Thermidorian Thinking

I fought in the old revolution
on the side of the ghost and the King.
Of course I was very young
and I thought that we were winning;
I can’t pretend I still feel very much like singing
as they carry the bodies away.
Leonard Cohen, The Old Revolution

‘Thermidorian’ refers to 9th Thermidor Year II (27 July 1794), the date according to the French Republican Calendar, when Robespierre, Danton and other radical revolutionaries came under concerted attack in the National Convention, resulting in their downfall and execution.

Grim travelers butt each other to establish dominance. One lot plays Danton to another’s Robespierre, with the moderate Manon Roland and her Girondins trampled underfoot in the melee. Robespierre destroys his erstwhile friends and slaughters thousands, precipitating the Jacobin meltdown as the ascetic and purist Marat is murdered in his bath. Robespierre and Saint-Just are guillotined by those who believe “the Terror” had gone too far.

I would argue that this “Thermidorian Reaction” – the ostensibly “better angels of our nature” (Abraham Lincoln said that) reasserting themselves – is a rare bird indeed. Inevitably, things get worse, much worse, before they get better. As WH Auden observes in Age of Anxiety, “many have perished: more will”. 

Revolutions are unpredictable. They never run in straight lines. They reverberate, the shock-waves expanding and impacting on their vicinity,  and way beyond. The shots ricochet, like drive-bys and crossfires, and you never know who will be hit, where the bullets will come to rest, and who will be damaged or destroyed. Many people will be liberated, and many enslaved. Many peoples will prosper, and many, many will perish. As TS Elliot wrote, “between the idea and the reality falls the shadow”.”

Stalin seizing Lenin’s crown as the father of the revolution lay dying. Trotsky launching the Red Army against the sailors of Kronstadt whose guns had heralded the fall of the Romanovs, and who then fought to last man against their former comrades. Stalin and Trotsky wrestling for control of party and power as the old Bolsheviks disappeared into the gulags and the execution cells. Stalin’s long arm putting an ice pick through his rival’s skull in Mexico decades later. Trotsky knew a thing or two about “permanent revolution”!

Adolf Hitler making his move against the corrupt and sybaritic Rohm and his Brown Shirt bully boys, a threat to his control of party and state, in the “Night of the Long Knives”, and setting the course for a Germany’s slow spiral to damnation with the plausible deniability of the similarly dramatically named Kristalnacht. The German language has surely given the world ominous words of iron – Nacht und Nebel; Storm und Drang; Weltanschauung – none of them boding well for tyranny’s unwelcome attentions.

It is a zero-sum play book well thumbed by latter-day revolutionists like the Baathists Saddam Hussein and Hafiz Assad in their relentless and merciless accession to power in Iraq and Syria respectively, like the cruel and vengeful but infinitely pragmatic regime that has ruled Iran’s Islamic Republic for these past forty  years, and the kleptocratic dictators who Lord over much of South Saharan Africa. In the manner of revolutions past and present, each one has “devoured its children”, harrying, jailing, exiling and slaughtering foes and onetime allies alike.

The sad reality in so many countries is that when the going gets tough, the mild get going, and the hard men ride roughshod over their people.

Vengeful, vindictive. Merciless. Unforgiving and never forgetting. Do no deals. Take no prisoners. Give no quarter.

Also in In That Howling InfiniteA Political World – Thoughts and Themes

Danton, Robespierre, Desmoulin, and Manon Roland

Danton, Robespierre, Desmoulin, and Manon Roland

That was the year that was

Its been a diverse year In That Howling Infinite. We have traveled, to quote Bob Dylan, “all the way from New Orleans to Jerusalem” – and to many other places in between. Vikings and Roman legionaries; Bob Dylan, Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn; Britain in the ‘forties and Paris in the ‘fifties; America, the Levant, and even Wonderland. By Year’s end a million souls will have journeyed to Europe from the war-ravaged lands of the Middle East, and my final posts for the year contemplate what it might mean for refugees who find to safe haven in Australia.

Here is a retrospective.

The year began with a short piece on recent archeological discoveries in Jerusalem that strongly suggested that the Via Dolorosa that Jesus trode on his final journey to Golgotha was the wrong route, and that instead, it began just inside of the Jaffa Gate. I took a light-hearted look at the Jerusalem Syndrome, a mental condition involving the presence of religiously-themed obsessive ideas, delusions and other psychoses triggered by a visit to The Holy City.

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I read but one piece of fiction this year – a sad admission from a lifelong bibliophile – but this one book was probably one of the best I have read: The Incorrigible Optimists Club , winner of the prestigious Prix de Goncourt, by Jean Michel Guenassia. It is set in Paris’ Rive Gauche, as the ‘fifties gives way to the ‘sixties; as the crooners makes way for rock n’roll; as the Cold War divides a continent, sending dissidents and refugees fleeing to a safe haven in Paris; as the Algerian war divides and destroys families: and as the seeds of ‘les evenments de Mai 1968’ are sown in the hearts and souls of France’s young people. It is a coming of age book, of young hopes and fears, love and loss, a book about writers and reading, and the magic and power of the written word in prose and poetry.

Le Lion de Belfort

March saw the passing of my old friend Dermott Ryder, chronicler and luminary of the Folk Music revival in Sydney in the early ‘seventies. Dermott’s Last Ride is my tribute to him. And April was a month of anniversaries and remembrance. Forty years since the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil War, and the centenary of the landings of the ANZACs at Gallipoli. Pity the Nation takes its title from Robert Fisk’s tombstone of a book on the long war; and he had taken it from a poem written in 1934 by Khalil Gibran, Lebanon’s most celebrated poet, a poem that was both a prophetic testament and a testimony of times to come: “Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation”. The Watchers of the Water is a song about Gallipoli sing by a Turkish solder.

May saw two diverse pieces of social history. The Spirit of 45  takes personal perspective of British filmmaker Ken Loach’s documentary of the excitement and optimism that followed the Labour Party’s election victory at the end of World War II. This laid the foundation stone for the British welfare state. Bob Dylan’s Americana discusses the meaning and significance of the lyrics and the imagery of Dylan’s early ‘eighties masterpiece Blind Willie McTell, a harrowing journey through America’s dark heart.

In June, we visited Yorkshire and in London, conjuring up memories and historical connections. Harald Went A Viking is a saga about the first of two kings to die on English soil in the late summer of 1066, and the adventures that took him from Norway to Constantinople and Jerusalem and finally, to Yorkshire. Roman Wall Blues takes its title from WH Auden’s poem about a homesick and grumpy legionnaire on Hadrian’s Wall, and contemplates the lives of the ethnically polyglot soldiery who defended the Empire’s borders. And June saw another famous anniversary, the Bicentennial of the momentous and bloody Battle of Waterloo. The Long Road to Waterloo prefaces a song for the men who, after twenty six long years of war, never came home.

Painting of the Battle of Stamford Bridge by Peter Nicolai Arbo, depicting King Harald Hardrada hit in the neck by an arrow

Battle of Stamford Bridge, depicting King Harald Hardrada hit in the neck by an arrow

In July, controversy erupted in the Land of the Free over the flying of the Confederate Flag in states that were once part of Old Dixie. The dead hand of the Civil War reached out and touched the hearts of Americans and their friends throughout the world in the wake of yet another mass shooting. This time, a young man gunned down worshippers at prayer. That the victims were folk of colour, and the shooter, a young white extremist, reopened wounds that have never really healed. Rebel Yell surmises that The South will always be with us, in our thoughts, in our historical memory, in our art and literature, our books and films, and our favourite music.

September marked the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the publication of Lewis Carroll’s timeless, fabulist masterpiece Alice In WonderlandGo Ask Alice, I Think She’ll Know reproduces Australian  critic Peter Craven’s masterful celebration of Alice 150. The title belongs to the mesmerizing Grace Slick of Jefferson Airplane who cut through to the rabbit chase channeling the long-gone Lewis in a psychedelic musical masterpiece.

Alice

On an infinitely sadder note, Ruins and Bones is a tribute to the memory of Syrian archeologist Khaled Muhammed al Asaad, murdered by ISIS in August 2015, and of Palmyra, the ‘Pearl of the Desert’.

Allende’s Desk and Osama’s Pyjamas is a brief commentary on the extension  of American military power and the pathology of demons and demonization. Tales of Yankee Power looks at American foreign policy during the 1980s from the perspective of the songs of Jackson Browne and Bruce Cockburn.

November’s Children of the Revolution looks at the events that led up to the beginning of the Syrian Civil War, and the early days before it became too dangerous to gather on the streets, when men, women and children would parade in public places, waving the flag of the old Syria, the one that flew before the Assad clan seized power in 1966. Canny camera men could take media-friendly shots of photogenic little girls in face makeup looking sad, vulnerable and defiant. Those days of hope are long gone.

A highlight of this past year has been my work as a volunteer with the Humanitarian Settlement Services programme. The HSS’ mission is to assist newly arrived refugees to settle in Australia. In No Going Home I endeavour to imagine the refugee journey. Hejira is a sequel of sorts and, indeed, a happy ending.

Happy New Year to these prospective New Australians, and to all my readers. May 2016 be fortunate and fulfilling.

Palmyra, viewed from Tadmor

Palmyra, viewed from Tadmor

The Long Road To Waterloo

The rebel yell that resounded in Paris in the summer of 1789 reverberated around Europe for 26 years until it sounded for the last time on the fields of Waterloo. On an overcast summer’s morning on Sunday 18th June, two hundred years ago, over one hundred thousand soldiers prepared to face each other in damp Belgian farmland. More gathered during that “longest day”. When darkness fell, up to fifty thousand of them lay dead or seriously wounded. A British rifleman would later recall: “I had never yet heard of a battle in which everybody was killed, but this seemed likely to be an exception, as all were going by turns.”

This song is for all those men who, after these long years of war, never came home.

https://soundcloud.com/user6120518-1/the-song-of-the-soldier-1815.

The Song Of The Soldier

Chaos is majestic in its way. I contemplate this vista of destruction and death with pain and helplessness in my soul.  
Red Army Captain Pavel Kovalenko, in All Hell Let Loose, Max Hastings, 2011

Before him, he carries noise, and behind him, he leaves tears; death, that dark spirit,
in’s nervy arm doth lie; which, being advanc’d, declines, and then men die.
Volumnia, in Shakespeare’s Corialanus, Act 2, Scene 1.

A new age dawned when the Bastille fell
Twenty six long years ago.
We marched the road of Europe
In the revolution’s glow.
In the floodtide of that revolution,
We bartered our young lives away.
And shoulder to shoulder we stood to arms
And held our foes at bay.

Against the might of empires,
Beyond our wildest dreams,
We fought the professional armies
Of Europe’s old regimes.
And hungry, tired and poorly armed,
We ragged volunteers
Pushed them back in disarray
Far from our own frontiers.

And we talked that time of setting stars
And the twilight of great powers.
And we never once thought that the sun would set
On an empire such as ours’.
But the siren song of liberty
Has lost its golden thrill.
The new age is now stained with blood
And we are marching still.

There came a great adventurer
For whom France was much too small.
As if we’d had not enough of war,
We answered to his call.
He was like a father unto us.
He served his children’s need.
A substitute for politics, for intellect and greed.

But he overreached in pomp and pride
To serve his vanity.
And we, the soldiers of the line,
Paid with our blood his fee.
‘til the whole world turned against us.
It neither forgot nor forgave
We who came to liberate
But stayed on to enslave

And we talked that time of setting stars
And the twilight of great powers.
And we never once thought that the sun would set
On an empire such as ours’.
But the siren song of liberty
Has lost its golden thrill.
The new age is now stained with blood
And we are marching still.

From the dust of Torres Vedras
To the bloodstained Russian snow.
We followed the Eagles loyally.
Never questioned why we go.
‘til the tide of conquest turned abut,
And showed us how it feels
To retrace weary footsteps
With the wolves hard at our heels.

And now we march our final march
On Belgium’s fertile soil.
We see an end to all or pain
And an end to mortal toil.
And the dream which fired us through the years
Has nothing left to yield
But peace that comes from a nameless death
On a confused battlefield.

And we talked that time of setting stars
And the twilight of great powers.
And we never once thought that the sun would set
On an empire such as ours.
But the tyrant song of liberty
Has lost its golden thrill.
The new age is now stained with blood
And we are marching still.

© Paul Hemphill 1984

To historians, Waterloo is one of the great battles of history, a turning point, the beginning of the modern era. It ended the wars that had convulsed Europe – and since the French Revolution,  the First French Empire and the career of Napoleon Bonaparte, one of the greatest commanders and statesmen in history. And it ushered in almost half a century of international peace in Europe; no further major conflict occurred until the Crimean War.

 This year, many acres of print and gigabytes of data will be spent trawling through the story. Here are two particularly good reviews.

 http://www.economist.com/news/books-and-arts/21651775-appallingly-bloody-yet-decisive-battle-waterloo-june-1815-deserve

http://www.telegraph.co.uk/culture/books/bookreviews/11075393/Waterloo-by-Tim-Clayton-and-Waterloo-the-Aftermath-by-Paul-OKeeffe-review-compelling.html

 

The Incorrigible Optimists Club

A story of exile and of exiles, of revolutions fought and betrayed, of wars and causes lost,  of faith and failure, of shame and regret, tolerance and redemption, of secrets and confidences kept and broken, of untold stories and restless ghosts.

And this winner of France’s prestigous Prix Goncourt is one of the best books I have read in years!

IOC

They say for every boy and girl there’s just one love in all the world and I know I’ve found mine.                                                                                       Carole Joyner and Ric Cartey, Young Love, 1956

Come mothers and fathers throughout the land, don’t criticize what you can’t understand. Your sons and your daughters are beyond your command. Your old road is rapdly agin’ . Please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand for your times they are a-changin’ .                                                                             Bob Dylan, 1964

In Montparnasse, a metro station exits onto the wide Place Denfer-Rochereau, the centrepiece of which is a magnificent bronze lion, sculpted by Frédéric Bartholdi, creator of The Statue Of Liberty as a memorial to the heroic defence of Belfort during the Franco-Prussian Way of 1870-1871. Directly opposite is the entrance to the morbidly amazing Catacombes de Paris. On the Boulevard Raspail side of La Place is a big cafe where on a freezing, wet and windy May morning a few years back, Adele and I drank hot espresso whilst waiting for the Catacombs to open. I like to think that in the late fifties, this very cafe was indeed the Balto, where much of this magnificent novel is set:

Le Rive Gauche, as the ‘fifties gives way to the ‘sixties; as the crooners makes way for rock n’roll; as the Cold War divides a continent, sending dissidents and refugees fleeing to a safe haven in Paris; as the Algerian war divides and destroys families: and as the seeds of ‘les evenments de Mai 1968’ are sown in the hearts and souls of France’s young people

It is a coming of age book, of young hopes and fears, love and loss. It is book about writers and reading, and the magic and power of the written word in prose and poetry. Like the games of chess that punctuate the narrative, it is about how life and learning is characterized by strategy and tactics, calculated feints and moves, patience and passion. And the paradox that pervades the story: nothing happens by accident, but never underestimate the power of coincidence.

Michel Marini, our narrator, is a precocious twelve year old when we first meet him, navigating his rocky road through high school, addicted to reading, rock n’roll, playing table football in the local cafes, and his introduction to the club of the title. This gathering of argumentative, chess-playing, smoking and boozing, grumpy old émigrés become in many ways a surrogate family. Michel first encounters these outcasts of Eastern Europe in the back room of a bistro. They are The Incorrigible Optimists Club, where,  despite the ancient discord of its members, the club serves as thier sanctuary. “The Poles hated the Russians, who in turn loathed them; the Bulgarians detested the Hungarians, who ignored them; the Germans abhorred the Czechs, who despised the Romanians, who could not care a damn. Here, they were all stateless and equals in adversity.”

Lost souls, the flotsam Old Europe, hugging their faded and vanished dreams, their language, their culture, their sad and often traumatic memories of their past in a strange land. Men without women, stateless, penniless, jobless, homeless, dispossessed of their wives and children.  Bent, but not broken. These are memorable characters, each with his own colourful and poignant back story. The pilot who defects for love, the doctor who drives cabs because his qualifications are not recognised. The Hungarian movie idol and his enamoured agent. The mysterious photography expert who befriends and mentors the young narrator. They are trapped between worlds and irreconcilable desires: “When a man achieves his dream, there is neither reason, nor failure, nor victory. What is most important in the Promised Land is not the land, but the promise.”

And there is also Michel’s actual family, his mismatched, over-worked and out- of- time parents, each from a different class and station, and their parents and siblings, particularly Michel’s art-loving Italian grandfather, and his dislocated pied-noir uncle and cousins. His chatterbox little sister, and his tortured, intellectual brother Franck. And front and centre in Michel’s adolescent life, Franck’s girlfriend and her would-be-revolutionary brother, beautiful, intelligent, rebellious, orphaned rich kids who become young Michel’s muses: and literally colliding with him through serendipity and synchronicity, his first true love. And behind them all, casting ominous shadows and unleashing sundering storms, lurks the dangerous backdrop of the closing years of the bitter and bloody Algerian independence war.

A knowledge of the Russian Revolution and its dramatis personae, Stalin’s Terror, The Great Patriotic War, the Hungarian Revolution and the building of the Berlin Wall, and of the ‘savage war of peace’ that was Algeria, is not obligatory, but it certainly helps set the scene for the various stories and vignettes that unfold. Cameo roles include philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, novelist Joseph Kessell, and one Rudolf Khametovich Nureyev – and the sinister ghost at the feast, Iosif Vissarionovich Stalin.

Every now and then, your jaw drops and you say to yourself “this is a masterpiece”! Like when I first heard Keith Jarrett’s Koln Concert and Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová’s The Swell Season. Sultans of Swing and The Boy in the Bubble. When I first read the opening paragraphs of Catch 22, and Chapter 41 of Moby Dick. The Incorrigible Optimists Club cast the same spell.

I leave the last words to the author: “Before you read a book, you can know immediately whether or not you are going to like it, just as with people, you can tell just from looking at them whether or not you’ll be their friend. You smell it, you sniff it, you wonder whether it’s worth spending time in its company. The pages of a book have an invisible alchemy that imprints itself on our brain. A book is a living creature”.

You cannot find a better testimonial for the printed word than that.

© Paul Hemphill 2015,  All rights reserved

 

 

 

Chanson – living next to Jim

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Paris has a myriad of attractions for history tragics. For me, there are three ‘must sees’ that are at the top of the ‘out there’ list. Les Catacombes de Pariss are one. The folk cabaret Au Lapin Agile is another. and the third is La Cimetière du Père-Lachaise, the most famous cemetery in the world.

For the dear departed, Père Lachaise is the best address in Paris. Some 300,000 people reste ici. A cavalcade of French cultural and political history, with a few foreign entombments, including the playwright Oscar Wild and Doors front-man and zeitgeist icon Jim Morrison.

CHANSON

I

Summer is the worst time – there never is a good time.
They come from all across the world just to visit him.
A lot has come and gone since nineteen seventy one,
But I’ve never ever gotten used to living next to Jim.

Why do they come and queue for a man they never knew
Who had gone to meet his maker before most of them were born?
I guess that it’s the fame, or the magic of a name,
Or a spirit never tamed, that brings them here to mourn.

The Poles will throw a party for their Chopin, and the arty
Bring flowers, poems and candles, and others’ wine and bread,
Why do young folk come to rave ‘round an ancient rocker’s grave?
Don’t they know how to behave in the presence of the dead?

It’s the best address in town, but I think I’d rather be
With Karl and all the comrades up in Highgate Cemetery.
Though there’s nothing to compare with this famous cemetaire,
There’s not much love to spare between the Lizard King et moi.

Pourquoi? Dites moi! Je vous dis que…

Living near the great is highly over-rated.
They stand upon my headstone just to get a better view.
If I was recreated, I’d sooner be cremated
And scattered on the river or some quiet avenue.

II

Yes, Père Lachaise is the most famous cemetery in the whole wide world. Therein recline some of the most famous names in French history and culture. And imports like Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison. Edith Piaf, Marcel Marceau, Delacroix and Gericault, The man who built the Suez Canal, and Antoine Parmentier who popularised the heath benefits of the humble potato. Maria Callas’ ashes were there until some Greek stole her urn and scattered her on the Aegean Sea.

C’est vrai! C’est l’esprit de mort! Et maintenant, l’encore:

III

The singers, and the dancers, and the actors, and the chancers,
The rebels and the statesmen, and the fallen communards,
Napoleonic Generals and politicians’ wives.
The poets and the dreamers, all those other famous lives.

The writers, and the waiters, and those great large format painters,
Deportee commemorations, Oscar’s winged androgenoid,
The names no one remembers, and the ones no one forgets,
But Jim’s here with empty coke cans and the smell of cigarettes.

And, summer is the worst time – there never is a good time.
They come from all across the world just be with him.
A lot has come and gone since nineteen seventy one,
But I’ve never ever gotten used to living next to Jim.

From:  In That Howling Infinite – Poems of Paul Hemphill, Volume Five

© Paul Hemphill 2013. All rights reserved

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