April 20, 2016

Medieval Poisoning a doorway on the past

I haven't yet finished Stephen Bednarski's book on Margarida du Portu, accused of poisoning in her medieval town in the fourteenth century. Du Portu was accused of poisoning her husband by her brother in law, Raymon, and for the moment I'll leave it there. Bednarski's book is interesting because its a reflexive book. He goes inside his own choices and shows you the different books he might have written. His interest is in family history so the first story he shows you is the story of Margarita and Raymon. Then he shows you how you could tell the same story but focus on the gender aspects or the way that it reveals how Roman law was practiced in a medieval French town. The story becomes illuminated from different points with the different angles of light illuminating different features of the tale.

It is a really interesting way of writing history and one I've not seen much of before. It takes you inside the box with the historian. I found it quite disorientating. I was quite gripped by the story of Du Portu's family and to be suddenly transported back into the confines of Roman legal procedure and how it worked in this case- I found quite disturbing. I also found it spoiled the book for me in some ways- the neat flowing story that my mind wanted was broken up. That's possibly a good thing- but its an interesting thing because it shows to me how much I am dependent on that narrative flow to understand the world. As soon as you present the way that the light shifts depending on how the historian shines the torch, my mind struggles and gets upset.

January 30, 2014

12 year a slave: views of Washington

After seeing the film, 12 years a slave, I went away and read the book by Solomon Northup, published in 1853 on which the film is based. There are numerous features which aren't in the film but are in the book. One that I thought was really interesting was that the film doesn't make explicit some of the things that Northup says. Northup is very keen to bring out the hypocrisy of the Washington establishment: for example, he talks of Washington, and says of the house that he was imprisoned in

Strange as it may seem, within plain sight of this same house, looking down from its commanding height upon it, was the Capitol. The voices of patriotic representatives boasting of freedom and equality and the rattling of the poor slave's chains, almost commingled. A slave pen within the very shadow of the Capitol.
We can support Solomon's insight with other sources. Solomon also mentions a time when the ships sailed bearing him south, as they passed Mount Vernon, the White Men bared their heads to the memory of George Washington, whether the black slaves did is left to us to imagine.

There were probably good artistic reasons to leave these things out. Slavery is not a live political issue today- but I think they also demonstrate the change of genre that the film represents as opposed to the book. The Book is quite clearly a political polemic: its saying, look America is the land of the free and Washington fought for justice for all- look at how you don't do this. The film is talking about the suffering of the slaves in the past- a suffering that thanks to the sacrifice of US citizens (both black and white) has passed. I can imagine reading the book in 1853 would have been a completely different experience to how we see the film in 2014: the latter is a shocking artefact, the former something more akin to reading about an atrocity today. Our responses are different therefore: the book is trying to rouse anger, the film, understanding and regret. The book fights against actual southerners who believed in slavery, the film against forgetting the suffering.

January 27, 2014

Twelve Years a Slave

Slavery is a big word. It is a horrific word, one that sums up a horrific reality in which the fortunes of a few were made with the sinews of the many. Its a concept that has been central to European thought since at least Aristotle and the fear of becoming a slave haunts the imagination of most European republican thinkers. Of course slavery became most famous on the western shores of the Atlantic, in the southern United States. I would be surprised if anyone now thought that slavery was in any way justified: the days in which a Calhoun or Alexander Stephens might fulminate on the floor of the senate in support of natural slavery are thankfully long gone. So why does the world need a new film which focuses on slavery and which retells the story of Solomon Northup, a kidnapped slave from the north who was brought to work on the cotton fields of the south for 12 long years? It is a question that some people have asked: I think they are wrong.

Slavery is a word that gets used a lot. Politicians talk about slavery all the time, comparing in America and Britain various political initiatives from their opponents to slavery. We have almost emptied slavery of its reality: it didn't look or feel like Obamacare, I could use other examples but am wary of going round the internet to find them. 12 years a slave brings you face to face with a reconstruction of what slavery might have been like. Based, fairly accurately on the life story of Northup, it doesn't spare any of the brutality. Once he is kidnapped, Northup gets beaten for claiming his real name. On the fields, he gets lashed by overseers and sadistic masters. He gets beaten and attacked by others. Perhaps the violence is not really the shocking element of the film: more its the sign of slaves being stripped down as their masters treat them and talk about them like cattle or horses, beasts whose muscles may be praised rather than humans whose feelings must be respected. (Of course, although the violence seers the screen, the director didn't portray as much as is in the memoir!)

Slavery in this context doesn't just mean theoretical subjugation, it means the real deprivation of freedom. Northup the slave may work even for a benevolent master such as Mr Ford, but when that master decides to sell him, his life is at that master's whim. This is particularly illustrated by the case of Eliza- a fellow slave of Northup in the early part of the film. She became the mistress of her master (as we can see later in the film this was not neccessarily a voluntary relationship): having born him a child, when he dies, she was flung out of his house by his wife and daughter. She was sold into slavery: and her children were sold separately so that Eliza spends most of the early part of the film weeping her loss. It is agonising to watch this innocent woman bewail her loss, a loss that she did not in any way deserve. Slavery reckoned a mother's love as less important than her children's price.

I think there is a real moral point in this film and its one that we should think about ourselves. Slavery reduced people to goods. Solomon forever as a slave is shown not speaking, a silent presence on the stage of history. He can't write- save for in blackberry juice. Only when he meets an abolitionist can his words get north. Without writing, without honest speech, he loses family and name- all the coordinates of his existence. He and his fellow slaves have become mere property. Save of course for the fact that they are not. This is nowhere more ironically portrayed than in the relationship of masters to slave girls: Patsey a young slave girl (amazingly played by Lupita Nyong'o) is treated as an economic asset, a piece of sexual meat and a threat but never as a person by her master. Only Northup treats her thus, by refusing to help her commit suicide. This is part of the fundamental immorality of slavery: 12 years a slave captures this on screen.

This lack of personhood is written through everyday life, it runs through it. So for example when Solomon for a trivial episode is hung by the neck, kids play around his body. McQueen captures the pettiness of the entire system, the bullying songs that were sung in the South, the environment in which slavery took place. The horror is partly the normality: a normality that has everything for a human apart from their humanity. At one point in the film, a slave owner lashes a slave: he responds to a question by telling the questioner that there is no sin in owning property. For him the fact that human beings have become property empties them of their humanity: he can enjoy ridiculing it, he can enjoy sexualising it, brutalising it, battering it, working it into the ground but it can never assert itself.

Perhaps one of the greatest horrors we have as human beings is to be treated not as beings but as things... if so then that's what slavery was in part about and that's what I found this film captured.

January 19, 2014

All is lost: a film without a character

Who is the central character of All is lost- the recent film starring Robert Redford? I think almost everyone will say that the central character is Redford's man, played outstandingly by the Hollywood veteran. He is the only human being who appears in the film. We watch his face for an hour and a half as his boat is blown hither and thither by the storms of the pacific, as his hopes rise and fall, as he learns to cope with the disasters that continually effect him. We watch him as he responds to the problems that come upon him. We watch him when he writes home a last letter, watch him as he exclaims in a swear word even Mary Whitehouse might have allowed, 'fuck', watch him as he battles to stay alive. So he must be the central character, the psychological presence that defines the film.

If so, then he is a pretty odd character. Character means choice. I am who I am because I chose to eat satsumas rather than grapes, prefer Leeds United to Manchester United, like talking about politics. Do you notice something about those three things: they are all positive choices. I am not forced into any of them. Freedom is in a sense a condition of character because its the space in which character can evolve- that's why Auden's lines about a 'million boots' in line make us cringe- human beings have become mechanisms. In all is lost, Redford's man doesn't make a single decision: all his decisions are merely expedients to survive- they are the decision of a man to cling on to an overhanging rock when teetering on the brink of a drop. They don't offer anything that we can comprehend in terms of character: you can't say anything about what this character loves or likes- you can say he is a fighter and he endures- you cannot say though why he fights or endures.

Equally the thing he fights does not have a character. Nature threatens Redford but there is no sense that it cares. The film moves us away from comforting myths of providence: there are no reasons for Redford to suffer and we can't invent any because we know nothing of him. Nature just is. It buffets him with waves and rewards him with sunshine. Sharks look at him with a greedy eye. Fish pass underneath him, without curiosity. The man is abandoned as the film makes clear against the vastness of the great Pacific ocean and the ocean has no interest in whether he survives or not. If Redford is reacting, he is reacting against forces he does not understand or control- against forces who have no ultimate goal as far as he is concerned at all. He is alone against them because they do not share any companionship with him at all. In that sense Redford's fight is characterless because he cannot respond save by resisting.

I am unsurprised that the Oscar academy didn't know what to do with this picture: Redford's performance is monumental and he deserves the best actor as much as the other nominees (I hasten to add I've only seen American Hustle of the other films) but its not a performance which is easy to categorise or understand. Redford only has a couple of lines of dialogue. The film has no easy message- it isn't about the environment nor the triumph of the human spirit. If anything its about the lack of location of that spirit, the strangeness of the world and its lack of recognition of these hairless bipeds within it. That's a hard message to give an oscar to, but its a rewarding insight into our condition.

April 08, 2013

Geoffrey Elton and Alexis de Tocqueville

Although the Ancien Regime is still quite close to us in time, since we daily come across men who were born under its laws, it already seems to be lost in the obscurity of the past. The radical revolution which separates us  from it has the same effect as centuries would have- it has cast a veil over everything it did not destroy. Thus few people exist today who might give a precise reply to this simple question: how was the countryside administered before 1789? In fact, it cannot be answered with any accuracy or in any detail unless you have studied, not the books, but the administrative archives or that period (Alexis de Tocqueville The Ancien Regime and the French Revolution)

I love this quotation from Alexis de Tocqueville: in part because it reflects the thought of Geoffrey Elton about history- one of the intellectual legacies that I've grown up in the shadow of. Partly though I think what Tocqueville gets at here is a really interesting distinction. There is a history that we all know and a history that was documented at the time. Neither history is free from distortion: the history that we remember is interpreted through what happened next. You can see this everywhere. Take two periods in American history. The 1850s are always remembered as the prelude to the 1860s: we think of them through the lens of the war that was to come. It can lead to mistakes. Some might argue that the divisiveness of the politics of the 1950s in the UK is forgotten because of the breakthrough of Thatcherism in the 1980s. What comes after often means that we forget about what came before.

Tocqueville's history is based on what he sees as more contemporary evidence and that's a very modern concern. Memory though is important and can itself be underrated. Tocqueville in this way is a predecessor to Ranke- but documents can deceive as much as they can illustrate. To privilege what is recorded over what is not recorded may privilege those activities which are recorded and those actors who author the records. This can have sinister implications. Tacitus in the annals speaks of the control that emperors had over those who kept records and we know from our own century too well the danger of propaganda. However distortion doesn't need to be sinister to be there. For example, Geoffrey Elton's histories of the reign of Henry VIII were focussed on Thomas Cromwell because Cromwell was the master of the records: more recently historians have embraced a more expansive vision of court culture precisely because they recognised that documents may distort. To use another example, documents only preserve the trace of an activity which is documented: take an operation, a document will preserve what the operation was, it will preserve how much it cost, it might even preserve what the medical outcome was and possibly a scale of patient satisfaction. It won't preserve the doctor's forgiving manner, the nurse's smile, the feeling of pain and of relief: those things are lost.

I'm not criticising Tocqueville here- more I'm riffing on his words- but I do think its interesting to think about what he was trying to analyse. He was trying to get to the meaning of an event: the French Revolution. The key question there though is that the meaning of an event may be dual. It may be what the event meant in reality: the actual conditions which provoked and ended up sustaining or failing to sustain that event and the change it brought. It may mean that we are interested in the meaning of the event for those who lived through it- people who might have believed all sorts of inaccurate things about it. Meaning is multifaceted and the stories people tell about events can be more important than the events themselves: the revolution in France for example only meant something to the world because people told stories about it as the origin of democracy or the bourgeois moment of conquest. Its worth us both reexamining the validity of those stories but also enquiring into what stories people told about events: we must go back to the documents for both halves of that picture.

April 05, 2013

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert's death yesterday is a sad moment. There are many reasons I think why its so sad. He was one of those writers that made you feel like he would be fantastic to meet. He wrote with such engagement and enthusiasm that it was hard not to share what he thought. He also incarnated I think one of the key functions of a critic- he was an essayist rather than a writer of articles. The difference is that whereas often reviewers of films seek to write about the film and its story and the performances- Ebert often managed to use the film to think about wider issues. This didn't mean his reviews were an excuse to write about those issues: rather Ebert allowed the film to grow those issues inside his head. I didn't always agree with his reviews- some of them I downright disagreed with- but I always found his reviews interesting to read and rewarding. Sometimes I read a review of a film I wanted to review on this blog and thought having read his article that I couldn't say anything- there wasn't anything left to add. More often I found his perspective was interesting and different. His writing about his later cancer was moving and profound at moments and his blog came across like the blog of someone who you could like.

March 29, 2013


I have walked out of films because I found them execrably bad (Four Weddings and a Funeral), I've walked out of films because I thought the history was inaccurate (ok I didn't see JFK in the cinema but I would have....) but I've never walked out of a film because I found it too painful to watch- or not until now. Amour is a wonderful film- but its a deeply disturbing film because it takes you right to the frontier of what human life is at the end. Its not pretty. It deals with a couple in their old age- they come on to the screen as typical representatives of a particular European intellectual and social class, rejoicing in the classical music that postwar respectability has brought them. The day afterwards they have breakfast together but it slowly becomes evident that she is unable to function properly anymore- she is suffering from several little strokes and will eventually lose her mind and her individuality.

The film's title points I think to its subject- and plenty of other reviewers have made this comment- that amour is about love. Its about sexual love between a couple and the way that that becomes at the end the only love in this case that matters. Children, friends, even former pupils cannot reach the woman who can only be exposed in the nakedness of her madness to her lover. In that sense it says that Lear would have company on the heath, if his queen survived. I think this picture of romantic love is of course very relevant. In a society where generations are torn apart culturally and economically and even technologically, its very difficult to see people outside your cohort as your peers. The picture of love here is an assertion of understanding: the husband asserts he understands the wife in a way that daughters and nurses can't- the problem and I've faced this myself in a small way- is that there is an insistant totalitarianism is this assertion of understanding. Its hard to understand someone who is closed off from the world- but as soon as you start saying that you understand them better than anyone else by virtue of your relationship with them, the ethics get cloudy.

Most people talk about amour as though its a film about the power of love and I suppose yes it is- but I think its more powerful as a film about the limits of love. We are what we think and how we behave ultimately. Once only the shell of the human being is left: what is it that you are loving? I think Emmanuelle Riva's performance conveys this perfectly- the cultivated older woman slips into being a grotesque infant, one without the capacity for growth. What surrounds her is her husband's memories and we call that love: but in reality whereas love is often seen as a moment of communication- this kind of love is a deliberate deception about the continuing of something that has just left. Or rather we are left with the sense that the husband for all his charity and ability to communicate, just can't break through the wall to his wife- can't communicate to her.