Thursday, September 21, 2017

The loneliness of the election hoarding

Every three years the institution of the election poster gives us an object lesson in psychogeography, remaking the country into red zones, blue zones, contested zones. A sign erected on a private fence or put up at one’s window makes an uncomplicated political statement: this is a Tory household, a Labour household, a Green household; the sum of many such statements can mark an entire town or suburb, making class visible in a manifest way. As for the posters in public and commercial spaces, they too make concrete the geographical distribution of the parties’ efforts: who concentrates where, pushing which messages; just as importantly, who is absent, and must be assumed to be working to shore up their consensus elsewhere.

This is how I introduced my first post on New Zealand election hoardings, six years ago, and the premise still applies. But the form is now fully devalued. Local elections (especially in the old country) can still offer some colour and the occasional element of surprise. Not so our national elections, where hoardings have become mere reminders of the existence of parties and candidates, and have ceased to be vehicles of actual political messages. The content of the election campaign, clearly, is elsewhere. In the vastly increased number of Facebook ads, for instance, which have allowed both political parties and sector organisations to quickly produce and distribute short thematic videos on a plethora of topics, and for very little cost compared to the traditional television campaigns.

One unusual thing did happen this year, though, leading to forced and sudden changes in the promotional strategies of both centre-left parties. Having waged its campaign on seamless continuity with National as symbolised by the slogan ‘A fresh approach’, Labour was forced into ditching both the leader and the slogan after a string disastrous polls.

Gone was this.

To be replaced temporarily by this, while awaiting a new set of hoardings showing the new leader. (This time sans deputy.)

Similarly, the Greens, after the departure of their co-leader in far more appalling circumstances, had to abandon both their initial leading image and the slogan that accompanied it.

The Greens’ new designs were remarkably sparse, and whilst not visually unpleasing they quickly descended into a string of empty nationalistic signifiers that didn’t do justice to their campaign.

(I spotted a single poster with Shaw, cutting a lonely figure.)

While Labour came up with a truly terrible new slogan, literally slapped on existing candidate hoardings using a sticker,

some of the Ardern hoardings at least tried to convey basic political statements.

In one of the Labour posters the slogan literally covers the party’s headline policies, a great illustration of the dynamic between hoardings and substantive ideas.

But on the whole Labour had the best-looking and most visually coherent campaign, again, albeit in a rather sorry-looking field. National stuck with the same template of the last three elections, except with English instead of their own departed charismatic leader. I confess to chuckling at this act of wanton vandalism.

And pairing him up with the candidates, just as Key was.

The parallel, thematic campaign featured the somewhat fascistic-looking group of white runners from the unspeakable ‘keep New Zealand moving forward’ television ads,

and scattered appeals to the nation’s wealthier Pākehā for God’s sake to vote sensibly.

Other parties barely featured, at least within the territory I covered (that is to say, South, East and Central Wellington). TOP came up with an extravagantly bad design, as well as with what appeared to be the world’s worst attempt at an acronym.

I literally had to walk for miles to find an ACT hoarding. Though clearly I didn’t get there first.

(Speaking of ACT, I must include in this gallery, by kind permission of Archie Bussink, David Seymour’s amazing ‘give me your electorate vote but please Party Vote National - go the Blue Party!’ hoarding in Epsom. I just must.)

The Māori Party made the unusual choice of putting forward a former leader.

Finally, Winston Peters got the prize for the least self-aware hoarding of the year. Yes, now that you mention it, we are quite tired of your face. Also, your election materials look like they were designed by someone’s relative.

There were, as usual, some contributions from outside the parties proper, which often prove to be the most unusual or interesting. This year I was particularly impressed by the 'we are beneficiaries' series on social media, and was very heartened to see that it made an appearance in poster form. This is the one I saw. Hopefully there were others. But in a campaign that first raised  these issues, then pushed them back down again with great violence, it seems appropriate to give this campaign the last word.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

The neoliberalism question: notes on the Ardern/Espiner interview

Six weeks ago I wrote in Overland that politics had made a sudden comeback in New Zealand, following Metiria Turei’s revelations of her struggles as a young mother on the DPB and Labour’s dramatic decision to replace its grey, centrist leader with his far more energetic and inspiring deputy. That article is looking pretty stupid right now. Or maybe there really was a window – an opportunity to shift the ground of the political debate in a progressive direction – and it was shut down all too quickly. Either way, it hardly seems to matter now. Normalcy has been restored, and the wall in which that window briefly appeared looks perfectly smooth, as if it had never been breached.

I share some of the frustrations that Joe Nunweek has expressed in a brilliant piece for the Pantograph Punch concerning the 9th Floor series of interviews conducted by Guyon Espiner with five of the country’s surviving prime ministers. Nunweek focuses in, rightly, on the uniform lack of regret offered by those eminent statespeople as they oversaw a period of rising inequality and deep social trauma.
The leaders in The 9th Floor set us a terrible example, a series of excuses and tendentious rationalisations belying their demeanour of plainspoken and secure intellect. Above all, it’s profoundly alienating to experience regret, to try and suppress it or process it every day to ones’ harm or development, only to see those at the top celebrate its lack as a strength.
It’s a shame that John Key wasn’t included in the series (I’m told he turned the opportunity down) as it would have been intriguing to hear a much more recent prime minister give a summation of his time in office. However, Espiner has taken to asking current political leaders a question that came out of the Jim Bolger interview – namely, whether or not neoliberalism has been good for the country. And the effect of asking that single, simple question has been to take the interviews outside of the political present – which is predicated on a myriad daily acts of wilful amnesia – and into something approximating history.

Yesterday, it was Jacinda Ardern’s turn to take the pledge, and she didn’t hesitate for a moment. ‘Yes,’ she said. Neoliberalism has failed. This may be what the majority of her supporters wanted to hear her say, but it also turned every other answer she gave in the course of the half-hour interview into a test of that premise. This in turn underscored that it is one thing to look at Labour’s policies going into this election as a series of discrete (and largely desirable) interventions into various areas of New Zealand’s life; quite another to view them in aggregate as an expression of an overarching political project. Which – since the leader is so adamant that neoliberalism has failed the country – ought to be a project of anti-neoliberal reform.

The term ‘neoliberal’ is often said to be excessively vague, but its value in this context was in fact to give specificity to Espiner’s line of questioning. Most obviously: would Ardern consider revisiting the Reserve Bank Act, the Public Finance Act or any of the other legislative instruments that have allowed the last four governments to put neoliberal reforms into practice?

The answer – need I say it – was no. And in the process of the fairly gentle interrogation that followed, the much-vaunted boldness of the Ardern project evaporated. She thinks that climate change is the ‘nuclear-free’ issue of our time, but wouldn’t commit to divesting from coal or even ceasing to issue new licenses for deep-sea oil exploration. She wants to end child poverty, but wouldn’t resile from her predecessor's foolish commitment to contain spending to 30% of GDP and keep guaranteeing operating surpluses – one of the main causes of the staggering, crippling rise of our household debt – nor does she think that the government needs to seek more revenue through taxation. She is even open to getting the TPP back on track, subject to conditions that she would not reveal in order not to show her hand in the upcoming negotiations.

In other words: Ardern gave every indication that under her leadership, and with a much diminished contribution from the Greens, Labour remains committed to the continuation of the fundamental policies of the last 30 years. Call it the interlude we get to have every nine years or so in-between Tory governments. We’ll see the back of some truly dreadful ministers, associate ministers and undersecretaries. Some people’s living conditions will improve, or at least stop deteriorating – which of course is not insignificant. It never is. But the desire for deep and lasting change that the enthusiasm surrounding Ardern both evokes and demands will likely remain unfulfilled. Nothing illustrates this prospect better than the literal papering over of last month’s empty, self-defeating slogan – ‘a fresh approach’ – with an even emptier one – ‘Let’s do this.’ This what?

All this is related to how stupid the article I wrote six weeks ago looks. For there really was a window. An opportunity. Instead of playing her part in the political assassination of Metiria Turei, Ardern could have used her new position and her extraordinary popularity to stand by her side. Together, she and Turei could have broken the siege that has prevented beneficiaries – which is to say, a significant portion of the working class – from leading a dignified life and participating in society. Such a decision would have carried its own risks, naturally. But then this is what defines political courage, and it’s nothing if not courage that we desperately need.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Inferno VIII: The one who weeps

Io dico, continuando…
I say, continuing…

A strange beginning. Or a re-beginning, according to some, after a long hiatus. The legend goes that a relative of Dante found the papers on which the poet had written the first seven cantos around the year 1301, before his exile, and had them delivered to him via another poet, Dino Frescobaldi, in the northern Tuscan region known as the Lunigiana, some years after he was chased away from Florence. Whereupon Dante supposedly decided to resume writing the Divine Comedy, and signalled it by means of that gerund, continuando. It’s a theory whose origins date back to Giovanni Boccaccio himself, one of the very first scholars of Dante, and while it’s almost certainly incorrect, it is salutary to remember that people have spent seven hundred years reading far too much into that single word. Approaching the poem as we did not as ordinary readers (whatever that means), but as students, we were also required to pay abnormal levels of attention to famous or famously ambiguous lines. Our need to make sense of the Comedy bore a direct relationship with our ability to progress in our studies.

Eugène Delacroix, Dante's boat (1822)

There is very little progress in this canto. It is mired. We are stuck – and that’s perhaps the true sense of continuando – in the fifth circle, looking at the next level of the adventure, but unable to find the actual entrance. We are still in the Styx, a shallow marsh thick with the semi-submerged bodies of the wrathful, whose pastime is tearing each other apart. Beyond the marsh but clearly visible is a walled city, and beyond the walls, is fire. Beacons are lit. First one, then another. They signal to the infernal army the presence of a living man.

To hasten their travel through the muddy waters, Dante and Virgil board the small boat of Phlegyas, a figure of classical mythology whose job in Hell is rather unclear. His boat is not a ferry, and doesn’t carry any souls. It’s not likely that he would serve as referee among the Styx-dwellers, either, since the place is kept in a self-regulating, perpetual state of chaos and violence. He seems to be just there, then, part of the décor: another vestigial demon from Virgil’s pre-Christian underworld, stripped of his powers and reduced to meaninglessness just like the old gods. Like some of the other extras encountered in previous cantos, Phlegyas barks at Dante at first, but is soon rebuked and silenced by Virgil.

Dante steps on the boat, whose prow dips: for unlike the others, he is a thing of flesh. Yet the souls aren’t exactly immaterial, either. Soon we encounter one that tries to grab him. At first Dante doesn’t recognise him. ‘Who are you, who are so disfigured?’ ‘Vedi che son un che piango.’ I am one who weeps. But this appeal doesn’t trigger one of the pilgrim’s usual displays of pity. He lashes out at him instead.

Con piangere e con lutto,
spirito maladetto, ti rimani;
ch’i’ ti conosco, ancor sie lordo tutto.

May you keep weeping and wailing, cursed soul, for I have recognised you, although you’re covered in mud.

The obligatory Doré

The passage that follows is surprising. The soul lunges at Dante, and is pushed back by Virgil, who proceeds to praise his charge for the disdain that he has shown. The pair hug and kiss, as if in joyful celebration of this sudden bout of hatred. As for Dante, he has only one wish: to see the spirit who approached the boat attuffare in questa broda, get dunked into the broth: a prelude to violent attack by the other souls. His wish is immediately granted. ‘Everyone attack Filippo Argenti!’, cry the marsh-dwellers, and even he, Argenti himself, spirito bizzarro – extravagant spirit – joins into the frenzy and starts gnawing at his own flesh.

We don’t know much about this Filippo Argenti, other than the fact that he belonged to a Florentine family that Dante had reasons to detest. Many and most likely apocryphal stories have cropped up over the centuries to justify the personal, intimate nature of this hatred, including the allegation that Argenti once slapped Dante in the face in front of other citizens: a public humiliation that may go some way towards explaining the wish that he should suffer in front of Dante’s own eyes, as if his eternal damnation wasn’t enough. But even if the stories were true, it would be an unconvincing explanation. The craven spite, ultimately, reflects badly on Dante. And maybe that’s the point: mired, unsure, made anxious by those fires that announced his proximity to the walled city, the not-yet-redeemed poet shows his weakness. We don’t know for sure if he is better than the deceased who have been condemned to rest in this place. He may yet come back, some day, minus his cloak of flesh, no longer able to weigh down the prow of Phlegyas’ boat. He is not yet saved.

To underscore the point, the travellers reach the red-hot iron walls of the city of Dis, only to find the way blocked by an army of demons raining from the sky. The demons demand to speak to Virgil, alone, and send Dante walking back to the shore of the Styx. Don’t leave me, let’s turn back, he pleads to his guide. The parlay is short, but must seem like an eternity to the suddenly dejected poet, who only minutes earlier had disdainfully wished pain on another. Finally, the doors of the city close on Virgil’s face and he turns back, downcast, le ciglia rase d’ogni baldanza – his forehead shorn of all its boldness. Thus the canto ends, with both the hero and his guide in an apparent state of crisis – as if God’s own plan could fail.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI, VII.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Library of Babel by Borges but with the words arranged alphabetically

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(From the English translation by J.E.I.)


The original Spanish text by Borges.

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naturaleza necesaria necesidades negligen negrísimas negro niegan niñez ningún ninguna ninguna no no no no no no no no no No no no No no no no no no no No no no no No no no no no no No no nociones nombre nombre nombre normal normal nos nos noticia notoriamente notorios noventa noventa nuestra número número número número número o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o o obligadas obra obra obras obras observar observó ochenta ocultaban oficiales Oh ojos olvidan omnipotentes opinión orden Orden órdenes orgánicas origen origen ortográficos ortográficos ortográficos oscuras oscuras otra otra otra otra otra otro Otro Otro otro otro otro otros Otros otros otros Otros Otros otros otros padre página página página página páginas páginas páginas páginas palabras palabras palabras palabras palabras palabrera pan para para Para para para Para para para para parece pareció pareció paredes pasa peinado peldaños pensador pensar pensaron pentagonal penúltima percibir perdición perdidos perdurable perdurará 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satisfacer satisfactoriamente se se se se se se se se se se se se se se se se se se se se se se se se se se Sé sé sé sea sea sea sea sea sea sea sean sean secreta secretas secreto secreto secta secta segundo seguro señores sentado sentido sentido sentido sepultura ser ser ser será sería serie severas si si Si Si sí sido sido siempre siempre siempre siempre siete siglo siglo siglos siglos significan sílaba símbolo símbolos símbolos símbolos símbolos símbolos símbolos simétricas sin sin sin sino sino sintieron sistema sitio sobre sola soledad solitaria solo solo sólo sólo solución solución solución son son son soñar sospecho sospechoso sostienen su su su su su su su su Su su su su su subsiguiente sucedió suelen sueños sugirió suicidios superficies superior superiores superstición supersticiosa suponer sus sus sus sus sus suya suya Tácito tal También También También También También también también tan tan tapa tautologías temor temores tener tenía teoría tercera ternuras terrible tesis tesoro tesoros testimonio tiempo tiempo tiempo tiempo tiempo tiene tienen tiren titula toda toda todas todas todas todas todas todo Todo todo Todo todo todo todos todos todos todos todos todos todos todos Todos todos todos toman tomos total total total trágicas transversales tratado treinta treinta trémulos trescientos triangular Trueno tu Tu Tú túneles tus ubicuo último ultrajado un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un un Un un un Una una una una una una una una una una una Una una una una una una una una una unas unas unas unas única único uniforme universalmente universo universo universo universo universo universo uno Uno uno Uno Uno uno uno unos unos urgía urgidos usa usaban usurpó vaga valor valor vana vano vano variación variaciones variaciones varios vasta vastísimo vastos Veinte veinticinco veinticinco veinticinco veintidós veintitantos vejez ven venerado ventilación verbal verbales verbales verdad verdad verdad verdad verdadero veremos verídica verosímil versión vestigios vez vez vez viajado viajero viajero viajeros viejos viento vieron vindicaban Vindicación Vindicaciones Vindicaciones vio Visiblemente vista visto visto visto vocabulario vocabularios volumen volumen volúmenes volúmenes volúmenes volúmenes vuelta y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y y Ya ya ya ya ya yeso yiddish yo Yo Yo yo Yo yo Yo Yo zaguán zaguán zaguán zona zona

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The man without a legacy

In honour of the election campaign and also party leaders resigning, here's the essay I wrote for Overland at the end of last year when John Key left office. But I also have a new piece at the Pantograph Punch about the role of the media in taking down Metiria Turei. If you're only going to read one of them, read that one. 

You could almost say that the only thing John Key was good at was winning elections. As if that were a small talent for a politician.

He was very good at that, anyway. Leading his party in successive elections to a share of 44%, 47% and 47% again of the vote is a truly remarkable achievement in a proportional multi-party system. Helen Clark, the three-term prime minister he defeated to get the job in 2008, never managed more than 41%. Yet in her case you could readily point to several political accomplishments which could be variously described as being part of her legacy, mostly in the form of new social welfare entitlements such as the Working for Families scheme, or social security instruments such as KiwiSaver and the Cullen Fund.

After 15 years of radical neoliberal reforms, Clark applied the brakes, while leaving the core of those reforms untouched. She stopped the privatisation of the government workplace insurer, ACC. She abolished market rents for state housing. Through those measures and others like them, she reoriented the political centre. You could call the new consensus ‘neoliberalism with a human face’. It operated through a state that appeared to look after its citizens, while doing nothing to reverse the extraordinary levels of social inequality produced under successive governments.

John Key took that consensus and walked away with it. Clark’s reformist momentum had simply stalled. Her political project had nowhere else to go, and needed to be going somewhere in order to justify itself. It was like when Hillary Clinton tried to replicate Obama’s campaign but without being able to run as the candidate of change.

In specular fashion, Key offered instead a paradoxical continuity: putting the Tories in charge of Labour’s house, and making them the custodians of Clark’s achievements. Not a new thing in the country’s political history, but done so well that the public barely noticed. It was not so much an election as a wonderfully executed burglary.

Eight years later, just as he appeared poised to sleepwalk into a fourth term, Key walked away this morning. He will be in charge of the country for one more week only.

Historians will remember him. But for what? Always he did so little. Having gone into power just as the global financial crisis kicked into gear, he passed up on the opportunity to respond with a program of outright austerity.

He cut public sector jobs, which is hardly ever an unpopular move. He enacted welfare reforms that introduced social controls rather than slashing entitlements, so that affected people would be blamed for falling out of the net themselves, rather than being pushed. He deprived sectors of the state of funding often just by failing to increase it to keep up with costs. (The state public radio, for instance, has had its funding frozen since he took office.) He privatised state energy companies, but only up to 49% of the shares – possibly the most emblematic example of his pragmatism.

He championed the TPP, but without ever letting us forget that it was the brainchild of a Labour foreign minister. He brought into his coalition the Māori Party, the product of a split with Labour during the Clark years, without making undue concessions to its demands. He eschewed the racially divisive platform of his predecessor, Don Brash, proving more successful at settling claims under the Treaty of Waitangi than Clark.

Throughout it all, he kept a constant eye on the dial of that consensus, without ever attempting to shift it. He was helped in this by his faithful pollster, later to be included in the cast of characters of journalist Nicky Hager’s book Dirty Politics. Ultimately, the accusation that the prime minister was running a Nixonesque ‘ratfucking’ operation against the Labour Party and other political adversaries out of his office didn’t stick. I suspect historians will look into that again, too. The case is hardly a weak one, especially since the weeks following the publication of the book were marked by one of his aides taking a sudden and highly convenient holiday.

When I say that Key was supremely good at winning elections, I don’t mean to say that we should forget or excuse some of the methods he employed to this end. But neither should we overestimate their effect. By far Key’s greatest single achievement was to position himself as the natural choice for continuity of government from the Clark years and into an indefinite future of modest, unambitious prosperity (‘we’re on the cusp of something special’, he famously read once off a Crosby-Textor cue card). His was an electoral consensus built on a bulging centre comprising affluent and semi-affluent voters, who either own property or are heavily mortgaged, while the large and growing ranks of the working poor and the destitute have stopped voting altogether and may never become a constituency again. Under these social conditions, the John Key project was virtually doomed to succeed, as it effectively deprived Labour and the Greens of people to appeal to. Absent an economic crisis, the centre-left has no intervention to offer, nor solutions to problems that largely affect a non-voting public.

But it would be foolish to underestimate the role of Key’s personal appeal in all this. For eight years he played the part of the prime minister beautifully. He was a reassuring presence, projecting confidence and competence yet never appearing to take himself or his office too seriously. Neither the media nor the opposition managed to alter those perceptions in relation to such issues as his handling of the housing crisis, or the reconstruction of Christchurch. He was the prime minister of those who think that the country almost governs itself, and that we shouldn’t upset its balance. But that act won’t be an easy one to follow for his colleagues: he struck that tone effortlessly with his public persona, and it gave credibility to the very idea of his government. Someone will have to replicate that.

Yet in spite of his great talent for winning elections – or maybe because of it – John Key has no legacy. Called upon to account for his achievements after today’s surprise announcement, the New Zealand’s Herald was barely able to compose four short paragraphs, including some questionable entries (‘attended the Queen’s residence at Balmoral’, ‘aimed to establish the Trans-Pacific Partnership’ – but failed). The one time he tried to use his office to promote lasting change, through a referendum to adopt a new national flag, it starkly exposed his lack of political substance and vision. Everyone quickly recognised it as the branding exercise that it was, and on this occasion the great communicator failed to persuade the public that the idea had any merit. It was a symbolic issue, yes. But it makes the misstep even more telling for a politician who relied so heavily on his image.

That the country governs itself is, of course, an illusion. The auto-pilot set by Helen Clark was never meant to take us this far, and the many structural issues of the New Zealand economy could yet come to a head all at once. When that happens, we may look quite differently at John Key’s absent legacy.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Inferno VII: The circle of capitalists

"Pape Satàn, pape Satàn aleppe!"

If these words ever meant anything in any language, or were otherwise intelligible to the contemporaries of Dante Alighieri, that meaning is lost. What’s left to us is the beginning of a curse, or a demonic incantation, which is quickly cut short by Dante’s guide, Virgil.

Taci, maladetto lupo! consuma dentro te con la tua rabbia.

But who is this ‘accursed wolf’ whom Virgil hopes will be ‘consumed inwardly by its own rage’? The illustration by Gustavo Dorè looks nothing like a wolf, nor like the fiera crudele – ‘cruel wild beast’ – of the only other line that mentions its appearance.

Dorè’s Plutus is a demon with human semblance. Perhaps he’s Plutus or Ploutos, the Greek and Roman god of wealth and agricultural bounty, son of Iaison and Demetra; or else he’s Pluto, the god of the underworld that bears his earlier moniker (Hades), and from which we get the sometimes planet by the same name. Or possibly both, because in medieval times the two were routinely mixed up.

Wealth and death, whether married by poetry or by historical accident, oversee the seventh canto of the Inferno. Or, more precisely, the fourth circle of Hell, because for the first time Dante breaks the symmetry of one circle per canto. The fourth and fifth are both here.

First he and Virgil encounter, on a giant ridge that encircles the whole perimeter of hell as it continues to narrow towards the bottom, the throng of the greedy and the prodigal. The poet calls them gente più ch’altrove troppa, people who, more than elsewhere, are too numerous. But too numerous for what? In excess of what? This claim would appear to break a rule of Hell alluded to in the fifth canto, whereby each circle is smaller than the one that precedes it, and is occupied by a smaller number of souls guilty of a greater crime. This violation, then, is likely a result of the poet’s own psychological judgment rather than an actual fact. There shouldn’t be so many people here, so many spirits damned by a sin so grave.

And what do they do? What is their contrappasso?

The greedy and the squanderers are two faces of the same coin (as it were), and serve two halves of the same punishment. Each is condemned to push a boulder with their chests along the arc of the ridge. When they reach the end of the half circle, they crash into the other group, who are pushing boulders in the opposite direction. As if in a fit of road rage, they exclaim to one another perché tieni? perché burli? ‘Why do you keep?’ ‘Why do you squander thus?’ Then they turn around and start pushing their boulders in the opposite direction, along another semi-circle. And so forth. The most famous illustration is, of course, Dorè’s.

But I am also reminded of the perpetual circle of Dr Seuss’ Star-on, Star-off machines in The Sneetches, overseen by the greedy Sylvester McMonkey McBean.

The greedy in this circle are all members of the clergy, as signalled by their tonsure. ‘Clerics, popes and cardinals’ in cui usa avarizia il suo soperchio – in whom avarice exercises its excess (implied: as everyone knows). And when Dante observes that he ought to be able to recognise at least some of them, Virgil explains that la sconoscente vita che i fé sozzi, ad ogne conoscenza or li fa bruni: the unknowing (ignorant) conduct that sullied them in life, darkens them to knowledge in death – ie, conceals their appearance, makes them unrecognisable. Thus we are spared a catalogue of Dante’s contemporaries which might have created the exiled poet or the courts that gave him sanctuary some political bothers. (Although he was not one to pull punches in this area as we shall see later on.)

The greedy are greedy, the meaning is pretty much unchanged. But the squanderers are marked by greed as well. Perhaps they collectively represent the mercantile/banking class that was flourishing in Florence in Dante’s lifetime, along with early forms of conspicuous consumption not by aristocrats or priests, as was customary, but regular citizens.

We are at the dawn of capitalism, and medieval Florence is one of its nerve centres, servicing as it does the Papal state with a range of financial services (lending, changing, insurance) as well as with increasingly sophisticated goods. Dante has no regard for this private enterprise and its attendant private fortunes. This deeply Christian man, this medieval man, has no ideological basis from which to regard capitalist wealth creation as a means of social or material progress. Therefore he simply sees no future in it, other than the very bleak metaphysical outcome of an eternity spent pushing boulders in Hell.

There is another circle in this canto, hosting two quite separate groups of souls, known to the chronicles as the wrathful and the sullen (for Dante rarely names the sinners or the sins using the short-hand of his commentators). Both live in the murky waters of the Styx, the mythological river which is reduced here to a shallow marsh. But the two groups are quite alien to each other. The wrathful stand outside the water, fighting incessantly and for no reason; the sullen – which we might call the clinically depressed, for whom Dante and his time had no compassion – dwell underneath the surface, weighed down by their inwardly directed anger. Their sin consists in part in a failure to act (linking them with the indifferent of Hell’s vestibule) and partly in failing to appreciate the glory of creation and the gift of life, representing the contrary vice to the hedonism of the greedy. They want to talk, lamenting how they roamed sadly ne l'aere dolce che dal sol s'allegra, in the ‘sweet air which by the sun is gladdened’ (per Longfellow), but water pushes the words back down their throats.

Enough. In this heroic poem without danger of adversaries, Dante and Virgil have come to the foot of a tower, whereby the canto ends.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V, VI.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Inferno VI: Black rain over Florence

Io sono al terzo cerchio, de la piova
etterna, maladetta, fredda e greve;
I have come to the third circle of the rain
Eternal, cursed, and cold, and heavy

We must learn to understand the laws of punishment. The Dantean contrappasso is usually translated as talion, but it doesn’t mean ‘an eye for an eye’: it means to suffer the opposite. We saw an example in Hell’s vestibule, where the throngs of the indifferent – those who spent their lives refusing to take sides – are condemned to chase a tattered flag of indiscernible design. That is to say, to subscribe to and be eternally consumed by a meaningless cause.

So now, having come to the third circle – the circle of the gluttons – we may expect the punishment to come in the form of the withdrawal or denial of scrumptious foods that are kept just outside of reach, or for the dwellers to be consumed by a persistent and self-perpetuating hunger. But the sentence is far crueller, and requires a little explanation.

As soon as we get past Cerberus, that is.

In adapting his ancient sources (above all Virgil) and transferring the demons of Hades to the Christian Hell, Dante always degrades them. Stripped of their nobility and majesty, the likes of Charon and Minos are reduced to infernal interns, servants of a master whose design they cannot comprehend. The fearsome three-headed Cerberus of Greek and Latin mythology suffers a similar treatment, while at the same time being rendered a great deal more disquieting by the addition of human features. He has nails, not claws. Hands, not paws. Human faces, not canine muzzles, and bearded too.
Li occhi ha vermigli, la barba unta e atra,
e ’l ventre largo, e unghiate le mani;

Red eyes he has, an unctuous beard and black,
And belly large, and armed with claws his hands.

As imagined by William Blake

The monster graffia li spirti ed iscoia ed isquatra – claws at the damned, flays them and tears them apart. But the rain is a greater torment. The rain that makes them howl like dogs. The rain that lashes them incessantly, causing them to writhe and turn in order to expose one side to the unendurable pain and briefly shield the other.

I say rain, but it’s more of a thick, putrid hail. In an image straight out of a modern horror, the mass of the gluttons lies underneath it in a pool of foetid mud, face upwards, like a carpet of bodies, and it’s with horror that Dante describes walking on those shapes that look like persons. A human mud.

And all this, for the sin of gluttony?

But surely in the Middle Ages the word meant something else, something other. Not a mere carnal indulgence, nor the affectation of being a foodie. Not a sweet tooth, or an insatiable appetite, or a hyper-refined taste, but a particular form of greed that becomes truly sinful when set against the experience that so many of Dante’s contemporaries could draw upon in order to imagine the torments of Hell: hunger.

This is why gluttony is not just sin but a mortal one. In these, the centuries of the Zannis, when a bad crop could decimate entire families, the spectre of hunger, as well as its relentless persistence wherever and whenever it took hold, to not only live comfortably but to hoard food (we’ll meet the otherwise greedy in the next circle) is a crime against human dignity. And so the contrappasso is one of the most humiliating punishments in the whole of Hell.

Giovanni Stradano, 1587

It is here, among the gluttons, that the poets meets Ciacco: a wealthy man of Florence who died after Dante’s birth, and with whom Dante has a conversation about the immediate future of the city. Thus medieval Florence is transported into Hell, its social life superimposed onto that slimy tangle of bodies: the first in a series of irruptions of politics and Dante’s present in the poem. There are more interesting ones, so I’m not going to delve into the details of Ciacco’s prophecy. Suffice to say that his presence here serves also to link the city with the sin.

After the conversation, Ciacco lowers his head. Virgil explains that he won’t raise it again until the angels’ trumpets herald the arrival of the nemica podestà, the powerful one that is hostile to the damned. After the day of judgment, when the spirits have been reunited to the bodies of the dead and the final sentences have been pronounced, all of the tortures suffered in Hell will be felt more keenly, so what Dante is effectively witnessing and describing is a mere semblance or preview of the eventual, true and truly eternal Hell.

A sobering thought to take into the next canto, but not before another cliff-edge ending to remind us that Dante knew how to create expectations as well as any modern screenwriter. Thus, out of nothing:

Venimmo al punto dove si digrada:
quivi trovammo Pluto, il gran nemico.
We came unto the point where the descent is;
There we found Plutus the great enemy.

Previously: Inferno I, II, III, IV, V.

Wednesday, July 26, 2017

On the unbearable closeness of others

Originally published at Overland.

We live in literal times. Far too literal. Hell’s vestibule in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit was supposed to be a metaphorical, metaphysical place. Now we’ve gone and invented it. A virtual space. An enormous room. We share it with throngs of strangers. Hell is other people, and we are other people’s Hell.

I think I have, in general, a good relationship with social media. I value the ways it has helped me stay in touch with friends and family overseas, plug into activist political networks, find an audience for my writing and vastly expand my range of readings. All of these things are important to me.

I also suspect I am more comfortable than most with the other side of the bargain: the demand for continuous presence, both implicit and explicit. The noise of that incessant conversation finding its way into daily routines, competing with the parallel demands of people with whom I am physically close – demands that are no less urgent but altogether more justifiable.

There is, of course, an even darker side: the subtle and not so subtle surveillance imposed on those who depend in any way on state support, or who must project a docile image in order to find work, or who can be fired on a whim. Then there is the vile abuse that speaking one’s mind can attract. Abuse that, for some more than for others, mirrors wider and less novel patterns of discrimination. I am a man, and I am white, so my direct experience of this side is limited. But this also underscores the degree to which this place of places differs depending on one’s viewpoint and circumstances.

The neutral nature of the Net is one of the great ideological illusions of our times. A text is a text is a text: our online communication may be broken down into ones and zeros and then split into data packets which are sent on their separate ways, always reconfiguring itself upon reaching its destination. But where is the end of the line? And who is watching?

Social media networks both embody and exemplify the illusion. We often speak of Facebook or Twitter as if they were recognisable places with fixed coordinates and characteristics. Yet every timeline, every stream, is unique. Two people may only have each other in common. When they talk, feeling like they are sharing the same space, they are in the company of completely different people. The enormous room is not a room at all. It’s more like a funhouse, a maze of mirrors.

Sartre dramatised Hell – that is to say, French society – as the experience of sharing an enclosed space with strangers, for all eternity. The sardonic twist in the play is that the door of Sartre’s small room was never locked, leaving the audience to ponder if the prisoners could have chosen to leave at any time.

Belonging to a social network is, on the face of it, also entirely optional. But then so is owning a telephone. Ask yourself: is it really a field you can leave blank and still hope to find work or have a normal social life?

As long ago as 2012, Time magazine mused, ‘Does Not Having a Facebook Page Make You “Suspicious” to Employers?’ This and other articles like it were in response to reported attitudes of HR departments across the United States. According to Forbes, people who left the networks aroused particular suspicion. What could they possibly have to hide? At around the same time, German magazine Der Taggspiegel noted that not having a Facebook profile was one thing Aurora theatre shooter James Holmes and Norwegian mass murderer Anders Breivik had in common. The two stories quickly intersected, leading to dozens of articles declaring that not being on Facebook makes you unemployable and possibly a psychopath.

Facile hysteria aside, how meaningful is the choice not to be on social media? And what are the costs – both personal and professional – of leaving social networks for those who feel that their returns are steadily diminishing?

Like I said, I’m one of the lucky ones, a reasonably well-adjusted denizen of the networks. Yet even I confess to experiencing those feelings, sometimes. The spurious need for validation. The subtle sense of claustrophobia. Above all, the intolerable and downright unnatural closeness of people. The room is so large. Do I really know the location of the doors? Could I step through them, if I felt I needed to?

This is all so new: never before have humans had the capability to be constantly in contact. It is hubris to think we could possibly be in control. Allowing users to modulate the distance between one another goes directly against the commercial needs of the owners of the networks, which is how we know that the solution won’t come from them. And perhaps there isn’t one, save for looking – somewhere, somehow – for new circuits of solidarity and for new ways to make room for silence.

My colum for the latest issue of Overland, 'On the books I kept', is up now.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Inferno V: Into the unseeing world

We are at the edge of the second circle of Hell, finally stepping into il cieco mondo, the unseeing world. But we are also in a high school classroom in late 1987. It’s winter, and the large rotating windows of the old, early Fascist-era building are kept closed to prevent the heating system from being overwhelmed. The atmosphere inside, where twenty-five kids of the approximate age of sixteen sit at their desks, is stifling. Our teacher starts to introduce the canto.

If you know an Italian of adult age, try to come up behind them and whisper or shout: “Canto Quinto!”. Chances are they will turn around and reply: “Paolo e Francesca!” For the fifth canto of the Divine Comedy is all about them, the murdered lovers, and it has been drilled into students with particular fervour for many generations. Partly because the topic is likely to appeal to the cohort – after all, isn’t it at this age that Dante burned for young Beatrice? – and partly because it’s still early enough in the poem for the attention of students not to have waned, and teachers try to take advantage.

But first, stavvi Minos.

This is how the great Romantic era engraver Gustavo Dorè imagined Minos, the mythical king of Crete who – per the medieval Christian practice of using ancient Pagan bestiaries to populate Satan’s demon army – stands in judgment of the souls that have passed through the river Acheron. Dante explains that he and Virgil have moved to the second circle, which girds a smaller space, but houses much greater pain. Thus, in three lines, he has explained how the Inferno works: namely, as a concentric series of circles, each getting smaller and less populated, but increasing in the severity of the punishment to fit progressively more serious crimes. The fourth line is memorable and menacing:
Stavvi Minòs orribilmente, e ringhia
There stands Minos horribly, and growls
We should all practice standing horribly. But Minos’ function is not merely decorative. Each soul that come before him volunteers the full list of his or her transgressions. Then he, conoscitor delle peccata – a true connoisseur of sin – giudica e manda secondo ch’avvinghia. That is to say, he points them to the right circle by wrapping his tail around himself a corresponding number of times. This is Minos sending some folks into the second circle in Michelangelo’s Buonarroti Last judgment fresco in the Sistine Chapel.

In other words, he’s sending them right here. We are among the lustful che la ragion sommettono al talento – who allow their appetites to prevail over reason – and who are at the mercy of an everlasting wind that di qua, di là, di giù, di sù li mena (‘hither, thither, downward, upward, drives them,’ per Longfellow).

There is the customary catalogue of figures from history and myth. Semiramis, Cleopatra, Dido, Helen of Troy, Tristan (of Tristan and Isolde). Achilles is here, because Dante – who had no direct access to Homer’s Iliad – followed the apocryphal embellishment according to which the hero fell in love with Priam’s daughter Polyxena, a fact that the Trojans exploited to draw him into a fatal ambush. But these arch-famous names are a mere appetiser. The stars of the show are these two.

As drawn by Dorè 
Or if you prefer these two.

As painted by William Dyce, during the Romantic period but in the style of the Renaissance

We say Paolo and Francesca, but by rights it should be Francesca and Paolo, seeing as she’s the one who does all the talking in the canto. They are Francesca da Polenta (aka Francesca da Rimini) and Paolo Malatesta. Francesca was the wife of Paolo’s brother Gianciotto, to whom she had been married to bring peace between the powerful rival families. This true crime story would have been very familiar to contemporary readers, and Dante tells it sparingly, allowing instead Francesca to fill it with psychological detail.
Amor, ch'al cor gentil ratto s'apprende,
prese costui de la bella persona

che mi fu tolta; e 'l modo ancor m'offende.

Amor, ch’a nullo amato amar perdona,

mi prese del costui piacer sì forte,

che, come vedi, ancor non m’abbandona.
These are some of the most famous lines in our literature. In prose: Love, which swiftly seizes the tender hearts, caused him to fall for my fair body, which was taken for me in a manner that still offends me (meaning, probably: that I relive constantly). Love, that exempts no one beloved from loving, filled me with a longing for this man so strong, that as you can see it has not yet abandoned me.

It’s a tale that makes the poet weep, and the modern reader balk. Judged by our standards, there is very little shame in the momentary, almost accidental falling of the two lovers into a trembling kiss while reading together in Francesca’s house. The young Dante had built a career out of putting such stories in verse, minus the bloody ending.
Amor condusse noi ad una morte.
Caina attende chi a vita ci spense.
‘Love led us both to the same death,’ a possible reference to the fact that Gianciotto, having surprised Francesca and Paolo together, reportedly killed them both with a single thrust of his sword. ‘Caina awaits the murderer,’ meaning that Gianciotto – who at the time when the poem is set, the year 1300, was still alive – is destined to take residence in a much lower circle. But it’s a small consolation, and I think it was small even for us, poorly invested teenage students of Dante, who failed to see the justice, or the divine love (which the believers among us were taught about), in the fate of the two lovers.

For the mature Dante, however, there could be no mercy, only sorrow. And of his sorrow, the famous pietas, the canto is full, until finally, all it takes to push him over the edge is the realisation that while Francesca was talking to him, Paolo was quietly weeping. Down goes Dante, again, come corpo morto cade, like a dead man falls.

Back in 1987, the bell rings, calling us to a different task.

Previously: Inferno I, Inferno II, Inferno III, Inferno IV.