Friday, 9 September 2016

The Song of the South, Life's inevitable conclusion and the SS Edmund Fitzgerald

I recently acquired a DVD copy of 'Song of the South'; Disney's 1946 classic live action/animation film from 1946 about the tales of Unce Remus about Br'er Rabbit. This proved to be more difficult to obtain than I first envisaged; apparently Disney have embargoed any release for the domestic market since the '90s on the grounds of incipient racism. I find this hard to credit. It reflects a view not only prevalent in the year of its creation but also a view prevalent at the time in which the film is set.

Yes, it paints an anodyne picture of a world which is neither realistic nor true to the horrors of slavery and the imported slaves but when did Disney ever paint a realistic picture of anything; Cinderella always gets Prince Charming and every story ends happily ever after in spite of what vagaries the characters experience. Does anyone complain about the gung-ho' war movies of John Wayne or Audie Murphy, the stylised 'cowboy' movies of John Ford or the silly rom-coms of Cary Grant or Gene Kelly. No, of course they don't! So why are Disney so reticent about releasing the first integrated live action/animated movie, which in technical terms is at least as accomplished as Mary Poppins twenty years later? And bear in mind what the later film says about English society in the 1920's; about the us and them class system.

Does one denigrate the inherant racism in Defoe's 'Robinson Crusoe'or the pciture of English society in Austen or the Brontë sisters; the bleak often dire depictions of Dickens or Zola? No, of course not; they depict society, in part at least, as it was and not perhaps what it should be. We do not judge the 'Malleus Malificarum' on the basis of twenty-first century beliaf; why should the wonderful 'Song of the South' be consigned therefore to a metaphorical dustbin.

I think much of the criticism stems from an initial misunderstanding of the period in which it is set; antebellum (Civil War) as opposed to the correct period post emancipation*. Uncle Remus is not a slave, merely an emancipated slave. I also think that neo-liberal whites do not want to remember that period of American history because it upsets their sensibilities; remember that the whole of Europe was involved in what has euphemistically been called the triangular transatlantic trade. (The Texans even managed to try to get the slave trade officially redesignated the TTT in text books used to educate the young; thankfully they failed at the last hurdle) It is an uncomfortable fact, much like the genocide of the Native American 'Indians', which perhaps 'enlightened', liberal America would rather forget. But as Santayana pointed out (in relation to the Holocaust); 'Those who forget the past are doomed to relive it'.

I think that Disney have seriously misjudged the young. 8-10 year olds do not view a Disney film as a gospel of history, they view it as entertainment. And even if they did, they should, if the education system is even half-good, have it knocked out of them by the time they are sixteen and if they don't then something is seriously wrong somewhere.

Europeans do not appear to have this angst about their history, which was much more dire then American history. They seem to accept more readily that trying to understand an historical view which does not accord with twenty-first thinking is a futile gesture except in an abstract sense; i.e I understand that view because of what everyone believed was the case AT THE TIME. Perhaps all that is required is for Americans to GROW UP.

Commiserations and much sympathy go to poor MG who has recently lost his mother, at 90, to that great leveller, death. Humans are often quoted as believing that they know when it is time to die. That they know that what you came through once becomes harder the second time around and so they cannot face a third round of the same and so bow out shortly before the bell for the third round. Perhaps true , perhaps not but I do know that MG in his grief believes it so.

And finally. If you have never heard the song 'The wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald' by Gordon Lightfoot (a Canuck singer-songwriter), please download from iTunes; you will not be disappointed. MG has a vinyl copy bought at the time (around 1972/3) which he plays to this day; for some reason it reminds him of Salzburg.

* Slavery was, I think, the 'stated' cause of the Civil War' but not necessarily the actual cause. I think that the Southern States had wanted to secede long before the North abolished slavery and pressed the south to do similar; bear in mind that Lincoln was not even on the papers for the Presidential ballot in the Southern states. Lincoln's over-riding concern was the preservation of the Union and would, I believe, have accomodated a continuation of slavery in the Southern states had the South not seceded in the way that they did.

Friday, 13 May 2016

The cultural lives of whales, mayoral elections and a problem of being human

I am sorry, o so sorry. I have been back for over a month now and I have not posted once. I apologise for the lack of contact (and MG's omission in not covering for me).

I have, this morning, had a trying time. I learnt by a BT website that Sadiq Khan had been elected to the position of London Mayor a week or so ago;  good on you, Sadiq. However, BT opened up a discussion via Disqus on his election when the article was first posted. However the option to comment was withdrawn and all previous comments deleted at around mid-day of the first day

Now, I understand why this was done; obviously too many offensive remarks about his adherence to the Islamic faith and the moderators just got fed up with deleting all too many posts. However, why don't you give us the opportunity to reply to what are obvious opinions to quite fallacious 'facts'; there aren't many of us willing to challenge the obvious Xenophobia on this site (which seems to be entirely composed of UKIP supporters) but why deny us  the chance.

The clear implication of many of the posts was that the Khan had mobilised the Muslim vote; you are saying you would have done different? Of course he did! But according to the 2011 census, only 12.5% of London's population is Muslim so can that account for his lead in the ballot? 1,350,000 against 990,000. (Although perhaps 2,000,000 did not actually vote, so can scarcely complain.) No. People in London were given little choice.  So, they chose the lesser of two evils. A crony of Cameron or a crony of Corbyn. Londoners had already had eight years of Buffoon Boris and his poxy bikes; anything was better than that.

Part of my silence has been caused by my reading of Whitehead and Rendell's 'The cultural lives of whales and dolphins', which is an excellent read by the way. It was published only last year, so it is fairly up-to-date with research matters.

You may wonder what a penguin is doing reading books about, primarily, the 'toothed' whales, which are, after all, our sometime predator. Pure survival, mate; I was hoping to glean some avoidance or evasion tactics from its pages! I didn't, except for one; if there's a humpback whale (not dolphin) around, swim as fast as you can towards it. You might be lucky and have it turn onto its back so you can sit on its stomach; it has happened, and could again, to one seal, wave-hunted from an ice-floe by a pod of orcas. I really do doubt that the whale mistook the seal for a young whale; most species recognise their own kind. Besides, humpbacks do not defend their own young in that way from marauding pods of orca; why should it do so for the seal?*

On the other hand, it would be too easy to apply anthropomorphism and say that the whale was merely acting altruistically, defending another creature against a common 'enemy' but that I think is going a 'bridge too far'. We may never know what prompted the whale to do as it did; it may simply be a lack of 'shared experience', which precludes humans from ever understanding other animals. Not that it will stop them from trying!

And that is, possibly, the book's greatest weakness and its greatest strength.

So much of what humans like to think as culture is bound up with their concepts of human culture; sophisticated language, the arts, technological innovation, whether primitive or modern, ethics, religion, planned agriculture and husbandry, ethnicity, representational symbolism, wars.  In what way could many of these things be either desirable for a whale or even possible/practical? Whitehead and Rendell choose a looser definition of culture but they are, nonetheless, constrained by the fact that they are fighting an uphill struggle against a very human-centric view of what the possession of culture actually means.

Their evidence of culture in the whales (Humpback, killer and bottle-nosed dolphins) is scarce at best and highly speculative at worst. Killer whales in the north Pacific have different hunting and predation strategies, and different recognition calls (dialects), depending on the pod/clan; two for separate 'resident' clans and one for 'transients'. Two pods of killer whales regularly 'beach' themselves in pursuit of seal pups, although it takes a number of years before the young can do it properly. How else but by actively teaching? Same goes for wave-hunting? How do the young learn that the effort must be synchronised? Humpbacks change their song over a uniform time within known 'clans'. Dolphins can, and do, mimic other dolphins in entirely novel ways, as though they see a new 'trick' and want to imitate it, as best they can until they can do it properly. How do dolphins synchronise their movements through the waves, and some do, even with visual clues.  It seems to Whitehead and Rendell that there is shared knowledge amongst the pod or school and this must be communicated in some way. Is it just imitation?

Me? I do believe that the more sophisticated whales have a culture, just as my rookery has a culture; we are the only rookery to read books as far as I know! I do not know how that culture manifests itself to an individual whale or dolphin but I do think that their sonar is not only purposed for echo location. As a bird, I am able to make two distinct sounds at the same time; something humans can rarely do; just listen to rural bird song in the morning. I believe that those ultrasound clicks carry far more information than humans can conceive. Sure dolphins don't direct their clicks to other dolphins directly; it would overwhelm their ears and cause all kinds of problems. But if you could echo locate as the same time as you spoke; what would be the advantages?

However, I go back to my question asked many years ago in one of my first blogs; what would you say to a dolphin? How much would you, or could you, have in common with a dolphin; let alone an orca! Now off to Carl Safina's 'What animals think and feel'; should make for interesting reading even if I might not agree with all that he says. He is after all, only human!

* The seal got away to another ice-floe, although probably the orca pod just swam around a bit until the humpback was out of range and then wave-hunted the seal from the second floe; cunning and canny is your average orca!

Monday, 28 March 2016

It's too early for Easter!

I haven't had a rant about organised religion for ages. So, as it's Easter, what better way to get through the day without gorging on chocolate bunnies and eggs, fillet beef and Margaux and the latest episode of Thirteen than to examine, as I sometimes do, why people have such curious beliefs.

I will, however, be serving with the net up and returning likewise and I would expect you to have the courtesy to do the same. I will not seek to dissuade you from your faith since faith is an illogical response to what is, in essence, not amenable to rational discourse. Nor will I seek to persuade you that one particular God is preferable to others, although there are a plethora to choose from. Nor will I make an attempt to convince you that such an infinite God, an omniscent, omnipresent, all loving and omnicompentant being, makes no more sense than the fairies that may exist at the bottom of my garden. To be as infinite a God as most religions profess, full of omni-this and omni-that, he or she, would have to embody all those properties, which define their opposite; a stupid, all-hating, vengeful God, who was neither here nor there and was supremely incompetant. A bit like the Old Testament God, now I come to think of it, who screwed up so often that he was forever 'starting over'.

No. As it is Easter, we shall look at the Passion and the Resurrection.

I will start by saying that I hope you will agree that the early Church Fathers had vested interests; if you do not agree with that statement then I am playing with a busted flush and I might as well go back to An American in Paris and the beautiful Leslie Caron and leave it at that. I already have a short piece about Snorri Sturlasson prepared, which I can use as a substitute.

In playing the vested interest card, I am saying that the early Church Fathers, who had faith, had an interest in getting their brand of religion accepted by the Eastern Roman Empire, and by extension the Western one also; at the very least not the subject of persecution. They also had to make it acceptable to the Jews; after all, as far I can tell, Jesus was a practising Jew and merely sought to amend it in places. Those early Fathers had also to contend with the fact that organised religion costs; big time. So, the more converts, the more money would flow into their coffers.

By 325CE, at the Council Of Nicaea, they had started to get their act together and effectively proclaimed the New Testament, as they saw it, as not only largely synoptic but based on eye-witness, or second-hand eye-witness, account and largely convergent with Old Testament prophesies about the Messiah; the Council of Ephesus merely confirmed that Jesus, by Mary, was God made flesh. For added good measure, they included redemption by repentence. I do not know if the historical Jesus, if such a person actually existed, actually preached that but it would certainly prove to be a game-changer. To a largely ignorant or uneducated population of peasant farmers, small-time merchants and an effete aristocracy, that must have been really attractive. The Jewish God, the Teutonic, Roman and Greek Gods were such a let down; all they promised was sin and misery.

So, the Christians had a winner on their hands; a supremely benevolent God, so long as you believed that Jesus was the Son of God and truly repented before you died; it's surely no surprise that it swept the Western World.  The glory of everlasting light in the hands of some priest or other, and which it was easier to grant then not; the priests became not averse to welcoming a donation to the church in return for such absolution. (For goodness sake, get a handle on history! The issue of indulgences was a major concern of Martin Luther.)


These early Church Fathers were intelligent; they had education. No-one (I hope) would consider Cicero or Horace or Virgil stupid, even though Pliny the Elder could spout arrant nonsense at times, and those early Church Fathers knew exactly what it was that they were doing; propoganda has always been the tool of those who would aspire to religious or political dominance. Should we treat the Gospels as gospel just because the early Church Fathers thought that we ought to?

How much can we trust them?

Why so many miracles? All performed in Galilee where no could witness them. Wouldn't one have been enough to show the divine power? After the feeding of the 5,000 on the mount, anything else is just overkill! Why was poor Judas Iscariot hauled in as a scapegoat, if not to lessen the guilt of the Romans for executing the Jews' Messiah. The kiss, when Jesus must have been recognisable to the Sanhedrin or the Consulate, given his perfomance in the Temple? And if it was to be in secret, why the howling mob with clubs and torches? Surely, half a dozen legionaries would have been enough against an unarmed man, who had admittedly shown a propensity to violent outrage.

Why was Jesus sent from pillar to post in his vain bid for justice; the Jews, after all, had a punishment for blasphemy; death by stoning. The Sanhedrin did not need the Romans to execute him. And he denies, in front of Pilate (obviously a fiction) that he's not the Son of God - 'your words, not mine'. So much does not make any sense.

I will pass over the Resurrection. It has, as far as I can determine, not happened before or since and re-animation may be possible for a God but is impossible for a man. Therefore, you either have faith or you do not; I cannot bring myself to make that saute metaphysique. It goes against everything that I know or have learned about the world. Maybe I am mistaken and will find myself in fiery torment for eternity but that has lost favour over the centuries and, if I believed, the worst that I could conceive would be to be consigned to perpetual darkness; deprived of the light of the Almighty.

One question remains. If Judas Iscariot did perform the ultimate sin for the betrayal of the Son of Man, will he find Glory if he truly repents? Jorge Luis Borges once wrote a short story about a heretical, Swedish priest. He maintained that the greatest sacrifice a man (or God) could make would be to consign himself to Hell for all eternity; does not that describe Judas?

Friday, 25 March 2016

The BBC, real Television, Janina and Snorri

The BBC is often derided for its pandering to the whims of the lowest common denominator, vis 'Strictly Come Dancing' and 'EastEnders', but sometimes it transcends its role as a purveyor of dross, merely fit only for the unwashed hoi-polloi. (Yes I know that hoi-polloi means THE masses and the definite article is not required but. . .) I was reminded of this by an hour-long documentary by that BBC-favoured siren of historical documentaries, Dr Janina Ramirez; she is just so cute! The documentary was about the Icelandic Laexdala saga.

Who in their right mind would think that a documentary about a little known Icelandic saga would be worth spending money on? Thankfully the BBC did. In keeping with Lord Reith's avowed statement that the BBC was there to educate and inform, as well as to entertain, this was a simplistic, but not altogether crass, attempt to get the few viewers who may have been ignorant of the rich storytelling inherent in the sagas to maybe dip their toe into the water of the most wonderful of historical 'novelists' and poets, Snorri Sturlasson.

Snorri, by his connection with Jón Loftsson, a relative of the Norwegian royal family, who raised him from an early age following a costly legal suit, which left Snorri's father in somewhat dire financial straits, had received an excellent education and he could afford to indulge himself in literary whims and, later, politics. The Icelanders were fiercely democratic at the time; unlike their Norwegian and Danish cousins, who, it must be said, swopped kingship around between them like jelly beans.

Snorri is best known for the prose (not poetic or elder) Edda, which comprises Gylfaginning (The fooling of Gylfi), a narrative of Norse mythology, the Skáldskaparmál, a book of poetic language, and the Háttatal, a list of verse forms; the Heimskringla, the annals of the Kings of Norway that begins with mythical/legendary material in Ynglinga saga and winds its way through the more historical subjects up to the time of Magnus Erlingson, who died in 1184 following a lengthy and bloody civil war, which just went on and on and on....*. For stylistic and methodological reasons, Snorri is often taken to be the author of Egil's saga too.

How much credence that can be given to Snorri's historical accounts is in some doubt, although he would have had a rich store of, at least, oral history on which to base his accounts; he had major dealings with the Norwegian court, keen to elicit his acquiescence in Norway's annexation of Iceland. He was finally murdered in 1241, although I express some doubt that the King of Norway actually ordered what transpired (shades of Henry and Beckett perhaps) and it may have, perhaps, been over-zealousness or a 'land-grab' by the murderers. Politics in Scandinavia could be sometimes fraught at the best of times.

What Sturlasson and the other Icelandic saga writers left us with is an enormous wealth of material about Viking  and Old Icelandic culture, customs and politics. The sagas are, perhaps, some of the earliest examples of embryonic 'novels'; rich in detail and psychological insight but with a heavy emphasis on plot and perhaps realism. Yet, I have no doubt that those writers divined imagined motives and reasons and embellished their sagas with imagined conversation and dialogue just as historical novelists do now.

I still have a deep affection for the quote (from Harald's Saga), which Harold Godwinson almost certainly did not say at the Battle Of Stamford Bridge: Sagt hefir hann þar nökkut frá, hvers hann mun honum unna af Englandi: 7 fóta rúm, eða því lengra, sem hann er hæri en aðrir menn.  Which loosely translates as: Since he was not content with his own kingdom, said the rider, I'll give him 7 feet of English soil - or as much, perhaps, as he is taller than other men. They don't write like that anymore!

* Interestingly, Sverre Sigurdsson, only one of many claimant to the throne, who defeated and killed Magnus at the naval Battle of Fimreite, used tactics very similar to Nelson's victory, 'crossing the T', at Trafalgar; attacking lone ships with squadrons of his fleet, which caused Magnus' troops, heavily outnumbered in each longboat, to abandon ship and crowd into fewer and fewer ships, until they eventually sank with the weight of them.

Friday, 15 January 2016

Artemisia Gentileschi, patriarchy and chattels

It's perhaps odd, don't you think, about how the view, and treatment, of women has changed over the years. One must surely doubt that hunter/gatherers viewed their women with as much contempt as seemingly more civilised societies did in the past. The gatherers were just as important, perhaps more so when the 'men' did not manage to bring down a mastodon, for the group's survival when berries and roots were the sole sustenance. It is likely, although I have no real evidence to back it up, that the notion of women as 'possesions' or chattels sprang up not long after humankind began to settle in one place and promoted 'ownership' of cattle, land and the crops grown on it. It is only a small step from ownership in that context to believing that one's wife or mother to one's children were something to be owned in like manner.

I was reminded of this when a short televised biography of Artemisia Gentilesche was broadcast on BBC4. Now, most will not have heard of Artemisia but she was one of the most accomplished painters in an era 'post Caravaggio' (and heavily influenced by him) and she was a woman!

She obviously had a gift for drawing/painting otherwise her father, Orazio, a noted painter himself, would not have apprenticed her to his own studio, where she learnt all that it was mindful for a would-be painter to learn. At around seventeen, she produced the masterful 'Susanna', which is as good as any in the 'Mannerist' style. (I personally don't like the Mannerists but can, nonetheless, admire their skill and their artistry.)

Much has been made of Artenisia's 10 month-long rape trial. How her father sought to bring a suit of 'diminishing the value of his goods' through Tassi's rape of his daughter. He won but only because his daughter agreed to subject herself to torture to verify the veracity of her testimony.

Unfortunately, she became a victim, not a winner, although she tried very hard during the course of her life to rise above the treatment that had been meted out to her by a very parochial society. The early paintings, Susanna, Judith, Jael, surely reflect her experience to some extent, although that seems to have been tempered later as, presumably, in a bid to earn a modest living, she sought to pander more to her "clients'" (male) taste.

Post 1970's feminism has sought to drag Artemisia from the obscurity that she has been consigned to; more power to their elbow! Artemisia is perhaps the most, or at least among the most, accomplished artists to follow in Caravaggio's footsteps, although she was no mean businesswoman either; having her own studio and apprentices and numbering Charles I of England (the Act of Union only happened later), the de Medicis and Phillip, King of Spain among her clients. Although much of her canon appears to have been lost, misplaced, falsely attributed or otherwise no longer extant, what does remain (some 35 paintings in all) which can be wholly or partially attributed to her represent surely one of the earliest female artists to have flourished until the late 19th century.

The documentary was branded as 'superficial' by the Daily Telegraph but it is difficult to see how it could have been any different. Not a lot is known about her life, bar the rape case, and a detailed examination of the paintings would have been, perhaps, too specialised for what was surely merely an introduction to a little known artist; an appetite-whetter. If you had wanted more, her entry in Wiki is surprisingly good and all the extant paintings are available to view on-line, although the quality of some of the reproductions leaves something to be desired.

One can only lament the talent that was ignored or consigned to history's dustbin as a result of such millennia-spanning patriarchy. It is more of a pity that Daesh* seem to want to drag us back to such outmoded and frankly abhorrent views.

* Daesh: what the established Arab states call Islamic State (IS or ISIS); the so-called 'caliphate' waging jihad across Europe and the Middle East. Apparently IS don't like the term, hence my use of it!