Eurasia Newsletter

bringing the minds of Asia, Canada and Europe together

Month: July, 2016

A word from the woods

When one goes out for a walk in the woods in the summertime, it inspires one to write. There is so much beauty, so much of interest to describe. It is good to write about the woods. The problem is to write from the woods. Really. Thoreau didn’t write about Walden till he had left it. I have always wondered why.

In Thoreau’s day, writing technologies were not particularly portable. If you didn’t have pens, ink and a supply of paper at hand, it was a good excuse to postpone the effort of writing. At most you might jot down a few “field notes” and hope to make sense of them later, comfortably installed at your desk at home.

Fortunately, with portable electronic technology getting lighter and more manageable, it is not such a bother.  We can write just about anywhere on laptops, tablets and the like. But have we developed the way of writing in the moment to go with it? I doubt it.

Writing typically calls for some kind of withdrawal, as Walter Ong noted. We absent ourselves from folk and friends, and retire to some secluded room to write. Especially, we absent ourselves from our readers. When they read the article or the book, we the writer aren’t around – that’s the whole idea. But we also absent ourselves from what we are writing about. For Wordsworth, poetry was “emotion recollected in tranquillity”, in other words, describing the experience not while it’s happening, but afterwards.

There is another reason why we find it hard to write in the woods and from the woods: the spell of the place upon us. Alphonse Daudet has a famous short story about this. A local administrator on the way to a public meeting gets his driver to drop him off in a wood at the side of the road so he can write his speech notes. But the birds sing and the scents are heady and the shade is cool, and after a long time, when the driver goes to look for him, he finds the administrator sitting under a tree composing verse.

The trouble is that in the woods you forget your purpose, like the man in the story. The pen slips from your hand, as it were. You reach the edge of language, that frontier zone where words for things seem to dissolve and the things, mute as they are, enter into their own. The trick is to be able to keep writing, and let whatever you have to say write itself. “The unseen Genius of the wood”, as Milton says, will hopefully look over your shoulder and prompt the words you should choose.




Surrealism and New Age

Surrealism, founded by André Breton in pre-war Paris, is largely forgotten as a movement. When Breton’s old apartment and contents in the Rue Fontaine were sold a few years ago, including his library and collection of artworks, the public authorities could not be induced to buy them, so they were dispersed by private auction.

Surrealism deserves to be better remembered. It was a bold attempt at harnessing the powers of the unconscious, as discovered by Freud, for literary and artistic creation. It dreamed of a marvellous and mysterious world in which le hasard objectif, later called synchronicity, would unfold itself and reign over human lives. This would be a reenchanted world, but a world in which science and technology themselves would be in the service of enchantment, expanding man’s horizons and exploring distant worlds, both literarily and metaphorically.

The Surrealist movement called for revolution, but a revolution within, much more radical than anything Marx or Lenin thought of. Yet it never caught on – except for a few flashy painters who managed to stay in the public eye. Breton’s indirect influence was great, but French thought, and thought in other countries, was going elsewhere, and after his death in 1966 the Surrealist movement dissolved itself.

The idea of revolution in society, of things getting better, has largely perished. The idea of revolution within the person has not quite. Today there is the New Age movement. Here the notions of harnessing powers within and synchronicity and reenchantment are alive and well, and being talked about. But the New Age movement has no hold on the intellectual world, nor is it really a mass movement, like a new religion. It can at best hope to have an indirect influence on the majority, which will never quite get the point, much less live by such a faith.




Politics as blah-blah

Recently a veteran German politician said in an interview: “formerly, parties wanted people who were fighters. Now they are looking for flexible people, who can build consensus and who understand what the voters want.” He then added: “that is why politics has become so boring.”

In France a few years ago, Max Gallo likened the modern political class to corks bobbing on the surface of society. In other words, they have no ideas of their own, no vision, no leadership to offer; they just reflect the trends in society, whatever these may be. They get to the front of the parade, wherever it happens to be going.

The immediacy of journalistic reportage and in particular the rise of opinion polling mean that politicians cannot afford to say what they really think in their speeches and sound-bites, but must reflect whatever seems to be the major trend in opinion out there among the electorate.

Politicians seem to be the helpless victims of the democratic process. As Chinese commentator Eric X. Li put it a few years ago in a criticism of Western democracy, “elected representatives have no minds of their own and respond only to the whims of public opinion as they seek re-election.” The process becomes more important to them than the result. This means that they can never tell the truth. They can only tell the voters what the voters are willing to hear.

Part of the problem is an unholy alliance between journalists and politicians. They feed off one another. Complex social problems are boiled down into “issues” simple enough for politicians and journalists to understand. Political leaders go through the media landscape like sleep-walkers, dropping the clichés into their slots to produce meaningless slogans which they repeat like a mantra. It is all just blah-blah. You could watch it with the sound off and not miss much.

This is why shoot-from-the-lip right-wing populists can hold the political establishment to ransom every so often. Because they appeal to negative emotions among the voters – like resentment – and offer simplistic solutions. But they are no alternative to the professional politicians either.

Meanwhile voter turnout in elections is low and getting lower just about everywhere. So-called voter apathy is where voters make a judgement that the outcome will not improve their lot in any real way, and so stay away in a kind of mute protest.

This does not mean, of course, that there is any point in overthrowing our political system in a bloody revolution. It would only result in something a lot worse. The democratic system of competing parties is at least benign. It is a show that goes on while the real changes are happening behind the scenes and elsewhere. Around 1950, Karl Popper observed that in politics, instead of asking “who should rule?” we should ask “how can we ensure that we have rulers that do the least damage?” This sounds to me like the realistic approach we need today.

Where, then, are ideas going to come from that will improve society and save us from the real ills that threaten to engulf the world? From movements outside the conventional party-political process.

The moral of the story is: if you want to change society, don’t become a politician. Work for your vision some other way. If you are successful and get to implement your program, eventually the politicians may catch up, scrambling to get to the front of your parade.


Walking the Long Walls

Greek Premier Alexis Tsipras has been in China since last weekend, the major item on his agenda being to sign away the Piraeus to Chinese buyers. He was photographed walking on the Great Wall of China, looking very pleased with himself. The Chinese are taking a majority share in the port of Athens, and they are later to acquire more. They will continue to invest in infrastructure in Greece.

In the West, the Piraeus is a name to conjure with. It was always the port of Athens, a city originally built on a couple of steep rocky hills (note that the name of the city is plural!) which are well away from the sea. In Antiquity, the Athenians invested time, money and effort in building the Long Walls, a system of fortification linking the city to its port. This move was in the context of Athens taking on the role of a leader of an empire, a confederacy of Greek city-states. Its rivals, notably Sparta, were alarmed by this, and called upon the Athenians to desist. The Athenians did not, and eventually hostilities erupted in the Peloponnesian War.

Through Antiquity, the Piraeus was the main port of Greece. Eclipsed during the period of Turkish rule, it regained its importance in an independent Greece, and the shipbuilders and shipping magnates of the Piraeus became the best-known Greeks to the outside world. The Piraeus also became a rundown suburb of Athens; at one time it was a famous ghetto for the refugees from Asia Minor who had been expelled by the Turks in the terrible war of 1922.

The Piraeus was a port of the Eastern Mediterranean, and as such it had links to the Middle East. Because of its history, Greece has never ceased to be such a link. It has a unique peripheral position. It is at the Eastern edge of Europe, on the edge of Asia, and its tradition is to form a meeting point for the two. It is open to Europe, and it is open to Asia. As such it is a natural back door into Europe from Asia.

Tsipras was told by the country’s creditors to sell off the state-owned resources, and he is doing it. That he is selling them to China may not be too pleasing to many. But no-one cannot resist the expansion of China, with its need for a “silk road” to keep it supplied with all it needs. And, of course, the Chinese know all about Long Walls.

Greece has joined a number of peripheral nations offering a back door or an entrepôt port to China. Ireland, on the other periphery of Europe, has courted Chinese money. So has Sri Lanka in the Indian Ocean. These are all so many footholds and back doors into places that China wants. China knows all the back doors. And China’s deep pockets ensure that those doors now open to its knock.