Books to look up

Steven Hahn reviews Eric Foner’s Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. At the heart of American freedoms is the history of Black America during the First Reconstruction. Eric Foner revises revisionism.

What if the history from which you draw ‘self esteem’ were forged? Pride and mistaken identity.

John Updike tiptoes around Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Wizard of the Crow.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun brings the Biafra War up close and personal. Chimamanda recognises that history happens to people, that it is in the details of lives that the broader canvas of history is understood. Add to that, the book is a page turner.

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What do George Galloway, Five-Fingered Betty and Erica Jong Have in Common?

George ‘Gorgeous’ Galloway with his overly orange tan, shiny suits, ‘indefatigable’ love of the spotlight and praises for Saddam Hussein is not my usual cup of tea but that man can do an interview. There is little that is better on TV than to watch Galloway tear a hapless interviewer to bits. Watch this clip on Sky News.

Earlier this morning I run across a brutally delicious review of Erica Jong’s latest effort ‘Seducing the Demon’ which I probably will not read after such a flaying. When in primary school, I would save my lunch money and buy a used book every Friday at a small used bookstore in Hurlingham (which I recently discovered still plies its trade.) It was there – at the age of ten if I remember right – that I came across Jong’s Fear of Flying. I was initially attracted to the title with its promise of airplanes and pilots. But as I flipped through its pages I came across the sex: fevered ‘zipless fucks’ that roused me to no end. And for some years afterward, while the book was in my possession, the pages with the sex scenes were worn from continual reference. It delivered almost as good value for the money as Nick Carter, the spy whose third testicle was a mini-nuke, or Slocum the gunfighter.

Some years ago, as my mother was turning fifty, and, I think quite scared if her frequent laments were any indication, I bought her Jong’s Fear of Fifty. My reasoning was that the book must surely be about life continuing after this watershed, perhaps even of a life that is more sensual and satisfying. She never did tell me what she thought of it and I had forgotten my gift until I came across this review in the Atlantic Monthly. The gift I fear may have plunged her into an even greater depression. What is it do you think that explains such narcissism which seems to be the almost inevitable destination of baby boomer writers?

The mind being what it is, my remembering reading the Fear of Flying inevitably casts me to the (embarrasing) subject of self love. Or to five-fingered Betty as I heard this relationship with the self referred to when I got to college in the States. The former (or perhaps still-going-strong Marxists) at Spiked, the UK online magazine, have been taking dead aim at the ‘politics of self’ or politics emptied of all content except the narcissism that Erica Jong seems to exemplify. Frank Furedi in an essay on ‘Europe’s very first ‘Masturbate-a-Thon’ event’ shreds the state’s outing of five-fingered Betty. The very same Britain that is today celebrating masturbation as the ultimate self love was a hundred years ago gripped in a hysteria that it was responsible for the weakening of their empire as it presumably had the Roman one…

Baby talk is good or back to writing


Continuing on with what has become a frequent – and to me quite enjoyable – exchange on the religious roots of nationalism and many forms of social cohesion, I received an email from BK below that continues where the last post on ‘Let us get back to belief shall we? Again. And memory in writing’ left off.

From: BW
To: MMK

I am thinking that the way we have learned to act is often related by what we read into the symbols that make up written language. That is, Noah is ‘real’ because he can be referenced with some consistency in many places. If I am in Muranga in 1902, Noah is realer than the Kariuki who I have heard lives in Molo and is my cousin – because the reports of him are inconsistent. If we are conversing about Noah, and disagree, I can remove my bible and show; and you remove yours. And we continue to argue – and may or may not reach a consensus – BUT, we have spent time training each other to read similar things into the Noah situation. If we do the same thing about Kariuki, immediately afterwards, we find, soon, that we cannot go far – for I believe one thing based on my interpretations of what I have heard. And you another based on your own interpretations. Our sources and emphasis may be vastly different. So for me, the heart of the growth in the importance of the bible was in its writenness.

Even when most people could not read, there were those who could and could translate or explain it to others. This power of writing, among many others, is allows people to make contracts with greater consistency. If somebody is far removed from you in the way they choose to perceive life and measure the value of physical things, it makes transactions difficult. But a text around which is a measure of consensus allows for both parties to gauge their transactions – and come up with a close result.

Belief – and faith come in because your imagination, which has much power to mimic organisms and the ‘flesh’ and interactions of living – can now solidify reality removed from present action, by constant reference to characters and situations who can be measured against your imagination, so your imagination becomes closer to the reality of the present eye.

“Noooo. You lie. Noah never lived in a fish.”

In the absence of television or radio the daily reading of the bible can make biblical characters have sustained narratives more ‘real’ than distant friends; than yourselves even, in any past. Instead of peppering examples from remembered clan transactions, it becomes more efficient to provide examples from the ‘living flesh’ of biblical relations – because they are now more real than the past.

From: MMK

Nice. That is the thing, the written word creates a canon whether it is the one that forms the basis of a nation or merely the ‘rules’ around which the interaction between cousins can be mediated as you say by an external, ‘neutral’ storehouse of experience and thought. The Bible is THE founding text in so many places, not only of nations but I think of families as well. Just a quick look at some of the stuff that Adrian Hastings and David Aberbach have to say:

Adrian Hastings: For the development of nationhood from one or more ethnicities, by far the most important and widely present factor is that of an extensively used vernacular literature. A long struggle against an external threat may also have a significant effect as, in some circumstances, does state formation, though the latter may well have no national effect whatever elsewhere. A nation may precede or follow a state of its own but it is certainly assisted by it to a greater self-consciousness. Most such developments are stimulated by the ideal of a nation-state and of the world as a society of nations originally ‘imagined’, if you like the word, through the mirror of the Bible, Europe’s primary textbook, but turned into a formal political philosophy no earlier than the nineteenth century and then next to canonised by President Woodrow Wilson and the Versailles peace settlement of 1920.

‘Religion is an integral element of many cultures, most ethnicities and some states. The Bible provided, for the Christian world at least, the original model of the nation. Without it and its Christian interpretation and implementation, it is arguable that nations and nationalism, as we know them, could never have existed. Moreover, religion has produced the dominant character of some state-shaped nations and of some nationalisms. Biblical Christianity both undergirds the cultural and political world out of which the phenomena of nationhood and nationalism as a whole developed and in a number of important cases provided a crucial ingredient for the particular history of both nations and nationalisms.’

David Aberbach: The Hebrew Bible, though generally seen mainly as a religious document, has also provided models of secular national identity. A number of biblical motifs have been revived in modern cultural nationalism: for example, the importance of moral regeneration, attacks on internal and external enemies of the nation, and the unification of disparate groups despite geographic dislocation. The Hebrew Bible also anticipates various forms of conflict in modern national identity: between the individual and the group, chosenness and egalitarianism, the narrowly national and the universal. In the two centuries after the invention of printing, the Hebrew Bible in vernacular translation had a decisive influence on the evolution of nationalism, particularly in Britain. The Bible was essential in the culture of empires but also, paradoxically, inspired defeated, suppressed and colonised people to seek freedom. A number of modern national poets, notably Whitman and the Hebrew poets Bialik and Greenberg, adopt a free verse neo-prophetic mode of _expression. The Hebrew Bible can, therefore, be read as the archetypal, and most influential, national document from ancient times to the rise of modern nationalism.

From: BW

What I am thinking is that your memory needs your imagination to create scenarios; not just new ones but to keep what you saw, heard and experienced fresh and fleshy. Left on their own, the imagination would take control of the memory and run anywhere with it. But, because you share memories with those you live with – and sharing these is central to all your dealings with everybody; they keep you close by sharing back. But this is inefficient because if you are all affected by some sudden outside event or act your memories could all be rearranged – because all memories are a present take on the past. If the present changes dramatically, the past will get rearranged too. And when people gather to renegotiate the memories, it becomes a battle of the dominant, the charming, and the witty – not of the one closer to the events as they happened. Writing made people’s relationships consistent – it offered a third party storage that could always be referred to keep the centre in the same place. So the loss was shifting centers – centers had been shifting for ages…..

So the monopoly is not Christianity to make modern nations. It comes from not Christianities ‘marketing’ of Israel; or the Judeo-Christian innovation of the 20th century nation-state. Sanskrit, King James English – same thing: a fixed centre of’ reality’ could exist for the first time; and the citizenry would now ‘radiate’ to the ‘fixed’ centre and measure themselves against it – and measure the value of things against. This made durable empire – and even more durable citizenry later. So first church is the centre of mediation; of ‘reality building’ and when it is realized that this ‘system can transfer, school becomes where consistency is transmitted. Church was dangerous because power automatically transferred from the military warlord families who controlled Europe, to the pyramid of religious transfers, the priests had more power over individuals than anybody else. The only immovable thing was the black and white of the text; and power became vested in whoever could build consensus most widely around a text that claimed to represent their interests…..who could ally their power, their ideas around a text that could represent it.

So now we gather, completely gaseous against the solid reality of the text. This is what a court case is: all can shift. Fact, history, evidence, perception and future depending on how you can persuade the text. This is a parliament, an exam, a bank form, a text book, a census. A person: a corporation is simply a person composed of nothing but texts; texts talking to texts and people coming to them to mediate reality.

So. A company is realer than a person. You can track everything; and measure everything. This is a person you can do business with from anywhere in any language and you have better trust that he will deliver your maize more than you trust your brother to deliver your maize. There is no inconsistency that a company can provide than cannot be measured – it has no mystery; and mystery is what we have been trying to abandon all along. How come religious epiphanies do not call people to destroy markets or trading monopolies or access? We are all able to believe that a company will behave predictably; we are able to be completely ‘secular; with it – even at the most fever-pitched time. If you kill the Tutsi shop-owner, the shop becomes colorless and a perfectly able to immediately become Hutu.

The mystery of the motivations of those Tutsis: the hidden negotiations; the suspicious genes: unchangeable, unseeable, the larger part of a person is invisible; and so the imagination of the enemy cannot be limited when drastic action is requested….there is not human way to measure the size of their threat, and so in a competition for power, the fastest disseminators of a compelling reason or strategy can win easily.

We are coming to worship the text; it has proven larger and more solid than God. You can make your text, your own one, to fit reality. But where only the bible continues as the overarching text – the war is over who owns it.

From: MMK

Is it the poppers? Is this what they do to a brain: make it spew out surprising and provocative ideas? If, as you say, memory is always new, contingent on circumstance and need, then it requires nothing as much as it does the imagination. But then I started to wonder at how differentiated are the imagination, memory, reality, the written/codified word. Take the imagination for instance which I think is sitting at the heart of your argument. Aristotle argued that the imagination is a kind of phantasm, a mind picture almost, that fused together the inputs of the sense organs. Then the modern era in the form of a Descartes followed mostly in his footsteps thinking of imagination as that which allows us to take chaotic, jumbled sense data into coherence. Hume went further: the imagination through its ability to bundle and categorize sense data leads to the use of specific words for specific impressions. Words then become a part of our empirical interaction with the world and it is this process, this joining of the mind and body that I think we call reality. Because of a shared commonality of experience in regard to sense data – for example when a Stone Age band gets chased by a woolly mammoth – there is probably a drive to standardize words. Our baby world with its constant revolutions of paradigms, perceptions and interpretations becomes a narrower, more externally agreed-upon interpretation of the physical world expressed in words.

The drive to codify develops through songs, children’s stories, etc. It gets to the point when a founding book – often a dictionary written to translate the bible into a vernacular language according to Hastings – which demands that the author choose one word and eliminate another. Language, which can vary wildly even within short distances, becomes standardized and the bible with its narratives popularizes this version of language.

Our imagination meanwhile is getting fed with an infinite amount and variation of sense-data but eventually has an ever more finite and pre-agreed store of words with which to represent a coherent picture when it can form it – it seems to me that words then curtail possibility if you think of it as an infinity of perceptual or interpretive choices. Then comes Kant who goes argues that yes, the imagination is an associative tool but that it is limited to templates that exist in the mind before the ‘entry’ of any sense data. But he has no accounting for where these formats come from; he thinks they are a mystery, a matter of the human soul – God perhaps? He too spurns the odd and perhaps impossible to communicate possibilities of perception and interpretation that we had as non-speakers of a public language but does so more reassuringly by assuring that the source of this limitation is not of this earth, not limited by the senses. I only partly go with Kant as far as the mystery of the soul, which sets me up later to conceive of a basic and essential human drive to be the need for transcendence and of our unavoidable need for a god. (But you, and correct me if I am wrong, have a strong desire to eliminate this god/heaven/beyond the grave thing from the way you conceive of human interaction with the world outside us.)

My question really is whether the imagination can ever see us beyond the sense data of the physical world. Can we as writers conceive of it as a ‘wild’ zone of creativity that is unruled or at least unruly? If so, then it offers the possibility of creating concepts or categories or a paradigm that did not exist previously. It is out of this hope of possibility that I believe the desperate refutation of death, which after all is completely confirmed by our sensory input, emerges; the need for life after death. Surely we need not tax possibility when the imagination as a picture of ‘reality’ allows us to manipulate and operate such that we are able to build systems and methods that prolong life or at least make it more profitable and comfortable. I am possibly being slightly jumbled when I say that the store you set on the memory and imagination as ways of negotiating reality does not go far enough in accounting for the element of possibility and the uses to which human beings put it. As the text becomes God, it narrows possibility. By codifying language so relentlessly we get further drawn into a conception of the world that is ever more empirically based (see the argument between creationism and evolution.) Yes, the text tends toward the solid as you say but we seem to fight this process all the way even as we use it to operate better in the world. Why else would the genocidal killer view his victim as you say, unchangeable and unseeable? Where does the act of killing lie: with the text or with an imagination unhindered by the limitations of standardized interpretations of sense perception?

The Wisdom of Homer

Homer: Are you saying you’re never going to eat any animal again? What about bacon?
Lisa: No.
Homer: Ham?
Lisa: No.
Homer: Pork chops?
Lisa: Dad, those all come from the same animal.
Homer: Heh heh heh. Ooh, yeah, right, Lisa. A wonderful, magical animal.

Marge: Homer, the plant called. They said if you don’t show up tomorrow don’t bother showing up on Monday.
Homer: Woo-hoo. Four-day weekend.

Homer: How is education supposed to make me feel smarter? Besides, every time I learn something new, it pushes some old stuff out of my brain. Remember when I took that home winemaking course, and I forgot how to drive?

Homer: Aw, twenty dollars! I wanted a peanut!
Homer’s Brain: Twenty dollars can buy many peanuts!
Homer: Explain how!
Homer’s Brain: Money can be exchanged for goods and services!
Homer: Woo-hoo!

‘How to write about Africa’ by Binyavanga Wainaina

some tips: sunsets and starvation are good
Always use the word ‘Africa’ or ‘Darkness’ or ‘Safari’ in your title. Subtitles may include the words ‘Zanzibar’, ‘Masai’, ‘Zulu’, ‘Zambezi’, ‘Congo’, ‘Nile’, ‘Big’, ‘Sky’, ‘Shadow’, ‘Drum’, ‘Sun’ or ‘Bygone’. Also useful are words such as ‘Guerrillas’, ‘Timeless’, ‘Primordial’ and ‘Tribal’. Note that ‘People’ means Africans who are not black, while ‘The People’ means black Africans.

Find the rest of this hilarious and cutting essay here.

AB&H Dictionary: Is History a god?


Late last week, I visited the Public Records Office in Kew Gardens here in the UK for some archival research. The building – which is pictured above – feels and looks so much like a church that I suspect many visitors feel impelled to speak in hushed tones once they drive into the compound. After a few hours of browsing the records, I was struck by how common phrases regarding history’s opinions were: History will judge; it will absolve; condemn; favor; and even love…

This topic came up at my dinner with English acquaintances who regularly rub shoulders with their countrymen in high office. One of them revealed that the frequently issued media warnings of ‘History condemning’ one politician or the other are actually felt as a weighty moral judgment on a personal level. I tried to imagine a Kenyan politician suffering sleepless nights worrying about History’s judgment (maybe for ordering commando raids on a newspaper) and found it impossible to believe that it would even count as a mild concern. So let me suggest this: History in these Isles is a kind of god who influences behavior and condemns or praises with the Historian as priest or prophet. By contrast, for us in Kenya, and much of Africa, academic (written and stored) history is mostly an act of ideological recovery that attempts to break away from the European orbit (‘We are human too’ it says; ‘we also had kings and queens’; ‘look, here are the records of how badly you treated me’). It seems to me to be purely reactive, especially since most of our historians’ obsession with the history that they are trying to erect is merely a rebellion against the history as deity that they encountered in the Makereres and the Cambridges.

The PRO contains public records that span an unbroken period from the 11th century to the present. It is this mountain of paper, which of course represents an exceedingly small proportion of the human actions that occurred during those 1000 years that looms over today’s official actions. Its foundational assumption is of a linear progression, in which every (super)man has a role to play ushering a trans-generational narrative onward, higher, toward the end of the world (a heaven or a hell.) As has increasingly become the case, everywhere I look and much of what I hear in this most secular of societies is deeply religious; this being the case as well in socialist systems that retained the very same sense of an unerring march toward an end-point. How else could one justify such teleology when a truly secular system of intellectual inquiry would I think more accurately regard history as characterized by discontinuity, rupture and lacking in an inherent direction?

What of those who have ‘no history’ in the sense that their archives only carry records spanning a couple of hundred years, if that, and even the efforts of the oral traditions investigator yield little knowledge of life a few centuries ago? How fitting it should be that it is in the very societies lacking the massive backlog of records that religious feeling is at its most intense. Perhaps all those prayer sessions in Jeevanjee Gardens and in the thousands of Kenyan churches are about building a history and even a nation. ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth…’ says the book of Genesis rushing onward to the creation of the world, of man and eventually of the nation of Israel which has been the idealized model for Christendom’s nations.

Whether indeed we Gentiles can graft ourselves into this history is supported by the epistle of Paul and Galatians which promise that Kenyan Christians can in fact become a ‘new Israel’. Perhaps this is why when I visit my grandma’s digs in Nyeri I encounter frequent signage on churches and roadside posters proclaiming a New Israel to be at hand. These in the context of history as a narrative with its spiritual beginnings and endings (parallel – and so perhaps inspired by – the birth and death of the individual) imply that the popular history of Kenya mostly exists in the charismatic and not bureaucratic-rational realm. Why I am saying all this? To merely suggest that the drive and the need for history in Kenya has found biblical soil to be more fertile than the archive and furthermore that this is what history has always been about anyway.

(I may also have written this post because I wish this to be so, so that I can stay out of the archives:-))

BTW: If you are not a Eastern European mercenary leading commando raids on the Standard Newspaper, and therefore frown on such antics, please send an email to State House Kenya (president@statehousekenya.go.ke) expressing your opposition to the events of recent days. Also, take a look at a great post in Thinker’s Room on the subject.

Okri, Naipaul and Arundhati bushwhacked by Moscow-based reviewer

I have spent the last day trawling through my favorite new e-zine, the eXile, which is published in Moscow. Its book reviewer, John Dolan, is particularly adept at delivering kidney-punch reviews of the great and good.

This is Dolan on Aidan Hartley’s The Zanzibar Chest.
‘The first thing you notice about Aidan Hartley’s memoir, The Zanzibar Chest, is the skill with which Hartley moves from stories of his ancestors’ colonial exploits to episodes in his own pinball trajectory through contemporary African war zones. It’s not easy to switch centuries and keep the reader with you, and Hartley does it well.

The second thing you notice is that Hartley barely bothers to disguise his Tory nostalgia for Britain’s Imperial past. It irks him that he can only observe and describe Africa’s many wars, when his fathers for generations past played such an enthusiastic role in starting, stoking and stifling the conflicts of their eras.’ more here.

Dolan then sets his sights on Ben Okri, a writer so confusing that everyone I have ever met who has read him vows he is deep and heavy and will not be drawn on further discussion. I suspect that like me, most of them have not read Okri after having tried to and concluded that you need to be on mescaline to get past the first chapter. Dolan, displaying a refreshing rage and bitterness for God knows what heaping of disappointments, does not shrink from letting Okri have it from both barrels.

Then, in a bid to be generous for once, Dolan takes on Naipaul who he understands better than almost anyone with whom I have discussed the bullied, snotty, little Trini who made good by hating everyone. Let me just say that like Dolan, I really dig Naipaul even while I see just how screwed up he is.

Says Dolan, ‘he hated the black boys, big and muscular, who beat him up, who scared him. It’s the truth; let’s face it. He has been called a racist, and he is one…’

‘They, the new black rulers, didn’t want any little Indians hanging around the Presidential Palace. Naipaul — who must truly have been a nasty boy, a sneaking eavesdropper and swot, understood one thing well: though eddies of decency and culture were developing in the West Indies, none of them were in the market for a little Hindu boy possessed by a great, corrosive intellect.’

‘Other Windies could try for the patronage of the Left, which had begun to cultivate “voices of color” — but they meant righteous, Ciceronian outrage from black, not Brahmin-beige, people. And when they said “new voices,” they were not talking about a snotty brown boy’s mocking, BBC-copying voice.’

Read the entire vicious-while-being-complimentary review here.

Our merry literary assassin, writing with the freedom of a man who seems to feels he has nothing to lose, which in my experience always makes for the most interesting outbursts, turns his tender attentions to Arundhati Roy. Arundhati, she of the breathless denunciations of American imperialism and capitalism, the patron saint of latte loving, anti-globalisers everywhere. More here.