Thursday, August 25, 2016

A sensitive and nervous man

Bret Harte, an American writer best remembered for his prose, particularly short stories about the Californian gold rush, and satirical poetry, was born 180 years ago today. He kept a diary for a few short months when a young man, but biographers tend to find the diary of Annie Fields, wife of the editor of The Atlantic Monthly, who described him as a sensitive and nervous man, more useful.

Harte was born on 25 August 1836 in Albany, New York, into a family, originally Jewish immigrants. He seems to have left school at 13, and moved to California a few years later, where he worked in a variety of jobs. Having tried to make a living in the gold mining towns, he became a messenger for the Wells Fargo stagecoach company, guarding treasure boxes, before trying his hand as a teacher first then as a journalist. He reported on the 1860 killing of indigenous people at Tuluwat for San Francisco and New York newspapers. Having condemned the massacre, his own life was threatened, and he moved to San Francisco. One there, it is believed he authored an anonymous letter to the press describing widespread community approval of the massacre.

In 1860, Harte became editor of The Golden Era and set about turning it into a more literary publication; and in 1862 he married Anna Griswold. By this time, he was publishing poetry, romantic short stories about the Californian Gold Rush, as well as satirical prose. Some of his work was taken up by The Atlantic Monthly, edited by James Thomas Fields. In 1868, he became editor of the new literary magazine, Overland Monthly, which, two years later, published his poem Plain Language from Truthful James or, as it was better known, The Heathen Chinee. This narrative poem, satirising anti-Chinese sentiment, was widely republished, bringing Harte considerable fame. In search of furthering his literary career he moved to New York, and then Boston, and became contracted, at a high salary, to The Atlantic Monthly. His popularity did not last long, and by the end of 1872 the contract was over, and selling stories was becoming increasingly difficult.

Life remained tough for Harte until, in 1878, he went alone to Germany to take a position as US consul in Krefeld, and then, in 1880, in Glasgow, UK. Though he wrote to his family (Anna and four children) and continued to support them, he never returned to the US (nor did they visit them him in Europe). In 1885, he moved to London, where he continued to pursue his literary ambitions. He died in 1902. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Poem Hunter, or Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Harte kept a diary for a few months in 1857-1858. Bret Harte (American Book Company, 1941) by Joseph B. Harrison quotes from it but once. Gary Scharnhorst, in Bret Harte: Opening the American Literary West (University of Oklahoma Press, 2000), provides an extract from 31 December 1857: ‘Before I close this Journal containing but a small portion of last years doings let me indulge in a retrospect. I am at the commencement of this year - a teacher at a Salary of $25 per mo - last year at this time I was unemployed. Last year I thought I was in love - this year I think the same tho the object is a different one. ... I have added to my slight stock of experiences and have suffered considerable. Ah! well did the cynical Walpole say life is a comedy to those who think - a tragedy to those who feel. - I both think and feel. My life is a mixture of broad caricature and farce when I think of others, it is a melodrama when I feel for myself. In these 365 days I have again put forth a feeble essay toward fame and perhaps fortune. - I have tried literature albeit in an humble way - successfully - I have written some poetry: passable and some prose (good) which have been published. . . . Therefore I consecrate this year or as much as God may grant for my service - to honest heartfelt sincere labor and devotion to this occupation. - God help me - may I succeed.’

Axel Nissen, in his biography, Bret Harte: Prince and Pauper (University Press of Mississippi, 2000), refers to Harte’s diary more often but notes that he made his last entry on 5 March 1858. Here are two paragraphs of Nissen’s text, largely sourced on Harte’s diary.

‘Each day he would conscientiously record the day’s lessons in his diary, in addition to his own quotidian activities. One day was much like the other: school in the morning Monday through Saturday, a trip to town in the afternoon or a shooting expedition, alone or with one of the boys. During the five months Harte kept the diary, he painstakingly recorded every duck, meadowlark, teal, widgeon, and ring-necked and buttheaded plover he brought down. It was almost an obsession. Rain or shine, sick or well, he tramped out to the marshes with his gun after school, sometimes also in the morning before breakfast. On December 10, for example, he recorded that he shot a duck (“but couldn’t get him”), a teal, and a snipe, and remarked with evident satisfaction: “I am improving in my skill, and of late have made good success [one word illegible] shooting. However I must try to persevere in other things.” His hunting expeditions were an escape from the claustrophobia of living among strangers and gave him time to think. He got himself a dog. Bones, to keep him company. The diary gives us an impression of a sober, serious-minded, industrious, and critical young man - early to bed and early to rise - thoughtful and a mite restless in his country isolation.’

‘But there was also a darker side to his existence. The diary gives ample evidence of depression and even despair. Only a few days after moving in with the Liscombs, he came home from Sunday service “very blue and discontented.” A month later, on Thanksgiving, there was a dancing party in town. Everyone was there; Harte tried to dance, found he couldn’t, and was ‘‘very much annoyed.” He came home “incontinently” in the pouring rain and spent a restless night. Christmas Day was even worse. He helped Maggie prepare the meal, and they had Christmas dinner with the Martins and her in-laws. He was feeling quite melancholy by this point, and attendance at a dance in the evening only made it worse. ‘‘What the d....d am I to do with myself,” he scratched down desperately in his diary, ‘‘the simplest pleasures fail to please me - my melancholy and gloomy foreboding stick to me closer than a brother. I cannot enjoy myself rationally like others but am forced to make a gloomy spectacle of myself to gods and men.” The “thermometer of my spirits,” as he analyzed it that day, had started at 40 degrees temperate in the morning, risen to eighty by 3 P.M., fallen all the way down to zero by 9 P.M., and by 1 A.M., he was still awake and twenty below.’

All Harte’s biographers find useful information in the published diary of the wife of the editor of The Atlantic MonthlyAnnie Fields - Memories of a hostess: A chronicle of eminent friendships, drawn chiefly from the diaries of Mrs. James T. Fields by M. A. DeWolfe Howe (The Atlantic Monthly Press, 1922). Here are several extracts about Harte.

5 September 1871
‘J. went to Boston. I wrote in the pastures and walked all the morning. Coming home, after dinner, came a telegram for me to meet J. and Bret Harte at Beverly station with the pony carriage. I drove hard to catch the train, but arrived in season, glad to take up the two good boys and show them Beverly shore. [. . .] Mr. Harte had much to say of the beautiful flowers of California, roses being in bloom about his own house there every month in the year. He found the cloudless skies and continued drought of California very hard to bear. For the first time in my life I considered how terrible perpetual cloudlessness would be! He thinks there is no beauty in the mountains of California, hard, bare, snowless peaks. Neither are there trees, nor any green grass.

He is delighted with the fragrant lawns of Newport and has, I believe, put into verse a delightful ghost story which he told us. He has taken a house of some antiquity in Newport, connected with which is the story of a lady who formerly lived there and who was very fond of the odor of mignonette. The flower was always growing in her house, and after her death, at two o’clock every night, a strong odor has always been perceived passing through the house as if wafted along by the garments of a woman. One night at the appointed hour, but entirely unconnected in his thought with the story Mr. Harte had long ago heard, he was arrested in his work by a strong perfume of mignonette which appeared to sweep by him. He looked about, thinking his wife might have placed a vase of flowers in the room, but finding nothing he began to follow the odor, which seemed to flit before him. Then he recalled, for the first time, the story he had heard. He opened the door; the odor was in the hall; he opened the room where the lady died, but there was no odor there; until returning, after making a circuit of the house, he found a faint perfume as if she had passed but not stayed there also. At last, somewhat oppressed perhaps by the ghostliness of the place and hour, he went out and stood upon the porch. There his dream vanished. The sweet lawn and tree flowers were emitting an odor, as is common at the hour when dews congeal, more sweet than at any other time of day or night, and the air was redolent of sweets which might easily be construed into mignonette. The story was well told and I shall be glad to see his poem. [. . .]

Mr. Harte is a very sensitive and nervous man. He struggles against himself all the time. He sat on the piazza with J. and talked till a late hour. This morning at breakfast I found him most interesting. He talked of his early and best-loved books. It appears that at the age of nine he was a lover and reader of Montaigne. Certain writers, he says, seem to him to stand out as friends and brothers side by side in literature. Now Horace and Montaigne are so associated in his mind. Mr. Emerson, he thinks, never in the least approaches a comprehension of the character of the man. With an admiration for his great sayings, he has never guessed at the subtle springs from which they come. The pleasant acceding to both sides in politics, and other traits of like nature, gives him affinity with Hawthorne. By the way, he is a true appreciator of Hawthorne. He was moved to much merriment yesterday by remembering a passage in the notes, where he slyly remarks, “Margaret Fuller’s cows hooked the other cows.” Speaking of Dr. Bartol, he said, “What a dear old man he is! A venerable baby, nothing more.” But Harte is most kindly and tender. His wife has been very ill and has given him cause for terrible anxiety. This accounts for much left undone, but he is an oblivious man oftentimes to his surroundings - leaves things behind!!’

12 January 1872
‘Bret Harte was here at breakfast. It is curious to see his feeling with regard to society. For purely literary society, with its affectations and contempts, he has no sympathy. He has at length chosen New York as his residence, and among the Schuylers, Sherwoods, and their friends he appears to find what he enjoys. There is evidently a gene about people and life here, and provincialisms which he found would hurt him. He is very sensitive and keen, with a love and reverence for Dickens almost peculiar in this coldly critical age. Bryant he finds very cold and totally unwilling to lead the conversation, as he should do when they are together, as he justly remarks, he being so much younger - but never a word without cart and horses to fetch it. Bret Harte has a queer absent-minded way of spending his time, letting the hours slip by as if he had not altogether learned their value yet. It is a miracle to us how he lives, for he writes very little. Thus far I suppose he has had money from J. R. O. & Co., but I fancy they have done with giving out money save for a quid pro quo.’

18 September 1875
‘Bret Harte came on the 1⁄2 past 12 train. He came in good health, save a headache which ripened as the day went on; but he was bubbling over with fun, full of the most natural and unexpected sallies. He wished to know if I was acquainted with the Cochin China hen. They had one at Cohasset. They had named him Benventuro (after a certain gay Italian singer of strong self-appreciation who came formerly to America). He said this hen’s state of mind on finding a half-exploded fire-cracker and her depressed condition since its explosion was something extraordinary. His description was so vivid that I still see this hen perambulating about the house, first with pride, second with precipitation, fallen into disgrace among her fellows. He said Cohasset was not the place to live in the summer if one wanted sea-breezes. They all came straight from Chicago!! He fancied the place, thinking it an old fishing village, not unlike Yarmouth. Instead of which they prided themselves upon never having “any of your sea-smells,” and, being five miles from the doctor, could not be considered a cheerful place to live in with sick children. He said he was surprised to find J. T. F. without a sailor’s jacket and collar. The actors among whom he had been living rather overdid the business; their collars were wider, their shirts fuller, and their trousers more bulgy than those of any real sailor he had ever observed, and the manner of hitching up the trousers was entirely peculiar to themselves and to the stage. [. . .]

Harte said in speaking of Longfellow that no one had yet overpraised him. The delicate quality of humor, the exquisite fineness in the choice of words, the breadth and sweetness of his nature were something he could hardly help worshipping. One day after a dinner at Mr. Lowell’s he said, “I think I will not have a carriage to return to town. I will walk down to the Square.” “I will walk with you,” said Longfellow. When they arrived at his gate, he said, he was so beautiful that he could only think of the light and whiteness of the moon, and if he had stayed a moment longer he should have put his arms around him and made a fool of himself then and there. Whereat he said good night abruptly and turned away.

He brought his novel and play with him which are just now finished, for us to read. He has evidently enjoyed the play, and he enjoys the fame and the money they both bring him.

He is a dramatic, lovable creature with his blue silk pocket-handkerchief and red dressing slippers and his quick feelings. I could hate the man who could help loving him - or the woman either.’

Friday, August 19, 2016

The death of Lorca

The great Spanish poet and playwright Federico García Lorca was assassinated 80 years ago today by right wing military forces at the start of the Spanish Civil War. The circumstances of his death have always been controversial, indeed Lorca’s biographer, Ian Gibson, has written an entire book on the subject. Although Lorca himself was not a diarist, in 2012 the diary of a young male lover surfaced, shedding new light on Lorca’s last days. On a personal note, my own diary reveals not only that I met Gibson several times, but how I realised that his book on the death of Lorca had played a part in inspiring me to be a writer.

Lorca was born in 1898 near Granada, Spain, into a wealthy landowning family. He was educated at Granada and Madrid universities. While studying in Madrid, he lived within the Residencia de Estudiantes, one of Spain’s first cultural centres, where he became friends with Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí among many other creative types. In 1919-1920, he wrote his first play, The Butterfly’s Evil Spell, which was not well received, and, in 1921, published his first book of poems. Collaborations with the composer Manuel de Falla and more poems followed before Lorca’s second play, Mariana Pineda, with sets designed by Dalí, opened in Barcelona in 1927, to great acclaim.

In 1929-1930, Lorca travelled to New York, where he studied English and continued writing poetry; he also visited Vermont and Cuba. Back in Madrid, the newly established Second Spanish Republic appointed him director of a student theatre company, Teatro Universitario La Barraca, charged with bringing theatre to rural areas of Spain. During the next few years he wrote his most famous plays, Blood Wedding, Yerma and The House of Bernarda Alba. But, when the Spanish Civil War broke out, he was assassinated, on 19 August, by fascist supporters of General Franco - the leader who, in 1939, would win the war and rule Spain for more than 30 years. The circumstances of Lorca’s death have long been controversial, and his body was never found. Biographers continue to argue about whether it was Lorca’s left-wing political beliefs (though he had friends in both factions of the emerging civil war) or personal animosities to his homosexuality that was most to blame for his death warrant.

In the 1960s, the Irish-born Ian Gibson, a Spanish literature academic working in Britain, moved to Granada for a year to write a doctoral thesis on Lorca, but ended up publishing (in Paris) a Spanish-language book about the playwright’s death - La represión nacionalista de Granada en 1936 y la muerte de Federico García Lorca (1971). It was banned in Spain; and subsequently it was also published in English as The Death of Lorca (1973). Gibson concluded that Lorca was, indeed, shot by nationalist militia, along with others, as part of a wider campaign to eliminate left-wing radicals. Gibson, by this time domiciled near Granada, went on to publish his major, and very highly respected, two-volume Spanish biography of Lorca in 1985-1987, and then two years later, a one volume edition in English.

In 2015, the Guardian claimed that documents it had obtained (written in 1965 at the Granada police headquarters) contained ‘the first ever admission by Franco-era officials’ of their involvement in Lorca’s death. The article goes on: ‘The resulting documents suggest García Lorca was persecuted for his beliefs, describing him as a “socialist and a freemason,” about whom rumours swirled of “homosexual and abnormal practices”. After police carried out two searches on his home in Granada, he fled to a friend’s house out of fear. In August 1936, just one month after the civil war broke out, officers surrounded the house where García Lorca was hiding, while his friends tried to intervene on his behalf. García Lorca was arrested and taken by car to an area close to the place known as Fuente Grande, along with one other detainee, said the documents. He was then “executed immediately after having confessed, and was buried in that location, in a very shallow grave, in a ravine”. No details were given as to the content of his confession.’ Further biographical information is available from Wikipedia, Andalusia.com or Poets.org.

There is no evidence that Lorca was a diarist (see A Companion to Federico García Lorca by Federico Bonaddio, 2007, Tamesis). However, in 2012, the 91 year old Juan Ramirez de Lucas, who had been Lorca’s last lover, died leaving behind a box of mementoes including letters and a diary - instructing his family to make them public. As was widely reported at the time (see El País for example), the letters (from Lorca) and de Lucas’s diary prove that Lorca, 38 years old, and de Lucas, only 19, had been planning in the summer of 1936 to flee to Mexico. Lorca, though, insisted that de Lucas seek permission from his family - permission that was not forthcoming, his father refusing to issue the necessary papers. Had the lovers left Spain at that moment in time, Lorca would not have died so young, and who knows what literary works he might have produced.

The Telegraph, for its take on the de Lucas story, contacted Gibson, who said: ‘It’s terribly exciting to learn new material exists that may shed light on his final days’, and ‘Lorca was very promiscuous and prone to infatuation but we never definitively knew who his last lover was or why he delayed leaving.’ Gibson revealed de Lucas’s name had come up during his own research on Lorca (which had begun while Franco was still in power), but that he had refused to be interviewed. ‘One can only guess that he wanted to keep his association a secret especially during the Franco years. It wasn’t easy being gay and especially if it was a relationship with someone as famous as Lorca.’ The Telegraph article concluded with another quote from Gibson: ‘We can only hope that the papers will be made available soon.’

Unfortunately, since 2012 there has been no sign that the letters/diary might be published, as was suggested at the time. In 2014, the British theatre critic Nicholas de Jongh, when writing a play on the death of Lorca, inspired by the de Lucas find, tried to find out what had happened to his papers, but was stonewalled at every turn. The play - The Unquiet Grave of Garcia Lorca - premiered in London in October 2014 - see The Evening Standard.


On a personal note, I met Ian Gibson several times at his home in Restabal, near Granada. My friend Rosy, and her husband Andy, had bought a holiday villa in the area, but it was only after being there for a while that Rosy discovered a cousin, whom she had not previously met, living nearby - Ian Gibson - and they soon became firm friends. One winter, I visited Rosy, with my seven-year old son, Adam, and she took us to Ian’s place. It was not until I was in his house, and browsing his bookshelves that I realised Ian had played a part, some 20 years earlier, in inspiring me to become a writer. Here is my diary entry:

15 January 1995
‘Ian proved a hearty fellow and quite charming. He loved Adam and the way he’d fallen asleep in his house without disturbing anyone, and he seemed on good form the thrice I saw him - on this evening, later in the week at a party, and then on New Year’s Eve at his party. But I must recount why my meeting with him was so significant.

In the mid-1970s, after my travels and when I was living in London with Harold, I think, I saw a modern ballet at Sadlers Wells, created by Lindsay Kemp and performed by Ballet Rambert. I can remember parts of the ballet to this day. It was called Cruel Garden and it so inspired me in some way that I wrote my first ever piece of fiction (apart from the shorts in my travel diaries) and I called it Cruel Garden, although it had nothing to do with the ballet or its subject (at least I don’t think it did). The point is that the ballet Cruel Garden was based on the life of Lorca and, in part, on Ian’s book The Death of Lorca. I did not even realise I had read the book until I started delving into my memories surrounding The Cruel Garden.’

The first Astronomer Royal

John Flamsteed, the first ever Astronomer Royal who catalogued hundreds of stars and laid the foundation stone of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, was born 370 years ago today. Later in life, he was in conflict with Isaac Newton, and with fellow astronomer Edmund Halley. He left behind an autobiography, many letters and a short diary, all of which were compiled, in the 19th century, into a large volume which included his catalogue of the stars.

Flamsteed was born on 19 August 1646 in Derbyshire, England, and educated in Derby, though from the age of 14 he suffered from chronic bouts of rheumatic illness, and, leaving school at 15, was unable to go to university. During his late teens and into his 20s he seems to have helped in his father’s brewing and malting business, and to have taught himself much about astronomy, through books and observations. In 1665, he presented, to William Litchford an expert on planets, his first essay, concerning the design, use and construction of an astronomer’s quadrant, including tables for the latitude of Derby. Around this time, he accurately predicted the solar eclipses of 1666 and 1668. He is also credited with the earliest recorded sightings of Uranus.

By this time, Flamsteed was corresponding with astronomers, such as Vincent Wing, and other learned figures, not least Henry Oldenburg, the secretary of the Royal Society, who had published a set of his astronomical projections in Philosophical Transactions. In 1670, Flamsteed visited Cambridge, and arranged to enter Jesus College, succeeding to an MA in 1674, the same year he first heard Isaac Newton’s Lucasian Lectures. Subsequently, he was ordained deacon, and was about to take up a living in his home county, when his patron Jonas Moore, Surveyor-General of the Ordnance, invited him to London. Moore had recently offered the Royal Society to pay for the establishment of an observatory. However, when Charles II set up a commission (including such notables as Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke) designed to investigate a specific proposal to calculate longitude by the position of the moon, Flamsteed was appointed as an official assistant to the commission, and supplied observations to test the idea.

Although the Commission found the specific idea was not worth pursuing, it recommended that the King should consider establishing an observatory in order to better map the stars and the motions of the moon in order to further investigate the lunar-distance method. Flamsteed was appointed by royal warrant ‘The King’s Astronomical Observator’ - the first English Astronomer Royal, with an allowance of £100 a year. A few months later, another royal warrant provided for the establishment of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, and it was Flamsteed who laid the foundation stone. The following year he was made a Fellow of the Royal Society, and he moved to live at the Observatory where he stayed until 1684, when he was also appointed priest to the parish of Burstow, Surrey, not far from Greenwich. In 1692, he married Margaret Cooke, the granddaughter of his predecessor at Burstow.

Flamsteed contributed much data, requested by Newton for his work Principia, but, when the latter was published it was Edmund Halley, then secretary of the Royal Society, who received much credit as sponsor of the work. Flamsteed, who had long disliked Halley, felt slighted by the lack of recognition for his contribution. This had a negative effect on Flamsteed’s relations with Newton, and the two thereafter were often in conflict. Indeed, when Flamsteed refused to publish his star data until properly verified, Newton and Halley conspired to obtain and publish them. Flamsteed managed to gather several hundred - but not all - of the published copies and burn them. Flamsteed died in 1719. Further information is available form Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia.com, MacTutor, The Messier Catalog, or Jesus College.

More than a century after Flamsteed’s death, in 1835, the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty printed An Account of the Revd John Flamsteed: The First Astronomer Royal; compiled from his own manuscripts, and other authentic documents, never before published. Edited by Francis Bailey, this included Flamsteed’s History of his own Life, many letters, a few reports and memoranda, and a short ‘diary of events’ with entries between 1704 and 1713 - the latter having been found scattered through several pages of a letter-book containing a variety of other documents. Half the book, around 350 pages is taken up with the autobiographical material, the diary absorbing only a dozen or so page, and the other half of the book is taken up with Flamsteed’s Catalogue of Stars, consisting of table lists of stars and many associated notes. The work can be read freely online at Internet Archive or Googlebooks.

Here are three extracts from the Flamsteed’s ‘Diary of events’.

18 April 1706
‘Mr. Hudson here told me, if I would go up, Sir I. Newton would go to the Prince’s treasurer with me; urged me much: I went on the 19th mane: Sir Isaac was very grave: told me that, the Prince having subscribed a great sum to the Emperor’s loan, the whole money could not be received: that he had taken up monies for Mr. Churchill: would say nothing, when I asked if he had taken up also to pay me for my calculators; but that he must give bond to Mr. Churchill: I told him he had my catalogue and papers in his hands: he answered slightingly, that the catalogue was imperfect, which he knew when he received it sealed up, and was contented with it: I desired my MSS back, to correct the faults of the press: he told me we must go on slowly at first, quicker after, that in a few weeks he would return my MSS: Dr. Grey is at Oxford; suppose will not return till after term time: he must be paid for the needless collations, and they cannot be finished till his return: all this insincere practice I must bear, so long as God thinks fit: may his goodness deliver me speedily.’

19 July 1706
‘At London: waited on Sir I. Newton about printing 100 or 150 more copies: represented that I thought it needless, contrary to our agreement, &c.: he seemed to assent, and that we should go on, on the old foot: I suggested that it was probable Mr. Churchill had caused more to be printed than he ought, by 200: that if any besides myself had copies to sell, I should not make anything of mine: he agreed that nobody but I ought to have any copy to sell; and that, as I desired, the plates should be put into my hands, that I might cause them to be engraved and drawn off: promised to pay me £100, and I to send J. Hudson to him, to inform him about the Prince’s treasurer: promised to wait on him next week.’

1 August 1713
‘Sir Isaac Newton having, as I was told, presented his book of Principia, new printed, to the Queen, came to Greenwich, attended by Dr. Thorp, Dr. Halley, and his sons, Mr. Machin and Mr. Rowley. Mr. Hudson was with them, who had given me an intimation of it, the night before. But I had a letter of advice of it, directly from Mr. Machin. Sir I. Newton came first, about 3 o’clock; the others, half an hour after. Sir I. Newton said little till they entered; then he rose up and told me that by a Royal Order, by word of mouth, they were come down to visit the Observatory; to see what repairs were wanting, and what instruments. I gave them leave to go where they pleased, and sent my servant to wait on them, and show them all the places where repairs were wanting: and Mr. Clark and Mr. Ryley (whom I had sent for, on purpose to be witnesses of all that passed) accompanied them. I kept in my chamber: for I could not walk about with them. But, before they went out, I told them that the cogs in the greater semicircle were much worn; and that the instrument, for several reasons, was not very serviceable. And because Sir I. Newton had asked how we could observe a comet without it, I told him I could easily observe any comet that was visible in any part of the heavens, by a particular method that I knew of; but it was not now a time to talk of it; and that that instrument was my own. My friends and servants remember all that passed: I trouble not myself to report it. At parting, Sir I. Newton told me he had a Ptolemy of mine, and the minutes or night-notes of my observations, which he would return. I was glad to hear it; and told him I would retain his receipt for them. I pray God he be as good as his word.’

Sunday, August 14, 2016

The concept of decadence

‘[In] literary articles in journals edited by marxists the concept of decadence is appearing more and more frequently of late. i discover that decadence includes me. this is naturally of great interest to me. a marxist actually needs the concept of decline. it serves to identify the decline of the ruling class in the political and economic spheres.’ This is from the diary of Bertolt Brecht, one of Germany’s most important 20th century playwrights who died 60 years ago today.

Eugen Berthold Brecht was born in 1898 in Augsburg, Bavaria, into a mixed Catholic/Protestant family. He was educated at Königliches Realgymnasium, and then avoided the army by enrolling as a medical student at the Ludwig Maximilian University in Munich, where he also studied theatre. He never finished training as a doctor but did do some military service as a medical orderly. During the war, though, he had begun to write newspaper articles, under the name Bert Brecht, and he wrote his first play, Baal, in 1918, but it was not produced until 1923. He became increasingly involved in the theatre and cabaret world, being much influenced by the Munich comedian Karl Valentin. Brecht’s first produced play - Drums in the Night - was premiered in 1922 to rave reviews.

In 1917, Brecht had begun an affair with Paula Banholzer, who had a child, Frank, by him, though she died soon after. In 1922, he married the actress Marianne Zoff, and they had a daughter, Hanne, though that relationship soon broke down, and, in 1924, he had a son, Stefan, with Helene Weigel. Five years later, he married Weigel, and they had a second child, Barbara, who would eventually inherit the copyright to all of Brecht’s literary works.

In 1919, Brecht had joined the Independent Social Democratic party and become friends with the writer Lion Feuchtwanger. By 1924, they had collaborated on an adaptation of Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II - the first of many classic texts Brecht would adapt. The same year, he went to work at Max Reinhardt’s Deutsches Theater in Berlin - then one of the world’s leading theatres. He produced many well-received plays, not least The Threepenny Opera, adapted from The Beggar’s Opera with the composer Kurt Weill. Around this time, Brecht also published his first book of poems. In the early 1920s, Brecht started using the first name Bertolt, to rhyme with that of his collaborator, the playwright Arnolt Bronnen.

Brecht had long been a student of Marxism, but, by the mid-1920s this interest was leading him to write political dramas such as Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny, also with Weill. In fear of Hitler, Brecht fled from Germany in 1933, first to Scandinavia, settling on the Danish island of Funen, then, in 1941, to California, writing poems and plays (such as Galileo and Mother Courage and Her Children) all the while. After the war, in 1947, he was interrogated by the House Un-American Activities Committee, but the day after left the US to return to Europe.

After staying in Switzerland to begin with, Brecht settled in East Berlin, where he launched the celebrated Berliner Ensemble, but he wrote few plays in his last years focusing more on directing and teaching young directors and playwrights. In 1955, he received the Stalin Peace Prize, and, the following year, he died on 14 August. Further information is available from Wikipedia, Encyclopædia Britannica, or Theatre Database.

Brecht seems to have kept a diary in childhood, although only one journal - the so-called Diary 10 written in 1913 (but which refers to earlier diaries) - appears to have survived (for more on this see Bertolt Brecht: A Literary Life by Stephen Parker at Googlebooks). He kept a diary in his early 20s: Bertolt Brecht Diaries 1920-1922, edited by Herta Ramthun, translated and annotated by John Willett, published by Eyre Methuen, 1979. And again he kept a diary from 1938 until the end of his life (though he recorded little in his last years): Bertolt Brecht Journals 1934-1956, translated by Hugh Rorrison, edited by John Willett, and published by Methuen, in 1993. A review in New Statesman and Society of the latter, quoted by the publisher, described the book as ‘a marvellous, motley collage of political ideas, domestic detail, artistic debate, poems, photographs and cuttings from newspapers and magazines’. Here are several extracts.

24 July 1938
‘there are concepts which are difficult to defend because they spread such boredom whenever they arise, like DÉCADENCE. there is naturally such a thing as the literature of the decline of a class, in it the class loses its serene certainty, its calm self-confidence, it conceals its difficulties, it gets bogged down in detail, it becomes parasitically culinary, etc. but the very works which identify its decline as a decline can scarcely be classed as decadent. but that is how the declining class views them, on the other hand the FEAST OF TRIMALCHIO exhibits all sorts of signs of formal decadence. and if ELECTIVE AFFINITIES is not decadent, WERTHER is.’

15 August 1938
‘FEAR AND MISERY OF THE THIRD REICH has NOW gone to press. lukács has already welcomed the spy as if i were a sinner returned to the bosom of the salvation army. here at last is something taken straight from life! he overlooks the montage of 27 scenes, and the fact that it is actually only a table of gests, the gest of keeping your mouth shut, the gest of looking about you, the gest of sudden fear etc. the pattern of gests in a dictatorship. now epic theatre can show that both ‘intérieurs’ and almost naturalistic elements are within its range, that they do not make the crucial difference. the actor will be well advised to study the STREET SCENE before playing one of the short scenes. the aforesaid gests are not to be performed in such a way that the audience wants to stop the scene, empathy is to be sedulously controlled, otherwise the whole thing is a dead loss. the montage, a process that has been so thoroughly condemned, arose here out of letters from dudow who needed something for his little proletarian theatre-group in paris. so the proletarian theatre in exile is keeping the theatre alive. while in moscow maxim vallentin, the one-time director of a berlin agitprop group, has gone over to bourgeois theatre and announced that in art an appeal has to be made to the emotions, which can only mean reason has to be switched off.’

18 August 1938
‘by offering only formal criteria for realism LUKÁCS, whose significance is that he writes from moscow, is in the final estimate handing readers who are avid to learn on a plate to those famous contemporary bourgeois novelists on whom he has bestowed great, if slightly embarrassed compliments, because they display the said formal features (even if they are not so ‘happy’, ‘pure’ and ‘creative’ as the old masters of the great early period). they become his realists (he allays any suspicion by contrasting them with a form of ‘decadence’, to which DOS passos and presumably i too belong), whose descriptions exclude the class struggle (‘do not not take sufficiently into account’, ‘do not yet fully encompass’), so that the reader himself then has to unravel the complicated reflections which the ‘decadents’ incorporate in their books, the very reflections which establish that the events depicted derive from the class struggle. they all display LUKÁCS’S hallmarks, HEINRICH MANN presents such a ‘tangle’ of different human fates in his HENRI QUATRE that nobody can find his way around in it, and doesn’t his brother THOMAS unfold the ‘whole life of the biblical joseph’ in all its ultimate fullness! in HAMSUN we have ‘very involved, very indirect relationships’ by the dozen, the class struggle is less in evidence in all three, but naturally we can add that for ourselves, for ‘in the last resort’ everything is class struggle, such obtuseness is monumental.’

10 September 1938
‘in literary articles in journals edited by marxists the concept of decadence is appearing more and more frequently of late. i discover that decadence includes me. this is naturally of great interest to me. a marxist actually needs the concept of decline. it serves to identify the decline of the ruling class in the political and economic spheres. it would be stupid for him to refuse to recognise decline in the artistic sphere. eg literature cannot exclude the great shackling of productive capacity by the capitalist means of production. i am restricting myself in the first instance to my own production. my first book of poems, the DEVOTIONS FOR THE HOME, is undoubtedly branded with the decadence of the bourgeois class. under its wealth of feeling lies a confusion of feeling. under its originality of expression lie aspects of collapse. under the richness of its subject matter there is an element of aimlessness,. the powerful language is slack. etc etc. seen in this light the subsequent SVENDBORG POEMS represent both a withdrawal and an advance. from the bourgeois point of view there has been a staggering impoverishment. isn’t it all a great deal more one-sided, less ‘organic’, cooler, ‘more self-conscious’ (in a bad sense)? let’s hope my comrades-in-arms will not let that go by default, they will say the SVENDBORG POEMS are less decadent than DEVOTIONS FOR THE HOME. however i think it is important that they should realise what the advance, such as it is, has cost. capitalism has forced us to take up arms. it has laid waste our surroundings. i no longer go off ‘to commune with nature in the woods’, but accompanied by two policemen. there is still richness, a rich choice of battlefields. there is originality, originality of problems. no question about it: literature is not blooming. but we have to beware of thinking in terms of outdated images. this notion of bloom is too one-sided. you can’t harness ideas of value, definitions of power and greatness, to an idyllic conception of organic flowering; it would be ridiculous. withdrawal and advance are not separated according to dates in the calendar. they are threads which run through individuals and works.’

7 October 1938
‘the fall of Czechoslovakia is remarkable for the way it happened. eg people continue to speak about that country as if it were still the same, and for that reason some of its actions are surprising. people have understood that it has to hand over something to germany, but now it is handing over more, in fact everything as far as everybody is concerned. including the jews and refugees. people forget that this defeat has brought different class forces to the helm, so the state has become a different person in law, one can no longer speak of czechoslovakia. and how did this come about? ‘england’ could not enter into a war which its russian ally would have won. the russian ally could not enter into a war which the russian generals would have won. france could not enter into a war which the popular front would have won. and none of them, naturally, could lose a war.’

23 November 1938
‘finished LIFE OF GALILEO. it took three weeks. the only difficulties arose with the last scene. just as in the case of ST JOAN, i needed a neat stroke at the end to ensure that the audience had the necessary detachment. even somebody empathising without thinking must now feel the a-effect when he empathises with galileo. with rigidly epic presentation an acceptable empathy occurs.’


The Diary Junction

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Casement’s black reputation

Roger Casement - an Irish-born British diplomat, human rights activist, and, ultimately, an Irish nationalist - was executed for treason exactly a century ago today. His journals - which revealed him as a promiscuous homosexual - were successfully employed by the British government to blacken Casement’s name and undermine calls for clemency. However, subsequently, the diaries were kept secret by the government, leading some biographers and many others to believe they were a forgery. It was not until 2002 that an independent forensic examination proved, finally, they were genuine.

Casement was born in 1864 in Sandymount, near Dublin, the youngest son of an Ulster protestant and soldier. The family moved frequently, but both parents died young and the children became dependent on relatives. Casement went to live with his uncle in County Antrim, and was schooled until 1880, when he went to Liverpool to live with an aunt. After working in a shipping office, he signed up, aged 19, as a purser on board a ship heading for the Congo. The following year, he returned to stay in the Congo working as a surveyor on a rail project. There he met the writer Joseph Conrad and also the explorer (and sculptor) Herbert Ward who he then accompanied on a tour of the US.

Casement returned to Ireland where he took a job in the British customs department, before, in 1895, gaining a first consul appointment in Portuguese East Africa. Thereafter, he took similar posts in Angola (1898-1900), Congo Free State (1901-1904) and Brazil (1906-1911). He gained international recognition, though, for a report (published in 1904), commissioned by the Foreign Office, into the state of government in the Congo, which revealed atrocious cruelty in the exploitation of native labour by white traders - for more on this see Conrad, Hottot and the Congo. And, after producing a similarly disturbing report in 1912 on the Putumayo River region in Peru, he was awarded knighthood.

Ill-health forced Casement to return to Ireland in 1912, and he retired from the British consular service in the summer of the following year. Thereafter, his views on Irish nationalism having strengthened, he helped form the Irish Volunteers. In 1914, he went to the US promoting the cause and seeking funds, and there, at the outbreak of the war, began scheming to gain German support for an Irish revolt. This led him to travel to Germany, seeking to recruit a brigade from Irish prisoners-of-war captured in the first months of the war. However, German support proved minimal, and his plans never materialised in any substantial way. The few German munitions he did manage to secure for shipment to Ireland were intercepted by the British; and he, himself, was arrested a few days after being transported to Ireland by a German submarine.

Casement was charged with treason, sabotage and espionage against the Crown, and was remanded, on suicide watch, at Brixton prison. The prosecution had some legal trouble arguing its case, and resorted to circulating extracts from Casement’s diaries, which contained details of his (illegal) homosexual activities, to influence those calling for clemency (among which were notables such as Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and George Bernard Shaw). Casement was hanged at Pentonville prison at 9am on 3 August 1916. Further information is available at Wikipedia, BBC, Stephen Stratford’s website, Irish Historical Mysteries. The Times report of the execution is also available at Stratford’s website.

Casement, it seems, was an intermittent diarist, keeping an account of himself from time to time in pocket diaries (with space for each day of the year) or cash agenda note-books. The term ‘Black Diaries ’ was coined by by Peter Singleton-Gates and Maurice Girodias in their 1959 book of the same name. Some 20 years earlier (in 1936), though, William J. Maloney had published a work claiming that he had proved the diaries used to blacken Casement’s name had been a forgery - something many people had people believed since his execution. It was not until 2002, following a detailed and independent forensic examination of the diaries, that it was proved, beyond reasonable doubt, that they were genuine.

The same year, Belfast Press, brought out Jeffrey Dudgeon’s Roger Casement: The Black Diaries with a study of his background, sexuality, and Irish political life. It contains Casement’s diaries from 1903, 1910 and 1911. This was the first time, the Black Diaries, with all of Casement’s promiscuous thoughts and actions laid bare, had been published. Dudgeon includes a large amount of additional information, in fact creating more of a biography supplemented by a few chapters on the diaries. The book runs to 650 pages less than half of which are diary texts, and the diary extracts themselves are heavily adulterated with Dudgeon’s notes in bold fold enclosed by square brackets, often doubling or more Casement’s own words.

Some pages of Roger Casement’s Diaries - 1910: The Black and the White edited by Roger Sawyer can be read at Googlebooks (Pimlico, 1997). Extracts from One Bold Deed of Open Treason: The Berlin Diary of Roger Casement 1914-1916 (Irish Academic Press, 2016) can be read at The Irish Times. The following extracts, though, are from Dudgeon’s The Black Diaries (some pages of which can be previewed at Amazon).


20 November 1911
‘. . . Stopped at Mucuà at 4 p.m. and saw two rubber trees in tapping. Young Cearense of Sobral still there - splendid stern, thighs and testeminhos - a lovely boy. . . Fonseca at Santa Theresa higher  up - it is Peruvian territory. [On blotter] Got some mails by “Manco” today at 10.30 a.m. meeting “Hamburgo” on her way up . . . Saw fine Indian boy in Janissius canoe that brought him over. A big strong fellow - nice face and great thick stiff one which he felt often under grey pants.’

21 November 1911
‘Arr. Nazareth at 10 and after some hours there up to Marius Levy’s where shipped 65 cases rubber (101⁄2 tons weight) . . . Back to Nazareth - young Italian, stout but very nice face, huge stern, thighs and immense big one, long, thick, soft, he fingered often and one could see it hanging down 6” or 7” inches long - through very thick trousers too. Left Nazareth at 5 with “Le Journal” from Belém. Up to 5 Oct. giving Italy-Turkey war and strike in Ireland. At union and mouth of Javari at 9.30 and on to Leticia.’

22 November 1911
‘At Leticia since 11.30 p.m. Left only at 7.30 a.m. taking up Peruvian officer and family and enormous mass of rubbish of furniture including 5 jerrys! Cold is again very bad. Left letters to Tom, Gallwey, O’Reilly and Bernardino. . . Clock on church is painted strip of canvas always at 11.45 a.m.! . . . Met “Elisa” and got papers - including a “Truth” with part of Paredes’ summing up. José came and asked me for photo in Iquitos - looking lovely and then at 8.30 for cigarette papers and later I called and pulled mine and asked for water. Also with Pilot’s boy.’

23 November 1911
‘Lovely day. We are steaming very well and expect to be in Iquitos before 10 a.m. tomorrow. Read letters and drafted a long despatch to F.O. giving as my opinion the unlikelihood of Peruvian Government acting seriously . . . lots of logs still - often striking them hard. At 8 p.m. a huge one nearly swept away a man and case of rubber. . . Return to Iquitos.’

24 November 1911
‘Arr. 9.55. Antonio Cruz came on wharf and will come Sunday 8 a.m. Saw some big ones on Indian boys and then up ladder at top a young Spaniard with huge soft big one under blue pants. At my corner the lovely 6 foot young Inca policeman and his up at full half cock! Simply enormous, all down left thigh and thick too - fully 71⁄2 and huge testeminhos too. I now am sure of the Indians! Many letters from Mrs Green and others. Saw the Cholo policeman again going to lunch and it was huge, half down his thigh and he 6 foot and lovely. Then the small policeman passed and his too enormous. Then Paredes young Editor also very big. José came at 3.15 looking very nice and it was half up and showed big. Gave 5/8 for Spanish boo. Saw the young policeman while talking to José and it was simply huge. Both pure Cholos.’