Friday, September 19, 2014

A GPS app for the afterlife

Companies like Apple and Google are busy using Global Positioning Systems technology to map and explore the twenty-first century world. Thanks to their drone-mounted cameras and pedantic computer programmers, we can now locate all manner of useful and useless places and services. There are GPS applications that can lead us to the nearest restaurant or taxi or active volcano. We can click a few buttons and take a virtual tour of the world's hairdressing salons or casinos.

But no company is offering a guide to the destination that fascinates and troubles billions of humans: the afterlife. Google and Apple can help us navigate this world, but if we want information about the next world we have to turn to the visions of prophets and the speculations of philosophers.

Two and a half millennia ago, members of the ambitious, fissiparous religious movement known as Orphism began to write poems on pieces of gold foil and placed them in the mouths or hands of deceased fellow believers. These 'gold leaves', as they have become known amongst scholars, were intended as navigational aids for the world beyond the grave.

The Orphists both believed in and abhorred recincarnation. The soul was immortal, they proclaimed, but existed only reluctantly inside the gross vessel of the body. While it lingered in this world, the soul could not be liberated from the body. A campaign of attrition, though, could be waged against the oppression of flesh. Many Orphists scorned wine, and rationed food and copulation.

The writers of the gold leaves revered characters like Orpheus, Persephone, and Dionysus, who had visited the Greek underworld and returned. They believed that, if the soul could be woken during the interval between the death of one of its bodies and the birth of another, and could remember its past incarnations, then it could escape further terms of imprisonment in the flesh, and proceed to the island paradise the Greeks called Elysium.

A poem written on a series of gold leaves explains that two pools can be found in the afterworld. One of these pools is called Lethe; its waters inflict forgetfulness on any soul that imbibes them. The other pool is called Mnemosyne, or Memory, and will remind drinkers of their past lives. The soul is urged to recite the following lines:

I am a son of Earth and starry sky. I am
parched with thirst and dying; but quickly
grant the cold water from the
Lake of Memory to drink. 

Shakespeare called death an 'undiscover'd country from which no traveller returns', and it is the impossibility of testing any description of the afterlife which has both emboldened and enfeebled the prophets and poets of religion. The imagination might be excited by notions of heaven or hell or purgatory, but imagination requires reality as a raw material, and so inevitably turns to our own world for inspiration when it considers the next. Mohammed's heaven was a desert oasis; Blake's hell was the London of gin alleys and workhouses.

The gold leaves of Orphism are intended to describe the world to come, but their imagery derives, inevitably, from the ancient Mediterranean. The afterworld has cypresses, and fountains, and pools of cool water.

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as archaeologists transformed graverobbing from a furtive nocturnal crime to a pedantic science practiced in light of day, gold leaves began to preserved and studied. Until recently, though, the leaves received relatively little attention from scholars of ancient poetry, and were hard to obtain in English translation. Beside the epics of Homer or Virgil or the dialogues of Plato, these relics of an extinct cult perhaps seemed insubstantial and eccentric.

For many years Ted Jenner, the New Zealand classicist and poet, has been translating and studying the death-poems of Oprhism: on October the ninth, at Shakespeare Hotel in downtown Auckland, Atuanui Press will launch Ted's book The Gold Leaves.*
A connoisseur of fragments, Jenner has previously written about the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, whose work survives only in the quotations of later thinkers, and Sappho, whose love poems were used to wrap mummies and coffins, and have been recovered only partially by archaeologists.

When Brett Cross, the proprietor of Atunui Press and its sister imprint, Titus Books, showed me an advance copy of The Gold Leaves, I noticed how Jenner's translations of the short and incomplete Orphic poems sat between his lengthy introduction and annotations like islands in a sea of prose. Jenner has been determined to describe the origins and career of Orphism, and to catalogue and explicate the symbols that the cult's poets pressed into gold.

Jenner has the same dissatisfaction with quotidian reality, the same longing for some sort of transcendence, as the Orphists. For him, though, it is the world of the past, not any supernatural realm, that is sacred. Jenner has introduced and annotated the Gold Leaves with such thoroughness not because he is a pedant, or some sort of latter-day convert to Orphism, but because he wants to resurrect, through the miracle of scholarship, the mental and physical landscapes in which the Orphists lived and died.

And yet, as Jenner himself repeatedly acknowledges, the Orphic world can never be thoroughly recreated out of fragmentary texts written thousands of years ago. Jenner warns us that even the term Orphism must be considered something 'fluid' rather than fixed. The men and women we call Orphists lived in a world where competing cults borrowed doctrines and rituals, many of them lost to the historical record, from one another.

Like the Orphists' claims about the afterlife, some of Jenner's interpretations of the gold leaves must remain speculative.

Although Jenner is preoccupied with history, and works with the fusty technologies of humanities scholars, like footnotes and bibliographies, his fascination with the gold leaves is arguably related to a very modern longing.

In his new book Off the Map, Alastair Bonnett argues that the thoroughness and efficiency of digital mapping are troubling rather than enthusing many of us. Bonnett notes that some digital maps and mapping programmes are being vandalised by mischievous users, so that images of sea monsters or fabulous ruins disrupt gridded, colour-coded depictions of twenty-first century cities and seas. Hyper-literalism stimulates rather than represses our imaginations.

Precisely because of their fragmentary and speculative nature, the maps of the afterlife created by the Orphists can excite us in ways that the products Google never will.

*Titus will also be launching Murray Edmond's very fine book Then It Was Now Again: Selected Critical Writing on October the 9th. I'll post the flyer for the event here as soon as Brett Cross sends it through in a format blogger can digest.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Peter Gutteridge in the Ureweras

Peter Gutteridge died yesterday morning. When I read the news, I remembered listening to this track bleed out of the tiny speakers of a cheap bopblaster in a cheap car sliding and skidding through the gravel roads of the Ureweras.

Our car's stereo had long since lost its voice, so we'd bought the bopblaster in Wairoa, and loaded it with the first EP by Snapper, the obsessively noisy band Gutteridge formed after tiring of the overly decorous music that had become associated with his native Dunedin.

As the journey through the mountains to Rotorua went on, I became convinced that Snapper's layers of corrugated feedback had become as essential to our progress as the engine and wheels of our little car. I played their cassette over and over.

In this fascinating article Aussie Wes Holland describes a journey to Dunedin in search of Gutteridge.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Seven Tongan words

Tongan Language Week ran from the first until the seventh of this month and was marked by several interesting events, including the opening of a retrospective exhibition by Filipe Tohi, retrofuturist sculptor and tireless kava bowl raconteur, at the Mangere Arts Centre, and the singing of a Tongan version of Niu Sila's national anthem,

I missed all of the week's events, and that is perhaps appropriate, because I am the world's worst student of Tongan.

Instead of using the year I recently spent in the Friendly Islands to nail the grammar and syntax of the language, I relied upon the superb English skills of Nuku'alofans, including my students at the 'Atenisi Institute. When I made visits to villages distant from Tonga's bilingual capital city, I abused the pity of colleagues and friends like Taniela Vao, 'Opeti Taliai, and Lose Helu, by letting them translate for me. (Sorry, folks: if I make it back to the kingdom in 2015 then I pledge to do a lot better.)

Although I can't put together a Tongan sentence, I love to learn, pronounce, and listen to individual words, in the same way that a child loves to peel pretty shells off a beach and hold them to an ear. These are my seven favourite Tongan words.

Kisikisi, meaning helicopter

I learned this word after my son became preoccupied with a small plastic chopper he had bought from one of the two pa'anga shops Chinese immigrants have opened in Nuku'alofa. Until I discovered that 'kisikisi' also meant 'dragonfly' I wondered whether the word was onomatopoetic.

Peka, meaning flying fox

A short word that is somehow able to contain the long, slow dive of a pair of outstretched black wings from an ironwood tree through a dusk sky.

Va va vaka, meaning spaceship

A couple of six year-olds taught me this word - I'm going to count it as a single word - as we took time out from a late night game of touch rugby, stood on the swampy edge of the 'Atenisi campus, looked up, and tried to differentiate the breathless twinkling of stars, the slow red pulse of Mars, and the stolid glow of satellites. I hope this really is the Tongan word of spaceship, and those kids weren't fooling me. It wouldn't have been the first time.

Mongamonga, meaning cockroach

The enormous, almost fearless roaches of the Friendly Islands make their Kiwi relations look like feeble, underfed things that deserve nurturing rather than crushing. I was fascinated by the contrast between the soft, gorgeous sound 'mongmonga' makes and the awful creature it denotes.

Fakapikopiko, meaning idleness

Another contradiction between sound and sense. Despite the word's meaning it feels, to me at least, violently busy. When I pronounce it, I feel plosives popping in my mouth, and send those short vowels flying like watermelon pips.
Heliaki, meaning double or hidden meaning

Heliaki is a word used to describe, or perhaps merely gesture towards, the ambiguities that inhabit many Tongan songs, poems, and orations. A metaphor or slogan that might seem straightforward can become, under the terms of heliaki, mysterious or unstable. In her great essay 'Wry Comment from the Outback: songs of protest from the Niua Islands', Wendy Pond showed how the apparently reverential songs and poems that greeted Tonga's king when he visited the distant northern part of his domain concealed, thanks to the magic of heliaki, satire and invective.

Aloo! meaning go away!

This invaluable word was a refrain during my many conversations with Nuku'alofa's dogs.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Monday, September 08, 2014

Olaf Nelson, Kim Dotcom, and other tricky comparisons

In his superbly grumpy essay 'The Peculiarities of the English' EP Thompson complained about historians who judged events in Albion according to how closely they resembled events in other, more fashionable countries, like France and the Soviet Union. 

Thompson's essay was prompted by a couple of young and cheeky Marxists, who had pointed out that England had never experienced the sort of revolutions that upended French society in 1788 and Russian society in 1917, and had argued that it was therefore a backward place more or less devoid of a tradition of radical thought and action. 

Thompson insisted that England had its own, distinctive revolutionary history, which can't be understood through the prism of Russian or French reality. After rubbing his rivals' noses in events like the English Civil War and movements like Chartism, though, the great historian suddenly pulled up and acknowledged, near the end of his essay, that it wouldn't do to imagine that the history of every society was unique. Comparisons between different societies, events, and people were, Thompson hurriedly admitted, essential: the trick was to find a balance between acknowledging the individuality of a society or event or person and finding illuminating parallels for them. 

If the mighty EP Thompson struggled with the art of comparisons, then I probably have little hope of placating the anonymous reader of this blog who complained about the link I made a couple of months ago between Olaf Nelson and Kim Dotcom

Olaf Nelson was a part-European businessman who grew rich under the protection of the administrators of the German colony of Western Samoa. After 1914, though, when New Zealand invaded and annexed Western Samoa and began to crack down on the Nelson family business, Olaf became a sincere, relentless, and crafty activist for Samoan independence, and a critic of colonialism in general. 

My blog post suggested that Dotcom had undergone the same sort of radicalisation as Nelson, after being persecuted by the New Zealand state. By mating up with Hone Harawira and Annette Sykes Dotcom had become, like Nelson before him, an ally of an indigenous people calling for the decolonisation of their country. 

Here's the dialogue I had with my critic, after he or she showed up at the end of last month. 

Anon

Your article lacks fact regarding OF Nelson. His father was Swedish not Scandinavian. Secondly, Nelson considered himself a samoan and was motivated by his love for his country as well. Our people were fighting for independence from assholes who thought they were better than us. To liken him to Dot Com is an insult. Errors in your information on Nelson illustrates your lack of knowledge

SH

Sweden is part of Scandinavia, so I don't think I'm being inaccurate when I use the term. I agree that Nelson considered himself Samoan, and that Samoans were fighting for independence from racist assholes.

I don't mean to make an exact parallel between the lives and qualities of Nelson and Dotcom. I think Dotcom is a buffoon with deplorable taste in all sorts of things, so it wouldn't take much to convince me that Olaf Nelson was a much more admirable person than him. 

But I think that Nelson, like Dotcom, was a very successful businessman who was politicised and radicalised when New Zealand authorities began to persecute him. Like Dotcom, he turned his wealth and his business acumen against the government that tormented him. To that extent, I think there's a parallel between the two men. 


Anon

Most Swedes don't consider themselves Scandinavian. Anyway my main issue is your comparison of the man. The fact that there are similarities in their wealth and the avenues used to get their point across by no means warrants a "parallel" as you have done. There are 1 or 2 similarities in their situation (finance, physical size) and that's about it. A country was fighting for Independence and he was a member of a movement that played a key role in it. He was not alone in his plight. What is Dotcom fighting for? I think you should look more at the differences. How do you think Nelson's family feel about this comparison. I think you have taken a few things out of context and done a very lazy piece of work.

SH

Surely Dotcom, like Nelson before him, has thrown his weight behind an indigenous anti-colonial movement? He's allied himself with the Mana Party in the same way that Nelson joined himself to the Mau. 

I know many members of Mana, and while they obviously wouldn't make a direct parallel with Samoa, they consider New Zealand a colonial nation and Maori a still-colonised people. Hone Harawira's calls for the decolonisation of government and the legal system recall some of the demands of the Mau. 

It's also notable that Mana and its alliance with the Internet Party has won some high-profile support within New Zealand's Pasifika communities. King Kapisi has been happy to introduce and praise Kim Dotcom at Internet-Mana rallies in Auckland. I don't think he'd be offended by comparisons between Mana and the Mau, and comparisons between Dotcom and Nelson. I don't think the descendants of Nelson need to be either, because as I said earlier I'm not implying that Nelson had Dotcom's buffoonish personal qualities - I'm talking about his political career.

Are you sure that Swedes don't consider themselves Scandinavian? The Scandinavian peninsula is the bit of Europe occupied by Norway and Sweden. When people talk about a wider Scandinavian region they seem to throw Denmark, Iceland and sometimes Finland into the mix as well. 


Anon

Now you are an idiot. Dotcom is not a Maori and Nelson considered himself a Samoan. Nelson had the ways and means to assist in fighting for the freedom of his country and did so. What role does King Kapisi play in history and in the Mau? As far as I'm concerned you are now just grasping for ammunition and finding as much as you can from people who you think will agree with you to solidify your rubbish ideas. Stick to the point at hand. Say what you will about the motives of Nelson in order to color your document.

Stop trying to be an intellectual. You lack an in-depth understanding of what really happened in Samoa and with O.F Nelson. Find someone else to compare Dotcom to. Hint. Find someone who wasn't born in that country for a start and who didn't actually consider themselves part of it.. ppff.


Scott

Surely it's possible for someone to disagree with your interpretation of history, anon, without being an idiot? I've pointed out a series of similarities that I perceived between Olaf Nelson and Kim Dotcom. Both were wealthy men with deep roots in European cultures who enjoyed prosperity in the South Pacific before being persecuted by New Zealand authorities, who were acting at the behest of a faraway imperial power. 

Both men responded to that persecution by becoming politicised and identifying themselves with local movements against New Zealand colonialism. Both used their wealth and acumen to support those movements and create trouble for the New Zealand authorities. 

You've pointed out some differences between Nelson and Dotcom. Nelson was born in Samoa, whereas Dotcom was not born in Aotearoa; Nelson was an afakasi who identified as Samoan, whereas Dotcom is a Pakeha. Those are good points. But I don't see how they invalidate the comparison I made. 

To make a comparison isn't to claim an exact equivalence.

You're obviously offended by the Nelson-Dotcom comparison, but I'm not sure exactly why. Is it because you thought I was downplaying the fact that Nelson had Samoan blood, by comparing him to a palangi? Or is it because you think Dotcom is too cynical and venal and buffoonish to compare with Nelson? 

Perhaps you should write something about the qualities that you think Nelson has, and which Dotcom lacks. I'd be happy to put that up as a guest post. 

I mentioned King Kapisi because he's someone who is very aware of Samoan history and is strongly supportive of Dotcom. I'm not saying that you have to agree with him; I just mention him because he demonstrates that not everybody agrees with your view that Dotcom and the cause he has embraced are the antithesis of the Mau.


I guess one key difference between us relates to Nelson's attitudes to the German administrators of Samoa in the years before 1914. I suggested that he had good relations with Solf's colonial regime, and profited from these good relations, and that he only became a strong nationalist after being disadvantaged by the new Kiwi regime. 

You seem to be suggesting that he was a lifelong nationalist, because of his birth in Samoa and his identification as a Samoan. 

What was Nelson's attitude toward the Mau movement when it first emerged in 1909? Did he support it as ardently as he supported the later Mau opposition to New Zealand rule? 

If Nelson was a strong supporter of the Mau in 1909, then my claim that he was a hitherto apolitical businessman who was radicalised by New Zealand persecution would look very shaky. But I'm not sure whether Nelson was a supporter of the Mau in 1909. 


[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

Friday, September 05, 2014

Owl and mountain and little mole


The trumpeter addressed in my previous post stepped onstage last Sunday night. Since then, he and his older brother have been making the sort of din that reminds me not of Miles Davis' earlier, self-consciously subdued albums but of noisy, electric 1970s epics like Live Evil and Pangaea.

My wife has been preoccupied with caring for our new son, so I've taken over the task of accompanying the older lad to Play Centre, an institution whose earnest, self-deprecating office-holders and painful attempts at consensus-based decision-making remind me of some of some of the left-wing organisations to which I've belonged over the years. The prosaic meetings of the Centre's elders contrast with the anarchic play of its children.

As I search for my son in the lunar depths of the Play Centre sandpit, or try to find an acceptable interpretation - is it a fish, or a bear, or a dinosaur? - for a grotesquely shaped lump of play dough in his hands, I sometimes wonder how strange I must appear to him. I think about this poem, by the underrated Anglo-surrealist Christopher Middleton, which my wife and I included in the private anthology of verses about birth and childhood we made a couple of years ago.

Thanks, by the way, to all the facebook well-wishers. I'll be posting something more prosaic here just as soon as Play Centre duties allow...

For a Junior School Poetry Book

The mothers are waiting in the yard.
Here come the children, fresh from school.
The mothers are wearing rumpled skirts.
What prim mouths, what wrinkly cheeks.
The children swirl through the air to them,
trailing satchels and a smell of chalk.

The children are waiting in the yard.
The mothers come stumbling out of school.
The children stare primly at them,
lace their shoes, pat their heads.
The mothers swirl through the air to cars.
The children crossly drive them home.

The mothers are coming.
The children are waiting.
The mothers had eyes that see
boiled eggs, wool, dung and bed.
The children have eyes that saw
owl and mountain and little mole.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Waiting for the trumpeter


My mate Roger Atmore is a big jazz fan - such a big fan, in fact, that when his partner gave birth to a boy, he urged, successfully, that the lad be named after a certain trumpeter from St Louis, Missouri.

I'm starting to wonder whether my forthcoming son shouldn't also be named Miles, because of his insistence on making a delayed entry into the world. He was due last Saturday, but is keeping everyone - parents, midwives, assembled impatient relatives, and constantly-texting friends - waiting.

I'm reminded of the way that Miles Davis delayed his entrances to many of his songs. At concerts, Miles would often hang out backstage while the members of his band laid down a groove and took turns playing solos. Audiences would clap distractedly, and wonder whether the man they had paid to see would ever appear. Finally, Davis would step onstage, stoop slightly, and, ignoring the cheers of his relieved fans, breathe the first notes of 'So What' or 'In A Silent Way' or the obscenely gorgeous 'Filles De Kilimanjaro'.

The audience is waiting. It's time to take the stage, little Miles...

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Charles Simic on the last days* of the Key government



The Lights Are on Everywhere

The Emperor must not be told night is coming.
His armies are chasing shadows,
Arresting whipporwills and hermit thrushes
And setting towns and villages on fire.

In the capital, they go around confiscating
Clocks and watches, burning heretics
And painting the sunrise above rooftops
So we can wish each other good morning.

The rooster brought in chains is crowing,
The flowers in the garden have been forced to stay open,
And yet still dark stains spread over the palace floors
Which no amount of scribbling will wipe away.

*With Key's party still being favoured by about half the respondents in most opinion polls, the phrase 'last days' might seem rather hopeful. Even if we accept Mathew Hooton's argument that National's support is overestimated by the polls, it still seems very possible that Key will hold onto office by making Winston Peters deputy Prime Minister after the election on September the 20th.

But the scandals of the last year, and the last fortnight in particular, have given Key's government the frayed and frightened air of the sort of ancien regime that Simic's poem satirises. A National-New Zealand First marriage would be loveless, and would likely end with calls to lawyers. The slow unravelling of the Shipley government at the end of the '90s seems to me to anticipate the future of Key's regime.