November 30

1935, 1667



The deaths - I am confident that I am correct in employing the plural - of Fernando António Nogueira Pessoa, a disquieting number of individuals who may actually have written just four books (more than eighty are ascribed to him, directly or indirectly, but "scribed by" and "ascribed to" are not necessarily the same thing), three of them collections of poetry in English ("Antinous" and "Sonnets" in 1918, as well as "English Poems" in 1921), a fourth in his native Portuguese ("Mensagem" in 1933).

The heteronymity of languages results from Pessoa's father having died when Fernando was just five, and his mother taking him to live in Durban, South Africa, where he exacerbated the unhappiness of grief for just eight years, returning to Lisbon in 1905, and dying there, of cirrhosis of the liver, in 1935, virtually unknown even by his neighbours, and totally unknown in the world of literature. And yet, in "The Western Canon", Harold Bloom lists two versions of Pessoa among the twenty-six writers of "the democratic age" responsible for establishing the parameters of contemporary western literature. A remarkable achievement!

Whether or not Pessoa wrote the book for which he is now best known is a matter of academic dispute. Certainly most of the words belong to him, though many also, or instead, may be attributed to Bernardo Soares, who shared Pessoa's life, insofar as any other human can be said to have shared Pessoa's life, for many years; other fragments have been attributed to one Vicente Guedes, though this name does not appear on any electoral roll or census document for the city of Lisbon at that epoch. The book, however, known in Portuguese as "Livro do Desassossego: Composto por Bernardo Soares, ajudante de guarda-livros na cidade de Lisboa", was not published until forty-seven years after both Pessoa and Soares' deaths, and required the organisational skills of several editors to give it the multiple forms in which multiple very different versions of it may be read today, some even by the same editor, twice.

All this, however, is mere biography; what interests me, what draws me back again and again to re-read him, are the particular combinations of ordinary words which he constructs into phrases, clauses and sentences, and which are known among the cultural and intellectual snobs as Literature. Forgive me if I do not give page numbers for the citations that follow; there are now so many versions of the book, each of a different physical size and therefore heteronymously paginated, each numbering its own choice of fragments in its own disorder; you are much encouraged to acquire a copy and find them for yourself. I personally recommend Richard Zenith's 1991 translation, though it is entirely possible that Iain Watson, Alfred MacAdam and Margaret Jull Costa, who have allegedly published alternative translations, are in fact merely noms de plume employed by Zenith, or indeed that Zenith is one of them.

"I was born in a time when the majority of young people had lost faith in God, for the same reason that their elders had had it - without knowing why." 

The expression of what I call "Zeitgeist Opinions" or "Quondam Opinions", those views we hold, and believe to be our own, independently arrived at, by what we delude ourselves into thinking is critical judgement, but which are in fact the delineations of the narrow box of currently permitted views known as "free speech".

"I see life as a roadside inn where I have to stay until the coach from the abyss pulls up. I don't know where it will take me, because I don't know anything. I could see this inn as a prison, for I am compelled to wait in it; I could see it as a social centre, for it is here that I meet others. But I am neither impatient nor common. I leave who will to stay shut up in their rooms, sprawled out on beds where they sleeplessly wait, and I leave who will to chat in the parlours, from where their songs and voices conveniently drift out here to me. I am sitting at the door, feasting my eyes and ears on the colours and sounds of the landscape, and I softly sing - for myself alone - wispy songs I compose while waiting."

The Zero Positive incarnate! As is this:

"The way I see it, plagues, storms and wars are products of the same blind force, sometimes operating through unconscious microbes, sometimes through unconscious waters and thunderbolts, and sometimes through unconscious men... such is the world - a dunghill of instinctive forces that nevertheless shines in the sun with pale shades of light and dark gold."

"Inch by inch I conquered the inner terrain I was born with. Bit by bit I reclaimed the swamp in which I had languished. I gave birth to my infinite being, but I had to wrench myself out with forceps."

(There is a link from this to several passages in Kafka's diaries - click here)

"The grand, tarnished panorama of History amounts, as I see it, to a flow of interpretations, a confused consensus of unreliable eyewitness accounts."

I have to dispute with you, on this occasion: "consensus"? what consensus?

"Blessed are those who entrust their lives to no one."

"The contemplative person, without ever leaving his village, will nevertheless have the whole universe at his disposal. There is infinity in a cell or in a desert. One can sleep cosmically against a rock."

I only came upon Pessoa in 2004, and yet I feel I have known him all my life, can find every one of these phrases in my own stories, poems, aphorisms, diaries, even from many decades prior to that encounter. Perhaps I too am merely one more anagram of the destiny of Pessoa.

"Revolutionary or reformer - the error is the same. Unable to dominate and reform his own attitude towards life, which is everything, or his own being, which is almost everything, he flees, devoting himself to modifying others and the outside world. Every revolutionary and reformer is a fugitive. To fight for change is to be incapable of changing oneself. To reform is to be beyond repair...a sensitive and honest-minded man, if he is concerned about evil in the world, will naturally begin his campaign against them by eliminating them at their nearest source: his own person. This task will take his entire life."

The next I have slightly modified, because I think Pessoa has missed a trick. His version reads: 

"Only one thing astonishes me more than the stupidity with which most people live their lives, and that's the intelligence of this stupidity." 

My re-phrasing: "Only one thing astonishes me more than the stupidity with which most people live their lives, and that's the amount of education that has been poured into this stupidity."

"All of us in this world are living on board a ship that is sailing from one unknown part to another, and we should treat each other with a traveller's cordiality."

This final one is very tough - I doubt even Nietzsche could have gone this far:

"I see humanity as merely one of Nature's latest schools of decorative painting. I do not distinguish in any fundamental way between a man and a tree, and I naturally prefer whichever is more decorative, whichever interests my thinking eyes. If the tree is more interesting to me than the man, I am sorrier to see the tree felled than to see the man die. There are departing sunsets that grieve me more than the deaths of children."

More splendid sentences, as well as more background and commentary, can be found in my piece about Pessoa in "Private Collection"; and more about the man in a "Book of Days" piece about Pseudonyms, here.


1667


I am confident that Jonathan Swift was not one of Fernando Pessoa's heteronyms, though I would be amazed if Pessoa had not read him, and been massively influenced by him; and even, in some elements of his deeply solitary journeys into reality by way of the imagination, conceived of himself as a latter-day Gulliver on many an occasion. 

Their goals though were quite different. In a letter to Alexander Pope (29th September 1725) Swift wrote:

"... the chief end I propose to myself in all my labours is to vex the world rather than to divert it, and if I could compass that design without hurting my own person or fortune I would be the most indefatigable writer you have ever seen..."


Lemuel said much the same thing in the Travels (4:12):

"my principal design was to Inform, and not to amuse thee";

while back in his own persona he gave this advice to a young poet:

"... once kick the world, and the world and you will live together at a reasonable good understanding."

But there are so many memorable phrases:


"It is impossible that anything so natural, so necessary, and so universal as death, should ever have been designed by providence as an evil to mankind."

"Falsehood flies, and the truth comes limping after; so that when men come to be undeceived it is too late; the jest is over and the tale has had its effect."


"Old men and comets have been reverenced for the same reason: their long beards, and pretences to foretell events."

I am also intrigued to discover that Swift was the coiner of certain now clichéd phrases, including:

“A penny for your thoughts.” (Introduction to "Polite Conversation")

"The sight of you is good for sore eyes" (Ibid. Dialogue 1)

"She looks as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth" (Ibid)

"rain cats and dogs" (Ibid. Dialogue 2)

"you and he were hand-in-glove" (Ibid)

“all the world and his wife” (Ibid)


Swift was born today, November 30th 1667





You can find David Prashker at:


Copyright © 2016 David Prashker
All rights reserved
The Argaman Press

April 7


Amber pages:


Or maybe Peary wasn't the first man to reach the North Pole, despite his claims (see April 6). Perhaps it was Freddie Cook, Peary's friend who was the surgeon on the 1891 expedition, who claimed he had done so a year earlier, on April 21st, 1908


Wordsworth's birthday in 1770


Billie Holliday's in 1915


Ravi Shankar's in 1920


Francis Ford Coppola's in 1939

June 18


2016


Because the linked site is live (at the time of writing this), and therefore constantly changing, I have placed a screenshot of one key moment below, and leave you to follow up for yourself if you are as excited as I am by this extraordinary expedition. Click here for the European Space Agency website.





And no, you are right, Tim Peake was by no means the first human to travel in space, not even the first Brit (that was Helen Sharman, the first woman to visit the Mir space station, in 1991), but somehow the length of this expedition (six full months with no gravity, though lots of levity), and the sheer number of important tasks it undertook, and the effervescent personality of Tim Peake himself, and the fact, for a serial-blogger like me at least, that this is definitely the first ever space-expedition to have its own daily blog, have all combined to make this an inexorable entry for June 18th in this Book of Days.

Among the achievements, I discount his being the first Brit to undertake a spacewalk, because then we will end up with the fatuousness of cricket and baseball statistics (the first man ever to do a spacewalk wearing a green shirt on a Thursday in June et cetera), though I cannot resist, and watched a part of it on the television, the sheer absurdity of his participation in the London Marathon, on a treadmill, in zero gravity (he wore a special harness to simulate gravity), and in just three hours, 35 minutes and 21 seconds, which is frankly ridiculous back on Earth (I did the same marathon, in stages, at my gym, averaging about fifteen hundred paces a day, and it took me almost as long as he spent in space).

This, of course, was just a frivolous publicity stunt on one of his rare days off. The remaining time was spent trying to justify the galactic size of the cost of these expeditions into the black hole of Heaven. It included a number of scientific experiments which are only achievable in zero gravity, such as the impact of extreme radiation and vacuums on various organisms, and the physical and psychological impact of extreme isolation on humans; the former could obviously be simulated back on Earth, and the latter is, though California's Supreme Court has now declared it a breach of human rights in their prison system, and Turkey, Iran, Zimbabwe and Egypt, among others, are being encouraged to follow suit.

Principia.org's website provides links to some of the other key experiments, but you will have to surf these yourself if you want to understand them, because frankly science and ancient Greek are the same language to me.

EML: Thermolab and NEQUISOL
EXPOSE-R2: Life in space? Life on Mars?
iVOICE and EPSILON
Measuring Brain Pressure in Space
METERON – human-robotic planetary exploration





All this is the future. I was amused, in the midst of all this remarkable technology, to witness the primitive method of landing Major Peake's spacecraft back on Earth, an absurdity so absurd it made me think of a very different Peake, one Mervyn, some of whose nonsense poems, set to music by Richard Rodney Bennett, I spent the evening listening to in a church in Mill Hill. The last time I saw an object falling out of the skies in this manner, it was November 1973, and I was on the hillside of Korazim in Galilee, in a romantic tryst with a young lady, and what came falling from the skies was her cousin, an Israeli fighter pilot who had just had a rather too close encounter with a surface-to-air missile (you can read the full details in the poem "The Abelone Shell" by buying a copy of my Collected Poems "Welcome To My World"). Surely NASA can invent a better way of doing it than this?



Amber pages:


1898, M.C. Escher born - and perhaps it needs a mathematically artistic mind like Escher's to conceive the viable improvement to the spacecraft-landing system: are those impossible reversals that he creates perhaps the answer?


1815, Battle of Waterloo - the moment when a man who was an obnoxious, monomaniacal, megalomaniacal, arrogant, ultra right wing bigot became transformed into the national hero that he is still seen as to this day; and only because he was responsible for defeating another even more obnoxious etc etc... the Duke of Wellington, I mean, and then Napoleon


1979, SALT II agreement signed - has Donald Trump pulled out of this yet? 



You can find David Prashker at:


Copyright © 2016 David Prashker
All rights reserved
The Argaman Press

June 30

1859, 2017



Many, many years ago I wrote a poem for one of my many heroes of the Immaculate Failure, those folk who set out on adventures and expeditions, usually both inward to the depths of themselves as well as outwards to some corner of the universe where none has ever gone before - my own sense of this is that you have to do both simultaneously to achieve either, but neither is actually achievable: hence Immaculate Failure. 

Scientists who go hunting for an explanation of the origins of the universe and stumble upon a possible cure for cancer by accident instead; golfers who hit eighteen birdies in a single round, but rue afterwards the two simple eagle putts they missed; women who do more than sex and housewifery in a male-dominated culture but still don't get paid equally; artists and composers who travel way beyond impersonation of their maestros, but still have nothing to say even in their own original voice; folk who run or walk or sail or fly into the uncharted regions, and get there second... everyone of them a failure of course, but what a failure, what a transcendence of the life of most-of-us, in which we live our triumphs entirely vicariously, usually with a beer and pizza in our broken-down sofa.

Charles Blondin (his real name was Jean-François Gravelet) was the subject of that particular poem, published in my collection "Coins" back in the 1990s, and then again in my Collected Poems, "Welcome To My World", in 2013, and reprinted below, though I would obviously prefer you to buy a copy and read all the poems. There is also an audio version, if you click here.

As happens to me very often, because I tend to be like those explorers who I so admire, I was rambling the Internet in search of something quite different that took place on June 30th of a different year, when there was Charles Blondin walking towards me once again, just as I would expect him, on a tightrope, with a man on his back, and probably, though you can't see it, a bullet from a rifle arranged several hundred yards away the reason why he isn't wearing a hat. It was June 30th 1859, and this the very first time he had undertaken the crossing that would make him famous for doing something so utterly and unequivocally pointless, and yet majestical: the crossing of the Niagara Falls in Canada, by tightrope.

Now I should point out that I have crossed Niagara Falls myself on many an occasion, though I did it by road the first time, on the Rainbow Bridge from the Canadian side to the US, and then back again, while amusing myself by blue-toothing the audio of my Blondin poem to my car radio as we drove through; several times after that (when you live in Toronto, as I did for four years, Niagara is where you take your overseas visitors) on foot across the wall at the summit, and literally inside the rocks, inside the waterfall, where tourists are encouraged to wear waterproofs at any time of year, though (as the pictures in the link will show you), the best time is in mid-winter, when it's minus 18 degrees Celsius, not counting the wind-chill, and the snow and icicles are everywhere. There is the boat too, "The Maid of the Mist" I think she was called, tame and boring once you've done the wall in winter, though "tame and boring" are relative terms. 


Relative to each other, that is, but especially relative to Blondin's achievement, which a man named Nik Wallenda repeated in June 2012, though in his case wearing a safety harness, which would not have impressed Blondin.

Richard Cavendish described Blondin's rather more spectacular spectacle in "History Today" (Volume 59 Issue 6 June 2009).

"Jean-François Gravelet was the most spectacular funambulist, or tightrope-walker, of his day or probably any other day. Born in 1824, he was the son of a veteran of the Grande Armée who was nicknamed 'Blondin' for his fair hair. The family lived at Hesdin in the Pas de Calais and when a circus came to town the little boy was so fascinated by the tightrope-walkers that he decided to be one himself and started practising immediately using his father's fishing-rod as a pole. His parents sent him for training as an acrobat at the celebrated École de Gymnase in Lyons. He made his first professional appearance as 'The Little Wonder' at the age of five and later adopted his father's nickname.

"Blondin's first crossing of the Niagara Falls, in 1859, was the most famous feat in a life packed with them, and like all the others was painstakingly prepared, organised and exploited for maximum publicity. He took care to enlist the support of the Niagara Falls Gazette which at first thought it was a hoax and then decided he was mad but went along anyway. Newspapers all over the country were soon interested. The rival Niagara Mail was sarcastic in its coverage and the New York Times said Blondin was a fool who ought to be arrested, but posters and handbills boosted the excitement. The railway companies laid on special trains and thousands of spectators assembled to watch.

"The tightrope was taken across the river in a rowing boat. More than three inches (7.5cm) thick, it sagged by some 60 feet (18m) in the middle, so it had a steep slope. The distance was a little over 1,000 feet (305m). Blondin offered to carry a volunteer over on his back but, unsurprisingly, no one stood forward. Bands on both banks played as he began his crossing at 5.15pm and took his time over what he privately considered an easy task. He stopped and lay down for a rest at one point and stood on one leg for a while. The crossing took him a little over 17 minutes. After a pause he went back across on the rope, much faster this time. He was cheered to the echo and the feat was reported all over America and in Europe.

"In several later crossings Blondin introduced variations. He carried his top-hatted manager across on his back, crossed blindfolded or on stilts or in a gorilla costume and pushing a wheelbarrow. One of the wonders of the age, he built himself Niagara House in the London suburb of Ealing in 1889 and died there of diabetes in 1897, days before his 73rd birthday. He lies buried in Kensal Green Cemetery. Neighbouring streets in Ealing, Blondin Avenue and Niagara Avenue, preserve his memory and there's a Blondin Street in Bow."






In Praise Of Tightrope Walkers

(for Charles Blondin)


Charles Blondin
I sing to you on your birthday
a song of praise
knowing full well that no one else
has even heard of you
Blondin? Blondin?
Isn’t he a pop star, a footballer?
Wasn’t he that fascist who?
No, just a moment, I saw him in that film.
Then he must have been a friend of Byron’s?
A Symbolist poet? A politician?

The truth is
he was none
but he was also all of these
for all of these walk tightropes
one way or the other
His real name was Jean-Francois Gravelet
though he styled himself Charles Blondin
and he was first presented to the public
aged five in Saint-Omer
as “The Little Wonder”

And what a wonder!
Circus tightropes anyone can do
with a little bit of training
a harness and a safety net
even the unharnessed headstands and the somersaults
that were his speciality

But Niagara Falls
on a rope stretched 160 feet above the surging water!
Blindfolded!
With a sack over his head!
Trundling a wheelbarrow!
With a man on his back!
On stilts!

One time, he got so carried away
by the need to entertain the thousands
who turned out to watch him crossing
that he stopped half-way
set up a portable grill
cooked and ate an omelette
then had a marksman with a shotgun
in a tugboat down below
fire a bull’s-eye through the hat
that he was wearing

Where are you now
heirs and followers of Blondin
little wonders of the high tightrope?
Where are the artist Blondins
the politician Blondins
the scientist Blondins
where are you when we need you?
Have you all retired as he did
to that park in Ealing
where the streams are forded
by neat bridges made of planks
precisely wide enough for wheelchairs
where the nearest thing to a tightrope
is on pulleys in the kiddies’ playground
supervised by trained child-minders
dug in with cement to health and safety guidelines,
and three-foot pile rugs to catch a fall
from what is anyway just six feet?





2017


Death of Simone Veil, today in 2017. And in my diary for that day: 

"Simone Jacob, if you look for her name on the wall of the deportees at the Holocaust memorial in Paris; 78651 if you look for her camp number in the registry. One of the truly great women of the modern age, and nothing, not a word, not a photo, not so much as a passing mention, on any of the UK news outlets."

There was, in fact, a piece in The Guardian, a week later. The New York Times obituarised her as "an Auschwitz survivor who as health minister of France championed the 1975 law that legalized abortion in that country", but it took the eventual posting by the Jewish Women's Archive before she got the obituary she deserved: "arguably the one person most responsible for advancing women's legal rights in France during the twentieth century and now into the twenty-first..." President of the European Parliament, member of France's constitutional court... you can read the rest for youself here.



January 8


1642


The list of poems (and other works, but let's stick to the poems for the moment - you can find many of the books on December 6) banned as heresies, whether religious, political, moral or social, is too long for this page; but I shall try. 

Noteworthy among them is Ovid's "Ars Amatoria", which upset the Roman Emperor Augustus so much that he both banned the work and banished the poet; the poem survived, until the monk Savonarola included it in his "Bonfire of the Vanities" in 1497 (not to be confused with, but the reason for the title of, Tom Wolfe's 1987 novel and the film that was made of it). Christopher Marlowe translated it into English in 1599, only to find his version banned and himself imprisoned; U.S. customs added it to their list in 1930. 

The 1881 edition of Walt Whitman's endlessly rewritten and reprinted canonical "Leaves of Grass" was banned in Boston, though that city now requires study of it as part of its Literature programme (I guess I should write that as "program", given that Boston is in the USA) in secondary schools; required reading and banning are of course both forms of coercion and control. 

The French government suppressed six of the poems in Baudelaire's "Les Fleurs du Mal" and charged him with corrupting public morals; the work was republished the following year and has never been out-of-print since. The version I have linked to here provides an English translation alongside the French original - just trying to be helpful (as well as so enjoying putting these equivalents of the "Mohammed cartoons" out there on my own version of Charlie Hebdo pages!). 

The complete works of Osip Mandelstam disappeared on Stalin's orders, with the poet banished to death-by-exile (he died in Voronezh in 1937; I bought my copy from a book-scalper on the Nevsky Prospekt in St Petersburg in 2002, exactly the same place Yevtushenko reports buying his, in "Wild Berries"; alas I can't find a complete works in English anywhere on line; if you can, please let me know and I will update this page). 

Alan Ginsberg's "Howl" fell victim to an obscenity trial in 1957. 

"Education for Leisure" by the current English Poet Laureate Carol Anne Duffy was banned in 2008 by the school’s examinations board AQA… plus ça change…

Why have I put all this under January 8th, and noted the year as 1642? Because this was the date on which Galileo Galilei died, in Arcetri in Italy, not a poet it is true, but a name that I cannot bring myself to wilfully exclude from a list of the banned geniuses of our moronically stupid world. I wrote this poem for him, many, many years ago:



Heresies
(for Galileo Galilei)


1642
at Arcetri
near Florence
under house arrest
working only under close policing
completely blind
censured by the ecclesiastical authorities
sentenced to death by Pope Urban VIII
(commuted at the personal behest of the Duke of Tuscany)
on the 65th birthday of the Danish astronomer Johannes Fabricius
(the man who actually discovered sunspots)
on the anniversary of the death of Marco Polo
at the age of 77
Galileo Galilei
died
broken on the rack of disappointment

Of his achievements we can list:

the inference
from the oscillations of a lamp
suspended in the cathedral at Pisa
of the usefulness of a pendulum
in measuring time exactly

the invention of a hydrostatic balance

a treatise on the law of specific gravity

the theory of falling bodies

the invention of the thermometer
and the proportional compass

the development of the refracting telescope
and its use in determining
the nature of the lunar landscape

the discernment of the structure of the Milky Way

the discovery of four satellites of Jupiter

the proof of solar rotation
based on the evidence of sunspots

the law of uniformly accelerated motion

the law of the parabolic path of projectiles

the law of virtual velocities

the law of inevitable weightedness

All these
science
or heresy
depending on your point of view




*

Some time after writing that poem, I found myself drawn back to the theme (probably something of mine had just been banned, or me forced to resign from some position, or even imprisoned, because somebody didn't like something I had written), and wrote a rather more prosaic piece which I called:


THE INDEX



The Argaman Press proudly presents its unique catalogue of writings which, according to the highest authorities of their days, constitute some of the greatest masterpieces of all time, the equals of Shakespeare, Dante, Molière...

“La Grande Bataille de Crecy”; author or authors unknown, probably written down in the late 13th century but originating much earlier, it is held to be the greatest of all works in the troubadour style of poetry, though unusual in that it departs from the customary themes of love and romance to speak of the massacre of the Celtic French (Armoricans) by the Angevins (Normans).

“The Gospel According to St James”; written in Greek and originally published in Egypt, James’ account of the life of his master is characteristically different from the better known synoptic gospels, particularly in its insistence on what may be termed gnostic conceptions. The book first appeared in Europe in about 1400 CE; many scholars hold it to be a fake.

“La Saga di Gabrielle” by Roberto di Guislano; a 14th century Italian romance which sought to merge the Commedia Dell’Arte and Condottiere traditions of Italian theatre and prose. It tells the story of the archangel Gabriel, sent by God to announce the birth of Jesus to Mary, and of how he fell deeply, and carnally, in love with her, ultimately fathering the child himself.

“Tempus Fugit” by Guiseppe di Scarlatto; an early 15th century Italian tractate which promulgated the notion, gleaned as so much Renaissance culture was from the Arabic, that time is less important than action, and that the person who carries out the action is the least important of all.

“The Virgin Mary Magdalene”, a poem by the 15th century Flemish poet Richard Van Der Elk, in which it is imagined that the two Marys of Christian tradition were in fact one and the same.

“Antonio” by Mordechai Levy; written in 1634 but never performed in England, it presented a riposte to Shakespeare’s story of “The Merchant of Venice” from a Jewish perspective.

“Against Slavery: A Polemic” by Brahame Swift. Unlike his elder brother, Jonathan, Brahame wrote but one book. A marginal note in the journals of William Wilberforce suggests that copies of the book were circulated privately over several decades. Wilberforce himself was powerfully influenced by its coherent and lyrical attack on all forms of human slavery, including, interestingly, marriage.

“Gott Ohne Ich, Ich Ohne Gott” by Hermann Dietrich Fassbinder. A 19th century German essay in novel form which arguably was the first modern work to establish atheism as a defensible intellectual posture.

“The Princess Clementine Rose”; an otherwise run-of-the-mill romance by one of the 19th century’s lesser known women novelists, Mary Graveney; it enjoyed a brief succes de scandale for its unusually graphic descriptions of lesbian love.

“The Complete Poems of Osip Mandelstam.” Only about a tenth of Mandelstam’s oeuvre has survived his persecution at the hands of Stalin. This volume brings the remainder together for the first time.

All of these works - and many, many more - are offered by us as titles only, as the manuscripts are alas no more. What all these works have in common is their unavailability, and the reason for their unavailability. They share a common fate. What might otherwise have been handed down to us as some of the greatest masterworks of European culture may now only be savoured, relished, deified, as titles. Each of these works was banned, burned or prescribed by the particular authorities of their day, because they were perceived as challenging those authorities, or the status quo, or as being inflammatory and therefore dangerous to the common reader. What remains is an index, utterly mouth-watering, though alas not mouth-watering enough to quench the fires in which they burned. 




The illustration immediately above is from an exhibition that I was fortunate enough to see in Toronto, and even bought the catalogue, which I still have. You would be amazed at how much of what is regarded as the world's greatest works of literature has at some time, including right now, been banned, in one country or another, and sometimes all of them. "Nihil obstat", or in full "nihil obstat quominus imprimatur", is the nearest the Pope will ever commit himself to approving a book for publication; "it contains nothing contrary to faith or morals" is not actually a green light, but it allows the process to move forward. Once it is approved by the full Synod, it is given the stamp 
"imprimatur" - "let it be printed". There is no equivalent for the refusal of a book; like the thousands that sit there unread because unsolicited in the dumping-rooms of commercial publishing houses, books that you don't want to publish can simply and safely be ignored.


Some of this blog-entry is taken from my collected poems "Welcome To My World", with the additional piece "The Index" from my minimalist-story collection "The Captive Bride", both published by The Argaman Press in 2013.

I apologise to all those many authors, poets, painters, scientists philosophers, journalists, and more, who I have not managed to include on this page, and dedicate this day to all of you. Damn the censors!






You can find David Prashker at:


Copyright © 2016 David Prashker
All rights reserved

The Argaman Press

July 12

1906


I have a highly personal vested interest in what happens after you hit the newspapers as a subject of scandal or controversy. As a general rule, the media gets much of the information wrong, rarely asks their "victim" to share their side of the story, doesn't care about fact-checking because the whole thing is forgotten (from the point of view of making copy and therefore sales, ratings and advertising revenue out of it) after a few days, and almost never ever comes back a week, a month, a year, a decade later, to apologise for the bits they got wrong (but which in the meanwhile damaged or even destroyed somebody's life), let alone to inform their audience of what has actually happened in the meanwhile (that man whose arrest for a horrible crime was splashed across our front pages, ruining his career; well, he finally made it to court fifty days later, and was immediately released).

Few media controversies have ever occupied a nation to quite the scale of that surrounding Captain Alfred Dreyfus (he actually gets three other mentions in this blog, unavoidable on each occasion: see February 3, July 14 and October 18). The full details of the scandal can be read here, and I see little point my doing more than a resum
é - if you already know the story, you don't need it; and if you don't already know it, then you need to click that "here" button and read the whole thing, because it's one of those seminal stories, like Rosa Parks and the Soweto schoolchildren's march, which changed the course of human behaviour, which is far more important surely than any impact they may have had on passing history. But it won't tell you what happened afterwards, which is actually far more important; and so you will need to read on here, because I shall, after a brief resumé of the incident, fill precisely that gap.

In brief then, the Jew Dreyfus was a French military attaché 
at the German Embassy in Paris, when, in 1894, he was framed as a spy and sent to Devil's Island as a traitor. In the meanwhile, the discovery of papers which proved that the real spy was one Major Esterhazy were suppressed; Colonel Picquart, who led the enquiry that found the evidence, was transferred to an out-of-the-way posting in north Africa; the writer Emile Zola was given a one year prison sentence (which he avoided by fleeing the country) for libellously daring to accuse the government in a front-page newspaper article of both anti-Semitism and a cover-up; and Marcel Proust retreated to a cork-lined room to write "A La Recherche Du Temps Perdu" in disgust at the racism of a society he had patronised for so long. 

There were appeals at the Supreme Court, the interventions of Prime Ministers, anti-Semitic riots, the whole shabang, until eventually Dreyfus was brought back from Devil's Island, to face a second court-martial in Rennes in 1899... at which he was again found guilty, albeit with "life" reduced to a further ten years, due to "extenuating circumstances", whatever that might mean in such a case. Some months later, in September 1899, the President of the Republic issued a formal pardon, and Dreyfus was persuaded - probably because the alternative, a return to Devil's Island, was a worse option than suicide - to accept it; like "extenuating circumstances", the acceptance of a pardon first requires, even implicitly, even tacitly, an admission of guilt. 


Upon his release, Dreyfus spoke to the media. His statement included these words: "Liberty to me is nothing without honour. From this day forward I shall continue to seek amends for the shocking judicial wrong of which I am still the victim."

He got nowhere for many years, while those responsible continued their illustrious careers. Then, out of the blue, on April 7th 1903, the newly elected Prime Minister Jean Jaurès announced a new enquiry, headed by General André, the Minister of War, though most of the real work was done by his aide, one Captain Targe. So many were the fabricated documents that Targe uncovered, most of them archived in the Ministry's own files, he was able to present a full report to the Minister of Justice by November of that same year. This led to a second formal enquiry, which was placed in the hands of one Ludovic Trarieux, later the founder of the League of Human Rights. It took two more years, but in April 1905 an eight hundred page report was presented, which demanded not just the quashing of Dreyfus' conviction, but also the dismantling of the entire system of military justice - something that would take another seventy-seven years to complete. 

On July 12th 1906, the French Supreme Court brought the matter to an end at last, by annulling the judgement in Dreyfus' first trial, and ignoring completely the 1899 retrial because it had no status or validity in the light of that annulment. 


There was also a declaration, in what might be considered slightly ambivalent language, of "the end of the rehabilitation of Captain Dreyfus". Anti-Dreyfusards, of whom there were still about half the nation, momentarily mis-read that as a sign that he was not to be rehabilitated any further, but the point was that he no longer needed to be rehabilitated at all, because he had never done anything wrong in the first place which required rehabilitation. He was reinstated in the army the following morning, with the rank of Artillery Major, which of course was a promotion, though he would have reached it by normal means had he not spent the intervening years in the gutter. He was also appointed as a Chevalier du Légion d'Honneur. He spent the next year as the Commander of the artillery base at Vincennes (the newly appointed Minister of War under whom he ultimately served was the "rehabilitated" Colonel Picquart! another nice little touch by the hand of chance and haphazard), before retiring in June 1907, still suffering from the various tropical and other afflictions residual to five years on Devil's Island.


When the First World War broke out, Dreyfus was called up as a reservist, serving as the head of an artillery depot in Paris before being sent first to Chemin des Dames and later to Verdun. By yet one more wonderful irony, the artillery that had been developed in the meanwhile, and which was so crucial to the German retreat from Normandy in which Dreyfus participated, was precisely the artillery that he was supposed to have sold to the Germans in the first place. That war service was rewarded by his appointment as an officer of the Légion d'Honneur in 1919, and his promotion to the rank of Colonel, while his son Pierre received the Croix de Guerre for his endeavours. He died on July 12th 1935.

One other side-note, when Dreyfus' great defender Emile Zola died in September 1902, the poet Anatole France demanded that Dreyfus be present at the funeral, but the Chief of Police refused, on the grounds that he wanted "to avoid problems", a rather prescient decision in fact - six years later, when Zola's ashes were being transferred to the Panthéon, and Dreyfus was present, a right-wing journalist named Louis Grégori attempted to assassinate Dreyfus, leaving him with a bullet wound in one arm. Anatole France compromised by writing a poem for the funeral, which honoured both Zola and Dreyfus:

   
"Before recalling the struggle undertaken by Zola for justice and truth is it possible for me to keep silent about those men bent on the destruction of an innocent man and who, after feeling lost, was saved and overwhelmed with the desperate audacity of fear?
   How to depart from your sight then I have a duty to show you.
   Zola rises up weak and disarmed against them?
   Can I hide their lies?
   It would silence his heroic righteousness.
   Can I hide their crimes?
   That would conceal his virtue.
   Can I silence the insults and calumnies which they have pursued?
   It would silence his reward and honours.
   Can I hide their shame?
   It would silence his glory.
   No, I will speak.
   Envy him: he honoured his country and the world by a vast and a great act.
   Envy him, his destiny and his heart gave out the greatest.
   It was a moment of human conscience."




Amber pages


Henry David Thoreau, US writer,born today in 1817, in what really ought to be renamed Discord Massachusetts, given the scale of his rebelliousness and his absolute conviction that there is no government like no government - a man after my own mind, if not entirely after my own heart.


George Eastman, photography pioneer, born today in 1854 - why do we always remember his partner Kodak, but never Eastman himself; and why do we never remember whatever was Kodak's first name?
   I do actually know the answer to that question, and am being entirely disingenuous in asking it; but it makes for one of those interesting questions that history poses. Eastman was adamant that calling his camera, or his company, by his own name, would be disadvantageous, and that he needed what today would be called "branding", a recognisable trademark, or it would never be successful. Go tell that to Amerlia Bloomer (May 26), or Erno Rubik (July 13), orJoseph Hansom (October 26), to name but three disproofs.


Amedeo Modigliani, Italian painter and sculptor, born today in 1884, and by a strange route of artistic and literary genealogy, see my piece on Osip Mandelstam in Private Collection.


Pablo Neruda, Chilean poet and diplomat, born today in 1904 - see February 8


Desiderius Erasmus, Dutch author and scholar, died today in 1536