We read everything

“We read everything” is a maxim I repeat, and a principle I maintain. There is nothing that comes before our senses to which we do not instantly ascribe significance, meaning, nothing we see or hear or feel that we do not instantly interpret. There is no curve of nature that does not inspire awe, repugnance, fear, or delight, so much so that we have to make sounds or typeface to stand for it, out of which grows all metaphor, metonymy, synecdoche, whatever. There is no vertical nor horizontal of human construction that does represent our intervention – more, that is not an integral and unavoidable part of that intervention – each vertical calling “I” and each horizontal causing our eyes to track it left and right and imbue it with “this and that.”

These interpretations tend to cluster, tend to form a general consensus, so that each eye and ear within the clustering circle can understand, to some extent, the other mouths and writing hands.

6. Cold War covers

But there is inevitable slippage. No sign can mean the same thing to me every time I encounter it, because each encounter is a fresh one and pertinent only to its own moment. At that moment the sign is like anything else, less a reassuring repetition of something well-grounded, more a breaking-in, a rupture of the meniscus of the calm pond of consciousness. Its significance is not necessarily going to be from the consensus, but more readily from associations we bring to it. Maurice Merleau-Ponty has carved the initials “MM-P” on a table, letters with their simple ‘common’ values:

[…] this table bears traces of my past life, for I have carved my initials on it and spilt ink on it. But these traces in themselves do not refer to the past; they are present; and in so far as I find in them signs of some ‘previous’ event, it is because I derive my sense of the past from elsewhere, because I carry this particular significance within myself. (413)

Thus the code of the consensus is disrupted, subverted, shaken by an immediate experience. The meanings and memories it brings up – some to take my attention away and down a whole new, vivid train of thought, some to pop like soap bubbles, bright for a moment and then gone, some to nag quietly and subtly – are unique. The colours red, green, and blue pull things from my mental shelf. A whisky glass, a cigarette, the cut of a tired, grey suit or an open raincoat, the posture of a submissive woman, all familiar things, but even if encountered again and again and again the encounter is different, the associations new, or newly-met, or renewably-met. And if I repeat the sign to you, the difference is multiplied, the slippage ebbs and flows according to what it evokes in you, rather than according to the consensus. The consensus does have power, great power, power enough to influence what is pulled from the shelf, what is evoked, but not absolute power.

We read everything, but what we read into everything is another matter.



Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Translated by

Colin Smith, Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1962

Goebbels, Flowerpots, Skinheads, Lies, and History.

A trail, rather than a train, of thought today led me from trivia to the consideration of perception and history. Perception changes history. Goebbels voiced the opinion that a lie, repeated often enough, would become accepted fact, but I doubt if he invented that concept. It is so, even if the lie is unintentional, or in a good cause.

Once a lie takes hold, it is hard to shift. Take, as a trivial example, what people ‘know’ about a children’s television puppet show from the 1950s, Bill and Ben the Flowerpot Men. Ask anyone what they know about them, and this is what you’ll hear.

Ooh Flobberlob!”

“They used to say ‘flobberlob’, didn’t they?”

The fact is that they didn’t. As a very young child I used to sit on a little footstool in front of our family’s television, its small screen as thick as bottle-glass, and watch this programme. Bill and Ben who lived at the bottom of a garden, where a house with a smiley face kept a knowing eye upon them and their friend the Little Weed, would get up to petty adventures, and when one of them did something silly, or naughty, or brave, the narrator with her beautiful BBC English, would sing a little song to encourage us to guess which one of them it was. The Flowerpot Men’s voices were strange, contracting both vowels and consonants into a handful of sounds, but they spoke English, and I could understand them perfectly.

‘Flobberlob’ is a nonsense word, without an English equivalent, and neither Bill nor Ben used nonsense words. Someone listening with only half an ear might have heard them say “Flobberpop” (“flowerpot”) or “Ooh loblob” (“Oh lovely”), but never, ever did they say “flobberlob.” Nevertheless, this minor, barely significant little lie took hold, and has remained in the British cultural consciousness ever since.

From the 1950s, my trail of thought went to 1969, and the youth phenomenon of the Skinheads, and again to my direct experiences of the time. Just as the nonsense over the children’s television show, a handful of lies have their origin in inattention or mis-hearing. Preparing an article for the Observer Colour Magazine, featuring a ‘stag group’ of street kids from Deptford known as ‘the Smithies’, the journalist heard a word which he interpreted as “caff” (a vernacular form of ‘café’) but which was probably “gaff” (house or premises, in London slang). The article uses “caff.” Another journalist reported that amongst the other names that London Skinheads called themselves was “Spy Kids.” As a result, a handful of copy-cat groups elsewhere in the UK start to refer to themselves as “Spy Kids.” What the journalist had actually heard was the phrase “Spike Heads” in a London accent. But the lie persisted.

Why should I care? Well, apart from the fact that I have collated and edited a book about that youth phenomenon of 1969, to be published in 2019, there is the general principle that if we get trivial things wrong about the past, how many of these pile up to make the study and interpretation of history as a whole inaccurate? If we do not document, as best we can, the truth, then what is handed down to us is the lie. Our perception is coloured by the lie, and that changes history. Lies are dangerous things; we know this only too well in 2018, as we live at a time when established facts are denounced as “Fake News” and fictions are beatified as “alternative facts.”

As a consequence of my academic interest in the published writing of W.G. Sebald, I have been concerned in the recovery of the lost societal and cultural strata of Europe, in the first half of the 20c. I am not alone in speculating that the rise of right-wing, racialist, and hard-ethnist groups, amongst the generations in Central and Eastern Europe too young to have any memory of the continent’s not-too-distant history, is partly due to their having grown up in countries largely stripped of diversity. Notably the presence of Jews at every level, integrated or separated, indistinguishable or overt, is something outside their experience[1]. Thus those writers, artists, chroniclers of pre-WW2 Europe are so valuable to us – they nail the lie of a mono-ethnic Europe.

Sebald relied not only on text but also on image. Contradictorily, very few of the images he used in his books were definite or definitive. Most bore only loose relevance to the text, and raised more questions than answers. Looking back at the earlier 20c, at the Holocaust, and at the post-war, deliberate forgetfulness, the vagueness of the images seems to make some sort of sense – we are being introduced to something by being shown how hard it is to recapture, how easily meaning, relevance, and truth slip through our fingers. More concrete evidence in images was captured, at the time, by photographer Roman Vishniac. Although Vishniac was prolific and had a long career, he is mostly remembered for documenting immediately pre-Holocaust Jewish society in Central Europe. Sometimes this documentation is oblique, as in a set of photographs taken on a Berlin street in 1935. Ostensibly it is simply a study of passers-by. The fact that in the background of all the shots a swastika flag flies over the doorway of a shop is almost incidental; but it shows how Nazism became part of normality.

Roman Vishniac - Street Scene with swastika flag in background 1

The series of pictures is class-diverse. In one shot the passers-by are smartly dressed and bourgeois, in another they are working class. There are male and female figures, there are adults, children, and babies. But behind all the foregrounds the subtle reminder of the Hakenkreuz is visible. Vishniac’s style in these photographs is apparently straightforward and documentary, redolent of location and era in the way that Robert Doisneau, in a different way and to different effect, captured Paris. There is a sense of vérité.

However, it is wrong to take even Vishniac for granted. The overall value of his work has only really been appreciated since his archive of photographs has been opened up. Alana Newhouse, writing in 2010 for the New York Times, reported the work of Maya Benton in uncovering the misleading nature of what had been considered Vishniac’s heritage up to then[2]. It is an article well worth reading, and I recommend it to anyone who follows this web page. The images released under Vishniac’s name, presented a very narrow perception of pre-war European Jewry – devout and shtetl-bound – which, perhaps, was necessary to counter Nazi anti-Semitic rhetoric and imagery, to give Jews, both in the further diaspora and amongst the contemporaneous refugees, a sense of their own human preciousness, and to evoke sympathy amongst Gentile viewers outside mainland Europe. But the narrowness of the selection of images is not the only problem, as Alana Newhouse points out. In the 1983 book of Vishniac photographs, A Vanished World, there occurs what is very likely to have been a deliberate mis-captioning of a pair of images, presented together. The caption and another commentary read thus:

“The father is hiding from the Endecy (members of the National Democratic Party). His son signals him that they are approaching. Warsaw, 1938 […] “The pogromshchiki” — a lynch mob — “are coming. But the iron door was no protection.”

Roman Vishniac - iron door

The photographs, however, were taken in Warsaw and in Łodz. The juxtaposition and the caption promote a lie. Perhaps I am hard-hearted to have used the word ‘lie’ throughout this piece, but I have done so deliberately. Desperate times and desperate situations do endanger the truth, often causing it to be put in a drawer for the duration. As Senator Hiram Johnson said, “The first casualty, when war comes, is truth.”[3] The greater problem comes when, for one reason or another, vested interest keeps the truth arcane when the desperate time is past. Was there any reason, in 1983, to maintain a particular perception about Warsaw in 1938? Who can say. The value of whole truth to a research student, even if it contradicts the convenience of our cognitive biases, is inestimable, as is the new preciousness that the Vishniac archive now affords. The microcosm of the shtetl did vanish, but so did the integrated Jewish culture of the shtot – or rather the Stadt – and probably in greater numbers. Not only the rural poor and religiously devout were swallowed up by the horrors of the Holocaust, but the urbane, the bourgeois, the intellectual Jews from every class.

No matter what our field of research, a student will find things that discomfort accepted wisdom, things that make an accepted lie totter. It is a hard furrow to plough, especially when that ‘accepted wisdom’ is one we have ourselves subscribed to, but it is one that must be ploughed.



[1] Anti-Semitism is not necessarily as prominent in many 21c rightist political movements as one might expect. Some demagogues, such as Stephen Yaxley-Lennon (a.k.a. ‘Tommy Robinson’ and other aliases) profess themselves to be ‘Zionist’ or ‘pro-Zionist’. However, depending on the individual or group concerned, this may be due to a covert desire to support geographical separation of Jews and non-Jews, or to a hatred of Muslims and, by association, approval of the state of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Political allegiances among right-wing groups are far from simplistic, predictable, or stable. Outside of the United States, rightist populism may even bring with it left-seeming social policies.

[2] Newhouse, Alana. “A Closer Reading of Roman Vishniac.” New York Times online, 1stApril 2010. http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/04/magazine/04shtetl-t.html.

[3] The Johnson quote is not substantiated, however – perhaps this is another example of how perception affects history – and a variation of the sentiment is also  attributed to Arthur Ponsonby and others including Dr. Samuel Johnson and Aeschylus. http://www.theguardian.com/notesandqueries/query/0,5753,-21510,00.html

‘There Is No Other Way To Worship Them’ by Samuel Snoek-Brown. Review

Samuel Snoek-Brown. There Is No Other Way To Worship Them. Tacoma WA, Blue Cactus Press, 2018. pp.1-205. ISBN 9781722922160 (paperback), $16US.

snoek-brownSam Snoek-Brown is one of those under-the-radar writers who deserve more attention. His debut novel Hagridden was a re-working of Kaneto Shindo’s movie Onibaba, transposed to the bayous of Louisiana during the chaos of the American Civil War, but with extra forces of nature and supposed super-nature working upon it. His unique style may be compared to that of Cormac McCarthy, but with an added baroque touch, a sense of wonder and of the phenomenal within the experience of each moment. There is also a hint of modernism in his short stories, the medium within which he works at his best, inasmuch as there is often not so much a resolution to them as a sense of moving onwards, as though peace and kensho are the next step, or the one after next. Having been captivated before by his short stories, especially one from his earlier collection, Where There Is Ruin, where someone keeps returning to a spot in the woods where a beautiful body is decomposing over time, I was only too eager to read his latest collection.

I instantly hit a problem. The first story, ‘Jarabe’, is set on the debatable early nineteenth-century border between Mexico and Texas, and the writer has to find some way to convey, in modern English, the flow of Mexican Spanish at that time. It is always a difficult task for a writer to take a step back and across like that, and the result can often seem stilted and mannered. Snoek-Brown’s touch here almost works, but it is halt enough to disturb the reader a little. There is a tendency to season the English with Spanish words as ‘fixers’, but having said that, some of these words do not have any direct equivalent. For example, bruja is too easily translated as ‘witch’, but one has to appreciate that a Yaqui medicine-woman is part magician, part priestess, part natural scientist, part healer, and more. Thankfully the style does not limp too badly, and it doesn’t take a lot of effort to get to the moving-onwards point of the story, and it is just that – the next step is towards Louisiana.

But not yet. In fact, do we ever get there, or do we continue to hover around the Texas/Mexico borderland? The second story finds us arriving by Greyhound bus back in Mexico, back to the land of the Spanish fixer word. But this time they fall like flakes of ground pepper from a mill, and they do so with a purpose, which is to show the disturbance from peace that mixed heritage and culture can bring in the days when cultures and races are villages stockaded against each other – Mexican, American, ‘good’ Spanish, ‘bad’ Spanish, Italian, Chinese. The third story is stylistically disturbing again for no other reason than it shifts from third- to first-person, and by this point the reader must surely realise that the disturbance and dissonance is deliberate – how can we ever know calm without first knowing its opposite? The first-person narration is an inward journey for the reader, and a sudden appreciation of little borders to cross instead of big ones between states and countries, little borders between neighbours, neighbours seen but not known, little borders crossed only in finality. But there is no finality, only another step.

There is noBy the fourth story, which is fraught and obsessive, we begin to wonder whether there are connections between the characters in the stories so far. Is the protagonist someone who has been mentioned earlier, or is his name merely a coincidence? Do we ever meet that mentioned person anywhere in the collection? Does that matter, seeing as at the end the tension lessens from seethe to simmer, leaving the next step a choice between tempest and calm? Story five: a suicidal ex-husband, a girl with a missing toe, frightened feral dogs, an untraceable stench, and a man who in a moment of agony and fear calls out not for his wife but for a past love. Confronted by a border between present and past there is no calm, only “an unruly thunderstorm, a good spring war of rain that came out of the sky like it’d been poured out of some upended bathtub,” and we have an objective lesson in which way not to face a border.

Perhaps the only traveller through time in these stories, the one who crosses physical borders and the limes that separate human lifetimes, is a giant tortoise whose marijuana-driven frenzy stands for the human psyche but whose sloth and silence represent the ultimate in ineffable peace of mind that it is so hard for a human to grasp.

What are these stories about? They have about them an air of magic realism, but as so often with Snoek-Brown’s work, what may be supposed to be magical turns out to be phantom, and there is always something that is hard and real, against which the characters are brought up short. They always have a sense of wonder in both senses – awe and bewilderment – often in the face of something very basic and banal. In every case memory of what was, and what has been lost, is forced through one hundred and eighty degrees to face what is to come.

Reclaiming “degenerate art”

It was never my intention to present a visual blog. However, as the url of this site contains the components of the question “What the hell is art?” I thought it would do no harm to make an exception. My interest in the work of W.G. Sebald involves a bias toward anything that recalls to us the Europe that was lost because of National Socialism.

HitlerTo the National Socialist propagandists of the Third Reich, art certainly did not include ‘Entartete Kunst’, the so-called ‘degenerate art’ of Jews and émigrés, modernists and expressionists, much of the important European visual artists and art movements of the 20c. Eighty years ago the Nazis put on an exhibition of Entartete Kunst, at which Hitler stared in disbelief and disgust. In response, a counter-exhibition was opened in London, showcasing works by Wassily Kandinsky, Oskar Kokoschka, Paul Klee, Max Liebermann, Emil Nolde, and many others. The exhibition was not to everyone’s taste, and its status as a political riposte was played down, nevertheless it was an important event.

To mark the eightieth anniversary of the London exhibition, the Liebermann Villa on Lake Wannsee, in the outskirts of Berlin, will exhibit a ‘representative sample’ of art from the London exhibition. The exhibition will be open from 7th October 2018 to 14th January 2019, and if you are planning to be in Berlin during that period, a trip to the Liebermann Villa would be a  worthwhile diversion.

I can’t guarantee that all of the examples of ‘degenerate art’ – and I promise that is the last time I will use the term – shown below will be on display at the Liebermann Villa. Franz Marc’s ‘Big Blue Horses’, for example, was certainly featured at the London exhibition, as were works by Käthe Kollwitz and Helmut Kolle; those by Heckel, Archipenko, van Heemskerck, and Kokoschka will be on display, I believe. I hope Max Leibermann’s portrait of Albert Einstein will also be there. To me, these paintings are as fresh, exciting, and challenging today as they were around a century ago, and have as great a worth as they ever did as expressions of both intentional and unintentional resistance.

Alexander Archipenko - Collage - 1913 - Moderna Museet, Stockholm
Alexander Archipenko, ‘Collage’, 1913, Moderna Museet Stockholm.
Erich Heckel - Bathers - 1914 - Kunstmuseum Bonn
Erich Heckel, ‘Bathers’, 1914, Kunstmuseum Bonn.
Franz Marc - Large Blue Horses- 1911 - Walker Art Center
Franz Marc, ‘Large Blue Horses’, 1911, Walker Art Center.
Helmut Kolle, ‘Self Portrait in Hunting Attire’, c1930.
Jacoba van Heemskerck - Segelbild - c1915 - Moderna Museet, Stockholm
Jacoba van Heemskerck, ‘Segelbild’, c1915, Moderna Museet Stockholm.
Käthe Kollwitz - Woman With dead child - 1903 - Trustees of British Museum
Käthe Kollwitz, ‘Woman with Dead Child’, 1903, Trustees of the British Museum.
Kokoschka self portrait 1937 [2]
Oskar Kokoschka, ‘Self-portrait of a Degenerate Artist’, 1937, National Galleries of Scotland.
Max Liebermann portrait of Einstein
Max Liebermann, ‘Portrait of Albert Einstein’.

Compared to many of the above, the portrait of Einstein seems remarkably restrained in style. Liebermann was essentially an impressionist artist. Its importance lay, of course, in the fact that that the world-famous subject was a German Jew who had renounced his German citizenship in 1933, handing in his passport to the German Consulate in Antwerp, and that the artist who painted him was also Jewish. In the portrait, Einstein’s eyes are not focussed on the viewer, but somewhere over our right shoulder. By contrast, Kokoschka’s self-portrait challenges the viewer with a stare. It is the latest-created painting I have selected, and the one which was a direct response to Nazi ideology. The subject/painter’s face is set, his sleeves are pushed up as though he is half-stripped for action, and his arms are partly folded in a kind of defensive-aggressive pose. In the background an indistinct figure passes by, as though representing those who would not, or could not be bothered, to make some kind of stand against National Socialism. The disgust and disbelief shown by Hitler at the art shown above is, to me, enough recommendation to take it seriously and celebrate it.