadow of its former self.  When I opened the menu during my first visit to Cafe Odeon, nearly eight years ago now, the first thing I saw on offer was "American style burger and chips" and the music, REM, was far too loud for ten o clock in the morning.  But the original Jugendstil furnishings, with the long silver bar,  dark marble walls and glass chandeliers, have been restored. The coffee and food is good and, for Zürich standards, inexpensive. The cafe is always lively and attracts all sorts of people.

Just across the road is Cafe Terrasse. It's huge oval front opens onto a small garden with the river just beyond.  In the summer this is a beautiful spot, though the food is a bit pricey. Here one dines among the city's bourgeoisie - hedge fund managers, bankers and their foreign clients, come to Zürich to check that their secret bank accounts are safely tucked away beyond the reaches of the tax man. The Sunday brunch is popular among ex-pats. But Cafe Terrasse wasn't always a staid icon of Zürich's establishment.  Once upon a time ideas, wildly creative and hideously destructive, were tossed around like pancakes.  Lenin and his comrades met here daily for some serious games of chess.  Joyce dropped in during his nightly pub crawl.  And the mad Dadaists were to be found here too.  Indeed, according to legend, the name "Dada" was invented here. The French artist Hans Arp later wrote: "I hereby declare that Tzara invented the word Dada on 6 February 1916, at 6 happened in the Cafe de la Terrasse in Zürich, and I was wearing a brioche in my left nostril." Now, those were the days.

Sunday, January 17, 2010

The Invisible Dante in Paul Auster's Invisible

In The Sunday Times of October 25th 2009 a reviewer wrote of Paul Auster’s newest novel Invisible that “the title word appears in the text just once, on page 15”.  The title word appears in fact not once but four times in the text; on page 15 (“my vanity – that invisible cauldron”), page 83 (“to involve myself with the spat upon and the invisible”), page 89 (“By writing about myself in the first person, I had smothered myself and made myself invisible”) and page 250 (“An invisible America lay silent in the darkness beneath me.”) A few reviewers have mentioned Dante, but never more than in passing and always simply referring to the fact that one character in Invisible, a certain Rudolf Born, shares a surname with a character in Dante’s Inferno Bertran de Born, a real troubadour poet from 13th century Provance. But the importance of Dante in Auster’s Invisible goes much deeper.  Dante is present at a structural level – in other words, if you pardon the pun, his presence is important but mainly invisible.

Inferno, part one of Dante’s masterpiece, The Divine Comedy, opens with the line: “In the middle of the journey of our life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the straight way was lost.” Invisible, opens with the lines: “I shook his hand for the first time in the spring of 1967.  I was a second-year student at Columbia then, a know-nothing boy with an appetite for books and a belief (or delusion) that one day I would become good enough to call myself a poet, and because I read poetry, I had already met his namesake in Dante’s hell”. The reference to Dante so early in Auster’s work provides a clue to unravel the mystery that is Invisible.

Like many medieval thinkers, Dante was obsessed with the number three; the magical number symbolized God in the form of the Blessed Trinity – God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.  Dante saw God’s triple unity reflected in His creation: time consisted of past, present and future; human nature consisted of rational, appetitive and vegetative qualities; the three primary qualities of creation were form and matter, separate and conjoined.  Many numbers had a mystical significance for Dante but the number three was the big one.

Dante wanted his great work to reflect and imitate God’s creation. At the beginning of Inferno the narrator encounters three beasts.  The narrator, known by critics simply as "the pilgrim", is led on his journey through hell, purgatory and paradise by three guides. Satan, when we meet him in Dante’s hell, turns out to have three heads. Dante divided his long poem into three sections, each representing the three realms of the afterlife: Inferno (what Auster refers to as “Dante’s hell), Purgatory and Paradise.  Each of these sections, has thirty three sub-sections or canti. The first section has an extra canto that serves as a prologue; so 3 x 33 + 1 = 100, which during the Middle Ages was regarded as a perfect number. The entire work is written in terzine, short verses of three lines. Each of these follows a rhyme scheme called terza rima or third rhyme, an invention of Dante, whereby each terzina begins and ends with the middle rhyme of the previous terzina. Thus, the entire poem is linked by an interlocking chain of rhymes that binds each terzina to the previous and subsequent ones, much like the medieval concept of  God’s creation being like a great chain of being, where each thing is linked in a hierarchy to that above and below it.

So much for Dante, but what about Paul Auster?  Invisble is a novel that tells the story of a certain Adam Walker.  Like The Divine Comedy it is divided into three main sections, Spring, Summer and Fall.  Indeed, at a certain point Walker writes “The plan is to write the book in three parts, three chapters.” (page 87) He never explains why it has to be in three parts.  There are a lot of references to numbers in Invisible, but references to the number three are by far the most abundant.  Some make logical sense, they are three by necessity: “Three years of law school” (page 83) and “Margot buys him a copious three-course lunch” (page 208). Law school usually lasts three years and a French lunch usually consists of three courses. When Walker and his sister Gwyn celebrate the birthday of their deceased brother “the birthday dinner was a conversation divided into three parts.” (page136) But sometimes the number three seems like an arbitrary choice: Walker remembers an evening dinner “I believe it was on the third floor” (page 32) and he remembers “your parents moved you and your sister into adjoining bedrooms on the third floor” (page 113). Sometimes the use of “three” even seems absurd, like when Walker’s mentor Rudolf Born stabs a youth and then, when Walker suggest calling the police, asks “Do you want to spend the next three years of your life in court?” (page 66) Walker lives for a brief while in Paris as Dante once did.  He lives in the Latin Quarter, where one finds today a rue Dante, until he is wrongly deported for drug possession – “The police caught him with three kilos of drugs – marijuana, hashish, cocaine.” (page 291)  Three kilos?  Wouldn’t one kilo, or just a half kilo have been enough to frame him?  And why “marijuana, hashish, cocaine”?  Again, wasn’t just one enough? Perhaps Auster is referring to an alternative trinity.

The names of the characters in Auster’s novels always have meaning or significance, names like Brown or Stillwell or even Paul Auster (from his first novel, City of Glass).  In Invisible the names are spilling over with meaning. As we’ve seen, Dante begins his poem with: “In the middle of the journey”.  The main character in Invisible is Adam Walker.  "Adam" is obviously the first man, the first human ever created, an innocent, he will be tempted, he will be tested and he will fail and he will Fall.  All other humans are from his seed and because of him we have been locked out of the Garden and we have to undertake a journey to regain it.  “Walker” means a man who walks, a pilgrim of some sort, a man who travels, who undertakes a journey, like Dante who at the outset is in the middle of a journey.  Dante goes on: “I came to myself in a dark wood” and Walker, like the original Adam is confronted by a temptation, is tested and his failure leads to the end of innocence as well as self-knowledge: “I was less good, less strong, less brave than I had imagined myself to be.” (page 68) Walker had been tempted by Rudolf Born, the man who, as Walker points out in the book’s opening passage shares a surname with the great troubadour Bertran de Born, who appears in Dante’s hell.  But “Born” signifies the opposite of birth, Born’s stabbing of a youth brings death into Walker’s life, brings the end of innocence.  Born, according to Walker, “had shown me something about myself that filled me with revulsion, and for the first time in my life I understood what is was to hate someone.  I could never forgive him – and I would never forgive myself.” (page 71)  In other words, Born brings about the birth of hate; Born is the bearer of Walker’s self- knowledge.  In a way, Born gives birth to the journey that Walker must now undertake. Like Dante, Walker is forced to come to himself (admittedly, not exactly in a dark wood but while strolling along the edge of Riverside Park in New York). So, when we encounter Walker, although still a young man of twenty, he is, in fact, at the mid-point of his metaphysical journey. For Dante “the straight way was lost”.  What he means by the straight way is the righteous way, the moral way, the just way, and The Divine Comedy is the story of how he seeks a new way instead. A great part of Invisible is supposed to be, more or less, the words of Walker as he narrates how he changed his life, departed from the path he had been on, the straight path that would have led him to become a famous poet, and instead, after searching, he created a new life for himself.  Above all, that terrible night in 1967 in New York with Born caused him to lose the path of justice and morality and he rediscovered the just way when he became an advocate for the poor, downtrodden and invisible. Near the age of seventy, and close to death, he confides: “I’ve had ample time to ponder my motives for choosing the life I did.  In a very concrete way, I think it started that night in 1967” (page 84) The Divine Comedy in a nutshell: a walker loses the just way but undergoes a moral awakening.

By the way, when Walker writes that it all started that night in 1967, he is referring to a night in April.  Dante’s Divine Comedy takes place in April. Walker has a sister called Gwyn, a name that brings to mind King Arthur and his beloved Guinevere.  The Arthurian romances were the most popular tales at the time that Dante was writing and The Divine Comedy includes numerous references to Arthur, including one to Arthur’s incestuous relationship with his sister. Invisible is a novel with quite a lot of sex, with lengthy descriptions of Walker’s incestuous lovemaking with his sister Gwyn. At the novel’s end Gywn’s name is no longer Walker but she bears the married name “Tedesco”.  It means “German” in Italian, that is, it means German in the language of Dante.  Indeed Dante refers to “drunken Germans” in Inferno. There is more oblique nodding to Dante in Invisible, but you get the picture.

Strangly, Invisble gives us the tale of Walker’s journey in three parts, but Auster’s novel comes with a fourth part too, described as “a coda, as it were, a last little chapter” (page 260). This section concludes the novel with pages from the diary of Cecile Juin (that begin in April), a former girlfriend of Walker from his Paris days.  Juin records a meeting in 2004 she has had with Rudolf Born on a Caribbean island called Quillia. (As far as I know, no such place exists).  It is almost like a chapter out of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. But why this fourth section – the four gospels or the four points of the compass or the four horsemen of the apocalypse?  Or is it that there is a fourth section to Dante’s masterpiece, a sequel of some sort? In the history of English literature there is one great work that was inspired by Dante, indeed it is possibly the greatest work ever written in the history of English poetry – Milton’s Paradise Lost. But is there any hint in Invisible that Milton is somehow present in the narrative?  In 1967 Walker spent a few months working in a library where he stumbled across a 1670 edition of Paradise Lost (by the way, no such edition exists – Paradise Lost was published in 1667 and the second edition appeared in 1674).  Writing in the second person, Walker tells us that ‘you have spent the past few months immersed in John Milton, studying Milton more closely than any poet you have ever read … one of the undergraduates enrolled in Edward Taylor’s class … you have come to love Milton and rank him above all other poets of his time”.  Juin finds Born living in the jungle of his Caribbean island, like Kurtz in Central Africa, but he is in such a state of wild delusion that, had it ever been a paradise, it is certainly now a paradise lost.

Walker’s story, narrated by Walker himself, forms the bulk of Invisible, but it is framed within a narration that is brought to us by a famous author called James or Jim Freeman.  Freeman, being a novelist, a writer of fiction, a creator of lies, is a free man – free to make things up.  Walker is an unreliable author; his memoir is based entirely on memory. Freeman seems sure of himself.  He lives with his wife in Brooklyn, as does a certain real life author called Paul Auster.  He studied at Columbia and dabbled in poetry, as did Paul Auster.  He is now an established novelist, like Paul Auster. Freeman tells us that in an early work, a memoir of some sort, he wrote the first section in the first person but wrote the second half in the second person, just like Paul Auster did in his early memoir The Invention of Solitude, a work of Auster's that, by the way, contains the number three in the opening sentence. Freeman smokes slim cigars, a habit he shares with Paul Auster.  Late in the novel we discover that Freeman actually once knew Walker’s sister Gwyn, and for a moment this perfect narrator of Walker’s story leaves down his guard and we learn of the overwhelming impact she made on Freeman nearly forty years previously: “Gwyn was ablaze with beauty, an incandescent being, a storm in the heart of every man who laid eyes on her, and seeing her for the first time ranks as one of the most astonishing moments of my life.” He adds, “from the first second I wanted her”. (page 249) Wow!  Now he tells us.  What else has he been hiding from us, I can’t help but wonder?  What else has he left out, unsaid and invisible? Furthermore, he admits that he tried, unsuccessfully, to kiss Gwyn once, while walking in Riverside Park – the very same place where Walker witnessed Born’s killing of a youth.  It sounds suspicious, doesn’t it?  We discover, more or less by accident, that Freeman also attended that seminar from Edward Taylor, in other words, that seminar on Milton's Paradise Lost. At one point Freeman tells us that he has changed all the names (it is that naming thing that Auster loves to play with): “Adam Walker is not Adam Walker, Gwyn Walker Tedesco is not Gywn Walker Tedesco… Not even Born is Born.  His real name is closer to that of another Provencal poet, and I took the liberty to substitute the translation of that other poet by non-Walker with a translation of my own, which means that the remarks about Dante’s Inferno on the first page of this book were not in not-Walker’s original manuscript.”  But this is not true – the translation that appears in Invisible, that is supposed to be a translation by Walker of a poem by the medieval Provencal poet Bertran de Born is in reality (the reality of the world outside of the novel Invisible) that of a poem by the real Bertran de Born and Paul Auster claimed in an interview that he made the translation himself.  So Jim Freeman, the reliable narrator and framer of Walker’s story turns out to be telling us lies.  Freeman goes on: “Last of all, I don’t suppose it is necessary for me to add that my name is not Jim.”  Of course it is not necessary, because Freeman is not, after all, a free man.  He, like Walker and Born are creations of Paul Auster, the author of this comedy.  Like Dante’s Divine Comedy, where Virgil is not really Virgil and where the pilgrim didn’t really pass through Inferno, Purgatory or Paradise, Invisible, is a work of fiction, an elaborate lie.  It was Nietzsche who wrote “Only the lie is divine”.

Most reviewers of Invisible have focused on the narrative, with a fleeting reference to Dante and a brief acknowledgement that Auster is a writer obsessed with the act of writing, who confronts the reader with unreliability and narrative puzzles. They have missed the deep Dantesque structure.  Perhaps because it remains invisible.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Avatar Meet Crude

Millions of people will be seeing the newest blockbuster movie Avatar - a story of corporate greed, as humans destroy nature and kill others in order to acquire expensive resources.  But it is all just fantasy, right?  If only.  Human greed has already caused the extinction or near extinction of hundreds of species.  But Avatar reflects the behaviour of many corporations plundering the resources of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where over four million people have been killed since 1996 in the biggest war on our planet since World War Two.  This war is partly fueled by the need to mine coltan, an element that forms an essential part of your laptop and mobile telephone.  Avatar is comparable to the behaviour of Shell in the Niger Delta but it is even more reminiscent of the behaviour of Chevron-Texaco in Ecudaor, as portrayed in the documentary Crude: The Real Price of Oil.  For the fictional Na'vi people in Avatar read the very real Eywa people in real life Ecuador.  At the annual World Economic Forum in Davos Switzerland in 2006 Chevrolet/Texaco won the Public Eye Award for being the company with simply the worst environmental behaviour in the world, examplary in her social irresponsibilty, because the company has knowingly created a fatal disaster zone in Ecuador.  Public Eye invited Jennifer DeLury Ciplet, Managing Director of Amazon Watch, to give the speech to explain why the company had been chosen as the "winner".  She said:

"For more than thirty years, from 1964 to 1992, the oil company Texaco knowingly and systematically dumped 70 billion liters of toxic waste into rivers, streams, wetlands, and unlined waste pits in the northern Ecuadorian Amazon. This environmental and human catastrophe became Chevron’s responsibility when it bought Texaco in a US$45 billion merger in 2001.

Over the years, the toxic contents of Texaco’s unlined waste pits have leeched into the groundwater, streams and rivers of the Ecuadorian Amazon, contaminating the larger ecosystem and sending toxins downstream into Peru. Today, 627 open toxic waste pits remain, some of which are the size of a soccer field. These waste pits continue to leak highly toxic cancer-causing waste into the ground, poisoning the land and water where more than 30,000 local people live. Local residents have no other option but to use these contaminated sources for drinking water. Thousands of people are slowly being poisoned daily as they consume the water, bathe in local waterways, and breathe the vapors in the air from the waste pits.

Chevron’s operations have resulted in an exploding health crisis. Childhood leukemia rates are four times higher in this area than in other parts of Ecuador...The effects of Chevron’s “Rainforest Chernobyl” have been especially devastating for the indigenous communities... Since Texaco began its operations, one tribe—the Tetetes—are now extinct, and the land that other indigenous communities once depended on for subsistence is now so polluted that tribal members have had to abandon these ancestral areas...

Perhaps the most offensive part of this story is that this catastrophe was not an accident—it was the direct result of the company’s decision to prioritize short-term profits over people’s lives and the environment. To further increase profits from its operations in Ecuador, the company deliberately decided not to use re-injection technology, which was a standard industry practice at the time. Re-injection technology disposes the toxic byproducts of oil drilling hundreds of feet back into the well cavity, and is a better environmental option than not re-injecting the toxins...
However, there is an important sign of hope. Today, Chevron is facing a historic class-action lawsuit in Ecuador. Brought by five indigenous groups and 80 communities representing 30,000 people, this lawsuit has the potential to set a precedent that could benefit millions of people worldwide who have been victimized by private corporations. This lawsuit represents the first time in history that everyday people in the Third World have forced a multinational oil company to submit to jurisdiction in their national courts on environmental grounds."

The Worldwatch Institute in Washington first made the link between Avatar and Crude: The Real Price of Oil, with clips from the trailers of both films:   Avatar Meet Crude

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Why I am a Vegetarian

An ethical action is, I think, one which is made with the intention that the consequence of the action will result in the least harm possible, or even, in a reduction in suffering.  Bearing this in mind, my reason for being vegetarian is ethical.  Refusing to eat animals is a simple action that leads to a reduction in suffering.  When faced with the existence of suffering in the world, to refuse to take the existence of suffering in non-human animals into account, simply because they are of another species, is the moral equivalent of not taking into account the suffering of other humans simply because they have a different skin color or are a different sex.  It isn’t skin color or gender or species that is important; it is the perpetuation or reduction of suffering that counts.  As the Princeton philosopher Peter Singer (described by the Swiss newspaper the Tages-Anzeiger as "the world’s most dangerous philosopher") puts it in his seminal work, Animal Liberation (first printed in 1975, available in many editions): “If a being suffers there can be no moral justification for not taking that suffering into consideration”.

According to the British Society of Vegetarians, a vegetarian is one who does not eat “fish, meat or fowl”.  I am not a vegan, that is, I do eat products taken from living animals, such as dairy products.  That said, I have great admiration for those who follow a vegan way of life for ethical reasons.  The human is the only animal that drinks milk in adulthood, and the milk is not even our own, but taken from other, captive animals, mothers in fact, who have had their children taken from them at birth!  So, mothers, how about some solidarity with your sisters here?

Imagine a time in the future when we are colonized by other, more powerful creatures who discover that they enjoy our milk.  All our women are rounded up, are impregnated, their children are taken from them immediately after birth, and the women become captive milk machines for their consumption; most of our men are slaughtered shortly after birth for their flesh is deemed a delicacy, the rest of the men are held in solitary confinement and are regularly drained of their sperm through artificial means.  Of course we try to demonstrate the injustice of the situation, but these superior aliens don’t even recognise our primitive sounds as constituting a language.  We would, in fact, based on our own present behavior, have no right to object, for we too believe and live under the assumption that might is right and the suffering of others is irrelevant. Now, imagine if we all woke up tomorrow to discover that all the cows in the world had been suddenly blessed with the gift of the English language. What do you think they would say to us? Would they congratulate us for the humanity expressed in the latest EU laws regarding the transport of livestock?  Or would their first words be something like “ Please have mercy”?  And if they did ask for mercy, would we be obliged to release them of their incredible suffering because now they can speak our language?  Is this what it would take for us to open our eyes to what we are doing?  In which case, we are quite safe – they will not be blessed with the power to speak, and so we can continue to pretend that we are really admirable creatures and there is nothing untoward in the way the world of human and other animals is organised.

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

First Europeans in Australia

Here is a link to an article of mine in History Today magazine in which I look at the argument that the Dutch may have been the first Europeans in Australia:

First Europeans in Australia