Sunday, 5 June 2022

Blog 128 – "Legacy of Dust"? Douglas Livingstone's poetic ecology


It’s evening on World Environment Day. It’s damp and windless, and I’m taking the opportunity to incinerate some old papers and other detritus that need not end up in the already overwhelmed and ill-managed city dump. I also sense waves of another burn somewhere – perhaps the distant dump itself – more toxic than mine, making my eyes sting. A neighbour starts up a car, then sits idling while conducting a lengthy conversation, a miasma of carbon monoxide washing over my cottage. Closing the windows is little help. Then I pack another black plastic bag with yet more rubbish, unburnable and unusable and unrecyclable, to be taken to the aforementioned dump. Some of this trash is ancient, hauled out of the forest below me, where decades earlier an auto-mechanic’s business here had simply shoved down the hill all its residue, from whole car wrecks to beer bottles. Then I go inside, take juice from the humming fridge, turn on a couple of lights, put the kettle on, fire up this laptop. Each step – though I’m partially independent of the grid – consuming a little more power supplied by invisible coal- and oil-fired generators. So we go, each of hundreds of millions of us, contributing to the destruction of our beautiful and only planet and home.

Enough self-flagellation, which is as useless as doing nothing. It seems overwhelming, but we do what we can. Some can do a bit more than others. I am led here to reconsider the work of our own fine poet, Douglas Livingstone, who saw all this coming thirty and forty years ago. Born in Malaya in 1932, he qualified as a microbiologist. After a stint in the government laboratories in Salisbury, in the then Rhodesia, he forged a long career measuring pollution levels at a series of coastal stations off the KZN coast. All the while he was writing poetry, dense and accomplished and voluminous, as attested by the now-standard collection, the 560-page A Ruthless Fidelity (edited by Makhanda’s own Malcolm Hacksley and the late Don Maclennan). That title, culled from one of his poems, neatly encapsulates the incisive, truth-seeking attention he paid to the world around him and to the craft of poetry. For this he was seen as easily South Africa’s most substantive poet, winning the CNA Prize for his Selected Poems in 1984. The range of subjects, verse-forms and voices is formidable, his output hugely respected if not universally liked. Lean, tanned and forthright, he exuded a swashbuckling air of sinewy machoism; some feminist readers have detected a certain misogyny lurking in his oft-expressed adoration of women. He died suddenly of stomach cancer in 1996.

In his final volume, A Littoral Zone, Livingstone wrote poems based on the string of “stations” down KZN’s South Coast where he spent years monitoring pollution levels along the shoreline. It was, he admitted, a Quixotic quest, but he felt he had to do it as part of healing the environment in the face of relentless human assaults. The assaults he unsparingly describes range from the gratuitous injury to individual animals – a turtle, a dolphin – to the pervasive scattering of trash. In the poem, “Reflections at Sunkist”, the poet is numbed by the scale of it:

Among the paper cups, the empty tins,

glittering on the sand; a silver slice

of broken mirror probes my brain with ice.

The shard placed in one of the refuse-bins

among Monday’s debris from Sunday’s crowd.

I try to face the shattered sea uncowed.

Debris recurs at a literally industrial scale, as at an abandoned whaling station, now “ship-wrecked:/ corrugated roofs, zinc walls flaking;/ most of the cataracted panes smashed,/ .... the sand still tarry.” Floods from inland bring down more junk: “debris heaped higher than two men/ ...whole swathes of riverbank,/ shreds of homemade dwellings, furniture, sheets of tin ... Donkey carcasses”: all “choking the coast for leagues.” This poem, “Scourings at Station 19”, then focuses on one “roughed up bantam”, shouting defiant life from a peak of rubbish, a reflection no doubt of Livingstone’s own rage, insisting on his “fractious challenge” and quixotic persistence against daunting odds: “life/ triumphs even on no longer trusted planets”. In contrast, in “The Christmas Chefs of Station 1A”, the “mess on the sand” left by people is “incredible”, forcing the poet close to despair:

            The approximation to justice,

            the perfectibility of man,

            the conservation of beauty,

the final attainment of truth

are salients that ever evade us.

Perhaps nothing is more poignant than a poem, not published in Livingstone’s lifetime, describing a human foetus washed down to the sea through the sewers, probably destined to become shark food. A vast cultural crisis lies behind that one little lost life. Indeed, sewage constitutes one of the worst-managed and most intractable aspects of the national reckoning with self-pollution. Livingstone doesn’t shy away from this grimy topic, though in “Guess Who?” he masks it in sardonic humour:

            On an ivory throne this thoughtful species

            Sits reading Origin of the Faeces,

            Singing ‘Take me somewhere East of sewage

            Where the best is like the worst,

            Where there ain’t no flippin’ Water Act –

            Just free beer to quench my thirst.’

That “thoughtful” is of course deeply sarcastic: this pooping character is doing what most of us do, which is precisely to avoid thinking about the issue, resort to escapism, remain content with immediate pleasures. Humans, Livingstone intimates, may be clever in some ways – he valorises science as one route to the greatest truths – but this is tempered by the thought that it is precisely our cleverness, especially with technology, that has spawned the current mess: “It is as if intellect is the ultimate/ polluter” (“Under Sentence”).

If floods wash bodies down the rivers to the beaches, the sea also delivers up anonymous corpses. In “Cells at Station 11”, Livingstone queasily notes that the sample he collects in his little bottle might well contain cells from a “blackened corpse” floating offshore. This provokes a rumination on how everything is interconnected at the level of cell components, from mitochondria to galactic dust; each of us is hardly a “self” at all, but a constellation of millions:

            Billion-year invaders

            - the silent mitochondria –

            propel our mobile towers, shared cells

            sparking, colonised by vandals:

            a fifth column of DNA

            in interstellar sequences ...

Or, as he described less scientifically in “Problems of Soul”, an imagined Chinese lad’s “last spring onion ... contained an atom of Chaka’s,/ two from Ben Jonson and one whole molecule/ that had vibrated unseen in three generations/ of plumply biceped Moscow charladies.”

Livingstone is jokey here, but time and again he returned to this sense of “shared cells” and interconnection, which means a shared destiny on a planetary scale. Though some hardy scientists express doubts, Livingstone embraced James Lovelock’s depiction of our isolated world as an all-but-conscious self-regulating organism that actively, or in effect, promotes conditions for life to flourish. He called this ‘organism’ Gaia, after the Greek goddess, a move that appealed to Livingstone’s desire to marry science, poetry and myth. That humanity has willy-nilly worked its way into threatening the very fabric of those life-systems is terrifying.  Livingstone painted a grim picture of our destiny:

We’re presiding over our own destruction. We spew into our atmosphere the climate-altering pollutant, CO2. The consequences? We’ll see increases in extreme weather conditions, more allergens, decreases in food production, increases in food- and water-related diseases, decreases in coarse-grained crops. Added to climate change, we have other human-related impacts on the planetary ecosystem. Deforestation. A combination of acidification of the oceans and the warming of seawater will lead to a loss of fish, coral reefs and biodiversity. ...[A]ll this will lead to displaced populations, conflict over scarce resources and wide-scale social breakdown. ... I can visualise a world of isolated fortresses of scientists, medics, antibiotic factories, blood transfusions, transplanted organs, the pursuit of immortality, special foods and so on. Well-armed fortresses, protected by lasers, or worse, and vast plains between the fortresses of struggling, copulating, breathing, choking, starving, dying, diseased human beings, launching their futile attacks on these privileged excrescences.

Darwinian and hyperbolic, perhaps, but also prescient. Depressingly, forty years later, the warnings from scientists remain much the same, and Livingstone’s scenario is unfolding before our very eyes.

He foresaw, too, our accelerating drive to conquer even other planets. In a poem grimly entitled “Beware of Man”, written “Lest we forget and lose our human shame” – our destructiveness exemplified by the Nazi Holocaust – he warned:

            Now swift we stride towards the lonely star,

                        Our rocketry strives outwards and the race

            Is proud for planets and new worlds afar

                        And Science speeds her deadly steely pace

            While missiles watch, each poised, a lethal spar.

                        The Bane of Earth now strops his knives for space.

Enter Elon Musk, Kim Jung Un and Co. Nuclear holocaust looms – again.

            In banks of radioactive dust I lie

                        To dream of Earth that was not always arched

                        By pendant ash-vaults, pylons warped and starched,

And Man’s brave artefacts twisted awry.

Now silence stalks beneath a shut-down sky.

In several less fantasial poems he envisaged bleak and damaged futures in the here-and-now. The levelling of a forest by merciless men described in the poem “A Death of Green” stands as exemplary of a mindset by which “A web of humankind [will] but accrue/ A legacy of dust, and no more green” (“Premonition”).

Not only do we unthinkingly pollute our ecosystems and blindly kill off other creatures, some of us go so far as to deliberately kill those who try to protect those life-systems. I want to slip in here a lament and tribute to the late Jeff Budaza, who was recently assassinated on his own Makhanda doorstep. Communitarian and parks manager for years, Budaza and I met only tangentially a couple of times, momentarily remarked on our common Rhodes University experience and issues on the Commonage, but he struck me as eminently pleasant, committed and sane. But being a good person, and in particular a compassionate protector of our environments, can be tantamount to a death sentence. Not just here: it afflicts community protectors from our own threatened Wild Coast to the Amazon, from journalists in Palestine to feminists in Mexico. So much myopic hatred everywhere, only making it worse for everyone. I want to write a poem addressed “To an Assassin”, but suspect it would be unprintable. RIP Mr Budaza.

Livingstone was onto this surfeit of hate, too, but also had a method to cope, exemplified in his work:

            first, the detection of ills which becomes

            life-long non-progressive

            find & measure the ills first, others

            can heal with stature, exhortation,

            engineering ...

One has to hope. The paradox is that humans also care; somehow evolution has also opened up compassion. Livingstone cared, revelled in life, and worked to protect it. This partly why Makhanda’s own Mariss Stevens, in her excellent MA thesis on Livingstone’s ecology, calls him a “Romantic materialist”. So must we all care, or be lost. At any rate, Livingstone elsewhere recognises, or hopes, that Life – Gaia, Nature – will in the long run outlast and survive us:

The planet counter-attacks.

Its choice is plain: kill or be killed.

Ours too: symbiosis or death

at the hands of a bright blue cell

- the only living thing in known space.


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Friday, 6 May 2022

No 127 - Can one make sense of Ukraine?


So rivetted am I by the Russian invasion of Ukraine that I actually dreamed I was there, helping someone who was rescuing displaced cats. It may yet prove to be the third great crisis of our lifetimes, along with the pandemic and the even more destructive ecological meltdown. I knew little about the region, except that it had been invaded and fought over innumerable times – so often that historian Timothy Snyder titled his book on it “Bloodlands”. So here are a few things I found.

Putin’s fateful, appalling and ill-conceived invasion is just one of a very, very long series. 

In the year 370 it was the Huns.

In 882 it was the Varangians (no, I’m not sure where they came from, either).

In 1240, the Mongols sacked Kyiv; many fled to other countries. Five years later, the papal envoy Giovanni da Pian del Carpine reported:

"They destroyed cities and castles and killed men and Kyiv, which is the greatest Russian city they besieged; and when they had besieged it a long while they took it and killed the people of the city. So when we went through that country we found countless human skulls and bones from the dead scattered over the field. Indeed it had been a very great and populous city and now is reduced almost to nothing. In fact there are hardly two hundred houses there now and the people are held in the strictest servitude."[

In the 1470s a then-powerful Lithuanian/Polish combination did it again. At that time, ‘Rus’ to the east barely registered on the map.

In 1793 Catherine the Great invaded Ukraine, just one of several Russian autocrats who would exert dominance over an area that at one time formed the very heart of Russia, at other times opted for fierce independence, and at others still were as nasty to their neighbours as anyone. The tsarist ambition for a Greater Russia in some ways was merely continued by the Communists after 1917. This new-ish national sensibility was forged in contradistinction from the ‘West’, upon whose cultural coat-tails Russia had long and ambivalently dangled. The West helped stoke Russian antipathy and fear by themselves invading occasionally: Napoleon in 1812, others a century later in the aftermath of World War I, when Russia endured a gruelling civil war. Canadian scholar Orest Subtelny wrote:

In 1919 total chaos engulfed Ukraine. Indeed, in the modern history of Europe no country experienced such complete anarchy, bitter civil strife, and total collapse of authority as did Ukraine at this time. Six different armies-– those of the Ukrainians, the Bolsheviks, the Whites, the Entente [French], the Poles and the anarchists – operated on its territory. Kyiv changed hands five times in less than a year. Cities and regions were cut off from each other by the numerous fronts. Communications with the outside world broke down almost completely. The starving cities emptied as people moved into the countryside in their search for food. [Quotations courtesy Wikipedia]

One of the worst was in 1941, when the Nazis rumbled through, levelling cities and shipping tens of thousands off to the gas-ovens. The Soviet response and backwash over Ukraine was almost as vicious; and it wasn’t long before Stalin’s policy of compulsory collectivisation starved millions more Ukrainians to death.

So one can imagine a cold-blooded Putin saying: “Why is everyone getting so excited? This has happened before!” One can see him choosing to model his attitude on a particular moment of Russian historical pride – Peter the Great, perhaps – spiced with KGB-trained Cold War paranoia, centuries-old resentment of perceived inferiority to the West, and fears of yet another encroachment, this time by NATO. He seems motivated, in short, by a monumental myth – and as Roland Barthes argued a long time ago, such myths are the greatest motivators of all. Napoleon had his myth, too; so did the British Empire, as Caroline Elkins shows in her magisterial new book, Legacy of Violence. Such myths serve to deny, justify, legalise or cover up acts of terrible violence inflicted on subject peoples. Putin’s propaganda is nothing new; every empire, every power structure, has one.

This is not in any way to justify the present invasion, which will deliver good to no one much except the arms manufacturers. Not even to Russia. And of course the situation today, due to the presence of thousands of nuclear warheads, looks more dangerous than any of those previous occasions.

What seems most mysterious to us now, perhaps, is why so many within Russia (and some outside) seem to swallow that myth and propaganda, even publicly support it.

I found myself going back to a book I’d read maybe 30 years ago, by the Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet Czeslav Milosz. Poland has been through much the same turbulent history as neighbouring Ukraine, the same spasms of national and linguistic pride and independence, the same kind of incorporation into that one-time ‘Greater Russia’ that Putin seems set on reinstating. In his book The Captive Mind, first published in 1953, Milosz explores in detail how complex is that ‘submission’ to the autocratic state. Not a simple belief in the propaganda, not a simple sense of numbed victimhood, not even a simple survival strategy for potential dissenters; but something of all of these, varying from individual to individual. Milosz is concerned mostly with intellectuals and writers, especially from Poland, who had to find ways of accommodating themselves to Stalin’s hyper-surveillance. (To understand just how intense that surveillance was, read Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope, or Orlando Figes’ grimly absorbing study of everyday lives under Stalin, The Whisperers. There are moments I feel a little in sympathy with Putin’s sneering at ‘the decadence of the West’, but however messy and hypocritical democracy can get, the Stalin-style alternative is just unacceptably terrifying.)

What strikes me about Milosz’s book, even after 70 years, is how often it’s eerily prescient of today’s situation, unsettlingly parallel. Here are just some of the passages I picked out. A key component of the syndrome is Russia’s suspicious disdain for the West – far from new to Putin & Co. Despite the West’s technological superiority,

[The] Eastern intellectual asks, what goes on in the heads of the Western masses? Aren’t their souls asleep ... isn’t Christianity dying out in the West, and aren’t its people bereft of all faith? ... Don’t they fill that void with chauvinism, detective stories, and artistically worthless movies? ...  One has but to read Tolstoi’s What is Art? to get a picture of the scorn for Western sophistication that is so typical of the Russians. [The Russian] must break that habit of imitation which was inevitable as long as French, English or Belgian capital, investing in the mines, railroads and factories [add, today, oil and gas] of the ‘Eastern Marches’, pushed its books, films and styles upon them. ... “

According to Stalin’s version of Marxism, the West is doomed: “The bourgeoisie rules through demagoguery, which in practice means that prominent positions are filled by irresponsible people who commit follies in moments of indecision.” [Trump? Johnson?] Hence, the average Russian is subjected to propaganda that “tries by every means to prove that Nazism and Americanism are identical in that they are products of the same economic conditions...” Putin seems to have bought this line entirely, relying on outdated philosophers who punt a Russian version of America’s “Manifest Destiny”, but a faith avowedly founded on pure reason and historical inevitability.

“The philosophy of History emanating from Moscow is not just an abstract theory; it is a material force that uses guns, tanks, planes, and all the machines of war and oppression. All the crushing might of an armed state is hurled against any man who refuses to accept the New [Stalinist, or Putinist] Faith. ... What is happening in Russia and the countries dependent upon her bespeaks a kind of insanity, but it is not impossible that Russia will manage to impose her insanity upon the whole world ...”

Milosz writes of the 1950s, but it is uncannily being reproduced today. Under such pressures of history, surveillance, external curbing of dissenting voices, internal self-censorship and guilt, little wonder that many find ways to ‘go along’, quietly harbouring any doubts while publicly writing odes to the Leader. It is not just a matter of lying to save one’s skin or position.

 “Finding oneself in the midst of an historical cyclone, one must behave as prudently as possible ... All [one’s] intellectual and emotional capacities are put to the test. ...What can be said openly is often much less interesting than the emotional magic of defending one’s private sanctuary. For most people the necessity of living in constant tension and watchfulness is a torture, but many intellectuals accept this necessity with masochistic pleasure. [And] even the enclosing fence affords the solace of reverie.”

This gives just a flavour of the subtlety and complexity with which Milosz unpacks the mentalities of people, especially poets and intellectuals, who find themselves caught up in the periodic whirlwinds of the “bloodlands.” It makes the courage of Pussy Riot and Navalny all the more remarkable – but look what’s happened to them. I suppose if there is any hope arising from this tortuous history, it’s that although these cities have been flattened time and again, time and again they’ve also been rebuilt. May the present-day sites of horror – the suddenly-household names of Kyiv, Bucha, Kharkiv, Mariupol – be similarly restored.

As for Milosz the poet, he refuses to give in to despair.

“The war years taught me that a man should not take a pen in his hands merely to communicate to others his own despair and defeat. This is too cheap a commodity; it takes too little effort to produce it for a man to pride himself on having done so. Whoever saw, as many did, a whole city reduced to rubble – kilometres of streets on which there remained no trace of life, not even a cat, not even a homeless dog – emerged with a rather ironic attitude towards descriptions of the hell of the big city by contemporary poets, descriptions of the hell in their own souls. A real “wasteland” is much more terrible than any imaginary one. ... Today the only poetry worthy of the name is eschatological [pertaining to the ‘end times’], that is, poetry which rejects the present inhuman world in the name of a great change.”

One has to wonder if we're not in similar eschatological times, history repeating itself, to be sure - but with contemporary variations.


Monday, 21 March 2022

No 126 - Three fabulous forest books


For forests, every day is World Forest Day.
Forests are millions of years older than we are, fundamentally responsible for creating an atmospheric, moisture and temperature regime that made our evolution and our present-day existence possible. If they are not exactly sentient beings, as some argue, they are certainly communities of intricately interlinked organisms of miraculous complexity and beauty, centuries in the making, downed in minutes. For millennia, humans have cut forests back and exploited them and failed to allow them to replenish themselves, along with their multiple inhabitants, from butterflies to bonobos – perhaps the richest sites of biodiversity the planet has ever known. Our ecological knowledge is now vast, the scale of anthropogenic catastrophe incontrovertible, yet governments and multinationals, exploiting the impoverished and servicing the rich, continue – stupidly, blindly, insanely, even criminally – to raze forest areas the size of small countries every single day. The unrelenting destruction of the Amazon rainforest is just one prominent example. My own iconic image is the heartbreaking one of an Indonesian gibbon swatting futilely at the massive blade of a machine a hundred times its size as it ploughs down the last of its homely trees.

Of course few of us are not complicit, as we pursue however modestly lifestyles dependent on power, transport, wood, beef, soy beans, palm oil. But one does what one can, contributing rescue funds, promoting local forest growth, and raising awareness. In the spirit of the last, here are three extraordinary books about forests I wholeheartedly recommend.

Nearly thirty years ago I discovered Simon Schama’s hefty book, Landscape and Memory (1995). (Since then the hyper-prolific Schama has become well-known for his books and television series on the history of England, on art, on eighteenth-century Holland, on the French Revolution, on the story of the Jews, etc etc.) Landscape and Memory launched me in one long stride into the line of study that has dominated my academic career: the intricate and unavoidable links between culture and nature, between trees, rocks, waters and literary expressions of individual and even national identities. As he puts it:

 Landscapes are culture before they are nature; constructs of the imagination projected onto wood and water and rock. ... [O]nce a certain idea of landscape, a myth, a vision, establishes itself in an actual place, it has a peculiar way of muddling categories, or making metaphors more real than their referents; of becoming, in fact, part of the scenery.

 In one arresting section, Schama explores the role in Polish self-consciousness of the Bialowieza forest and its iconic European bison. This is ancestral territory for Schama, and the figure of the Jewish forester looms large. Though he could find little about his direct forebears, Schama visits the region, tramping through the forests and sampling bison steak, leavening the riotous historical detail with poetic personal experience. Most intriguing for me was how the 19th-century poet Adam Mickiewicz re-imagined the forests and elevated them into Polish national icons. These central Eastern areas – Lithuania, Poland, Ukraine – are what historian Timothy Snyder calls the “bloodlands”, swept over by ravening hordes of insurgents for centuries, shifting borders, names and allegiances from year to year, riven with internecine spats and sundry rebellions. Putin is just the latest in a long series of devastating  invaders. Through it all, the forest and its bison have survived, though on an increasingly diminished scale. Ironically, they survived in part through the efforts of another invader, the Germans of 1941 – or more precisely Nazi No.2, Herman Goering, who declared Bialowieza a preserve to satisfy his own hunting proclivities.

As Schama discusses, this intersects with a German forest mythology. This one goes all the way back to the Roman historian Tacitus’ book Germania, in which he describes, not altogether disapprovingly, the leader of wild, wily, tough, almost hunter-gatherer forest tribes, Arminius. For the next two millennia, this natural, organic, self-sufficient  character would be periodically updated and refurbished to become a central mythic pillar of the German self-image through literature and art, even as agricultural and technological Germany became in reality something quite different. All this – and much more – is delivered in scintillating style, swarming with vivid historical detail and life, leavened by Schama’s characteristic dry wit. It’s historical writing at its very best.

Forests occupy only a third of Landscape and Memory, but they are the whole of Robert Pogue Harrison’s book, Forests: The shadow of civilisation (1992). While overlapping a little with Schama, Harrison ranges more widely over world culture and literature, from the epic of Gilgamesh to Joseph Conrad in twentieth-century Congo, from Plato to Wordsworth. As he outlines it, the forest was long that against which civilisation set itself. From being mere clearings in the midst of forbidding and frightening wilderness, human ‘civilisation’, now technologically dominant and exponentially expanding, has all but overwhelmed that wildness. Fear remains, though, as I learned from citified students I’d take out into our own tiny forest remnants for some practical ecocritical experience. So Harrison centrally asks: “What is that antagonism, however imaginary, all about? Why does the law of civilisation define itself from the outset against the forest? For what obscure religious reasons is our humanity, in its traditional alienation from the animal kingdom, incompatible with this aboriginal environment?” He proposes, in part, that the “destructive impulse with respect to nature all too often has psychological causes that go beyond the greed for natural resources or the need to domesticate an environment”. Two chapter headings capture the book’s trajectory: “From mythic origins to deforestation”, and  “The ecology of finitude.” Once upon a time the forests might have seemed endless (as they did to the early American settlers  depicted in Annie Proulx’s epic forest novel Barkskins; axe and saw destroyed that illusion with frightening rapidity.) Deforestation and its discontents are not new: Harrison quotes Plato, lamenting the deforestation of Greece (to build warships) four centuries before Christ:

 In comparison of what then was, there are remaining only the bones of the wasted body ... all the richer and softer parts of the soil having fallen away, and the mere skeleton of the land being left.

Harrison ranges from the forest-friendly, goddess-centred ancient myths, through the forest exile of Nietzsche’s tortured philosopher-character Zarathustra, through mediaeval forest law and lore (Robin Hood’s context) to twentieth-century poets such as AR Ammons and the Italian Andrea Zanzotto. If at times Harrison seems to me to over-read, to over-psychologise his material, so that I find myself mildly disagreeing with his reading of texts I know well, such as Dante’s Inferno or Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, it’s nevertheless bewitching, challenging, educative stuff. A profound and unsettling work that leaves one in no doubt of the cultural (let alone real) importance of forests down the ages.

Finally, a most recent novel that actually matches up to the cover blurbs – “Exhilarating”, “Extraordinary”. American novelist Richard Powers’ The Overstory has taken the world by storm, having won that most prestigious and reliable of prizes, the Pulitzer. It has been doing the rounds of the book clubs, and has already been incorporated by university colleagues into their syllabi. Many other readers I’ve met, having read the book, have gone straight back to the beginning to start it again. It might have just a couple too many characters and strands in it; I suppose it is rather within that tradition of American novels that are as vast and sprawling as the continent, encompassing multiple plots, multiple locales and multiple ethnicities (think John dos Passos’ U.S.A., Tom Wolfe’s Time and the River, Proulx’s Accordion Crimes, Don de Lillo’s Underworld.) But who cares when the writing is this good, the invention of character so sharp and plausible, the dialogue so deft and funny, the philosophical underpinnings so unflinching and wise.

All the characters are in some way involved with trees, even when they don’t particularly think they are. They include a woman who makes it her life’s work to prove that trees communicate with each other; activists who camp in the topmost branches of a centuries-old redwood to prevent it being reduced to planks by commercial loggers; three generations of farmers who daily photograph what turns out to be America’s last chestnut tree, the rest having been blighted by invasive disease; a computer gamer. I have not encountered another writer who seems so effortlessly to capture contemporary society in both its material and techno-virtual complexity, and to expose so trenchantly its pretensions and idiocies. (The same can be said of his slimmer, but still devastating, parallel novel Bewilderment.)

Above all, with awe-inspiring research and knowledge, insight and wisdom, he illuminates the life, antiquity, complexity, vivacity, variety, beauty and vital importance of trees. I was raised in bush and mountain forest, so I needed no persuasion; but it would take an extraordinarily numb reader of any background not to feel seriously changed by this book, to have their view of trees fundamentally enhanced and illuminated. I’m far from convinced that any book or artwork, no matter how good, will radically deflect blind mass humanity from its present catastrophic course, but at least we have this one. I’ll leave you with just one representative passage, so juicy, oddball and wise, lessons so deftly refracted through character, you could take almost each sentence and meditate on its implications for a week.

 They drive from farm to farm, between last year’s blights and next year’s vanishing topsoil. He shows her extraordinary things: the spreading cambium of a sycamore that swallowed up the crossbar of an old Schwinn someone left leaning against it decades ago. Two elms that draped their arms round each other and became one tree.

            “We know so little about how trees grow. Almost nothing about how they bloom and branch and shed and heal themselves. We’ve learned a little about some of them, in isolation. But nothing is less isolated or more social than a tree. [...] Here! Look at this. Look at this!” [...]

            Her father is her water, air, earth and sun. He teaches her how to see a tree, the living sheath of cells under every square inch of bark doing things no man has yet figured out. [...] Watching the man, hard-of-hearing, hard-of-speech Patty learns that real joy consists of knowing that human wisdom counts less than the shimmer of beeches in a breeze. As certain as weather coming from the west, the things people know for sure will change. There is no knowing for a fact. The only dependable things are humility and looking.

 “Humility and looking”. Amen.



Saturday, 19 February 2022

No 125 - Nancy Farmer's Zimbabwean novels


No one I speak to
in this neck of the book world seems to have heard of Nancy Farmer. This is despite the popularity of her chosen genre, Young Adult fantasy; despite the fact that her novels have won a string of prestigious prizes; and despite the fact that several of them are set in southern Africa, specifically Zimbabwe.

She was born in 1941 in Phoenix, Arizona, but as a younger woman spent some 17 years in Mozambique and Zimbabwe, mostly doing entomological work – largely spiders in Mozambique, then tsetse fly control in the Zambezi Valley. (She and I must have come close to crossing paths at Rukomeche near Mana Pools, an area I also haunted for a time.) During this period she met Harold Farmer, then teaching English at the University in Harare, marrying him after a whirlwind courtship (a week, according to Wikipedia, exaggerating slightly). Harold was himself proving to be an excellent poet, publishing a slim volume with Longmans, Absence of Elephants, which I’ve written about elsewhere

Much affected by story-telling traditions among the peoples of Zimbabwe, Nancy went on to be a prolific, charming, wide-ranging and acclaimed novelist, writing mostly for the young of various ages. Her topics and settings vary widely, too, from the futuristic The House of the Scorpion, set in the violent Mexico/USA borderlands (possibly my personal favourite), to the more conventional Sea of Trolls (2004) with its northern panoply of trolls, dragons etc. I’ve said ‘charming’ and ‘conventional’, but that’s not quite right. On the one hand, Farmer doesn’t spare her youngsters the tough realities – Vikings throw babies into fires, girls menstruate, and so on, though she’s never gratuitous; on the other hand, she consistently obliges her readers to question prejudice and preconceptions. So, for example, the young protagonist of Sea of Trolls, kidnapped from Lindisfarne by Vikings, discovers they are not all as bad as they’ve been portrayed; in turn, the Vikings vilify and stereotype trolls, who also prove to be rather more complex, and so on. In this subtlety and quiet challenge, Farmer makes a writer like JK Rowling look decidedly derivative.

As befits most YA fiction, her protagonists are themselves youngsters, presented with various challenges and put through the mill of sundry adventures. This is true of her Zimbabwean novels, too. The slenderest and ‘youngest’ of three I’ll look at here is The Warm Place (1995). It’s not set in Zimbabwe as such, or even Africa more broadly, as it involves the capture of a young giraffe and her incarceration in a San Francisco zoo.  She finds herself able to collude with a chameleon who teaches her how to disappear, a rat with an aristocratic name and a brusquely dismissive manner but a good heart, and a wee lad who is one of the few humans able to speak with animals in the Common Tongue – all devising a plan to smuggle themselves back to Africa – which is, of course, the Warm Place. It’s funny, fanciful and economical even as it’s scathing about exploitative humans in general and the wildlife trade in particular. This might explain why it was more popular in Africa than in the US. Despite its fanciful elements, it’s observant about real animal behaviour and ecology, without ever being overtly didactic. Here as elsewhere in the novels, Farmer delights in slipping in African-style folktales, sometimes based on Biblical or Talmudic stories, lightly delivered by characters to each other, with both entertaining levity and ethical weight – the very essence of fine story-telling.

Two novels firmly set in Zimbabwe
are aimed at older readers and are more substantial; indeed they are satisfying reading for Ancient adults as much as for Young ones. A Girl Named Disaster (1996) begins with twelve-year-old Nhamo (‘disaster’ in Shona), living on the northern border of Zimbabwe with Mozambique, on one of the rivers running into Cabora Bassa dam. It’s an area familiar to Farmer from her entomological studies, and it shows. She also got to know local Shona culture, its artefacts and family structures, pretty well. Always a tricky business, writing into a culture not one’s own, but she manages it without condescension or stereotyping. (For non-Shona readers Farmer supplies several pages of glossary, cultural notes and extensive research bibliography.) Nhamo finds herself embroiled in arguments about a witchcraft event (this spiritual dimension is depicted as authentically crucial in the community even as members disagree about it), eventuating in her betrothal to a ghastly man. (Such arranged child marriages remain an issue in some parts.) On her grandmother’s advice, she escapes in order to find her long-absent father back in Zimbabwe. The Mozambique civil war growls in the background, hippos guard the river. The father doesn’t sound very promising, either… Suffice it to say things don’t go quite as planned. It’s all about what Farmer identifies as her main thrust, self-reliance.

Nhamo’s journey is epically unlikely, I suppose, but delivered in grounded and realist mode. The other novel is a rather different kettle of fantasy. The Ear, The Eye and The Arm (1994) won the most prestigious prize in this field, the Newbery Honor, among others, and is set in a futuristic Harare. The year is 2194, but the city is still recognisable in its general layout, its divisions between rich and heavily fortified northern suburbs and ‘township’ trashlands ruled by a shadowy matriarch. The transport system is suitably modernised, but Mbare retains the colourfully chaotic character of the informal market. And now the son of a General has been kidnapped … The eponymous body parts are in fact the three members of a detective agency hired to find him; each has a wildly distended organ appropriate to his role. But of course it is a trio of youngsters who are central to the search, racketing through various vicissitudes and strange hidden realms of the vast city. It’s all wonderfully inventive, easily visualisable, oscillating between terror and hope, disappointment and idealism, in its path to its inevitably satisfactory and triumphant ending. In that, at least, Farmer conforms to the comedic conventions of YA fiction.

It's all lovely stuff,
with deft, often funny dialogue and vivid description, and a natty weirdness quite unlike anything else to have emerged from Zimbabwe. Even in the novels, as in her slightly scrambled, candid and self-deprecating self-portrait on her official website,  you sense behind it a sweetly maverick person it would be wonderful to meet. Perhaps one might, in the deserts of Arizona, where apparently she and Harold (I hope) still live.


See for more books and paintings.

Tuesday, 7 December 2021

No 124 - Wild Coast Oil Exploration: Some seismic thoughts


Almost simultaneously, a British court prohibited Shell Oil from advancing their Camco development in the North Sea, while a South African court ruled that the same company may proceed with seismic shock exploration along the Wild Coast. The British decision seems aligned with the globally accelerating move away from fossil-fuel dependency and attendant environmental poisoning; the South African decision flies in the face of that more enlightened path. Both court proceedings were accompanied by vociferous street and online protests, in the South African case spearheaded by Oceans Not Oil. Like many others, I signed and shared their petition to halt seismic blasting, and like many others was dismayed when it failed.

I wasn’t surprised at the court decision, though. The whole process was approved back in 2013, and low-level seismic testing has been going on ever since, indeed at an “abnormally high level” (Russell). This latest surge of ‘activism’ is perhaps a classic case of too little, too late – though I guess there’s never a valid time not to be an activist. (It is a measure of the power of the multinational-government complex that ‘activist’ – i.e. someone who simply wants clean air, potable water, functional ecosystems, and uncontaminated food – has become equivalent to ‘villain’, even ‘terrorist’, punishable for temporarily blocking a pavement while the destroyers-in-chief rumble blithely on.) One of the court’s reasons for denying the application for an injunction was that Shell would lose money. Why anyone outside of Shell should care beats me, but it shows where the power lies.

Seismic exploration is certainly more prominent in the news than ever before, which is good. Many local papers also seemed warmly on the side of the protestors. But the issue is, to put it mildly, more complex than the overblown publicity on either side would have one believe. In an article in the Daily Friend, career contrarian and free-marketeer Ivo Vegter rated the anti-Shell movement’s chances as “nil”, and insinuated that few if any protestors had ever read a scientific article on seismic testing; he may be right, though it’s not obvious that he sampled all 160 000 petition signatories. (That he couldn’t get his fellow-journalist Mike Loewe’s name right doesn’t fill me with confidence about other of his ‘facts’.) I could niggle away at the details of Vegter’s piece, which is chock-full of its own simplifications, speculative asides, and distracting insinuations, but better to home in on the provocative questions he does raise. I am no more expert on the subject than he is, poorly qualified to judge whether this or that scientific study is valid. But when the petition came up I burrowed into the literature quite a bit, and have done some more since, and what follows are some amateur but hopefully stimulating thoughts. [Links to all sources at the end.]

It might help to think it through on three scales: close, intermediate, and global.

The closest range involves the present activity of seismic testing itself. One of the cornerstone objections to it is its potential damage to surrounding marine life. The stress is on potential, because the studies just don’t exist to make very secure predictions. Vegter claims that seismic testing has gone on elsewhere for decades without ever inducing ecosystemic collapse. Perhaps. (So has poaching rhino and abusing women.) Most objectors cite whale and dolphin strandings as evidence of seismic testing-induced disorientation, but our capacity to ascertain this is very limited. Studies are fairly plentiful to show that seismic blasts can damage the hearing of organisms from cetaceans through tuna and squid to crustaceans, and that they induce a variety of visible behavioural responses, from outright flight to disturbances in breeding and feeding regimens. Many if not most such effects seem to be ‘temporary’, but when testing goes on unremittingly for months, there’s no telling what ramifications might accrue. Some fish, for example, have been observed to dive deeper when testing occurs; if a particular shoal does that for weeks, impacts on birds like gannets which feed on them could be catastrophic. It takes only a few days to starve.

Two broad-ranging surveys of the science which I found especially rich and useful show that while the concerns are fundamentally valid, there are numerous caveats to consider. One survey, published in the Journal of Marine Pollution, was supported by the Australian Government, whose fossil-fuel policies are worse than abysmal, so perhaps one shouldn’t trust it absolutely; the second, conducted by David Russell for the Namibian fisheries industry, seems equally thorough despite its commercial angle, and it’s full of terrific technical detail. Just his conclusions are worth reading. Both surveys make many similar points. Their caveats include the following:

            1. There are various ways of conducting seismic tests of an ocean floor, 2D and 3D, each with varying impacts, frequencies, and intensities: “there is no such thing as a typical seismic survey” (Russell). Most discussions focus on airgun blasts, whose echoes off and through the underlying geology are picked up by a ‘streamer’ of sensors trailed behind the test ship. The effects vary hugely according to ocean currents, depth, hardness or softness of the floor, and life-forms’ proximity. Only at very close range – a few metres, it seems – might a creature actually die from the blast as such. Beyond that, impacts become extremely difficult to measure.

            2. A majority of the studies have been conducted in laboratories and tanks, a very different proposition to the turbulent environs of a living ocean. And almost all pick out an individual species to study, and only in close proximity to an airgun blast. So you might be able to determine with great precision what damage is done to a certain fish’s otolith ear-part in controlled conditions, but it’s less easy to measure the results in real-world environs, and dangerous to generalise. If purely physiological consequences are hard to predict, how much more so complex behavioural changes. Cascade effects must inevitably occur, but in practice few have tried to track even the most circumscribed threads in such infinite complexities.

            3. Different sea creatures ‘hear’ differently; not all have ears like mammals, but altogether other organs and equipment, from cilia and swim-bladders to pressure-sensitive skins, whose parameters we don’t even know how to monitor yet. Vegter notes correctly that other sounds in the ocean reach decibel levels equivalent to airgun blasts, but decibels (already a relative rather than an absolute measure), is only one crude approximation to the complexity of hearing; frequency, intensity, duration, pulse effects, pressure can all play a role. 

David Russell summarises:

There is very little evidence of direct tissue damage caused by seismic surveys. This can be partly attributed to the standard procedure of gradually ramping up the sound, and the constantly moving vessel, both of which tend to make the appearance of airgun noise be gradual enough to allow animals to avoid intense exposure. It is also clear that we have virtually no direct observations about the short or long-term physiological effects on wild creatures, since they cannot be examined.

Now, the defenders of seismic exploration (à la cigarette and opioid manufacturers and climate change denialists) will pounce all over these various uncertainties to suggest, essentially, that there isn’t a problem at all. It’s therefore fine just to carry on. Nothing is more revealing than the statements of the oil industry itself – and what they obscure or omit. It’s quite heavy going, reading through and behind the self-congratulatory slurry of business-speak that weighs down the web pages of PGS, a company that has been conducting seismic surveys off our coast for some years. Some things seem clear. a) They are happy to publicise their robust, not to say mind-boggling, profit margins. Good on yer, mate. b) They acknowledge that there might be adverse effects on marine life, but assert that their mitigation strategies are adequate. These include “trained monitors” aboard the survey vessel who will halt proceedings if any mammals are spotted nearby (good luck detecting all of them in a cubic kilometre of turbid sea, not to mention equally vulnerable octopi, turtles, larvae, corals, crabs, etc etc etc), and “exclusion buffers” around our several Marine Protected Areas. In both instances, while it remains uncertain what blast effects are beyond very close proximity, it is incontrovertible that they are audible for tens, if not hundreds, of kilometres, depending on conditions. Such buffers are illusory. Moreover, the company avers that everything is conducted within the relevant laws, safety requirements, Environmental Impact Assessments, and so on. Which may be true – but this seems to me only to reveal how feeble, how unhealthily pliant to the fossil-fuel business the regulations themselves are. The studied marginalisation of the Ministry of Environment on this issue is a local example; but even internationally the laws, whether in or out of sovereign waters, are muddled and unenforceable, and the most relevant international bodies, such as the Fisheries Commission and UNEP, are effectively toothless.

We are already spilling over into medium- and long-range considerations. Which is to say: they can only be artificially separated. For the moment, I want only to reverse the question, to ask: Are seismic blasts good for the marine ecosystem? All the uncertainties notwithstanding, there is only one possible answer: No.

Here we can think towards the next level. The intermediate term, which is to say the next decade or two, is fraught with potentially far greater problems. Assuming that the suspected millions of barrels of crude oil (read, poison) are discovered and extracted, we’ll be faced with the usual slew of unsightly rigs, constant ship traffic, flaring, almost inevitable spills, and leaking pipelines. The oil and gas companies provide not inconsiderable justifications, of course. These are primarily the provision of desperately needed jobs (both in the immediate infrastructure and in downstream ancillary industries), and the national localisation of fuel production (read, refined poisons). True to a point, though such assurances by multinationals have a fulfilment history that is patchy at best. Sure, the associated financial-commercial ‘ecosystem’ is almost as complex as the natural one, and it will be difficult to unravel. We are in a prickly double-bind, make no mistake. But major reformatory steps are within our capacities. Unlike dolphins and plankton, we have an array of choices. And this is what always gets me: with all our human ingenuity, are we really incapable of creating other kinds of jobs, redirecting engineers and financiers, shifting communities and labour to engage in cleaner sources of more justly distributed wealth? We could (we do it all the time, actually), but in this case the power-brokers resist breaking the inertia, even if it is crystal clear that fossil fuel-based (read, poison-powered) industrial expansion at the present rate is a recipe for environmental catastrophe.

At the broadest, most far-reaching scale, then – impacts on global climate and environmental health over the next century or more, say – the oil industry largely fails to think at all. Or worse, knows damn well but covers it up. PGS’s website acknowledges climate change as a concern, but confines itself to avowed mitigation measures within its own operations. Whatever those mitigations may be, they are not not adding to CO2 emissions, oceanic disturbances, extinction rates, and poisons production. It’s weird: do these people not have children and grandchildren to whom they would like to bequeath a healthier world? Do they not care? Oh ja, I forgot, humans have a seriously chequered and well-attested history of not caring. (Ask any refugee on the Belarus border.)

Don’t get me wrong: I appreciate that many like me have benefited, directly and indirectly, from the vast array of technologies spawned by fossil-fuel power, from the joys of travel to the hygienics of plastic, from my oil paints to the refined steels of the medical equipment which has literally saved my life. (Or at least extended it a bit.) I would not have wanted to live in any other era (though a billion or two other folk may not have benefitted so much.) Like Macbeth in blood, we are stepped so far in oil that it’s hard to see ways out. Alas, even in the most propitious of futures, our Civilisation of Eternal Growth is doomed to use these fuels a bit longer. But it’s also now abundantly clear that we must collectively turn a corner, or we will literally weather a very terrible time. Ceasing further exploration would be a big step forward. Searching manically for yet more of the same, in one of the world’s shrinking still-beautiful and biodiverse regions nogal, is surely a peculiarly blinkered kind of madness.


Tuesday, 16 November 2021

No 123 - Seriousness: George Steiner, literary giant


I thought, for once,
I had a chance to air a tribute to a great writer before his demise – but, as usual, I dithered, and lately discovered to my great sadness that George Steiner had died last year, aged 90.

 You’re unlikely to have encountered Steiner unless you’re pickled in literary criticism – and possibly not even then, since the academic establishment has had a habit of marginalising him at crucial times. This despite him fielding hundreds of reviews and public lectures, publishing some 40 books (only a handful of which I’ve read myself), and eventually holding some exceedingly prestigious posts at the universities of Oxford, Harvard and Geneva.

 During my undergrad years, my beloved mentor Don Maclennan introduced me to Steiner’s 1975 magnum opus, After Babel. This is a daunting tome which, ostensibly about the problem of translation from one language to another, turns out to be so much more: an extended meditation on the phenomenon of language, on interpretation, on the slippery relationship between objects and the words that describe them, in the end on the nature of consciousness itself. I was instantly entranced by the opening pages, in which Steiner unpacks a longish passage from Shakespeare’s lesser-known drama, Cymbeline. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t read the play: it was the way Steiner showed how every word and sentence structure fizzes with its specific energy, history, and concatenations of meaning. He goes on to do the same with an extract from Jane Austen, revealing how her vocabulary and syntax was so specific to her eighteenth-century milieu, class and education that it is fundamentally impossible now to recreate in our own minds the fullness of her meanings. It is – to use one of his favourite words – incommensurable, never completely translatable, always slipping away into mystery – the mysteriousness of poetic creation itself. No neurological brain-scans can perceive how this facility operates.

 I was also blown away by Steiner’s own language-use: thick, metaphorical, laden with literary reference, slick. Every sentence was, is, a cultural education. If he name-dropped as densely as an encyclopaedia, it seemed to me not so much pretentious as authoritative. If he could bring into intimate proximity Homer, Goethe and Walter Benjamin, somehow you knew that he had actually read all three, in their original languages, thoroughly and with a penetrating understanding. Above all, he instantly convinced me of his seriousness. Unlike many popular polemicists, he was never playing intellectual games, but took the task of accurate, knowledgeable, and honest literary appreciation and cultural interpretation as vital to our very humanity. Even as a young and (he admits this) insufferably arrogant whippersnapper, he was openly intolerant of academic pomp and pretence. There would never be any hesitation in panning anyone’s sacred cows, so it’s little wonder that he was sometimes regarded warily. In our Honours course on Literary Theory, I remember professor Nic Visser sneering at Steiner as somehow behind the theoretical curve, but admitting a certain genius: “God, to be able to write like that!” But then Nic favoured Marxism, which Steiner dismisses as largely dangerous nonsense. I must have, in some half-baked instinctual way, agreed with Steiner: I ploughed through Nic’s photocopied reams of Marxist literary criticism, from Engels through Christopher Caudwell to Raymond Williams and Terry Eagleton, but – like cosmic rays passing invisibly through my body without disturbing a single cell – not an iota of it stuck. But Steiner: now here was someone whose eloquence and depth spoke to my very core.

 A certain dismissiveness persists. He is in various commentaries characterised as “literary critic”, which is right, but also absurdly narrow. There are few who could range as he did from linguistics to neurology (he nearly became a scientist), from writing on foreign affairs for the Economist to a book on Heidegger. He did, in retrospect, accuse himself of dabbling too widely, making certain over-hasty judgements, but – compared to a compulsive dilettante like me – even his dabbling has enormous and provocative weight. He knew enough to locate yawning gaps in scholarship and understanding, being fond of saying “we know nothing about” X or Y, concerning not the usual scholarly trivia, but the profoundest existential questions. (I took as epigraph to my novella The Flight of the Bat such a sentence from After Babel: “We have no history of the future tense.”)

 He is also routinely characterised as “French-American”, which doesn’t begin to describe this Euro-polyglot. True, he was born in Paris (just two weeks after my mother in April 1929): his Viennese-Jewish parents saw Nazism coming a long way off and got the hell out. And true, having moved again, he became an American citizen in 1944, and was later educated at Chicago (loved it) and Harvard (awful; they mutually vowed never to have anything to do with each other, though they still granted him a chair some forty years later). But he moved back to the UK and Switzerland, closer to his European roots; if he didn’t stay there, his beloved father said, Hitler would have won. Thus, “French” was only one touchstone in a man who also spoke English and German from childhood, and who became more than conversant with half a dozen further languages, from the Russian of Dostoyevsky to the Italian of Dante. The cultural richness he can thus draw on is fantastic. He deplores the snobbish monolingualism of so many Anglo-American academics, and of the extinction of so many of the world’s minor (but no less wonderful) languages by the global dominance of American English. The mythic splintering of the world’s languages “after Babel” he regards as engendering a manifold, irreplacable richness, even as it creates insuperable problems of cross-cultural understanding. It is among his abiding questions: How did that even happen? What is this universal “languaging” facility in humans that has spawned such cultural magnificence in literature, art (and above all for him) music? And how is it that such beauty can coexist with such cruelty and hate? As an inadvertent escapee of the Holocaust (he prefers Shoah), he repeatedly asks how an Auschwitz commandant could return home after a mass gassing of Jews and weep at a Schubert sonata.

 Perhaps the unflinching, even embarrassing acuity of such questions is what turns some away. The Wikipedia entry on his “Views”, for example, is exceedingly brief and feeble: fully a third is given over pruriently to a four-line quotation from his memoir, Errata (1997), about how he lost his virginity to a gentle prostitute (while ignoring pretty much all of the major ideas, including his lengthy condemnation elsewhere of pornography).

 I delayed writing this piece partly because I wanted to read Errata first; the rest of the work said remarkably little about him. Like some other readers, I was a little disappointed that Errata remained thin on the personal. It is mostly about the ideas that have coursed through his work, so there are compact discussions on translation, on his secular version of Jewishness, on language and music, and a characteristic whinge about the state of the academy, its “professionalisation” of mediocrity, the commercialised, shallow over-production of tens of thousands of unreadable theses. He is particularly scathing about the current predominance of “theory”, much of which he condemns as unreadable, even “mendacious”  posturing by “the circus folk of deconstructionism” which adds nothing to the appreciation of creative works themselves. Being rubbish at wielding theory myself, I’m inclined to concur. One reviewer sniffed that you would do better going to the other books to get these ideas’ full treatment, but Errata might equally serve as an introduction to them. (The other good way in would be Penguin’s A George Steiner Reader. Among its various extracts from the big works, is one from his only novel, The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H., which imagines Adolf Hitler re-discovered alive and well in the Amazon. Steiner seems to fancy he could/should have written more fiction – he did publish three volumes of short stories, which I haven’t read –  but I find Portage close to impenetrable.)

 In tiny snatches the life is revealed. An unspecified “car mishap” when driving with his wife Zara occurs, but only because Steiner wonders if his instinctive shout reveals a “first language”. (Inconclusive.) Something about old age provokes a numbing description: “a malodorous waste, an incontinence of mind and body made raw by the remembrance of the unfulfilled.” Ouch. He mentions his son and daughter just once each. Only in the closing chapters, when he pays tribute to various of his life’s teachers, do we get piercing and fond portraits of others, something verging on the anecdotal. (He can be quite anecdotal, slyly humorous, in his interviews on YouTube.)  Otherwise, he remains focused on the serious business, especially of teaching: “The signal reward for a teacher is to engage students whom he discovers to be abler than himself.” One of his mentors, R P Blackmur, he said, “let down by his poetry, burnished his prose to a pitch of obtrusive brilliance, of ornamentation so visible, so ‘palpably designed’ (Keats’ admonition) as to interpose itself between insight and object.” Some might say the same of Steiner’s own prose. It’s sometimes a relief to catch him writing a simple sentence.

 The concentration on education – his life-work, even more than criticism, which was being “a happy parasite” really – you might follow up in his book Lessons of the Masters (2003). Ranging across pedagogical encounters from Socrates to Schopenhauer, he drops lapidary thoughts to keep one thinking forever: “The pulse of teaching is persuasion ... and, optimally, collaborative dissent.” “Argument should end in poetry.” He worries that the age-old organic relationship between Teacher and Disciple is eroding in our age of internet and mass literacy; for all its power, it depersonalises: “Human fidelity, ... love and betrayal, are foreign to the electronic.” Perhaps. Personally, wedded to the face-to-face nature of ‘real’ teaching, I am so grateful to be spared having to teach via Zoom.

 Or one might pick up on his ubiquitous references to the great philosophers and read The Poetry of Thought (2011), in which he shows how thinkers, from Hellenism to the present, have used poetics to convey philosophic concepts. Plato formed fictional dialogues to pursue arguments; Nietzsche used the character of Zarathustra; Marx engaged constantly with literature; Merleau-Ponty wrote almost pure poetry. (I simplify horribly.) Again and again he returns to the primacy of the linguistic in forging human self-awareness, even though “The inherited fixities of vocabulary and syntax can never altogether bridge the gap between articulation and the flow and eddies of consciousness.” Because of that, Steiner believes, we in effect act constantly in what amounts to a state of religious faith, a belief, forever deferred, that we can articulate the world, that we can reach out to “real presences”, not just phantasms of our imaginations. Don Maclennan gave me his copy of Real Presences (1989), scored over with his wavering pencil lines and left-handed marginal ticks. Among the points he marked as worth attention: “I would define literature (art, music) as the maximalisation of semantic incommensurability in respect of the formal means of expression”. Chew on that for a bit!

 So much more might be said of this “Platonic anarchist”, as he thought of himself. Much is arguable, but it would be facile to dismiss him as an outdated elitist. Steiner pursued excellence in all things, and so disdained those modes of political correctness which substitute easy slogans and a culture of complaint for the hard graft of creative reading and interpretation. Like the great literature he makes his stamping ground, he is worth going back to again and again. He has certain limits. He is European to the core: Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Antipodes scarcely register. Well, he has enough to work with. He does show signs of attending to more global, less literary concerns. He saw towards the end of his life some redeeming hope for humans in their increasing concern for animals and the natural environment. And Errata includes this passage, as good a summary of our planetary plight as any:

 All of us are guests of life. No human being knows the meaning of its creation, except in the most primitive, biological regard. No man or woman knows the purpose, if any, the possible significance of its “thrownness” into the mystery of existence. Why is there not nothing? Why am I? We are guests of this small planet, of an infinitely complex, perhaps chancy weave of evolutionary processes and mutations which, at innumerable points, might have gone otherwise or witnessed our execution. As it has turned out, we are vandal-guests, laying waste, exploiting and destroying other species and resources. We are rapidly turning to poisonous garbage this uncannily beautiful, intricately adjusted environment, and even outer space. There are trash-bins on the moon. Inspired as it is, the ecological movement which, together with a nascent perception of the rights of children and of animals, is among the few lit chapters in our century, may have come too late.