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“…The Paradox of Independency…”

September 18, 2015 Leave a comment

In 874 CE a Norwegian chieftain, Ingólfr Arnarson, became the first permanent settler on the island that came to be known as Iceland. Ah, truly an independent man!

One can’t help but think that Gudbjartur of Summerhouses, the dominant character in Halldor Laxness’ Independent People, would have approved of such a state of affairs. As the novel begins, Bjartur has purchased his own piece of land, after working, for eighteen years, for the Bailiff. This is, despite the measly nature of the land and the shabby dwelling upon it, a momentous occasion for him; he is, at last, a free and independent person.

Indeed, Bjartur prizes this independence above all else, so that it becomes almost a mania with him. For example, in the opening chapter there is told the story of the witch Gunnvor, out of which has grown a kind of superstition that one must, when passing her so-called resting place, ‘give her a stone.’ Bjartur, however, refuses, even when his new wife begs him out of a fear of bad luck. He would, it is clear, rather make her unhappy than compromise his principles, than for one moment sacrifice the smallest amount of his freedom [i.e. his freedom to act as he pleases].

Likewise, when she later yearns for some milk, he makes it clear that he will not countenance it because he cannot produce it himself. Bjartur will not ask for anything from anyone else, as he sees this as begging; nor will he accept gifts either.

One might wonder then how one is to approach Bjartur, what one is to make of him, for there are elements of his personality and behaviour that are agreeable and elements that are, in contrast, entirely disagreeable. First of all, we instinctively root for those who strive for freedom; as we do those who live in accordance with their principles, and those who are prepared to work hard. However, his behaviour has disastrous results for his family. Hard work, principles, ideals, freedom, all that is well and good, but if the result is overwhelming misery then one must question whether it is worth it, whether the man who brings down this misery upon his family [if one wants to say that he does – and you do not want to blame economic conditions] is not actually a good person. This, for me, is one of the key questions that the novel raises: just how important are principles?

Are they worth sacrificing your health and happiness for? I must admit that I was never really sure how I felt about Gudbjartur of Summerhouses. He has many admirable qualities, and he is capable of tenderness, but he is equally capable of monstrosities.

 “It was pretty miserable wretches that minded at all whether they were wet or dry. He could not understand why such people had been born. “It’s nothing but damned eccentricity to want to be dry” he would say. “I’ve been wet more than half my life and never been a whit the worse for it.”

It is interesting in light of all this to consider that Laxness was, by all accounts, a Maxist. Indeed, he is said to have visited Russia prior to commencing work on Independent People and was very impressed. Even without this knowledge it is clear that with the novel Laxness was, to some extent, making a political statement. Throughout characters engage in political discussions, pass comment on the governing of the country, and wax philosophical about the status of the working man. Moreover, it is significant that the title is plural; Laxness is clearly not, therefore, only concerned with one resolute man, but, rather, an entire country or class. It is worth noting, in this regard, that from 1262 to 1918, Iceland was ruled by Norway and then Denmark, and that the country itself only became independent in 1918, shortly before the novel was written.

Yet if you accept that Laxness was concerned with an entire class or country, and one considers the Marxist sympathies, then his message seems somewhat obscure [although this may have much to do with my own ignorance]. Marx was himself concerned with labor, production, and the proletariat, all of which obviously play such a big part in the narrative of Independent People. For the German, giving up the ownership of one’s labor is to be alienated from one’s own nature, resulting in a kind of spiritual loss. This seems somewhat in line with how Bjartur is presented, a man who certainly does own his own labor. However, Marx also advocated that the proletariat should have class consciousness, that they ought to organize, and ultimately challenge the prevailing system, which is not at all in keeping with Bjartur’s behaviour and opinions, as he is suspicious of political engagement and, well, men-at-large. For example, when the Bailiff’s son, Ingolfur, broaches the idea of a Co-operative Society for farmers, which would, he claims, prevent exploitation, Bjartur isn’t at all interested.

If Bjartur was intended as some kind of anti-capitalist hero then the book fails, because he is not necessarily against capitalism [he defends the merchant], he is simply against anything, or anyone, he deems to be in some way attempting to deny him freedom or independence. For Bjartur, one can be as ruthless and money-grubbing as one likes as long as you don’t interfere with him. Moreover, this free man, this man who owns his own labor, only ends up exacerbating the suffering of innocent people. As the novel progresses, the reader may legitimately ask if he, or certainly his family, wouldn’t have been better off remaining in the pay of a wealthier employer, if that wouldn’t be a more comfortable and therefore rational way of living. In fact, while one might look to the Bailiff and his wife – who periodically appears in the text in order to make glib and patronizing statements about the working class, about how only poor people are truly happy, and how much she envies them. She contrasts this, of course, with the hard life of being a bourgeois employer, where all your money goes on paying wages and one cannot [the horror!] afford that dress you’ve had your eye on for a while – as the capitalist villains of the piece, the more I thought about it the more I realized that Bjartur himself could be called a capitalist, just not in the way that we tend to understand that term these days.

When someone says capitalist we [or certainly I] tend to imagine someone rich, with at least one thriving business, which is run on the toil of hired workers. Well, Bjartur is categorically not rich; nor does he own a thriving business; and the only workers he has are his own family. Yet his situation is a capitalist model; his farm, although not at all flourishing, is a private enterprise and his families are absolutely exploited as a means of production. The kids, the wife, all are expected to put in extremely long hours, and far from being rewarded commensurate to their efforts are actually given very little to eat, live in wretched circumstances [a small, foul-smelling, leaky hut] and have only rags to wear; indeed, these workers are actually sacrificed in order to protect the business’ assets [i.e. the sheep, which are given preferential treatment]. It is likely that I am wrong about all this, as I am admittedly no expert on Marxism and so on, but It was only when this interpretation came to me that the politics of the novel started to make more sense. Marx wrote about the “despotism of capital,” and that phrase could be seen to sum up this book.

I worry that so far I have made Laxness’ work seem horribly dry and grim and unapproachable. I mean, it is grim, there’s no way of getting around that, but it is not without warmth and humor and beauty either. Bjartur, although a kind of tyrant, is also a funny character, particularly in the opening stages of the novel; and even when things are at their blackest there are still moments of absurd comedy, for example, when Bjartur says, “A free man can live on fish. Independence is better than meat.” Furthermore, there is some fine nature writing which acts as a contrast to the unrelenting drudgery. In fact, Laxness’ prose is what makes the novel bearable. While I dislike throwing the word poetic around, because I think it is often used merely as a way of describing so-called superior or flowery writing, it is apt in this case; the Icelander was, I believe, actually a poet; and, well, it shows.

 “Shortly afterwards it started raining, very innocently at first, but the sky was packed tight with cloud and gradually the drops grew bigger and heavier, until it was autumn’s dismal rain that was falling—rain that seemed to fill the entire world with its leaden beat, rain suggestive in its dreariness of everlasting waterfalls between the planets, rain that thatched the heavens with drabness and brooded oppressively over the whole countryside, like a disease, strong in the power of its flat, unvarying monotony, its smothering heaviness, its cold, unrelenting cruelty.

Smoothly, smoothly it fell, over the whole shire, over the fallen marsh grass, over the troubled lake, the iron-grey gravel flats, the sombre mountain above the croft, smudging out every prospect. And the heavy, hopeless, interminable beat wormed its way into every crevice in the house, lay like a pad of cotton wool over the ears, and embraced everything, both near and far, in its compass, like an unromantic story from life itself that has no rhythm and no crescendo, no climax, but which is nevertheless overwhelming in its scope, terrifying in its significance. And at the bottom of this unfathomed ocean of teeming rain sat the little house and its one neurotic woman.”

Moreover, as with all great novels of some heft, there are certain scenes in Independent People that will likely stay with you long after reading the book. For me, there are two in particular. First of all, there is the chapter when Bjartur leaves his wife Rosa on her own over night with his favorite gimmer [one of the Rev. Gudmundur’s breed, no less!] as company. Rosa, who has been on edge ever since not being allowed to give Gunnvor a stone, sees in the sheep’s frightened bleating some kind of evil omen. Laxness takes this potentially ridiculous set-up and manages to imbue it with a creeping tension and horror, until Rosa finally snaps and executes the gimmer. It is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful descriptions of madness in literature. The other big favorite of mine is when Bjartur goes in search of the sheep, for he doesn’t know it is dead, and spots a group of reindeer. He decides, being a strong-willed independent man, that he is going to capture the buck for meat. This is no easy feat, of course. During the struggle he climbs upon its back and the buck takes him into the river Glacier in an effort to throw him.

When I read another of Laxness’ most well-known works, World Light, last year I felt as though the characters lacked depth; it struck me that they had a signature mood or quirk, and that is all. As I reread Independent People I was starting to get the same feeling about Bjartur; yes, he has mania for independence and freedom…I get all that, I enjoy it, but one reaches a stage where this point has been hammered home so frequently in the first one hundred pages that you start to worry about another four hundred of it.

What sets this book apart from World Light, and many other lesser novels, is that Laxness knew when to change it up. So when Bjartur’s one-man-show [he has a wife, of course, but she’s only really there for him to harangue about independence] starts to creak a bit, when it’s becoming repetitive, the author introduces a number of interesting new characters. In a way, one could criticize this move, for it is so abrupt, but providing Bjartur with a new wife, mother-in-law, and children gives the book fresh impetus. Moreover, this family is more finely crafted, have a greater emotional range and a more sophisticated inner life; this is particularly true of the children, Nonni and Asta, who are wonderful creations.

I’ve never been one for child worship, for finding a child’s misfortune worse than any other; I find that attitude quite odd, in fact; but Asta, Bjartur’s daughter from his first marriage, ruined me. She was born in extraordinary circumstances, tragic circumstances, and her life at Summerhouses proceeds in a manner no less tragic. There are numerous books that have moved me, many that have needled my personal sore spots [which this one does too, actually – anything to do with poverty tends to affect me emotionally], but this, as far I can remember, is the only book ever to make me cry, to provoke a tear into dribbling miserably down my cheek. And it is all Asta’s fault.

I’m not even sure why she got to me so much; she’s a sensitive, trusting slip of a girl, who, in her naivety or innocence, wants so little [her joy at being given an old worn dress of her mother’s all but finished me off], but, crucially, unlike her father, she does want; she is inquisitive, eager to learn. Maybe it is that: desiring such meager or basic things, and being denied them. Or perhaps it is simply that having been brought up by a struggling single mother I just can’t bear to see women unhappy. I don’t know.

It is worth noting, in conclusion, that, after all the exhausting and frequently oppressive bleakness, there is, towards the end, a tiny shaft of light, a few whispered comforting words that suggest that love, at least, will endure. Ah, hold onto those words; store them in your heart, because a little hope, even blind hope, is the most precious thing of all.

“…Once upon a time in Kolyma…”

September 18, 2015 Leave a comment

The idea of an ‘irrational attachment to life,’ means that no matter how awful, how painful and degrading existence is one cannot forsake it. Not only that but, with a miser’s spirit, one actively clings to it. Of course it is not true of all – otherwise there would never be any suicide – but it is certainly true of many, including me.

Why do some of us cling to life, no matter how awful that life may be? You could argue that it is the masochistic impulse. I believe in that, certainly. I think we have both a sadistic and masochistic impulse [one of which may be more pronounced in some], and that these influence many of our behaviors. I’m not convinced, however, that the masochistic impulse is responsible in this case, because an attachment to life in awful circumstances need not involve actively seeking out those circumstances [which would be necessary for me to consider it masochistic]. I think the desire to stay alive is a more basic, primordial impulse. It’s an extraordinary thing, although It’s not necessarily admirable.

Varlam Shalamov spent, in total, seventeen years in prison and labor camps or Gulags. After his final release he commenced work upon a collection of short stories that dealt with camp and prison life. This collection came to be called Kolyma Tales. Kolyma is the name of the region where the camp was located in which the author served ten years. As this book, and others, attest life in the Russian labour camps was extraordinarily grim, with arctic conditions, beatings, scurvy, meager rations, and near-unendurable work being the norm; the prisons weren’t much better.

“We have to squeeze everything out of a prisoner in the first three months — after that we don’t need him anymore.” – Naftaly Frenkel, Camp commander [from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago].

If there is a philosophical idea behind Shalamov’s work it is what I wrote about in the opening paragraphs. Most of his characters are survivors, as was the man himself, even though the desire to survive seems absurd. Another day of this? Of starvation, misery, exhaustion? Yes. Because what else is there but another day?

On numerous occasions the author is at pains to impress upon the reader that suffering, true suffering does not engender camaraderie or ennoble the spirit. The consequence of life in the camps is that the prisoners become animalistic, their engagement with life is reduced to that of instinct. In many of his stories the most important thing to the characters is to get warm, or attempt to; many also steal from the dead in order to give themselves a better chance of survival. However, it is, once again, important to point out that for Shalamov this survival is absolutely not heroic, it just is. This is emphasized by the author’s dispassionate or matter-of-fact style. It is a style that is reminiscent of Imre Kertesz’s Fatelessness, yet lacks the Hungarian’s subtle irony. Shalamov plays it straight, without the hint of an upraised eyebrow.

I do not want to give the impression, however, that the Russian’s stories are thinly disguised autobiography, or that they are essentially a form of documentary or reportage. To see them in this way does the writer a huge disservice. What was most impressive, for me, aside from the incredible consistency, was the literary quality of each of Shalamov’s short tales. The structure and pacing, for example, are immaculate. There is one story, In the Night, in which two men set out along a path leading to a pile of rocks. One thinks, of course, that they have been put to work, especially when they start to move the rocks. Yet the conclusion of the story reveals that what they are actually doing is digging up a deceased comrade, in order to steal his clothes. There is no unnecessary exposition, no melodrama, just a great deal of control and a sharp, quick punch in the guts at the end. In the Night is one of the earliest stories in the collection, and I knew after reading it that Shalamov was a master of the form.

In the very best short stories there is a world both inside and outside of the narrative. This is true also of Shalamov’s work. Take In the Night again where there is the actual narrated action, but also a host of unanswered questions about who the dead man is, how he died, who the two men digging him up are, how they came to be incarcerated, and so on. In this way I was reminded strongly of Raymond Carver, whose snapshots are similarly restrained and yet suggestive of a more detailed narrative that is ultimately left to your imagination. Also like Carver, and Chekhov too, Shalamov is essentially apolitical and totally non-judgemental. For Carver and Chekhov that would have would been, one imagines, an easier feat than for this writer, whose tales all deal with people arrested [often on trumped up charges] under Stalin’s government. This refusal to fully engage with politics, the distance Shalamov maintains from the political climate of the time, serves to emphasize just how isolated, how cut off, his characters are from the outside world.

Shalamov does, however, make frequent references to literature. In certain stories he writes about Pushkin and Chekhov; in others he mentions a deck of playing cards that are made out of a Victor Hugo novel and discusses how inmates who can retell well-known or published stories are called novelists. More interestingly, some of the prisoners are named after famous Russian characters, such as Tolstoy’s Vronsky; and Andrei Platonov, a real life figure, and fellow writer, also makes an appearance, even though we know, of course, that he never served time in a prison. Russian writers, it has always struck me, are the most self-referential, but Shalamov, I imagine, wasn’t merely giving shout-outs. If you take Platonov as an example, he himself was a controversial figure, who Stalin apparently disliked, and so one might argue that he could easily, on this basis, have ended up in a camp, which were full of intellectuals anyway. I think in using Platonov and Vronsky and so on, he is saying that this could literally happen to anyone, that anyone, no matter what their status is, could find themselves in this horrific situation. Furthermore, by populating his tales with well-known Russians, in pointing to the country’s golden past or literary heritage, one might argue that Shalamov, whether intentionally or not, is subtly saying: look how we have come from that to this.

I’d like to have my arms and legs cut off and become a human stump – no arms or legs. Then I’d be strong enough to spit in their faces for everything they’re doing to us.

Redefine the Dialectic of Stupidity

September 18, 2015 Leave a comment

In the aftermath of the attacks, free speech, or freedom of expression, has become the focus and, well, that doesn’t sit right with me. Who actually believes in freedom of expression? I mean, really? No one. Everyone waving that flag recently is doing so in full knowledge of the fact that our so-called enlightened and free societies stifle free speech and freedom of expression on a regular basis. Just recently, in fact, a British comedian was sacked, on the basis of public outcry, for saying things that were deemed offensive and controversial. I’ve seen people going after songs, books, political groups, etc. Freedom of expression? You must be joking. Almost all this recent up swell of interest in it amounts to is ‘look at me, look how free and liberal I am! Please follow my twitter! Or share my meme! Or ‘like’ my comment or picture or blog post!’

And what about those world leaders? I reserve a special kind of disdain for them. There’s not a government in the world that values free speech. Not one. No exceptions. They all manage and manipulate information for their own ends. And all that blather about peace? Peace? The two-facedness is extraordinary. How many of those world leaders have sanctioned a war, how many have been apologists for massacres and atrocities? The Palestinian and Israeli leaders were both at this peace rally….just let that sink in. But it’s not just them, not at all. There were a whole bunch of war-mongering, morally dubious people in attendance. All this tragedy is, all any tragedy is, to these people is a photo-opportunity.

Anyway, that is how I see the world. This is only one example, there are millions; it doesn’t have to be something so extreme or overtly political, it is simply a fact, for me, that the world is full of self-serving, mean-spirited and grasping people. Into this world, into exactly this kind of world, walks Dostoevsky’s Prince Myshkin. Myshkin is the idiot of the title. That title has a three-fold significance; if refers, first of all, to his illness. Myshkin has fits, which many of the characters believe may have left him mentally impaired; even the man himself admits it may once have been the case. It also has a slangy meaning, i.e. it indicates someone who is stupid, a fool. Certainly Myshkin is described as being just that numerous times throughout the text; it is, in fact, one of the first things that Nastasya, the principle female character, says to him. Finally, the title is ironic, because the Prince is far from stupid; he is perceptive and sensitive and intelligent. It is actually many of the novel’s other characters who are idiots.

As far as critical and popular opinion is concerned Dostoevsky wrote four major novels. Of these four I think it is fair to say that The Idiot causes the most consternation, that it is viewed as being the least successful. Indeed, it is well known that Dostoevsky struggled to complete his novel to his own satisfaction. His struggles were not merely artistic ones; apparently he was gambling heavily, was in a lot of debt, and so rushed to get the work out there. This perhaps explains why there is a marked difference between Part One and the rest of the book.

The character of the Prince is, to my mind, only superficially the same character across the two parts. In Part One he is a meek and shy and a somewhat otherworldly or ghostly figure; in part two [by which I mean everything after Part One] he still displays those traits, but is more of a [real] man; he has a greater emotional range, is, for example, more irritable and negative. Furthermore, the style also changes. Part One is episodic; it is psychologically shallow. Dostoevsky was influenced by Don Quixote and Pickwick Papers and that influence is clear in the first section of the book. Yet in part two suddenly characters do begin to reflect, the prince especially. In part two, one finds oneself in what you might call a more recognisably Dostoevskian novel.

This may give the impression that I consider part two to be superior, but actually the opposite is the case. Indeed, I would argue that the first part of the book, which is roughly 200 pages in length, is very strong; almost as strong, in fact, as anything Dostoevsky wrote. Furthermore, while it is true that all of his major novels include memorable scenes and passages, that in Part One of The Idiot are his most moving for me personally. These include the two discussions Myshkin has about capital punishment; the story of the children and poor Marie; the general and the lady with the lap-dog [which is also funny]; the opening scene on the train with Rogozhin; the night of Nastasya’s birthday party, when the guests play a game of telling each other the worst thing they have ever done. I think about these scenes often; almost every day one of them will be on my mind.

“To kill for murder is a punishment incomparably worse than the crime itself. Murder by legal sentence is immeasurably more terrible than murder by brigands. Anyone murdered by brigands, whose throat is cut at night in a wood, or something of that sort, must surely hope to escape till the very last minute. There have been instances when a man has still hoped for escape, running or begging for mercy after his throat was cut. But in the other case all that last hope, which makes dying ten times as easy, is taken away for certain. There is the sentence, and the whole awful torture lies in the fact that there is certainly no escape, and there is no torture in the world more terrible.”

While I loved Part One, and felt conflicted to say the very least about the rest, it would be shortsighted to divide the book in two and praise one half and criticize the other. Unfortunately, although the quality and enjoyment does noticeably drop off after the excellent opening section, some of the problems that dog The Idiot do so throughout. In a previous paragraph I mentioned that it houses some of his finest scenes or set pieces, but it is also the case that it includes some of his most ridiculous – Nastasya throwing the 100,000 rubles into the fire, and going off with Rogozhin mere seconds after agreeing to marry Myshkin, for example.

The book at times resembles a farce. The behavior of some of the characters is just so wild and unpredictable, especially the women, that one struggles to take them seriously. It is not that one doesn’t understand why they do what they do, it is simply that they flip from one extreme to another without going through, without having the time to go through, the necessary introspection; characters simply behave, rather than react or evolve. There is nothing organic about their moods and behaviors; it’s like watching a firework that someone has set off in a confined space. Maybe that is intentional; I did consider whether The Idiot is actually meant to be a farce, a comedy, but, although I do think Dostoevsky is funnier than people give him credit for, to imagine him as a comic writer seems a stretch too far.

It is worth pointing out that The Idiot is very talky, to use a vulgar phrase. That may bother some readers, those who prefer action of course, but it wasn’t too much of a problem for me, in and of itself. More of an issue is the nature of these conversations. Dostoevsky’s dialogue is always improbable, but here it can be infuriatingly so. For example, at least four times during the opening of the novel someone says to Myshkin something like ‘I don’t know why but I like you.’ Dostoevsky was not the most subtle writer, so you expect this kind of thing to a certain extent, you expect to have everything fed to you, but multiple characters repeating the same phrase, thereby making the same point, which is that people find themselves inexplicably drawn towards Myshkin, so many times is a bit much. It’s as though Dostoevsky didn’t know how his characters ought to interact with Myshkin. They all do so awkwardly, signifying the author’s own awkwardness in relation to the Prince.

Furthermore, some of the conversations are so tedious as to be almost unreadable, for me at least. For example, after an attack Myshkin is recuperating and is visited by most of the main players from Part One. At one point he is also visited by some characters we haven’t met before, but who obviously know the prince. There then follows one of the most interminable, and I would argue absolutely pointless, conversations in any book I’ve ever read. I don’t like giving away plot developments but I think it is necessary to illustrate what I mean. One of the characters, Burdovsky, accuses Myshkin of having, in a sense, swindled him out of money. Myshkin, it is asserted, was given free treatment in Switzerland by the boy’s father, and so ought to reimburse him a significant sum of money. Myshkin is about to agree when Gavrila, who has been investigating [completely unknown to the reader – in fact the whole story was completely unknown to the reader until this point] announces that the boy is mistaken and that the man who treated the Prince isn’t his father. Lizaveta then jumps in and lambasts the boy and the Prince, who admits, during her interrogation, that he will, the next day, give the boy the money anyway. So, Dostoevsky introduces a story line and characters that we were previously unaware of, has them go through the entire episode in dialogue, and the outcome is that the boy was mistaken about his father anyway! Eh? Why bother then? Even if you were to ignore the anti-climatic ending, it’s still not an exciting little story; it’s simply dreary writing.

Unfortunately, Dostoevsky does this kind of thing numerous times in the book; new story lines drop out of the air like bird shit, with no foreshadowing at all, no sense of development, no hint, no clue; it’s just boom, now the Prince is rich [this does actually happen]. The upshot of this is that you read The Idiot knowing that absolutely anything could happen; and that this anything needn’t make any sense in relation to the current action. The Prince could have two wives…here they are, they’ve just turned up in Petersburg….the Prince could have a crime-fighting dog…he just forgot to mention it till p.450…he also was once the king of Siam…and a ninja…he has the philosopher’s stone in his pocket…look, there it is, let’s have a forty-page conversation about it!

All of this will, I imagine, put some of you off reading the book, but that isn’t my intention. Many people love The Idiot, either unreservedly or with the ability to overlook its flaws, so perhaps I am in a minority. In any case, it is still an important work, and one that, more significantly, is occasionally as beautiful and profound as its author hoped it would be.

Re-Posting Jurnal Efficient Frontier

September 10, 2015 Leave a comment
Categories: Art, WORKING PAPERS

REVOLT IN PARADISE (1960)

January 13, 2012 Leave a comment

  • Published on: 1989-12-30
  • Released on: 1989-12-30
  • Original language: English
  • Binding: Paperback
  • 320 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780517573730
  • Author: K’TUT TANTRI
  • Publisher: HARPER & BROTHERS
  • Language: English

Here is the stunning account of K’tut Tantri’s life in Java as a young artist and later as a resistance fighter for Indonesian independence. 8-page black-and-white photo insert.

Most Helpful Reviews

Very Interesting
By LadyCaterina1121

Very good book. Tells a fascinating story about the author’s life in Indonesia. Brave lady who was willing to risk everything for all she believed in.Vivid picture of Bali and the situation there, and the people and culture.

A Great Read
By murni@murnis.com
Revolt in Paradise is a classic and it is good to see it in print again after a long absence. It is rather hard to classify this book: maybe autobiography, perhaps historical novel, possibly adventure story. On the face of it, it purports to be autobiographical: the story of a British-born American woman’s fifteen years in Indonesia in the 1930s and 1940s. Doubt has been cast on its accuracy and indeed the author beings the book by saying, `It is always difficult to be completely honest about oneself’. This does not matter. It’s a great story.

 The story is divided into three parts. The first part tells of her time in Bali. In 1932 in Hollywood she saw the film Bali,The Last Paradise and shortly after set sail from New York on a cargo ship. She was an artist and made for Bali immediately after arriving in Java. Like all visitors at that time she stayed in the Dutch owned Bali Hotel in Denpasar. She felt, however, that this was not Bali but Holland, part of the colonial masters’ country, and determined to leave as quickly as possible and live in a Balinese village. Such a thing was unheard of in those days but she hated the Dutch attitudes. She took off in her car, driving herself, and decided to stop when she ran out of petrol. The car happened to halt outside a Rajah’s palace and although she does not mention it I have it on good authority that it was the palace of Bangli.

She was accepted as one of the family and given a Balinese name – K’tut Tantri. K’tut is the fourth-born child – the Rajah already had three. In this section she describes what it was like to live with a royal family. She describes the various ceremonies she attended and trips she took. She also tells of run-ins and arguments with the Dutch authorities. They did not approve and schemed to deport her, but never succeeded. Her analysis is not terribly profound – the Balinese are all wonderful and the Dutch are all terrible. She herself is heroic and brilliant at all things. She formed a very close relationship with the Rajah’s son Agung Nura. My informant tells me that she formed an even closer relationship with the Rajah himself. Agung Nura was active in the independence movement, which K’tut Tanri later joined.

She found palace life a bit restrictive and unrepresentative of real Bali life and moved out and as she put it, `bought practically the whole of Kuta beach’. Here she put up a hotel in partnership with some Americans. This is a delightful section of the book despite the fact that she fell out with the Americans. The accounts of her relationships with her staff are endearing and clearly affectionate. The first hotel in Kuta seems to have been very popular. It was not a financial success, however, and she ran into difficulties with the Dutch authorities. Europe was at war. Germany invaded Holland and Japan invaded Indonesia – they landed in Bali first. The Dutch did not fire a shot in defence and fled to Java. It was no longer safe. K’tut Tantri left for Surabaya in East Java. The hotel was demolished by looters permitted by the Japanese.

The second section of the book recounts her time in Japanese occupied Java. The Dutch quickly surrendered. She was able to negotiate travel passes with the Japanese and helped the underground resistance movement against the Japanese. She narrates stories of arms smuggling and tales of derring-do. K’tut Tanti always plays a starring role. Finally she was caught and imprisoned for more than two years until almost the end of the war. She was tortured and the descriptions are quite harrowing.

The third and final section of the book describes the long independence struggle and her part in it. After the war the Dutch wanted to come back to Indonesia as overlords. The English helped them and bombed Surabaya, which was unarmed and did not have air-raid shelters, for three consecutive days. The blood of hundreds was shed. Women and children died. It was a turning point for K’tut Tantri and she determined to help the Indonesians again. She broadcast twice nightly in English from secret radio stations run by the guerillas. By this means she brought the struggle to the attention of the World and became known herself as Surabaya Sue. She also helped spread the word in an English language magazine called The Voice of Free Indonesia. She met and wrote a speech for President Sukarno. There were more cloak and dagger escapades until she went to Australia and toured the main cities publicizing Indonesia’s case for freedom. Finally six years after the War ended World opinion forced the Dutch to grant Indonesia her independence.

The book ends there; K’tut Tanti drifts back to New York. After all the excitement it is rather an anti-climax and the reader is left dangling wanting to know more. Whether or not it is all true, it’s a jolly good read.
Murni
Ubud, Bali

worth reading

By M. Gupta

As a fan of historical fiction, I was greatly pleased to come across this book of historical…history? *grin* This autobiography is well written and compelling. Having lived in Indonesia for a number of years (and having visited Bali), I found it really fascinating. I think anyone would enjoy it, though. It’s a great way to familiarize yourself with world history.

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‘NEVER FALL INTO SILENCE’

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Rock Artists’ Politically Persuasive Messages

Ari Häkkinen

This thesis looked at rock artists’ politically persuasive messages focusing on artists’ verbal messages. In the study the theoretical understanding of persuasion was applied to the context of rock music. Taking persuasion as the starting point offers new perspectives to studying the politics of popular culture and rock music next to the more prevalent sociological approaches. The goal of this thesis was to show how the theoretical knowledge of persuasion could help in understanding rock artists’ political persuasion, but also to show how the context of rock music could offer new perspectives to studying persuasion. Real-life examples of political persuasion in rock music were provided next to the theoretical discussion. The thesis also outlined how rock music functions as an apt context for persuasion. Interactive and non interactive persuasion, as well as interpersonal and mass media persuasion, have often been set apart in persuasion research. The present study shows, however, that rock artists’ political persuasion is both non interactive mass-mediated persuasion and interactive interpersonal persuasion. Artists can persuade, for instance, through messages in lyrics, in album art works, or in various promotional material reaching millions of persuades simultaneously. Individual listeners of artists can feel, nonetheless, that artists are communicating personally with them even among the millions of listeners. Although artists’ persuasion can be paralleled with the classic rhetorical view of one-to-many persuasion, contemporary technologies have provided many ways for more interactive relationship between artists and their persuades. Knowledge of one’s persuades as a means to successful persuasion has also been taken up in persuasion research. Artists’ persuades can belong to an in-group or an out-group as fans and listeners, or to an in-group or an out-group of the cause of persuasion. This is yet another factor effecting persuasion n in the context of rock music. Furthermore, as part of popular culture, rock music provides the artists with channels galore for persuasion. These channels can be used for campaign-like persuasion. Persuasive campaigns aim for a more lasting state of being persuaded where the persuades also become persuaders. For instance, using artists’ merchandise with persuasive messages, the persuades become persuaders themselves.

Keywords: Persuasion, political communication, political persuasion, popular culture, rock music, speech communication.

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Living the Punk Lifestyle in Jakarta

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Wallach, Jeremy. “Living the Punk Lifestyle in Jakarta.”  Ethnomusicology 52(1): 97-115, 2008. Winner of the 2009 Richard Waterman Junior Scholar Prize.

The story of punks in Jakarta provides one illustration of how Western- derived musics have become a fundamental component of generational identity for youth around the world. It is evident that cultural globalization has not resulted in a decontextualized, semiological free-for-all but instead is a process entangled with real purposes, real social agents, and real life. We must point out the limitations of non-ethnographic approaches to the interpretation of this phenomenon, for all meaning is situational and dependent on a limited set of interpretants characteristic of a particular interpretive community. Moreover, “… an interpretant can only be grounded or justified in relation to some goal of interpretation” (Short 1982:285; see also Short 2007:10$-12,172-4). In other words, the interpretation of punk music by Jakarta punks (for instance) is pur’poseful, in this case motivated (I would argue) by their desire to connect specific musical forms with their everyday social experience. But even ethnographers must be careful to avoid oversimplifying the diversity of purposeful relationships between the signs, objects, and interpretants they encounter. Music is powerful because different people invest it with complex meanings at different times, and through its non-arbitrary, sensible features music can amplify those meanings and make them palpably present and experientially true.

The real question, then, from an ethnomusicological perspective is not how Indonesian punk is distinctively Indonesian but rather how punk music and style operate within an Indonesian national youth culture where it is one n~usical genre alternative among many for social agents struggling to find meaning, community, and self-expression in a complicated, globalized, post-authoritarian reality (see Wallach forthcoming).

For Indonesian punks, the forms thenlselves, by virtue of their physical stability, articulate a coherent subject position. Furthermore, in addition to possible interpretants such as the opposition to Soeharto, the continuing social injustice and inequality of Indonesian society, and the cultural impact of globalizing processes, Indonesian punk’s social infrastructure is itself a powerful interpretant. Punk music provides a social gathering place for alienated youth, and in many working-class Jakarta neighborhoods it constitutes a viable alternative to the grim choice young men face between religious fundamentalism on the one hand, and gang membership and criminality on the other. And for many of punk’s adherents, the fact that the fundamental stylistic features of punk music and fashion are thought to be unchanged since the dawn of the movement only adds to their potency.

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