I loved the opening line of Charlotte Bronte’s Shirley (1849):
Of late years, an abundant shower of curates has fallen upon the north of England: they lie very thick on the hills… (1)
But it was all downhill from there for over a hundred pages. That’s a long way to wade through a book, but my interest was piqued enough to keep going and in the end I was glad. Mostly because of the soppy romantic bits, which I got quite caught up in, in spite of my better judgment.
You can tell this is a bit of tribute to Charlotte Bronte’s family, Branwell, Emily and Anne all died as she was writing this — I can’t even imagine how terrible that must have been. Shirley’s character and romance reminded me of Wuthering Heights, though I confess it is forever and a day since I read — and quite disliked — that book. So I suppose Caroline is more Anne’s style, and I am sad I haven’t read her yet. I will amend it.
It was a curious read, curious to feel an affinity in most things with the heroines and the narration (after that first dragging 100 pages and despite all the colons). They are lively and strong and say what they think and think deeply, though in very different styles. They love woods and wilds and hidden places and poetry and are kind and hate polite company without taste or understanding. But over and over again I stumbled over the ways that the hierarchies of their time’s beliefs around gender and class had deformed them. Charlotte Bronte does more in this novel than the others to explore the broader contours of society, the conflicts of the times, it sets her characters against their context, and that makes it harder for me to bear them.
There is such a gulf between us, it is the clear gulf between rich and poor, between rulers and ruled. I am afraid I have mostly pulled out the quotes that illustrate this — and the casual attitudes of Empire. It is a fascinating glimpse into those who celebrated the early heroism of capitalism — if only it were tinged with the paternal care that characterised (possibly, I myself am dubious) aristocracy at its best — but that’s what women are for in this novel.
Moore ever wanted to push on: ‘Forward’ was the device stamped upon his soul; but poverty curbed him: sometimes (figuratively) he foamed at the mouth when the reins were drawn very tight.
In this state of feeling, it is not to be expected that he would deliberate much as to whether his advance was or was not prejudicial to others. Not being a native, nor for any length of time a resident in the neighborhood, he did not sufficiently care when the new inventions threw the old work-people out of employ: he never asked himself where those to whom he no longer paid weekly wags found daily bread…(27)
I think the most revealing sentence is this one describing a conversation between the heiress Shirley Keeldar and Caroline about Shirley’s project of charity amongst the workers. Her goal is to reduce the danger to mill-owner Robert Moore through relieving the poverty of the unemployed enough to relieve their desperation. They have been shooting mill-owners, burning things down, destroying things. The novel is set in 1811-1812, the height of the Luddite rebellion against the new machines being introduced into Yorkshire mills, making employment even harder to come by though almost everyone is out of work. The war against Napoleon and a ban on exportation of cloth to the continent meant that cloth is piling up, and mass unemployment had brought starvation. Shirley is happy to do good works, but let the beneficiaries once challenge her and she will remind them of their place — this despite the fact that in the novel their plea is always work enough for them to feed their families honorably. Such demands and violence against machinery hardly seems such a terrible thing when people’s children are starving.
Yet here we have Shirley, as is right and proper, declaiming:
‘For, after all, if political incendiaries come here to kindle conflagration in the neighbourhood and my property is attacked, I shall defend it like a tigress—I know I shall. Let me listen to Mercy as long as she is near me: her voice once drowned by the shout of ruffian defiance, and I shall be full of impulse to resist and quell. If once the poor gather and rise in the form of a mob, I shall turn against them as an aristocrat: if they bully me, I must defy; if they attack, I must resist,– and I will …. If once they they violently wrong me or mine, and then presume to dictate to us, I shall quite forget pity for their wretchedness and respect for their poverty, in scorn of their ignorance and wrath at their insolence. (271-272)
Thus, while Caroline and Shirley converse kindly and happily with the best of the workers, they must know to yield to their privilege. Workers must accept their lower position, be grateful for friendships and petition for charity rather than demand respect or work or food for their starving children.
If they come together in groups of more than one or two, they become the mob.
Yet even this seems a relatively liberal attitude in comparison with some of the novel’s beloved characters:
Mrs Pryor, walking near, wondered how her daughter could be so much at ease with a ‘man of the people.’ … She felt as if a great gulf lay between her caste and his; and that to cross it, or meet him half-way, would be to degrade herself. She gently asked Caroline—‘Are you not afraid, my dear, to converse with that person so unreservedly? He may presume, and become troublesomely garrulous.’ (453)
I found the references to class so revealing, the fear of working men’s rioting so deep and combined with such anger at their presumption. This is the birth of capitalism we are watching, of industrialisation as well as the early resistance against it. Like now, the risings are also always blamed on outsiders, rabble-rousers leading good men who know their place astray. The connection with religion is telling here too, for they are all dissenters — which also somehow connects to their ranting and their alcoholism. There is an amazing scene where the procession of schoolchildren from the Church of England charity school meets with a procession of dissenters and immediately there is a fight — the battle of Royd-lane. The Church of England sends them running, and all is well with the world.
A few other curiosities. This interesting aside explaining the strange presence of a thing called the ‘Jew-basket’:
willow repositories, of the capacity of a good-sized family clothes-basket, dedicated to the purpose of conveying from house to house a monster collection of pincushions, needles, books, card-racks, work-bags, articles of infant wear, &c. &c. &c., made by the willing or reluctant hands of the Christian ladies of a parish, and sold perforce to the heathenish gentlemen thereof, at prices unblushingly exorbitant. The proceeds of such compulsory sales as applied to the conversion of the Jews, the seeking out of the ten missing tribes, or to the regeneration of the interesting coloured population of the globe. (114)
What better things for decent folk to spend their money on.
Another aside on the Irish (never a good thing in these novels)
That British love of decency will work miracles: the poverty which reduces an Irish girl to rags is impotent to rob the English girl of the neat wardrobe she knows necessary to her self-respect. (303)
One aside that actually called me on my own love of tudor wood paneling and my sadness that it has been stripped from so many old buildings, because while it seems beautiful and mellow, it is actually:
very execrable and inhuman. Whoever, having the bowels of humanity, has seen servants scrubbing at these polished wooden walls with bees-waxed clothes on warm May day must allow that they are ‘tolerable and not to be endured;’ (201)
Finally there is the bizarre romance between Shirley and Louis Moore, pupil and student, all about how Shirley needs to find a master, but it has to be someone she can respect as truly above her. The only good thing about this ‘need’ is that it is not based on rank (though obviously a certain breeding has to come into it) and there is Louis, a tutor only but in himself a masterful man. There are an equally bizarre few chapters containing all this stuff he has written down in a notebook about how he treasures all of her moods and her wildness and wants her to tease him so his taming of her is more sweet and blah blah. Then they play all these weird word games. He tells her of he and Robert’s plans to emigrate should Robert lose his gamble on the war ending in time to save the mill. They talk of his finding a wife among the Indians, she says:
‘…The savage is sordid” I think,–that is, I hope—you would neither of you share your hearth with that to which you could not give your heart.’ (631)
Ugh. There is more of course. Indians are beneath even Yorkshire workmen and dissenters. But here we have emigration as escape for failed mill owners. Romantic ideas of frontier and new lands to conquer.
And for all this I enjoyed the novel, and parts of it were most touching. It particularly struck me how terrible the lot of women was during these times, when marriage was all there was. There is a long section where Caroline almost dies, essentially of a broken heart and depression at a future empty of love or usefulness. As part of her trying to pick herself up out of this, she visits two known ‘old maids’ mocked and disliked for their ugliness and solitary state. She finds unknown depths to them… The tragedy of intelligent and bright women facing an uncertain future given a lack of dowry.
I picked this up off a shelf at the farm in an attempt to move beyond my usual reading just as I was doing with farming — though possibly I should have read Lee Child instead. Completed in all its length amidst the delights of Gloucestershire rather than Yorkshire, it was still a good companion read.
This book is an invitation to explore a new approach to how our economy might work, how we create employment and wealth, and how we live and work in our local communities. (9)
I’d heard about the Transition Town stuff, I’ve even been a member of the Brixton group on facebook for quite a while now, but it never seemed very active and I wasn’t entirely sure what it was all about… This book was lying around the office, brought in by Claire I expect, and reading further down the first page I found:
I hope that this proves sufficiently inspiring that in later years you might look back at the moment when you picked up this book as having been one of the seminal moments in your life, beyond which you never looked at things in the same way again. (9)
As if for all of us there’s some pre-packaged red and blue pill a la Matrix with the same content, the same deconstruction (or reconstruction) of reality that some dude can give us to swallow and thus change everything.
I really hate that shit.
That said, looking at content over style and the point of this book as a simple introduction to energy descent and what are mostly permaculture principles as they might apply to building local community and resilience, well that’s all good. I understand the idea is to inspire. So I won’t quibble too much over style, just note it didn’t work for me and won’t work for anyone else with a bit of a chip on their shoulder from having been regularly informed of what to think because you’re a woman, or poor or any of the other multitude of reasons like being a person of colour or an immigrant or disabled or elderly or… all those things.
The idea underpinning this book is that local action can change the world. Between the things we can do as individuals and the things that governments and businesses can do to respond to the challenges of our times, lies a great untapped potential, what I am calling ‘The Power of Just Doing Stuff’. It’s about what you can create with the help of the people who live in your street, your neighbourhood, your town. (11)
That’s all good. The aspiration that local action can change the world. I like too that it’s tied in to big problems that neither austerity nor any proposed new deal is talking about — peak oil, climate change, an economy in crisis that can’t just keep expanding forever.
I’d like to suggest a third approach, a new Big Idea for our times, which could prove to be one of the most essential and pivotal shifts in thinking in recent times. It is the idea of local resilience as economic development. It is the idea that by taking back control over meeting our basic needs at the local level we can stimulate new enterprises … while also reducing our oil dependency and carbon emissions… (27)
Resilience — I am still not sure what I think of this term, in many ways it has always seemed to me an academic appropriation of what poor people have doing for thousands of years to survive, and something to admire in that sense, but surely we should be aiming higher. Still, I’m willing to look at it as a construct. He quotes Lewis and Pat Conaty’s The Resilience Imperative on what generates resilience
Modularity (leave a gap in that line of dominoes)
Social Capital (another word I quite hate, but ‘social networks and vibrant communities’ are all good)
Overlap (no siloes, no one is isolated)
Tight feedback loops (the real point of evaluation — get better as you’re going along)
Ecosystem services (real understanding of our impact) (34-35)
Thinking about how to build that into community work is important I think, and useful when actively thinking about how to knit together different people and projects to make the whole stronger. These terms used both to plan work and to evaluate how well you are doing seem very useful indeed.
The point that ‘We are the cavalry‘ is an interesting one…no government, big business, wealth benefactors or billionaires are going to bail us out. We have to do it. Am I sure about this? Frankly not so much because those are the guys really causing climate change and taking the whole world to hell in a hand basket, but I am sure that communities working together like this is a vital part of the solution. How does he argue this works?
If you can get a group of people together where you live and you can start practical projects on the ground which demonstrate this new approach, then what starts to happen is that the story that place tells about itself begins to shift. (47)
A good insight that practice shifts discourse, shifts the way we understand the world through our narratives. What Re:imaginingChange talk about, but a more organic way of creating a counter narrative built in positive change rather than all the many important campaigns that stop all the bad things from happening.
Transition is an idea about the future, an optimistic, practical idea. And it’s a movement you can join. There are people near you who are optimistic and practical too. And it’s something you can actually do. Actually, it’s lots of things you can actually do. Lots of things.
The Transition approach is self-organising and people-led. It looks different everywhere it emerges, yet is recognisably Transition…It’s a social experiment on a huge scale. It’s also great fun.
You can think of it as being like Open-Source software. Everyone who gets involved picks it up and tries it out where they live, and is part of its ongoing evolution. Their additions refinements and insights are available to others who are also trying to figure it out…You can think of it as a self-organising system, driven by people’s enthusiasm and ideas. (49)
There’s a whole lot of this happening everywhere, which is so inspiring, and not all of it is Transition of course. The internet has made it possible for stories to spread so quickly, for people to learn from one another. There are multiple different networks, another one growing out of the Community Lovers Guides done by Civic systems labs, and their even more intentional approach to how the growth of a thickly networked participatory community might be facilitated (see thoughts on their marvelously detailed report on a year’s work in South London here). But networks are important, feeling part of something bigger is important. Hopkins answers the question of why label things as Transition — it allows for a more joined up approach, can be a catalyst and idea incubator, provides a network. As long as there’s no proprietorial feeling over such local efforts, that’s all good too.
Transition of course builds on the permaculture principle that we are moving into energy descent, having to scale back everything as deeper crisis approaches (Holmgren writes about this, as well as Bell and Mollison of course). The vague outlines of it as an economic approach are interesting. Hopkins argues Transition:
proactively sets about creating a post-growth economy from the bottom up, contributing to the ‘Big Idea’… It doesn’t just accept that we have to grit our teeth for five more years of ever-more-soul-crushing austerity..
What characteristics will it have?
brings assets into the community ownership
has natural limits
not purely about personal profit (59)
Quite vague though. It also depresses me the absence of words like justice, a line about how we end existing structural inequality. The environmental justice movement has been fighting that for so so long, arguing addressing class, race, gender, sexuality inequalities have to at the forefront of any real and lasting change. You have to throw in global inequalities as well. Graham Haughton is one place to start, Vandana Shiva‘s work somewhere else. I know this book is mostly about motivation, but this could just become (or remain) for the most part a nice comfortable middle-class thing. It can’t stay there and maintain any real meaning, especially when there is so much amazing stuff happening around the world — more amazing outside of the UK to be honest. This does try to connect to some of those things, but clearly it’s mostly limited to Britain and its former white colonies. This is the weakness of localism in many ways I think, it tends to avoid these issues as well as the big agents of climate change with a positive goal of doing what we can here and now. An uneasy trade off that needs more work.
So all that said, I did like the case studies — I always love case studies, they actually help you do things and they really push our ideas about what is possible starting where we are.
The one I most love is Brixton Energy — I’m just sad living in Brixton for the past six years I had never heard of it, but putting solar panels up on estates is definitely my idea of awesomeness. Their last post, though, is November 2014 and like a lot of these initiatives they seem to be continuing on but not expanding. These initiatives rely quite heavily on people with a lot of time and no few skills, at least to really start up and get going. That makes it hard, and not so resilient and is something that needs more thought I think. The participatory city folks are working on what it would take to get a very dense network of projects up and running that would network a whole community and make this more sustainable once set in motion. That’s quite exciting really, and I do have immense enthusiasm for these kinds of projects…
It’s rare I read books on development, having a deep distrust of so much of the field — only cemented after reading Allan Kaplan’s The Development Practioner’s Handbook. But that is because of his own critiques of his own field. What he himself has written is a sensitive and nuanced exploration of how development can be facilitated (never forced, imposed, pushed), and how conscientization in the Freirean sense can occur. This is why I found it praised so highly in Nabeel Hamdi’s work, which brought it to my notice.
I haven’t quoted any of the insets, lyrical memories of his first development post, what went wrong and what went right, the process of learning what he is writing about. But I did love them.
Before looking at what a righteous and revolutionary development can be, let’s first have a taste of what development a la World Bank, IMF and multiple international aid agencies has brought and has meant, because that shouldn’t be forgotten:
Thus after over that 30 years of international development practice and theorising, problems of unemployment, housing, human rights, poverty and landlessness are worse than ever. (ix)
What has international development meant for the most part?
First, development is not growth. Development implies structural change with respect to the whole system. The modernisation approach equates development unequivocally with growth in GNP; the status quo is to be maintained while growth leads to development. Moreover, development is seen as a continuous process; there is no sense of timing, of the recognition that a particular level of development will be maintained until a structural crisis leads to a sudden leap to a new level. Modernisation theory assumes that development moves along a smooth and continuous upward path; there need be no radical shifts, nothing which will rock the boat or disturb the status quo. Indeed, development (as modernisation) was seen by its proponents as the instrument with which to maintain the status quo…(35)
Small wonder that Wolfgang Sachs and colleagues,…note that ‘the idea of development stands like a ruin in the intellectual landscape’; they maintain that the development epoch is crumbling under the weight of delusion, disappointment, failure and crime, and ‘the time is ripe to write its obituary.’ (x) (Sachs ed. The Development Dictionary: A Guide to knowledge as Power (Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press, 1992)
But the process of working with people and organisations so they are able to step into their own power and define their own lives and surroundings — now that is something altogether different. that is what Kaplan is about and there is much to learn here. I’m in the midst of article writing, so this is more a string of quotes than usual, divided up by Kaplan’s own chapter headings as they were useful in outlining the key concepts.
We can learn about development through observing it as a life process, more specifically as a biological process. (2)
I am always a bit dubious about metaphors that use biological life to explain social life, and that never quite left me in this chapter just as it never left me entirely through the whole of Emergence or Capra’s The Hidden Connectionswhich build on a very similar conceit. But there were a few things I did very much like, like the acknowledgment that while growth and development are often conflated, but
growth is in fact one element of development. Growth is quantitative increase; development implies qualitative increase and qualitative transformation (from one state to another). (3)
I also love the emphasis on the time required — funders and heads of organisations never fucking get this at all.
…development is a process in time….it is a vital observation, for it should bring with it the correct attitude towards developmental processes — that of respect and humility. Development needs time, and flows with the rhythm of time. It cannot be forced, imposed or created. That is not to say that we cannot affect it; indeed , the development practitioner must seek to influence the process of development.
Over and over again the reminder to throw arrogance out the window.
But the appropriate stance becomes one of facilitation rather than force; nurture rather than imposition; respect rather than arrogant presumption. We cannot cause development, we can only nurture the development process. (3)
A few other truths I quite liked:
This reveals another distinguishing characteristic of development: it is irreversible. (3)
Contrary to what we often take for granted, the process of unfolding, the movement of life as maturation or development, is discontinuous. It proceeds in a stepwise fashion rather than a smooth, continuous ‘upward’ motion. It proceeds, in fact, from structural crisis to structural crisis. (6)
And above all, both the difficulties and the rewards:
how else other that through critical turning points can we shake ourselves our of our comfortable habits, overcome our resistance to change and move on? This, I believe, is what is sometimes referred to as the miracle of suffering.
This is where this connects to so much literature I am now reading on struggle and social movement and why things happen when they do. This is one of my favourite insights:
Development is not so much the pain of taking on the new but the pain of letting go of the old. (8)
Every step taken in development, every process of transformation, entails a death so that something new can be born. And the process of death and rebirth, the process of development, entails the overcoming of just such resistances, so that new energy can be released. (11)
It is also a process with no end point, and a process that pain is part of — so how do we create healthy spaces for that, support each other through it?
In the realm of human development at least, development does not have an end-point — we are always in a state of becoming.
In addition, pain is an integral part of development and cannot be avoided. It is not only, as we have seen, the spur to further development. It is also often the consequence of a particular developmental phase in the service of future development. This is not said to idealise pain, but rather to emphasis that its occurrence should not be denied or repressed. (15)
Paths and Destinations
Kaplan argues for a rather linear development, part of the metaphor of the life process. But I suppose ultimately it is circular in taht it is repeated over and over again, so could still fit the popular education model of the spiral:
People, as they move through life, move from the phase of dependence, through independance to interdependance. (19)
He uses this to base an interesting critique of Freire that doesn’t fit within my own understanding of his work:
In Paolo Freire’s terms, development occurs when one moves from dependence to a critical consciousness; the ability to analyze circumstance, to question existing reality, and to say no. This, however, only corresponds to the stage of independence. I am saying that this is only partial development, and that interdependence is a phase beyond. (22)
I don’t think that Freire fits into this box, though perhaps practitioners have indeed put him there. Still, I think there are some interesting things raised in this comparison of independence and inter-dependence.
These are the problems Kaplan sees with the ‘independent phase’:
The mode of denial with which it is associated, the mode of critique which is inherent in defining oneself by rejecting that which one is not, generates a new type of dependency. It is reactive, dependent on its opposite for its own definition. It asserts itself against a given reality, rather than in and of itself. (26)
So what is interdependence? A phase that Kaplan goes on to call ‘Organisational consciousness…that phase which I have characterised as ‘maturity’ in the individual. It is the ability to act decisively within the realm of uncertainty, to continually seek the balance between polarities. (25)
Consciousness implies objectivity and the faculty of self-reflection. It is the realm of true freedom, devoid of prejudice. It is the realm of responsible freedom; individuality coupled with respect, care and active membership of the collective. The process of development is the means towards increasing consciousness, thereby increasing humanness. (29)
I don’t know we can be devoid of prejudice, but we can aspire to get there, and know ourselves better as we try.
Social Development as Growth and Revolution
…both our current problem and our future project should be an educational practice whose fundamental purpose is to expand what it is to be human and to contribute to the establishment of a just and compassionate community within which a project of possibility becomes the guiding principle of social order.
–Roger Simon ‘Empowerment as a pedagogy of Possibility’ (32)
I love that quote. I also love Allan Kaplan’s acknowledgment of this:
Poverty is not simply a function of the poor, the powerless, the marginalised. It is as much, some would say more, a function of the rich, the powerful, the few in whose hands resources and decision-making concentrate themselves. (37)
Then there is what to my eyes is a strange critique of the ‘political economy’ approach and Freire, describing them as unable to leave the phase of independence or continue along the path of critical self-consciousness. Kaplan seems to assume that for Freire this would suddenly stop at a certain point that isn’t far enough, that winning revolutions would just result in new people taking power and abusing it, getting stuck in a paradigm of us and them, with no criticism possible as the revolution consolidates.
Ultimately he writes:
The similarities between modernisation and political economy theories speak to the same need. Both paradigms stress modernity and economic growth. In both developed and underdeveloped communities, the near exclusive emphasis on these two factors give rise to increasing poverty and marginalisation, environmental rape, social fragmentation and violence, and a crisis of meaning.
The advent of contramodernisation perspectives hearalds the search for a new meaning with respect to the development process. (46)
From all of the many books by Freire I have read, there seems to me no obvious link here in theory, only in the vicissitudes of practice in a world bent on destroying revolutions and uprisings and anything resembling structural change. But to return to what to Kaplan himself offers….
Development as the building of civil society
His proposal for moving beyond the phase of independence towards interdependence. Opens with a curious discussion of power, and what he calls the ‘myths’ of revolution and growth.
Kaplan begins with Glyn Roberts’ definition of development: “Development is the more equal distribution of power among people.’ For Roberts three different kinds of power exist: political, economic and cultural — Kaplan’s critique is that this is stuck in ideas of power ‘over’ or ‘against’ (52).
Keeping this idea of power over means in independence phase the coercive nature of power is not addressed, power blocks remain though the players change, means development can only go so far.
He gives the story of the Maccabee revolt, where one brother was prevented from fighting, from being tainted by the war to remain clear of its ravages so that he could become lawgiver at the end.
I struggle with this idea of purity and taint, even as I know full well that taking life in war changes people, tends to harden them, makes them more rigid in their beliefs. I still think it’s more complicated, but to return to the main argument.
Kaplan takes Scott Peck’s identification of a different form of power:
‘Spiritual power…resides entirely within the individual and has nothing do with the capacity to coerce others…It is the capacity to make decisions with maximum awareness. It is consciousness.’ (55)
Put another way, development moves from independence to the phase of interdependence when, having gained the critical power of independence, we are ’empowered’ enough, secure enough in ourselves, to transgress boundary lines,to recognise our limitations and constraints and the realities of our dependence on others, and to work beyond the attitude of ‘us and them’ into the attitude of ‘we’. We are all in this thing called life together. There is no one ultimate theory, no ultimate paradigm, no ultimate ideology, no ultimately correct political party, clique or social movement. To move beyond the crisis generated by independence we need to relearn humility. Not the subservient humility of the phase of dependence, but the conscious humility of interdependence. (56)
It is all about self-reflection and questioning. I wonder whether this can exist in our world without protection from the means of coercion by the kind of power wielded by empire. But still agree with this:
It seems to me that the only way to mediate such a situation, once a significant level of independence has been attained, is through the promotion and facilitation of a strong civil society, one which can curb the hegemonic forces contained in the various power spots which accumulate and grow. (59)
There is a lot to think about here in terms of creating a truly participatory society where people have power over their own lives and the world around them.
A New Stance
It is not reconciliation of compromise which is the essential note of organisational consciousness. Rather, it is the holding of the conflict between opposites as conflict. The ability to hold opposites as opposites , in conflict. Not to reconcile or compromise, but to see both s true at the same time, or at least to see both as embodying aspects of the truth.
Put slightly differently, we attempt to find harmony not through eradicating conflict but through dancing with conflict. We do not look for resolution of the conflict, but rather recognise the creativity which the conflict brings. (70)
I do love this…that certain kinds of conflict are positive (and again, I think this minimises the damage that capitalism does, that development a la world bank and IMF do and how other things can flower despite that).
Until we wander in the dark, embrace the chaotic uncertainty of the places of transition which lie between the worlds of certainty and action, until then we will not be able to embrace the freedom of movement necessary to a state of interdependent or organisational consciousness. (77)
I do think this is also true — and perhaps where an outside practitioner is most useful — someone comfortable and used to holding these things together and allowing new things to grow.
The Practice of the Development Practitioner
As their essential task, development practitioners assist in bringing individuals, organisations and societies to power. They intervene in people’s processes such that they are able to realise their power, and, ultimately, enable people to act out of a centre of awareness and objectivity. Development practitioners collaborate with people in the claiming of their rights, and facilitate their recognition of responsibilities. They facilitate their development towards a more human, purposeful and conscious future, and work through organisations and communities towards the actualisation of a conscious society. (85)
Hell yes to all this. He lists the methods — and the list is very familiar (except for the rural bits, the only thing reminding you this is about a different kind of development than what we did in South Central L.A.):
Rapid rural appraisal, participatory rural appraisal, participatory research, community mapping, strategic planning, vision building, cooperative development, various forms of problem identification and analysis, project planning and implementation, project monitoring and evaluation… (86)
For Kaplan it’s ultimately all about developing instituional capacity and a stronger civil society — I myself am more inclined to think it is more about developing dense webs of connection and support with multiple smaller groupings alongside more formal organisation, but agree with this:
Ultimately the task is to facilitate an increase in the power and consciousness of social grouping. to leave them in a better condition than they were in before, with more capacity to control their world, their context and themselves. But particularly to maintain a condition of awareness and to be able to respond creatively and responsibly to approaching challenges. We arrive then at a picture of the practice of the development practitioner as being the facilitation of the institutional capacity of those institutions forming the building blocks of civil society. (88)
I think there is also something to these phases as well — it takes years sometimes for people to fully step into their own skin and take the power that is theirs:
During the phase of dependency development practice will consist in part of resource provision and activism. As independence is attained these are replaced by the facilitation of clients to come into their own power, and the building of organisational capacity and the provision of training. With the move to interdependence the role of the practitioner becomes the facilitation of the client’s ability to self-reflect, self-regulate and to take conscious control of its own processes of improvement and learning. (102)
This is my favourite line of the whole book, and actually, all skill and learned technique aside, if people working in community development could just manage this, they would probably do all right:
We need to work with a certain awe and wonder for each unique path with which we are privileged to interact. (112)
The central idea of the Strugatsky’s Roadside Picnic grows on me the more I sit with it, and it will forever undercut the more familiar heroic tales of encounter and discovery.
Aliens came, they stayed a while without saying hello and left without saying goodbye, having both transformed and trashed the places they inhabited around the world. Humans are left to shift through their incomprehensible and often deadly garbage. Ursula le Guin writes in the preface to this wonderful new translation:
Here, the visitors from space, if they noticed our existence at all, were evidently uninterested in communication; perhaps to them we were savages, or perhaps pack rats. There was no communication; there can be no understanding. (Le Guin – vii)
And there never is understanding, just a mix up of hope and fear. There is one scientist, Kirill, who sees in it the potential of knowledge and utopia and inspires Red, who works with him, just a little:
‘Mr Aloysius Macnaught!’ I say. ‘You are absolutely right. Our little town is a hole. Always was and always will be. Except right now,’ I say, ‘it’s a hole into the future. And the stuff we fish out of this hole will change the whole stinking world. Life will be different, the way it should be, and no one will want for anything. That’s our hole for you. There’s knowledge pouring through this hole. And when you figure it out, we’ll make everyone rich, and we’ll fly to the stars, and we’ll go wherever we want. That’s the kind of hole we have here…’
At this point I trail off, because I notice that Ernie is looking at me in astonishment, and I feel embarrassed. (42)
Because while this is Red drunkenly speaking, these are Kirill’s words, Kirill’s utopia. It’s possibly what the zone could have meant, or could always partially mean and what remains part of its lure. It is always the promise held out by science, the bright and shining dream of it. It’s not completely disproven here, but questioned.
I love that these new translations have afterwords from Boris. He describes the process, and shares the Strugatskys’ notes for the story written in February of 1970. This after wandering ‘the deserted, snow-covered streets’ of Komarovo on the Gulf of Finland, with all its resonance as a retreat for poets and scientists and writers of what was then Leningrad…I so want to go.
The growth of superstition, a department attempting to assume power through owning the junk, an organization seeking to destroy it (Knowledge fallen from the sky is useless and pernicious; any discovery could only lead to evil applications). Prospectors revered as wizards. A decline in the stature of science. (195-196)
Prospectors! It was only later they came up with stalkers, used the English word thus bringing it into the Russian language (very cool).
I do like the term prospectors though, this drunken dangerous lifestyle seeking fortune and escape is so reminiscent of prospecting. Even without understanding anything, some of the new technology can be put to work, money can be made. So corruption and dealing abound. Seemingly harmless things like batteries on the one hand, but so much of the detritus deals in death and disfigurement, and there has always been big money in those.
And there is poverty in this town. So you have the stalkers, men like Red who cross government lines to enter, to pick up what they can and sell it on the black market. The danger and skill and knowledge of the work has its on pull, but you can never forget the factors prodding men into it, particularly those who do not wish to spend their whole lives in jobs they hate to get nowhere:
Now I get really depressed. I’ll have to count every cent again: this I can afford, this I can’t. I’ll have to pinch pennies…No more bars, only cheap movies…And everything’s gray, all gray. Gray every day, and every evening, and every night. (47)
This is my own fear, that I will tumble into this. It fills book after worthy book, which is why I quite love sf that brings colour to the gray without denying its existence, that tells of wonder and danger and the exploration of the meanings of our lives in new ways. This is so much about how we are transformed by things beyond our understanding, whether it is technology or other human beings:
All these conversations had left a certain sediment in his soul, and he didn’t know what it was. it wasn’t dissolving with time, but instead kept accumulating and accumulating. And though he couldn’t identify it, it got in the way, as if he’d caught something from the Vulture… (162)
I love how this resonates with some discussions of cities, of formations of inequality in ghettos as sedimentation. But the alien artifacts have much deeper transformative effects — the children of the stalkers are not fully human and love for them and their loss is also central to this.
With the spread of the artifacts through channels legal and illegal, the rest of the world is slowly changing to. This shit can’t be contained.
I love how Roadside Picnic makes humanity the sideline, incidental to the big picture. I hate to drop that conceit even for a short time. But in many ways, of course, this could be read with ourselves as the aliens, forever transforming areas of the planet and sowing it with destruction for the species that live there. I see rivers flowing polluted with oil in my mind, like the recent spills into the Amazon. Chernobyl. Abandoned landscapes, extinctions. Scenes you stumble over everywhere humans have been, here in Bristol as eerily as almost anywhere.
Perhaps because humans are the sideline, they are allowed to just be with everything good and bad about them. But then, this is one of the things I particularly love about the Strugatskys. So does le Guin:
Humanity is not flattered, but it’s not cheapened. The authors’ touch is tender, aware of vulnerability. (vii)
And the ending, oh, I did love the ending. The awareness of just how little choice there ever was, just how little understanding. But the idea that that does not define your life, and it is something to be human.
Look into my soul, I know–everything you need is in there. It has to be. Because I’ve never sold my soul to anyone! It’s mine, it’s human! Figure out yourself what I want–because I know it can’t be bad!
And who doesn’t want this in the end? What better thing to wish for on a great golden ball that supposedly grants wishes, though someone must die springing the trap first, and so it is surrounded by splodges of soot.
‘HAPPINESS, FREE, FOR EVERYONE, AND LET NO ONE BE FORGOTTEN’ (193)
Street Value is a brilliant little book from Rosten Woo and Meredith TenHoor. It is beautifully illustrated and innovative in form, with copious drawings, photographs, maps and plans that charts the history of Fulton Street Mall in Brooklyn decade by decade. It brings together quotes from business owners and customers, memories, narratives and photo essays to try and understand the history of this single street in a way that I love.
At the same time, it evokes a history of many such streets across the country by unpacking the narratives of abandonment, racial change, redevelopment and above all, highlighting the ways that racism has shaped urban spaces through some of the most honest and revealing interviews I have ever read. This street continued to make money through thick and thin where almost all other malls failed. Yet from the moment white flight really took hold and it became a shopping destination of choice for communities of colour, it has been seen as a ‘problem’ by the city and planning agencies who have continuously worked to ‘redevelop’ and ‘revitalise’ a space that needed neither redevelopment nor revitalisation in order to bring the white folks back. But let the book speak for itself.
By 1960, most of the larger department stores that had come of age with A&S, such as Loeser’s and Namm’s, were already finding it hard to compete with a new generation of discount retailers. …
The owners of Fulton Street’s largest stores perceived the problem differently. To them, the clearest indicator and proximate cause for worry was this: white people were making up a smaller and smaller percentage of the street’s shoppers. (55)
You have the influential Chicago School: Park & Burgess’s basic theory held that racial succession was, if not a cause, then a very accurate indicator that depressed property values, and abandonment would soon follow.
The concept of blight proved a powerful, though unsubstantiated, explanatory mechanism. The declaration of blight on Fulton Street was unique because the objective indicators of economic health so clearly contradicted the theory of blight. The shoppers may have come from Bed-Stuy, but business was good. Foot traffic was brisk and retail rents could compete with the best in the city. (59)
‘Preventative renewal imagined two rivals: Manhattan on the one hand, and the suburbs on the other’ (60). They simply couldn’t imagine a street that succeeded and yet was neither. So they unsuccessfully tried to become one or the other.
The Fulton Arcade was a preemptive strike against the perceived decline of the Central Business District. Designed to compete with the charms of the suburban strip, it would attract would-be suburban shoppers by constructing a proxy of a regional shopping mall… (62)
The pedestrian was to rescue the commercial life of the street; the planners only had to remove this figure’s natural enemies: the elements and the automobile. But an important contradiction haunted the scheme: the street was already a commercial success. Pedestrians already thronged Fulton street. Why was preventive renewal so necessary? … By their logic [planners], black shoppers were poor and poor shoppers had no place in the Central Business District of Brooklyn. (63)
They still kept trying. So no one with any experience of downtown revitalisation efforts will be surprised at their next steps:
Urban design could make the street look like a mall, but it couldn’t make it act like a mall. To create the impression of safety, cleanliness and order…had to invent a new form of government: the Business Improvement District. (73)
By the 1990s:
Pedestrianization had failed to bring white middle-class shoppers back to the area. Instead, it helped the mall flourish as a nationally significant locus of consumer culture. The culture’s significance, however, continued to remain invisible to the mainstream, no matter how many hit singles mentioned the mall or how many dollars were spent on the street.
Planners continued to view the street as a problem to be solved rather than as a resource to draw from (89).
The following quotes are from an interview with Richard Rosen, then a member of the Urban Design Group working on the Fulton Mall, before becoming Chief Executive Officer of the Urban Land Institute. They studied the street in 1968 and found that the number shopping there
was always around 400,000 a day. We did find it was the fourth biggest shopping center in the United States, and that the retail sales were hugely dramatic, in spite of the fact that Max Schulman, the president of J.W. Mays Department Stores, wasn’t very comfortable with who his customers were. (127)
You guys can’t imagine this because you’re younger, but this was a white America not used to multicultural activity. They wanted to be sire that they covered their white base so they went to Kings Plaza and Roosevelt Field. A&S moved further and further out.
Thus is wasn’t the lack of sales or of people that caused stores to leave, but the prejudices of the owners, their identification with a white base. ‘A cultural thing’ as Rosen says. He is astonishingly open in this interview:
well, yeah, we probably were sort of racist in our thinking at that time to think blacks were synonymous with poor. When I started to work at the Urban Land Institute in 1992 we used to tongue-in-cheek say to staff, the worst word you can use is ‘urban.’ Urban was such a bad word. It was a code word for poor and minority. And now urban is a hot word. Urban Outfitters. Urban this, urban that. I mean it’s just changed (131)
And then so revealing for the work of planners and those working on downtown ‘revitalisation’:
I think that Downtown Brooklyn happened in spite of what we did at Fulton Mall. It’s all about safety, and the perception of safety and the reality of safety. And in the 60s, one of the things that was happening with the perception of safety was that it wasn’t. Department store owners were saying that they’d rather be in a mall because in a mall you can control it, and how are you going to control Fulton Mall?
Part of the idea was to make it clean. We had people dressed up in uniforms, and it was all to create a perception of safety. But I don’t think we saw it in those days quite like you might in retrospect. I never conceptualized that the reasons that people liked malls was because they were safe and they didn’t like Fulton Street because they didn’t know if it was safe, and there’s a lot of people walking along that don’t look like you do and you’re afraid and you don’t want to be there.
You heard from Jonathan Barnett who had the perception that the economy in Brooklyn was going down. He was wrong, it was going up. We had a perception that we had to save the economy by renovating the mall, and that’s because the department store owners were saying they were going to move out. And why were they going to move out? They weren’t moving out because they weren’t selling things. They were making lots of money. They were moving out because they perceived it wasn’t safe and their clientele was not who they wanted it to be (132).
Always always always the use of the word ‘people’ in these quotes assumes white people. It’s so extraordinary and yet explains so much about American society. In an interview with Mike Weiss, former executive director of the Fulton Mall Improvement Association and the MetroTech Business Improvement District from 2003 to 2007, he says of the mall—already a vibrant and profitable mall for people of colour:
The vision would be to assist in managing change, which is always inevitable, and try to build the district into more of a kind of vibrant 24-hour diverse, multi-use district. There are constituencies that don’t yet shop on the mall that we believe could, including the college community that exists in Downtown Brooklyn (154).
Vandana Shiva is pretty amazing. She makes a radical reframing of the environmental and social justice problems we face feel effortless. You can tell she’s been talking about this a while.
The struggle of a life.
The cover looks a little hippy of course, reading it on the train I imagine few people knew that the first chapter sub-title was something like ‘Eco-Apartheid as War’. I keep trying to give up my binaries, but the simplicity and clarity of this war is good for struggle, for knowing what you are fighting for:
There are two different paradigms for, and approaches to, the green economy. One is the corporate-centered green economy which means:
(a) Green Washing – one has just to look at the achievements of Shell and Chevron on how they are “green”
(b) Bringing nature into markets and the world of commodification. This includes privatisation of the earth’s resources, i.e., patenting seeds, biodiversity and life forms, and commodifying nature….(15)
Commodification and privatisation are based and promoted on the flawed belief that price equals value…
The second paradigm of the green economy is earth-centred and people-centred. the resources of the earth vital to life — biodiversity, water, air — are a commons for the common good for all, and a green economy is based on a recovery of the commons and the intrinsic value of the earth and all her species. (17)
I didn’t need the schooling on all the death-dealing and life-destroying actions of corporations in India to agree with that, but I did need to know more about what is actually happening — what other basis can we build solidarity in struggle upon? There is much here requiring tears and rage, and so much struggle to support and learn from. In these stories from India you can see that it is a war — that is often hidden from us here in the U.S., particularly those of us in cities already far removed from the earth and how we are killing it by siphoning off and centralising all of its resources.
Since corporate freedom is based on extinguishing citizen freedom, the enlargement of “free-market democracy” becomes a war against Earth Democracy.
Since the rules of free-markets and free trade aim at disenfranchising citizens and communities of their resources and rights, people resist them. The way against people is carried to the next level with the militarisation of society and criminalisation of activists and movements. (21)
Through their struggle against this, they are blazing the way forward for all of us and we need to not just challenge any attempt to criminalise it, but support and learn from it.
One of the key things I think is this:
LAND IS LIFE. It is the basis of livelihoods for peasants and indigenous people across the third world, and is also becoming the most vital asset in the global economy… Land, for most people in the world, is people’s identity, it is the ground of culture and economy. (30)
This attachment, love, need for land and home that goes far beyond sale price is something many academics (planners, capitalists) don’t understand. This is something I am so infuriated and also fascinated by — a little more than Shiva is. But of course competing understandings of land and value and their rootedness in histories and capitalism are needed to understand the present conflict and so they are here scattered through the book. Like this:
In India, land-grab is facilitated by a toxic mixture of the colonial Land Acquisition Act of 1894, the deregulation of investment and commerce through neoliberal policies, and the emergence of the rule of uncontrolled greed and exploitation. The World Bank has worked for many years to commodify land… (30-31)
This fundamental fact that almost no one publishing articles and books and displacing people seems to understand at all:
Money cannot compensate for the alienation of land. (31)
It goes far back, this idea that land is to be used to generate wealth — this is an amazing quote from Puritan settler of North America John Winthrop:
Natives in New England, they enclose no land, neither have they any settled habitation, nor any tame cattle to improve the land soe have no other but a Natural Right to those countries. Soe as if we leave them sufficient for their use, we may lawfully take the rest. (113)
That’s it in a nutshell really. Then there’s the East India Company, looking at land and its resources only for profit and conquest:
As Stebbing reported in 1805, a dispatch was received from the Court of Directors of the East India Company enquiring to what extent the King’s Navy might, in view of the growing deficiency of oak in England, depend on a permanent supply of teak timber from Malabar. Thus, the first real interest aroused in the forests of India originated from the colonial centre and the cause was the same as that which had kept forestry in the forefront of England through three centuries — the safety of the Empire, which depended upon its “wooden walls” — its supremacy at sea. When the British started exploiting Indian timber for military purposes, they did so rapaciously… (116)
She looks at ideas of value, where they come from:
As the ‘trade’ metaphor has come to replace the metaphor of ‘home’, economic value itself has undergone a shift. Value, which means ‘worth’, is redefined as ‘exchange and trade’, so unless somethings is traded it has no economic value…The ‘trade’ metaphor has also rendered nature’s economy valueless; the marginalisation of both women’s work and nature’s work are linked to how ‘home’ is now perceived as a place where nothing of economic value is produced.
This shift in the understanding of economic value is central to the ecological crisis and is reflected in the change in the meaning of the term ‘resource’. ‘Resource’ originally implied life…With the advent of industrialization and colonialism, however, a conceptual break occurred. ‘Natural resources’ became those elements of nature which were required as inputs for industrial production and colonial trade.
The ways that this continues on into our worldview today:
Planners do not see our rivers as rivers of life, they see them as 20,000 megawatts of hydro-power. (92)
The ways this shifts everything:
World Bank loan conditionalities have many paradigm shifts built into them — the shift from “water for life” to “water for profits”; from “water democracy” to “water apartheid”; from “some for all” to “all for some”. (84)
The ways that this has shifted through the globalisation of capital and changing nature of corporations and profit-making is here as well, along with it’s impact on local and state sovereignty (things that most Americans never have to worry about, even as they are shifting these relationships around the world):
The Gopalpur steel plant is a product not of the “development” era, but of the globalisation era. Globalisation demands that local communities sacrifice their lives and livelihoods for corporate profit, development demanded that local communities give up their claim to resources and their sovereignty for national sovereignty. Globalisation demands that local communities and the country should both give up their sovereign rights for the benefit of global free trade. (40)
The companies making profits on land are very familiar:
Morgan Stanley purchased 40,000 ha. of farmland in Ukraine, and Goldman Sachs took over the Chinese poultry and meat industry in September 2008. Blackrock has set up a $200 million agricultural hedge fund, of which $30 million will acquire farmland. (157)
Their speculation in food is causing famine, and if you needed more than that, there’s a whole range of other evil and horrible things happening. There’s a whole lot I didn’t really know about GMOs about biofuels (instinctively you feel they must be better than oil, but think again).
At least 30 per cent of the global food price rise in 2008 was due to biofuels… (163)
the term ” high yielding varieties” is a misnomer because it implies that the new seeds are high yielding in and of themselves. The distinguishing feature of the new seeds, however, is that they are highly receptive to certain key inputs such as fertilisers and irrigation. Palmer therefore suggested the term “high responsive varieties” (HRV) be used instead. (141)
Genetic engineering has failed as a tool to control and has instead created super pests and super weeds, because it is based on a violence that ruptures the resilience and metabolism of the plant and introduces genes for producing or tolerating higher doses of toxins. (148)
The peaceful coexistence of GMOs and conventional crops is a myth: environmental contamination via cross-pollination, which poses a serious threat to biodiversity, is unavoidable. (186)
On industrial production:
Overall, in energy terms, industrial agriculture is a negative energy system, using ten units of input to produce one unit of output. Industrial agriculture in the US uses 380 times more energy per ha. to produce rice than a traditional farm in the Philippines…(142)
On fertilisers, and the violence of industrial agriculture:
Fertilisers come from explosives factories. In recent years, in Oklahoma and Afghanistan, in Mumbai and Oslo, explosives factories were retooled to make fertiliser bombs. (148)
These are the fertilisers required to grow Monsanto’s crops, also required are pesticides. The violence there, apart from long terms damage to farmers and the planet and everything in the earth and water and air:
The pesticides which had created debt also became the source for ending indebted lives. Those who survive suicide in Punjab are dying of cancer. (149)
A farmer’s organisation presented information on 2,860 farmer suicides at public hearing on 8 September, 2006
All this when traditional and organic farming almost doubles the carbon sequestration efficiency, uses a tenth of the water. All this despite the reality that when we step outside the warped logics of capital, we know what’s what:
The solutions for the climate crisis, the food crisis, or the water crisis are the same: biodiversity-based organic farming systems. (154)
It is, as so many have explored, claimed, stated, based on diversity, interconnectedness, networks.
As the Knowledge Manifesto of the International Commission on the Future of Food and Agriculture states, the following principles are now generally accepted by the scientific community: (a) living and non-living systems are all dynamically interconnected, with the consequence that any change in one element will necessarily lead to not fully predictable changes in other parts of the network; (b) variability is the basis of change and adaptation while its absence leads inevitably to death; (c) living systems actively change the environment and are changed by it in a reciprocal way. (190)
Above all this is a book of struggle, of movements fighting back and learning from them what needs to be part of this struggle:
An ecological and feminist agenda for trade needs to be evolved based on the ecological limits and social criteria that economic activity must adhere to, if it is to respect the environmental principle pf sustainability and the ethical principle of justice. This requires that the full ecological and social costs of economic activity and trade be made visible and taken into account. Globalisation that erases ecological and social costs is inconsistent with the need to minimise environmental destruction and human suffering. Localisation – based on stronger democratic decision-making at local levels, building up to national and global levels — is an imperative for conservation as well as democracy. (257)
It holds the voices of different groups asserting different kinds of knowledges and ways of being on the earth that we must now look to for the future:
We, the forest people of the world–living in the woods, surviving on the fruits and crops, farming on the jhoom land, re-cultivating the forst land, roaming around with our herds — have occupied this land since ages. We announce loudly, in unity and solidarity, let there be no doubt on the future: we are the forests and forests are us, and our existence is mutually dependent. The crisis faced by our forests and environment today will only intensify without us.
–Excerpt from the Declaration of Nation Forum for Forest people and Forest Workers (69)
The need for new structures
Self-rule of communities is the basis for indigenous self-determination, for sustainable agriculture, and for democratic pluralism. (27)
I do love how Vandana Shiva wraps it all up (something I always struggle with). I know things are always messy, but I think in a struggle like this this is the kind of clarity most useful:
Humanity stands at a precipice. We have to make a choice. Will we continue to obey the market laws of corporate greed or Gaia’s laws for maintenance of the earth’s ecosystems and the diversity of her beings? The laws for maximising corporate profits are based on:
Privatising the earth
Enclosing the commons
Externalising the costs of ecological destruction
Creating corporate economies of death and destriction
Destroying cultural diversity
The laws for protecting the rights of Mother Earth are based on:
respecting the integrity of the earth’s ecosystems and ecological processe
‘How can I most quickly improve?’ I asked him one day later on. ‘You must walk constantly in the forest,’ he answered; and he meant what he said to be taken literally. It was his own favourite prescription that he advised for my application.
Brahms’ became Florence May’s teacher through the recommendation of Clara Schumann, and her well researched biography of him is a lovely read. It is, of course, very much caught up in the romanticism of the time — the more I read of it, like E.T.A. Hoffman’s work and his character Kriesler whom Brahms particularly loved, the clearer it all becomes.
Brahms didn’t like playing very much in front of people, especially his own work. May begs him to and he finally did — she describes it and thus gives us a lovely picture of her time with him that you can almost enter:
I never listen to it [string Sextet in B flat] without being carried back in thought to the gardener’s house on the slope of the Caecilienberg where, in my blue-papered, carpetless little room, Brahms sat at the piano and played it to me. The scent of flowers was borne in through the open lattice-windows, of which the green outside sun shutters were closed on one side of the room to keep out the blazing August sun, and open on another to views of the beautiful scenery.
He especially loved Schubert. Me too.
Perhaps one of the things I enjoyed most about May’s biography is how much insight it gives not just into the hopeful romanticism of the period, but also into their approaches to music. I played a little in my youth, but don’t really understand much of this and similar passages discussing the technical aspects of the work, or if we would still consider it true. Regardless, I am fascinated by them, especially in listening to Brahms’ music now:
He had always been extremely careful, when selecting music for me to work at, to choose what would develop my technical power without straining my hands, and when I had wished to study something of his had answered that his compositions were unfit for me for the present, as they required too much physical strength and grasp. He fancied, indeed, at that time that nearly all of them were beyond a woman’s strength. When I asked why it was that he composed only such enormously difficult things for the pianoforte, he said they came to him naturally, and he could not compose otherwise (‘Ich kann nicht anders’).
Years later they meet again, and she relates to him her continuing efforts to play his music regardless of difficulty:
I told him I had lately been getting up the same B flat Concerto which he had played at the time, and had performed it in London before a private audience. He was interested in hearing the particulars of the occasion, and when I said, laughingly, that the fatigue entailed by the practice of its enormous difficulties had given me all sorts of aches and pains, and made it necessary for me to go into the country for change of air after the performance was over, he replied in the same vein: ‘But that is very dangerous; one must not compose such things. It is too dangerous!’
It is, of course, funny to me to think of a single piece being so difficult for a privileged musician that they have to retire to the country after playing it. But still, I find this understanding of music’s power and its toll on the body fascinating.
Johannes Brahms was the son of Jacob Brahms — an impoverished guild musician, whose own career in contrast to that of his son offers some insight into the difference between everyday musical cultures and high culture, and the many links between guild musicians and age-old folk melodies and new music hall tunes, standing in very distinct contrast to high classical standards and the classical compositions demanded by royalty and high society.
There existed, not far from his home, a representative of the old ‘Stadt Pfeifereien,’ establishments descended directly from the musicians’ guilds of the Middle Ages, whose traditions lingered on in the rural districts of Germany for some time after the original institutions had become extinct. The ‘Stadt Pfeiferei’ was recognised as the official musical establishment of its neighbourhood, and was presided over by the town-musician, who retained certain ancient privileges. He held a monopoly for providing the music for all open-air festivities in the villages, hamlets, and small townships within his district, and formed his band or bands from apprenticed pupils, who paid a trifling sum of money, often helped with their manual labour in the work of his house and the cultivation of his garden or farm, and, in return, lived with him as part of his family and received musical instruction from himself and his assistants. At the termination of their apprenticeship he provided his scholars with indentures of character and efficiency, according to desert, and dismissed them to follow their fortunes. Country lads with ambition, who desired to see something of the world, or to attain a better position than that of a peasant or journeyman, would persuade their parents to place them in one of these establishments. They were expected to acquire a practical knowledge of several instruments, so as to be able to take part upon either as occasion might demand, and the bands thus formed were available for all local functions.
And here we have the Hamburg of Jacob Brahms, one long ago lost to us but some of which Florence May could still see and experience:
It is not easy to imagine the feelings of this youth of nineteen or twenty on his arrival, fresh from the simple life of the Ditmarsh peasants, in the great commercial fortress-city, still the old Hamburg of the day, with its harbour and shipping and busy river scenes; its walls and city gates, locked at sunset; its water-ways and bridges; its churches and exchange; its tall, gabled houses; its dim, tortuous alleys. Refined ease and sordid revelry were well represented there; the one might be contemplated on the pleasant, shady Jungfernstieg, the fashionable promenade where rich merchants and fine ladies and gay officers sat and sipped punch or coffee, wine or lemonade, served to them by the nimble waiters of the Alster Pavilion, the high-class refreshment-house on the lake hard by; the other, in the so-called Hamburger Berg, the sailors’ quarter, abounding in booths and shows, small public-houses, and noisy dancing-saloons, in which scenes of low-life gaiety were regularly enacted. Johann Jakob Brahms was destined to appear, in the course of his career as a musician, in both localities. He made his debut in the latter.
An aside, I quite love how she compares this to East London:
Thrown entirely on his own resources, with a mere pittance in his pocket for immediate needs, he had to pick up a bare existence, as best he could, in the courtyards and dancing-saloons of the Hamburg Wapping.
The street where Brahms was born is also long gone, so it is wonderful to have such a description of it, along with an old photograph.
The house in which Johannes Brahms was born still stands as it was seventy years ago, and is now known as 60, Speckstrasse. The street itself, which has since been changed and widened, was then Speck-lane, and formed part of the Gaenge-Viertel, the ‘Lane-quarter’ of the old Hamburg. Want of space within the city walls had led to the construction of rows of houses along a number of lanes adjacent to one another, which had once been public thoroughfares through gardens. A neighbourhood of very dark and narrow streets was thus formed, for the houses were tall and gabled, and arranged to hold several families. They were generally built of brick, loam, and wood, and were thrown up with the object of packing as many human beings as possible into a given area. The Lane-quarter exists no longer, but many of the old houses remain, and some are well kept and picturesque to the eye of the passer-by. Not so 60, Speckstrasse. This house does not form part of the main street, but stands as it did in 1833, in a small dismal court behind, which is entered through a close passage, and was formerly called Schlueter’s-court. It would be impossible for the most imaginative person, on arriving at this spot, to indulge in any of the picturesque fancies supposed to be appropriate to a poet’s birthplace; the house and its surroundings testify only to the commonplace reality of a bare and repulsive poverty. A steep wooden staircase in the centre, closed in at night by gates, leads right and left, directly from the court, to the various stories of the building. Each of its habitations is planned exactly as every other, excepting that those near the top are contracted by the sloping roof. Jakob and Johanna lived in the first-floor dwelling to the left on facing the house. On entering it, it is difficult to repress a shiver of bewilderment and dismay. The staircase door opens on to a diminutive space, half kitchen, half lobby, where some cooking may be done and a child’s bed made up, and which has a second door leading to the living-room. This communicates with the sleeping-closet, which has its own window, but is so tiny it can scarcely be called a room. There is nothing else, neither corner nor cupboard. Where Jakob kept his instruments and how he managed to practise are mysteries which the ordinary mind cannot satisfactorily penetrate, but it is probable that his easy-going temperament helped him over these and other difficulties, and that he was fairly content with his lot. If Johanna took life a little more hardly, it is certain that husband and wife resembled each other in their affection for the children, and that the strong tie of love which bound the renowned composer of after-years to father and mother alike, had its earliest beginning in the fondness and pride which attended his cradle in the obscure abode in Schlueter’s-court.
Coming from this background, Brahms was able to acheive all he did with the help of his father and the musicians guild, who not only taught him, but also raised funds so that he could be more classically trained.
The upshot of these things was that, a few months after the interview with Marxsen, a private subscription concert was arranged ‘for the benefit of the further musical education’ of Johannes, which took place in the assembly-room of the Zum Alten Rabe, a first-class refreshment-house, long since pulled down, that stood in its own pleasure-garden near the Dammthor. The programme included a Mozart quartet for pianoforte and strings, Beethoven’s quintet for pianoforte and wind, and some pianoforte solos, amongst them a bravura piece by Herz, the execution of which, by the youthful concert-giver, seems to have caused immense sensation in the circle of his admiring friends.
And so the door begin to open just a little. One of the other lovely features of May’s book is a glimpse into the lives and views and battles of Brahms’ contemporaries, beginning with Brahms’ first teacher, Marxsen:
To us, who belong to a generation that has been educated on the purist principles first made widely acceptable by Mendelssohn’s influence and since popularized by the genius of a few famous executants, with Clara Schumann, Rubinstein, and Joachim at their head, it is difficult to realize the revolution that has taken place in the general condition of musical art since the days when Marxsen, three years Mendelssohn’s senior, was young. Many things were then accepted and admired in Vienna, in Berlin, in Leipzig, in London, which would now be regarded as impossible atrocities. Marxsen was capable of setting the Kreutzer Sonata for full orchestra, but this is hardly so surprising as that the Leipzig authorities should have produced the arrangement at one of the Gewandhaus concerts, or that Schumann should have mentioned it indulgently, on whatever grounds, in the Neue Zeitschrift fuer Musik.
I love that May also gives the kind of teaching Brahms obtained under Marxsen, the musical traditions he was taught:
it may be said that as a teacher of free composition, and especially of the art of building up the forms which may be studied in the works of Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, he was great—the more so that he did not educate his pupils merely by setting them to imitate the outward shape of classical models. He began by teaching them to form a texture, by training them radically in the art of developing a theme. Taking a phrase or a figure from one or other of the great masters, he would desire the pupil to exhibit the same idea in every imaginable variety of form, and would make him persevere in this exercise until he had gained facility in perceiving the possibilities lying in a given subject, and ingenuity in presenting them. Pursuing the same method with material of the pupil’s own invention, he aimed at bringing him to feel, as by intuition, whether a musical subject were or were not suitable for whatever immediate purpose might be in view. 
‘Teaching them to form a texture…’ I quite love seeing music like that. Under Marxsen’s tutelage he gave his first public concert, and May is delightful enough to not just give the playlist, but her commentary.
It was on September 21 that Johannes made his fresh start in life by giving a concert of his own, thus presenting himself to his circle as a musician who was now to stand on an independent footing. It took place in the familiar room of the ‘Old Raven,’ ‘Herr Honnef’s Hall,’ with the assistance of Marxsen’s friends, Madame and Fraeulein Cornet, and some instrumentalists of Hamburg. The price of tickets was one mark (about a shilling), and the programme, as printed in the Hamburger Nachrichten of the 20th, was as follows:
1. Adagio and rondo from Rosenhain’s Concerto in A major for Piano, performed by the concert-giver.
2. Duet from Mozart’s ‘Figaro,’ sung by Mad. and Fraeul. Cornet.
3. Variations for Violin, by Artot, performed by Herr Risch.
4. ‘Das Schwabenmaedchen,’ Lied, sung by Mad. Cornet.
5. Fantasia on Themes from Rossini’s ‘Tell,’ for Piano, by Doehler, performed by the concert-giver.
6. Introduction and Variations for Clarinet, by Herzog, performed by Herr Glade.
7. Aria from Mozart’s ‘Figaro,’ sung by Frl. Cornet.
8. Fantasia for Violoncello, composed and performed by Herr
9. a) ‘Der Tanz’ } Lieder, sung by Mad.
b) ‘Der Fischer auf dem Meer’ } Cornet.
10. a) Fugue by Sebastian Bach
b) Serenade for left hand only, by E. Marxsen
c) Etude by Herz, performed by the concert-giver.
Unattractive as it now seems, this selection of pieces was no doubt made with a view to the taste of the day, and the inclusion of a single Bach fugue was probably a rather daring concession to that of the concert-giver and his teacher.
Bach’s Fugue as a concession, not as a crowd pleaser! That’s interesting. But emerging thus as a ‘professional’ musician was not enough to climb out of poverty, instead he entered into the hard narrow life of a low-level musician:
The four or five years immediately succeeding his formal entry into life were, perhaps, the darkest of Brahms’ career. Money had to be earned, and the young Bach-Mozart-Beethoven enthusiast earned it by giving wretchedly-paid lessons to pupils who lacked both talent and wish to learn, and by his night drudgery amid the sordid surroundings of the Hamburg dancing-saloons.
A little more about his poverty as he remembered it:
We have read in Widmann’s pages of the spirit in which the great composer, a few years before his death, recalled these passages of his struggling youth:
‘He could not, he said, wish that it had been less rough and austere. He had certainly earned his first money by arranging marches and dances for garden orchestras, or orchestral music for the piano, but it gave him pleasure even now, when he came across one of these anonymously circulating pieces, to think that he had devoted faithful labour and all the knowledge at his command, to such hireling’s work. He did not even regard as useless experience that he had often had to accompany wretched singers or to play dance music in Lokals, whilst he was longing for the quiet morning hours during which he should be able to write down his own thoughts. “The prettiest songs came to me as I blacked my boots before daybreak.”‘
It was partly luck that changed his circumstances, a meeting with Hungarian refugee Edward Reményi — the commentary from such a time on the influx of refugees is itself fascinating in its parallels with today:
It happened as a natural consequence of the political revolution which took place early in the year 1848 in Germany and Austria, that, during the year or two following its speedy termination, there was an influx into Hamburg and its neighbourhood of refugees on their way to America. Conspicuous among them were a number of Hungarians of various sorts and degrees, who found such sympathetic welcome in the rich, free merchant-city that they were in no hurry to leave it. Some of them remained there for many months on one pretext or another, and amongst these was the violinist Edward Reményi, a German-Hungarian Jew whose real name was Hoffmann. (92 – 93)
Particularly in migrants’ shifting relationship with authority.
The violinist had connections of his own in the neighbourhood. Begas, a Hungarian magnate, had settled down into a large villa at Dehensen, on the Lüneburg Heath, that had been placed at his disposal for as long a time as he should find it possible to elude or cajole the police authorities, and kept open house for his compatriots and their friends. To his circle Brahms was introduced, and much visiting ensued between Dehensen and Winsen, for one or two musicians staying with Begas were pleased to come and make music with Reményi and Johannes, and to partake of the Giesemanns’ hospitality. (93)
It was to be Reményi, refugee that he was, who would make it possible for Brahms to gain introduction to those who would champion his talent and make it possible for him to find the time and space to perfect his skill and compose music.
No doubt Brahms’ heart beat fast when he left home on this his first quest of adventure, and probably not the least ardent of his anticipations was that of making the personal acquaintance of the celebrated violinist whose first appearance in Hamburg at the Philharmonic concert of March 11, 1848, with Beethoven’s Concerto, remained vividly in his remembrance as one of the few great musical events of his own life. (96)
On to more of the politics of the German music world!
The musical world of Leipzig, the city raised by the leadership of Mendelssohn to be the recognised capital of classical art, had become split after the death of the master in November, 1847, into two factions, both without an active head. The Schumannites, whilst receiving no encouragement from the great composer whose art they championed, decried Mendelssohn as a pedant and a phrase-maker, who, having nothing particular to say, had covered his lack of meaning by facility of workmanship. The Mendelssohnians, on the other hand, declared Schumann to be wanting in mastery of form, and perceived in his works a tendency to subordinate the objective, to the subjective, side of musical art. The division soon spread beyond Leipzig throughout Germany, and, in the course of years, to England, with the result that Mendelssohn, once a popular idol, is now rarely represented in a concert programme.
Meanwhile Franz Liszt, perhaps the greatest pianoforte executant of all times, and one of the most magnetic personalities of his own, had exchanged his brilliant career of virtuoso for the position of conductor of the orchestra of the Weimar court theatre, with the avowed noble purpose of bringing to a hearing such works of genius as had little chance of being performed elsewhere. He declared himself the advocate of the ‘New-German’ school, and, making active propaganda for the creeds of Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner, succeeded in attracting to his standard some of the most talented of the younger generation of artists, amongst whom Joachim, Raff, and the gifted and generous Hans von Bülow, were some of the first converts. There were, therefore, three different schools of serious musical thought in the year 1853, each of which boasted numerous and distinguished adherents.(100- 101)
A world where youth was catapulted into fame as prodigy, like Joseph Joachim, student of Mendelssohn and friends with Liszt, who was to become one of Brahms’ greatest friends and champions:
The loss of Mendelssohn left him, at the age of sixteen, lonely and disconsolate, in spite of his being himself already a distinguished personality and a universal favourite. (103)
Brahms in fact meets Liszt in this first halcyon trip along the Rhine where it seems as the whole world opens up to him. Apparently this first meeting is famous and they didn’t get along. But did Brahms nod off? It didn’t really matter, he was a hit, and from there he would only move up from recognition to recognition.
Why I love him? Because he never forgot where he was from:
He certainly touched Joachim’s heart by his loving talk of Hamburg, rich in proud traditions, and not without art memories of its own, associated with the great names of Klopstock and Lessing, of Telemann and Keiser, of Handel and Mattheson and Emanuel Bach.
Upon his return after this trip where fame first touched him, he began a tradition:
As to Johannes himself, the feelings he had not been able to describe in his letter to Schumann were probably strong enough within his heart to touch the joy of the first home embraces with a gravity that did not immediately admit of speech. The first emotions over, however, an exuberant mirthfulness asserted itself in the bearing of the happy young fellow. He established at this time a custom from which he never afterwards departed. The first visit paid by him after his arrival was to Marxsen. One to the Cossels soon followed, and, on this occasion of his return from a first real absence, he went the round of several Lokals, where he had been accustomed to work regularly, and in his lightness of heart flourished on some of the instruments that had been the sign of his bondage, in very joy at his emancipation. (143-144)
Brahms was to become deeply involved with, and indeed practically part of Schumann’s household, taking care of his wife and family after he committed himself to a mental asylum. In a book written at this time, you can see the helplessness in the face of unknown and terrifying mental illness:
Schumann was already in an advanced stage of the disease which, technically described under different learned names, according to its many varieties, is known to the layman as softening of the brain. (196)
We haven’t many better words for Schumann’s illness today, but he died within three years. After this, Brahms gained employment for a petty German prince (see his mockery of high society here, again following in the footsteps of Johannes Kreisler). Volume 1 ends after he has resigned his post and is getting ready to leave for Vienna. May writes of his leave-taking:
‘Father,’ said Brahms, looking slyly at his father as he said good-bye, ‘if things should be going badly with you, music is always the best consolation; go and study my old “Saul”—you will find comfort there.’
He had thickly interlarded the volume with bank-notes. 
She ends with a summary in terms of his music, just how much Brahms had accomplished over this period of his life. Now to find evenings when I can sit and listen:
It is highly interesting to possess a clear conception of Brahms’ achievements as a composer, and, therewith, of his exact title to consideration at this important moment of his career. This will be best obtained by a glance at the list[Pg 281] of the chief completed works with which he was to present himself in the city associated with the most hallowed memories of his art. His departure for Vienna is by no means to be regarded as coincident with the close of any one period of his creative activity, though it emphatically marks the end, not only of a chapter, but of the first book of his life.
List of Brahms’ Chief Completed Works on his Departure for Vienna.
Variations on Schumann’s theme in F sharp minor.
Variations on an original theme.
Variations on a Hungarian song.
Variations and Fugue on Handel’s theme.
Pianoforte Duet: Variations on a theme by Schumann.
Pianoforte with Orchestra: Concerto in D minor.
Orchestral: Two Serenades.
Sextet in B flat for Strings.
Trio in B major for Pianoforte and Strings.
Quartet in G minor ” ” ” ”
Quartet in A major ” ” ” ”
Five books (thirty songs).
‘Magelone Romances’ (first six).
Vocal Duets: two books.
Three Vocal Quartets.
The 13th Psalm.
The newly-finished String Quintet is not included in the list, as the work was not published in this its first form. The Hungarian Dances, as being arrangements, are also omitted.
Our visit to Hamburg inspired a little extra reading — I started with a life of Johannes Brahms by one of his students, Florence May. It is a wonderful biography giving a real taste of how both the man and his music were seen in his own time (and its blinkers of course). I found this:
…his best encouragement must have been derived from his own sense of his artistic progress. This was advancing by enormous strides, the exact measure of which is furnished by the manuscript of the Sonata in F sharp minor now in the possession of Hofcapellmeister Albert Dietrich. It bears the signature ‘Kreisler jun.,’ a pseudonym adopted by Brahms out of love for the capellmeister Johannes Kreisler, hero of one of Hoffmann’s tales, and the date November, 1852.
E.T.A. Hoffman wrote three novels about the musician and Kapellmeister Kreisler: Kreisleriana (1813), Johannes Kreisler, des Kapellmeisters Musikalische Leiden (1815), and The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr together with a fragmentary Biography of Kapellmeister Johannes Kreisler on Random Sheets of Waste Paper (1822).
Looking for more information I found that Schumann had actually written a piece he called Kreisleriana for piano, op. 16 (1838), and that Brahms had more than once used Johannes Kreisler as a pseudonym. It is also Schumann who really launched Brahms’ career, and rather fascinating that they shared a love for this fantastical figure in common. So after finishing the biography I read The Life and Opinions of the Tomcat Murr, with much enjoyment. I thought I might write about them in reverse order really, because the romantic vision of what a musician should be is so interesting, and plays such a role in the Brahms saw himself, as well as in the way he was received in a rather horribly snobbish society despite his origins.
Helene von Vesque, after meeting Brahms for the first time during his introduction to society, would write:
We had plenty of points in common: Joachim, the Wehners, our mutual favourite poets, Jean Paul and Eichendorf, and his, Hoffmann and Schiller…. He vehemently urged me to read “Kabale and Liebe” and the “Serapionsbrüder,” but above all Hoffmann’s musical novels, of which he spoke with real enthusiasm. “I spend all my money on books; books are my greatest pleasure. I have read as much as I possibly could since I was quite little, and have made my way without guidance from the worst to the best.”
Perhaps I so loved the biography because I quite loved Brahms himself. But on to some of Hoffman’s establishment of Johannes Kreisler as the romantic ideal:
The stranger, a man about thirty years old, was dressed in black and in the height of fashion. There was nothing at all odd or unusual in his clothing, and yet his appearance did have something singular and eccentric about it. In spite of the cleanliness of his garments, a certain negligence was apparent, seeming to stem less from carelessness than from the fact that the stranger had been obliged to go along a path he had not expected to take, and for which his clothes were ill-suited.
This was quite brilliant, and so recognizable from descriptions of Byron down to the romantic regency novels of Georgette Heyer passed from my grandmother to my mother to me.
He is utterly committed to his music, through it he awakens deep passions that often frighten a shallow, aristocratic audience, and though he is capable of deep love it is to remain platonic:
For a true music-maker carries the lady of his choice in his heart, desiring nothing but to sing, write or paint in her honor, and may be compared to the chivalrous knights of old in their exquisite courtesy — indeed, he is to be preferred to them in point of innocence of mind, since he does not conduct himself like those knights who, in their bloodthirsty manner, would strike down the most admirable folk in homage to the ladies of their hearts…
‘No,’ cried the Princess, as if waking from a dream, ‘no, it is impossible for such a pure vestal fire to be kindled in the breast of a man!…’
In Brahm’s own early life there is little of physical romance or love (or none, though in this kind of biography you can’t be sure) — though it is believed he was passionately in love with Clara Schumann, a brilliant pianist in her own right and wife to composer Robert Schumann. After Robert committed himself to a mental asylum, Brahms and the small circle of musicians around Schumann cared for Clara and the family (Clara had just delivered his eighth child! It was a different time…). Brahms actually moved into the same building and devoted several years of his life to them as Robert Schumann’s condition steadily degenerated.
Quite beautiful, really.
Before all this though, as a youth first meeting Schumann and being introduced to society, he inspires them as representing this ideal, this kind of pure artist. (there is also some delightful gossip on musical circles):
Von Sahr was the first person in Leipzig to make Brahms’ acquaintance, and, on the day after his arrival, insisted that he should leave his hotel to become his guest. He introduced him to Mendelssohn’s old friend, the celebrated concertmeister, David; to Julius Rietz, conductor of the Gewandhaus concerts; to the personal acquaintance of Dr. Härtel; to Wieck and his daughter Marie (Frau Schumann’s father and sister); to Ernst Ferdinand Wenzel, one of Schumann’s special friends; to Julius Otto Grimm, a young musician whose room was on the same staircase as his own, and who soon became numbered amongst Johannes’ particular chums; and, generally speaking, to the entire Leipzig circle.
‘He is perfect!’ he exclaims in a letter to Albert; ‘the days since he has been here are amongst the most delightful in my recollection. He answers so exactly to my idea of an artist. And as a man!—But enough, you know him better than I do…. Unfortunately, he can only stay till Friday. He has, however, promised, and I think he will keep his promise, to come again soon.’ (135)
Returning to Helene von Vesque:
The extracts from her diaries and letters contained in Helene von Vesque’s book include several of interest to musical readers. Of young Brahms she says:
‘Yesterday Herr von Sahr brought me a young man who held in his hand a letter from Joachim. He sat down opposite me, this young hero of the day, this young messiah of Schumann’s, fair, delicate-looking, who, at twenty, has clearly-cut features free from all passion. Purity, innocence, naturalness, power, and depth—this indicates his being. One is so inclined to think him ridiculous and to judge him harshly on account of Schumann’s prophecy; but all is forgotten; one only loves and admires him.
From Schloenbach’s ‘open letter’:
We listened now to the young Brahms from Hamburg, referred to the other day in Schumann’s article in your journal. The article had, as you know, awakened mistrust in numerous circles (perhaps in many cases only from fear). At all events it had created a very difficult situation for the young man, for its justification required the fulfilment of great demands; and when the slender, fair youth appeared, so deficient in presence, so shy, so modest, his voice still in transitional falsetto, few could have suspected the genius that had already created so rich a world in this young nature. Berlioz had, however, already discovered in his profile a striking likeness to Schiller, and conjectured his possession of a kindred virgin soul, and when the young genius unfolded his wings, when, with extraordinary facility, with inward and outward energy, he presented his scherzo, flashing, rushing, sparkling; when, afterwards, his andante swelled towards us in intimate, mournful tones, we all felt: Yes, here is a true genius, and Schumann was right; and when Berlioz, deeply moved, embraced the young man and pressed him to his heart, then, dear friend, I felt myself affected by such a sacred tremour of enthusiasm as I have seldom experienced…. If you should smile now and then whilst reading my letter, remember that it is the poet who has spoken, and that it was yourself who invited him to do so.
‘December 5, 1853.’ [139-140]
The other aspect of Johannes Kreisler is his disrespect for rank and money. Hoffman’s book opens on a most hilarious scene that involves the painful humiliation of much of the small court because the Prince had requested an impossible spectacle for a party in the woods, and his courtiers were too afraid to betray the knowledge that everything was going wrong.
Kreisler’s first meeting with the princess goes badly, as she feels insulted by him. He is unrepentant later, talking to an old acquaintance:
‘By no means,’ replied Kreisler, ‘any more than a little princess walking in her good Papa’s open park can be forgiven for trying to impress a respectable stranger with her small person.’
He mocks the roles that talented musicians are forced to play in a feudal world that in fact tames if not destroys their talents:
‘Oh, dear lady, you have no idea how I’ve profited by my appointment as Kapellmeister, and above all I have become wonderfully convinced of the value of artists’ going into service in due form, wince otherwise those proud, unruly folk might stand comparison with the Devil and his grandmother. Make the worthy composer Kapellmeister or Music Director, appoint the poet Court Poet, make the painter Court Portraitist, the sculptor Court Sculptor, and you’ll soon have no more useless fantastical fellows in the land, you’ll have nothing but useful citizens of good breeding and mild manners!’
This is actually just one long book of mockery of the aristocracy (and through the cat’s tales, of the romantic ideals in general). Here the Prince describes another Prince who asked everyone in his court to play the recorder:
It is appropriate for persons of high degree to be prey to strange notions; it increases respect. What might be called absurd in a man without rank or station is, in such persons, merely the pleasing whim of a mind out of the common run, and will rouse astonishment and admiration.
May loves and respects Brahms, but does note that he was often unhappy and uncomfortable in high society, that people often found him rude, rarely understood his jokes and pranks and sense of humour. This reveals more than anything, I think, that not all the class barriers ever came tumbling down, despite his talent and the power of the time’s romantic idealism.
Of course, I also love that he didn’t really care to fit into this society.
Brahms spent three years as Kapellmeister in a small principality at Detmold, rather similar in fact to that described by Hoffman, as well as the post Kreisler himself rejected. May writes:
Brahms found himself more than ever in request amongst the general circle of Detmold society during the autumn of 1859. He had become the fashion. It was the thing to have lessons from him, and his presence gave distinction to a gathering. The very circumstance of his popularity, however, caused some friction between himself and his acquaintances. He disliked to waste his time, as he considered it, in mere society, and, when occasionally induced to attend a party against his will, gave his hosts cause to regret their pertinacity. If not silent the whole evening, he would amuse himself by exercising his talent for caustic speech. Carl von Meysenbug, when at home, jealous for his friend’s credit, often called Johannes privately to account for his perversity, but was always silenced by the unanswerable reply, ‘Bah! that is all humbug!’ (Pimpkram). (244)
The opportunities for mockery remain the same for Brahms as they were for Hoffman:
His lessons to the Princess, who was really musical and made rapid progress, continued to give him genuine pleasure, but he chafed at the constant demands on his time arising from his fixed duties, and the rigid etiquette observed at the Court of a very small capital gave him a distaste for his work as conductor of the choral society. The circle of Serene Highnesses, Excellencies, and their friends, did not furnish sufficient voices for the adequate rendering of two or three oratorios and cantatas by Handel and Bach which he selected for practice during his second and third seasons; and, with Prince Leopold’s permission, he supplemented them by persuading some of the towns-people to become members. His sense of the ridiculous was strongly excited by the rules of conduct prescribed for these not very willing assistants, who were not even permitted to make an obeisance to the Serenities, and scarcely ventured to lift their eyes from the music whilst in their august presence. There were some good performances of great works, however, and Bach’s cantata ‘Ich hatte viel Bekümmerniss’ was given four times; but the difficulty of procuring tenors continued serious, and the entire circumstances of the meetings made Brahms feel increasing desire to be relieved from the necessity of attending them. (245)
Transcending class barriers, commitment to art, fine clothing and romantic ideals, mockery of wealth and power — there is a lot to enjoy here. I’ll just end with a final delightful quote from Hoffman:
What a fine time that was after the French Revolution, when marquises were making sealing-wax, and counts were netting lace nightcaps and claiming to be nothing but plain Monsieurs, and the great masquerade was such fun!
It is hard nowadays to picture to one’s self what a pleasure-trip of students and grisettes to the country was like, forty-five years ago.
But Victor Hugo will do his best to picture it for us.
The suburbs of Paris are no longer the same; the physiognomy of what may be called circumparisian life has changed completely in the last half-century; where there was the cuckoo, there is the railway car; where there was a tender-boat, there is now the steamboat; people speak of Fecamp nowadays as they spoke of Saint-Cloud in those days. The Paris of 1862 is a city which has France for its outskirts.
Hugo writes to inscribe Paris in the memory, to immortalize it as it was, to make sure that generations never forget. This has an immense weight to it, a ponderous feeling as though an ancient uncle were pressing your hand and whispering truths about things you will never see but he expects you to hold dear. In this case, the setting of the Gorbeau house, where Jean Valjean flees with Cosette.
The barrier was close at hand. In 1823 the city wall was still in existence.
This barrier itself evoked gloomy fancies in the mind. It was the road to Bicêtre. It was through it that, under the Empire and the Restoration, prisoners condemned to death re-entered Paris on the day of their execution. It was there, that, about 1829, was committed that mysterious assassination, called “The assassination of the Fontainebleau barrier,” … Take a few steps, and you come upon that fatal Rue Croulebarbe, where Ulbach stabbed the goat-girl of Ivry to the sound of thunder, as in the melodramas. A few paces more, and you arrive at the abominable pollarded elms of the Barrière Saint-Jacques, that expedient of the philanthropist to conceal the scaffold, that miserable and shameful Place de Grève of a shop-keeping and bourgeois society, which recoiled before the death penalty, neither daring to abolish it with grandeur, nor to uphold it with authority.
Leaving aside this Place Saint-Jacques, which was, as it were, predestined, and which has always been horrible …
Bourgeois houses only began to spring up there twenty-five years later. The place was unpleasant. In addition to the gloomy thoughts which assailed one there, one was conscious of being between the Salpêtrière, a glimpse of whose dome could be seen, and Bicêtre, whose outskirts one was fairly touching; that is to say, between the madness of women and the madness of men. As far as the eye could see, one could perceive nothing but the abattoirs, the city wall, and the fronts of a few factories, resembling barracks or monasteries; everywhere about stood hovels, rubbish, ancient walls blackened like cerecloths, new white walls like winding-sheets; everywhere parallel rows of trees, buildings erected on a line, flat constructions, long, cold rows, and the melancholy sadness of right angles. Not an unevenness of the ground, not a caprice in the architecture, not a fold. The ensemble was glacial, regular, hideous. Nothing oppresses the heart like symmetry. It is because symmetry is ennui, and ennui is at the very foundation of grief. Despair yawns. Something more terrible than a hell where one suffers may be imagined, and that is a hell where one is bored. If such a hell existed, that bit of the Boulevard de l’Hôpital might have formed the entrance to it.
Nevertheless, at nightfall, at the moment when the daylight is vanishing, especially in winter, at the hour when the twilight breeze tears from the elms their last russet leaves, when the darkness is deep and starless, or when the moon and the wind are making openings in the clouds and losing themselves in the shadows, this boulevard suddenly becomes frightful.
Only suddenly. Only at night.
He explains the importance later, of these long descriptions of the city that of all his many long digressions I did really appreciate:
The author of this book, who regrets the necessity of mentioning himself, has been absent from Paris for many years. Paris has been transformed since he quitted it. A new city has arisen, which is, after a fashion, unknown to him. There is no need for him to say that he loves Paris: Paris is his mind’s natal city. In consequence of demolitions and reconstructions, the Paris of his youth, that Paris which he bore away religiously in his memory, is now a Paris of days gone by. He must be permitted to speak of that Paris as though it still existed. It is possible that when the author conducts his readers to a spot and says, “In such a street there stands such and such a house,” neither street nor house will any longer exist in that locality. Readers may verify the facts if they care to take the trouble. For his own part, he is unacquainted with the new Paris, and he writes with the old Paris before his eyes in an illusion which is precious to him. It is a delight to him to dream that there still lingers behind him something of that which he beheld when he was in his own country, and that all has not vanished. So long as you go and come in your native land, you imagine that those streets are a matter of indifference to you; that those windows, those roofs, and those doors are nothing to you; that those walls are strangers to you; that those trees are merely the first encountered haphazard; that those houses, which you do not enter, are useless to you; that the pavements which you tread are merely stones. Later on, when you are no longer there, you perceive that the streets are dear to you; that you miss those roofs, those doors; and that those walls are necessary to you, those trees are well beloved by you; that you entered those houses which you never entered, every day, and that you have left a part of your heart, of your blood, of your soul, in those pavements. All those places which you no longer behold, which you may never behold again, perchance, and whose memory you have cherished, take on a melancholy charm, recur to your mind with the melancholy of an apparition, make the holy land visible to you, and are, so to speak, the very form of France, and you love them; and you call them up as they are, as they were, and you persist in this, and you will submit to no change: for you are attached to the figure of your fatherland as to the face of your mother.
I’m just throwing this sentence in because I loved it:
Every flight should be an imperceptible slipping away.
I also love that we arrive here at Saint-Sulpice, the church I know from Georges Perec’s study of a Paris square, and one of the more touching stories between father and son:
While he was growing up in this fashion, the colonel slipped away every two or three months, came to Paris on the sly, like a criminal breaking his ban, and went and posted himself at Saint-Sulpice, at the hour when Aunt Gillenormand led Marius to the mass. There, trembling lest the aunt should turn round, concealed behind a pillar, motionless, not daring to breathe, he gazed at his child. The scarred veteran was afraid of that old spinster.
Everyone, it seems, writes about the Fauberg San-Antoine, again here is Hugo in phrases eminently quotable:
The Faubourg Saint-Antoine had also other causes to tremble; for it received the counter-shock of commercial crises, of failures, strikes, slack seasons, all inherent to great political disturbances. In times of revolution misery is both cause and effect. The blow which it deals rebounds upon it. This population full of proud virtue, capable to the highest degree of latent heat, always ready to fly to arms, prompt to explode, irritated, deep, undermined, seemed to be only awaiting the fall of a spark. Whenever certain sparks float on the horizon chased by the wind of events, it is impossible not to think of the Faubourg Saint-Antoine and of the formidable chance which has placed at the very gates of Paris that powder-house of suffering and ideas.
And in ever more precise geographies:
“I am capable of descending the Rue de Grès, of crossing the Place Saint-Michel, of sloping through the Rue Monsieur-le-Prince, of taking the Rue de Vaugirard, of passing the Carmelites, of turning into the Rue d’Assas, of reaching the Rue du Cherche-Midi, of leaving behind me the Conseil de Guerre, of pacing the Rue des Vielles Tuileries, of striding across the boulevard, of following the Chaussée du Maine, of passing the barrier, and entering Richefeu’s. I am capable of that. My shoes are capable of that.”
Prisons play such a key role in US economies, cities, communities — I am always rather fascinated to see where they have come from:
The New Building, which was the most cracked and decrepit thing to be seen anywhere in the world, was the weak point in the prison. The walls were eaten by saltpetre to such an extent that the authorities had been obliged to line the vaults of the dormitories with a sheathing of wood, because stones were in the habit of becoming detached and falling on the prisoners in their beds. In spite of this antiquity, the authorities committed the error of confining in the New Building the most troublesome prisoners, of placing there “the hard cases,” as they say in prison parlance.
The New Building contained four dormitories, one above the other, and a top story which was called the Bel-Air (Fine-Air). A large chimney-flue, probably from some ancient kitchen of the Dukes de la Force, started from the groundfloor, traversed all four stories, cut the dormitories, where it figured as a flattened pillar, into two portions, and finally pierced the roof.
And of course Hugo does not forget Les Halles, that working-class district later studied by Abdelhafid Khatib of the situationists, celeberated by Baldwin and more. But it doesn’t look like this any longer — I am glad Hugo had this project of inscribing streets in literature so that they would never be forgotten:
Otherwise the riot was conducted after the most scientific military tactics. The narrow, uneven, sinuous streets, full of angles and turns, were admirably chosen; the neighborhood of the Halles, in particular, a network of streets more intricate than a forest.
and during the uprising
All that old quarter of the Halles, which is like a city within a city, through which run the Rues Saint-Denis and Saint-Martin, where a thousand lanes cross, and of which the insurgents had made their redoubt and their stronghold, would have appeared to him like a dark and enormous cavity hollowed out in the centre of Paris. There the glance fell into an abyss. Thanks to the broken lanterns, thanks to the closed windows, there all radiance, all life, all sound, all movement ceased. The invisible police of the insurrection were on the watch everywhere, and maintained order, that is to say, night.
I’ll write more about the barricades I think, I did love them. But here they are placed at their precise locations:
The Parisians who nowadays on entering on the Rue Rambuteau at the end near the Halles, notice on their right, opposite the Rue Mondétour, a basket-maker’s shop having for its sign a basket in the form of Napoleon the Great with this inscription:—
NAPOLEON IS MADE
WHOLLY OF WILLOW,
have no suspicion of the terrible scenes which this very spot witnessed hardly thirty years ago.
It was there that lay the Rue de la Chanvrerie, which ancient deeds spell Chanverrerie, and the celebrated public-house called Corinthe.
It is quite a Public House. And it is no more, this is all we have of it.
The Mondétour labyrinth was disembowelled and widely opened in 1847, and probably no longer exists at the present moment. The Rue de la Chanvrerie and Corinthe have disappeared beneath the pavement of the Rue Rambuteau.
As we have already said, Corinthe was the meeting-place if not the rallying-point, of Courfeyrac and his friends.
Then back for a brief moment to more bourgeois streets — on the Marais
Everyone in the house was asleep. People go to bed betimes in the Marais, especially on days when there is a revolt. This good, old quarter, terrified at the Revolution, takes refuge in slumber, as children, when they hear the Bugaboo coming, hide their heads hastily under their coverlet.
But I will end with a paragraph I loved best:
There are soothing spots which act in some sort mechanically on the mind. An obscure street, peaceable inhabitants. Jean Valjean experienced an indescribable contagion of tranquillity in that alley of ancient Paris, which is so narrow that it is barred against carriages by a transverse beam placed on two posts, which is deaf and dumb in the midst of the clamorous city, dimly lighted at mid-day, and is, so to speak, incapable of emotions between two rows of lofty houses centuries old, which hold their peace like ancients as they are. There was a touch of stagnant oblivion in that street. Jean Valjean drew his breath once more there. How could he be found there?
Victor Hugo…I wanted to love this book. It starts out with this:
So long as there shall exist, by virtue of law and custom, decrees of damnation pronounced by society, artificially creating hells amid the civilization of earth, and adding the element of human fate to divine destiny; so long as the three great problems of the century–the degradation of man through pauperism, the corruption of woman through hunger, the crippling of children through lack of light–are unsolved; so long as social asphyxia is possible in any part of the world;–in other words, and with a still wider significance, so long as ignorance and poverty exist on earth, books of the nature of Les Miserables cannot fail to be of use.
HAUTEVILLE HOUSE, 1862.
Despite such grand sentiments to stand against injustice that I respect, I would probably punch him in the stomach if ever chance arose that somehow Victor Hugo stood in front of me. Or prick him with a pin to watch him whiz away like a balloon.
Not that there weren’t good bits to be found in Les Miserables. I will list them here:
The above expressed desire to improve the lot of mankind, and some of his descriptions of barricades and corresponding character descriptions, minus the idea that many of the book’s pages help improve anything (See all the things I hated most).
The actual story, when stripped of 95% of its sentimentality and all of its asides.
Paris as he remembers it — memorialized as a living, concrete and perfectly mapped thing (with some inventions).
The section on sewers, if it hadn’t interrupted the story.
The existence of a section on slang, if it hadn’t interrupted the story, and once stripped of the patronising judgmental nature of all of its content.
Given the epic size of this, I thought I might blog some of these separately. I also cannot deny the sense of achievement felt at finishing the damn thing, which was probably the best thing about it.
Will the things I most hated fit in one post? It seems to me he never edited a thing he wrote, just sent it off in one box after another to the publisher. Anyway, back to my list of things I hated:
Everything he says about women.
The section on Napoleon he starts by saying he’s not going to talk about Napoleon
The spate of sappy generalisations on the gamin
Grandiose asides about France. Sometimes Paris. How both of these make child poverty, galley slavery for convicts and other things not really so bad (while I admit this point can be argued, I think in general this is true)….
The content of the section on slang
He starts with the little section on grisettes — fucking grisettes. The whole institution is rather infuriating. A grouping of beautiful young mistresses from impoverished backgrounds minister to the needs of young students until they are cast off as Fantine is cast off, to have her baby in shame and live in poverty and lose all of her teeth and die very young indeed.
Unless they have an abortion and survive a little longer in the game. But how much longer?
But that’s not Victor Hugo’s fault, it’s his sentimentalisation of it, and all the rest of his ideas about women to be furious about, like:
The doll is one of the most imperious needs and, at the same time, one of the most charming instincts of feminine childhood. To care for, to clothe, to deck, to dress, to undress, to redress, to teach, scold a little, to rock, to dandle, to lull to sleep, to imagine that something is some one,—therein lies the whole woman’s future. While dreaming and chattering, making tiny outfits, and baby clothes, while sewing little gowns, and corsages and bodices, the child grows into a young girl, the young girl into a big girl, the big girl into a woman. The first child is the continuation of the last doll.
A little girl without a doll is almost as unhappy, and quite as impossible, as a woman without children.
or this on young women – oh dear
That first gaze of a soul which does not, as yet, know itself, is like the dawn in the sky. It is the awakening of something radiant and strange. Nothing can give any idea of the dangerous charm of that unexpected gleam, which flashes suddenly and vaguely forth from adorable shadows, and which is composed of all the innocence of the present, and of all the passion of the future. It is a sort of undecided tenderness which reveals itself by chance, and which waits. It is a snare which the innocent maiden sets unknown to herself, and in which she captures hearts without either wishing or knowing it. It is a virgin looking like a woman.
Ah, we move to love…
One of woman’s magnanimities is to yield. Love, at the height where it is absolute, is complicated with some indescribably celestial blindness of modesty. But what dangers you run, O noble souls! Often you give the heart, and we take the body. Your heart remains with you, you gaze upon it in the gloom with a shudder. Love has no middle course; it either ruins or it saves. All human destiny lies in this dilemma. This dilemma, ruin, or safety, is set forth no more inexorably by any fatality than by love. Love is life, if it is not death. Cradle; also coffin. The same sentiment says “yes” and “no” in the human heart. Of all the things that God has made, the human heart is the one which sheds the most light, alas! and the most darkness.
Jesus, let the purple prose end! But it never does.
For him, Cosette was a perfume and not a woman. He inhaled her. She refused nothing, and he asked nothing. Cosette was happy, and Marius was satisfied. They lived in this ecstatic state which can be described as the dazzling of one soul by another soul. It was the ineffable first embrace of two maiden souls in the ideal. Two swans meeting on the Jungfrau.
Cosette is all right, but women you know, you can’t trust them.
CHAPTER V—IN THE CASE OF SAND AS IN THAT OF WOMAN, THERE IS A FINENESS WHICH IS TREACHEROUS
I won’t deny Victor Hugo wasn’t eminently quotable — but he was so often silly. I skimmed through this extensive section that began by saying he would not speak much on the subject. Some selected quotes:
Was it possible that Napoleon should have won that battle? We answer No.
Why? Because of Wellington? Because of Blucher? No. Because of God.
Napoleon had been denounced in the infinite and his fall had been decided on.
He embarrassed God.
Waterloo is not a battle; it is a change of front on the part of the Universe.
That day the perspective of the human race underwent a change. Waterloo is the hinge of the nineteenth century. The disappearance of the great man was necessary to the advent of the great century. Some one, a person to whom one replies not, took the responsibility on himself. The panic of heroes can be explained. In the battle of Waterloo there is something more than a cloud, there is something of the meteor. God has passed by.
On the Gamin and Paris
That homeless street children should be brave and daring and smart and play a pivotal role in this novel I quite loved. That this little glimpse is offered into so much of their lives I did love too.
The gamin—the street Arab—of Paris is the dwarf of the giant.
Let us not exaggerate, this cherub of the gutter sometimes has a shirt, but, in that case, he owns but one; he sometimes has shoes, but then they have no soles; he sometimes has a lodging, and he loves it, for he finds his mother there; but he prefers the street, because there he finds liberty. He has his own games, his own bits of mischief, whose foundation consists of hatred for the bourgeois; his peculiar metaphors: to be dead is to eat dandelions by the root; his own occupations, calling hackney-coaches, letting down carriage-steps, establishing means of transit between the two sides of a street in heavy rains, which he calls making the bridge of arts, crying discourses pronounced by the authorities in favor of the French people, cleaning out the cracks in the pavement; he has his own coinage, which is composed of all the little morsels of worked copper which are found on the public streets. This curious money, which receives the name of loques—rags—has an invariable and well-regulated currency in this little Bohemia of children.
I love this hunt for insects, for nature, I love knowing there are millipedes in the Pantheon.
Lastly, he has his own fauna, which he observes attentively in the corners; the lady-bird, the death’s-head plant-louse, the daddy-long-legs, “the devil,” a black insect, which menaces by twisting about its tail armed with two horns. He has his fabulous monster, which has scales under its belly, but is not a lizard, which has pustules on its back, but is not a toad, which inhabits the nooks of old lime-kilns and wells that have run dry, which is black, hairy, sticky, which crawls sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, which has no cry, but which has a look, and is so terrible that no one has ever beheld it; he calls this monster “the deaf thing.” The search for these “deaf things” among the stones is a joy of formidable nature. Another pleasure consists in suddenly prying up a paving-stone, and taking a look at the wood-lice. Each region of Paris is celebrated for the interesting treasures which are to be found there. There are ear-wigs in the timber-yards of the Ursulines, there are millepeds in the Pantheon, there are tadpoles in the ditches of the Champs-de-Mars.
He waxes large on this subject, as he does on all others. Calls out the crime of children who are homeless… but then he veers off into his semi-mystical ramblings on Paris and you have to question all that came before.
CHAPTER VI—A BIT OF HISTORY
At the epoch, nearly contemporary by the way, when the action of this book takes place, there was not, as there is to-day, a policeman at the corner of every street (a benefit which there is no time to discuss here); stray children abounded in Paris. The statistics give an average of two hundred and sixty homeless children picked up annually at that period, by the police patrols, in unenclosed lands, in houses in process of construction, and under the arches of the bridges. One of these nests, which has become famous, produced “the swallows of the bridge of Arcola.” This is, moreover, the most disastrous of social symptoms. All crimes of the man begin in the vagabondage of the child.
Let us make an exception in favor of Paris, nevertheless. In a relative measure, and in spite of the souvenir which we have just recalled, the exception is just. While in any other great city the vagabond child is a lost man, while nearly everywhere the child left to itself is, in some sort, sacrificed and abandoned to a kind of fatal immersion in the public vices which devour in him honesty and conscience, the street boy of Paris, we insist on this point, however defaced and injured on the surface, is almost intact on the interior. It is a magnificent thing to put on record, and one which shines forth in the splendid probity of our popular revolutions, that a certain incorruptibility results from the idea which exists in the air of Paris, as salt exists in the water of the ocean. To breathe Paris preserves the soul.
Ah. I can just see that last sentence reproduced on postcards and pictures of the eiffel tower. It must have appeared as one of those quotes people mindlessly share on facebook. Realities were rather grim though.
Besides this, the monarchy sometimes was in need of children, and in that case it skimmed the streets.
Under Louis XIV., not to go any further back, the king rightly desired to create a fleet. … galleys were necessary; but the galley is moved only by the galley-slave; hence, galley-slaves were required.
Under Louis XV. children disappeared in Paris; the police carried them off, for what mysterious purpose no one knew.
Of course, some street children aren’t quite gamin material. They’re probably the ones who die right away. The others laugh in the face of death.
A certain audacity on matters of religion sets off the gamin. To be strong-minded is an important item.
To be present at executions constitutes a duty. He shows himself at the guillotine, and he laughs. He calls it by all sorts of pet names: The End of the Soup, The Growler, The Mother in the Blue (the sky), The Last Mouthful, etc., etc. In order not to lose anything of the affair, he scales the walls, he hoists himself to balconies, he ascends trees, he suspends himself to gratings, he clings fast to chimneys.
Why so much description? There is actually a point to this very protracted aside:
The gamin expresses Paris, and Paris expresses the world.
For Paris is a total. Paris is the ceiling of the human race. The whole of this prodigious city is a foreshortening of dead manners and living manners. He who sees Paris thinks he sees the bottom of all history with heaven and constellations in the intervals. Paris has a capital, the Town-Hall, a Parthenon, Notre-Dame, a Mount Aventine, the Faubourg Saint-Antoine, an Asinarium, the Sorbonne, a Pantheon, the Pantheon, a Via Sacra, the Boulevard des Italiens, a temple of the winds, opinion; and it replaces the Gemoniæ by ridicule. Its majo is called “faraud,” its Transteverin is the man of the faubourgs, its hammal is the market-porter, its lazzarone is the pègre, its cockney is the native of Ghent. Everything that exists elsewhere exists at Paris.
But then a fabulous aside on slang, I forgive him his aside:
What is slang? It is at one and the same time, a nation and a dialect; it is theft in its two kinds; people and language.
Or do I?
Certainly, too, it is neither an attractive nor an easy task to undertake an investigation into the lowest depths of the social order, where terra firma comes to an end and where mud begins, to rummage in those vague, murky waves, to follow up, to seize and to fling, still quivering, upon the pavement that abject dialect which is dripping with filth when thus brought to the light, that pustulous vocabulary each word of which seems an unclean ring from a monster of the mire and the shadows. Nothing is more lugubrious than the contemplation thus in its nudity, in the broad light of thought, of the horrible swarming of slang. It seems, in fact, to be a sort of horrible beast made for the night which has just been torn from its cesspool. One thinks one beholds a frightful, living, and bristling thicket which quivers, rustles, wavers, returns to shadow, threatens and glares. One word resembles a claw, another an extinguished and bleeding eye, such and such a phrase seems to move like the claw of a crab. All this is alive with the hideous vitality of things which have been organized out of disorganization.
Now, when has horror ever excluded study?
I rather like the use of the word pustulous, the swarming horde of words that turns slang into a devilish, monstruous thing. Perhaps its power is simply in being able to fill people like Hugo with horror.
The veritable slang and the slang that is pre-eminently slang, if the two words can be coupled thus, the slang immemorial which was a kingdom, is nothing else, we repeat, than the homely, uneasy, crafty, treacherous, venomous, cruel, equivocal, vile, profound, fatal tongue of wretchedness. There exists, at the extremity of all abasement and all misfortunes, a last misery which revolts and makes up its mind to enter into conflict with the whole mass of fortunate facts and reigning rights; a fearful conflict, where, now cunning, now violent, unhealthy and ferocious at one and the same time, it attacks the social order with pin-pricks through vice, and with club-blows through crime. To meet the needs of this conflict, wretchedness has invented a language of combat, which is slang.
I don’t think Hugo has enough adjectives in there.
So can it get worse? This is Hugo we’re talking about of course….
One perceives, without understanding it, a hideous murmur, sounding almost like human accents, but more nearly resembling a howl than an articulate word. It is slang. The words are misshapen and stamped with an indescribable and fantastic bestiality. One thinks one hears hydras talking.
I kind of think someone needed to have told Hugo to fuck right off. And occasionally, as throughout, there are some interesting ideas…
Ideas almost refuse to be expressed in these substantives which are fugitives from justice. Metaphor is sometimes so shameless, that one feels that it has worn the iron neck-fetter.
Shameless metaphors! Let us have more of them. And this, which I quite love rather than abhor.
From a purely literary point of view, few studies would prove more curious and fruitful than the study of slang. It is a whole language within a language, a sort of sickly excrescence, an unhealthy graft which has produced a vegetation, a parasite which has its roots in the old Gallic trunk, and whose sinister foliage crawls all over one side of the language.
Though I think slang may become as much a trunk as other strains of language. Interesting that in France as elsewhere, much of it arises in prisons:
They have taken up the practice of considering society in the light of an atmosphere which kills them, of a fatal force, and they speak of their liberty as one would speak of his health. A man under arrest is a sick man; one who is condemned is a dead man.
but slowly the feeling of it all changes
In the eighteenth century, the ancient melancholy of the dejected classes vanishes. They began to laugh. They rally the grand meg and the grand dab.
If slang is laughter at the upper classes, let us all take it to heart.
Honestly this is a tiny fraction of the pomposities spewing out about France across many a page. All of them sweeping statements of grandeur:
The grandeur and beauty of France lies in this, that she takes less from the stomach than other nations: she more easily knots the rope about her loins. She is the first awake, the last asleep. She marches forwards. She is a seeker.
This arises from the fact that she is an artist.
The ideal is nothing but the culminating point of logic, the same as the beautiful is nothing but the summit of the true. Artistic peoples are also consistent peoples. To love beauty is to see the light. That is why the torch of Europe, that is to say of civilization, was first borne by Greece, who passed it on to Italy, who handed it on to France. Divine, illuminating nations of scouts! Vitaelampada tradunt.
And ah, a dig at America
France has her relapses into materialism, and, at certain instants, the ideas which obstruct that sublime brain have no longer anything which recalls French greatness and are of the dimensions of a Missouri or a South Carolina. What is to be done in such a case? The giantess plays at being a dwarf; immense France has her freaks of pettiness. That is all.
But wait, I am getting into things I like. So I shall stop here.
Just communities, just cities, Just connections between country and city. Also, the weird and wonderful.