Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Swastika Night, violence, Orwell, and style

I will finish Katherine Burdekin's Swastika Night with one last blog that encompasses its attitude on violence, its influence on Orwell, and its writing style.



Burdekin was a pacifist until the start of World War II, when she supported the war because she thought it was vitally imperative to stop the Nazis. As her novel shows, she understood their core, and she despised it.

The novel has three main characters, all men (we remember that women have been reduced to little more than animals). First, Hermann, a typical Nazi, who is very stupid, brainwashed, and violent. Second, Alfred,  who is an English mechanic visiting Germany. He is one of the last true humans on earth, meaning he owns his own soul. Third is a Nazi Knight, von Hess, so high up in the hierarchy he can take risks. He has a special book which contains some of the true story of the earth's pre-Nazi past.  Although admirable characters in the context of the idiocy of the thousand year Reich, both Alfred and von Hess have been brainwashed into believing in woman's inferiority, and von Hess is  comfortable with casual violence, for example, wanting Alfred, while flying an airplane, to simply knock down the  people on the runway, which Alfred refuses to do.

Hermann believes in "the fundamental immutable laws of Hitler Society:"
As a woman is above a worm,
So is a man above a woman.
As a woman is above a worm,
So is a worm above a Christian.
This laughable hierarchy sanctions violence. Not much is going to happen to you (in most cases)  if you take out your aggressions on someone below you. Given that the state also valorizes and applauds violence as the chief attribute of hyper-masculinized manhood, aggressive brutality is common.

Hermann, who has a pathetic and homoerotic attraction to Alfred, is wedded to violence. In a novel in which Burdekin despises Nazism so much she makes it largely infantile and idiotic rather than frightening, she doesn't hold back from depicting graphic violence: this part of the picture is not, to her, ridiculous and needs to be shown.

Infantile Teutonic idiocy that Burdekin despised


For example Hermann gets into trouble when he comes across a fourteen year old, for whom, along with his attachment to Alfred, he has a homo-erotic desire. This boy is an:

angel-faced golden-haired chorister making a determined attempt to rape a well-grown little girl of about twelve. The child had not reached the age of submission and was therefore within her rights in putting up a sturdy resistance. And as Hermann stood for an instant, watching them rolling and tumbling, clawing, kicking and biting, he caught sight of a large red cross on the breast of the little girl’s jacket. So it was a Christian! Hermann’s whole body filled with delicious thundering warming floods of rage. He loathed the boy for being even interested in girls—with his lovely face, his ... immaturity—Hermann was physically jealous; he was shamed ... here was something at last that he could smash and tear and make bleed and utterly destroy  ...Hermann jumped at him again, and with his fists beat him into insensibility. He took special pleasure in spoiling his face. When the boy was lying unconscious at his feet he started to kick him, in the ribs, on the head, anywhere ...

The above accurately captures the Nazi mindset.

Against this, Burdekin makes a plea for non-violence. For instance, von Hess has grown up saturated in a violent culture, but he says the following to Alfred:

And warn them, warn them, Alfred, with all the soul-force you have, against violence. I don’t mean telling them just not to kick physically against the German authority, I mean warn them against accepting violence as a noble, manly thing. We Germans have done that, we have brought force to its highest power, and we have failed to make life good ...

Over and against the mindless hierarchy and cult of masculinity that sanction violence, Burdekin argues for British-style liberalism:


that very tolerance of sincerity in ideas which oneself finds loathsome shows a reserve of spiritual power which I cannot help envying for our people. In these English and Scotch heretics of all ages and in the common men who could not withhold from them all sympathy, England’s real greatness lay. If they can resist, not the physical destruction of their records, for that will be impossible, but the Germanisation of their character, and somehow, in face of all the deception they will suffer, remain themselves, there will be soul-power in Europe after the passing of this dark evil time. 

These are still words for our time.

It seems clear, as others have pointed out, that Orwell must have read and been influenced by Burdekin's novel as he wrote 1984,  which is focused on an English Everyman like Alfred who goes up agains the power of a vicious and violent totalitarian state that robs people of their humanity.  His novel also features a secret book that lays bare the underpinnings of the social order.

Of course, we read 1984 for a reason beyond polemic: it is good literature (I realize, too,  it is sexist--and ageist). In contrast, as far as the quality of writing goes, Burdekin is crude. She is far less interested in style than ideas. I went back to the novel thinking perhaps I was too harsh, perhaps it doesn't read like the draft, but then came across the first line:

THE Knight turned towards the Holy Hitler chapel which in the orientation of this church lay in the western arm of the Swastika, and with the customary loud impressive chords on the organ and a long roll on the sacred drums, the Creed began.

I stumbled over "customary loud impressive chords" but then thought, well, maybe it is not too bad. There's description and some alliteration ... it's not much worse than du Maurier's Rebecca or some of Agatha Christie's mysteries, but it has an even rawer quality, as if the novel itself were the barest skeleton on which she displayed her ideas: the characters are not fleshed out, nor is the story. It has the quality of something filmed on little more than a bare stage. For example, there are pages of sheer dialogue without one mention of someone moving a limb or even having a body. 

Nevertheless, there's also a certain crude power in her stripped-down writing: the ideas don't get buried under story, and there is little ambiguity about her point. 

I am glad I read this novel. Burdekin saw through early to the core horror of fascism--an atavastic, violent pseudo-philosophy. As Thomas Wolfe expressed in You Can't Go Home Again,  a book about his trip to Nazi Germany in 1936, these crude ideologies do not die but merely crawl into caves and crevices to await their time (Camus's observation as well in The Plague)) to reemerge. We are in that time again.  Burdekin, who speaks with incisively for woman's rights, peace, dignity. freedom of thought, and human decency, thus speaks to us today.  








Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Swastika Night and Women

Katherine Burdekin largely wrote fantasy or speculative fiction. She graduated from Cheltenham Ladies' College. As Martha Vicinus points out in Independent Women: Work and Community for Single Women, attending that particular boarding school signaled that a young woman ranked high on the class ladder. Tradesman's daughters could not get entrance, no matter how rich. Attending meant something, as going to Eton did. In Burdekin's case, her education served her--and us-- well. 

Cheltenham Ladies' College: Begun in the nineteenth century, it was built in a Gothic style.

Burdekin was highly intelligent and wished to attend Oxford, which by that point had woman's colleges, but her father would not allow it. She married, went to Australia, had  two daughters, and fairly quickly left her husband, moving back to England in 1823. She lived with her sister in Minack Head, Cornwall, until meeting and setting up housekeeping nearby with a female partner in 1926. Great credit goes to scholar Daphne Patai for unearthing Burdekin's identity and doing research on her very private life. 

Katherine Burdekin


Burdekin knew the Woolfs but was not part of their circle. Her politics and theirs, however, were similar. 

Clearly a student of Nazi rhetoric, in a literature more available in the 1930s than now, Burdekin picked up on the ridiculous romanticizing of the Nazi soldier as Teutonic Knight. She also zoomed in on Hitler's claim that his would be a thousand-year reich. In her novel, Germany has achieved partial world domination: the planet is divided between the Nazis and a far-flung Japanese Empire. All of Europe is firmly in Nazi hands.

The story begins 700 years into the thousand-year Reich. Although told from a male point of view, it soon turns to the women. In a parody of Hitler's desire to put females back in the home solely to serve as the breeders of his hyper-masculine soldier elite, Burdekin exaggerates the subjection of Nazi women. The women we encounter in Germany--and who are representative now of women across Europe--are small, ugly, stupid, degenerated, and illiterate. Their heads are shaven, and they are kept herded in barbed-wire camps, a clear allusion to the already flourishing Nazi concentration camps. Women are incessantly taught that their life's purpose is to align their wills with male wills, to obey men, and to have male babies. 

There is no rape, because rape would presuppose a woman having a mind of her own. Instead a woman who is raped must quickly understand that because a man wanted to rape her, she must have wanted the rape as well. After all, his desires are necessarily her desires. All of this is explained with dead-pan seriousness. Male babies are taken from the women at 18 months, before they can have any memories of their mothers, so that they can be brought up in a wholly masculine environment and not be polluted by exposure to the female. This is another exaggeration of Nazi policy.

Soon after the novel opens, women are herded into a Nazi "church," shaped like a swastika, for their monthly indoctrination visit. Hitler is now worshipped as a god, depicted as seven feet tall with golden hair and a golden beard. He is said to have "exploded" from the head of God the Thunderer and so never was in any way polluted by contact with a woman.

This particular edition shows Hitler reimagined as a blond Norse God. As can be seen, Burdekin published under a male pen name.


The woman cry in the church. The men think this arises from fear of being in a male domain, but as we later learn, it comes from an ancestral, barely understood mourning for all they have lost. 

Burdekin says that women are partly responsible for their fate in this new world, because for far too long they made it their goal to align with male desire.  In words that are relevant to today's world, the narrative clearly and cogently summarizes women's problems:

There are two things women have never had which men have had, of a developing and encouraging nature. One is sexual invulnerability and the other is pride in their sex, which is the humblest boy’s birthright. And yet, until they can get back those two things, which they lost when they committed their crime and accepted men’s idea of their inferiority, they can never develop their little remaining spark of self-hood and life.

Further, the text posits that what is missing from women is

 a soulpower which would come from being themselves, from being women. Men would never want to force them [rape them, if women had soulpower]. It would be unthinkable, impossible.

Burdekin is not afraid to imagine a female subjugation in which male society is entirely homosocial and homoerotic, as well as hyper-masculinized. Homosexuality is tolerated, as who can men love, respect, and think beautiful but other men? Woman are far too degraded. They are animals to rape and impregnate.

The book does not do well in terms of language respecting animals, though I can't imagine a person as humane in outlook as Burdekin meaning to denigrate or call down harm on other living creatures. However, her tendency to describe women as little less than beasts, dogs, or livestock tends to rob animals of their dignity.

In a comic touch, the women are told they have to bear more girl babies. They are not told why, but we learn it is because they have so wholly aligned themselves with male desire that they are having far too many male babies for the human race to continue. More women are needed as breeding material. However, the women are so full of self loathing that they simply decide they must have misheard the directive. 

There's little plot to spoil, but  I'd like to go back to Burdekin's analysis of the plight of women. Then in my next blog I will discuss other aspects of the novel, such as violence, its influence on 1984, and its writing style.

Burdekin's women of the Nazi future are almost comically oppressed. But how much is it exaggeration, and how much is it underlying reality, with the veil ripped off, of our times?  Three works of literature happened to run in front of me recently that illustrate Burdekin is not much exaggerating. The first is Bret Harte's "The Luck of the Roaring Camp." In this story's roaring camp, there is but one woman, Cherokee Sal, whose name suggests a mixed race. She is a prostitute who gets pregnant and gives birth to an infant boy. Of her death, we learn this:

Within an hour she had climbed, as it were, that rugged road that led to the stars, and so passed out of Roaring Camp, its sin and shame forever. I do not think that the announcement disturbed them much, except in speculation as to the fate of the child.
"The Luck of the Roaring Camp:" Who needs women when we have men? 

Getting rid of the sole woman--creating an all male environment like that of Burdekin's Nazi empire--eradicates "sin and shame forever" from this camp of vagabonds and thieves! (This eradication is supposedly of sexual sin, but read the words!) Women is the sole problem! Of course, they are not much bothered by her death: was she even human to them? But in this newly liberated all male world, the little boy can flourish from birth without the polluting influence of a woman. Women's insignificance is further emphasized by this: Stumpy and his ass, who feeds the child her milk, are all it takes to raise the child:

 “Me and that ass,” he would say, “has been father and mother to him!"

That quote is particularly striking. We may condemn Burdekin for equating her women to animals, but it is a common trope. An ass can do as well at parenting as a woman. What also strikes me is that I was read this story in elementary school (no doubt in some bowdlerized version) as an amusing piece of folktale Americana. The misogyny was completely lost on me, as on my female teacher--and so it is passed on, like a virus we can't see. (Of course, the child Luck does die--so perhaps they did need a woman?)

The second work is Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca, a book my mother gave when I was 12, as she thought I would enjoy it as much as she did. Since I figured out the twist early on, I didn't, but I did imbibe another dose of misogyny, this is form of a woman abasing herself and abandoning her moral compass to wrap herself around and stand by her man. Her husband Max's confession that he is a murderer who shot his first wife, Rebecca, through the heart, does not horrify her, but brings them closer! Why? Because it means she can have his love! He really didn't love Rebecca! And not only does it occur to her that she has only his side of the story, of course told to make himself look like the victim, but she is vigorously in favor of erasing Rebecca's story and truth itself in defense of patriarchy: 

 Rebecca is dead. She can't speak, she can't bear witness.

In a morally coherent world, that might be a problem. But not here. Rebecca annoyed--dared to assert equal power to her husband as well as bodily autonomy--so she deserves to die.  Rather than be concerned that this man--monster??--she has married killed another woman for taunting him about bearing another man's child (think about that--and the murder is justified as commensurate to Rebecca's "evil!")--the new wife wants to cover up the murder:

Nobody saw you that night. You had  gone to bed. They can't prove anything. 

 This woman, as much as any abject shaven headed woman in Swastika Night, has been brainwashed to support a violent patriarchy in which a man is justified in killing an uppity woman--and as his new woman, the wife aligns herself immediately and unquestioningly to defend him, even though he is guilty. I was given this at an impressionable age as a great romance novel.

Finally, for the first time, I read a long short story by Harold Brodkey called "Innocence." A more recent work, it still illustrates the extent to which women have been deformed by a desire to please and serve men. It is told entirely from a male point of view, in first person, and is about a male, a college student, bringing a beautiful young woman to her first orgasm. She has already had sex--she is not virgin territory, but she has never enjoyed sex before. This man therefore has the opportunity to lay claim to dominance over her body by being the first to offer her true sexual satisfaction. He can master her that way. And while we might say it is thoughtful of him to be so concerned about her orgasm, it is clearly in service of his own ego needs. But that is almost beside the point. What is striking is the pathetic abjection and abasement of the woman who comes to his room. At first she says "damn" when she realizes he is naked under his sheet and wants sex, then immediately  and compliantly begins to unbutton her blouse. The narrator says:

I was amazed that she was so docile; and then I saw that is was maybe partly that she didn't want to risk saying no to me--she didn't want me to be hurt and difficult, she didn't want me to explode; she had a kind of hope of making me happy so that I'd then appreciate her and be happy with her and let her know me

Compare the above to Burdekin's quote: What men have and women lack

 is pride in their sex, which is the humblest boy’s birthright. And yet, until they can get back [what] ... they lost when they committed their crime and accepted men’s idea of their inferiority, they can never develop their little remaining spark of self-hood and life.

Burdekin exactly, in Swastika Night, exactly describes the woman Brodkey describes. As with all dystopia, we are in the present moment--or were until very recently.

 Burdekin says that to achieve equality women need to first, learn to love themselves as themselves, fully as women, not as appendages of men or as inferior men or wannabe men or men pleasers. One could argue that in our society, many women (certainly not all), are coming closer to that ideal. #Metoo showed that many women are no longer identifying with the aggressor or making excuses for predatory and unwelcome male behavior. Women are no longer keeping silent or accepting the male overwriting of our experience. This is fueling a backlash, as some men--as with Dr. Ford's allegations about Kavanaugh--take the gloves off and say they don't care. It's stunning that Republican congressmen could both say they believe Dr. Ford, and yet dismiss her testimony as not mattering when it came to a decision about a Supreme Court appointment. One wonders what will happen, as patriarchy is premised on a trade-off--women give up certain rights to men in return for protection. If men are openly abdicating on that protection, why should women relinquish power to them?

This leads to Burdekin's second point. The other attribute women have never had that men do is  "is sexual invulnerability." We are still subject to control through rape and impregnation--and in some parts of the world through genital mutilation.  Prostitution is another component of this vulnerability. Burdekin implies we can get beyond this if we develop our integrity as women. If we come across as and are fully accepted as equals, men won't think of raping and violating us. This may or may not be true, but at this time in history, it seems as if men, losing control of women as they more own their womanhood, may be doubling down on bodily control. This domination is threatened through denial of birth control and abortion laws that have far more to do with controlling women's bodies than caring for infant lives. Whether this is a rearguard action in a lost cause is yet to be seen.

And complicating all this is that in our society and the future Nazi empire, men's bodies are also vulnerable.  But more next time. 

&&&&




Monday, June 17, 2019

Physical reading experiences and Swastika Night I

A recent thread that I continue to ponder concerns reading physical books. Having been reading e-books through Kindle for more than a decade and Gutenberg on-line volumes even longer--and of course physical books for decades--I now feel able to comment on both modes, electronic and print. I will first say I greatly appreciate e-books when I am doing research: it was a huge timesaver for me to be able to cut and paste quotes for my Bonhoeffer book, and this feature continues to be a boon. I also find it a lifesaver to load books onto my i-Pad for oversea flights and adventures. Further, I don't find much difference in the actual reading of a book one way or another, though I still find it harder to "curl up" with my Kindle.

Katherine Burdekin published this under the pen name Murray Constantine. She was a very private person, like Elena Ferrante. 


Nevertheless, after ten years, I do find I prefer hard copies to e-books. I am not happy or nostalgic or sentimental about this, as life would be easier--and reading easier on our global environment for a vast number of reasons-- if I (and others) could keep our library of volumes on a space no large than one single slim hardbound book. I find, however, that physicality matters. I am always forgetting the books I have in my Kindle library. It is as if they don't exist. This can lead to  a sense of not having read them and a tendency not to return to them. I find this phenomenon perplexing but real. Further, I derive happiness from looking at my shelves of real books that an e-book to date has not been able to replicate. I recognize my personal happiness is not the most important factor in the universe, but I mention it because it is part of my relationship to books.

All of this is a roundabout way of backing into my real subject, which is Katherine Burdekin's 1937 novel Swastika Night. I will get to the matter--the thought and prose--of the book itself soon, but I  want to continue to dwell in and on reading's great surround. Recently, I read an op-ed piece in The New York Times that argued we need to take the time to read books in one sitting or in long sittings. As one who in recent years, pulled in a multitude of directions, has taken to reading books in short bits over longish periods of time, this op-ed struck a chord. The books I remember liking best, those that stick with me, I've read in big chunks, such as on a plane to England. I have come to recognize that something important is lost, no matter the book's format, in the chopped-up reading session. This factor makes group reads online a problem--a book deserves to be read--and understood--as a whole. Therefore, I pushed myself to read Swastika Night in two sittings (it is short) and am glad I did.

The novel was put out by the Left Book club in 1940, during World War II. The Left Book club also reprinted Orwell.


 I also have been thinking about book historians, those people who study the physical production and appearance of books. How a book looks matter. I was delighted, for example, to learn--an idea that must have much captured Tolkien's fancy--that William Morris in his 1896 The Well at the World's End, imagined a book that could only be read when put on a particular stone in a particular forest. I wonder, therefore, if reading Swastika Night on-line, in a version that went margin to margin and looked somewhat more typed than like a real printed book,  dampened my experience of it? Does the joy of reading the novel in a brief span of time balance the marginal quality of the format in which I read it?

 I had tried (not very actively) to read Swastika Night once before, during my Bonhoeffer research. and had utterly forgotten it existed. A talk on Woolf's Three Guineas and utopias at a recent Woolf conference reminded me of it, as it was part of the conversation (utopias inevitably lead to dystopias). I decided to force myself to plunge in a second time.

Swastika Night reminds me of Candide in being a hybrid of novelist features and polemic, and in its use of exaggeration, satire, and very dark humor, though Candide is more laugh-out-loud funny in its over-the-top hyperbole, leaving you laughing and crying at the same time at the horrors the characters undergo.  Swastika Night uses, as well, naive narrators who unthinkingly--or partially unthinkingly--accept the social order. As a disclaimer, however,  it only shares certain similarities with Candide: in many ways the two books are very different. It is also prescient in envisioning, in 1937, a world war fought and won by the Nazis. But this blog is long enough and more on the novel's content will follow in a second blog.




Saturday, June 15, 2019

Meandering through Malta: a three month belated blog

I went to Malta not to front life, like Thoreau, or to escape life/self as Annie Dillard described in her encounter with the weasel in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.

Valletta, the capital city of Malta, was built hight to deter invaders. Byron complained of the steps.
Harbor of the three cities, across the bay from Valletta. 


My ambitions were not so grand. I went to escape the cold. I left in mid-February and returned in mid-March.

St. John's in Valletta, home of two Caravaggio's. The artist lived in Malta for several years, as did Coleridge.


I also wished to be in Europe. I googled 'warmest places in Europe in February.' The Canary Islands came up first, followed by Malta and Crete. I didn't "feel" the Canary Islands because I  craved culture more than sun and surf. (And perhaps the Canary Islands have a vibrant cultural scene I missed ...).

The blue grotto in Malta. Minerals turn the water a magnificent color. I loved visiting it. It was the kind of old-fashioned adventure, though we went on a motorboat, that I could imagine the Romantic poets embarking on in a rowboat. 


Roger, who has an almost unerring instinct for travel, picked Malta. And so I went. Possibly for the most banal and  most profound of reasons as mentioned earlier: to be warm. To be outside during a month that usually has me huddled in a house. To worship the sun, as Bonhoeffer longed to do from his prison cell. I imagine Wordsworth would approve these pagan instincts to reconnect, however tenuously, with the natural world. I am grateful to live in a world where I can travel as only a man once could.

Glorious weather at the Blue Grotto. Motorboats await tourists.

Life is up high on Malta, with many steps down. 

I enjoy wine with Roger (not shown) at an outdoor cafe at the Blue Grotto. Usually it was jacket weather, but this March day was warm and beautiful.  

Another incentive was turning 60. Sixty crystallizes and clarifies the mind: time's winged chariot, etc. I was conscious that even if alive in 20 years, my body might not cooperate with the mind's desire to travel at 80 as it does at 60. 

So I packed my bag. Actually, I packed my bag six months after booking the trip. 

I composed a narrative about my journey in my head before I went. Since I would spend the first two weeks alone, I decided it would be a contemplative sojourn, an interior journey into solitude, nay, a pilgrimage. With that story in mind, I even managed to cram watercolors, paper, and brushes into my carefully calibrated carry-on luggage. I had in mind dreamy impressionist images of mornings reading in cafes with good coffee and excellent wifi, afternoons sitting in the sun painting against the backdrop of the medieval domes and buildings of Mdina.

Towers in Mdina. 


Wherever we go, it is a narrative of place. 

What perhaps makes travel so fascinating, however, is the way reality intrudes. In retrospect, the trip was defined by sociality and activity. I didn't paint and was never (despite valiant efforts) able to locate a cafe with working wifi.  But I did meet people. Josephine my airbnb hostess went over and above the call of duty. She took me to a glorious farmer's market, the likes of which I have never seen here, invited me up for dinner, connected me with her hairdresser, came to check on me and chat.  Then I met Peter, in something like a scene from a movie, on a street in Sliema. He is a retired British naval officer (oh Admiral Croft, oh Jane Austen!!) and we struck up a friendship.  And I enjoyed my casual encounters with the Indian students working their way through an MBA program in Malta  by earning money in the nearby coffee shop--more handholds on happiness for moi as they would cheerily chat with me every day. I also met British ex-pats who have started a tiny Quaker meeting in Sliema that gathers once a month. The friendly bartender at the Phoenician.

My hostess Josephine at the farmer's market. 


Of course, all of this was nothing but sociality: the superficial travel encounters of people who will  never see each other again. I liken it to the illusory, Orientalist quality of fashion that was emphasized at a show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art a few years ago: the central metaphor, made half-literal in room devoted to a square pool of midnight blue water with a light shining on it to replicate a full moon, was the transitory, ephemeral nature of moonlight shining on a pond.

Mdina streetscape. 

 The trip was also defined by all I saw: historic palazzos, cathedrals, a Roman villa, neolithic ruins, art museums ...  all of this has the quality of travelogue, so I won't belabor it, but have simply included some photos. 

The Roman Doma is a museum on the presumed site of the house of Roman high official stationed at Malta.


Many beautiful mosaics were recovered at the site of the Roman house.

Maltese bread. Wonderful and inexpensive. Though it looks like an internet photo, this is my bread. 

Streetscape in Rabat, the city very close to Mdina. 


Another favorite time was a trip to Sicily from Malta, where we visited Modica and Mt. Etna. Our few days in Bath and Austen country warrant another blog.

Glass of wine in Modica, Sicily, in an outdoor cafe on the street. 

Roger in Modica. 


Since I moved to Ohio ten years ago, I have been fascinated with the problem of seeing: I have come to understand that how we see depends literally on our horizons. For instance, it took me about a year to really see the full breadth of my acre of lawn or how high on a hill our Ohio house is located. I was simply used to leveled housing land and the half acre or smaller lot. I then--a few yers later--noticed while visited my in-laws quarter-acre lot that where I had never seen beyond the limits of their small backyard, suddenly, I was constantly "jumping" their lawn, my eyes falling on yards beyond. Thus, with a month in Malta, and particularly Mdina and nearby, I was fascinated with how more and more details gradually came into focus as time went on, as the brain became capable of absorbing. One problem with the quick travel we so often do is that the eyes miss so much,  

People ask me what was the favorite thing I did. My favorites were the Blue Grotto, the Roman doma, walking the streets of Valletta, fancying see Admiral Croft and Jane Austen. 

I take away memories: people friendly, kind, and open. Beautiful places: Mdina, the Meditteranean,  and Valetta. The cat the people of Rabat shelter in a little cathouse.   Not every place was beautiful--the island is crowded, and beautiful areas melt into uglier, less clean sections in disrepair where people clearly do not have as much.

As well as space, travel inspires me to contemplate time. I have taken three months to write this blog: in our hurry up society that might as well be three centuries: and yet, having slowed for my trip, this time lag to absorb and reflect feels exactly right. Our first impressions may not be our best impression, emotions recollected in tranquillity may be preferable. But as I write I recognize I am rearranging the narrative: the biggest impediment to posting has been the devastation caused when I spilled water on my computer, had to replace it, and now am still trying to retransfer all my photos. And then too I am busy ... Yet now, as I look at photos, memory flood back, and I feel joy.

Getting back to the image of the moon reflected on water: that perhaps best describes what the trip was: Illusory on one level, very real on the other. I would go again.

Wednesday, April 24, 2019

Stonehenge and Virginia Stephen Woolf

Virginia and Vanessa and their brothers, in the prewar years, always spent August and September on "holiday."  During their 1903 holiday, they stayed in the Salisbury area. They were, therefore, able to return to Stonehenge a second time for a leisurely and (pleasantly) lonesome visit on September 5. I include much of Woolf's description because it shows how different the experience of Stonehenge was from how it is possible to experience it today, when it has become a very controlled and reconstructed world heritage tourist site. I was especially taken with Woolf's picture of the shepherds on Salisbury plain: what she is describes is not what you would see there today. 


Not quite Woolf's black-cape clad shepherds, but he does have a staff. 

I was also impressed with what a strong writer she was at this point, and with her touch of self irony in describing so romantic a scene as the shepherds. I took the time to really think about what it might like to stay in a spot for two months on holiday and have the ability to return to favorite destinations. Most of us see Stonehenge once and must move on (even if we happen to be living nearby, as I was in London).

Woolf's Stonehenge

It is also interesting to me that Woolf was reading Hardy's Tess at this time, and mentions it in her journal, but says nothing about imagining Tess at Stonehenge. I also find it fascinating that Woolf saw Stonehenge so strongly through a religious lens: when I was there I was interested in it primarily as a historic cultural site, an archeological "treasure." (And I just might have seen Tess ... :))



Woolf's diary of  Sept 5, 1903 
… our two visits to Stonehenge have impressed such pictures on my mind as I never wish to be obliterated. 
We made a second expedition today … I would rather call it a pilgrimage: because in truth we went with all reverence  with a pure design to enjoy ourselves. A day spent happily in the open air, counts, I am sure ‘whatever Gods there be,’ as worship; the air is a Temple in which one is purged of one’s sins.
We drove [in a horse-drawn cart] over the Downs, instead of the by-road, a straighter and more interesting way … a showery morning … 
On the plain itself, the only people we passed were shepherds, they drift about in the wide space with their flocks, just as though they were in the Bible; they take advantage of this wet weather too; to add one bold stroke to their appearance, which, I as an artist would hesitate to introduce; I should be half afraid of over picturesqueness: they wear long black cloaks reaching down to their heels, & flapping in capes round the shoulders:  in one hand too they grasp a real shepherds staff. You may actually see one of these figures lying on his elbow, wrapped in his cloak, his dog lolling out his tongue beside him, & his flock grazing all around.
We lunched—& we walked across to Stonehenge & sat within the Circle. Our choice of a day gave us the whole place to ourselves. The solitary policeman whose strange lot in life is to mount guard over Stonehenge had taken shelter behind one of his charges. The apoplectic sheep, who can imitate a standing motor car which is still palpitating to perfection, were grazing outside the Circle, & as far as we could see we had not only Stonehenge,  but the whole ocean of plain entirely to ourselves. One can imagine why this spot was chosen by the Druids—or whoever they were—for their Temple to the Sun. It lies very naked to the sun. It is a kind of altar made of earth, on which the whole world might do sacrifice.



Saturday, April 20, 2019

Virginia Woolf: Stonehenge Serendipities

Serendipity upon serendipity. I took with me to Malta (smushed into my luggage) the large hardback of Virgina's Woolf's first set of diaries, A Passionate Apprentice. While there, with two weeks to go before heading to Alton, England, I read the 1903 entries. In that year, she holidayed in Salisbury and went to Stonehenge. It dawned on me that I was soon going to be almost in the same spot: Alton is not far from Stonehenge. What a nice coincidence, I thought. Although we didn't visit, Roger and I drove past Stonehenge on the way to Bath and had a beautiful view. I was relieved the view hadn't been marred by a museum. It looked much as in the photo below:






Stonehenge today

The serendipities, however, did not end at me seeing Stonehenge not long after reading about Woolf visiting Stonehenge. 

Woolf writes about being surprised at how much smaller Stonehenge was than she envsioned: 


I suddenly looked ahead, & saw with a start that with which one sees in real life what ones eyes had always known in pictures, the famous circle of Stonehenge. Pictures give one no idea of size; & I had imagined something on a much larger scale. I had thought that the stones were scattered at intervals over a great space of the plain—so when we settled to meet the riders at ‘Stonehenge’  I had privately judged the plan to be far too vague. But really it is a tiny compact little place …
Stonehenge from around the time Woolf visited

A nineteenth century photo of Stonehenge


I came home from England and continued rereading a journal I had recently found from my time living in England in 1979. Almost immediately, I came across an entry about a trip I took  to Winchester/Stonehenge. Interesting, I thought. Even more so was what I wrote, on April 27, 1979 which I have utterly no memory of thinking: 


Stonehenge. Smaller than I expected. Films, the lying camera, made me imagine towering stone. Yet despite the smallness, it makes a deep impression. You stand on the top of a hill overlooking empty deep green plains on all sides. The wind cuts through clothing, whips back hair with brutal violence. It is still there but the guide’s voice screams into the wind. The stones stand, or lie, unmoved, solid, rugged, overlooking the plains. The mounds of Saxon kings circle the rocks. 
Arrangement of the rocks—like modern sculpture. There is a sense of history, of many centuries here,  the past entrenched here, and one can become part of that, yet remain distinct. It is the same almost as it was—the landscape, the plain, the rocks, the isolation. 
And here is more of Woolf, said far more elegantly and at greater length than me, but the same idea:


Nessa & I drove there [in a pony cart], 12 miles, all winding between the crest of the downs, with the Avon at our feet. It was, to give a most important setting to the scene, a brilliantly clear day; hot in the sun, fresh in the shadow, & the trees and the fields looked brisk & vigorous with the light on them, but by no means too hot. ...
The singular & intoxicating charm of Stonehenge to me, & to most I think, is that no one in the world can tell you anything about it. …Man has nothing to change Salisbury plain since these stones were set here; they have seen sunrise & moonrise over those identical swells & ridges for—I know not how many thousand years. I like to think of it; imagine those toiling pagans doing honor to the very sun now in the sky above me, & for some perverse reason I find this a more deeply impressive temple of Religion—block laid to block and half of them tumbled down in ruin so long that the earth almost hides them, then that perfect spire whence prayer & praise is at this very moment ascending.  



It was so startling for me to come across my own diary entry about Stonehenge, unread for forty years, just a few weeks after I had read Woolf's entry--and even more so to have had the same reaction that she did (even if not an unusual response). 

And now for the final serendipity, which ties back to Notre Dame and my previous blog on the narrative of place. As the photos above clearly show, the look of Stonehenge has changed since Woolf's time. I searched for old photos of Stonehenge to find a suitably "Woolfian" period photo and was stunned by the difference between then and now. The Stonehenge Woolf saw was not the same Stonehenge I saw in 1979 or a month ago driving by. I again note that what we see when we travel as tourists is a construct, a story. Who can say which is more "authentic"--"my" Stonehenge or "Woolf's"-- as the recent changes are clearly meant to make it more "authentically" what it was--or what we believe it to have been--in its heyday. 

Like the Notre Dame cathedral that burned, what is authenticity? That was already largely "restored" in a way that said more about nineteenth century interpretations of Gothic than what a medieval visitor would have seen. And it will be, as Europe always is, restored again. 

Finally, I can't help but quote at length from a humorous 2017 blog that dwells on this theme (and mentions size):

 From https://www.oise.com/blog/inventing-stonehenge


 Stonehenge was built in 1958. Our students go to investigate...It is sometimes hard to know what is authentic heritage, and what is not. ...
When we travel, we often create the things we expect to see. Quantum physicists know all about this phenomenon. ...But it would be harder, you would think, to create Stonehenge. Stonehenge is in truth pretty old (the landscape was worked on for a long time, but the stones will have been erected between 3000 and 2000 BC), but it has been touched up and ‘restored’ again and again through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In part, this was to secure the stones, to stop them from collapsing (one particularly crooked sarsen stone was straightened in the early twentieth century); but every time you touch something up it starts to look a little more like what everyone thinks it should look like. Archaeologists are on record stating that not a stone of Stonehenge has not been tinkered with in some way at some point in the last hundred years, and that it is ‘largely a product of the English Heritage Industry’. Thus it conforms, now, to expectations.
And for all that, not a single student I know who has been to see it has not remarked that it is much smaller than they thought. Perhaps some sort of gradual enlargement is the next step, if the British politico-military-industrial establishment can get its act together.