Summer turns binary

fire cloud vertical


smoky window under blind,

Summers have turned binary in parts of the world living through the Time of the Wildfires — as if nature were playing a deadly metaphorical game inspired by transformations elsewhere (we are straining not to say digital revolution). The transition between phases is abrupt and disorienting.

Above: the apocalyptic part 2

Summer-to-autumn. At the top, an image from last summer — looking out of a kitchen window — that could easily be part of this one. Beneath it, the view outside in early August of this year.

Dread; destruction; unending vigilance; a mind swimming in images of ashen skies choked with deadly particulates — not always a safe distance away.

Below: the hopeful part 1

Spring-to-summer, pictures taken this year.

Growth; blooming under blue skies and grey; cool and fragrant delight; a sense of endless possibilities for harmony and good.

In a very different context from his poem ( ‘Easter, 1916’ ), these lines of W. B. Yeats come floating in:

… changed, changed utterly:
A terrible beauty is born.

spring-summer panel.jpg

In the puzzling rise of retro nationalism in an age of digital linking, a well-argued warning by Spain’s most famous philosopher is being ignored — again


ortega y gasset

The Revolt of the Masses (1929) — a warning about nationalism published between the  world wars to international acclaim — is being dusted off and read, but not widely enough

The anger of people who blame their country’s social problems on letting in too many outsiders — Brexiters and their nationalist counterparts worldwide — is not hard to understand. They have been led to think as they do by the facts available to them — a minute fraction of the internet’s bounty, despite its magical capacity for instantaneous dissemination.

Some far from obvious information that they might want to look at — if only to refine their arguments and positions — is in Jared Diamond’s panoptic Guns, Germs and Steel (1997). In that prizewinning book’s interdisciplinary explorations, drawing on the whole of human history, Diamond floats his hypothesis that the most successful civilisations evolved where geography allowed for the freest movement of people, ideas, agricultural innovations and technologies, and let rival cultures compete in material prosperity.

In an interview posted on the leading American (NIH) medical research website, he described his theory’s genesis:

 … [Y]ou asked about “Eureka” moments. There were actually two. The first occurred in 1990 when an archaeologist at the University of North Carolina was discussing with me why Europeans conquered Native Americans, and we started talking about agriculture. “Yes, there’s corn and maize and tomatoes and wheat and so on,” he said, “but an important consideration is that Europe has an east–west axis whereas the Americas run north–south, and that made it difficult for crops, as well as technology, to spread in the Americas.” A year or two later, when I was at the University of Utah preparing to give several Tanner lectures and had 2 or 3 days to kill, I thought to myself, “I need another lecture topic. Why not see if I could have some original insights into African history?” So I looked at a map of Africa, and it was, “My God, look at that map. Here is another continent with a north–south axis.”

In fact, slow north–south spreads are an issue not only in the New World, with Andean potatoes and llamas never reaching Mexico and Mexican turkeys never reaching Peru, but also in Africa, where the spread of cattle and sheep and goats from the Fertile Crescent was very slow, and where wheat and Mediterranean crops from the north never reached the south at all.

Not much of a leap from that train of thought is the insistence nearly a hundred years ago of Spain’s most famous philosopher, José Ortega y Gasset (1883-1955), that successful nations are built not from nationalism and shutting out other people and cultures but by opening mental doors and windows to their influence.

In The Revolt of the Masses ( La rebelión de las masas ) — a protest against narrow, parochial thinking that has been finding new audiences lately, not least because so much of its criticism applies to the nationalist prejudices reshaping contemporary politics all over Europe and in the U.S. — Ortega spelt out risks of aggressive tribalism that are not obvious. He distinguished between nation-building (good) and isolationist, defensive nationalism (bad) in making an original, passionate case for a European federation, advancing a refreshing argument from first principles. That was decades before the European Union was born, only after his and other wise warnings were ignored and nationalism killed an estimated 60 million in a second world war started less than a decade after the first.

Hispanist contributors to the Wikipedia have corrected a crucial misconception in the entry about his Revolt — pointing out that the ‘masses’ to which Ortega was referring are not the poorer, uneducated citizens that critics of ‘populism’ have in mind today:

He does not … refer to specific social classes, as has been so commonly misunderstood in the English-speaking world. Ortega states that the mass-man could be from any social background, but his specific target is the bourgeois educated man, the señorito satisfecho (satisfied young man or Mr. Satisfied), the specialist who believes he has it all and extends the command he has of his subject to others, contemptuous of his ignorance in all of them.

If only the following short extracts from TROTM could be debated on mainstream television …

Blood, language, and common past are static principles … If the nation consisted in these and nothing more, [ the idea of nations ] would be something lying behind us, something with which we should have no concern. … England, France, Spain, Germany would never have been born… [ but ] … Whether we like it or not, human life is a constant preoccupation with the future … bringing something future into effect.

… The groups which … have been known as nations arrived about a century ago at their highest point of expansion. … They are now mere past accumulating all around Europe, weighing it down, imprisoning it.… What was before a nation open to all the winds of heaven, has turned into something provincial, an enclosed space.

Everyone sees the need for a new principle of life. But as always happens in similar crises — some people attempt to save the situation by an artificial intensification of the very principle which led to decay. This is the meaning of the ‘nationalist’ outburst of recent years. … On the very eve of their disappearance there is an intensification of frontiers — military and economic.

But all these nationalisms are so many blind alleys. Try to project one into the future and see what happens. There is no outlet that way. Nationalism is always an effort in a direction opposite to the one that creates nations. The former is exclusive in tendency, the latter inclusive. In periods of consolidation, nationalism has a positive value, and it is a lofty standard. But in Europe everything is more than consolidated [ in individual nations ] and nationalism is nothing more than a mania, a pretext to escape from the necessity of inventing something new, some great enterprise.

… Only the determination to construct a great nation from the group of peoples of the Continent would give new life to the pulses of Europe.


A dunce cap for T. S. Eliot, who could not tell a lilac from a lollipop — and an explainer in images

lilac buds 4 april 2018 SC

Lilacs, 1: Budding: 4 April 2018 (Does that ground look not just cold and post-wintry but ‘dead’? Scroll down for the next acts in the drama.)

In the internet tradition of putting out bird seed for each other — information for nameless, faceless strangers — this entry is mostly for those visitors revealed by our site traffic analysis to be doing their English Literature homework.

We would march in the streets to protect poetic licence, but a poet who cannot get his elementary facts about nature right cannot be trusted as a wielder of metaphors or teller of even strictly psychological truths. He is liable to be written off as a pretentious twit for ending a poem with, for instance, …

… London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down

Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina

Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow

Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie

These fragments I have shored against my ruins

Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.

Shantih shantih shantih

… as T.S. Eliot did The Waste Land (1922), if he had started it with these offences against accurate observation and common-sense botany:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow, feeding

A little life with dried tubers.

What dead land would that be? Year after year, we watch as lilac bushes close by bud, sprout, come into leaf, then give us a live demonstration of why ‘You’re blooming!’ can be a true and sumptuous compliment paid to a young girl in love. Year after year, we imagine students in places where no lilacs grow frowning over the complexities of Eliot’s best-known poem — with no idea that he had everything back-to-front in its opening.

Internet searching suggests that those of us acutely irritated by this are (or were once) amateur or expert gardeners. Hardly anyone else has remarked — like the Oxford historian and gardening connoisseur Robin Lane Fox, in a marvellous essay about gardens in literature — that

No gardener … would agree that April is “the cruellest month” and in no gardens or landscapes known to me does April breed “lilacs out of the dead land,” least of all on the American East Coast within range of the young T. S. Eliot.

Even non-gardeners in the northern hemisphere know that the cruellest month is August. The hot weather is at its most evil, then, in warmer parts of the globe. In cooler maritime spots with changeable weather, it is when the last hope of any summer at all can be cruelly denied.

There is nothing dead about the ground when lilacs begin to push tiny brown buds from brown canes — as in the first of this sequence of pictures (above and below). It is wriggly with riotous new life. And no, Mr Eliot, you cannot believably proceed from a warm winter — or even one keeping only you warm — that fed ‘a little life with dried tubers’, to earth that somehow had all life mysteriously drained from it as the days lengthened and the temperature rose, more or less steadily.

Yes, we know about metaphors, you Eliot-defenders out there. We ourselves have been known to excoriate the obdurately literal-minded for refusing to dance with a poet’s imagination. We know from experience what T.S.E. was trying to say about how painful spring breaking out all over can be for someone depressed, after the protective cocooning of the dark, burrowing months. But if he had to reverse the truth of lilacs coming into their season, why didn’t he say he was writing science-fiction poetry?

We are in deepest sympathy with Vladimir Nabokov, when he asked a college student sent to him for tips on a career in writing if he knew the name of a tree outside a nearby window. When the acolyte confessed that he did not, Nabokov said simply, ‘Then you’ll never be a writer.’ **

** ‘Remembering Nabokov’ by Alfred Appel Jnr., in Vladimir Nabokov: A Tribute, edited by Peter Quenell, 1979.

lilacs sprouted 28 april 2018 SC

Lilacs, 2: Sprouting, 28 April 2018

lilacs green gold 6 may 2018 SC

Lilacs, 3: Cluster-setting, 6 May 2018

lilacs blooming 10 may 2018 SC

Lilacs, 4: Blooming: 10 May 2018

lilacs in bloom in thunderstorm 15 may 2018 SC

Lilacs, 5: In full flower, in spring rain: 15 May 2018