THE WALTER BENJAMIN RESEARCH SYNDICATE: CYBER-REQUIEM FOR A SITE

Cyber-requiems can be poignant occasions, and I am indeed sad to have to draw the curtains on the Walter Benjamin Research Syndicate site, defunct as from August 2016, to which I had been a contributor since 2002 (indeed at one point I even functioned as its co-editor).

WBRS was founded by Scott Thompson from California. It had the distinction of hosting intellectually advanced and challenging writing on or related to the philosophy of Walter Benjamin, yet having no direct links to the academic world.

Despite (or because of?) this independence, WBRS proved a highly successful site, at its peak even frequently (in those pre-Wikipedia days) heading search results in Google for the philosopher’s work.  The texts it hosted were much quoted and cited by Benjamin scholars.

I add that my own article on Benjamin’s ‘Arcades Project’, which featured on WBRS for years as my most important contribution, is now rehoused:

  • Christopher Rollason, ‘The Passageways of Paris: Walter Benjamin’s “Arcades Project” and Contemporary Cultural Debate in the West’, in Modern Criticism, ed. Christopher Rollason and Rajeshwar Mittapalli, New Delhi: Atlantic Publishers and Distributors, 2002, pp. 262-296; rev. version, 2002, at: http://yatrarollason.info/files/BenjaminPassagesYatraversion.pdf

However, the fact that this my own text remains on-line does not affect the enormous loss represented by the disappearance of WBRS, a place in cyberspace which encapsulated the best of the fearless and independent tradition of intellectual inquiry of which Walter Benjamin is and will always be an icon.

WBRS has gone and can hardly be replaced – but the internet by its nature is in constant evolution, and my deep wish today is that other sites illumined with the same spirit will rise phoenix-like, to keep the flame of true critical inquiry burning in these our difficult times!

SALMAN RUSHDIE IN THE FRENCH PRESS: ‘A SECOND STATUE OF LIBERTY?

After one of his periodic silences, Salman Rushdie has returned to the fray of public debate, with the publication of the French translation of his latest novel, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights (Deux ans, huit mois et vingt-huit nuits, tr. Gérard Meudel, Arles: Actes Sud, 2016).

To coincide with the book’s launch, Rushdie has given two major interviews, to the weeklies Le Nouvel Observateur and Le Point:

‘Salman Rushdie : L’État islamique va disparaître’, interview with Didier Jacob, Le Nouvel Observateur, 25-31 August 2016, pp. 78-82 – http://bibliobs.nouvelobs.com/rentree-litteraire/20160824.OBS6805/europe-daech-trump-les-predictions-de-salman-rushdie.html

(subscribers only)

‘Rushdie: « Le sexe n’est pas le mal »’, interview with Michel Schneider, Le Point, 25 August 2016, pp. 50-54 – http://www.lepoint.fr/livres/rushdie-un-peu-partout-la-religion-s-infiltre-dans-la-politique-25-08-2016-2063631_37.php (subscribers only)

The Anglo-Indian author is treated with maximum respect by both publications and their interviewers: indeed, Le Nouvel Observateur dedicates its front-page photo to Rushdie, and goes so far as to call the now New York-resident writer an icon of freedom on a par with the Statue of Liberty : ‘Salman Rushdie a plus que jamais l’étoffe d’un héros, en ces temps où la liberté d’expression est partout menacée. Depuis qu’il s’est installé il y a 17 ans à New York, la ville compte une deuxième statue de la liberté’  (‘Salman Rushdie now has more than ever the stuff of a hero, in these times when freedom of expression is under threat everywhere. Since he moved to New York 17 years ago, the city has had a second Statue of Liberty’ – Didier Jacob, p. 79).

Rushdie Nouvel Obs cover

 

In the interviews, Rushdie, as the titles suggest, opines on subjects ranging from politics to sex, and expresses his satisfaction with his new opus, indeed describing it to Le Nouvel Observateur as his great American novel (p. 81). Inevitably, he also returns to the ‘Satanic Verses’ issue, making the rueful but by now familiar point to ‘Le Point’ that (the reader may deduce, thanks to bien-pensant cultural relativism and Western intellectuals’ abandonment of their own culture’s values), he would not receive the same support that he benefited from at the time: ‘I would be taxed with attacking a cultural minority’ (‘Le Point’ p. 52; here and elsewhere I retro-translate Rushdie’s remarks from the French text, though of course I am aware his original English may have read differently).

Rushdie repeats another of his well-worn positions, namely that race and religion are not the same thing and it is not racist to criticise any particular religion: ‘religion is a belief, skin colour is a fact’ (Le Point, p. 52). Rushdie’s admirers may here welcome his intellectual consistency and refusal to change his mind, but it could be argued that he is today in a minority among intellectuals in the west, though possibly more in line with non-intellectual public opinion.

It is noteworthy that on the question of race and religion Rushdie evokes the memory of ‘my much-missed friend Christopher Hitchens’ (‘Le Point’, p. 52). The respective lines of the late Hitchens and the very much alive Rushdie are indeed very similar, and it is curious that Rushdie should recall his friend on the eve of the canonisation of Mother Teresa – a figure on whose image of sanctity Hitchens carried out a remarkable demolition job in his book of 1995, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice.

The secularist positions defended by Rushdie are likely to resonate more in France than in, say, the UK, given the continued strength – as demonstrated over the Charlie Hebdo issue – of secularism in French intellectual milieux (albeit France has its pro-censorship relativists too). Rushdie pulls no punches in his comments on ‘Charlie Hebdo’, dissociating himself from those fellow writers like Peter Carey who refused to support the French magazine (‘Frankly, I don’t understand their position’ – ‘Le Nouvel Observateur’, p. 82), and stating out loud that ‘the aim of the terrorists is to stop us thinking’ and that ‘the Charlie Hebdo journalists were killed in the name of Allah and to avenge the Prophet’ (‘Le Point’, pp. 50, 52).

The entire free speech issue – as I have earlier mentioned on this blog (entry for 3 August 2016) – has recently been raised with massive urgency by Oxford academic Timothy Garton Ash in his web-linked opus Free Speech. Meanwhile, with the iconic Salman Rushdie clearly in form and out to defend and promote his latest book, the evidence from these interviews is that anti-theocracy remains alive – at least in Paris, and New York.

CLAUDE DEBUSSY MEETS EDGAR ALLAN POE: THE OPERA OF ‘THE FALL OF THE HOUSE OF USHER’

Of all the composers who have been inspired by the works of Edgar Allan Poe in the canon of classical music and opera, by far the most important is Claude Debussy (1862-1918), immortalised as the composer of works such as ‘La Mer’, ‘Clair de lune’ and ‘Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune’ and of the opera ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’. However, the French composer’s (unfinished) operatic adaptations of Poe remain a relatively little-known part of his opus.

Matters have now been improved by the recent release of the double CD ‘Debussy: The Edgar Allan Poe operas’ (Göttinger Symphony Orchestra/Christoph-Matias Mueller, Pan Classics PC10342, 2016) – see Andrew Clements, ‘Debussy: The Edgar Allan Poe operas – an unfinished double bill heard at last’, The Guardian, 8 June 2016 – https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/jun/08/debussy-the-edgar-allan-poe-operas-review-an-unfinished-double-bill-heard-at-last; and: http://www.mdt.co.uk/debussy-the-edgar-allan-poe-operas-mueller-pan-classics-2cds.html.

Debussy Usher CD cover

Both operas were left unfinished by Debussy on his death. He worked on ‘Le diable dans le beffroi’ (based on Poe’s comic story ‘The Devil in the Belfry’) from 1902 to 1912, and on ‘La chute de la maison Usher’ (based on the far better-known ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’) from 1908 to 1917. For both, Debussy prepared his own libretto, taking as starting-point the celebrated translations into French of Charles Baudelaire (the booklet of the new release includes both librettos, in the original French and also in English and German translation). In the case of ‘Usher’, Debussy’s sketches amount to about half of the projected score. He intended to finish both projects, and his unrealised hope was that they would be premiered together as a double bill at the New York Metropolitan Opera.

The two recordings that make up this release have necessarily been completed by hands other than Debussy’s. The first completion of ‘La chute de la maison Usher’, by Carolyn Abbate, was performed at Yale University in 1977. A second completion, by Juan Allende-Blin, received its premiere two years later in Berlin; a recording of that version was released by EMI in 1984, with the Monte Carlo Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Georges Prêtre. For the new release, the task has fallen, for both works, to the British ‘creative musicologist’ Robert Orledge, whose work thus marks the third completion of ‘La chute de la maison Usher’ and the first-ever of ‘Le Diable dans le beffroi’.

Of these two Poe/Debussy works, while ‘Le Diable dans le beffroi’ is clearly of interest for students of the minor Poe tale it springs from, ‘La chute de la maison Usher’ is by far the more important, and the rest of this post will focus on that recording.

The opera as completed lasts 55 minutes. It is divided into a brief orchestral prelude and two acts. Act 1 begins with Madeline singing the first stanza of ‘The Haunted Palace’ offstage, and continues as Roderick’s friend enters and converses with the doctor (who plays a greater role than in the original). The rest is compressed into the second act.

There are various significant departures from the original. Roderick evokes his mother’s death and confesses he has tried in vain to escape the house. He imagines himself pursued by sinister black-winged birds that suggest Poe’s raven. None of this of course is in the original, and conversely there is no mention of Roderick’s painting activities, or of his music other than ‘The Haunted Palace’. Of his favourite books, only one (Pomponius Mela) is mentioned, though ‘The Mad Trist’ plays the same role as in the original, albeit with the protagonist renamed Sir Ulrich. In Act 2, the narrative shifts rapidly from Roderick’s first appearance and account of his malady, to Madeline’s interment, announced to the visitor by the doctor. The closing scene follows the original quite closely, from the storm through to the return of Madeline and the dénouement, with Roderick’s despairing words, ‘Insensé! Je vous dis qu’elle est maintenant derrière la porte!’ (‘Madman! I tell you that she now stands without the door!’) taken unaltered from Baudelaire.

Despite the departures, the opera as conceived by Debussy and completed by Orledge may be considered a musical and interpretive success. The music sounds like Debussy (indeed like ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’), and both vocals and orchestration manage to communicate the strangeness, suspense and drama of Poe’s famous tale. ‘La chute de la maison Usher’ may be enjoyed as a valuable reading of and commentary on ‘The Fall of the House of Usher’. On the operatic stage as on the pages of the book, Roderick Usher perishes – but once again, translated to another medium, Poe the protean genius lives!

TIMOTHY GARTON ASH: THE DEFENCE OF FREE SPEECH IN THE INTERNET AGE

Timothy Garton Ash, ‘Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World’, London: Atlantic Books, 2016, ISBN (e-book) 978-1-78239-031-2; also available as hardback and paperback –

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Free-Speech-Principles-Connected-World/dp/1848870922/?ie=UTF8&tag=tgabooks-21

Garton Ash cover

Timothy Garton Ash is a reputed academic (holding the position of Professor of European Studies at Oxford University) and writer and journalist, as well as being a distinguished commentator on George Orwell. The last-named role is particularly befitting for his new book, ‘Free Speech: Ten Principles for a Connected World’, which proves to be a publication of vital importance thanks to its epic coverage of an issue now rendered white-hot by globalisation.

This book is long (the print edition runs to 512 pages), and eminently of our time not only in its subject-matter but in its status as part of what the author calls our ‘connected world’. It does not come standalone: the lengthy notes section is replete with links, and the book is also explicitly tied to a website by the name of ‘Free Speech Debate’ (www.freespeechdebate.com), a multinational and multilingual online platform of which Garton Ash himself is the director.

We live in paradoxical times. Internet technology offers individuals and groups, subject only to access to communications facilities and to general and IT literacy, a totally unprecedented freedom to express opinions and disseminate creative works. At the same time, there is massive pressure worldwide, both political and ideological, for limits to be imposed on that same freedom, both online and offline. This pressure may take the form of, for example, systematic state censorship (Russia and China), religiously motivated restrictions (the Islamic world), or, in British and American universities, demands by militant students for ‘safe spaces’, ‘no-platforming’ and general protection from the expression of opinions other than their own.

The whole issue is a minefield, and Garton Ash does his best to navigate it, between affirming necessary general principles and examining particular cases in the requisite detail. He does so from a point of view which is avowedly liberal but does not seek to unilaterally impose a purely ‘Western’ concept of free speech (many of the cases he cites are not from the West at all). As he puts it, ‘This book lays out an argument for, and invites a conversation about, free speech in our new cosmopolis’. He is convinced that the answer to the problems he raises is ‘more and better free speech’, and advocates an attitude of ‘robust civility’ as the way forward. The ‘ten principles’ of the subtitle relate to: lifeblood (free speech as constitutive of humanity), [the rejection of] violence, knowledge, [the responsible practice of] journalism, diversity, [freedom of] religion [but also from religious censorship], privacy, [opposition to] [state] secrecy, ‘icebergs’ [a metaphor for issues of internet governance], and courage. This may seem a rather complex list, but it is still in evolution and subject to change on the website, and, as Garton Ash shows in riveting detail, the issues themselves are nothing if not complex.

On the level of detail, the book is notable both for what it does and does not home in on. Some may be surprised that Garton Ash refrains from detailed commentary on ins and outs of either the ‘Rushdie affair’ or the Charlie Hebdo killings – one could argue, justifiably since many others have already gone over those issues, central as they are, with the finest of combs. Meanwhile, though, the author sheds particularly useful light on other subjects as varied as the controversy over the ‘Innocence of Muslims’ videoclip, the nuts and bolts of China’s day-to-day controls over internet use and its army of censors, and the distinctively American but globally influential First Amendment tradition. On the latter point, the 45 words of the actual amendment text are at no point quoted as such, and here, one might argue, an opportunity has been missed to push home the oft-ignored point that the First Amendment covers not only freedom of speech but other liberties including freedom of religion, and that the chances of it ever being repealed are therefore slim in the extreme. As the book unfolds, the reader encounters a mass of data, both challenging and fascinating: we learn, for instance, that in 2011 a 75-year-old woman scavenging for firewood in a village in Georgia accidentally damaged a cable and brought down the entire internet in most of neighbouring Armenia for twelve hours, yet the woman herself had never heard of the internet – an episode emblematic of that very coexistence in today’s world of the ancient and the hypermodern that underlies many of the problems that Garton Ash raises.

I would be pleased if I felt I could predict that this book will become a modern classic, the latter-day equivalent of a founding text such as John Milton’s ‘Areopagitica’. However, that is unlikely to happen, since large swathes of its subject-matter are – by definition, and in the internet age inevitably – ephemeral and time-bound. A second edition would have to be substantially rewritten and would have to take account of technologies that do not yet exist. However, the larger project is by its nature ongoing, and when this book has exhausted its useful life the impassioned debate on its issues will still be in course.

Not all will sympathise with the author’s stance, and pro-censorship responses are to be expected as well as expressions of support – although, will hostile reviewers in the West actually go so far as to walk their talk and have their review censored by a suitable theocrat or relativist before they upload it? I would meanwhile suggest that Garton Ash’s opus should be considered required reading for anyone interested in free speech, but would also advise reading it sooner rather than later, before we are engulfed in new controversies whose contours we have yet to discern.

 

PORTUGAL AND THE ‘NEW HARRY POTTER’

The heat is on in the Potter world, with the play in two parts ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ due to open in London today, 30 July 2016, and the ‘book of the play’ (a co-production of J.K. Rowling and scriptwriter Jack Thorne) going on sale the day after.

Joanne Rowling thus continues Harry’s story into his later life as an adult and parent, without breaking the letter of her promise that the seventh Potter book would be the last, as this is a stage play and thus belongs to a different genre.

For those who read Portuguese, on 23 July 2016 the Lisbon weekly ‘Expresso’ published an interesting article linking the launch with J.K. Rowling’s seminal (pre-Harry) time in Portugal, when she lived in Porto as an English teacher.

I am pleased and grateful to note that this article refers to a publication of mine on the same subject from 2003. Indeed, this is the second time ‘Expresso’ mentions that article, the first time having been in 2009. I believe I may mention this second citation, as times change and neither the Potter world nor the Muggle world are as they were in 2009! What is cited from my piece is the connection I suggested between the name Salazar Slytherin and the Portuguese dictator António Salazar: and as we know from the Potter books and from the world around us, dictatorship and totalitarianism in general are, alas, not going to disappear tomorrow …

**

Details and url for the ‘Expresso’ article:

Rui Duarte Silva, ‘Porto vai ter mimos para a geração Potter [‘Porto to flatter the Potter generation’], ‘Expresso’, 23 July 2016

http://expresso.sapo.pt/sociedade/2016-07-23-O-Porto-vai-ter-mimos-para-a-geracao-Potter

and for my own text:

‘An English Teacher in Porto: In Search of Joanne Rowling’, ‘Lingua Franca’ (Brussels), Vol. 6, No. 1, 2003, pp. 4-8; on-line with photos at:

http://yatrarollason.info/files/ROWLINGPORTOEN.pdf

FESTIVAL DEL FLAMENCO/FLAMENCO FESTIVAL, ESCH-SUR-ALZETTE (LUXEMBURGO/LUXEMBOURG)

Quizás no suficientemente conocido en el universo del flamenco es el festival anual que se celebra cada primavera en Esch-sur-Alzette, segunda ciudad de Luxemburgo. Este evento, que acaba de cumplir once ediciones, lo organizan el Círculo Cultural Español Antonio Machado y el lugar de espectáculos Kulturfabrik, conjuntamente con el Instituto Andaluz del Flamenco: dura una semana entera (este año del 27 de mayo al 4 de junio), y combina espectáculos protagonizados por grandes figuras del flamenco actual (canción, baile y guitarra) con talleres prácticos dados por los mismos artistas. Hace varios años que sigo el festival, y este año tuve el placer de ver y escuchar a la bailaora La Lupi, la cantaora Rocío Bazán y el guitarrista Curro de María. Es un logro traer a artistas de tanta calidad a una localidad sin nexo obvio con el flamenco o con España, y así se demuestra que en el mundo de la cultura, la determinación y la creatividad pueden desembocar en resultados sorprendentes …

Flamenco festival programme 2016

Perhaps not sufficiently known in the world of flamenco is the annual festival which takes place every spring in Esch-sur-Alzette, Luxembourg’s second city. Now into its 11th edition and organised by the Círculo Cultural Español Antonio Machado and the Kulturfabrik cultural venue in conjunction with the Instituto Andaluz del Flamenco, the festival lasts a full week (this year from 27 May to 4 June) and combines spectacles with flamenco’s finest contemporary names in song, dance and guitar with practical workshops given by the artists themselves. I have been following this event for several years, and this time round was pleased to witness the bailaora La Lupi, the cantaora Rocío Bazán and the guitarist Curro de María. To being artists of this quality to a locality which has no obvious connection with flamenco or Spain is an achievement, and shows that in the arts world, determination and creativity can bring surprising results!

J.K. ROWLING’S SPEECH AT PEN AMERICA LITERARY GALA 2016: A CHALLENGE FOR ALBUS DUMBLEDORE?

As noted earlier on this blog (21 February 2016), J.K. Rowling was the main invited speaker at this year’s PEN America Literary Gala in New York, held on 16 May 2016,at which she received the PEN/Allen Foundation Literary Service Award for 2016 (see: https://pen.org/2016-PEN-gala#sthash.oYyNL4BI.dpuf). Her chosen theme was one of today’s most burning topics, namely freedom of speech – an issue on which, as we saw last year over the Charlie Hebdo killings, some PEN members have shown attitudes best described as ambivalent.

Rowling, by contrast, is crystal-clear on the issue. In her speech (https://pen.org/2016-pen-literary-gala-parker-rowling), she declared: ‘The tides of populism and nationalism currently sweeping many developed countries have been accompanied by demands that unwelcome and inconvenient voices be removed from public discourse. “Mainstream media” has become a term of abuse in some quarters. It seems that unless a commentator or television channel or a newspaper reflects exactly the complainant’s worldview, it must be guilty of bias or corruption. Intolerance of alternative viewpoints is spreading to places that make me—a moderate and a liberal—most uncomfortable’. She concluded pleading for ‘plurality, tolerance, and the importance of rational discourse’ and expressing the wish that PEN continue to ‘fight for … the freedoms on which a liberal society rests and without which no literature can have value’.

We may conclude that Albus Dumbledore should allow Lord Voldemort to speak, however much he might abhor the latter’s views – arguably a bold position in today’s intolerant times.

This is not the first time Rowling has spoken at a major American event. The slim volume ‘Very Good Lives’, published by Little, Brown in 2015,

JKR Very Good Lives cover

contains her speech at a Harvard ‘commencement’ (graduation ceremony) held in 2008. There too she defends the freedom of the imagination. The world can only be the better-off for such interventions from a writer whose works have given so much pleasure, to children and adults alike.