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Ruskin’s seven Lamps of Architecture

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Ruskin’s The Seven Lamps of Architecture is an odd book, unexpected after all I had read of it. I loved many of the footnotes, poetry, sideways meanders. The Seven Lamps are also just a little bit mad: Sacrifice, Truth, Power, Beauty, Life, Memory, Obedience. So biblical. This contains so much of such desperate earnestness it cannot help but be touching. It has lovely passages that in truth could make you see and think differently. It celebrates the beauty of skilled craftsmanship and manual labour. It’s easy to see why Ruskin is always paired with William Morris in the same architectural breath.

It has passages where the earnestness goes beyond all possible bounds and I laughed out loud. Lol was in fact my first reaction, I write it here, more than once, for the first time in this blog. The purple and ponderous privilege of some of this prose erases the sting I hope. Such loftiness doesn’t quite make sense of all of Octavia Hill’s absurdities, who was his student and protege, but puts them a little more in context. He is just so very very certain about every damn thing.

From the introduction, a sad insight into a life of wealth, privilege, and difficulty in relating to other human beings.

The Seven Lamps of Architecture was written during the first year of Ruskin’s marriage to Effie Gray, but no trace of that unconsummated, mutually humiliating, six-year ordeal can be found in its pages. (xvi)

1848-49…such momentous years! Revolutionary years. It is incredible to believe that this should be written in 1848. Europe was on fire, but he spent much of 1848 in Salisbury and Normandy studying the Gothic, then retired for the winter to Park Street, Mayfair to write. Blimey.

In the 1880 preface he writes rather poignantly, but ponderously it must be said:

I never intended to have republished this book, which has become the most useless I ever wrote; the buildings it describes with so much delight being now either knocked down, or scraped and patched up into smugness and smoothness more tragic than uttermost ruin. (xxxi)

The multiple editions allow him to comment on himself in the footnotes, one of the more enjoyable parts of the book. You can imagine him poring over prints and obsessing over things.

Ruskin | Lapham's Quarterly

He has snuck a number of aphorisms in the margins, which are in my National Trust Classics edition (again that connection to Octavia Hill) but not in the first edition which can be found on Gutenberg. I assume he wrote them later. They are tied to the prose but I rather liked the idea of separating them out, to read together, to collect what he believes to be the distilled lessons of his rather profligate prose. These are from the introductory chapter:

Aphorism 1: We may always know what is right; but not always what is possible (2)

Aphorism 2: All practical laws are the exponents of moral ones. (4)

Aphorism 3: The arts of our day must not be luxurious, nor its metaphysics idle. (6)

The Lamp of Sacrifice

Architecture is the art which so disposes and adorns the edifices raised by man for whatsoever uses, that the sight of them contributes to his mental health, power and pleasure.

It is very necessary, in the outset of all inquiry, to distinguish carefully between Architecture and Building… To build, literally to confirm, is by common understanding to put together and adjust the several pieces of any edifice or receptacle of a considerable size. … Let us, therefore, at once confine the name [Architecture] to that art which, taking up and admitting, as conditions of its working, the necessities and common uses of the building, impresses on its form certain characters venerable or beautiful, but otherwise unnecessary. (8)

The complete opposite of modernist architecture, Gropius and Bauhaus. So what’s the sacrifice all about?

III. Now, first, to define this Lamp, or Spirit of Sacrifice, clearly. I have said that it prompts us to the offering of precious things merely because they are precious, not because they are useful or necessary. It is a spirit, for instance, which of two marbles, equally beautiful, applicable and durable, would choose the more costly because it was so, and of two kinds of decoration, equally effective, would choose the more elaborate because it was so, in order that it might in the same compass present more cost and more thought. It is therefore most unreasoning and enthusiastic, and perhaps best negatively defined, as the opposite of the prevalent feeling of modern times, which desires to produce the largest results at the least cost. (10)

As I say, he often uses the footnotes to critique or bestow accolades on himself, as he does on page 24:

10There is too much stress laid, throughout this volume, on probity in picturesque treatment, and not enough on probity in material construction…But the concluding sentences of the chapter from this point forward are all quite right, and can’t be much better put.

I dearly love how ranty it all is as well — and look forward to quarantine being lifted, travel allowed, and the ability to see such wonders for myself:

I do not know anything more painful or pitiful than the kind of ivory carving with which the Certosa of Pavia, and part of the Colleone sepulchral chapel at Bergamo, and other such buildings, are incrusted, of which it is not possible so much as to think without exhaustion; and a heavy sense of the misery it would be, to be forced to look at it at all. And this is not from the quantity of it, nor because it is bad work—much of it is inventive and able; but because it looks as if it were only fit to be put in inlaid cabinets and velveted caskets, and as if it could not bear one drifting shower or gnawing frost. We are afraid for it, anxious about it, and tormented by it; and we feel that a massy shaft and a bold shadow would be worth it all. (26)

In the end though, I found this reflection on stone masons quite moving…

All else for which the builders sacrificed, has passed away—all their living interests, and aims, and achievements. We know not for what they labored, and we see no evidence of their reward. Victory, wealth, authority, happiness—all have departed, though bought by many a bitter sacrifice. But of them, and their life, and their toil upon the earth, one reward, one evidence, is left to us in those gray heaps of deep-wrought stone. They have taken with them to the grave their powers, their honors, and their errors; but they have left us their adoration. (28)

Aphorism 4: All architecture proposes an effect on the human mind, not merely a service to the human frame. (8)

Aphorism 5: Domestic luxury is to be sacrificed to national magnificence (17)

Aphorism 6: Modern builders are capable of little; and don’t even do the little they can (21)

I think I’ve heard that last one from my little brother.

The Lamp of Truth

Ah, this language!

I. There is a marked likeness between the virtues of man and the enlightenment of the globe he inhabits—the same diminishing gradation in vigor up to the limits of their domains, the same essential separation from their contraries—the same twilight at the meeting of the two: a something wider belt than the line where the world rolls into night, that strange twilight of the virtues; that dusky debateable land, wherein zeal becomes impatience, and temperance becomes severity, and justice becomes cruelty, and faith superstition, and each and all vanish into gloom. (29)

I confess there are moments I love it. But to get to the nitty gritty, w quickly move towards deceit.

VI. Architectural Deceits are broadly to be considered under three heads:—

1st. The suggestion of a mode of structure or support, other than the true one; as in pendants of late Gothic roofs.

2d. The painting of surfaces to represent some other material than that of which they actually consist (as in the marbling of wood), or the deceptive representation of sculptured ornament upon them.

3d. The use of cast or machine-made ornaments of any kind.

Now, it may be broadly stated, that architecture will be noble exactly in the degree in which all these false expedients are avoided. (35)

No surprise modern material should not find favour. His ranting against iron is priceless, though I know I have all the gifts of hindsight at my disposal:

IX. Perhaps the most fruitful source of these kinds of corruption which we have to guard against in recent times, is one which, nevertheless, comes in a “questionable shape,” and of which it is not easy to determine the proper laws and limits; I mean the use of iron. The definition of the art of architecture, given in the first chapter, is independent of its materials: nevertheless, that art having been, up to the beginning of the present century, practised for the most part in clay, stone, or wood, it has resulted that the sense of proportion and the laws of structure have been based, the one altogether, the other in great part, on the necessities consequent on the employment of those materials; and that the entire or principal employment of metallic framework would, therefore, be generally felt as a departure from the first principles of the art. (39)

X. But whether this be granted me or not, the fact is, that every idea respecting size, proportion, decoration, or construction, on which we are at present in the habit of acting or judging, depends on presupposition of such materials: and as I both feel myself unable to escape the influence of these prejudices, and believe that my readers will be equally so, it may be perhaps permitted to me to assume that true architecture does not admit iron as a constructive material,7 and that such works as the cast-iron central spire of Rouen Cathedral, or the iron roofs and pillars of our railway stations, and of some of our churches, are not architecture at all. (40)

He notes in a footnote the sinking of the ‘Vanguard’ and ‘London’, the breaking of Woolwich Pier into splinters and thus ‘”the anarchy of iron” is the most notable fact’. The anarchy of iron is one of my new favourite phrases. I share his despair at commercialisation of urban spaces, and yet his very tone sets me at odds with him.

XVI. Touching the false representation of material, the question is infinitely more simple, and the law more sweeping; all such imitations are utterly base and inadmissible. It is melancholy to think of the time and expense lost in marbling the shop fronts of London alone, and of the waste of our resources in absolute vanities, in things about which no mortal cares, by which no eye is ever arrested, unless painfully, and which do not add one whit to comfort or cleanliness, or even to that great object of commercial art—conspicuousness. (48)

in the end it is craftsmanship that produces worth — both, as a footnote makes clear, in terms of cost of production and intrinsic value. In this we can be in complete agreement.

all our interest in the carved work, our sense of its richness, though it is tenfold less rich than the knots of grass beside it; of its delicacy, though it is a thousand fold less delicate; of its admirableness, though a millionfold less admirable; results from our consciousness of its being the work of poor, clumsy, toilsome man. Its true delightfulness depends on our discovering in it the record of thoughts, and intents, and trials, and heart-breakings—of recoveries and joyfulnesses of success: all this can be traced by a practised eye; but, granting it even obscure, it is presumed or understood; and in that is the worth of the thing, just as much as the worth of anything else we call precious.

His drawings are quite lovely and the book is full of them though it is not always clear how he intended them to illustrate the text. Here, however, he does go on a bit about gothic tracery.

PLATE III.

He reaches towards the height of the gothic:

XXIII. The change of which I speak, is inexpressible in few words, but one more important, more radically influential, could not be. It was the substitution of the line for the mass, as the element of decoration. (60)

Now, the great pause was at the moment when the space and the dividing stone-work were both equally considered. It did not last fifty years. (61)

He hated what came next. Lol.

It would be too painful a task to follow further the caricatures of form, and eccentricities of treatment, which grow out of this singular abuse—the flattened arch, the shrunken pillar, the lifeless ornament, the tiny moulding, the distorted and extravagant foliation, until the time came when, over these wrecks and remnants, deprived of all unity and principle, rose the foul torrent of the renaissance, and swept them all away. (68)

There is another awesome footnote comment on the paragraph that follows this:

The closing paragraph is very pretty –but unfortunately–nonsense. The want of truth was only a part, and by no means an influential one, of general disease. All possible shades of human folly and licentiousness meet in late Gothic and renaissance architecture, and corrupt, in all directions at once, the arts which are their exponents. (68)

Aphorism 7: The guilt and harm of amiable and well meant lying (30)

Aphorism 8: Truth cannot be persisted in without pains; but is worth them (31)

Aphorism 9: The nature and dignity of imagination (33)

Aphorism 10: The proper structural use of iron (40)

Aphorism 11: The inviolability of Divine Law not of necessity but of ordinance (43)

Aphorism 12: Great painting never deceives. Compare, and add to this aphorism as part of it, the fourth paragraph of this chapter (45-46, how hard he makes you work! Especially as the 4th chapter is all about sin)

Aphorism 13: (expanded afterwards in “Stones of Venice”) The facing brick with marble is only a great form of Mosaic, and perfectly admissible. (50)

Aphorism 14: The proper colours of Architecture are those of natural stones (52)

Aphorism 15: Cast-iron ornamentation barbarous (56)

Aphorism 16: Tracery must never be considered or imagined as flexible (62)

The Lamp of Power

It’s not the size that counts really…but actually no, it is the size that counts.

V. While, therefore, it is not to be supposed that mere size will ennoble a mean design, yet every increase of magnitude will bestow upon it a certain degree of nobleness: so that it is well to determine at first, whether the building is to be markedly beautiful or markedly sublime; and if the latter, not to be withheld by respect to smaller parts from reaching largeness of scale; provided only, that it be evidently in the architect’s power to reach at least that degree of magnitude which is the lowest at which sublimity begins, rudely definable as that which will make a living figure look less than life beside it. (74)

VIII. What is needful in the setting forth of magnitude in height, is right also in the marking it in area—let it be gathered well together. … Of the many broad divisions under which architecture may be considered, none appear to me more significant than that into buildings whose interest is in their walls, and those whose interest is in the lines dividing their walls. In the Greek temple the wall is as nothing; the entire interest is in the detached columns and the frieze they bear; in French Flamboyant, and in our detestable Perpendicular, the object is to get rid of the wall surface, and keep the eye altogether on tracery of line; in Romanesque work and Egyptian, the wall is a confessed and honored member, and the light is often allowed to fall on large areas of it, variously decorated. Now, both these principles are admitted by Nature, the one in her woods and thickets, the other in her plains, and cliffs, and waters; but the latter is pre-eminently the principle of power, and, in some sense, of beauty also. For, whatever infinity of fair form there may be in the maze of the forest, there is a fairer, as I think, in the surface of the quiet lake; and I hardly know that association of shaft or tracery, for which I would exchange the warm sleep of sunshine on some smooth, broad, human-like front of marble. (77-78)

There ensues then a little discussion with himself, he wrote originally:

IX. This, then, being, as I think, one of the peculiar elements of sublime architecture, it may be easily seen how necessarily consequent upon the love of it will be the choice of a form approaching to the square for the main outline.

In the footnote he comments upon himself (lol, yet I could never object to sarcasm against the love of the dividend):

Yes–I daresay! but how are you first to get the love of it? To love sublime architecture is one thing; to love a sublime dividend or a sublime percentage is another–and to love a large smoking room or billiard room, yet another (79)

He s very caustic here throughout the footnotes about those who tear beautiful buildings down to erect rubbish in their place. But I confess I really rather love this:

So that, after size and weight, the Power of architecture may be said to depend on the quantity (whether measured in space or intenseness) of its shadow; and it seems to me, that the reality of its works, and the use and influence they have in the daily life of men (as opposed to those works of art with which we have nothing to do but in times of rest or of pleasure) require of it that it should express a kind of human sympathy, by a measure of darkness as great as there is in human life: and that as the great poem and great fiction generally affect us most by the majesty of their masses of shade, and cannot take hold upon us if they affect a continuance of lyric sprightliness, but must be serious often, and sometimes melancholy, else they do not express the truth of this wild world of ours; so there must be, in this magnificently human art of architecture, some equivalent expression for the trouble and wrath of life, for its sorrow and its mystery: and this it can only give by depth or diffusion of gloom, by the frown upon its front, and the shadow of its recess…And among the first habits that a young architect should learn, is that of thinking in shadow, not looking at a design in its miserable liny skeleton; but conceiving it as it will be when the dawn lights it, and the dusk leaves it; when its stones will be hot and its crannies cool; when the lizards will bask on the one, and the birds build in the other. (84)

That is so beautiful, you should pause here read it again.

It is not fair of me to pick out the beautiful and follow it on immediately with the utterly ridiculous. Yet I must.

Another hilarious footnote:

I have written many passages that are one-sided or incomplete; and which therefore are misleading if read without their context of development. But I know of no other paragraph in any of my books so definitely false as this. I did not know the history of Venice when I wrote it… (96)

so to summarise:

pressing now only the conclusion, as practically useful as it is certain, that the relative majesty of buildings depends more on the weight and vigor of their masses than on any other attribute of their design: mass of everything, of bulk, of light, of darkness, of color, not mere sum of any of these, but breadth of them; not broken light, nor scattered darkness, nor divided weight, but solid stone, broad sunshine, starless shade. (99)

Lovely, but then lol again:

It is not modern work only; we have built like frogs and mice since the thirteenth century (except only in our castles). (101)

I find quite interesting his ranting about domestic architecture — his demands on it are so entirely impossible with the number of human beings alive upon the planet in his time, much less ours. Yet he is right to damn it, and I rather like his prescriptions for shadows and more shadows.

Of domestic architecture what need is there to speak? How small, how cramped, how poor, how miserable in its petty neatness is our best! how beneath the mark of attack, and the level of contempt, that which is common with us! What a strange sense of formalised deformity, of shrivelled precision, of starved accuracy, of minute misanthropy have we, as we leave even the rude streets of Picardy for the market towns of Kent! Until that street architecture of ours is bettered, until we give it some size and boldness, until we give our windows recess, and our walls thickness, I know not how we can blame our architects for their feebleness in more important work; their eyes are inured to narrowness and slightness: can we expect them at a word to conceive and deal with breadth and solidity? They ought not to live in our cities; there is that in their miserable walls which bricks up to death men’s imaginations, as surely as ever perished forsworn nun. An architect should live as little in cities as a painter. Send him to our hills, and let him study there what nature understands by a buttress, and what by a dome. (101)

Aphorism 17: The two intellectual powers of Architecture: veneration and domination [lol]

Aphorism 18: The religious nobleness of Byzantine architecture

The Lamp of Beauty

Ah, this strange, and strangely limited, Victorian ideal of beauty.

III. Now, I would insist especially on the fact, of which I doubt not that further illustrations will occur to the mind of every reader, that all most lovely forms and thoughts are directly taken from natural objects; because I would fain be allowed to assume also the converse of this, namely, that forms which are not taken from natural objects must be ugly. (105)

He holds by this but does, to be fair, note that most of what he writes later is all wrong (see aphorisms, lol). He has a grand diatribe on writing and alphabets and their inherent ugliness, this in particular is enjoyable about ribands. I have never given much thought to ribands to be honest, how sad that it can only flutter.

What is there like this in a riband? It has no structure: it is a succession of cut threads all alike; it has no skeleton, no make, no form, no size, no will of its own. You cut it and crush it into what you will. It has no strength, no languor. It cannot fall into a single graceful form. It cannot wave, in the true sense, but only flutter: it cannot bend, in the true sense, but only turn and be wrinkled. It is a vile thing; it spoils all that is near its wretched film of an existence. Never use it. Let the flowers come loose if they cannot keep together without being tied; leave the sentence unwritten if you cannot write it on a tablet or book, or plain roll of paper. I know what authority there is against me. (112)

On the separations of work and art (though art emerges from a combination of manual and intellectual work) so it is more about ensuring tools and certain kinds of purely functional space remain plain. Curious concept.

XIX. Hence then a general law, of singular importance in the present day, a law of simple common sense,—not to decorate things belonging to purposes of active and occupied life. Wherever you can rest, there decorate; where rest is forbidden, so is beauty. You must not mix ornament with business, any more than you may mix play. Work first, and then rest. Work first and then gaze, but do not use golden ploughshares, nor bind ledgers in enamel. Do not thrash with sculptured flails: nor put bas-reliefs on millstones. (119)

He has a particular diatribe against railway stations which seems unfair — I mean, Glasgow Central or LAs Union Station is a wonder and I wouldn’t hear a word against them, but from a man who perceives no beauty in iron I suppose there can be no wonder at all:

XXI. Another of the strange and evil tendencies of the present day is to the decoration of the railroad station. Now, if there be any place in the world in which people are deprived of that portion of temper and discretion which are necessary to the contemplation of beauty, it is there. It is the very temple of discomfort, and the only charity that the builder can extend to us is to show us, plainly as may be, how soonest to escape from it. The whole system of railroad travelling is addressed to people who, being in a hurry, are therefore, for the time being, miserable. No one would travel in that manner who could help it—who had time to go leisurely over hills and between hedges, instead of through tunnels and between banks: at least those who would, have no sense of beauty so acute as that we need consult it at the station. (121)

but also has a go at Kings College, so it’s a least equal opportunity. Lol.

What a host of ugly church towers have we in England, with pinnacles at the corners, and none in the middle! How many buildings like King’s College Chapel at Cambridge, looking like tables upside down, with their four legs in the air! What! it will be said, have not beasts four legs? Yes, but legs of different shapes, and with a head between them. So they have a pair of ears: and perhaps a pair of horns: but not at both ends. Knock down a couple of pinnacles at either end in King’s College Chapel, and you will have a kind of proportion instantly. (126)

another (!) hilarious aside

Never give separate mouldings separate colors (I know this is heresy, but I never shrink from any conclusions, however contrary to human authority, to which I am led by observance of natural principles) (138)

Aphorism 19: All beauty is founded on the laws of natural form [footnote: The Aphorism is wholly true: but the following application of it, often trivial or false. See the subsequent notes. lol.] (105)

Aphorism 20: That is most “natural” which is most easily and ordinarily seen [footnote: This is an excellent aphorism; and I am proud of having so early seen the danger of anatomical study, so often dwelt on in my later works.] [lol.] (106)

Aphorism 21: Symmetry is not abstraction [footnote: ‘This short Aphorism is one of the most important in the book’] (132)

Aphorism 22: Perfect sculpture should be a part of the severest architecture (135)

The Lamp of Life

I think this might have been my favourite lamp.

no inconsiderable part of the essential characters of Beauty depended on the expression of vital energy in organic things … things in other respects alike, as in their substance, or uses, or outward forms, are noble or ignoble in proportion to the fulness of the life which either they themselves enjoy, or of whose action they bear the evidence, as sea sands are made beautiful by their bearing the seal of the motion of the waters. And this is especially true of all objects which bear upon them the impress of the highest order of creative life, that is to say, of the mind of man: they become noble or ignoble in proportion to the amount of the energy of that mind which has visibly been employed upon them. But most peculiarly and imperatively does the rule hold with respect to the creations of Architecture, which being properly capable of no other life than this, and being not essentially composed of things pleasant in themselves,—as music of sweet sounds, or painting of fair colors, but of inert substance,—depend, for their dignity and pleasurableness in the utmost degree, upon the vivid expression of the intellectual life which has been concerned in their production. (148)

How lovely are these figures from the Cathedral of Rouen, which I quite wish to visit.

PLATE XIV.

XXIV. I believe the right question to ask, respecting all ornament, is simply this: Was it done with enjoyment—was the carver happy while he was about it? It may be the hardest work possible, and the harder because so much pleasure was taken in it; but it must have been happy too, or it will not be living. (173)

Was the worker happy…I forgive Ruskin all his privileged pomposity just for this.

Aphorism 23: All things are noble in proportion to their fulness of Life. (148)

Aphorism 24: Perfect finish characterizes alike the best architecture and the best painting. (154)

Aphorism 25: All good work must be free hand-work. Compare §24

Aphorism 26: “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might;” and no other might.

The Lamp of Memory

This now, this is the most doubtful lamp. There are too many of us for whom there were no good old days.

How cold is all history how lifeless all imagery, compared to that which the living nation writes, and the uncorrupted marble bears! how many pages of doubtful record might we not often spare, for a few stones left one upon another! The ambition of the old Babel builders was well directed for this world: there are but two strong conquerors of the forgetfulness of men, Poetry and Architecture; and the latter in some sort includes the former, and is mightier in its reality; it is well to have, not only what men have thought and felt, but what their hands have handled, and their strength wrought, and their eyes beheld, all the days of their life. (178)

Men men men and their metaphorical meanings.

it is in becoming memorial or monumental that a true perfection is attained by civil and domestic buildings; and this partly as they are, with such a view, built in a more stable manner, and partly as their decorations are consequently animated by a metaphorical or historical meaning. (178)

We return again to domestic building, and again a betrayal of privilege. Not that I don’t wish all of us might have a home worthy and lasting to pass down through the ages. But ages must also have room to build anew, and it must be very hard to live comfortably in a temple.

I do love the diatribe against the Jerry builders though, before they were known as such I think.

As regards domestic buildings, there must always be a certain limitation to views of this kind in the power, as well as in the hearts, of men; still I cannot but think it an evil sign of a people when their houses are built to last for one generation only. There is a sanctity in a good man’s house which cannot be renewed in every tenement that rises on its ruins…I say that if men lived like men indeed, their houses would be temples—temples which we should hardly dare to injure, and in which it would make us holy to be permitted to live; and there must be a strange dissolution of natural affection, a strange unthankfulness for all that homes have given and parents taught, a strange consciousness that we have been unfaithful to our fathers’ honor, or that[Pg 171] our own lives are not such as would make our dwellings sacred to our children, when each man would fain build to himself, and build for the little revolution of his own life only. And I look upon those pitiful concretions of lime and clay which spring up in mildewed forwardness out of the kneaded fields about our capital—upon those thin, tottering, foundationless shells of splintered wood and imitated stone—upon those gloomy rows of formalised minuteness, alike without difference and without fellowship, as solitary as similar—not merely with the careless disgust of an offended eye, not merely with sorrow for a desecrated landscape, but with a painful foreboding that the roots of our national greatness must be deeply cankered when they are thus loosely struck in their native ground; that those comfortless and unhonored dwellings are the signs of a great and spreading spirit of popular discontent; that they mark the time when every man’s aim is to be in some more elevated sphere than his natural one, and every man’s past life is his habitual scorn; when men build in the hope of leaving the places they have built, and live in the hope of forgetting the years that they have lived; when the comfort, the peace, the religion of home have ceased to be felt; and the crowded tenements of a struggling and restless population differ only from the tents of the Arab or the Gipsy by their less healthy openness to the air of heaven, and less happy choice of their spot of earth; by their sacrifice of liberty without the gain of rest, and of stability without the luxury of change. (179-80)

This again…over the top, yet somehow embodies all the terrible Christian earnestness of which Ruskin is capable.

For, indeed, the greatest glory of a building is not in its stones, or in its gold. Its glory is in its Age, and in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy, nay, even of approval or condemnation, which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity. It is in their lasting witness against men, in their quiet contrast with the transitional character of all things, in the strength which, through the lapse of seasons and times, and the decline and birth of dynasties, and the changing of the face of the earth, and of the limits of the sea, maintains its sculptured shapeliness for a time insuperable, connects forgotten and following ages with each other, and half constitutes the identity, as it concentrates the sympathy, of nations; it is in that golden stain of time, that we are to look for the real light, and color, and preciousness of architecture; and it is not until a building has assumed this character, till it has been entrusted with the fame, and hallowed by the deeds of men, till its walls have been witnesses of suffering, and its pillars rise out of the shadows of death, that its existence, more lasting as it is than that of the natural objects of the world around it, can be gifted with even so much as these possess of language and of life. (186)

Aphorism 27: Architecture is to be made historical and preserved as such. (178)

Aphorism 28: The sanctity of home, for good men (179) [poor ladies]

Aphorism 29: The earth is an entail, not a possession. Compare §20. (185) [I rather like this one]

Aphorism 30: there is nothing here 🙁

Aphorism 31: Restoration, so called, is the worst manner of Destruction (194)

The Lamp of Obediance

This is maybe the maddest lamp, also the most reeking of Christianity and backward lookingness, if I can be forgiven for making that a noun.

I have named a principle to which I would now assign a definite place among those which direct that embodiment; the last place, not only as that to which its own humility would incline, but rather as belonging to it in the aspect of the crowning grace of all the rest; that principle, I mean, to which Polity owes its stability, Life its happiness, Faith its acceptance, Creation its continuance,—Obedience. (199)

This baffles me a bit. The why of it.

if, amidst the counter evidence of success attending opposite accidents of character and circumstance, any one conclusion may be constantly and indisputably drawn, it is this; that the architecture of a nation is great only when it is as universal and as established as its language; and when provincial differences of style are nothing more than so many dialects…this one condition has been constant, this one requirement clear in all places and at all times, that the work shall be that of a school, that no individual caprice shall dispense with, or materially vary, accepted types and customary decorations; and that from the cottage to the palace, and from the chapel to the basilica, and from the garden fence to the fortress wall, every member and feature of the architecture of the nation shall be as commonly current, as frankly accepted, as its language or its coin. (202)

This is some rantiness at its best

It may be said that this is impossible. It may be so—I fear it is so: I have nothing to do with the possibility or impossibility of it; I simply know and assert the necessity of it. If it be impossible, English art is impossible. Give it up at once. You are wasting time, and money, and energy upon it, and though you exhaust centuries and treasuries, and break hearts for it, you will never raise it above the merest dilettanteism. Think not of it. It is a dangerous vanity, a mere gulph in which genius after genius will be swallowed up, and it will not close. And so it will continue to be, unless the one bold and broad step be taken at the beginning. We shall not manufacture art out of pottery and printed stuffs; we shall not reason out art by our philosophy; we shall not stumble upon art by our experiments, not create it by our fancies: I do not say that we can even build it out of brick and stone; but there is a chance for us in these, and there is none else; and that chance rests on the bare possibility of obtaining the consent, both of architects and of the public, to choose a style, and to use it universally. (206)

Ah, the negative freedoms…

VIII. It is almost impossible for us to conceive, in our present state of doubt and ignorance, the sudden dawn of intelligence and fancy, the rapidly increasing sense of power and facility, and, in its proper sense, of Freedom, which such wholesome restraint would instantly cause throughout the whole circle of the arts. Freed from the agitation and embarrassment of that liberty of choice which is the cause of half the discomforts of the world (208)

this is lol all the way

I am confirmed in this impression by what I see passing among the states of Europe at this instant. All the horror, distress, and tumult which oppress the foreign nations, are traceable, among the other secondary causes through which God is working out His will upon them, to the simple one of their not having enough to do. (210)

Aphorism 32: There is no such thing as liberty (199)

Aphorism 33: The glory and use of restraint (208)

His final footnote is awesome. It reads:

I am well content to close my thirty-three aphorisms with this most comprehensive one;–and my fifty-five notes with this still more comprehensive reduction of them to practice for the modern reader:–Build nothing that you can possibly help,–and let no land on building leases. (210)

Ruskin, John (1988 [1849]) The Seven Lamps of Architecture. London: Century.

Dubrovnik

There is in truth something fairly incredible about how this city managed to play such a role in the Mediterranean world. I have a couple of histories that try to tie this world together, to understand the past not in terms of single countries languages cultures, but how they all came together around this great body of water in flows and connections. I love how this undermines the careful separations of cultures and continents that many histories and nationalisms invest so much in.

Agents of Empire by Noel Malcolm did this most beautifully, though I have yet to read Braudel.

Dubrovnik: A History is a little too static for my taste, but it does give a taste of how pivotal a role this city played in the complex relationship between Hapsburg Europe and the Ottoman Empire. As Tanner writes

In contrast to ruined Biograd or ravaged Zadar, Dubrovnik enjoyed a steady growth in prosperity, thanks to the diplomatic dexterity of its merchant rulers as well as their trading skills. Since its foundation in the seventh century, the city had been attacked seriously only once, by the Normans in 1071. Occasionally it was besieged by Bosnian or Serbian warlords who descended from the hinterland, but for the most part Dubrovnik successfully played Bosnians, Croats, Venetians and – later – the Ottomans off each other, periodically ceding sovereignty to one or other of the powers that encircled it without ever surrendering self-government or the right to conduct its own foreign policy.(24

I tried to imagine the conversations that must have happened in these incredible streets, in this jewel of a city.

The many thousands of tourists lined up to walk around the walls, to go up the thronging the streets, made this fairly impossible. There were torrents of Game of Thrones fans. We spent most of the week here trying to go elsewhere. Disappointing.

Of course what Dubrovnik made so clear was the asphyxiating nature of this city for so long. Here the patriciate worked so hard to maintain their purity there was no upward movement at all. Marriage to a ‘commoner’ made of you a commoner as well, and only the patriciate had any say in the running of the city. Venice, for all its faults, at least pried this open to some degree in Split and other cities under its control.

In Split, in contrast with Dubrovnik, the ‘closing’ of the Great Council to commoners in 1334 initiated a series of bitter disputes in which, once the city came under Venetian rule in 1420, the Serenissima itself became involved. The Venetian counts were inclined to promote the interests of the wealthy commoner families (as in Dubrovnik, called ‘citizens’) against those of the nobility, partly because of a genuine sense of equity but also in order to divide and rule. (188)

Harries quotes at length a Venetian count, Marco Barbarigo writing in July, 1568:

Between the men of Split there exists that hatred which prevails in most of the Dalmatian towns. This hatred comes from the fact that the nobles have their own council in which they choose public representatives every three months. These nobles are poor, as far as their fortunes go; but puffed up with empty ambition the citizens, who because of their crafts and trade live much more comfortably… On the other side these [citizens] since they are not allowed to meet and choose some officials, cannot with a peaceful spirit tolerate the privileges which the nobles have on the basis of the old laws of this city.

Harries continues with how this did not happen in Dubrovnik:

The closure of the Ragusan nobility to all but a few foreign entrants for some two centuries–and the closure of its polity to non-aristocrats for almost five–did not have the effect of stirring up similar resentment among the non-noble  inhabitants. After a time, the very impossibility of a commoner joining the patriciate’s ranks probably made for a certain acquiescence and so stability. (189)

Ah, for the days when peace and quiet exploitation could be won through complete domination rather than an almost complete domination. It’s not entirely surprising that the commoners didn’t all hang together to support the patriciate after the great earthquake, nor that their servants seems to have  been positively rude in the face of the nobility’s suffering. As Tanner writes:

By the eighteenth century Dubrovnik was a political and economic fossil. It had been many centuries since the populace had played any part in its government by acclaiming laws outside the palace of the rector (knez), but by the eighteenth century even the vestiges of representative government had been discarded. … In practice all power was concentrated in the Grand Council, which elected the Senate out of its own members. And the Grand Council was entirely composed of nobles who never married out and hardly ever allowed any new blood in. Even within this tiny noble caste marriage was forbidden between the families of the most ancient nobles of all, the Salamanchesi, and the ‘new’ nobles, the Sorbonnesi, who had been created after an awful earthquake in 1667 forced the nobles to let in some new members, to make up for the ones who had been killed. … in the eighteenth century, they began to die out. From about 200 or 300 members in the sixteenth century, the Grand Council was down to between sixty and eighty by the eighteenth century. (Tanner, M. (2001). Croatia : A Nation Forged in War.)

Words fail me there, although the suicide of an entitled class throughits own snobbishness is actually quite poetic. But the earthquake…the earthquake was incredible. This is a description from someone who lived through it:

Suddenly there was a deep rumbling, and a violent blow rocked the city… A large part of the city collapsed. Rocks poured down from Mount Srđ. A thick cloud of dust rose, spreading a pall of darkness over the ruins. the ground shook and large crevasses opened up, swallowing completely some modest dwellings in the suburbs. The city walls swayed before falling back into position. The wells emptied of water, only to be refueled with thick yellow mud, which in turn drained away, leaving them quite dry. From our over the Adriatic there arose a roaring sound similar to continuous cannon fire. The sea withdrew from the harbour entirely and the ships moored there smashed their hulls on the now-exposed rock bed. Several times the tide returned and withdrew again. Flames… (320)

Imagine the tide receding completely.

Dubrovnik

This was from an account by a Dutchman, who was trapped in rubble and gave an improbable story of his servant despairing and only recovering hope when ordered by his master to try harder to escape and bring help.

The earthquake was a turning point indeed, but things had already been unraveling a bit before this. The world was changing, the centre of gravity shifting to the wealth of the New World and the ships of the Spanish, Dutch, English. With the decay of the Ottoman Empire as well, the key strategic bridging role held by Dubrovnik no longer existed. She writes things like

Unfortunately, like the villas to which they were attached, many an orsan has since fallen prey to insensitive road schemes, socialist housing and a mindset unsympathetic to the cultivated, patrician lifestyle of the Ragusan Republic.  (318)

Mindsets like mine. Still, Dubrovnik is very beautiful. Massive walls, narrow winding streets and stairs

Dubrovnik

A saint that always carries the city in his arms.

Dubrovnik

Cats everywhere. Tanks painted in gay colours and a museum of remembrance of the ‘War of Serbian Aggression’ (but never any mention of fascism or WWII). We saw a concert in the Rector’s Palace, it was beautiful indeed to be there in the late evening.

Dubrovnik

We climbed hills (so many hills), had fabulous food, wine of the best. Saw the small archaeology museum, ethnographic museum, the absolutely fabulous natural history museum with its incredible Freddy Mercury homage.

Dubrovnik

Dubrovnik

Its collection of shells.

Dubrovnik

We rode a pirate ship to the islands, saw the great ruined hotels of Kupari, visited the salt flats at Ston. Saw some of the social housing and modernist architecture and liked that very much. Found a gecko our very first day.

Municipalities start getting real: The Social History of Housing from the mid 1800s

Part 2 on John Burnett’s A Social History of Housing 1815-1985 (Part 1 is here), about that period in the middle to late 1800s when municipalities started getting  real. But not too real, you understand, these are poor people we’re talking about. It did take a while to consider that their lives might carry more weight than the property rights of a wealthier person. It’s still a battle today after all.

So we are still (almost always) in the realm of speculative building, in a world on the cusp of some planning and regulation. It came slowly and piecemeal.

Quality of Speculative Building

Burnett quotes Henry-Russell Hitchcock here:

Workers’ housing in cities flowed out of the builders’ offices–if the more modest builders ever had proper offices–without benefit of any sort of serious designing. It was therefore something of a vernacular product, like the country cottages of the Middle Ages, although the analogy is one that must not be pushed very far. (87)

Ad hoc, local materials, built as they could very much depending on the builder and with little to no thought to infrastructure. Burnett gives Wolverhampton as an example — housing was tightly packed, water was from the most part still drawn from wells, being   piped in to only 1 in 9 houses by 1850. The sewage system was only laid down between 1869-1872. Burnett writes:

Like many other industrial towns at this period, Wolverhampton suffered from a lack of civic pride, a deep-rooted objection to interference with private property rights and an unwillingness of ratepayers to invest in the social overheads required by civilized life. (92)

I wonder about this idea of civic pride here, doubt whether such a thing has ever been widespread when it came with a price tag for unseen infrastructure with no naming rights in comparison to a library or fancy hall, but perhaps. There were certainly those who worked tirelessly to change these conditions. In this (as in some other less savoury things) Liverpool was a leader.

The Liverpool Act passed in 1846 set down regulations for houses, courts, cellars, effective sewering and draining. More importantly, perhaps, it appointed the 1st medical officer of health in the country — Dr W.H. Duncan. ‘These were the real and effective beginnings of housing reform in England‘ writes Burnett, and quotes an article in the Times:

A town of manufacturers and speculators is apt to leave the poor to shift for themselves, to stew in cellars and garrets, nor are landlords and farmers apt to care much for cottages…Something of a central authority is necessary to wrestle with the selfishness of wealth.

Yet by 1850 there still existed no such central authority. Local authorities increasingly took on the role themselves, though none as yet with a thought of themselves building housing. This period also saw the beginnings of building societies, the pooling together of savings to create the capital needed to build or buy homes (94).

Meanwhile conditions in the countryside were worsening for workers, another factor in the steadily increasing population pouring into the cities and already overcrowded slums. Burnett writes:

To read through the pages of the Official Reports of the 1860s is to journey through almost unbroken misery and wretchedness, relieved only rarely by brights spots where philanthropic landowners had erected a few neat, model cottages. In general, the accounts are of crazy, dilapidated hovels, many containing only one bedroom into which large families, grandparents and even lodgers were crowded indiscriminately, of whole families ill of fever and lying in the same room with a corpse, of holes in roofs and ceilings, damp walls, saturated floors and rooms filled, not by furniture but only by smoke. (127)

From the 1870s-WWI, the loss of the laborer from the countryside became a huge topic of discussion and cause for concern. It was felt country people were fitter than the townsman, and that keeping people in the country was needed for the maintenance of the national physique (!). I hate all of this language of the time, but it was quite a shock for wealthy people I suppose, when 40% of volunteers for the Boer war were rejected on medical grounds. It was felt that country air could have prevented that, but there was little decent housing and less opportunity. I am quite fascinated by how the rural question, tied in as it was to the idea of national fitness and Empire, became part of the push to build social housing:

Already, before that war had made ‘homes fit for heroes’ a political issue, it was clear to most informed observers that the rural housing issue could not be solved without the direct involvement of the state and a major commitment to public expenditure. Almost unconsciously the problem of the rural labourer had prepared the way for a state housing policy of infinitely greater scope and implication. (139)

But building rural housing could not solve it all either.

In the England of 1850 the industrial town was still new, untypical, its future problematic: by 1914 there could be no doubt that, for better or worse, England was an urban society–indeed, ‘the’ urban society of the western world–and that solutions had to be found to the manifold problems arising from a process which was no permanent and irreversible. (140)

The growing issues in the cities were also crying out for attention.

The removal, by whatever means, of overcrowding and slum living was already being seen as the necessary cure for disease, crime, prostitution and immorality, but the medical officers of health…knew only too well that demolition without re-housing only removed the problems elsewhere…. As early as 1874 the Royal College of Physicians, in which the medical officers were active, presented a remarkable petition to the prime Minister which condemned philanthropy, laissez-faire and ‘enabling powers’ as useless. Within a few more years, they were beginning to view overcrowding and the housing problem generally in a wider context — as part of the greater problem of poverty. (146)

Cities were also home primarily to renters — it makes you realise just how much has changed, and how much discourse and policy have naturalised home ownership. In fact home-ownership was not particularly attractive in Victorian England, even to well paid workers or the middle classes. At the end of the century, there were only 14000 owner-occupiers  ‘in the whole of the metropolis‘ which I assume means London. (147)

For the vast majority of people before 1914 the payment of weekly house-rent was normal, inevitable, and the largest single fixed charge in their budget. (147)

That said, he notes that middle classes were only paying 8-10 % of their budgets on housing, despite needing a great many rooms for large families and servants. The working classes paid more, US Commissioner of Labour estimated 11.8 % (found UK to be higher than France, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland but lower than the US), Joseph Rowntree 14.9%. But still, just imagine that.

Rent took second place to food, which most estimated ‘absorbed between half and two-thirds of all earnings’ (148). Leone Levi estimated it at 71% for workers, as compared to 44% among middle classes. Many housing reformers blamed people for not devoting more of their incomes to housing, and that would allow market forces to solve the problem of scarcity. Such bastards, but it also shows the power of this idea of the market.

Burnett provides the kind of curious detail on accommodation in London that I love — half the dock laborers occupied only one room with their families, 99 % of policemen had at least two. In St George’s-in-the-East half of all families in one room, in Battersea two-thirds of all families rented 3 or more, and earned more than 25s a week (150). Many of the poor remained in the centre despite high rents to be within walking distance of work, and the corners where casual workers used to pick up work.

There also a look at how the different tenure systems prevalent in cities affected who the landlords were — coming from America where the distinction between freehold and leasehold don’t exist, I find this quite fascinating. In towns where the leasehold system prevailed, landowners tended to be small businessmen, shopkeepers, pub owners. Of course, the owners of the land itself were of a different ilk all together. Where the freehold system prevailed, landlords seem to have been a (slight) step down, and there was not the sort of last minute trading that tended to happen in the last years before the lease on a property expired. So landlords were not greatly removed from the social backgrounds of their tenants. In Liverpool, landlords of working class housing owned between 6 and 8 houses each, a pattern widely repeated.

And slowly, slowly, things began to change. Following Liverpool’s 1846 legislation, Manchester prohibited cellar dwellings by local Act in 1853, and then in 1867 regulated room sizes, window areas and every new house with small private yard. Across the country, a growing number of such regulations focused on wider streets and yards, ventilation, better lighting.

The Sanitary Law Amendment Act of 1874 allowed Local Authorities to regulate paving and drainage, and the ventilation of rooms. The Public Health Act of 1875 allowed LAs to make by-laws regulating the layout, width, and construction of new streets and buildings and sanitary provisions. Two years later model by-laws were provided, and in 1858 considerably extended. While this allowed LAs to do more if they chose to, uptake very variable, and LAs could decline invoking them altogether. Still, they were implemented enough that much of the housing built between from 1880 to 1914 became known as ‘by-law housing’, criticised for its monotony and the way in which builders were building to the lowest standard.

Burnett gives one example of a proper two up two down, from Willis Street (no longer extant) in Salford. I love these charts of old plans.

Willis Street SalfordThere are more from Little Albert Street (also no longer extant) in Easton, Bristol. There is also an early photograph…

Albert Square Albert Square

 

At the same time, transportation was changing. Industrial villages became possible at further distances from manufacturing and outside of the central cities. Burnett looks at development of provincial cities — Nottingham, York (Looking forward to digging into Rowntree’s research on York), but slums continued. There is an amazing quote from Robert Blatchford on Manchester:

Where are the slums of Manchester? They are everywhere. Manchester is a city of slums. (175)

What ‘affordable’ housing there was, was being built by charitable societies, arguably only affordable to the very top tier of the working classes, and critiqued in design:

Considerable evidence was presented to the Royal Commission on the unpopularity of block tenements, due partly to the regulations and absence of sheds and workshops, but mainly, reported Lord Compton, because they were regarded as ‘a sort of prison: they look upon themselves as being watched.’ (178)

This is also the period of new models of employer housing: W.H. Lever’s Port Sunlight (Liverpool), George Cadbury’s Bournville (just south of Birmingham), Rowntree’s New Earswick (North Yorkshire). I’m hoping to get to each of these at some point.

And again it is Liverpool who is the first provincial city to embark on council housing, building St Martin’s Cottages built in 1869.

Slowly other cities began following their example. In London, the LCC actually created its own Architects’ Department: W.E. Riley director, Philip Webb, W.R. Lethaby. They represent perhaps the height of this phase of council building before WWI

not only beginning to evolve another physical ‘solution’ to the problem of urban housing, but one which had a concern for non-physical factors such as the visual effect of the development and the quality of life of the inhabitants. (186)

Still, it was never enough.

[Burnett, John (1986) A Social History of Housing: 1815-1985, 2nd ed. London and New York: Routledge.]

Aberystwyth Castle, Sunset

Built as a diamond-shaped, concentric fortress, this stone piled up by Edward I to maintain control over the Welsh now stands ruined, almost impossible to imagine it as it once was. What better fate for monuments to war and occupation, and yet… my deep love for these bloodied stone skeletons shames me. The original castle on this particular spot was built by Llywelyn the Great (c1172-1240). He built a chain of castles from Tegeingl to Meirionydd — it paralleled the English chain from Cardigan to Montgomery. After initiating his campaign to subdue the Welsh, in 1277 Edward ordered his power solidified and embodied and exerted through architecture–updated to withstand all the new technologies of war–in 1277. But not the pounding of the waves. It was already falling down when turned against the English for a time by Owain Glyndwr in 1404. Cromwell completed the task, pounding the Roundheads within.

The townsfolk very sensibly used the stones to help build their town.

It was chance that brought us here at dusk, with a fierce wind that chased everyone else away. Strange to be so alone in this place huddled up to homes and buildings, open to the public to clamber and crawl. I loved that what remains of this place is so open to all, a breath of history knitted into the town itself in the way it is placed. Only the photographer in me cursed the many welcoming benches. In one hidden corner sat a cluster of teenage girls listening to the radio and laughing, the great stone walls sheltering them from the wind.

I did not mind one three-sided room we could not explore.

I wondered where you could see these same stones made humble and domestic in the town’s architecture, still ringing to the sound of Welsh you hear everywhere here.

Aberystwth Castle

Everything else stopped for a while as we looked up towards Pen Dinas where the Iron Age hill fort stood, and along the coast in either direction until the sea swallowed up the sun.

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John Berger on Ways of Seeing

John Berger Ways of SeeingWays of Seeing by John Berger is a most wonderful wonderful book. Told both in words and pictures, what follows is a lopsided collection of sentences that does some violence to the whole I confess. I was particularly interested in photography, but found myself swept away into other places and didn’t mind at all. It is a book I look forward to reading many more times — and hunting down the series as well. I so wish I had been lucky enough to have been given this to read in the high school Art History class that has remained with me all through my years. Better late than never.

It is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world; we explain that world with words, but words can never undo the fact that we are surrounded by it. The relation between what we see and what we know is never settled. (7)

Nothing is ever settled. I love this unsettling. Love this sense of history:

The past is never there waiting to be discovered, to be recognized for exactly what it is. History always constitutes the relation between a present and its past. Consequently, fear of the present leads to mystification of the past. The past is not for living in; it is a well of conclusions from which we draw in order to act. (11)

Just a sentence and then off he goes in another direction. I want to think more about this alongside Trouillot and the erasings and the silences, but later perhaps.

Because we are off to Frans Hals, always one of my favourites:

Hals was the first portraitist to pain the new characters and expressions created by capitalism. He did in pictorial terms what Balzac did two centuries later in literature. (16)

The regentesses of Haarlem’s almshouse, such an unforgettable picture but never had I thought of it this way:

Frans Hals — Portrait of The Regentesses of the Old Men’s Almshouse Haarlem, 1640s?

And this, my favourite statement of the power that images hold, the potential they carry, a statement that makes me think of things quite differently though I have for a long time been thinking about this — like the wonderful obsessions of Otto Neurath and his isotypes:

If the new language of images were used differently, it would, through its use, confer a new kind of power. Within it we could begin to define our experiences more precisely in areas where words are inadequate. (Seeing comes before words.) Not only personal experience, but also the essential historical experience of our relation to the past: that is to say the experience of seeking to give meaning to our lives, of trying to understand the history of which we can become the active agents.

The art of the past no longer exists as it once did. Its authority is lost. In its place there is a language of images. What matters now is who uses that language for what purpose. (33)

I don’t know why Berger’s passages on oil painting struck me as they did, I think because they represent what a profoundly different way this is of understanding painting as it sits within its context — I love it.

Oil painting did to appearances what capital did to social relations. It reduced everything to the equality of objects. Everything became exchangeable because everything became a commodity. All reality was mechanically measured by its materiality. … Oil painting conveyed a feeling of total exteriority. (87)

I can see this exteriority, feel the velvets and silks under my fingers in these paintings. That always struck me, the incredible details. I think there was such a love of these sumptuous textures in themselves, but yes, also this:

Works of art in earlier traditions celebrated wealth. But wealth was then a symbol of a fixed social or divine order. Oil painting celebrated a new kind of wealth — which was dynamic and which found its only sanction in the supreme buying power of money. Thus painting itself had to be able to demonstrate the desirability of what money could buy. (90)

And then there is the section on advertising, the co-optation of art (not that that was anything new, as can be seen in the quote above) and this unapologetic reading that made me happy:

The pursuit of individual happiness has been acknowledged as a universal right. Yet the existing social conditions make the individual feel powerless. He lives in the contradiction between what he is and what he would like to be. Either he then becomes fully conscious of the contradiction and its causes, and so joins the political struggle for a full democracy which entails, among other things, the overthrow of capitalism; or else he lives, continually subject to an envy which, compounded with his sense of powerlessness, dissolves into recurrent day dreams. (148)

So to end with photography, which sent me here in the first place and of which I found but little, though I did not care in the slightest.

First, something that seems so simple, and yet… before thinking about it I might have said as a reflex that photography was somehow more ‘objective’, I might still lapse into that feeling. But really,

The photographer’s way of seeing is reflected in his choice of subject.  (10)

On the other hand, I had not before thought through how the camera changes our perspective, how it differs from painting, how it decentres us from time and space:

The camera isolated momentary appearances and in so doing destroyed the idea that images were timeless. Or, to put it another way, the camera showed that the notion of time passing was inseparable from the experience of the visual (except in paintings)….

This is not to say that before the invention of the camera men believed everyone could see everything. But perspective organized the visual field as though that were indeed the ideal. Every drawing or painting that used perspective proposed to the spectator that he was the unique centre of the world. The camera — and more particularly the movie camera — demonstrated that there was no centre.

The invention of the camera changed the way that we saw. The invisible came to mean something different to them. This was immediately reflected in painting. (18)

This is something I need to think much more about. It’s interesting how this is one of the major differences between Western and non-Western art, it doesn’t surprise me at all that it is Western art of a certain period that put human beings always at the centre. It must be a good thing to destabilise that, but I’m not sure I entirely grasp how photography and film do that. Our own private viewings into the world of others.

But there is so much joy in art and pleasure in thinking about it here…

Smith: LA’s African American Renaissance of the 1940s

RJ Smith The Great Black WayI enjoyed The Great Black Way, and LA really was amazing in the 1940s. Of course, that doesn’t necessarily mean the awesomeness of the Harlem Renaissance was any less, so my only quibbles are with the taste of implied rivalry. One of the opening sentences of the book that sets the scene:

Walled off by segregation and custom, black L.A. built an infinitely rich world. Once upon a time, black L.A. was a stand-alone city within a city, and the more I understood that, the more artificial it seems to spear ate music from the rest of people’s lives. Once upon a time, everything was connected: the civil rights leader Clayton Russell was good friends with the R&B artists. He appears fictionalized in one of the early L.A. books of black novelist Chester Himes. On Central Avenue the jazz musicians were civil rights champions; the actors were tied to the gangsters; the gangsters court the crusading newspaper editor, who was allied with the Communist Party; the renegade communist was a member of the gay subculture… (x)

I loved how this connected a lot of the dots for me, because these artists, writers and activists are all people I love, but hadn’t really understood in their full context of place, friendships, connections. The interviews are pretty amazing, and beautifully full of a whole lot of knowledge and pride. I loved too that they understood the privilege they were bestowing on the author — he notes that a number of the people he interviewed gave him a caution in referencing Carl Van Vechten, white patron of the Harlem Renaissance who would end up writing a book called Nigger Heaven. That’s some betrayal of trust.  Smith seems to have taken the point.

Did I say there are some really good quotes in here?

“Anything the power structure wanted to know about blacks in Los Angeles,” said Gilbert Lindsay, “they would say ‘Call L.G.’ Now, this is a janitor. And he was the power for the whole Negro community of Los Angeles! . . . L.G. Robinson spoke for the Negroes.” (4)

another on the role of Central Avenue:

“Central was like a river,” recalled musician Clifford Solomon. “A mighty river like the Amazon or the Nile, or in this case the Congo. And all the streets were tributaries that branched off from this great river.” (4)

There are some great passages really evoking the feel of Central Avenue, an imagined tour heading south past all of the many sights to be seen.

Herb Jeffries bankrolling the Bronze Recording Studios, and the Flash Electronic Laboratories — where ‘engineers strive to perfect their ‘color organ,’ an instrument that can take sound from a radio and translate it into visual energy. Sound is seen; the invisible becomes indigo in your living room. (13)

Before it runs into the white wall…

Though Negroes have moved south to the neighborhood around Vernon and Central, all motion stops here. Mister Jones heard the Klan claimed Slauson and everything below; Lady Creswell heard about the kids put in the county hospital after the police caught them playing on the swings south of the line. Everybody’s got a tale of what happens to those detained in this white man’s land, and enough of it is true that the street has acquired a supernatural power. You and I will acquire a seat on the streetcar. (14)

Later on there’s a note about how the song ‘Open the Door, Richard’ became a catchphrase for ending segregation.

You have to jump that to continue on down south to other great centre of culture, though of a very different kind:

Head down to Watts, from jazz to blues, world of T-Bone Walker who can ‘lift a chair, put it in his mouth, and balance it on end as he plays a frenetic shuffle.’ (15)

Chapter 1 is written about John Kinloch, nephew of Charlotta Bass who is such an inspiration, and such a central figure in the black community here as the owner and editor of The California Eagle. I recognised Kinloch’s name from many of the articles, knew he had gone to fight in WWII and died there. He called Charlotta ‘Madame’, she was his mother’s sister. His mother lived back in Harlem — I didn’t know that. I think this gets Charlotta Bass a little wrong — one central factual error is that her husband Joe Bass was not a founder of the Eagle, rather she inherited it from its founder and hired Joe on. They were partners in life and activism, but he was never more than editor. Still, it’s cool to hear a little more of her from Kinloch’s letters, and the have more life breathed into Kinloch as well. A few other facts about people I’ve written about — Leon Washington was Loren Miller’s cousin.

There are lots of little snippets, fascinating facts. There are paragraphs like this one:

The Harlem Renaissance was cracking up on Central Avenue, its one time elitists dropping by to cash a Hollywood check. Langston Hughes, Zora Neale Huston, Arna Bontemps, Countee Cullen and Wallace Thurman had all been on its periphery between the early 1930s and the early 1940s as they performed lucrative, if fruitless writing tasks for the picture business. (29)

Some of my favourite writers, some of this made me a little defensive of them I confess, but there you are.

ellington-jump-for-joyMaybe the best thing to come out of reading this book — along with a new unfulfilled and unrequited desire so rare in this modern age —  is finding out about Duke Ellington’s Jump For Joy musical revue. Langston Hughes wrote a sketch for it. It featured Big Joe Turner and Dorothy Dandridge. It proudly proclaimed Black civil rights through songs like “I’ve got a Passport from Georgia (and I’m going to the U.S.A.)”, and “Uncle Tom’s Cabin Is a Drive-In Now.” It played at the Mayan — where I have danced the night away or watched Lucha — and received death threats from white supremacists. Never filmed, most of these songs have not been recorded. A fucking loss to humanity.

A few more stories, like the one from Howard McGhee of the Charlie Barnet Band, who told the board he refused the draft, refused to fight, refused to go to jail…they sent him to the psychiatrist:

I said, “Well, man, why should I fight? I ain’t mad at nobody over there.” … I said, “Shit, I’ll shoot any son of a bitch that’s white that comes up in front of me.” And they said, “No, we can’t use you.” (38)

Another story about how back in 1919 there was a celebratory banquet at Patriotic Hall for black Angelenos returning from the war, with a mass assembly and parade and military band. I think I remember reading about that, but don’t remember it being mentioned that film of it was used in a film titled Injustice. I’m trying to find it, it sounds awesome and I do believe Joe Bass of the California Eagle is the J. B. Bass who is named as an actor in it. Imagine seeing him walking down the street…

There are more stories about the People’s Independent Church of Christ — I know that church down on 18th and Paloma. Hattie McDaniels celebrated her Oscar there, Jackie Robinson got married there, Adam Clayton Powell Jr preached there…as did Clayton Russell. how did I never know any of that?

There is a rather fascinating comment on noir, which the more I think about it the more it makes sense and is perhaps best exemplified by Chester Himes:

In white noir the hero blinks for a moment, gives in to a single weak impulse, and his life is over. Order shatters around his ankles and we are supposed to realize how much darkness lurks beneath the surface of things when good intentions make way for bad. The moral universe of black noir is different; it’s about realizing good intentions don’t matter any more than bad ones in a world run by white folks. All intentions are equal and equally pointless. All choices in the end amount to one, have the same value — a value determined by people who think you are less than human. (114)

He talks about Bronzeville a little, the short term flowering of Black life, music, culture, bars in Little Tokyo after everyone of Japanese heritage was taken away to the camps. It is one of those more complicated moments of LA history, because while most of the African American said little at the time, there was by the end of the war a recognition of the injustice of it, and some coalition made. But histories of this time and place are made even more complex by things like this that I had never heard of:

By the Fall of 1945, within weeks of the atom bomb falling on Hiroshima and the Nagasaki, the always-looking-for-an-angle club owners of Bronzeville were on the case. Pianist Eddie Heywood was promptly billed as “atomic action manifest” for his stint at Shepp’s Playhouse. The band of Sammy Franklin had abruptly changed it s name to the Atomics, there was a spot called the Atomic Cafe, and you could get your laundry done at the Atomic Cleaners. At the Samba Club, patrons could hear a singer named Francis “The Atomic Bomb” Gray and drink something called an atomic cocktail. (155)

All I could think was damn. That is fucked up.

A little more on geography, and the earliest community in LA:

At the onset of the twentieth century, Azusa Street was an unpaved byway, basically an alley, which dead-ended into the Los Angeles River. It was also said to be the first all-black street in L.A. (160)

William J. Seymour builds his Pentecostal church — the Azusa Street Revival — on the site of first AME church. After the AME church had moved, the land had been used as a tombstone shop then stables.  All of it was built on this land formerly owned by Biddy Mason, once a slave, later a large landowner. These roots run deep.

I’ll end on a song, and a fascinating but not very good one. Still, it’s a symbol of how much changed during the 40s, as well as some of the ways people fought to change it back.

“Shipyard Woman” by Jim Wynn

They said the war is over
And peace is here to stay
You shipyard-working women
Sure did have your way
But it’s all over babe
Now you girls have got to pay (212)

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Caravaggio in Rome: Violence, Art, Dirty Feet

caravaggio-life-sacred-and-profaneAndrew Graham-Dixon’s biography Caravaggio (1571-1610) is very good, very long, full of wonderful detail about everyday life and a great deal of analysis of Caravaggio’s work which I found interesting, without agreeing with all of his interpretations.

It still sits with me days after finishing it, the life of Caravaggio. The explosive talent. The extreme physical violence of his life in a society permissive of extreme violence, winking at it when patronage was high and powerful enough. The violence of poverty, and the violence of painting only by commission rather than by desire, to please and to flatter the rich. To be paid only if they approved of your work — and a number of Caravaggio’s patrons refused his work. To be constantly judged by criteria you do not believe in.

A quote to set the scene in terms of sources:

Much of what is known about him has been discovered in the criminal archives of his time. The majority of his recorded acts — apart from those involved in painting — are crimes and misdemeanors.

Ottavia Leoni, 'Drawing of the Portrait of Caravaggio' Florence, Biblioteca Marucelliana © Photo Scala, Florence
Ottavia Leoni, ‘Drawing of the Portrait of Caravaggio’ Florence, Biblioteca Marucelliana
© Photo Scala, Florence

He always looks troubled and angry, but in some ways the extent to which he was allowed to explore his own art was only possible because of his time’s changing social ideas of it. Graham-Dixon describes these changes occurring only a generation before Caravaggio’s:

Previously the profession of art had been ranked low because it involved work with the hands and was therefore classed as a form of manual labour, a craft rather than a liberal art.

This changed to a view of greatest artists as ‘men of true genius’ — though men still much at the mercy of their patrons — through Giorgio Vasari’s anthology of artist biographies The Lives of the Most Excellent Painters, Sculptors and Architects (1550). Caravaggio would not prove to be a prodigy from an early age, like most. But like other artists he would leave home (he is actually one Michelangelo Merisi of Caravaggio — but the town he was born in has become the name he was, and is, known by) for Milan, and then Rome.

As Florence had been during the fifteenth century, and as Paris would be at the peak of Louis XIV’s power, Rome under Clement VIII was the artistic capital of Europe.

Graham-Dixon notes the slightly more fluid medieval aristocratic structures in Italy as compared to Northern Europe, as well as the idea that  ‘an increasingly urbanized society … led to the blurring of social distinctions.’ There is so much fascinating detail in here on life in Rome itself in here, and given my interests, what I most enjoyed apart from the art itself. An early version of the surveillance state, for example. I don’t know why this surprised me so much, but it did:

Religious observance was not a matter of choice. At Easter everyone living in Rome was obliged to take communion and procure a ticket of evidence from the priest who administered the sacrament. Procuring the ticket — proof of orthodoxy, and necessary to pass muster with the police — was itself part of a system of surveillance and involved a separate visit to the priest, who was obliged to write down the name and address of each communicant. But he also had to write down other details…

Another fun fact about the Rome of this time was the way in which the discovery of the Christian catacombs (the ones I thought everyone in Rome had surely always known about — how were they forgotten?) under Rome led to ‘a boom in the field of what might be called sacred archaeology.’ In the late 15 and early 1600s. I hope to read some of these — I quite love archaeology and am rather fascinated by such a ‘discovery’ but to return to art.

After several years of apprenticeships and poverty, Caravaggio won the patronage of Cardinal Del Monte, a man of learning with a love of the arts,  apart from having his own pharmaceutical distillery (a fad of the time), he was also a patron of music (the first opera was written in 1600 by a friend, Emilio de’ Cavalieri). Slowly through the book you watch Caravaggio’s characteristic style develop.

One of Caravaggio’s early, extraordinary paintings, Boy Bitten By a Lizard (c1596)

Caravaggio - The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.
Caravaggio – The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202. Distributed by DIRECTMEDIA Publishing GmbH.

It is quite wonderful to make this journey through his work, just as it is to note the small touches —  like the fact that the music in The Rest on the Flight To Egypt is identifiable, the four-voiced Quam Pulchra es et quam decora, by Noel Bauldewyn (c1480-1520) — hear it. I love the internet, imagine being able to listen to this today as you stare at the painting itself.

More descriptions of Caravaggio, dark hair, dark eyes, great dark brows, disorderly, Bellori (one of his biographer’s) writes:

We cannot fail to mention his behaviour and his choice of clothes, since he wore only the finest materials and princely velvets; but once he put on a suit of clothes he changed only when it had fallen to rags.

Little could tell you more about someone in a way, and I love that clothing in various states of disrepair is to be found everywhere in his paintings. The poverty of his models and subjects is never hidden. Nor is his own suffering, in 1596 he painted this shield to be held and passed around, a portrait of medusa as a gift for the Medici using his own face as the model, distorted in a round mirror that appears in others paintings as well.

600px-medusa_by_caravaggio_2

A shocking image of himself. A note on materials, on toxicity and poison like that of the serpents in Medusa’s coils:

Some ascribed the fiery temperament of painters to the toxic qualities of the materials that they used. Lead white and vermilion were particularly poisonous. The mere touch or smell of either might cause a variety of symptoms including depression, anxiety, and increased aggressiveness. Those suffering from ‘Painter’s Colic’, as it was called, also tended to drink heavily.

Not vermilion! What a word, what a color. There seems to be a great deal in Caravaggio’s work, one great red sheet of fabric that wraps saints round being the most obvious one. I like to think it is always the same one. Returning to his style, Bellori writes

The painters then in Rome were greatly taken by this novelty, and the young ones particularly gathered around him, praised him as the unique imitator of nature and look on his work as miracles.

Evidence of its development can be seen in Martha and Mary Magdalen (c. 1598) — and also here is to be seen Fillide Melandroni, a famous courtesan in several of Caravaggio’s paintings.

michelangelo_caravaggio_51_martha_and_mary_magdaleneHere she is again as St Catharine  of Alexandria (c. 1598)– I wish I had seen this earlier, when I worked at the Foundation. More shadows.

michelangelo_caravaggio_060There is the story of Fillide’s arrest for threatening another woman, testimony of her screaming out ‘I want to cut her face!’ The ultimate insult. Graham-Dixon notes that the world of painters and poets is also that of prostitutes and pimps, and the probability of Caravaggio’s being a pimp — controlling women for both modelling and for incomes, explains the many times he is arrested late at night or early in the morning, much of the violence, the carrying of an illegal sword and dagger under the protection of powerful patronage, and the source of the long-running conflict that would eventually lead to the murder of Tomassoni for which he was exiled.

Violence fills his paintings, Judith Behading Holofernes (c. 1598), David with the head of Goliath (1599). I am not so enamoured of these, though they are powerful and skillful. Artemisia Gentileschi, of course, also painted Judith holding the head of a Holofornes based on the face of her rapist — she was the daughter of a friend of Caravaggio’s and a most wonderful painter in much the same style. But I am looking forward to exploring her life and art separately, yet her story cannot be forgotten in this accounting of the terrible violence inflicted on women in this period more broadly.

This painting I love, the Calling of St Matthew (1600):

1280px-caravaggio_-_la_vocazione_di_san_matteoAnother one — The Crucifixion of St Peter (1601)

8064-the-crucifixion-of-saint-peter-caravaggioGraham-Dixon writes that:

The presence of these coarsely posed, unmistakably low-brow figures underscored Caravaggio’s total rejection of High Renaissance and Mannerist elegance.

The fact that everyone in his paintings has bare feet has great meaning, and in fact Caragvaggio becoming famous as the painter of feet — Graham-Dixon quotes Niccolo Lorini del Monte:

In sum, feet may be taken by the holy Church as symbolising the poor and the humble.

Many among the upper classes hated their appearance in his paintings, along with the poor and humble subjects in their everyday torn clothes and positions of work and suffering. Graham-Dixon persuasively argues that this was closely tied with the counter-reformation leanings of the pauperist wing of the Catholic church, and the preaching exactly along these lines of the famous Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, whose words Caravaggio would have grown up with. This also helps define Caravaggio’s focus on Christ and the martyr’s intimate and personal suffering that was praised as a subject for religious meditation. There is also an argument for some form of class identification, some anger over poverty and privilege, although clearly nothing about Caravaggio is straightforward and he exploited his own privileges fairly ruthlessly.

When Caravaggio painted the saints and martyrs with bare feet, he was firmly allying himself with pauperist wing of the Catholic Church. Not only was he explicitly welcoming the poor into his pictures, making them feel part of the same impoverished family as that of Christ and his followers, he was also implicitly calling on the rich to follow the example of those such as St Francis … The message would not always be well received.

It was very different from the rising countercurrent of

a newly triumphalist Church… It did not welcome the poor and the meek or make them feel that they, ultimately, were the inheritors of the earth. It was there to awe, daunt, and stupefy them, to impress them with visions of a force so powerful it could not be resisted — and must, therefore, be obeyed.

Graham-Dixon describes this is as a new Baroque sensibility — one with no room for Caravaggio. It seems to me that all these paintings of the poor might also be a kind of revenge against the rich to whom Caravaggio must look for all things — money for paints and canvasses, clothes, a roof over his head. He was one of the few to try to renegotiate commissions (more on that later)… this world seems so distant from my modern sensibilities, yet it seems so clear how galling this system of patronage was to Caravaggio, if only through the amount of time he spent doing what he could to sabotage it all through gambling, drink, brawling, prostitutes and constant rumours of boys. Graham-Dixon notes his probable relationship with Cecco, his servant and model, but there is little deeper exploration of what his queerness might mean (and some of these paintings are ridiculously queer).

Caravaggio leaves the house of Cardinal de Monte for that of Cardinal Girolamo Mattei. Again, the connections between time, money and influence, and the city form is brought to the fore:

They lived in a honeycomb complex of houses and palaces built over the ruins of the Ancient Roman Teatro di Balbo… The adjoining residence of the various branches of the family formed an entire block, known as the Isola dei Mattei.

It is a whole network of palaces and residences, worthy of Kafka. Yet another protector was Vincenzo Giustiani. It is probably he who ensured that Caravaggio was allowed a second attempt at fulfilling his commission for a painting of St Matthew as the altarpiece of the Contarelli Chapel. When the first was rejected scornfully, Giustiani bought it for himself.

Why rejected? Because Matthew is represented as too unlearned, too peasant-like. Barefoot. An old man painfully scribing, and needing help in it. I love this picture.

600px-caravaggio_matthewandtheangel_bymikeyangelsWWII bombs destroyed it in Berlin.

The second painting was accepted and still rests in the chapel, a capitulation to be sure, but a rather fine one, and Caravaggio insists on the bare feet:

san-matteo-e-langelo-1

His work continues to be extraordinary. Here, a picture of The Incredulity of Saint Thomas (c. 1602), testing grotesquely Christ’s wound, experiencing in full Christ’s suffering (familiar old men as well…).

incredulity-of-saint-thomas-1602And always, always, this work sits alongside an incredible violence in the dark streets of Rome. There is the verbal/written kind — the tradition in Rome of insult, connected to a statue in the corner of Palazzo Braschi to the western side of Piazza Novena, known as the Pasquino.

It had long been the custom to attach squibs, scurrilous pieces of grafitti and outbursts of defamatory rage to the wall next to the statue, under the cover of darkness. There was a collective noun for these libeles: pasquinate

That sounds rather safe, a rather curious and interesting method of venting anger in a unique city space, until you read the contents. Caravaggio and his friends posted their defamatory verses about Baglione here, with much use of words like cock and fucking…juvenile, nasty. There were arrests, trials. Caravaggio’s testimony is sullen, stupid. For all that, I rather like the concept of the valent’huomo, in Caravaggio’s words (Graham-Dixon notes that to be considered a valent’huomo both in society and the art-world was always Caravaggio’s possibly fugutive goal):

By the term ‘valent’huomo’ I mean he who knows how to do well, that is, he who knows how to do his art well.

Most of the testimony, however, is a bunch of lies to praise artists in official favour and distance himself from friends involved and pretend utmost ignorance so they can all get off free. They do. Probably through patronage. Everything runs on it.

On 24 April 1604 Caravaggio got into an argument with a waiter at one of his local restaurants, the Osteria del Moro, or ‘Tavern of the Blackamoor’. In the course of an altercation concerning artichokes, he smashed a plate against the man’s face.

The tavern of the Blackamoor (interesting the number of references to slaves). I laughed at the artichokes, but it’s not really funny. This arrest is one of  series. In his testimony Caravaggio claims the policeman has a grudge against him, in Graham-Dixon’s description:

The policeman was hostile and insulting whenever he bumped into him… but he stoutly denied having called the arresting officer a ‘cocksucker’ on the night in question.

That, actually, was just funny.

More on the particularities of the papal state.

Rome was a turbulent city at the best of times, but it was doubly unstable whenever the papal throne was empty. During this interregnum, normal government was effectively suspended. According to long tradition, a blanket amnesty was given to the inmates of the city’s jails.

Blanket amnesty! Returning to the thin line between curious and awful…there is this:

There was a crime of deturpatio portae, or defacing doors for which Caravaggio was charged by a mother and daughter. … a specific legal term that can  be translated as ‘house-scorning’. …

Amazing you think. House-scorning. But read on:

Housescorners generally operated in the dead of night,,, They often made a lot of noise, shouting insults or singing lewd songs as a prelude to the vengeful assault itself. Then they would throw stones, damaging shutters and blinds.

They threw ink, blood, excrement, drew cocks. Most often, houses were scorned by a man when a woman had refused his advances, or perhaps somehow insulted him. It loses all hilarity.

It becomes the dirty behaviour of a pimp. An abuser. Who still paints…look, just look at what he paints. Caravaggio madonna of loretto

This depicts so beautifully the crazy story of The Madonna of Loreto (1604), the miraculous event in which the house of Mary and Joseph flew (flew?) from Nazareth to Italy in the middle ages. Crikey, best myth ever. It’s quite a house as Caravaggio imagines it, but I love that the pilgrims are poor who have summoned the virgin to the door through their faith, their feet dirty and tired.

Graham-Dixon writes:

No other artist had ever given such prominence, in a major religious altarpiece, to two such nakedly proletarian figures as the pair of kneeling figures.

Caravaggio inserted no patrons into his paintings, but the poor, the courtesan, the servant, and every now and then himself. Despite this, his paintings were in ever greater demand. One of my favourite threads that runs through much of Caravaggio’s story is that:

…his movements were being carefully tracked by Fabio Masetti, an agent in Rome working for Cesare d’Este, Duke of Modena.

Masetti gives Caravaggio money, on more than one occasion, but no painting is produced. Masetti tracks him for years, like a faithful shadow. We will meet him again.

And still Caravaggio is brawling, cutting people, getting arrested. He is forced to apologise to one of his victims to get a pardon from the governor — for coming up a clerk of the Vicar’s court named Messer Mariano late one night and striking him, scarring his face. Like the house-scorning, this is a public insult. The apology is hilarious, like one of those forced things a mother exhorts from her son (well, like my mum exacted from my brother Chewy) expurgated of all loopholes:

I am very sorry for what I did, and if I had not done it yet, I would not do it.

He continues to say that Mariano is worthy of facing in the daylight in a duel. It is a return of honor to him.

It feels like the violence is escalating, though in the book it is oddly sandwiched between paintings and their analyses. Graham-Dixon notes that thus seemed Caravaggio’s life, intense periods of work surrounded by growing periods of nightwalking and brawling and thuggery. Pimping. This brings us to the moment of murder, in what was almost certainly a duel between Caravaggio and Ranuccio Tomassoni, between whom there had long existed violence and accusation — Tomassoni was the pimp of Fillide, and if Caravaggio were also a pimp (who had clearly stolen Fillide) this makes more sense of much of his behaviour.

Initial reports, though, seemed to describe this as an accidental brawl over a late-night game of tennis. That was rather funny.

Mesetti the agent reported hopefully back to d’Este after the incident that Caravaggio had fled Rome badly wounded and was heading to Florence — which meant he might well swing through Modena and paint as he had promised.

He didn’t.

This really is the beginning of the end for Caravaggio. His sentence:

…indefinite exile from Rome, he was condemned as a murderer and made subject to a bando capitale, a ‘capital sentence’. This meant that anyone in the papal states had the right to kill him with impunity; indeed there was a bounty for anyone who did so.

A brilliant drawing from a policeman’s report drawing the offending weapons that Caravaggio carried in defiance of the law.

sword-dagger-caravaggio

And so Caravaggio flees. First to Naples, a centre of trade of goods and people. He also notes the many communities there, Pisans, Catalands, Ragusans… Ragusans? Once the Republic of Ragusa, now known as Dubrovnik.

Once arrived in Naples, Caravaggio was deluged with work. He receives a commission from the Pio Monte della Misericordia, probably led by Giovanni Battista Manso (who was a friend of Galileo, who hosted Milton — it is hard to imagine them all contemporaries). Caravaggio painted the Seven Acts of Mercy for them. Not my favourite. But then there was The Flagellation:

300px-caravaggio_-_la_flagellazione_di_cristoPictures such as the Seven Acts and The Flagellation were greeted with stunned admiration, bordering on bewilderment. They created a sensation and transformed Neopolitan painting virtually overnight. Caravaggio’s extreme chiaroscuro and his brutal sense of reality were the catalyst for a new school of tenebristic painting in Naples. And through this city at the crossroad between Italian and Spanish art, Caravaggoio’s starkly powerful new style was transmitted to Spain Itself.

But Caravaggio had bigger plans, which would soon send him to Malta — which is in part why I have read this, because I love Caravaggio’s art but also, guess what you guys? I am going to Malta! So more on Malta in a separate post. This one is enormous, and I give you my apologies.

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Walter Rodney: Imperialism’s interconnected racisms

Walter RodneyPart 1 looks at the broader argument around the dialectic of development and underdevelopment found in Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. So much of my work focuses on racism in the US though, and Rodney mentions the US often. It became an Imperialist power par excellence after all, after WWII. But first, to return to the connections between capitalism and racism (later explored around the same time by Cedric Robinson, later by Roediger, Marable and others)

Capitalism has created its own irrationalities such as a vicious white racism, the tremendous waste associated with advertising, and the irrationality of incredible poverty in the midst of wealth and wastage even inside the biggest capitalist economies, such as that of the U.S.A. (10)

There are some telling facts here on the early connections between slavery and capitalism. For instance J.S. Mill, as spokesman for British capitalism, said that as far as England was concerned, ‘the trade of the West Indies is hardly to be considered as external trade, but more resembles the traffic between town and country.’ (82)

The whole town and country — that’s a metaphor (or a reality, or some twisted kind of whitewashing) that needs some following up.

Marx noted the connection:

‘the discovery of gold and silver in America, the extirpation, enslavement and entombment in mines of the aboriginal population, the turning of Africa into a commercial warren for the hunting of black skins signalised the rosy dawn of the era of capitalist production’. (83)

This is telling too, those visions of dashing buccaneers braving the seas and the Spanish? Not so true:

John Hawkins made three trips to West Africa in the 1560s, and stole Africans whom he sold to the Spanish in America. On returning to England after the first trip, his profit was so handsome that Queen Elizabeth I became interested in directly participating in his next venture; and she provided for that purpose a ship named the Jesus. Hawkins left with the Jesus to steal some more Africans, and he returned to England with such dividends that Queen Elizabeth made him a knight. Hawkins chose as his coat of arms the representation of an African in chains. (83)

The origins of a version of English money in the name of the Guinea Coast:

The Encyclopaedia Britannica explains that the guinea was ‘a gold coin at one time current in the United Kingdom. It was first coined in 1663, in the reign of Charles II, from gold imported from the Guinea Coast of West Africa by a company of merchants trading under charter from the British crown — hence the name.’ (84)

The rise of cities and their connections with the industrial revolution (though those cities mostly pretend it didn’t happen, or like Bristol focus on a heritage of abolition)

The most spectacular feature in Europe which was connected with African trade was the rise of sea-port towns — – notably Bristol, Liverpool, Nantes, Bordeaux and Seville. Directly or indirectly connected to those ports, there often emerged the manufacturing centres which gave rise to the ‘industrial revolution’. (85)

Then this revolting fact:

David and Alexander Barclay, who were engaging in slave trade in 1756 and who later used the loot to set up Barclays’ Bank. (85)

I knew I didn’t like them.

Racism shaped and has continued not just the physical underdevelopment of Africa, but how it is understood and discussed. This shouldn’t be rocket science, but how much have I read recently that completely fails to acknowledge, much less interrogate this?

It would be much too sweeping a statement to say that all racial and colour prejudice in Europe derived from the enslavement of Africans and the exploitation of non-white peoples in the early centuries of international trade. … However, it can be affirmed without reservations that the white racism which came to pervade the world was an integral part of the capitalist mode of production. Nor was it merely a question of how the individual white person treated a black person. The racism of Europe was a set of generalisations and assumptions, which had no scientific basis, but were rationalised in every sphere from theology to biology. (88)

These rationalisations were in service of exploitation.

The interpretation that underdevelopment is somehow ordained by God is emphasized because of the racist trend in European scholarship. It is in line with racist prejudice to say openly or to imply that their countries are more developed because their people are innately superior, and that the responsibility for the economic backwardness of Africa lies in the generic backwardness of the race of black Africans. An even bigger problem is that the people of Africa and other parts of the colonised world have gone through a cultural and psychological crisis and have accepted at least partially the European version of things. (20)

But in the move from ‘spheres of influence’ to direct colonisation in Africa unlike most other continents, the existence of racism played a key role:

In addition to the factors that caused the chain-reaction of the Scramble as described above, Europeans were also racially motivated to seek political domination over Africa. Thee 19th century was one in which white racism was most violently and openly expressed in capitalist societies, with the U.S.A. as a focal point, and with Britain taking the lead among the Western European capitalist nations. Britain accepted granting dominion status to its old colonies of white settlers in Canada, Australia and New Zealand; but it withdrew self-government from the West Indies when the white planters were ousted from the legislative assemblies by black (or brown) people. As far as Africa is concerned, Englishmen violently opposed black self-government such as the Fante Confederation on the Gold Coast in the 1860s. They also tried to erode the authority of black Creoles in Sierra Leone. In 1874, when Fourah Bay College sought and obtained affiliation with Durham University, the Times newspaper declared that Durham should next affiliate with the London Zoo! Pervasive and vicious racism was present in imperialism as a variant independent of the economic rationality that initially gave birth to racism. It was economics that determined that Europe should invest in Africa and control the continent’s raw materials and labour. It was racism which confirmed the decision that the form of control should be direct colonial rule. (140-141)

He looks at the content of racism:

Sometimes, white racism was vicious and at other times it was paternalist. Nor did it necessarily reflect Europe’s desire to exploit Africans economically. In Southern Rhodesia, racial discrimination was very much tied up with the white settlers maintaining their jobs and the stolen land; but when some semi-literate white inspector insulted an educated Sierra Leonean that may be referred to as ‘gratuitous’. Racism in such a context actually jeopardised economic exploitation, and it was merely the manifestation of prejudices that had grown over the centuries.

To me a key point — that racist ideologies took on lives of their own, themselves began to articulate with the economics and politics of the situation (drawing on Hall here who looks at this explicitly, but the seeds are all here in Rodney):

by the 19th century white racism had become so institutionalised in the capitalist world (and notably in the U.S.A.) that it sometimes ranked above the maximisation of profit as a motive for oppressing black people. … There was always a contradiction between the elaboration of democratic ideas inside Europe and the elaboration of authoritarian and thuggish practices by Europeans with respect to Africans. (89)

This is so clearly visible in the history of the U.S. An early aside from Rodney (who has some wonderfully sarcastic lines that made me laugh out loud a couple of times):

Actually, if ‘underdevelopment’ were related to anything other than comparing economies, then the most underdeveloped country in the world would be the U.S.A, which practices external oppression on a massive scale, while internally there is a blend of exploitation, brutality, and psychiatric disorder. (14)

Walter Rodney makes clear the connection between the violence of slavery and colonialism in Africa, and how they connect to slavery, genocide and the violence found throughout US society:

In the first place, profits from the slave activities went into the coffers of political parties, and even more important the African stimulation and black labour played a vital role in extending European control over the present territory of the U.S.A. — notably in the South, but including also the so-called ‘Wild West’ where black cowboys were active. (87)

Connects these too to Vietnam, to the My Lai massacre and if he were alive now, would see it in the continuing murders of Black men and women being called out by #BlackLivesMatter:

But the fact of the matter is that the My Lais began with the enslavement of Africans and American Indians. Racism, violence and brutality were the concomitants of the capitalist system when it extended itself abroad in the early centuries of international trade. (90)

Of course, the US had a much more direct connection that most people (I include myself in that) ever realise:

During the colonial era, Liberia was supposedly independent; but to all intents and purposes, it was a colony of the U.S.A. In 1926, the Firestone Rubber Company of the U.S.A. was able to acquire one million acres of forest land in Liberia at a cost of 6 cents per acre and 1% of the value of the exported rubber. Because of the demand for and the strategic importance of rubber, Firestone’s profits from Liberia’s land and labour carried them to 25th position among the giant companies of the U.S.A. (154)

But to return to the connection between imperialism, exploitation and racism, Rodney argues this violence also sits at the root of fascism:

Fascism is a deformity of capitalism. It heightens the imperialist tendency towards domination which is inherent in capitalism, and it safeguards the principle of private property. At the same time, fascism immeasurably strengthens the institutional racism already bred by capitalism, whether it be against Jews (as in Hitler’s case) or against African peoples (as in the ideology of Portugal’s Salazar and the leaders of South Africa). (196)

Fascism was a monster born of capitalist parents. Fascism came as the end-product of centuries of capitalist bestiality, exploitation, domination and racism-mainly exercised outside of Europe. It is highly significant that many settlers and colonial officials displayed a leaning towards fascism. (200)

These connections were hardly invisible, and helped form the basis for organising the Pan-African movement, for this vibrant and vital strain of scholarship and activism that Walter Rodney himself embodies.

The racial contradiction extended far beyond the shores of Africa, because of the historical antecedence of the slave trade. It is not in the least surprising that Pan-African ideas should have been most forcefully expressed by West Indians like Garvey and Padmore and North Americans like W.E.B. Dubois and Alpheus Hunton. Those individuals had all been educated within the international capitalist structure of exploitation on the basis of class and race. Having realised that their inferior status in the societies of America was conditioned by the fact of being black and the weakness of Africa, the Pan-Africanists were forced to deal with the central problem of Europe’s exploitation and oppression of the African continent. Needless to say, the metropolitan powers could never have foreseen that their humiliation of millions of Africans in the New World would ultimately rebound and help Africa to emancipate itself. (277)

Another fascinating insight to be followed up — and one that Rodney brings forward but then doesn’t much explore, is based on a quote from Albert Memmi (I love Albert Memmi), who writes:

The most serious blow suffered by the colonised is being removed from history and from the community. Colonisation usurps any free role in either war or peace, every decision contributing to his destiny and that of the world, and all cultural and social responsibility.

Rodney continues:

Sweeping as that statement may initially appear, it is entirely true. The removal from history follows logically from the loss of power which colonialism represented. The power to act independently is the guarantee to participate actively and consciously in history. To be colonised is to be removed from history, except in the most passive sense. A striking illustration of the fact that colonial Africa was a passive object is seen in its attraction for white anthropologists, who came to study ‘primitive society’. (225)

This idea of being removed from history resonates so strongly with Trouillot’s work on Haiti, with the experience of all oppressed peoples, and is something I’d like to follow up. Part of this is memory of collective ways of being, acting in the world. This, too needs more thought:

In the final analysis, perhaps the most important principle of colonial education was that of capitalist individualism… However, the capitalist system then went on to champion and protect the rights of the individual property owners against the rights of the mass of exploited workers and peasants. When capitalism had its impact on Africa in the colonial period, the idea of individualism was already in its reactionary phase. It was no longer serving to liberate the majority but rather to enslave the majority for the benefit of a few. (254)

There is so much here.

For more on race and empire…

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Ta-Nehisi Coates – Between the World and Me

Ta-Nehisi Coates - Between the World and MeI loved this book, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is definitely what I will be giving people for Christmas to help them understand #BlackLivesMatter and the experiences of those Americans labeled as such, as well as an understanding of America as it has rarely been taught, but which continues to shape our ongoing tragedy and all the hatred that exists.

…the host wished to know why I felt that white America’s progress, or rather the progress of those Americans who believe that they are white, was built on looting and violence. Hearing this, I felt an old and indistinct sadness well up in me. The answer to this question is the record of the believers themselves. The answer is American history.

Once you cross the line to really feel this history in your stomach, it is hard to work through it patiently and rationally with others who aren’t there yet, especially if they really don’t want to see it. Because this is terrifyingly true:

But all our phrasing–race relations, racial chasm, racial justice, racial profiling, white privilege, even white supremacy — serves to obscure that racism is a visceral experience, that it dislodges brains, blocks airways, rips muscle, extracts organs, cracks bones, break teeth. You must never look away from this. You must always remember that the sociology, the history, the economics, the graphs, the charts, the regressions all land, with great violence, upon the body.

And at the base of all of it? White Americans have always had a narrow and limited view of who other ‘Americans’ were, when they said ‘we the people’ they did not ever actually mean all the people. My thesis worked this out at length, but here it is short and eloquent:

The question is…what our country has, throughout its history, taken the political term “people” to actually mean. In 1863 it did not mean your mother or your grandmother, and it did not mean you and me. Thus America’s problem is not its betrayal of “government of the people,” but the means by which “the people” acquired their names.

Our race is culturally constructed to be white or black, despite how deeply intertwined we two are. And white has been constructed to be “the people,” to take the land, to run the country, to benefit from all it can offer.

“White America” is a syndicate arrayed to protect its exclusive powers to dominate and control our bodies. Sometimes this power is direct (lynching), and sometimes it is insidious (redlining). But however it appears, the power of domination and exclusion is central to the belief in being white, and without it, “white people” would cease to exist for want of reasons.

And on the other side of this privileged identity? There is so much in here that is deeply personal, deeply particular to a place and time, yet that rings true beyond it.

To be black in the Baltimore of my youth was to be naked before the elements of the world, before all the guns, fists, knives, crack, rape, and disease. The nakedness is not an error, nor pathology. The nakedness is the correct and intended result of policy, the predictable upshot of people forced for centuries to live under fear.

***

When our elders presented school to us, they did not present it as a place of learning but as a means of escape from death and penal warehousing. Full 60 percent of all young black men who drop out of high school will go to jail. This should disgrace the country. But it does not…

These Baltimore neighbourhoods, and neighbourhoods across the country, are part of the same process, formed and structured by the same forces of racism over many decades

And I knew that there were children born into these same caged neighborhoods on the Westside, these ghettos, each of which was as planned as any subdivision. They are an elegant act of racism, killing fields authored by federal policies, where we are, all again, plundered of our dignity, or our families, of our wealth, and of our lives. … A legacy of plunder, a network of laws and tradition, a heritage, a Dream, murdered Prince Jones as sure as it murders black people in North Lawndale with frightening regularity. “Black-on-black crime” is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel.

And always the blame to be pushed away from policies and police, and onto Black people themselves:

Not all of us can always be Jackie Robinson–not even Jackie Robinson was always Jackie Robinson. But the price of error is higher for you than it is fro you countrymen, and so that America might justify itself, the story of a black body’s destruction must always begin with his or her error, real or imagined–with Eric Garner’s anger, with Trayvon Martin’s mythical words…and Sean Bell’s mistake of running with the wrong crowd…

Away from whiteness, and all of its privilege, because this is a truth and a seeing that threaten:

This is the foundation of the Dream–its adherents must not just believe in it but believe that it is just, believe that their possession of the Dream is the natural result of grit, honour, and good works…This is the practiced habit of jabbing out one’s eyes and forgetting the work of one’s hands. To acknowledge these horrors means turning away from the brightly rendered version of your country as it has always declared itself and turning toward something murkier and unknown.

This isn’t a particularly hopeful book, but there are ways forward. I loved this, the heart of politicization and popular education:

My mother and father were always pushing me away from secondhand answers–even the answers they themselves believed. I don’t know that I have ever found any satisfactory answers of my own. But every time I ask it, the question is refined. that is the best of what the old heads meant when they spoke of being “politically conscious”–as much a series of actions as a state of being, a constant questioning, questioning as ritual, questioning as exploration rather than the search for certainty.

This is the way forward, but also means there is no one answer, no one way:

I had come looking for a parade, for a military review of champions marching in ranks. Instead I was left with a brawl of ancestors, a herd of dissenters, sometimes marching together but just as often marching away from each other.

There are lists of writers, lists of artists — I love lists:

List of writers: Larry Neal, Eric Williams, George Padmore, Sonia Sanchez, Stanley Crouch, Harold Cruse, Manning Marable, Addison Gayle, Carolyn Rodgers, Etheridge Knight, Sterling Brown.  Later on Thavolia Glymph.

List of artists: Bubber Miley, Otis Redding, Sam and Dave, C.K. Williams, Carolyn Forche, Ethelbert Miller, Kenneth Carroll, Brian Gilmore, Robert Hayden.

And reading through them comes this realisation, which I too have felt with immense force though in a very different way. Here is the role of the activist intellectual: to face everything full on, no shrinking, no comfortable truths:

It began to strike me that the point of my education was a kind of discomfort, was the process that would not award me my own especial Dream but would break all the dreams, all the comforting myths of Africa, of America, and everywhere, and would leave me only with humanity in all its terribleness. And there was so much terrible out there, even among us. You must understand this.

***

My great error was not that I had accepted someone else’s dream but that I had accepted the fact of dreams, the need for escape, and the invention of racecraft.

A round up of a few of the other small things that I loved here — with many others left out in a short(ish) blog.

The riposte by Ralph Wiley to Saul Bellow after he described a Black writer as the Tolstoy of the Zulus:

“Tolstoy is the Tolstoy of the Zulus, unless you find a profit in fencing off universal properties of mankind into exclusive tribal ownership.”

That is such an obvious thing that someone else needed to say it I think, for me to see clearly.

It was also strange reading this written by someone my own age, someone who shared the same music and wider context, and whose fear of physical violence from others I also shared. These things show how connected class and geography are to race, and thus aspects of life are often shared more widely. He wrote:

This was the era of Bad Boy and Biggie. “One More Chance” and “Hypnotize”.

I have never seen those words on paper anywhere. And this too struck me:

I found that people would tell me things, that the same softness that once made me a target now compelled people to trust me with their stories. This was incredible.

I know too much about being a target, though never one at the other end of a gun. But likewise people have told me their stories. I am grateful for my growing up, for how it has given me that. But those still aren’t pretty scars.

I also loved the acknowledgment not just of the material foundations of pain and violence in segregation and policy, but the global context in which struggle happens, the larger forces beyond our control that help movements to victory or defeat. This is a key lesson I too stumbled across through reading, and it requires an adjustment in your driving forces.

You cannot disconnect our emancipation in the Northern colonies from the blood spilled in the Revolutionary War, any more than you can disconnect our emancipation from slavery in the South from the charnel houses of the Civil War, any more than you can disconnect our emancipation from Jim Crow from the genocides of the Second World War. History is not solely in our hands. And still you are called to struggle, not because it assures you of victory but because it assures you an honorable and sane life.

There is this on the one hand, faced full on:

And I have no God to hold me up. And I believe that when they shatter the body they shatter everything, and I know that all of us–Christians, Muslims, atheists–lived in this fear of this truth.

But I loved too the gentleness and the celebration of what is best in us, the rich cultures, the layered knowledges, the complexity of our world whose beauty we all can share

And looking out, I had friends who too were part of other worlds–the world of Jews or New Yorkers, the world of Southerners or gay men, of immigrants, of Californians, of Native Americans, or a combination of any of these, worlds stitched together into worlds like tapestry. And though I could never, myself, be a native of any of these worlds, I knew that nothing so essentialist as race stood between us. I had read too much by then.

An uncompromising look at where we are, and the strength and beauty of those who have come before us and who fight alongside us to build the kind of world we want to see — this is where we need to start. Because our country must change inside and out, rather than continue to plunder the world and export its fears and horrors.

Joan Didion on a bleached California

where-i-was-from-didion-joan-paperback-cover-artIt’s impenetrably white, her world, which to me explains this sentence:

Yet California has remained in some way impenetrable to me, a wearying enigma, as it has to many of us who are from there. We worry it, correct and revise it, try and fail to define our relationship to it and its relationship to the rest of the country. (38)

I don’t have a long and tortured history of wagon trains and leading pioneer families in my relationship to California of course. No grandmothers telling me what life is about in quite that way, no artifacts of long journeys. Some of this history, and its residues in these younger generations, was pretty damn interesting. I suppose it is also pretty damn interesting as a residue of homegrown philosophy amongst ‘us’ Californians, the ones who were white:

Stressing as it did an extreme if ungrounded individualism, this was not an ambiance that tended towards a view of life as defined or limited or controlled, or even in any way affected, by the social and economic structures of the larger world. To be a Californian was to see oneself…as affected only by “nature,” which in turn was seen to exist simultaneously as a source of inspiration or renewal…and as the ultimate brute reckoning, the force that by guaranteeing destruction gave the place its perilous beauty. (66)

Perhaps there were brief flashes when such optimism might have been shared by African Americans — a couple of decades before WWI but after that time white congressmen tried to pass legislation banning all black folks from the state entirely. Before the Klan got quite so popular in the mid 20s.

The genocide of Native Americans was quicker and more complete in California than in many another state, so I doubt their survivors ever felt this to be true.

There’s the difficult relationship with the aristocratic ‘Californios’ who had once themselves owned the land and enslaved indigenous peoples, and then there’s all of the mostly darker skinned ‘Mexicans’ (amongst other uglier names) who worked for them, many of whom had lived there for generations. The other Mexicans who came up for the agricultural and seasonal work and still come up. But now they stay, along with a whole lot more compañer@s because that border and NAFTA is no joke.

We shouldn’t forget the Asian workers brought in to build railroads and pick oranges and grow crops, massacred in L.A., stripped of any ability to own land or become citizens until 1942. The Japanese thrown into concentration camps up and down the state in WWII. California’s history is not at all pretty, and it never was.

White pioneers did not just wrestle climate and geography and dangerous beasts, they came in (to varying extents) as conquerors and oppressors, which is precisely why they could say things like:

…We believed in fresh starts. We believed in good luck. We believed in the miner who scratched together one last stake…We believed in the wildcatter…Put out your campfire, kill the rattlesnake and watch the money flow in.  (128)

and on the same page, why some Californians might be in it all together (against the rest):

I asked my mother to what “class” we belonged.

“It’s not a word we use,” she said, “It’s not the way we think.” (128)

Because of course, there were a whole lot of Californians below class. Ah, the intersections of race and privilege.

I think it’s this foundation of violent privilege that California is built on that helps explain some of the other things Joan Didion wrestles with, like the 1990s point system for sexual conquests used in Lakewood High School, carried out by boys who called themselves the Spur Posse. It was exposed by a number of girls raped and sexually harassed who came forward. Brave of them, and horrifying the community response, and it’s the kind of thing that needs all kinds of light shining down on it. Light so bright you no longer get parents like Donald Belman, defending their child by describing how the D.A. “questioned all these kids, she found out these girls weren’t the victims they were made out to be. One of these girls had tattoos for chrissake.” (124)

I wish we could talk about reactions like that in the past tense.

I also liked that Didion touches on the shift in California away from free education for all (though she can’t really tell you why) and the real change that took place in the 1980s:

CA no longer feels ‘rich enough to adequately fund its education system.’ the second: ‘many towns in California…so impoverished in spirit as well as in fact that the way their citizens could think to reverse their fortunes was by getting themselves a state prison.”

She sees this is nothing new, just another ‘version of making our deal with the Southern Pacific…making our bed with the federal government.” (183)

I like that she sees that. The contrast between a state that thinks it made itself rich when in fact it took lots of government money, always did and still is. I hate she doesn’t deal with who makes up the majority of those imprisoned, and how they might have arrived there.

I also learned a bit about California’s treatment of mental illness, something I might follow up. Joan Didion cites Richard W. Fox’s study So Far Disordered in Mind: Insanity in California 1870-1930, which found that ‘California had a higher rate of commitment for insanity than any other state in the nation…’ (193)

That’s crazy (unless again, you think about the violence and the ongoing non-acknowledgment of violence). This is also crazy.

‘By the end of 1920, of the 3,233 sterilizations for insanity or feeblemindedness performed to that date throughout the United States, 2,258, or seventy-nine percent, had taken place in California. (195)

Like the prisons, they filled up to and beyond capacity in asylums. California was always big on putting people away apparently, even before three strikes.

This is an interesting book, beautifully written, but deeply infuriating in its blindness to certain things — interesting in itself, but I fear the propagation of such blindnesses.

[Didion, Joan (2004) Where I Was From: A Memoir. London: Harper Perennial.]

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