Monday, November 06, 2017

Shuffling cards

There's been a lot of public interest in and debate about the New Zealand Wars lately, with a commemorative day being held for the first time, a series of public discussions involving Vincent O'Malley, the author of a massive and authoritative history of the Waikato War, and some interesting arguments about whether monuments raised after the wars should be demolished or amended. 

Image maker Paul Janman has been documenting many of these events, and has also been finding time to help me edit Ghost South Road, the war-haunted book of images and texts that will appear next year. Where O'Malley's book is a mighty narrative, Ghost South Road veers backwards and forwards through time, and features frequent character and costume changes. Paul and I recently exchanged e mails about the book's (lack of) structure. 

In his reply to my e mail Paul mentions a recent turbulent protest-meeting beside the Otahuhu memorial to Marmaduke Nixon, a man blamed by historians for human rights abuses during the invasion of the Waikato. I'll be posting Paul's account of that meeting soon. 

Hi Paul,

I have been following the New Zealand Wars commemorations and the debates over monuments to the wars. Although I support the work that Vincent O'Malley and other revisionist, anti-imperial historians and activists are doing, I think there is the danger of replacing one teleological timeline of events, events that must be rote learnt by schoolkids and journalists, with another. 

The people and events in Ghost South Road are generally there because they have excited me: because they have somehow enlarged my sense of what is possible in New Zealand. But perhaps this is a privilege I have, this feeling of astonishment. If I lived in a mouldy rented flat down the road from a farm that was confiscated from my great-great-grandfather after the Waikato War then I might have a different, less aesthetic, attitude to the past. 

Nevertheless, I am trying to ask the question: how can we encounter, communicate, the feelings of surprise and wonder that history can cause? How can we make people feel excited as well as saddened by the past? How can we reconcile the necessity of remembering the dark parts of history with the possibility that the past might also contain sources of nourishment, of reinvigoration?

There was a tradition, in Britain and in certain other European countries like Germany, of historians keeping loose cards, on which they wrote notes about discrete events, people, organisations. The cards could be shuffled, read in different orders. Beatrice Webb wrote about the 'games with reality' that she and her scholar-husband Sidney would play, as they sat with their boxes of cards by the fireplace in the evening. When the Webbs wrote their research up, though, the games were replaced by neat linear narratives.  

Nowadays historians file their notes on computers: I suppose they'd need a programme or an app to simulate the old card shuffling. Keith Thomas, author of Religion and the Decline of Magic, is famous as the last historian to keep loose notes. He says he files slips of paper in various envelopes, depending on their theme, and begins an essay or chapter when an envelope has begun to bulge and spill its contents onto the floor of his study. 
Perhaps what we need, as well as the linear counter-history that Vincent O'Malley and others are so ably providing, is a sort of card shuffling history: a history in which different events and people continually appear, and in which the marginal people - the pushers of wheelbarrows, the Lawrence Beavises - and the apparently minor events - the theft and wrecking of one of the first motorcars to reach Auckland by a group of servant-boys - can suddenly appear alongside more apparently significant personages and doings, and can, through their unexpected presence, perhaps suggest new perspectives, new possibilities. That all sounds terribly waffly, doesn't it? 

I don't have much sympathy for his long-winded theorising, but I do like Gilles Deleuze's  advocacy of nomadism: his advocacy of an instability of opinions as a way of life, his warning of the dangers of arriving at dogmatic views on this or that subject. Perhaps a sort of nomadism of history is required, so that we feel excited rather than oppressed by the past. But I'm still groping in the dark, as you can tell...

Thanks for these views Scott. I am myself working in this sort of way. Using an app called Scrivener, I am creating a range of index cards that I return to and rearrange. The talk at the Nixon monument was an outcome of this way of thinking and it was interesting to test it out on an audience - both good and bad results. I think it's worth remembering that shuffling type literary technologies are best I think, when they are driven by a tested kaupapa. 

Take the I Ching for example - it is free associative but its power also resides in the accretion of thousands of years of experimentation and scholarship that is distilled into 64 archetypes. So yes, the results can be exciting and enlivening for history but it can also turn off an audience that doesn't know where you're coming from, or perceives privilege in the inevitable genealogy of your ideas. 

And yes, I think there is a danger in privilege manifesting itself in aestheticism. This is why the privileged historical poet still needs the inclusion of a suppressed community to temper his excitement by exposing him to their own immediate interests. In O'Malley, you've seen how an individual commitment and effort has played off an audience and galvanised a movement. More to say but I've got to get back to my marking!



Blogger Richard said...

In fact Pound was attempting this in The Cantos. His political and economic theories, his view of history coming from some great or "higher" Beauty [an idea that was great in many ways but also deeply flawed], conflicted with his other, great, idea of the simultaneity of history. So for him what happened 4000 years ago could be as significant as a more recent event and indeed things happening right now.

So he wrote in the Anglo-Saxon form an episode from The Odyssey. So there he joins two events or ways of working thinking that are separated by about 2000 years. But the anglo-saxon looks back to our past. In theory the project could have encompassed all history.

I think the great historians have a complex sense of history, they know it is no more real in many ways than fiction. And it also depends on who is looking at it. Regardless of his conviction David Irving still "knows" he is right. There is no way really to counter this as it is a problem of belief. You can show facts and more facts but it does not good. There are always gaps.

I think, in part, it may come, in his case from his outrage at the British bombing of Hamburg and Dresden (he wrote a book about that which I own). For me he was "wrong" of course, but I cant prove it to him and others. Reality is slippery, it is a problem of knowledge.

Pound laid everything on usury and the Jews and so on. He also may have been deeply affected by the reality as he knew it of WWI. So that leads him away towards fascism and his broadcasts celebrating the decimation and killing of Jews etc. Not a very subtle Lord Haw Haw. In the end a pathetic and tragic figure...

But the approach of The Great South Road avoids too much tendentiousness and keeps things open. The loose notes and card shuffling is a great idea. It keeps things flowing. And Pound, at one time on the right path writes: 'Sage Herecleitus says, all things are a-flowing". It also, that project, avoids some ideal of a perfect thing or a "finished" history. It is never like that. There is no one view of history like that of those who deny the holocaust or those who focus on usury and Jews, or those who focus on (effectively) unverifiable or dubious views of history that are actually based on a racist or White Supremacist view of the world.

A view that I and many feel is hopelessly limiting as indeed "White" people in any definition are becoming less and less. It is hard to say where this superior white or European civilisation is, if there ever was one.

12:33 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I feel the past is a foreign country...and should remain so.

8:08 am  
Blogger Richard said...

It seems that way as we who experience time cant experience how we felt at that time.

That is where the "foreign country" thing comes from I think. But every moment of our lives, every present instantaneously becomes our past. So while the past may seem irrelevant, human life would be completely meaningless without it. We would be like someone who had lost their memory.

And to use another cliche, we can learn from the past, or at least get a kind of overall picture of events and significance. There is no danger of it not being 'foreign' but it is as real and as important as the future as the future will be made of such moments whose only significance is because they can be differentiated from the past.

7:24 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Here is T. S. Eliot at the beginning of his Four Quartets on the question:

Burnt Norton


Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.

Eliot is pointing to or behind what he says is his Anglo-Catholic belief that we are unable to escape from the eternal now. Later he says: 'In my beginning is my end.' So everything is ordained and for him all that matters is the question of how we conduct ourselves, whether we gain salvation and eternal life (according to one religious academic on the long poem).

But in fact I feel the poem has a deeper aspect than its mere logical interpretation. But even without that 'spin': that time is eternally present means that both the future and past and the now are all one which means we are always responsible and need to take cognizance of all time. If possible also, history. And what is a foreign country? It is somewhere possibly more interesting and more challenging than a safe country we have always lived in and already know. So it can be an exciting, interesting place.

This was also a view of Sartre's that we are always responsible: for him if we commit an error we have to 'live with it'. So temperamentally, while a communist, he had this almost religious belief in 'absolute responsibility'.

For me, the guilt and blame, all that I don't go for. For me there is no right and wrong in either of the above senses, but we need in some deep human way, to be aware of that eternal past present and future all rolled into one.

We may not go to either Eliot or Sartre's theoretical or actual hell, but we may be troubled or affected by 'the march of events' which always involves history. Disconnected from that sense of time, without memory, we are as ghosts. Lost.

7:37 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Love that quote and find your comments very suggestive, RT! Have you thought of collecting some of them into a mss? Visesio Siasau would read it! Went to see Michael Steven up in the green hills above Auckland the other day: he seems to be doing very well, has a poetry book coming out from OUP. Is keen for a catchup with you and other scribblers from the plains...

9:35 pm  
Blogger Paul Janman said...

Certainly made an index card of that last comment Richard - brilliant. Ready to shuffle again.

9:49 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Paula and Scott.Yes, I think my comments are better than some of my poetry. When I see some of them (poems) I am never very keen on them with a few exceptions.
I agree Scott, I think I have a way with this genre! A bit like philosophic journalism. Of course nothing is proven but I hope the thoughts strike home. One needs of course to cull the nonsense that also arises. I thought of writing some philosophy but I know I would 1) probably die still researching the subject and subjects 2) (also) probably get terribly muddle wuddled up

Of course this kind of near-casual "philosophy" here is safer, away from the sharp eyes of my old Philosophy or English tutors...

Good to hear of Michael's success. We should all meet up somewhere. Ted might transport my greatness up there...

I entered that Grattan award (rumour has it you did also Scott). In anycase I was NOT shortlisted. I wasn't too surprised. It was a bit like not winning the Lotto. It was pretty much a lottery. I wasn't upset really either, it was business as usual. I think my focus should be on the Project (with Eyelight etc) rather than conventional poetry. I have some drafts of that but had a few problems, medical and other, which are good now as well as pressing engagements to pay and use plumbers, and fork out money for boy grand kids wanting expensive Legos!

I also keep my reading projects and my "Dewey Decimal Project" going (that is like an adventure as in choosing books more or less randomly I never know what I am going to find. One problem (not too serious) is that I am sampling in the decade (publish date of books) of the 21st Century. Can fix that. Another is I want a program that can handle languages, including many I dont even know as well as a good one to write mathematics etc But nothing is privileged! And it is amazing what is interesting, fields I rarely go into, have interesting and sometimes tragic or beautiful stories or information: but my initial purpose is the language used, then I find myself also drawn into the subjects and in some cases, for example in travel and bio. into really strange and interesting or tragic or not dramas. People of all kinds and writing of all kinds. As I choosemore orless randomly it is exciting. I force myself to pick up things...say if my hand feels a large book and goes for something else I may sometimes go back to the large book or vica versa...for me, reading becomes writing. (As potentially at least the 'data' collected can be used in the Project.

The Project I was going to call either Eyelight or 'From the Infinite Poem' but these might be titles or subtitles. But now i think it is more accurate to call it 'The Project Project' as it occurs to me the main thing is to have a project and DO it. The process of doing it. It is pleasurable. What happens to it seems secondary. A strange phenomena. It almost seems enough just to be doing it.

Thus I feel like Hugh Selywn Mauberely!

(Ted and I have been clashing genial swords over Pound etc....Ted as you probably know Scott is not big on the Four Quartets but I think they have a kind of austere beauty. However we concur on much else...).

But history is increasingly interesting to me partly due to this Dewey Project (of course that is for gathering data etc but it is also on its own)...

And of course what is on your Blog. Also Jack writes interesting posts about books and literature.

I haven't got time to look at all the other interesting Blogs...

10:35 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Re Ashbery, I saw an interview with him. The interviewer commented that there were less people interested in poetry etc but Ashbery contradicted. And his comment is right. I actually think that either more or the same proportion and thus more people are writing poetry and poetic and literary criticism, and writing even better in many cases, than (as he says) when he himself was young in the early to mid 50s. It is because it is something people can all do and fulfills a creative need possibly more than music (which requires perhaps even more skill and training but it is similar as is general art etc).

There is a lot of original and creative writing and art happening. The internet is not an impediment and nor are Face Book or Twitter or anything. One can choose to use these things or not.

Overall with some down turns we all have, I feel quite happy!

10:41 pm  
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