24 March 2015

Chasing Cervantes

Souvenir Series #7

I was once sitting in a meeting at work in which a colleague said: “Oh no, we don’t want to be doing that, if we do – we’ll just be chasing after windmills.” I couldn’t help smiling, as this instantly presented me with the Monty Python-esque mental picture of cartoon windmills with spindly little legs running across the rustic landscape in order to evade capture ... But it was decided. We wouldn’t be chasing after windmills. Presumably we’d stick to the same old, tried and tested plan of tilting at shadows instead. Far more sensible. No need to rock the boat after all. Best carry on with business as usual …

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Cervates_jauregui.jpgMy interest was piqued last week by a headline on the BBC News website which announced that – similar to the lost grave of Richard III, recently unearthed in a Car Park in Leicester – the lost tomb of Miguel de Cervantes (1547-1616), the writer of Don Quixote, had been found in Madrid. Reading the article itself though showed that things perhaps weren’t quite as straightforward. For whilst the facts seemed to suggest it was ‘quite likely’ to be at least some of Cervantes’ mortal remains which had been uncovered, they were actually in quite a bad state of preservation and were jumbled up with a number of other individuals too, some of whom might be his relatives – so it wasn’t entirely certain it was really him after all. Even though a wooden fragment of a casket bearing the initials ‘M.C.’ were tantalisingly part of the find, another article in El Pais gave a clearer account of the facts of the discovery. In response to this, a short piece in The Guardian asked: ‘Did it really matter if it was him or not?’ ... Good question. After all, a similar article in The New Yorker pointed out that whilst Cervantes is seemingly everywhere in Spain, he is actually nowhere – because so little is verifiably known about him. 

It’s true though. Travel to Spain and Miguel de Cervantes is everywhere. He follows you wherever you go. Not least because his likeness adorns several of the various Spanish minted Euro cent coins which will undoubtedly be in your pocket. I remember meeting him on my very first trip to Spain in 2003. I was working in an art gallery in Valencia and every day, on our walk to work from the place where we were staying, my two colleagues and I would pass by a bronze bust of the man, his bearded face smiling affably at us as we strolled past in the early morning sunshine. 

Like most people, I had a rough idea of the story of Don Quixote, even though I’ve never actually read it. As with Shakespeare, Cervantes’ most famous work pervades European culture – it’s as if we are all born with a genetic memory of their words and leitmotifs. Hence the misremembered metaphor of my colleague in the meeting. Like Shakespeare, Cervantes’ verbal images and turns of phrase have permeated our unconscious because they have saturated deep into our language over many preceding generations. The idioms they each first coined have become our common cultural currency. An intimate link from their time to ours. A continuity of thoughts and ideas which binds us to them through time as similar people with shared experiences and feelings. This thought occurred to me once whilst walking on a London street when I heard someone passing by say “bless you” to a complete stranger who had just sneezed, and it occurred to me that this commonplace convention in our language first came into everyday parlance in 1665 – on these very streets – during the time of the Great Plague. It is realisations such as these, which, when I ponder them a little too long, never fail to send a shiver down my spine. 


There is also a story which says that the reason UNESCO first decided in 1995 to designate April 23rd as ‘World Book Day’ (also, the Feast Day of Saint George), was because it was thought that both Shakespeare and Cervantes died on this particular date in 1616. What they overlooked though is the fact that in 1616 England and Spain were each using different calendars; England – the Julian, and Spain – the Gregorian. Therefore the dates (as uncertain as they are) do not quite match. But there is something ironically subversive in this garbled, misremembering of hearsay being transmuted – a fiction of coincidence burnished into solid, resolute fact – which deeply appeals to me … ‘Cry – God for Quixote, England and Saint George!’ … I can almost picture the two writers sitting together, wreathed in cloud, amidst the laurel groves somewhere at the top of Mount Parnassus – chuckling together, looking down on us all with wry grins beaming across their faces!  

But then, when so little is actually known about the day-to-day lives of such august historical figures – I think it is, in some senses, easier to make a greater personal connection to them. Reading the bare facts of Shakespeare’s life in Samuel Schoenbaum’s excellent William Shakespeare: A Compact Documentary Life (1987) brought the man back to life for me far more vividly than any creative work of the imagination, such that I felt I could imagine sitting in a wayside inn somewhere en route between London and Stratford-upon-Avon with him, having a chat over a couple of pints. Charles Nicholl’s The Lodger: Shakespeare on Silver Street (2007) is a similarly evocative piece of scholarly detective work. We can perhaps more easily project our own ideas and images onto the blank parchment which is the only record left to us of their real lives. Whilst their literary works may now justly be held up as truly extraordinary, they themselves in their own times were perhaps just as ordinary as we are today. 

Oddly enough, it was again in 2003, having passed through Stratford-upon-Avon en route to the Welsh ‘El Dorado’ of books at Hay-on-Wye, that I encountered Miguel de Cervantes again. In one of the dusty old bookshops there, I came across a little room which was filled with cardboard boxes of old prints – mostly loose sheets (hacked or salvaged?) which had been collated from old Victorian books long since before dismembered. Amidst this treasure trove I came across sheaves of the famous illustrations of Don Quixote done by the artist, Gustave Doré (1832-1883). There were so many I couldn’t decide which I liked best, and I kick myself to this day that in the end I didn’t buy any. I’m sure I thought I’d go back before we left Hay, as we were there for several days – but somehow, for some reason, I never did.

Those images of Doré’s, like the little statuette (which I think I bought in Toledo in 2009), reminded me of the film Lost in La Mancha (2002), a documentary about Terry Gilliam’s own quixotic attempt to make a film version based upon Cervantes’ tale which was bedevilled by misfortune and unhappy accident, and finally had to be canned only partially made. It’s an excruciating film to watch, not least (as I’m a big fan of Terry Gilliam’s films) because it looked set to have all the hallmarks of the outlandishly singular imagination which has marked the best of Gilliam’s films. As elaborately mad as one of Gustave Doré’s prints. I’m sure it would have been good.

I’ve been back to Spain several times since that first visit, and it was on my last few trips that I really caught the Cervantes’ Don Quixote bug. Everywhere I went in Madrid, Toledo, Segovia, Alicante, and in Bilbao, he seemed to be there. So many streets are named after him. Everywhere seemed to sell trinkets and souvenirs connected to the famous tale. As I said, I succumbed and bought a little resin figure of the Knight (but oddly not a matching one of his tubby little sidekick). I also bought a small tin repro’ plaque of an old advert (for a brand of cigarette papers, I think) which depicted the pair each on horseback with lances in hand, presumably riding off to ‘chase windmills’ somewhere. And I even spent a day wandering around Madrid itself seeking out the places which my guidebook pointed to as having some sort of Cervantes connection. Plaza de España – with its imposing statue of Cervantes, sitting overlooking two enormous bronze recreations of his most famous characters. Casa de Lope de Vega, Calle de Cervantes – on the site of Cervantes’ own residence. Convento Trinitarias Descalzas – where his tomb has recently been ‘rediscovered.’

When I returned from that last, most recent trip to Spain in 2010, I finally stirred myself to seek out the book itself. Cervantes’ great work, El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quijote de la Mancha’ orThe Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha.’ It’s a satisfyingly hefty tome. Leafing through several editions to compare different translations I finally settled on the one which seemed to read most engagingly to me ... But, for all that delicate care and time spent in dedicated search and selection, having had my eagerness and enthusiasm fired to such a pique – still it sits, very patiently, waiting on my shelf of books reserved as yet ‘to read.’ – I’ll get there one day. I’m sure I will … When the time is right – When I’ve finally finished chasing a host of other literary windmills

14 March 2015

The Sacred & The Profane

Historians are often asked to comment on the here and now, almost as much as they are on the events of the past. Particularly in the media. The validity of such comment is, of course, a useful point of departure for discussion, but do we give much pause to wonder why such analysis and comment is actually being sought? Is it simply to make some sort of sense of the here and now? Or is it merely meant to bolster and affirm the notions on which we have founded our world view? Are we seeking to understand? To justify? To champion, or to condemn? Or is it purely a means to provide ‘copy’ to fill TV news bulletins and newspaper column inches?

Undoubtedly the last question is a given, but the other questions all have a bearing on what angle that ‘copy’ maintains and whether or not such reports simply create an unending vicious circle. Social comment is the means by which we shape our collective worldview, it’s what we share as much as what we differ over which makes our society what it is – the present global world system operates in and through what we each think of ourselves and what we think of others. And this could well be simplified to binary opposites. Black and white. Good versus bad. Them and us, with both sides viewing their opposite as ‘the Other.’ We define ourselves by contrast; we are not like them, and they are not like us – but how true is this in reality if we look a little deeper?


I doubt many readers of this blog will not have looked aghast at the news images this week of men in Iraq’s second largest national museum in Mosul felling ancient Assyrian sculptures with sledgehammers. And rightly so. What an unthinkable thing to do! ... And why? ... It seems so pathetic. Are they really so afraid of inanimate objects? Are such ‘graven idols’ really an abomination in the eyes of their ‘jealous’ God – or, more precisely, are these statues really such a threat to that God’s legitimacy?

But to ask such questions is really too simplistic. There must be many levels driving the motivation to perpetrate such actions. Seeing those images my first thoughts were that these were desperate actions. The news reports said that the Iraqi Armed Forces were now beginning to push back against the Islamic State militias which have taken control of these regions. Thus, presumably, in a prelude to retreat, they are hitting out like impotent soldiers about run away. Taking a swipe at a symbol, in a sense itself equally symbolic, as a gesture of last ditch defiance.

But again, this too might still be an overly simplistic view. There may be more to it. They might well have destroyed these artefacts even if they ultimately prevailed in holding that region. No doubt it would still have been a gesture made with calculated symbolism and an eye to attracting the attention of the world’s media.

Whilst we still know really very little about precisely how coherently the Islamic State (or ‘Daesh’) might or might not be organised within its ranks, we are told that they are setting themselves up in opposition to the majority world system. Seeking a ‘medieval’ religious ‘caliphate’ in stark contrast to a modern, secular mode of Government, or even a moderate religious one. And as such, I read with interest a recent article which suggested that they weren’t so much smashing their own heritage into pieces, they were in fact smashing down the inherited or imported cultural institution of ‘the museum’ itself – the temple of ‘secular sacred idols’ – seeing the Western museum tradition as a colonial means of secular control. The worship of ‘graven images’ not so much in terms of false Gods from antiquity, but rather the false Gods of the present era – the worship of secular systems of government, capitalist economics, and the world system which has been globally imposed as a result of past colonialism, an ‘anti-Orientalising’ uprising of sorts. This struck me as a valid possibility, a plausible motivation, and, as such, a suitably manifest expression thereof.

But, then again, on the other hand, perhaps this is going too far – simply over-reading the situation instead? After all, it has been shown that a current major source of funding for Islamic State is the illegal trade in looted antiquities. In tandem with symbolic acts of destruction, it is currently facilitating the illicit Western art trade, under the radar so to speak, as a means of supporting itself. There’s possibly an irony here equal to the fact that the notion of an Islamic ‘State’ itself arises from the distinctly Western concept of the Nation State as an 'imagined community' (cf. Benedict Anderson, or perhaps the news reports regarding wannabe jihadis reading ‘Islam for Dummies’ instead).

Perhaps these orchestrated instances of iconoclasm are more likely to be an equally reductive quid pro quo as are those initial accusations of plain and simple barbarism. The same article sought to remind its readers of a similarly ‘iconoclastic’ image: that of the felled statue of Saddam Hussein, the dictator deposed by the US led military invasion of 2003. In a sense then this is perhaps a case of ‘history repeating itself’ in a never ending and yet ever increasing fractal pattern of symbolic destruction, this time with the boot firmly on the other foot. 


http://imgarcade.com/1/lenin-statue-coming-down/The political ‘spin doctors’ no doubt hoped the toppling of a statue of Saddam in Baghdad’s Firdos Square would have a similar resonance in the media as the toppling of statues of Lenin had in Eastern Europe at the remarkable and unexpected end of the Cold War; yet what they didn’t account for was the spontaneity and the immediate agency (i.e. – the fact that it was done by an uprising of ordinary people) which made the toppling of a bronze Lenin so remarkable and so memorable, similarly the binary undoing of the toppling of a bronze Saddam was rooted in how the action came about – for the bronze Saddam was felled not by the local Iraqis, but by the soldiers of an uninvited and invading foreign Army. The symbolism of that fact was unwittingly reinforced by the faux-pas which saw a US soldier first rubbing 'the stars and stripes' in Saddam’s face before someone with a bit more media-savvy quickly (but not quickly enough) managed to replace those colours with the flag of the Republic of Iraq instead. All symbolic acts are meant to have a resonance, and all of them are meant to remain in the memory – but some acts, it seems, always return to haunt more than others. 



One can’t help thinking of Donald Rumsfeld’s shrug that in war “stuff happens.” Take for instance, another recent news report this week which first ran with the headline: “The Man Who Helped Blow Up the Bamiyan Buddhas” – a classic media spin to pull the reader in. But it wasn’t an interview with an unrepentant Taliban fighter responsible for what is possibly the arch-iconoclastic act of violence against ancient antiquity perpetrated in our own times (until, perhaps, we find out the full extent of what destruction the Islamic State fighters have done to Iraq’s ancient sites, such as Nimrud and Nineveh), nor was it an interview with a reformed and repentant Taliban who has at last seen the error of his ways – rather it was a more pitiful and pitiable interview with an ordinary man who happened to live near Bamiyan, who was taken prisoner by the Taliban and forced to commit the destruction in order to evade execution and keep himself alive. At the end of the piece he is quoted as saying: I regretted it at that time, I regret it now and I will always regret it.” 


These are desperate times indeed, but they are not unprecedented; nor are they as black and white as they might at first seem. And to point this out is not to take sides, nor to excuse either side of such acts of cultural vandalism. It is hard to be objective rather than purely emotional. Destroying antiquities and attempting to erase the most important parts of our common heritage is and always should be an inexcusable crime. But, if we wish to view our world so simplistically, we should be mindful of how our own reductiveness actually blinds us to ourselves. Is rubbing a foreign nation’s flag in the face of a toppled dictator today not akin in some senses to the sacking of the Summer Palace outside Peking in 1860 at the start of China’s ‘Century of National Humiliation’, or smacking the head off an ancient Assyrian statue for that matter? How is our ‘just-retribution’ more just than their ‘just-retribution’? 


Is an extremist religious cult’s attempt to redefine the world system really so unprecedented, when we think of the Taiping Rebellion of 1850-1864? Perhaps Islamic State is less an extremist religious ideological expression, and more of an extreme psychological collective manifestation; as one recent perceptive article has suggested, perhaps Islamic State has more in common with David Koresh’s millenarian death cult in Waco, Texas in 1993 than it does with the true notions of Dar al-Islam and Dar al-Harb? … No, Mark Twain is probably right, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”


I deplore all forms of aggression, however necessary aggression might sometimes be. Think of the dilemma that pacifists faced when confronted by the juggernaut of destruction which raged through Europe in the form of Nazism during the last century. If anything at all is true in the old adage that ‘history repeats itself’, now is perhaps a salient time to ask ourselves: what can we actually learn from such cycles of history? Is it right to reduce our thinking to such simplistic clichés? Especially when we have the opportunity of being more informed and more measured in our own consideration and personal influence (via social media, for instance) than might have been possible in the past.


Think of all the recent media jingoism which has accompanied the centenary commemorations of the outbreak of the First World War last year – “Lions led by Donkeys”, etc. Many people might have thought so at the time, just as many seem adamantly sure of it today; and, similarly, so too, many thought so when the second invasion of Iraq was first proposed in 2003. – Cause and effect? – We reap as we sow? … Opinions will always be divided, as will outcomes. We can never know what realities the opposite counterfactuals might have created – What if Saddam was still in charge of Iraq today? – What if the Berlin Wall had not fallen? … A colleague of mine (who is only just a fraction too young to remember the last few years of the Cold War) once remarked: “I don’t see what all the fuss over the Cold War was all about; I mean, after all, it all turned out alright in the end, didn’t it?” He was being serious too.

I might be a historian, but – it doesn’t mean I have any clearer answers than the next person. The world, likely as not, will always be a divided place. One person’s ‘terrorist’ will always be someone else’s ‘freedom fighter.’ History, like the present, is filled with seemingly unanswerable questions – but this in itself is no reason for us to stop asking such questions, or to stop challenging ourselves to think a little deeper than how the headlines might seek to herd us … 

Islamic State is far from ‘medieval’ when one stops to consider all the many cultural and scientific achievements of Islamic scholars in the Middle Ages. Islamic State is a modern phenomenon. It has not arisen in isolation seemingly out of nowhere. It has arisen in opposition. If division is to be the default mode of human existence, then I can only hope that one day we might at least all come to draw a line together, and abide with one another in an understanding of the stark truth spoken by Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, that “an eye for an eye only ends up making the whole world blind.”