Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Saint Anthony's Fire


Today I give thanks for: antiviral drugs. But I also spare a thought for this fellow.


Anthony the Abbot, or Anthony the Great, or Anthony of the Fire: a desert-wandering, magical-adventures-having early Christian saint who roughly eight centuries after his death became the patron saint of shingles.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

You may know this particular Saint Anthony through the many paintings that Hieronymus Bosch devoted to his eventful life, and in particular to his ‘temptations’, a popular medieval and renaissance theme referring not to temptations in a modern sense but rather to a persistent demonic haunting designed to make the victim despair and lose their faith. It's a story that was treated as recently as in this work by Salvador Dalì.


Whereas in this seventeenth century, quasi-Freudian version by Joos Van Craesbeeck the demons sprung literally out of the saint's head.


But the most famous depictions are definitely those of Bosch one hundred years before that. In the triptych held at the National Museum in Lisbon, for instance, poor Anthony is veritably besieged by the blasted creatures.


And although the painting nowadays is more famous for some of its more colourful details




its interpretation is famously vexed. I'll just note that in the background there's a city on fire.


For however you choose to interpret the painting, fire is an important association, as the saint was sometimes regarded as the one to pray to if you needed protection against the stuff. In one of the earliest, and decidedly Pagan-sounding, legends that involve him, Anthony stumbled into Hell while walking his faithful pet pig, and stole fire from the devils down below. A bit like Prometheus, except a long time after humanity actually discovered fire, seeing as the historical Anthony lived in the third century. Yes, this legend makes little sense. But it may be via that association with fire and burning that some centuries later the order of the Antonian monks – Anthony is considered, among other things, the first monk – took it upon themselves to look after people who suffered of ‘Saint Anthony’s fire’, that is to say of a serious skin disease which may have either been ergotism or the shingles. The name has survived to this day and can refer to either disease in different countries.

The hospital order operated out of a French village that came to be called Saint Antoine, where Anthony’s remains had been transferred from his original burial place in Egypt. However, treating the people afflicted by the disease soon became a profitable business, and a quarrel over how to split the proceeds with the Benedictine monks that controlled the local priory led to the latter decamping to Arles. Later still, these monks started claiming to have stolen Anthony’s bones as they left, while the Antonins continued to jealously guard their own set as a holy relic. So now there were two saints. Except somehow in the meantime another claim had emerged, and a third dead Saint Anthony popped up in Lézat. The small sanctuary is still a pilgrims' destination.


So in France in the late middle ages there were three bodies of Saint Anthony, each of which was said to have the power to cure you of the shingles. And that's how some scholars interpret the central panel of Bosch's most famous triptych: as an allegory of the arduous process of curing the disease.

I say this apropos of nothing except I could use that particular assistance right now.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Existence (a poem)


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Monday, March 14, 2016

What colour is your nationalism?


It’s bad enough that it was a question at all, but when I took the survey it was the opening one. In the form of a statement, it read as follows:
Māori should not receive any special treatment
What a way to start a survey on New Zealand’s national identity – the largest ever, no less, and backed by the state broadcaster as well as academics from our second largest university. Organisations including the Human Rights Commission and institutional figures such as the commissioners for Race Relations and Indigenous Rights took strong exception to it – dutifully, one might say. My learned friend Tze Ming Mok disagreed, characterising it as ‘a perfectly reasonable way to measure how anti-Maori people are.’ She went on to say:
People want research that can help society. But we can’t help society if we don’t know where the problems are. And we can’t see where the problems are unless we ask the hard questions about people’s sometimes shitty attitudes.

Her post goes on to articulate several criticisms of the survey, and is well worth reading. I’m sticking with that first question, however. Because if it’s true that social scientists have an obligation to hold a truthful mirror to us, it beggars belief that they should have taken such an inflammatory approach to doing so. Not only is the question of whether or not Māori should receive special treatment unacceptably ambiguous and loaded. If it happens to come up near the start of the survey, it immediately excludes Māori from the sample. For how would a Māori person respond to such a question? Would they strongly agree, on the grounds that they don’t want to receive any more special treatment of the kind that was dished out at Ruatoki, or continues to be meted in our prisons or in the wider society? Or would they simply conclude, quite reasonably, that the survey is not for them?

It’s not enough to say that the question may be efficient in rooting out racism, either. Racism can take many forms, and not all of them were canvassed. The survey run on the TVNZ website is a shortened version of a larger one conducted among 10,000 respondents earlier this year, but I’m willing to wager a large sum of money that the full one contained no questions on, say, the natural superiority of white people over other races. Yet I’m sure there are some New Zealanders who would vigorously espouse that position, too. So, the statement that ‘Māori should not receive any special treatment’ is really just one that can be included in the survey because it is socially acceptable to express agreement to it in polite society. We have read enough Waitangi Day columns and editorials in the mainstream press to know that this is the case.

If one question alienates Māori, of which there are about six hundred thousand, questions 3 (‘Refugees should be welcomed in New Zealand’) and 4 (‘Immigration is a threat to New Zealand’s culture’) alienate two further groups of people who might identify as New Zealanders. Again, it doesn’t matter that one statement is ostensibly positive, in the same way that question 19 (‘A history of discrimination has created conditions that make it difficult for Māori to be successful’) doesn’t ‘fix’ question 1. Simply put, we are never invited to consider a statement from a position other than that of a New Zealand-born Pākehā. For instance, we are never asked if ‘a history of discrimination has created conditions that make it disproportionately easy for Pākehā to be successful’ – which would be a no doubt provocative but also perfectly reasonable and historically grounded statement.

All this, on the way to discovering what the survey’s authors call ‘the six archetypes of Kiwi nationalism’, for in 2016 apparently it’s acceptable for academics to nonchalantly drop the word nationalism as if it wasn't soaked in blood. But then I suppose it’s a perfect match for the word ‘Kiwi’, that great index of a transparent national identity, uncomplicated by indigeneity or history. Sport, the great outdoors, beaches, an attachment to old England and its monarchy, and a token Māori icon are the only images that we are allowed to attach to this identity, like stickers on a suitcase. Hence a series of questions designed to progressively rule out the least preferred national symbols.

 

And so forth for several more iterations. Then, obligatorily, a question about the flag.


It’s all terribly fitting as the reduction of contemporary attitudes towards the idea of nation into the six archetypes – which by the way are globalist, traditionalist, patriot, sceptic, loyalist and egalitarian – is the perfect mirror to the shrill, puerile debate on the flag: not allowing for original invention, or an honest exploration of who we are, but rather exhausting itself in a dull marketing exercise.

If it’s true, as Tze Ming says, that the questions we may find troubling are designed to pinpoint our ‘shitty attitudes’, then we might expect to find the corresponding qualitative judgments in the findings. Yet not only do the archetypes fail to include ‘The Casual Racist’, but all of them are described in such a way as to conceal specific attitudes that may be regarded as negative or uncomfortable. For instance the Patriot – a likely candidate for feeling that Māori have it too easy – is described thusly:
Patriots pride themselves on being New Zealanders and feel a deep sense of attachment to the Kiwi lifestyle. They see Kiwi values as unique and preferable to most others, and generally think that New Zealand is the best country in the world in which to live.
Every nationalism is a good nationalism, you see? And even if we designed our survey to capture, say, bigotry, we’ll find ways to hide it underneath other, more positive characteristics. Like an attachment to traditional values, or mother England, or religion.


All of the problems with the survey are not reduced but rather magnified by the involvement of the state broadcaster, which is after all in the business of creating and updating a national identity for us to consume – through its sports coverage, its news and current affairs, the things it thinks will entertain us, or even its choice of brand imagery. And, inversely: its systematic marginalisation of Māori voices and issues, as well as those of New Zealanders who are atypical, outside the mainstream.

The involvement of a university in such deeply patronising and uncritical work should also concern us. But it’s time we abandoned once and for all the illusion that our universities serve their institutional function of ‘critic and conscience’ enshrined in the statutes by liberal legislators. It hasn’t been true for quite some time.






If you're in the mood for something somewhat less bitter, my New Humanist piece on David Bowie and online grieving is now up on the magazine's website

Monday, March 7, 2016

Tweet-length tragedies



In Francesco Cangiullo’s one act-play Detonation (1915), the curtain rises to reveal a deserted road at night. A shot rings out. The curtain falls. Another play of his from the same year, called Decision, is fifty-eight acts long but the stage instructions indicate that the first fifty-seven are redundant. The fifty-eighth consists of a single line: ‘This thing must come to an end forthwith’. The curtain falls.


These may be the closest precursors to Achille Campanile’s ‘two-line tragedies’, many of which were clearly not meant – or downright impossible – to perform (although in recent years some have tried). Like in that other Cangiullo play, There’s no-one about, whose only character is listed as ‘A man who isn’t there’, to which Campanile responded, decades before Beckett, with his ‘Non-Existent Tragedy’.

NON-EXISTENT TRAGEDY

Characters:
NOBODY
The scene takes place nowhere.

NOBODY
Doesn’t talk.

Unlike futurists like Cangiullo and other avant-garde authors, who framed their works as high-minded provocations and found publishing and performing vehicles suitable to this function, Campanile distributed his short plays largely as comedic filler in commercial magazines and newspapers, beginning in 1924. He called them tragedies for no other reason, I suspect, than to compound the confounding of expectations which is a hallmark of all of these texts (for they are all jokes). The two-line moniker isn’t literal either: most of the tragedies consist in fact of less or more than two lines. Some are vignettes. Some are painfully long-winded set-ups to fantastically elaborate puns, the longest of which is the following stage instruction

Eva, l’ava, leva la lava, lava l’avo e alleva l’Iva con l’ova e l’uva.

(Eva, the grandmother, removes the lava, washes the grandfather and feeds little Iva with grapes and eggs)

Most, like the above, are at the service of lamentably untranslatable jokes, as in the masterpiece ‘Drama at the haberdasher's’, or ‘Si conoscevano appena e già si davano del tulle’(‘they barely knew each other yet they already exchanged tulle’). Others could be translated but haven’t aged so well. There are more cheating-wife scenarios than a contemporary audience might tolerate.

SURPRISE

Characters:
THE HUSBAND
THE WIFE
THE WIFE’S LOVER who doesn’t speak

In a bedroom, in the present day.

THE HUSBAND
arriving suddenly, finds THE WIFE in bed with a stranger: Ah, traitor, the anonymous letter I received an hour ago was telling the truth: you have a lover!

THE WIFE
So what, you believe anonymous letters now? Come on!
(curtain)

The balance, however, are well worth sharing. Like this one.

A BAD HAND

Characters:
TIME
YOUTH
LOVE
LIFE

As the curtain rises, TIME, YOUTH, LOVE and LIFE are playing contract bridge. The cards have been dealt.

TIME
I pass.

YOUTH
I pass.

LOVE
I pass.

LIFE
I pass.

(curtain)

'A Bad Hand' was quite popular between the two wars and Campanile found that it had been plagiarised, along with others, by newspapers in South America and elsewhere – a rather impressive discovery to make before the internet. The mode in which these proto-tweets were disseminated could in fact be an interesting subject of study in itself. I say proto-tweets also because some of them are very reminiscent (in reverse) of some of the current fashions for comedy. ‘Overheard’, for instance, nowadays has its own sub-genre on social media.

OVERHEARD

Characters:
SOMEBODY
SOMEBODY ELSE

When the curtain rises, SOMEBODY has said something which SOMEBODY ELSE approves of, albeit with some reservations.

SOMEBODY ELSE
Yes, yes; no, no.

SOMEBODY
Yes, or no?

SOMEBODY ELSE
Yes and no.

SOMEBODY
No?

SOMEBODY ELSE
Yes.

SOMEBODY
Yes?

SOMEBODY ELSE
Yes.

(curtain)

While some tragedies are positively garylarsonesque.

CRUEL FATE

Characters:
THE MICROBE
THE MICROBE’S DAD

THE MICROBE
Dad, when I’m big, will you buy me a watch?

THE MICROBE’S DAD
Silly, you’ll never be big.

(curtain)

ANOTHER PAINFUL MISUNDERSTANDING

Characters:
A FLY
OTHER FLIES who don’t speak

The scene is a sheet of flypaper

THE FLY
Rushing cheerfully towards the flypaper crowded with flies, having misread the situation: Is there room for me? Lands.

(curtain)

ASTRONOMY

Characters:
THE PLANET SATURN
THE ASTRONOMER GIOVANNI SCHIAPARELLI who doesn’t speak

THE PLANET SATURN
while toileting, talking to THE ASTRONOMER GIOVANNI SCHIAPARELLI who is looking through a telescope: Giovanni, have you seen my rings?
(curtain)

Campanile had a solid line in deadpan humour.

A BARGAIN

Characters:
FIRST MAN
SECOND MAN

The scene is two men talking.

FIRST MAN
Nice piece of material.

SECOND MAN
It was a real bargain.

FIRST MAN
Did you pay a special price?

SECOND MAN
No, I saw it in a shop and I bought it.

FIRST MAN
In what way was it a bargain then?

SECOND MAN
Now that you mention it, it wasn’t a bargain as such.

(curtain)

Quickly followed by

THAT SWINDLER!

Characters:
ANOTHER MAN
ANOTHER OTHER MAN

THE OTHER MAN
referring to a shop-keeper: That swindler! There was this hat in his window. It was marked 35 liras. I asked for it. I said: ‘That hat over there. The one in the window.’ He gave it to me. I paid with a hundred-lira note. He gave me 65 liras change.

THE OTHER OTHER MAN
How was it a swindle then?

THE OTHER MAN
Now that you mention it, it wasn’t a swindle as such. But you can never be too careful.

(curtain)

Nor was he afraid to restage the classics.

OEDIPUS IN COLONUS

Characters:
A SENTINEL
A MESSENGER

Outside the fortified walls of Thebes. The great bronze doors are shut. Behind, on the ramparts, the SENTINEL walks back and forth. The MESSENGER, having just arrived, knocks on the doors.

THE MESSENGER
Is Oedipus there?

THE SENTINEL
No, he’s in Colonus.

(curtain)

Back to the meta-horseplay of the futurists, and especially reminiscent of Marinetti’s Le basi (‘the foundations’), a play whose staging instruction was that the curtain should only be raised enough to show the performers’ feet, is ‘Tragedy during the staging of a comedy’.

TRAGEDY DURING THE STAGING OF A COMEDY

Characters:
THE LEAD ACTOR
THE LEAD ACTRESS
THE OTHER ACTORS AND ACTRESS OF THE COMPANY, EXTRAS, STAGE-HANDS, ELECTRICIANS, THE CARETAKER, FIREMEN, PROPMEN, ETC.

The scene is the stage of a theatre during the performance of a comedy in three acts. The actors and actresses act, come, go, move in perfect synchrony, until finally, near the conclusion of the final act, the FIRST ACTOR suddenly halts his brilliant performance , grabs his wig with both hands and looks around in shock.

LEAD ACTOR
Stop! Stop!

The action stops. All the actors abandon their parts and crowd around THE LEAD ACTOR, who looks utterly depressed.

LEAD ACTRESS
speaking to the LEAD ACTOR, with dismay: What’s happening, for heaven’s sake?

LEAD ACTOR
We reached the end of the third act, and we forgot to raise the curtain!

ACTORS, STAGE-HANDS, ETC.
Uh! 
They flee, howling lugubriously

There are many more examples of this carry-on. Linking the futurists and Pirandello with the likes of Ionesco, Beckett and Pinter, Campanile found absurdity in theatre itself and its conventions, therefore in the set-up for his own jokes.

A TRAGEDY AVOIDED IN THE NICK OF TIME

Characters:
CARLO, a friend of FRANCESCO’s

The scene is a deserted town square; in the background, an arch surmounted by a brightly lit clock; to the right, a café with some tables outside, and the pharmacy; to the left, a barber’s, an inn with a sign depicting a rooster, and Francesco’s house.

CARLO
Enters stage left and rings the bell of Francesco’s house. Seeing as nobody opens the door, he rings again several times; he beats on the door with his knuckles, then with his fists, finally with his walking stick; he kicks the door, but gets no reply; CARLO understands that Francesco is not home and exits, leaving the stage empty. The two-line tragedy cannot take place. Therefore, among the clamour of the audience, the curtain falls rapidly.

But what makes the tragedies modern is their surreal and episodic nature, coupled with Campanile’s ability to quickly set and dismantle the scene. Try this favourite of mine:

TAKING ADVANTAGE OF MODERN CONVENIENCES
Characters:
THE HUSBAND
THE WIFE 

THE HUSBAND
Coming home with a large parcel I brought the gas masks. 

THE WIFE
Great. Tonight we can go to sleep with the gas on.

(curtain)

Or this existential, definitive number, which offers an appropriate close.

THE CREATION OF THE WORLD

Characters:
A FORGOTTEN ANIMAL

The scene takes place right after the world has been created.

THE FORGOTTEN ANIMAL
Shucks! Everyone’s been created except me.

(curtain)




Achille Campanile. Tragedie in due battute. Milan: Rizzoli, 1978. The excerpts in this post are translated by me.

The new issue of SPORT is out this week and my essay on Elena Ferrante and badly written men is online (as is this great story by Pip Adam) but you should buy the print edition anyway.


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