Tuesday, 31 July 2012

On milieu and refuge: a sketch, 8

The general idea seems to be that if you support Israel's right to exist in security, you must hate and be against Palestinians. That is not the case. There are organisations willing to work together - trade unions, cultural organisations, social organisations and parties that observe the humanity of both people. Humanity is found everywhere  among both Israelis and Palestinians. The best hope is to support them.

I don't intend going back over the history of the conflict because whatever details are given on one side will immediately be rebutted by the other, and I can't see the point of going on for ever doing that.

In any case, it is not as if I had ever considered going to live in Israel. At one time I strongly felt that if the worst came to the worst I'd sooner go there and fight  - and possibly die - for its existence and mine rather than undergo the humiliations heaped on what the non-Jewish world have sometimes called the 'passive' (for passive read cowardly) Jews of the 30s generation. I imagine that the more acerbic and unforgiving side of the Israeli mind-set is informed by the same feeling. Should Israel have been created there? I don't know. It is there now. It is there, within the 1948 borders,  legally in UN terms. The rest is numbers, not arguments:

Roughly similar number of Middle Eastern Jews and Arabs left  or were expelled from their previous dwelling places in the 1948 period (c 800,000 Palestinians, c 700,000 Jews from Arab homelands).

Recognition of Israel
Currently the following countries in the region do not recognise Israel: Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Libya, Lebanon, UAE, Yemen, Oman, and Qatar, which leaves only Egypt and Jordan that do. Egypt didn't before the agreement with Sadat and we don't know what the new Egypt will do. Jordan has only unwillingly recognised Israel since the 1967 war.

In terms of population the countries not recognising Israel total c 248 million. The population of Israel is 8 million of whom c. 6 million are Jewish. The world population of Jews being estimated at c. 13.2 million, that's about half the world's population. Everywhere else Jews are in tiny minorities. It is worth mentioning that, by a happy coincidence, 6 million is supposed to be the number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust. (That includes some 6-8 members of my own family, people I might have known had they survived)

Land Area
In terms of land area, the countries not recognising Israel total 7.13 million sq km. Israel (including the Golan Heights and East Jerusalem) total 0.02 million sq km. If you include the current occupied territories (the West Bank and the Gaza Strip) that then adds up to 0.026 million sq km.

Geography: the crude political map

You will see that 1948 Israel - without the West Bank  (in white above) - has a long, slender, exposed neck. The distance from Netanya on the Mediterranean coast, to Tulkarm on the West Bank is 12.2 miles. Very difficult to defend. The Golan Heights (in white) are strategically important and were so in 1967. It may not be surprising that Israel finds it hard to yield the West Bank to potentially hostile forces (and seeing which countries do not recognise Israel most of them are hostile.) For Israel a more secure territory would be bordered by the Jordan river on the other side of the West Bank.


What this is not
This is not an argument for Israel retaining the West Bank, it is only a reason it might want to.  As shown above, Israel is vastly outnumbered numerically and the lands around it are huge compared to it in size. Refugees could have been absorbed decades ago, since 1948. They have been in other parts of the world. But to absorb the refugees would have been to recognise Israel.

This is not an argument for Israel to behave as it wishes, to oppress or exploit the non-Jewish population anywhere within its sphere of power.

This is not an argument that some people have lesser rights than others.

This is certainly not an argument that Israel should have been founded where it currently is. It is only a to state the fact that it is there.

It is certainly true that surrounding Arab countries regard the foundation of Israel in 1948 as a disaster and an injustice.


Balancing injustices is impossible. Most of the world is not as it was fifty years ago, hundred years ago, two-hundred years ago and so on back, to include all the major conquests, wanderings, and diasporas.

That is not an argument against addressing injustice. We are obliged to make the best possible justice given the circumstances. European emigrés will not be returning from the US or Australia. There will be pockets of populations everywhere dispersed among larger and later incursions that will notwithdraw like a tide to allow them to join up with those that previousy constituted a majority. Central Europe is full of these.

I have no great belief in the eternal virtues of the nation-state. I prize peace and the best possible justice above the satisfaction of historical 'honour'.

Nothing I have said above excuses ill-treatment, violence, oppression. It's just that I don't see Israel as being solely culpable of such crimes. We know plenty of other countries that have and continue to mistreat others. We ourselves might be among them.  So might the countries near Israel. They do not excuse Israel: Israel doesn't excuse them.

Now I have said enough about Israel. I want to get on to the title of these posts: the questions of milieu and refuge,

Monday, 30 July 2012

On milieu and refuge: sketch, 7

I will return to the subject of Israel soon. As I suggested in the first two posts, we are all hovering creatures it's just that Jewish populations are never assured they can hover over the same place for long. Living with a packed suitcase is a metaphor, but, like all metaphors, it refers to a mental condition. One lifetime in one place ought to be assurance enough, but even three are not. One rarely gets four.

There are those who have seen Jews as a form of pest, a kind of locust alighting on a field only to strip it bare. There are those who have seen them as poisoners of wells. Interestingly, when the last post in this series appeared  as a link on my Facebook page I had an immediate email from a new Friend who must have taken umbrage at my piece on Israel because she immediately posted a link to an article headed Arafat Came Offering Peace, Got Poison.

Because poison is what you get from Jews, those poisonous hovering people.

Or if they don't poison you they kill you and harvest your organs.

Or if they fail to do that, they murder your babies by bayoneting them.

Or they sacrifice Christian or other children and bake their blood into matzos.

Or if they don't do that they demand pounds of flesh, or organise innocent Christian children into gangs of thieves.

Or if they don't do that they form secret societies to take over the world.

Or if they don't do that they steal your money, charge you exorbitant interest, run the American president, run international finance, run the international press.

They are, it is generally added, cowards who get other people to fight their wars for them then stab them in the back.

Or, being journalists,  they doorstep you at a party and ask if you've enjoyed it, like bloody concentration camp guards.

They are parasites battening down on hard-working honest people. They defile whatever they touch. They themselves are the defilement. There is, after all, something disgusting about them. Sexy, clever, but disgusting.

Do you remember how there was something of the night about Michael Howard? Guess what it was!

Shall I go on? 

Do I need to go on?


No, of course I need not go on because everyone knows this and everybody says, well of course, that's all nonsense and no-one amongst us believes such things. And I believe them when they say it, of course I do, because they mean it. But someone must believe all this because it's not hard to find on the internet or - parts of it - even in the daily press at times among the most intelligent, wise, kindly people.

And it is only about the Jews they say it, about nobody else. And it always is about the Jews they say it, nobody else.

Some might argue this is paranoid. I suggest they put in some appropriate search term and read around a bit. As for me, I am just one generation away from the last great purge which was supposed to be final. It isn't a fairy tale. He don't make it up, you know.


Let's get this out of the way and continue to hover. I myself hover in all kinds of other ways, as I imagine most artists do. As I said at the beginning, I had no Jewish upbringing at all and am, by full immersion baptism, at least formally, what Peter Porter once called, a residual Christian,  which is to say I was so by conviction but am not so convinced now. In real life I hover between atheism, agnosticism and a fuzzy kind of mysticism that I pretend not to take seriously.  I cannot fully identify with Jewish life as normally lived. I am not even particularly attracted by it.

But in the context of the accusations above I claim my Jewishness.  Above all, in that context. As, under Nazi or Fascist laws, it would be claimed of me. Because it's the blood, you know. The poison is in the blood and it would be the basest dishonesty to disown the blood. 


Not yet finished with the hovering, or the milieu and the refuge of the title.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Sunday Night is... I Got Rhythm, Tatum and Petersen

Two dazzlers, the first (Tatum) raw, smashing his way through the delicate furniture only to reconstruct it all at dazzling speed; the second (Petersen) as sophisticated as they come, the perfect smooth operator, fully musical down to his toes, which of course gave him ten digits advantage.

 I've tended to be on the Tatum side of the argument, if there is one, though my first impression of him was more demolition squad than music.

 Wrong again. With Tatum (I think).

Saturday, 28 July 2012

On milieu and refuge: a sketch 6

Israel 1

The yellow room is, of course, a personal piece of poetics.

Israel meant little to me until 1967. I don't remember it being mentioned in the family at all so the country's condition and circumstances were fresh to me.

It was the lead-up to it I remember, the massing of Syrian, Jordanian and Egyptian forces on the borders and the voice of Nasser promising to push Israel into the sea. At that point I seem to remember a certain anxiety in the house, but then came the preemptive strike by the Israeli air force and the Six Day War. And then it was over.

On the day it was over the same friend whose parents conspicuously read Holocaust literature on German-frequented beaches was glowing with pride. Arrogance? he reacted when someone upbraided him for it. Yes, I feel proud and arrogant. (He has since become an Israel-sceptic who believes the country faces no existential threat).

Why the arrogance? I think I understood this even then. The image of the Jews had been of people easily herded to their own extinction. They put up no fight. They had been humiliated and had to be rescued by others, and so, while being pitied they were also secretly despised a little.  It was a race (yes, a race, not a religion) compounded of sheepish, kindly, possibly wise but equally possibly grasping and not altogether  untrustworthy tailors and small tradesmen with loud and nagging wives. Eternal immigrants. Either big capitalists or political radicals, according to some. Never quite one of us, though they could be very decent and clever chaps. This was the impression I picked up in England - and expected to pick up every else too - from the little I heard and read and saw. As for our genuinely kindly hosts, the British had fought the war for the Jews because the British were decent and brave and open and did such things. It was in their nature. The Jews had better be grateful. (They were.)

I accepted the decent and brave and open self-description. I felt sure that Jews were far safer in Britain than anywhere else and though I did not fully know we ourselves / I myself were / was Jewish I felt secretly pleased and relieved to be  a part of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, that huge red splodge on the map.


After art school I went to Goldsmith for a year and there I had a dear anarchist non-Jewish tutor called Tony. One day in a supervision he told me that the kibbutz was the ideal socialist / anarchist community. The kibbutz had never been in the least tempting to me - like being on a muscular-Judaism field course, I thought - but it was interesting to hear him say that, because I think the British left, including the quite radical left were in support of Israel and its right to exist at that time. In fact it was supposed to be something of a shining beacon, an example to us all: a country of plucky survivors doing it for themselves, turning the desert into fields.

This was 1973 and the Yom Kippur War was about to kick off in a few months time. But this was only March, maybe even February.

The poet in the Chagall painting (Blaise Cendrars) has his head upside down. Perhaps we are born that way.

Friday, 27 July 2012

On milieu and refuge: a sketch 5

The yellow room is my theme. It is what I am curious about.

If this is autobiographical it is because I am not writing a study: I am delving into a feeling that might be shared, whether as Jewishness or in some other terms, I can't tell.

I also wonder how far the original pattern of this room is located in time and space.

I have felt the presence of this room in other authors: in Brodsky, in Sebald, in Bruno Schulz, in Krasznahorkai. The presence isn't described or referred to in these writers: it is just there as  memory, the edge of a voice. The writers need not be Jewish - I don't think there is any evidence that Sebald was, for example - but they carry a trace of the room in their imaginations. It isn't the shtick, the full blown Jewish theme: Philip Roth, to take another example is too much the thing, so is, on home soil, Howard Jacobson. They're very good, particularly Roth, but, for perfectly natural reasons, they are arguing a corner.

It might, after all, be that the room is partly the product of an urban Central European, environment, specifically Budapest in my case. But then Eva Hoffman shares the space too and she is from Cracow. Eva is Jewish but what she writes isn't necessarily about Jewishness (she has done that too) but about a consciousness that encompasses much else and doesn't lodge itself exclusively in either religious or specific historical experience. It isn't 'Jewish writing'. I love Eva's books in a way that is as much affection as aesthetics. It is the mind in the books that I love. It is the sense of being in the room.

What is it about the room? Here are seven ways of identifying it:

Firstly, perhaps, is the sense of intimacy. One comes in, sits down, eats or drinks something, works at the table or reads in the chair but one is not quite alone. The room speaks in an intimate if not wholly comprehensible way. It mutters and argues. It is full of others, some of whom are actually there, entering or leaving. Some have long gone but persist in hanging about. 
Secondly, it is not brightly lit. Outside it is night or dusk. The lamp in the room is fairly narrow leaving a good deal of dark. 
Thirdly, it smells of something: wood, damp, cooking, old books. You'd know it in pitch dark because of the smell. 
Fourthly, you never quite leave it. Outside are streets, fields, forests, lakes. These you visit but when you open your bag or feel in your pockets, the room is there. 
Fifthly, there are no conspicuously religious objects in the room. You might find a small pocket Bible in a drawer but it's not an object of veneration. There are no special candles. You don't have to put anything on your head. There are no specific prayers to say. 
Sixthly, being a poor, bare, forked animal, you may go naked in it but this will never seem like a natural state to you. 
Seventhly, others can see or sense it in you and will form their attachments or detachments accordingly.

Maybe that's as far as I want to go this time. Further to go.

Thursday, 26 July 2012

On milieu and refuge: a sketch 4

What happened after Metro?

On the positive side, those who hadn't noticed my work much before now noticed it. It was identifiable as a theme and that always extends interest.

On the negative side, those who had taken the closest interest in my work before stepped back. It was a very slight step back, the first, but I registered it.

It might have been partly because Metro was autobiographical in a sense most of my earliest poems had not been, nor have been since. The small boy figure that appears in it in one or two places, and with whom the poem begins, was certainly me, and the events in the poem, when they were not clearly metaphorical or invented, were identifiable as a distanced metaphoric form of documentary.

There was something a touch improper in this relationship of poem-voice to an 'I' character - there often is - but I felt it was the most honest way of approaching the subject, that is if I was going to write it at all. By the time I had taken that decision about half the poem was writing itself: the rest remained to be written. I think the poem has its longueurs but that it also has its highlights, and that those highlights are among my most intense writing.

But this wasn't primarily an aesthetic argument about the genuine, deeply problematic place of documentary or autobiography in poetry. It was related but there was something else.


It was as if I had pulled a fast one by playing 'the Jewish card'.  There was such a thing as Holocaust literature and I was now part of it. That literature was suspect. Everything that could possibly be said on the subject had been said and that should have been the end of it. It was contaminated territory.

The fact was I hadn't read very much Holocaust literature myself and still haven't. I too was suspicious of it. I didn't like the idea of curling up with lists of horrors, chanting them over and over again and cultivating the wounds of others as though they were my own. An English Jewish friend told me how his parents would carry a piece of Holocaust literature with them to the beach and conspicuously read it if there were Germans nearby. My parents never did that: I couldn't imagine them doing it.  Quite quietly, without any fuss, they boycotted German goods.  That was their personal response to all that had happened directly to them.

I felt a certain contempt for my friend's parents. Contempt is too strong a word perhaps. The story made me inwardly shudder.

However, there was a contaminated area and the warning sign on the contaminated area said:

No entry 

You may read Primo Levi or Imre Kertész or Paul Celan, but that's enough. Because if you do more, if you turn it into a positive fetish, you are claiming special status and excluding the sufferings of others we consider just as important as you and that includes us. 

We too have suffered. 


I hadn't looked to claim a special status for myself: Metro was the conclusion of a series of longer poems about my mother and what had made her what she was. She was my 'subject' along with the city that had blown me away in 1984 and '85. It was what the whole Hungarian experience had driven me to. It was partly what Budapest, in all its beauty, really was. It had happened. Nothing very special, but it had happened.

The response, though faint, was a kind of education. Harping on about the subject could be perceived as a form of accusation. It could make people feel guilty when they had no personal cause to be. It was to load the dice. It was an irritation and a bore. It was sentimentality exactly as I described it before: a feeling notionally directed at others but actually directed at oneself.


Metro ends with the direct memory of a drunken woman sitting on a bench in the metro and another sitting next to her with a pool of urine at her feet. A policeman moves them on. I couldn't quite say why the poem ended there but it felt right it should do so, and still does. This image of humiliation and squalor may relate to something in my mother's psychological condition. It might relate to something in mine. I don't know.

The problem began in the first two of sixty stanzas, the point when what I now think of as the yellow room appears. Here is my great aunt, Riza, in the yellow room in Budapest:

My aunt was sitting in the dark, alone, 
Half sleeping when I crept into her lap.
The smell of old women now creeps over me,
An insect friction against bone
And spittle and an ironed dress
Smoother than shells gather by the sea,
A tongue between her teeth like a scrap 
Of cloth, and an eye of misted glass,
Her spectacles with the image of a lit room
Beyond the double doors, beyond the swing
Between the doors, and my head in her bosom
At rest on soft flesh and hard corsetry,
And in that darkness a tired and perfumed smiling.

Across the city darkened rooms are breeding
Ghosts of elderly women nodding off
Over the books their grandchildren are reading,
Or magazines, or bibles, or buttons to be sewn,
With letters, patterns. recipes, advice.
Some of them might have the radio on,
Like her, my aunt, who will remain alone
Within that room in which I visit her,
Ascending to her skin, which is rough
About the mouth, with hard nodules, like rice,
(Her face glows like a lantern) and she says,
There is a God, the God of the Jews, of Moses and Elias,
But this is not the time to speak of him.

Nor was it the time to speak of him (I had been baptized by full immersion twenty-six years before), but it was time to speak of the aunt and of my mother in the other room, and of the room itself.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

On milieu and refuge: a sketch 3

There are two early Jewish figures in my work, both in my second book, November and May (1981). The first, a woman, appears in 'The Phylactery', a set of quatrains after a photograph. Something about the photo must have struck me because there are a number of details in it that I seem to have registered. The woman is at some distance psychologically, hiding behind a phylactery. She represents something - a moment in an apocalyptic event that was likely to occur again on a cyclic basis, between the first rain and the latter rain' as the poem put it in its last line.

The other poem is titled 'North Wembley', the tenth line of which reads:
Jewish boys practice the violin in dark but modern lounges.
The poem is about the eponymous suburb of London and the violin-playing boys are just a passing element in it. They are seen from the outside. I suspect my younger violin-playing brother is an important aspect of the boy, but the lounges I was thinking of were bigger and darker than ours, rooms glimpsed through windows. The boys were close but elsewhere. I simply noted them but I was not them.

The ghost of my mother (who had died almost six years earlier) had already appeared in one poem, 'At the Dressing Table Mirror', and is a shape behind the eyes in 'Half-Light'. There are one or two memories of Hungary. A familiar block of flats, a smell suddenly noticed in a derelict house that reminded me of a Budapest lido.

Otherwise the poems spring from apprehensions and pleasures, particularly love and the precarious state of existential affairs on which love depends for its excitements. All these feelings are directed towards a general sense of strangeness and foreigness in Short Wave (1984).  There is very little there on the subjects I am now discussing. There is probably more of my mother in 'Goya's Chamber of Horrors' than anyone would have realised and 'The `Impotence of Chimneys' does contain a rather ominous, ambivalent crematorium chimney but Hungary is the more pressing subject and informs a group of four poems 'Assassins', 'Foresters', Short Wave' and 'In the Cabbage Grove', the last of these identifying with Hungarian peasant women whose 'voices prove / the gruffness mine' and who were 'the savages I gather in'. Those women would have been the tough tellers of village tales I imagined rather than knew. They were certainly not Jewish but creatures of the field.


This isn't a retrospect of my poetry but it's interesting to see how the twin themes of Hungary and the yellow-room inside it begin to emerge. In 1984 I went to Hungary for the first time and that changed everything. The first book to arise out of it, The Photographer in Winter (1986) moved around the figure of my mother (the photographer in question, but also myself as the secret agent observing her) as a Hungarian in Hungary who then came to England. It was very warmly reviewed and was considered a leap forward particularly on account of its three longer poem sequences.

But there was one aspect of the return not covered in that book: it was my mother's arrest and transportation to first Ravensbruck, then to Penig. Out of that subject came the long (780 lines) title poem of Metro (1988) and here is where the Jewish question first arose.

Again, the book was enthusiastically greeted, but something curious happened.

The poem traces my mother's removal from Budapest in the late autumn of 1944 (I don't know the exact date). There are three key motifs.

First is the Greek notion of the psychopomp, the spirit guide to the land of the dead.

The second is the metaphor of the Metro, or rather the Földalatti, the first underground line of Budapest, opened in 1896, and running so close to the surface that you can feel the vibration of the train under your feet: the transportation trains of the Holocaust are clearly echoed and the passengers at the stations are imagined burning.

The third was the reconstruction of not only a surmised family history but of my mother's voice in italicised passages. As for the history, I spent two years after my mother's death, talking to my father on tape, trying to fit together what happened both to him and to her. It was a way of distracting him from his loss and grief. The voice was of course a problem, and the poem makes some references to the synthetic notion of an enterprise it considers necessary.

The location was Budapest as it was in 1984 - a magnificent city whose buildings were marked by the bullet and shell holes of not only 1945 but 1956. You could put your hand to the walls as though they were living skin. It was like feeling history breathing.

And of course it was about the removal of a specific person, someone who was being removed specifically because she was Jewish. Entering that territory - the Jewish territory - was a big but unavoidable step. It was to enter the yellow room behind the locked doors of a perfectly ordinary but desolate lounge, all absence, the railway from it leading where it did in fact lead.


What happened?

 Having been received first as a poet with an interesting foreign background, then as a Hungarian poet (I was billed as such despite never having written in Hungarian), I was now a Hungarian Jewish poet (and billed as such.) I think I only partly understood the situation, but it was clear that this last change was considered more dramatic than the previous one. It made one a special creature, one of those: 'Jewish boys' who 'practice the violin in dark but modern lounges.' I still didn't feel like one in myself. That boy was still someone else. Still is.

Then other things happened. The reasons for this were, I now think, complicated and worth trying to pick apart.  That's for the next post.

Tuesday, 24 July 2012

On milieu and refuge: a sketch 2

Hovering is a psychological as well as social condition. The feeling is not unknown generally. The history of humanity is one of migration, settling, then more migration. Whether the migration is defensive or aggressive is almost secondary in the long run. The fact is people move and ever faster, ever further now than they have ever done. The process of identifying with a place, a state, a language, a history, or a group of some sort whether religious or ethnic or kin, involves a complex and troubled negotiation between conflicting forces. The places we cling to are in the imagination as much as in time and space though we welcome the confirmations of time and place when we can get them.

I doubt that my mother's death was an entirely physical matter. Her thoughts and feelings, her patterns of behaviour, patterns we recognised as idiosyncratic, were likely to have been ever less secure in time and place. Her experiences (which might be broadly generalised as belonging to a type, albeit not a very broad type) and her ways of dealing with them (which were as unique as any individual's must be) produced the condition in which she found herself.

Her hovering began early, in fact it began long before she was born. Here is a list of the major pogroms since the middle ages:

Pogroms in Europe, Russia and Middle East from Middle Ages 
(Jews murdered, expropriated, expelled or fled) 

1011        Cordoba
1033        Fez
1066        Granada
1096        France, Germany
1189        London, York
1276        Fez
1348-51   Chillon, Basle, Stuttgart, Ulm, Speyer, Dresden, Mainz, Hungary
1465        Fez
1490        Hungarian pogrom
1506        Lisbon
1648-57   Ukraine
1686        Hungary, Buda Massacre, anti-Jewish laws
1768-69   Ukraine
1819        Würzburg, Denmark, Poland, Latvia, Bohemia
1821        Odessa pogroms
1828        Baghdad massacre (Islamic)
1839        Meshed, Persia
1840        Damascus (Islamic)
1859        Odessa
1867        Barfurush (Islamic)
1881-84   Russia, Kiev, Warsaw, Odessa continuing into 20C
1911        Tredegar Riot, Wales
1917        Russia
1918        Lwow
1919        Argentina, Poland, Hungary

(Even as I tabulate the above I am aware that there will be those, even some quite nice 'those' who are securely, almost unconsciously,  thinking or feeling, Damn Jews, always presenting themselves as a special case. They think the world owes them a living. Briefly to address their concerns, I am not presenting this. I am exploring a state of consciousness that I have decided to call hovering. These are not excuses: they are, as far as I can ascertain, facts that lead to perceptions. I don't expect the reader to feel obligated to me because some time back my unknown ancestors have been persecuted. I am not claiming monies or territories, nor am I expecting to be treated more leniently than anyone else. I don't think I myself have been at all persecuted, on the contrary I consider myself extremely fortunate, but I suspect - in fact I know - I am here because others not only perceive they have been persecuted, but actually have been.) 

What the table does show is that Jews have always lived with the possibility of persecution and migration. Hovering is the given condition.

My mother was born in 1924, to a Hungarian Jewish family in Transylvania who would themselves have been born in Hungarian territory during relatively liberal times, have survived the first great war then faced the persecutions following Hungarian defeat, first as Jews, then, once Transylvania was ceded to Romania by the Treaties of Versailles and Trianon, as part of a Hungarian minority in hostile territory. In 1940, under pressure from Hitler, their part of Transylvania was returned to Hungary. This  saved them from the excesses of the Romanian fascist Antonescu only to drop them into the laps of the increasingly fascist Hungarian state whose functionaries were eventually to deliver them to whatever death awaited them. We don't even know what and where. We know nothing.

Having come to Budapest at the age of sixteen to work as apprentice to a photographer, despite considerable brio and extraordinary firmness of purpose, my mother will have hovered with ever less assurance of time and space.

(And then the camps and then the rescue and then the bombed city and then the vain return home to find her family and all property vanished, and then marriage, and then hyperinflation, and then political absolutism, and then children, and then revolution, and then flight, and then England, and then the operations,... blah-di-blah and other stuff I will not dwell on if only because it is generic and I am determined this should not become a sob story. I am not the right person to be doing any sobbing.)

That load of data above? I didn't even fully identify with it, not in a mouthy way. It was white noise in the background, something to do with the Chagall's yellow room but not in an easy causal way.


Back in the Sixties, the Welsh Jewish poet, Dannie Abse, wrote a poem titled 'Even'. Dannie lived - and still does live - in Golders Green, a partially Jewish suburb in North-West London. The poem begins with a verse about watching Jews pass his gate on their way to synagogue on a Saturday. The second goes on:
Dressed like that they lose their charm
who carry prayer books, wear a hat.
I don't like them, I don't like them,
and guilty fret - just thinking that.
He goes on to wonder whether he is just 'another / tormented, anti-semite Jew?' before watching the Christian pass the same gate on a Sunday and deciding that he doesn't like them either. It is the pathology of religions he rejects in the last verse, regarding believers as 'zealots of / scrubbed and excremental visions'.

Zealotry is one thing but those 'scrubbed and excremental visions' might well belong in the yellow-lit Chagall-room, so I will need to return to them in due course.

But I have felt as Dannie felt. I have seen the uniforms of zealotry and inwardly shuddered, either because those wearing the uniforms were temperamentally inimical or because they suggested the kinds of ghosts that might haunt a yellow room, I cannot tell.  They were certainly disturbing in exactly the way ghosts are disturbing. Nobody wants ghosts, especially zealous ones.


The Chagall painting above shows lovers flying over a town. How easily an image becomes a cliché, a form of sentimentality. I take sentimentality to be an emotion supposedly directed at someone else but really directed at oneself; harmless in small doses - perhaps even humanising - but when indulged, a mixture of self-pity, self-love and self-loathing. Sentimentality is bad medicine.

When first conceived and painted, those lovers were not sentimental: they were celebratory and improbable. They are not just hovering but drunkenly sweeping along leaving the town behind, heading for a properly furnished world of symbols. The yellow room is below them. The yellow room is the point that is actually hovering in time and space, perfectly still for now, but later transferred to other locations, maybe Paris, maybe, later still, Israel. They themselves are moving on to a world in which the small yellow room is just a memory.

I'm moving too fast and I am still not covering the territory, not one-tenth of it. Sometimes I think - and fear - that I am like those flying lovers: too high and too fast to grasp the slower meaning of things. But speed may be my gift. For what it's worth.

Monday, 23 July 2012

On milieu and refuge, a sketch: 1

I never really thought of myself as Jewish when young. Why would I? As far as we knew, our mother was Lutheran since she said she was. Dad certainly was Jewish but - probably under her strict injunction (and her injunctions were very strict indeed) - we had no specifically Jewish life. None at all. She wanted to make sure that we, her children, would not be taken for Jews the next time, and having experienced the last-time at first hand, as had my father, she was never free of the fear that there would be a next time. She had survived two concentration camps and lost every last member of her family. She never cared for religion and her parents would, I suspect, have been reform Jews to whom Jewishness was a residual culture rather than a demanding religion.

But how could she pass herself off as Lutheran - pass herself off to us, her children, that is? Well, children tend to believe their parents, and her story was that she was a political prisoner, which was not impossible, though it became ever less probable as the years wore on. It was only after her death my father told us the truth.


We were hovering creatures, hovering between countries, languages, cultures, and religions. Having been Hungarians my parents were very willing to try being British in 1956. British they could manage: English would have been another matter, desirable, but somehow out of reach. They had very much wanted to be Hungarians but then, in the forties, Hungarians decided they weren't and couldn't be. So they hovered and remained in a curiously hovering condition.

And so it was with us as a family. At one level, we were training up to be British but at another we swam in a social and psychological half light, a version of that yellow lantern-and-candle light you find in Chagall's early paintings, generally in a cabin in a forgotten shtetl. The light that followed us around followed at a respectful distance, but it followed all the same. Perhaps - and this was only the faintest of suspicions - it was doing more than following.

I think I became aware of it in my teens. My parents' friends were mostly Jewish refugees like themselves, ever more so as time wore on, not exclusively but markedly. For my father it was one world at work and another in their social evenings which were still not Jewish but only faintly British, and not really non-Jewish.

As for me, there were a number of English Jewish children at my high school and I made close friends with one or two without quite becoming part of their communal or family life. English Jewishness seemed a perfectly amenable but slightly alien world. My girlfriends were not Jewish, nor was there any expectation that they should be. They were part of the outside British world and never quite entered the spiritual house with its faint memory of yellow-lit rooms. They were exciting but elsewhere. Then I went off to art school, first locally then in the north and the past seemed to wash off me. I liked the feeling: it was free, adult, a different spiritual milieu, an altogether better milieu I could stride through as myself.

I fell in love with C, the daughter of a Baptist missionary: we married and got baptised. It was perfectly natural. My mother attended the baptism and wrote picturesquely to a friend about how we emerged from the water like drowned rats. She loved C. She was, in many ways, delighted.

I wonder though what more she felt. The comical baptism might have seemed to her the end of her life-work in guiding her children's lives into safe harbour. (My brother was to take even further steps in joining a Christian sect a few years later.) There we both were, new born, washed not only in the blood of the Lamb but maybe, just as spectacularly, in the blood of the Mother.

Yes, but still more than this. Not yet.


Nothing is really lost, nothing escapes. The small yellow-lit Chagall-room hadn't disappeared: it remained a half-acknowledged, not entirely conscious spiritual reservoir. Early Chagalls were a great influence on my visual art precisely at the moment when the Christian faith was freshest and most persuasive. Chagall's rich colour, intimacy, fantasy and comedy seemed a credible version of what a spiritual life could be. The crucifixion took care of the suffering Christian part, embodying, as it did, the ideas of self-sacrifice and salvation. Between Chagall and Rouault, and later Giotto, (and much later Piero della Francesca) there was a habitable region, where I could assemble a self to be true to.

My mother died in 1975, taking her own life, possibly inadvertently, after several earlier attempts. Hers wasn't a religious crisis, it was a physical one for the most part - she had undergone several operations on her aorta and her mitral valve in the days when such operations were still experiments (she was a patient of Dr Magdi Yacoub, the great Egyptian specialist) and not always successful - though I now suspect a cultural-spiritual crisis too...


I want to get back round to the missing Jewish piece of the assembled self but this is only a blog and I don't want to go the long detailed way - that route remains for another time. I do however want to try to explain - to myself as much as to any reader - my feelings about Israel, a country I have never visited, based on a religion I have never practised, and a culture I have never shared.

I am perfectly aware it is not a popular cause among many in England now, among many writers, scholars, intellectuals and even friends. I differ from them on this and possibly from my reader too but I feel obliged to put forward certain reasons, or if not reasons then hypotheses as to why.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Sunday Night is... Big Bill & Big Joe

Big Bill Broonzy: Baby, Please Don't Go

Big Joe Williams: Baby Please Don't Go

Two versions of the same song, the second by the first man to record it, the first  recorded later. I like them pretty well equally but I heard Big Bill Broonzy first back in about 1967 or 68. So he comes in first.

It's these voices like brushes you can scrub the floor with, the sheer brutal-yet-tender drive of them.  They probably sounded like history when they were in the present.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Hungary: Closing down, theatres and politics

From a contact in Budapest who also provides the translations 

He says: Several theatres in Budapest have been closed down without any explanation being given. For the oppositional left-wing daily Népszava this is further evidence of the destructive cultural policy of Viktor Orbán's conservative government:

"While the government wants to build expensive football stadiums willy-nilly, it is closing down theatres simply because of financial problems. First it was the Chamber Theatre of Budapest and now the capital's Játékszín Theatre is closing its doors. … One can only speculate about why the two Budapest theatres are being closed down, because there has been no explanation based on objective criteria from the government so far. … Of course we all know that the Hungarian theatre scene needs reform, but the way the government is going about it is disgraceful. The taxpayer and theatre-goers certainly don't deserve such an ill-considered, arrogant and destructive cultural policy."

That goes along with this story from The Budapest Times  It quotes from a speech by Sen Benjamin Cardin to the US Senate on 13 July where he quotes Victor Orbán:

In a February 2010 speech, Viktor Orbán criticised a system of governance based on pluralism and called instead for: “a large centralised political field of power… designed for permanently governing.’’ In June of last year, he defended his plan to cement economic policy in so-called cardinal laws, which require a two-thirds vote in parliament to change, by saying, “It is no secret that in this respect I am tying the hands of the next government, and not only the next one but the following ten.’’

Checks and balances have been eroded and power has been concentrated in the hands of officials whose extended terms of office will allow them to long outlive this government and the next. These include the public prosecutor, head of the state audit office, head of the national judicial office, and head of the media board. Those who have expressed concerns about these developments have good reason to be alarmed.

We are indeed alarmed.

Thursday, 19 July 2012


Blake said: Fun I love, but too much fun is of all things the most loathsome. Mirth is better than fun, and happiness is better than mirth. True, happiness is better than fun, and much better than directed fun, or enjoined fun, or expected fun, all of which are anathema. The words Let's have some fun now, always carry a threat of some sort. Because there are rules for having fun and, usually, they are the rules favoured by bullies.

But fun, meaning the ludicrous, the light-hearted, the throwaway, the giddy, is welcome, especially perhaps to essentially serious people. Sometimes life seems a very solemn affair, sometimes it seems fraught or even tragic, but, to reverse Blake, too much solemnity is loathsome too, in fact at times it is positively intolerable. Gravity is for grave occasions.

I think of poor Malvolio (yes, poor in some respects). He makes that officious speech late at night, where he admonishes Sir Toby Belch, who can himself be something of a bore. It is what he is hanged by:

My masters, are you mad? or what are you? Have ye no wit, manners, nor honesty, but to gabble like tinkers at this time of night? Do ye make an alehouse of my lady's house, that ye squeak out your coziers' catches without any mitigation or remorse of voice? Is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in you?

It's a reasonable enough speech at that time of night, if priggish, and many of us might make it in such circumstances. But underneath it lies a character defect of some moment. As Maria says:

The devil a puritan that he is, or any thing constantly, but a time-pleaser; an affectioned ass, that cons state without book and utters it by great swarths: the best persuaded of himself, so crammed, as he thinks, with excellencies, that it is his grounds of faith that all that look on him love him

It is not so much what he does on the occasion but the affectioned ass he is at all times that damns him. Sir Toby Belch's answer (which would be Jack Falstaff's answer too) is what appeals more to most:

Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?

Cakes and ale are not vital to life. They are frivolities we become addicted to.


I am addicted to some frivolities.

I love puns and quips and those occasional veerings into nonsense when sensible language goes off-piste vanishing into a snow-covered forest to emerge again down the clear slope of the talking village below.

For that reason I will sometimes accommodate the helplessly cute, the awkwardly sentimental and the extended joke providing there is delight in it. I hope to know what Mr Bennett meant in Pride and Prejudice when he remarked to his daughter Mary: That will do extremely well, child. You have delighted us long enough. Mary's singing had outstayed its welcome, as will the welcome accorded to nonsense.

And yet, in a solemn, indeed murderous world, comedy without thought of satire, without even too much awareness of the philosophical aspects of the Absurd, might be given a little more space: not the highly deliberate, calculating sort of comedy that adorns itself with a capital C and slumps all over Radio Four, but the accidental almost-grace that fails.

There was a book back in 2006 titled Is it Just Me or is Everything Shit? There were, in theory, two answers to that, but only one of them was being argued. Frivolity argues the opposite corner. A modicum, a sprinkling is ideal. It serves a reminder that delight exists, that out beyond us and our self-importance there are solar systems and galaxies and immensities that are magnificent and terrifying and, in human terms, absurd.

It is perfectly obvious that we are not, like Malvolio, 'crammed with excellencies', but we do possess some  excellencies, yes we do, almost by accident, and that is the funny thing.

Monday, 16 July 2012

After Baudelaire

Spleen in a Rainy Season
A burlesque after Baudelaire

I'm like the king of a rainy country, rich
but wobbly weak; both cub and toothless bitch.
I'm through with books, and poems, and string quartets:
I've sold the horses, shot the household pets.
Cheer up? Not likely, board games are a bore,
and as for 'the people' dying by my door,
fuck them, and fuck that guitar-wielding clown,
who's worse than useless when I'm feeling down.
See, here he is - that's me - stuck in his bed,
the girls can put on sex shows, give him head,
go girl on girl, no point, it just won't work,
it won't jump-start this junky royal jerk.
The quack who brings him pills and knows a trick
to harden flaccid aristocratic dick
may as well bring blood and the Roman Baths,
the kind that suited those old psychopaths.
No good, he's dead in muscle, nerve, and brain.
It's all green Lethe and that bloody rain.

Swiftly done and - forgive the bawdy - taking liberties. It's a version, not a translation (whatever that means). For 'horses' read 'dogs' throughout.

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Sunday Night is... Massenet: Meditation

Anne-Sophie Mutter & Lambert Orkis

I used to listen to my brother Andrew practice this at home. I understood it more as our parents' music than ours, something from a more tragic, more sentimental world that spoke all too close to the ear. It was their ear not mine, though it might have been Andrew's. It seems closer now, for all its pleading resolutions.

For Massenet see here, for Thais here, and for the Meditation itself, here.

Beware: the applause at the end of this clip is longer than the piece. Music lovers do tend to love themselves for loving music. 

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Bad Language

The John Terry trial has had the press and radio in a fluster, not so much - curiously - because of the racism, but because they find the 'industrial' language used by those horrible footballers truly shocking. How could it possibly remain 'the beautiful game'? moans Colin Shindler on radio, heading off to the virgin desert.

My first thought is that those who worry about this should listen to the crowd sometimes. Not just now, but at any time at all. They might consider sitting on a bus or a train. Better still they might listen to themselves and their own class or gender (either).

Having got so far I am unsure whether to go for asterisks or the full four-letter heavy club. Fuck or f***? There! I've done it once now so I could go on but, for sheer gymnastic pleasure, I'll tiptoe around the words.

I remember the shock caused in the early 60s by the word 'bloody' in Till Death Us Do Part. A little later there was Kenneth Tynan sneaking in the Big F on BBC3 in 1965. A thumbnail history of obscene language is provided by The Laughing Policeman, and it might be noted that his first exemplar is the Prince of Wales in 1900. The Guardian, being a cutting edge newspaper, has taken a particular interest in the issue with, for example, an article by Mark Lawson here and another, by Jonathan Margolis, here. Over the years, it seems, the 'bad' word has become not only critically respectable but is now an almost obligatory signifier of dramatic realism. To paraphrase Dylan, integrity doesn't talk, it swears.

Swearing, as most people agree, is not so much about the meaning of 'offensive' words as about their shock value. But when the words are in common use the shock is reduced. Shock is the small change with which hypocrisy tips its  servants: a pittance brandished as a gesture. For that reason I am not tempted to pay much attention to it.

Humankind has always had a small stock of verbal explosions that constantly needs replenishing. Some cultures are distinctly recognisable by the sheer range of of imprecations. Hungarians like to think they are well endowed in that respect. 

Apart from those necessary verbal explosions of anger and frustration people might still swear for various reasons:
1. For  effect ('Look at me, I'm a truly unshockable person'). Response: Of course you are, FFS!
2. As affectation ('I may be middle class but I have street presence) Response: Yeh, cool.
3. For purposes of aggression. Response: confrontation or backing down
(It's the last you want to worry about. A man sticking his face into yours and bellowing, or indeed hissing, imprecations is a hair's breadth from punching you. Even then it is not so much the words themselves as the way they are uttered that is the clue.)

Some say swearing is misogynist because some insults are directed at individuals' mothers. Not so, I'd argue. It is precisely because the mother is the most sacred being that she is being picked on. The mother is the real religious taboo. Nobody bothers with fathers. Has anyone seen a painting of Joseph being transported to heaven with a choir of angels? I thought not. It is the profaning of the sacred that is the point.

On the receiving side then, besides actual crime, there remains that hoary old tart: offence.  People like to put on an offended air about almost anything:  generally they are making a grab for the moral high ground.  

This too will pass.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

The rain that is not there

Scandinavian Landscape, Allaert van Everdingen 1621-1675

We have had so much rain in recent weeks I was just beginning to wonder about painters' depiction of rain and realised that there is very little in European art before the nineteenth century. There are tempests (see Giorgione / Titian) and there are dark thunderous clouds, but not the actual rain as it falls or hits earth or water. Maybe Turner's Rain, Steam and Speed is an early 19C example, maybe Corot has something.

Before then I'd look to 17C Dutch art, particularly Salomon or Jacob van Ruysdael, and Salomon does give us an After the Rain 1636 but not the rain itself. The painting above by Allaert van Everdingen might show rainclouds and actually be about rain but it does not show the rain.

So no rain as such. Why is that? The Japanese artist Utaware Hiroshige (1797-1858) managed it in a woodblock but he too is 19th C and he had a graphic tradition that allowed for lines. (Van Gogh copied the one below here)

The lines are a clue. Western artists became interested in landscape and, later, weather, just at the point that paint itself became ever more capable of depicting effect rather than object.

Objects, as far as depiction is concerned, are ideas that may be lineated. An early Renaissance tree is a trunk plus its branches plus its individual leaves. Object + object + object. By the time we move to Titian individual objects have become part of a field of vision that just about allows for linear forms like spears for instance, but not for lines themselves. Depiction is the registration of general presence, not the sum of known components. 

How do you show rain under such circumstances? Rain is the effect of rain not raindrop on top of raindrop. And the effects of rain are best seen if we don't obscure them with rain itself. So away with rain. Show massed clouds, show bending trees, show  umbrellas, show the effects of wind as though it were a gusty shower. In any case, is rain in itself a subject at all? No, not even in the great Flood. It is what rain has done  or is about to do that matters. 

Fire is different: it gives out light rather than obscures it. Fire can be painted. 

Rain is wonderful in films (oh to compile the top ten best rain scenes in movies, let's do it!!) and as a mood for songs. Such as this from several decades ago.

Wednesday, 11 July 2012

Blind Date: a poem for our anniversary

Blind Date

Since there are only so many years of life,
and since the proportion decreases as we go,
I would not have you, dear forty-two years wife,
be less beautiful now for what we know
will happen soon as part of the general plan,
an aspect of the short term ebb and flow
that constitutes our fevered quotidian.
How odd that flesh, the very thing we treat
as self, should be so fickle a companion,
no sooner arrived then rushing off to meet
its end, turning its back on the lost hour
that it can no longer account for or complete.
How sweet to have been drenched under its shower
of endless minutes. How good that we could hold
each other as hot water gushed full power
and soaked us through, and after, when a cold
hand moved inside our bones as a reminder
of our gift and brief, it wasn’t what was sold
as death but something infinitely kinder.
Here’s where we stand, our rendezvous with time,
our blind date, ever ready, ever blinder.

It is our 42nd wedding anniversary today. I always celebrate such occasions with a poem. This is a draft that may be redrafted, it has a part 2 that certainly needs redrafting. Today we go to London. At 2:30 I make a podcast with Jo Shapcott and Christopher Blake for Granta about the Titian poems, and this evening we will be at the National Gallery for the dinner to celebrate the opening of the  Metamorphosis: Titian 2012 show. Kind of them to fix it on our anniversary date!

Tuesday, 10 July 2012

The Nick Cohen Pledge

An interesting Tweet exchange with Nick Cohen last night at the end of which he offers to get me reading glasses (I am of that age, I suppose) and to put me on a course of basic English (well, I suppose I am foreign). Finally he tells me to go away. How permanently, he does not say, nor do I ask. I wouldn't want to be any more of a burden than I already am.

I don't want to get too acerbic about Cohen, whose articles I generally like. The big argument of his Spectator article is: don't punish the young, or at least if you do, punish the old equally. If he means reducing state benefits to the old and well-off who don't need such benefits, that's fine by me, though it will require a means test of some sort and will certainly punish anyone who has saved. (In fact they are punished already: my mother in law would get state aid in her nursing home if they had been less careful on a very low salary: they spent practically nothing on themselves. He is dead now. Their reward: to be sucked absolutely dry.)

But then he is in favour of means tests under current circumstances:

In these circumstances, whacking up tuition fees for students, withdrawing child tax credits for young, poorish parents, withdrawing child benefits for richish parents all seem like practical politics. Means testing bus passes, winter fuel allowances and free television allowances for the elderly all seem taboo. Of all the austerity measures the coalition has imposed only the granny tax was targeted at the elderly – and that only brought pensioner tax allowances into line with everyone else’s.

But what of the aged poor? Well, bugger them too because:

I have always been reluctant to acknowledge intergenerational conflict. A 64-year-old ex-miner coughing up his guts in a Doncaster council flat is unlikely to believe that he is a member of the “lucky” baby boomer generation. You cannot plausibly describe the undergraduate son of a banker as accursed because he was born into the “jilted generation”. Class trumps age. Or so I used to think. 

My bold & italics. Class doesn't trump age now. Clear enough? Then a piece from the excellent Max Dunbar, and into the last paragraph:

I am sorry to be brutal, but there is no way of phrasing it delicately: the young are our future and the old are our burden.  

My English is not, he tells me, up to understanding that. My eyesight is too poor to make out the words. My intellect is clearly too weak to follow the argument.

But let that go for now. We live on, one way or the other, and generally people need a lot less than they actually have.

The sentence I draw attention to in his article is clearly telling pensioners they are a burden. Reading it along with his views on class and age, hard as I try, I can't make any other sense of it. Conclusions:

  • Pensioners don't only have to put up with feeling like shit physically, they should do so psychologically too. 

  • It suggests to me that pensioners are offered the generous gift of a pension by the state: that it is a gift and that by drawing on this gift we are a burden. 

  • It tells me that we have done nothing for our children (i.e. the young) that we are essentially leeches off them. That bringing up children and doing our best to support them is worthless.

  • It tells me we have done nothing to support the state, that whatever taxes we paid were not half enough to support not only the young but the middle generation.

And more along that line. He cannot, for the life of him, see that it suggests all this. He suggests that being a burden does not mean this.

Don't get me wrong: I can see the problem clearly enough and I can certainly see it is very tough to be young now, tougher perhaps than it used to be. We had no hi-tech goods and no designer clothes, sometimes we lived in bad accommodation with less reliable amenities, but we didn't pay tuition fees and there were times when it was easier to find jobs, though not all the time. I can even see the demographic waterfall up ahead without the promised reading glasses.

I don't actually believe - having read other of his articles and some books too - that he himself believes all this.  But it's what he has written, so perhaps he does believe it.

So it is time for the Nick Cohen Pledge: I will not be a burden.

Speaking for myself I desperately hope not to be. Who knows how easy I will find it to carry out my pledge, but then I don't desperately desire to be sack of skin full bad blood and foul shit either.

Maybe Cohen just spends too much time with his affluent contemporaries.

Monday, 9 July 2012

Two Days

Exhausted after two days continuous travelling, talking, and non-sleep. Back on air tomorrow. Quick thought for Nick Cohen, via The Plump
I am sorry to be brutal, but there is no way of phrasing it delicately: the young are our future and the old are our burden. 
Why apologise Nick? It's easily fixed:
1. The workhouse
2. Selective culling
Those two are the answers to most general questions. The most general questions are put by an Us with an Our at their disposal. At a rough guess they would be middle aged.  A lot of things are a burden to them.

We could offer Nick Cohen medals to those who take the pledge to expunge themselves on retirement. It could be called the Nick Cohen pledge.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Bill Viola and Spirituality 3

Do we know what we mean by spirituality? Does being spiritual mean we pay less attention to our material circumstances than we might otherwise? But then what is it we pay attention to? I know that various religious practices have their own views on this. We can meditate and de-clutter our minds, and this can be beneficial. I return to Tim Parks's Teach Us To Sit Still, his sceptic's account of how meditation saved him from severe physical pain. He has continued to meditate since.

Does that make Tim spiritual? Is that what spirituality is, a kind of triumph of mind over body, or perhaps just the opposite, body over mind?

I don't think that is what is meant by spirituality in Bill Viola's case. There is something rather more mystical and transcendental in his work, though that quality is - very importantly - linked with an implication that mysticism is not only a democratic human condition (his people are not in fancy dress, their clothes are generally simple, modern, and anonymous), but the natural one. It's possible to think of Viola as a mystic street-trader: the spirit's populist.

And even so, I wonder a little. Are those people in the films really ordinary? Is there not something reminiscent of earlier religious figures, those received ideas of what spirituality is, about them? And if they do correspond to received ideas does that weaken their claim to genuine spirituality, however we might define that in this case? They might be perfectly genuine. The might just happen to correspond to contemporary versions of archetype: the ascetic, the wild man, the merciful mother and so forth.

Here I am splashing about in the shallows of the deep. If only the deep didn't try so hard to convince me of its depth!


Seeing more Violas doesn't necessarily help his case. The other drenchings and drownings are visually captivating but the process is known. There are subtle differences between them of course, as witness the titles. Some deliberately imitate the forms of Early Renaissance paintings, others are more like Caravaggio or Rembrandt. They are all visually pleasing to look at.

It is the visually pleasing aspect that slightly raises the hackles. If only it were like this! If only our post-Christian minds could slip into that grand mode of speech without an actual God that demanded anything more of us than a permanently blissed-out oblivion. If only that blissed-out oblivion did not come at us with all the force of a sophisticated theatrical evangelism!

Post-Christian? Residual Christian? Agnostic but spiritual? Atheist but spiritual?

Why do Rembrandt, Fra Angelico and Piero della Francesca - to use a few stray examples - move me? Move me unconditionally, that is. I recognise the meanings of religion in their rhetoric and know I am facing something essential. Why do shadows of scepticism linger when I look at Bill Viola? Perhaps there'll be a Blues Brothers moment when James Brown asks: Have you seen the light? And like Jake. E. Blues I will respond: Yes, yes, Jesus H Tapdancing Christ... I have seen the light! It's right there! And it's being filmed by Bill Viola!

Friday, 6 July 2012

Bill Viola and Spirituality 2

A still from Visitation, Bill Viola 2008

Just too tired to write this last night so am picking it up now.

I began it because we have now seen three of the five Viola 'Submerged-Spaces' in Norwich and might yet go to see the other two. The first, Visitation, was in The Crypt of Carnary Chapel of Norwich School. A 2010 show of it at St Louis Art Museum describes it like this:
The 12-minute video, which is shown vertically on a 64-plasma screen with stereo sound, was created out of additional material from Viola’s 2007 Venice Biennale series “Ocean without a Shore”.

It features two women approaching the viewer in grainy black and white, breaching a wall of falling water (representing the threshold between life and death), and emerging in high-definition colour before disappearing back through the water screen. Viola describes his primary inspirations for Visitation as the Sufi poet and mystic Ibn Arabi, the poem “The Dead are not Dead” by the African poet and storyteller Birago Diop, and the experience of being present at the deaths of his mother and father in the 1990s.
And adds:
Viola says that, for him, “Life experiences like these, plus the inspiration imparted by artists and seekers of many traditions, living and dead, form the core of my ­artistic practice.” The titles of Viola’s works are carefully ­chosen and play a deliberate role in the meaning of the work.

The Carnary Chapel was built in the early 14th century, the crypt below it serving as a charnel house, so it is a peculiarly apt setting for a work that is not only 'spiritual' in intent but directly addresses the Biblical subject where Mary, pregnant with Jesus, meets Elizabeth, pregnant with St John the Baptist, a meeting of which my favourite depiction is, by some miles, the one by Pontormo (below).

Jacopo Pontormo: The Visitation (1532)

In Pontormo, Mary and Elizabeth appear with two maids but the point is they are pregnant, one with the incarnate God and the other with the same incarnate God's prophet. The composition is all flame: it burns and billows before us in an ecstasy of colour and attenuated form.

What we see in Viola are two very thin, ascetic, almost wasted older women. Viola's Visitation is not about celebration of birth but about the experience of death and possibly survival - survival rather than resurrection. Their faces speak of warmth, loss and a new found ecstasy. The women are not exactly acting. We too might look like that if we had to cross a wall of water.

I did find it very moving and sat through it a second time. It brought back feelings remembered from my first encounter with full-immersion baptism, which is about death and resurrection. Men, women, old and young, are lowered into the water and come up dripping, much like the two women who pass through the vertical wall of water in Viola. The two women in the Viola are almost genderless in appearance. They are companions or friends. Their situation might refer to Elizabeth and Mary in old age but that may be just an analogy of some sort. The Biblical Mary, it was believed, never died in the normal sense but was elevated into heaven while alive, that subject being sometimes known as The Dormition of the Virgin. Dormition is survival. Maybe, in Viola's work, we are witnessing not the death but the dormition of the two female figures.

I found it moving for the reasons given in my previous post on the subject. The sense of drowning, or in this case of what Larkin, in his poem Water called 'a furious devout drench' does seem to constitute a constant part of the religious imagination. Maybe we feel as we do about it because, in a subliminal sensory way, it serves as a re-enactment of the process of birth, the breaking of the waters. There were times when Viola's women did look like two withered babies emerging from the womb.

We are moved by birth and we are moved by death. Why would we not be moved?

I entered the Crypt in a mood of some residual resistance for reasons also described in my earlier post. I came armed but my defences - for a while at least - were simply washed away in the flood.

In a third post tomorrow I want to think further about the relation between the genuine and the spurious, or rather of our sense of the relationship as it affects us. What is the nature of that flood and how far do we want to be washed away but it. What does it mean to be washed away? To be drowned?