“To be alive meant to collide…”

I haven’t yet read Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. However, I was recently directed to this conversation between Ferrante and another Italian writer, Nicola Lagioia, where this, from Ferrante, struck me:

“The idea that every “I” is largely made up of others and by the others wasn’t theoretical; it was a reality. To be alive meant to collide continually with the existence of others and to be collided with…”

A little later, she says:

“And we should teach ourselves to look deeply at this interconnection—I call it a tangle, or, rather, frantumaglia—to give ourselves adequate tools to describe it…”

Recently, I read Sarah Bakewell’s At The Existentialist Cafe, where I was equally struck by her summing up of this important aspect of the existentialist project:

“Ever since Husserl, phenomenologists and existentialists had been trying to stretch the definition of existence to incorporate our social lives and relationships. Levinas did more: he turned philosophy around entirely so that these relationships were the foundation of our existence, not an extension of it.”

And:

“Merleau-Ponty thinks human experience only makes sense if we abandon philosophy’s time-honoured habit of starting with a solitary, capsule-like, immobile adult self, isolated from its body and world, which must then be connected up again… instead, for him, we slide from the womb to the birth canal to an equally close and total immersion in the world.”

Of late, I’ve been feeling, more and more, that the category of the “individual”, which constitutes the basis of much of the legal order, and indeed, the foundation of the concept of “rights”, is detached from human experience precisely because it assumes the “I” without the others. I’m aware that this is an old criticism, but the communitarian alternative leaves me equally unsatisfied. I wonder how we might develop a (legal) philosophy that would acknowledge “frantumaglia” as a central feature of human experience in the world, while stopping short of making an imagined “community” the basic unit of analysis…

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Lacrimae rerum and mono no aware

A few weeks ago, I wrote about lacrimae rerum – “the tears of things” – a phrase from The Aeneid, which suggests a deep sorrow that manages to sublimate itself into art. Today, someone pointed me to the Japanese phrase “mono no aware“, which translates into something rather similar-sounding: “the pathos of things”:

“The meaning of the phrase mono no aware is complex and has changed over time, but it basically refers to a “pathos” (aware) of “things” (mono), deriving from their transience. In the classic anthology of Japanese poetry from the eighth century, the Manyōshū, the feeling of aware is typically triggered by the plaintive calls of birds or other animals. It also plays a major role in the world’s first novel, Murasaki Shikibu’s Genji monogatari (The Tale of Genji), from the early eleventh century.”

The interesting part is that mono no aware, as well, is ultimately about taking a raw emotion – sorrow – and sublimating it into a deeper experience of existence:

“The well known literary theorist Motoori Norinaga brought the idea of mono no aware to the forefront of literary theory with a study of The Tale of Genji that showed this phenomenon to be its central theme. He argues for a broader understanding of it as concerning a profound sensitivity to the emotional and affective dimensions of existence in general. The greatness of Lady Murasaki’s achievement consists in her ability to portray characters with a profound sense of mono no aware in her writing, such that the reader is able to empathize with them in this feeling.”

The connection is made even more clearly elsewhere:

“With this mood, acceptance of impermanence and insubstantiality is elevated into an aesthetic sensibility, a state of mind that actually appreciates this ephemerality… Moreover, mono no aware recognises that this ephemerality is somehow integral to beauty, that beauty depends on this kind of transiency.”

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Filed under Classical Poetry, Epic, Japan, Virgil

“A torchlight procession of one, lighting up the streets”: Seamus Heaney’s Redress of Poetry

In Seamus Heaney’s Casualty, a poem about a pub-going Ulsterman who ignores a curfew during the peak of the Troubles, and is killed for it, the last three lines (the poet speaking to the dead man, the “casualty”), are a study in ambivalence:

“Dawn-sniffing revenant,   

Plodder through midnight rain,   

Question me again.”

The ambivalence is one that runs through Heaney’s poetry, perhaps best exemplified by the section in Station Island, where (in a fictional meeting), James Joyce tells the poet to “let others wear the sackcloth and the ashes. / Let go, let fly, forget. You’ve listened long enough. Now strike your note.” The ambivalence is about the relationship between poetry and politics, instantiated by the tension between the desire to keep words apolitical, and the temptation to intervene directly through poetry.

If such questions remain unanswered in Heaney’s verse, then The Redress of Poetry – a collection of ten lectures delivered at Oxford – gives him a chance to answer them in prose. Eight out of the ten lectures are about other poets – Christopher Marlowe, Brian Merriman, John Clare, Oscar Wilde, Hugh McDiarmid, Dylan Thomas, W.B. Yeats and Philip Larkin, and Elizabeth Bishop. It is in and through writing about these poets, however, that Heaney painstakingly constructs his own poetic manifesto, dealing with the relationship between words, culture, politics, and the world.

It is almost trite to say that politics suffuses our world, and that nothing – not even poetry – can be free of it. The very use of language is a political act, and the dream of an apolitical realm of pure art is simply that much – only a dream. This is something that Heaney is acutely aware of, and he is acutely aware of his own subject-position: as an Irishman, part of a colonised culture, and yet as a white European, also part of a colonising culture. But the question remains: and then what? The task of The Redress of Poetry is to show how language and poetry are tangled up with politics and with the burden of history, and yet not reducible to it.

The project is set out in the opening, eponymous essay, where Heaney notes that “poetry, let us say, whether it belongs to an old political dispensation or aspires to express a new one, has to be a working model of inclusive consciousness. It should not simplify. Its projections and inventions should be a match for the complex reality which surrounds it and out of which it is generated.” Soon after, he writes that “[Poetry] becomes another truth to which we can have recourse, before which we can know ourselves in a more fully empowered way.” 

If there is whiff of the old poetry-as-a-vehicle-for-revealing-hidden-aesthetic-[apolitical]-truths here, it is quickly dispelled when Heaney moves to examining his selection of poets. The first essay is about Marlowe’s Tamberlaine, and Heaney begins by acknowledging that he has “learnt to place this poetry’s expansionist drive in the context of nascent English imperialism”, and therefore “what I want to do here… is to find a way of reaffirming the value and rights of Marlowe’s poetry in our own post-colonial time.” How is one to do this? Heaney’s answer is that “When it comes to poetic composition, one has to allow for the presence, even for the pre-eminence, of what Wordsworth called the ‘grand elementary principle of pleasure’, and that pleasure comes from the doing-in-language of certain things… it is obvious that poetry’s answer to the world is not given only in terms of the content of its statements. It is given perhaps even more emphatically in terms of metre and syntax, of tone and musical trueness; and it is given also by its need to go emotionally and artistically ‘above the brim’, beyond the established norms.” Form, then, is the answer: form that, in a certain sense, exists prior to language, language with all its baggage and burdens of history (it is perhaps no coincidence that Heaney uses the phrase “musical trueness). At another place – in his essay on Hugh McDiarmid, Heaney seems to affirm this when he writes that “the thing that MacDiarmid was after in the deep Scottish ear resembled what Frost called ‘the sound of sense’, a phonetic patterning which preceded speech and authenticated it, a kind of pre-verbal register to which the poetic voice had to be tuned.” 

And yet, in the same essay, Heaney describes his poetry as composed of “a language pure as air or water, a language which carries the reader (as the truest poetry always does) into the sensation of walking on air or swimming free.” In a collection that is otherwise so acutely conscious about the place of language in the world, the reference to “language pure as air” (a little reminiscent of Colm Toibin, at one point, talking about language that is free and untouched) comes across as surprisingly naive. Indeed, it directly contradicts a particularly brilliant observation that Heaney makes in his essay on Elizabeth Bishop: “it is precisely Bishop’s linguistic virtuosity that creates the delightful illusion of access to a pristine, pre-linguistic state.”

In fact, the contrast is all the more jarring, because Heaney spends a substantial amount of time interrogating the precise relationship between language and the world. In his essay on John Clare, Heaney writes that “Clare is a sponsor and a forerunner of modern poetry in post-colonial nation languages, poetry that springs from the difference and/or disaffection of those whose spoken tongue is an English which sets them at cultural and perhaps political odds with others in possession of that normative ‘Official Standard’.” This paragraph comes soon after he approvingly quotes Tom Paulin’s description that there is a “sense of being trapped within an unjust society and an authoritarian language.” The use of the adjective “authoritarian” to describe “language” is surely a carefully-chosen one, and is meant to indicate the political baggage that language carries. And in that same essay, Heaney ends with one of his most eloquent passages, basing the idea of a “world culture” in the equality of languages:

“The dream of a world culture, after all, is a dream of a world where no language will be relegated, a world where the ancient rural province of Boeotia (which Les Murray has made an image for all the outback and dialect cultures of history) will be on an equal footing with the city-state of Athens; where not just Homer but Hesiod will have his due honour. Clare’s poetry underwrites a vision like this, where one will never have to think twice about the cultural and linguistic expression of one’s world on its own terms since nobody else’s terms will be imposed as normative and official. To read him for the exotic flavours of an archaic diction and the picturesque vistas of a bucolic past is to miss the trust he instills in the possibility of a self-respecting future for all languages, an immense, creative volubility where human existence comes to life and has life more abundantly because it is now being expressed in its own self-gratifying and unhindered words.”

Of course, even as he speaks about a world culture, Heaney’s vision is enclosed within his own “horizon” (to borrow a term from Gadamer): to make his point about “outback” and “dialect” cultures, he references an Australian (Les Murray) poet’s choice of a Greek image (Boeotia). While Boeotia might be an “outback” relative to Athens, and Hesiod a rustic in relation to Homer, these references are all part of an existing canon that is the product of a certain universalisation of a “Western” aesthetic. It would be churlish, of course, to blame Heaney for this: the Redress of Poetry is a beautifully self-aware book – but it is a point that must be made. In a similar fashion, in his essay on Dylan Thomas, Heaney writes about how he treated “language as a physical sensation“, and then goes on to call this an “Egyptian” style (with references to fertility, the Nile, and Anubis)! He uses the word “Egyptian” on more than one occasion to describe Thomas, and each time it is as if Edward Said’s Culture and Imperialism is swimming in one’s mind’s eye – you could not ask for a more textbook case of unthinking, internalised Orientalism. Gadamer was right after all: nobody can escape the bounds of their horizon. I point out these (what in my opinion are) slips, to highlight, as well, that any exploration of such topics in the world constructed along the axes of power and dominance, is fraught with peril, and even a walker as sure-footed as Heaney is bound to slip on a couple of occasions.

And these are but minor blemishes – for the most part, The Redress of Poetry is a beautiful book. Heaney has that unique ability of capturing the essence of a poet, or a poem, with impossible economy. In his analysis of The Ballad of Reading Gaol, he writes that “the master of the light touch came to submit to the heaviness of being and came, as a result, to leave his fingerprints on a great subject.” I cannot think of a more perfect description of Wilde, and of this poem of Wilde’s. His description of Hugh McDiarmid is equally pithy and brilliant: “In 1922 he emerged like a new and fiery form out of the agitated element of Christopher Grieve’s imagination; or it could be said with equal justification that he emerged from the awakened energies of the Scots language itself.” On Dylan Thomas: “Imaginative force has moved a load of inchoate obsession into expressed language.” And perhaps, in closing, it would be most apt to quote his observation on poetry and the world, as a whole: “The world is different after it has been read by a Shakespeare or an Emily Dickinson or a Samuel Beckett because it has been augmented by their reading of it.”

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The tears of things: Heaney, Virgil, Frost

In the Introduction to his collection of Oxford lectures, The Redress of Poetry, Seamus Heaney excerpts Robert Frost’s Directive, calling it “in some important but oblique way, an apologia for all art.” Directive, which is a semi-allegorical poem about a journey to a deserted town and the discovery of a children’s playhouse, has had its share of admirers and detractors; here, Heaney writes:

Frost suggests, in fact, that the life endured by the occupants of the actual house find its best memorial and expression in the house of ‘make-believe’. He convinces us that the playhouse has the measure of the other house, that the entranced focus of the activity that took place as the make-believe on one side of the yard was fit to match the meaning of what happened on the other side, and in doing so Frost further suggests that the imaginative transformation of the human life is the means by which we can most truly grasp and comprehend it. What Virgil called lacrimae rerum, the tears of things, can be absorbed and re-experienced in the playthings of the playhouse – or in the words of the poem.”

This sense – that the purpose of poetry (or, more broadly, of art) is to take raw emotion and, in a certain sense, ‘aestheticise’ it, is an old one. It has its echoes in the Greek idea of the role of tragedy being to induce catharsis; in Tradition and the Individual Talent, Eliot famously wrote that the task of the poetic mind is to “transmute the passions which are its material”, and that “poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion“; and in praising the short stories of Danilo Kis, Joseph Brodsky wrote that “[Kis] can afford to treat tragedy as a genre, and his art is more devastating than statistics…[in such a way that] the reader’s ethical evaluation of the phenomena described ceases to be merely a matter of his distraught sentiment and comes out as a judgment made by his profoundly offended supreme human faculties.”

But what interests me here is Heaney’s almost off-hand reference to Virgil: “lacrimae rerum, the tears of things“. The quotation is from The Aeneid, Book I (line 462): “sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt”. The context is that while staying with Dido, Aeneas is taken to the building of a Temple to Juno. There, he sees a mural depicting some of the scenes of the Trojan War (in which he himself, of course, was a participant) “in their correct order“. This sight gladdens his heart, and he says:

Sunt hic etiam sua praemia laudi;
sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt.
Solve metus; feret haec aliquam tibi fama salutem.”

Which translates to:

Here, too, the praiseworthy has its rewards;
there are tears for things and mortal things touch the mind.
Release your fear; this fame will bring you some safety.”

Interestingly, in his essay, The Two Voices of Virgil’s Aeneid, Adam Parry invokes precisely this scene to describe something he calls “sublimation” – “a conscious feeling that the raw emotions of grief have been subsumed in an artistic finality of vision.” Parry writes:

“The perfection of the lines itself imposes a kind of artistic detachment, and we are put in the position of Aeneas himself, as he sees, in Carthage, the destruction of Troy represented as paintings in a gallery of art… these paintings remind Aeneas of all that has been, of the tears of human things; and at the same time, Virgil tells us, they fill him with hope. In a larger way, the whole poem is such a painting. It is about history, but its purpose is not to tell us that history is good, or for that matter that it is bad. Its purpose is rather to impose on us an attitude that can take into account all in history that is both good and bad, and can regard it with the purer emotions of artistic detachment, so that we are given a higher consolation, and sorrow itself becomes a thing to be desired.”

As we can see, Parry’s idea of “sublimation” is close to what Heaney is saying when he writes about how the tears of things can be “absorbed and re-experienced… in the words of a poem“. The task of art is the “imaginative transformation” that makes this possible. In the Aeneid itself, of course, there is a two-layered meaning: Aeneas experiences the feeling of sublimation while gazing at the mural depicting the scene of his own tragedy, and Virgil uses this to convey to his readers the manner in which poetry and art can bring about such sublimation. And it is precisely this double-layer that Heaney attributes to Directive.

The throwaway Virgil quote, therefore, turns out to be much more than that. It is an intertextual reference that locates both Frost and Virgil in a poetic tradition, and as poets committed to – in the words of the collection – “the redress of poetry“.

 

 

 

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Connections: Italo Calvino and Rabee Jaber on Memory

“The memories are still there, hidden in the grey tangle of the brain, in the damp bed of sand deposited on the bottom of the stream of thought: assuming its true, that is, that every grain of this mental sand preserves a moment of our lives fixed in such a way that it can never be erased yet buried under billions and billions of other grains.

– Italo Calvino, Memories of a Battle

“What is memory?… Fields, yes, fields and castles, caves and passageways. Right now I’m gathering up my memories and watching them flow, I’m plunging my hand into the stream and groping for one specific memory, as if looking for a polished stone that sleeps on the riverbed.”

– Rabee Jaber, Confessions (reviewed here)

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Filed under Allusion and Inter-textuality, Italo Calvino, Literary Studies/Criticism/Theory

“He saw her as merely a name in his diary”: Colm Toibin’s ‘The Master’

“It was easier to be old here, he thought; no colour was simple, nothing was fresh, even the sunlight itself seemed to fall and linger in ways which had been honoured by time.”

Previously, I described Colm Toibin’s writing as a “breath on glass“, borrowing his own words in The South. In The Master, Toibin uses another phrase that would be perfect to describe his writing. Between Henry James and Minnie Temple, he writes, there was “much that would have to be left unsaid and a great deal that would never be known.” The Master, a thickly fictional biography of Henry James, defines its protagonist by what is left unsaid and what would never be known, and is itself defined by the unsaid and the unknown. In The South, Toibin wrote of the “subtleties of silence“. The Master is an entire book filled with silences, half-suggestions that one must strain to catch, murmurs that resemble “breathing on glass in its uncertainty and its delicacy... [and to] see a pattern before the breath was cleared away.

The portrait that Toibin paints of Henry James is of a man wedded to his art, keenly aware of the opposing pull of human relationships and human intimacy, and yet determined to reject it. “We all liked you,”, reminisces the Baroness von Rabe on a late evening in Rome, “and I suppose you liked us as well, but you were too busy gathering material to like anyone too much.” “Only sentences are beautiful“, Henry says at another time, merely half-joking. Reality is to be studied, but never to be embraced – until art sublimates it into something worth embracing. And so, while his own experiences with intimacy are dilute and attenuated, full of awkward retreats and withdrawals, it is in his companions’ death that the relationship nears completion: “he had them now, all three of them, and he would embrace them, hold on to them and let them improve with time, become more complex and less vulgar, less ugly, more rich, more resonant, more true not to what life was, but to what it might be.”

Toibin follows Henry James as he moves through Europe at the closing of the 19th century, a Europe that suggests a fading, weary lustre, whether it is the “openness and grand vistas of Rome“, or the “modest and guarded proportions” of his garden in the English village of Rye, “closer to the scale of the landscape they had been moving in, and strangely closer to their range of feeling.” As someone who made his career writing about Americans abroad in Europe, Henry too feels the same dissonance, the “yearning openness of Americans, their readiness for experience, their eyes bright with expectation and promise” contrasted sharply with “the dry nature of English experience – sure of its own place and unready for change, steeped in the solid and the social, a system of manners developed without much interruption for a thousand years.” In the pages of the book, a long (and illustrious) caste of characters traipses through, never staying too long, never long enough to establish themselves in the woodwork of the novel, quickly dissolving into memories “sharp in… outline and faded in… detail”: James Gray and Oliver Wendell Holmes, William James and Alice James, Minnie Temple and Constance Woolson. With each of them, James shares a troubles and ambiguous relationship, often terminated by untimely deaths.

A number of James’ relationships are with women, and it is here that Toibin is at his keenest and most sensitive as a writer, as an observer, as a portraitist. In the most effortless way imaginable, he describes the same world that is full of openness and possibility for a man like James, and is cloying and stifling for women like Alice, Minnie and Constance:

“Considering her insistence on raising the issue of Constance Fenimore Woolson the previous evening and her insinuation that he had abandoned her friend and left her to her fate in Venice, he wondered if she, too, Lily Norton, had been abandoned, or if she lived in fear of such an eventuality. Her not marrying, not being allied with someone who could offer her greater purpose and scope for all her flair and charm, was, in his view, a mistake and would likely seem more so as time passed. As he looked at her across the table, it occurred to him that the re-creation of herself, her deliberate broadening of her effect, could have atrophied other qualities more endearing to a potential suitor.”

And:

“‘I think it’s difficult for all of us. The gap is so wide,’ Constance said.

‘You mean between her imagination and her confines?’ Henry asked.

‘I mean between using our intelligence as women to the full and the social consequences of that,’ Constance said. ‘Alice has done what she has to do, and I admire her.’

‘She really has done nothing except stay in bed,’ Henry said.

‘That’s precisely what I mean,’ Constance replied.

‘I do not understand,’ he said.

‘I mean that the consequences get into the marrow of you soul.’”

It is with Woolson, in particular, that James’ inability – or unwillingness – to comprehend intimacy is at its sharpest, and most tragic. Woolson dies by throwing herself off her balcony in Florence, after unsuccessfully importuning Henry to come to Italy for the winter. And Henry is left to make sense of a relationship that “had been so tentative and full of possibility”, and is now reduced to “her absence in all its finality.” But if the purpose of tragedy is to infuse life with meaning, even in death, then Toibin – through James – denies us the simplicity of closure, or the ease of discovering meaning. There is always that sense of elusiveness, of meaning evading us, just out of reach of our grasp, breath on glass, the unsaid and the unknown. Henry comes to realise, at the end, “how memory and regret can mingle, how much sorrow can be held within, and how nothing seems to have any shape or meaning until it is well past and lost and, even then, how much, under the weight of pure determination, can be forgotten and left aside only to return in the night as piercing pain.”

There’s a sense of Elizabeth Bishop here, a poet whom Toibin has written about with great sensitivity and admiration. Bishop’s One Art ends with the lines “it’s evident/the art of losing’s not too hard to master/ though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.” These lines have always indicated, to me, that the shape and texture of loss – “its weight and meaning” is created only through the act of writing, and of course, even that is never complete. For James – and Toibin – meaning itself is created through loss, and is always incomplete, no matter how much you may try to write it!

There is another way in which the presence of Bishop pervades The Master. In his book on Elizabeth Bishop, Toibin quotes Lowell’s ode to her as a fine description of her work:

Do/ you still hang your words in the air, ten years/ unfinished, glued to your noticeboard with gaps/ or empties for the unimaginable phrase -/ unerring Muse, who makes the casual perfect.

Who makes the casual perfect.” In Toibin’s writing – both in The South and in The Master, there is a search for depth in the everyday acts that constitute the layered lives of people. In The Master, he puts it perfectly, again in the thoughts of Henry James:

“In its detail and its dialogue, its slow movements and its mystery, it stood against abstraction, against the greyness and foolishness of large concepts. But it stood singly and small and unprotected, barely present.”

Detail, dialogue, slow movements, against abstraction, the foolishness of large concepts. There is a literary philosophy, to which one might add: the foolishness of easy emotions, the temptation of easy memories, the myth of easy meanings. In Toibin’s writing, like the colours of Rome, nothing is simple. Not even the city of Rome at the turn of the century:

“As Rome became more modern, he wrote to Paul Bourget, he himself became increasingly antique. He had fled from Venice, from the memories and echoes that had settled in its atmosphere, and had at first refused all Roman invitations and offers of shelter. He lodged instead in a hotel close to Piazza di Spagna and he found himself in his early days in the city walking slowly as though the heat of high summer had come in May. He did not at first climb the Spanish Steps, nor make a pilgrimage to any site further than a few streets from his hotel. He tried not to conjure up memories deliberately, nor to compare the city of almost thirty years earlier with the city of now. He did not allow any easy nostalgia to colour the dulled sweetness of these days. He was not disposed to meeting himself in a younger and more impressionable guise and thus feeling sadness at the knowledge that no new discoveries would be made, no new excitements felt, merely old ones revisited. He allowed himself to love these streets, as though they were a poem he had once memorized, and the years when he had first seen these colours and stones and studied these faces seemed a rich and valuable part of what he was now. His eye was no longer surprised and delighted, as it once had been, but neither was it jaded.”

The Master is a book like that. It understands the limits of surprise and delight in this world, but rejects the empty alternative of the jaded.

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“No, it is not the ‘end of history’”: Henri Alleg’s Algerian Memoirs

“We came to the crossroads where he was to leave us, as we got of the cart, he turned to us, raising his finger like a grandfather giving his grandchildren a lesson: ‘Listen to me and always keep in mind what I am telling you today. France has three enemies – the English, the Bolsheviks and the Jews! Don’t ever forget it!’ As the carriage drove away in a cloud of dust, Alfred let out the laugh that he had been holding back. ‘If only this idiot had known,’ he said, ‘that he had in you his three enemies sitting right beside him in his wagon.”

Like many others, I read Frantz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth in college, and was horrified – yet strangely fascinated – by his prescription for pure, cleansing, anti-colonial violence. Henri Alleg’s Algerian Memoirs describes the crucible in which Fanon was shaped, and in its own way, a journalistic, dispassionate way, helps to make sense of the polemics in The Wretched of the Earth.

Henri Alleg himself was born in France, but went to Algeria in 1939 as an eighteen-year old, and was involved with the Algerian independence movement thereafter. Joining the Communist Party of Algeria, he also founded – and ran – the Alger Republicain, described by him in the Memoirs as the only newspaper at the time that opnely advocated anti-colonial policies. Alleg was eventually arrested, and tortured by the French authorities, and his description of his torture in a tract called La Question caused a storm in France, was censored, and is credited with significantly accelerating the freedom movement. This, in itself, would have made for a full life, but the Algerian Memoirs recounts more than that: beginning with the early years, the onset of World War II, the determination of France to hold on to Algeria after the end of the War, the massacres, the increasingly violent freedom movement, Alleg’s own conviction and imprisonment, his eventual escape from a prison in France, independence and how quickly it soured, and eventual exile again. By any account, we would have to live three or four lives to begin to approach the fullness of Alleg’s!

The consistent theme that emerges out of the book is the brutality and racism of French colonialism. It is a particularly salutary time to be reminded of it. Over the last year, French culture, and the French way of life, have been rightly held up as ideals to strive for, and to protect and defend. But a book like Alleg’s reminds us that the same culture that produced Voltaire habitually tortured anti-colonialists through “the use of sticks and bottles shoved up the anus“; the authors of the Declaration of the Rights of Man belonged to the same society that massacred thousands of civilians demanding independence at the very time the Nazis were defeated in Europe; and that the principles that defined the French nation were never applied to the Algerians, until independence was seized by force of arms. These are well-worn points; but in light of French legislation that expressly required schools to recognise the “positive role” played by French colonialism in North Africa, and the present discourse which seems to deny the constitutive role played by colonialism in both the material and cultural shaping of Europe, memoirs like Alleg’s – once again – are a reminder that we cannot pick and choose our histories.

This is not to say that Alleg’s work is free of its own biases. As a card-carrying communist, he goes to extreme lengths to defend the French Communist Party’s quietism – and in fact, opposition – to Algerian independence. For Alleg, the Communist Party has been misunderstood, its pragmatism mistaken for an indefensible commitment to the continuation of colonialism. History – I think correctly – has not been so charitable.

That blind spot apart, Alleg is a compelling and reliable guide. The journalist’s eye for detail is complemented by – in the tradition of C.L.R. James – an absence of any faux pretences to neutrality. Alleg is anti-colonialist and a leftist, and never bothers to hide the fact that his world-view and assessment is shaped by those ideological forces. And over and above that, he has a sharp sense of humour, one that has not been dulled by decades of repression and censorship. He recalls an event, for instance, when:

“One night, an over-hasty police superintendent exhibited a seizure notice signed by the Prefect of Algiers for an issue that neither he nor his superiors could have read since it was yet to be printed. Despite the grotesque insistence of the police, looking for material proof of the non-existent offence, the staff categorically refused to print a newspaper that was condemned in advance to be seized.”

Asides like these – humorous, but darkly so – are scattered throughout that book, lightening it – and the readers – of some of the burdens that such accounts must inevitably inflict. It’s a burden which, one feels, Alleg needs to get off his own shoulders, by forcing himself to remember the funny side of things:

“One of my friends, Antoine Reynaud, who held a high position in the administration of the post office before his arrest, was talking with an FLN militant from Dra El Mizan in Kabylie. ‘I know it well,’ said Reynaud, ‘I supervised the installation of telegraph poles from Dra El Mizan to Boghni and beyond.’ ‘Oh! You’re the one who installed them. Nice to meet you! I’m the one who cut the connections after 1 November.’”

And who could grudge him that. In a life spent working on a magazine while having “to take refuge in the bathroom, the only relatively safe space, and take the copy to the shop on the other side of the avenue, which was intermittently sprayed by machine-gun fire”; while having to play a constant game of language with the censors, because “using the term ‘patriots’ and ‘moudjahidine’ to describe those who had taken up weapons was obviously prohibited. Since we refused to call them ‘rebels’, ‘bandits’ or ‘fellagha’ – the vocabulary of the newspapers – we were reduced to speaking of action conducted throughout the country by mysterious ‘armed men’. But the readers were not fooled. It was also forbidden to mention the fighting in Tunisia and problems related to the political situation of the country. The same was true for Morocco. Ultimately, we had to give up our effort to cover Tunisia and Morocco when our special correspondents were expelled from both countries”; and of course, a life spent living in a country where the colonisers “complained of the noise they had to endure living near a police station. The screams kept them up at night“: one would take one’s humour where one finds it.

It is almost trite now to quote Chinua Achebe: ‘Until the lions have their own historians, the history of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.’ Alleg is a historian of the lions. An imperfect one, but there are few, probably, who have greater authority to recount the history of the hunt.

A brilliant interview with Alleg can be found on Jadaliyya.

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