Monday, August 02, 2010

More cover stories

Warning: this post ends in an enormous anti-climax, as the 'mystery' its author labours to construct is efficiently dissolved by a commenter with a working knowledge of German. Take it as a lesson about the pitfalls which await bloggers who rely on google translator for their knowledge of foreign tongues...

I've blogged a couple of times about the mysterious cover of Travesty, the graphic novel which scribbler Mike Johnson and illustrator Darren Sheehan will be launching next Thursday night at the Auckland University of Technology's Creative Writing Centre (you can consult this poster, which deepens the mystery of Travesty's cover, for more details about the launch). The drawing Darren Sheehan made for the cover of Travesty has prompted a number of comments on this blog, as well as several rather agitated communications to yours truly, as viewers advance different interpretations of its details and meaning. According to one recent communicant, who chose to keep his or her identity secret, I am a 'goddam postmodern halfwit wanker' who 'sounds so try hard', because I see a bear on the cover of Travesty. Don't I realise that all bears 'have a cranial mid-saggital furrow', and that the creature Darren Sheehan drew has the 'opposite', a 'cranial mid-saggital eminence'? I'm sorry for my ignorance, anon, and I bow before your mastery of biology, but the fact is that I still see a bear, cranial mid-saggital eminence or no cranial mid-saggital eminence.

Observation is always theory-dependent, and the more one thinks about visual ambiguity, and about hidden imagery and secret messages, the more one finds these things. Looking at the cover that Manchester University Press has designed for my forthcoming book on EP Thompson, I suddenly realise how little I know about the image it carries. When the publisher asked me about a cover image earlier this year, I got Dorothy Thompson, Edward Palmer's widow and a significant historian and political thinker in her own right, to dig up a few old photos and post them off from Worcester to Manchester, where they were scanned and discussed. All of the photos were interesting, and some of them were both beautiful and historically significant, but all too many fell foul of the rules which govern the design of academic book covers. A photo which showed an impassioned Edward speaking in front of a World War Two memorial at an anti-nuclear demonstration, for instance, would have had to have been cropped very severely to allow the book's title and subtitle the prominence and clarity which were expected by Manchester.

Only two of the images Dorothy sent to Manchester ended up as cover contenders:

The image which ended up on the cover was snapped in the early eighties, when Thompson had suspended his scholarly work to devote himself full-time to leading European Nuclear Disarmament, the organisation he co-founded to try to 'break up the blocs of Europe' by supporting Eastern dissidents and Western anti-nuclear campaigners. Thompson's incessant campaigning brought him and his message new levels of prominence, but it exhausted him, and probably contributed to his early death in 1993. Dorothy doesn't remember who took the photo that ended up on my cover, but she doubts it was her. She thinks the image shows Edward speaking at an END-related meeting in either Cologne or Berlin.

A fine political orator and a finely oratorical teacher and lecturer, EP Thompson was seldom stuck for a word at the microphone or the lectern. There is a certain pathos, then, in the sight of him standing before his audience in apparent puzzlement, running his hand through that great Einsteinian mane of hair. Was he really struggling for the next word, or was he simply catching his breath, or perhaps play-acting for dramatic effect?

Even if Thompson wasn't literally stuck for words in the early eighties, he was arguably struggling for intellectual and political direction. The title of my book refers to the chronic crisis that Thompson's thought experienced in the postwar era, and particularly in the seventies and eighties, as the ideas he had adopted in the 'decade of heroes' that lasted from the mid-thirties to the mid-forties - the decade when the International Brigades fought fascism in Spain, and when the young Thompson fought the same ideology at Monte Cassino, convinced that the end of Hitler and Mussolini would bring the transformation of the world - were confronted by unheroic reality. Thompson's decision to immerse himself in anti-nuclear activism in the first half of the eighties can arguably be considered a response to his alienation from many of his old comrades on the Marxist left.

It was the French structuralist philosopher Louis Althusser who contributed, more than anyone else, to Thompson's disillusionment with Marxism. Thompson considered Althusser's obscurely-written, erratically brilliant, proudly 'anti-humanist' texts to be nothing more than 'Stalinism in theory', and despaired at the many followers the Parisian academic attracted in the universities and polytechs of Britain. In 'The Poverty of Theory', the two hundred page long polemic he aimed at Althusser and Althusserians in 1978, Thompson compared his nemesis to a dogmatic medieval theologian, a secret policeman, and a dalek. Thompson need not have worried about the influence of his enemy over the left: by the time 'The Poverty of Theory' was published Althusser was already suffering from severe mental illness, and in 1980 he strangled his wife, was declared insane, and lost his rights to teach and to publish, as well as much of his intellectual reputation.

I have long been intrigued by the way that the very vehemence of Thompson's attack on Althusser has ensured that his name has become linked with that of his bete noir. Like Euthyphro and Socrates, Camus and Sartre, and CP Snow and FR Leavis, Althusser and Thompson belong together in the minds of historians of intellectual controversy. I thought that the photo of Thompson standing in front of a blackboard resonated interestingly with the photo that adorns the cover of Philosophy of the Encounter, the 2006 volume of English-language translations of the wild and fragmentary works of philosophy Althusser scribbled in asylums and sheltered apartments in the lonely decade between the death of his wife and his own demise. L'avenir duree longtemps - the future lasts a long time - is a phrase which supplied Althusser with a title for the strange, chronically unreliable autobiography he wrote from an asylum in the mid-'80s. As well as boasting of stealing all his ideas from his students, robbing banks, and planning the hijacking of a nuclear submarine, Althusser the autobiographer claimed to have enjoyed a secret friendship with Charles de Gaulle, and the phrase 'L'avenir duree longtemps' is sometimes attributed to de Gaulle.

I can find no details about the date and circumstances of the photo that decorates Althusser's last book. Was it taken before or after the terrible death of Helene Althusser? If it was taken after the 16th of November, 1980, why is the disgraced philosopher standing in front of a blackboard, wielding a piece of chalk, and displaying a confidently pedagogical gaze?

I struggle to make out the form and meaning of the drawing Althusser has made with his chalk. Is the enigmatic figure behind him supposed to be an illustration of the arcane laws of the 'philosophy of aleatory materialism' whose 'ancient, hitherto secret' existence he claimed to have discovered in his post-1980 writings? Is it some sort of grotesque self-portrait, whose finer details are obscured by Althusser's sickly body?

Looking at the cover of my forthcoming book this morning, I realised that the photo which adorns it is just as puzzling as the image on the front of Philosophy of the Encounter. What, I wondered, do the words on the blackboard behind EP Thompson mean, and who wrote them? They appear to be German, but Thompson never knew that language: like Malcolm Lowry and Kendrick Smithyman, he combined an extraordinary gift for the English language with an inability to learn other tongues. What if the words behind Thompson communicate some message which runs completely counter to that of my book? What if they tell a dirty joke?

Three words can be seen on the board behind Thompson. The second of them is partially obscured by Thompson's locks, but the other two are 'BITTE' and 'RAU'. 'Bitte' means 'please', and, according to the German-English function on google's translator programme, 'rau' can mean either 'rough' or 'roughly'. The middle word is something of a mystery: could it be a variation on 'dran', which means 'turn', or on 'ssen', which apparently means 'have to'? Is there a relationship between these words, or word-fragments, and the mathematical equations chalked in the bottom right hand corner of the blackboard?

The photograph has been cropped by Manchester's designer, which means that all three words are fragmented on the book cover. As Richard Taylor and other violently innovative poets know very well, though, the dismemberment of a word adds to rather than removes its connotative power, as the confused minds of readers search for ways to complete it. What strange solutions might they might find to the riddle of Thompson's blackboard? Perhaps some reader of this blog with a grasp of German can help me circumvent such speculations, by coming up with a good interpretation of the riddle?


Anonymous Nathaniel said...

I think it's pretty obvious for a German-speaker. It says "BITTE DRAUSSEN RAUCHEN" - PLEASE SMOKE OUTSIDE

7:26 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Oh no! The mystery disappears! What a disappointment!

7:28 pm  
Anonymous Nathaniel said...

It is a great photo, though. I'd pick it up even if I didn't know who EP Thompson was. I haven't seen many photos of EP Thompson, but most have his face looking sort of waxy (that may simply have been a tendency of his aged face).

7:38 pm  
Blogger maps said...

Do you reckon that German users can easily get the meaning of the phrase even on the cropped version of the photo that goes on the cover? I suppose that there is still a little mystery left in the photo, for me at least, in the form of the equations in the bottom right-hand corner.

I think that EPT in middle and old age looks like John Pertwee's Doctor Who. I reckon he was a handsome man, but Skyler respectfully disagrees.

8:03 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Contrast: Thompson is not allowed to smoke/wants to ban people from smoking...and Althusser is smoking

8:19 pm  
Anonymous Question about His wrath said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

8:36 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

how can ppl take althusser's philosophy as anything but misogyny when he killed his wife?

if he committed a racist killing would he be read and discussed still??????

2:49 am  
Anonymous Nathaniel said...

It's a little less obvious with the book cover. Still guessable, since it's a common phrase,

I definitely think the Pertwee comparison is apt, although Thompson has very narrow eyes and smaller features in general. He had the attraction of a very distinctive appearance and I'm trying to think of elderly famous Marxist men (too many men, unfortunately) who totally fail in that regard. Maybe Perry Anderson.

how can ppl take althusser's philosophy as anything but misogyny when he killed his wife?

if he committed a racist killing would he be read and discussed still??????

Was it a misogynist killing besides the fact that the victim was a woman? Was she killed for her gender? Althusser's (male) privilege and fame definitely helped him to avoid trial, but he does actually seem to have been mentally ill. Burroughs' shooting of his partner, for example, definitely makes me more uncomfortable about his fame (and his fame comes from work after that).

I don't know if the comparison is valid, but unfortunately I do think someone who did a racist killing would probably still be read and discussed today. Others can supply examples. I mean, we read and discuss Heidegger (and Schmitt now) for example, so Nazis who didn't directly kill seem to be okay. I don't think the separation of art and artist is fully valid, particularly when it's applied to work and thinkers, but where do you see misogyny in Althusser's work?

8:57 am  
Blogger Skyler said...

I understand German & I didn't get it until Nathaniel pointed it out. I don't think it's obvious on the book cover with more letters cropped out. Great photo!

2:54 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Althusser's 'Contradiction and Overdetermination' is misogynistic and maybe racist.

3:39 pm  
Blogger maps said...

I never looked closely at Pertwee's eyes. I must do so!

I think most of Althusser's philosophy is pitched at such a high level of abstraction that it'd be hard to find something as down to earth as sexism or racism there. But maybe I'm naive?

In his sutobiography, Althusser says his time in a POW camp during World War Two made him want later in life to keep things 'in reserve'. These things included shoes, clothes, and women. Apparently he had a very full wardrobe and many mistresses. As I noted above, though, Althusser's memoirs are extremely unreliable.
I agree with commentators who say they were motivated by the same desire for self-destruction as the killing of his wife. If the death of Helene Althusser hadn't completely wrecked the great philosopher's reputation, then the 'revelations' that he had stolen his ideas off his students, had never read much of Marx, and so on would.

8:35 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes there is an intensification through fragmentation. Information might move to a maxima then drastically collapse through truth or reality itself (Entropy - I see Snow used the Second Law of Thermodynamics as an example..) (But it also depends on what language game we are playing....)
We need to know some things at least.(It can also be snobbery to know "all about" Dickens or all about science or languages or whatever...

Interesting you paired Snow and Leavis etc - I didn't know what the connection was (and I had read Socrates first dialogues but the Euthyphro link completely escaped me) so I did some Googling. Snow was as interested in science - he was trained as a Chemist - as much as literaure and Leavis attacked him (there is more, it is a bit more complex - as I say I had to go to Wikipedia etc).

Others - Primo Levi - survivor of the Holocaust (until his suicide) and a chemist and writer. Oliver Sacks - fascinated in his formative years to near madness by (for him) the beautiful as say a great cathedral or a great music) the periodic table - scientist and neurologist but really an artist. Alexander Borodin - organic chemist and great musical composer.

But the image has language (fragmented) [of all good German speakers died tomorrow we would struggle with our dictionaries to decipher the strange ban on smoking) and in addition how do we know that is in fact not a message (in code) left about - well it could be a dirty joke!! [??] And underneath it looks like some trigonometric relationship (lecturers often lecture in classes where other topics unrelated to their own subject are lectured on) a good mathematician might have trouble recognizing that fragment also..if that is e to power x as e is usually presented - it may involve an exponential series or it could be part of a formula using sin and cosine and e or that could be an l - and various trig formulae as well as other stuff we cant see - well it could be part of a formula for how to make an H bomb!!

So construction and realism collide with deconstruction and madness, the numbers come alive (mathematicians can "read" equations as we "others" read literature etc) (so who was "right" - Snow or Leavis?) as the maths symbols are obscured as does the symbols of German-human language (and the meaning of what Thompson is now and the instant the picture was taken) - as we cant be sure there are in fact any real Germans - even though my grandson's father is German ... well he says he is...and I heard him talking in German once (it was all Greek to me though) but that may have been to put me off the trail....Eh!? Hmmm!!???

Pertwee - first heard him in the 50s in The Navy Lark [ "You see sir, the engine has failed because the toggle flop-goggle has gatooglewoogled the floggle woggle." ] - didn't see him as Dr Who...

10:54 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

But all silly buggers aside it is a great cover! Looks like it will be an impressive book. There is a lot of interest in Thompson and those times (and politics & history & sociology & philosophy, and even literature. So it will sell well. Also your book on Smithy will do well in NZ...

Great to see this progress!

7:43 pm  

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