“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Saturday, January 07, 2006

from pirate to preacher -- the civilizing mission

"Aged 44. Fell into sea … Witnessed by a lady called Mrs Foley with three young children. Body not found - weather terrible. Did not appear to attempt to swim. No visible efforts. Screams. She tried to reach down. Suddenly he was swept under and disappeared. He was upright in water. Was wearing boots."

That was the end of one of LI’s favorite novelists, J.G. Farrell. It came in 1979, when he was at the height of his powers, having just finished Singapore Grip. LI reviewed Singapore Grip for Newsday a couple of years ago, in a summer Sunday supplement devoted to rediscovering older novels. Alas, a cursory search via Google and Factiva has found no trace of our compressed masterpiece, but we like to think that it did some good – after all, last year NYRB books reissued Singapore Grip, along with Troubles and The Siege of Krishnapur. These three books – one set in Singapore in 1940, one set in Ireland in 1920, and one set in India in1856 – made up Farrell’s Colonial trilogy. The standard writer with whom to compare Farrell is Paul Scott, whose novels also deal with the British imperium – at least, the Raj. But Farrell is much funnier than Scott. If, as a Victorian historian once famously said, the British put their empire together in a fit of absent mindedness, Farrell’s novels provide us with the agon of absent mindedness – Oedipus at Collonus wondering where he’d put the dratted binoculars, don’t you know.

Although I read Troubles and the Singapore Grip, I had never read The Siege of K., the most famous novel in the series, since I couldn’t seem to find it at a bookstore or in a library – save the University library, where I would have to read it. I don’t mind going to the U.T. library, flopping down on the sixth floor, and reading some French or German guy, but not Farrell. He definitely requires a comfortable pillow and an intimate enough space in which one’s laughter doesn’t draw stares. Anyway, last week I found it – so I’ve been reading it and, of course, laughing – and admiring. Figuring out.

I’m aware that my description of Farrell’s work might make one think of him as some professional nostalgist, like the writer of all those Navy historicals. He is nothing like that. The battle of Krishnapur, of course, never took place because Krishnapur never took place – it is a made up city. Farrell, however, has a wonderful sense of how history doesn’t happen so much as wander around. And he sees, correctly, that the Indian Mutiny or the Sepay Revolt or the first war of Indian independence – the latter being the most accurate title – was a transformative Victorian moment. The attitude of the British rulers of India, in the first half of the 19th century, was very different from the attitude of the British rulers in the latter half of the 18th century. The unexpected outcome of the Impeachment of Hastings and Burke’s effort to make known the mass massacre and robbery being committed in India was that the robbers moved from the tolerance – the Enlightenment relativism – of Hastings and William Jones to the moralism of Macaulay. Macaulay’s preserved the Whig ideal of progress by merging it with a new view of the ‘Asiatik’ in which reverence was replaced by contempt – the whole of Indian civilization, in this view, was nonsense. The British role was to replace that nonsense with the most advanced products of real civilization: the calculus of utility, the steam engine, and of course Christianity. In this, Macaulay was following in the footsteps of a Scot, Charles Grant. Grant wrote a famous paper, Observations on the State of Society among the Asiatic Subjects of Great Britain."that was actually printed by the House of Commons in 1792 -- a date that is, not coincidentally, also a time of great anxiety about the French Revolution. Grant’s view was the opposite of the old toleration:

“It has suited the views of some philosophers to represent that people as amiable and respectable; and a few late travellers have chosen rather to place some softer traits of their characters in an engaging light, than to give a just delineation of the whole. The generality, however, of those who have writ ten concerning Hindostan, appear to have concurred in affirming what foreign residents there have as generally thought, nay, what the natives themselves freely acknowledge of each other, that they are a people exceedingly depraved.”

Although some of the terms in Grant’s rhetoric are now moderated or changed, basically his Inquiry sets up a framework that still throbs just beneath the skin of the enterprise now unraveling in Iraq, with the same assumption that the invaders, who have just spent the last century pillaging and robbing, can now be regarded as moral arbiters, and the fruits of their civilization (gained, of course, by the profits accruing to the aforesaid pillaging and robbing) can be shared, for a price, with an ungrateful but ultimately redeemable native population. The performative audacity of the this act is distributed throughout the imperial mindset – it is, in essence, the imperial effect, which LI has written bored our readers with before. The neo-conservatives, or the Cold War liberals before them, entered a field that was mapped out…

''his wish is not to excite detestation, but to engage compassion, and to make it apparent, that what speculation may have ascribed to physical and unchangeable causes, springs from moral sources capable of correction"

Which, of course, brings me back to the particular excellencies of J.G. Farrell. I will put some excerpts in the next, or at least some future, post.


Brian Miller said...

Ah roger, but all that pillaging and robbing was done for the GOOD of the wogs, don't you know. without it, how could we have built a civillization of cheese doodles and Briktney Spears to serve as a model for th rest of the world. Are you saying that 'City on the Hill" shone so brightly because it was greased with ... stolen gold?

I'm a big fan of Art Nouveau architecture and design. Brussels is just magnicifint-until you remember where the money that built the Belgian capital came from.

roger said...

Brian, have you read W.G. Sebald's Austerlitz? In it, he goes rambling around London, Antwerp and Brussels, through buildings and streets and the ghosts who made them. I think you'd like it.

Patrick J. Mullins said...

All cities were greased with stolen gold, so you can't tell if the shining is caused by its having been stolen. Why single out Brussels? We love all the cities that have been built on theft and corruption, and many of us even romanticize the criminal atmospheres in particular ones. People should give up morals and ethics about Native Americans and anyone else that's been run out of a place to some degree, because you can't even live with yourself if you worry about injustice all the time--unless you do the total ascetic thing. Otherwise, it's vacillating back and forth between thinking architecture is so wonderful, as in New York or even London, then having to remember that you have Wall Street and the centuries of rich English to thank for either one of them.

Mafias are natural, too, and Baudrillard says it's hypocritical to condemn them.

I heard Sebald a few years ago just before he was killed read from 'Austerlitz.' Walter Benjamin used to like to get 'lost in cities,' too, so probably much of the time he didn't worry about how Paris got that way because of a lot of chicanery and payoffs. In other words, suspension of thoughts of unfairness is necessary to even keep breathing, so you might as well enjoy the sheen, stolen or legitimate.

Brian Miller said...

Patrick: Of course you're right. Certainly, my beloved San Francisco was built by horrid robber barons who pillaged their way economically through the Pacific and beyond.

Belgum-and especially its beloved King-was just a more...egregious...example of abomination. The 4 million who have died in the contretemps over the last few years? They can easily tie the countries problems to the horrific King Leopold. I hope their ghosts haunt the streets of Brussels (and maybe the halls of Langley and the State Department as well).

Nonetheless, I still eagerly buy Leonides choclates at eat Belgian Fries at "Fritjz" so I'm contributing the the prosperity of the Belgian mafia. :)