Book – Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi

I find it hard to imagine two more fascinating cities than Venice and Varanasi. While  New York, Paris, Prague, Mexico City all have their attractions, if I had quickly to choose one place to spend a week it would likely be a choice between the Vs.  So when I happened on Geoff Dyer’s new book I knew he was writing for me.  Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi is a pair of novellas, intricately linked, yet totally separate.  In the first Jeff Atman [sanskrit for one’s true self ] is in Venice to write about the Biennale  for a British journal.  Venice and the art world form the backdrop to a week of Bellinis and cocaine, quick trysts with famous art and an alluring stranger.  A vaparetto map of Venice is useful in keeping track of their watery peregrinations, hitting all the highlights of Venice, and many of the more subtle aspects such as the cemetery island of Ste. Michelle.  They constantly cross over cultural hotspots, what will be known in hindusim as tirthas.  Varanasi being one of the most powerful of all tirthas.

The first half of the book is bright, fast, funny, sexy- always moving, day and night barely recognized. Yet he realizes that he is missing something. The San Rocco school and its Veronese painting of the crucifixion present him with a
curious puzzle.

everybody in the painting he was looking at was looking at the crucified Christ, even the two thieves who were getting crucified alongside him, even people like the guy on the horse, who was looking at something else. Atman didn’t know how long he sat there, staring at this painting, not having any thoughts about it, willing on an epiphany that never came, never happened, just seeing it, looking at. Perhaps that was the epiphany, surrounding himself to
what he was seeing.

The second novella is contemplative, thoughtful, and sexless, with repetitive movements space through a spiritual landscape. He wanders down to the cremation ghats:

the whole operation at Manikarnika was really labor-intensive, like one of those Salgano photographs of peasants toiling on the mountainside – a mountainside, in this case that had been so thoroughly worked over that it was
no longer a mountain . There were great stacks of wood, higher than houses, forever getting added to and denuded as logs were weighed out to fuel the never ending need for fires. Barges arrived, crammed with logs that were carried to
the shore, so big that only one or two could be carried at a time, slung like animals, stiff and heavy, over the shoulders of the men carrying them. The wood was stacked, chopped, weighed and carried down to the water again, probably
weighed again. Each cremation required a ton of wood.: Ton in the sense of a lot, not a specific unit of measurement. Smoke smudged the sky, blackening the temples and buildings crowded around the fires. Cows chewed on soggy marigolds, picking picking through the ash that the rivers dark edge. The water was sooty and dark, burned. Some dogs were there too. Half a dozen fires were burning, tended by the men who worked ther. People were standing around talking while, all the time, wood was lugged back and forth and fires were prodded with branches. It was like watching the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, as it might have occurred if Berenice no industry and a vast surplus manpower, all employed in the service of death.

He had planned to spend only a few days in Varanasi, and though he tried to wander alone he he realized that was impossible: By the time you have shown the first flicker of interest in doing, seeing or buying anything in India,
someone will have read the signs and acted on that, will be trying to turn this wish – for interest is a wish, desire, and, as such, constitutes demand – into a reality, to his or her financial benefits. I only learned this later

while during the tourist itinerary starts to slip outward cover the city and as advising. He ends up staying for weeks stretching to months:

I bought a couple of the little candle coracles, lit them and watched them wobble and float away . They were lovely, and it was lovely, at first, being on the crowded water in the faded light, waiting for things to begin. Almost as soon as it began, though, the ceremony became disappointing. You didn’t have to be a particularly discerning tourist to see that this was an exhausted pageant, drummed up for tourists, a son et lumiere with a cast of hundreds. Any significance it was supposed to have had been drained, possibly a long time ago or maybe just yesterday, or even now, right before our eyes. The event had bled itself white, but each night it had to bleed afresh, which only
made it seem more stale and bloodless. It was like trying to glimpse, in a performance of The Mousetrap, the ravaged majesty of Macbeth. The air was frantic with others, dense with harshly amplified chanting, the sound of conches
and the clamor of bells. I left before the and, before it had even got going

· Varanasi is filled with small temples at every turning

shortly after this I found myself outside Temple – I didn’t know which one, but that was not the big one Vishwanath, with all the airport security: metal detectors circuits. That’s why there are so many soldiers around: because
Vishwanath the Golden Temple, and the mosque were practically on top of each other goading the faithful, inciting them to live in peace. It was the old neighbors from hell scenario, raised to the level of intense theological
principle and proximity. There is no God but God, says that one place there are millions of them says the other. The fact that were able to get along for years did not mean that, at the drop of a hat, they would not be at one another’s
throats
.

As he observes the manner in which definition becomes obscured , a similar process affects his life:

I noticed a small blue shrine, the size of an emergency phone on the side of the motorway. in the middle of the shrine, where the phone would’ve been there was an orange blob, a worn shape.. Within the general roundness, it was
possible to make out the lump of the body and the smaller lump ofa head, but more rounded, less defined than a Henry Moore version of any God. Who was it ? Ganesh? It could’ve been any of them. There was not even residue of definition, but this did not suggest that its power had diminished or been shrunk; the sense was that its essence had become more concentrated. The feeling was not of erosion or diminution, but of withdrawal. The God, whoever it was, had retreated into itself. By reducing it self almost space to nothing, by coming so close to that which could not be identified as,, it had become more nakedly itself. I felt sure of this, even though I did not know who is what I was seeing.

The two parts of the book are completely separate yet it’s impossible to read
without making connections at every turning of a page

Books – Democracy Through the Ages

Everyone speaks of democracy as if there’s a common understanding of what this word means, but it’s one of the harder of political labels to actually find in the world. With perhaps the exception of a few New England town meetings or other small groups, true democracy has never been in place for long, and in the US, it really was never considered and actually opposed by most of the Republican founders.  So, despite Bush’s arrogant claims to ‘bring democracy’ to Iraq, we really need to question and examine just what is being proposed.  Democracy is actually a fairly recent concept in terms of actually being used; flowering a few times in history, but only setting
solid roots in the 18th century, and the question is still open as to whether it will thrive.

There are many books to recommend, both fiction and non-fiction; history and polemic.  Historical fiction is often a superb way to show the actual workings of past societies

The earliest true attempt at democracy was in Athens in the 5th century BCE. and its lifespan was brief, emerging from resistance to tyrants and lasting only a few decades until oligarchies and tyrants regained control. The Peloponnesian War was in large part the struggle between  the Athenian Empire [ democratic, but including both slavery and subjugation of an extended collection of ‘allies’ for tribute  and resources] versus the Spartan league [ dominated by oligarchies with a feudal basis].  The final result of this long war was to weaken both antagonists and undermine their political systems.  Events in the war’s aftermath are described in,  The Trial of Socrates .   I.F. Stone places the writings of Plato in the context of  Plato’s and Socrates’ support for oligarchy rather than democracy.

The Roman Republic was a later experiment in the development of democracy, with an elaborate system of balances that worked for a time, but was again unable to respond and adapt to the needs of an expanding empire. Colleen McCullough’s Masters of Rome series of novels is the best re-creation of the politics of the last century of the Republic.  While relying on the noblesse oblige of an aristocracy, the Republic also had democratic elements.  Often, as in Athens, democracy was usurped by demagogues.

Venice was the next state to try forms of democracy, and by far the longest lasting, although once again, its constitution was more republican or oligarchical.  Various smaller experiments in city-state communes of medieval Europe followed, including the long struggles against Medici domination in Florence.  [Machiavelli – The Prince ]  The 17th century saw renewed democracy in philosophy and practice, especially in England and the new Dutch Republic.  But it was the 18th century that gave violent birth to the major democratic revolutions in America and France.

Revolutions always need to deal with the ideas of liberty and freedom, but sometimes, these ideas themselves are not mutually understood.  For example, the American revolutionaries from different parts of the colonies had very different concepts of liberty

In Radicalism of the American Revolution, like an earthquake that turns solid ground to jello,
Gordon Wood,  tosses out idea after idea that turn established concepts into shambles

More than two centuries later, the American experiment in democracy has degenerated into a plutocracy, in which wealth and power preempt democracy’s ideals of equality and freedom [cf Kevin Phillips’  Wealth & Democracy or Isaiah Berlin – Twisted Timber of Humanity].  While Phillips gives a depressing history of the decline, and its corruption thru the centuries,  Cadillac Desert focuses on perhaps the biggest corrupter of all – the sprawling water projects of the  American West, in which water is diverted at huge cost to grow crops no one needs, all to support giant corporations that threaten to wipe out the family farms that were the rationale for the projects in the first place.  Taken together, these books demonstrate that ideology or the party in power matters little – elections become a charade, masking the control of government by capital and its corporate controllers.  Kim Stanley Robinson examines these transnational corporations in his science fiction Mars Trilogy

From the left George Orwell‘s analysis of why socialism fails is apt today, especially in re the Tea Party movement

It was easy to laugh at Fascism when we imagined that it was based on hysterical nationalism….  For Socialism is the only real enemy that Fascism has to face. The capitalist-imperialist govern­ments, even though they themselves are about to be plundered, will not fight with any conviction against Fascism as such. Our rulers, those of them who under­stand the issue, would probably prefer to hand over every square inch of the British Empire to Italy, Germany and Japan than to see Socialism triumphant.

The job of the thinking person, therefore, is not to reject Socialism but to make up his mind to humanise it. Once Socialism is in a way to being established, those -who can see through the swindle of ” progress” will probably find themselves resisting. In fact, it is their ,special function to do so. In the machine-world they have got to be a sort of permanent opposition, which is not the same thing as being an obstructionist or a traitor. But in this I am speaking of the future. For the moment the only possible course for any decent person, however much of a Tory or an anarchist by temperament, is to work for the establishment of Socialism. Nothing else can save us from the misery of the present or the night­mare of the future. To oppose Socialism now, when twenty million Englishmen are underfed and Fascism has conquered half Europe, is suicidal. It is like starting a civil war when the Goths are crossing the frontier.

Socialists have a big job ahead of them here. They have got to demonstrate, beyond possibility of doubt, just where the line of cleavage between exploiter and exploited comes. Once again it is a question of sticking to essentials; and the essential point here is that all people with small, insecure incomes are “in the same boat and ought to be fighting on the same side. Probably we could do with a little less talk about” capitalist” and ” proletarian” and a little more about the robbers and the robbed. … and that Socialism means a fair deal for them as well as for the navvy and the factory-hand.

For more on this peculiar American Empire ….. after the American Century