Friday, 31 July 2009

Enlightenment, Romanticism and the Jewish Diaspora

Amos Oz again, A Tale of Love and Darkness. There’s an aspect of his subject-matter that’s certainly of general historical and cultural interest, but is also relevant to my current preoccupations with what underlies our ideas about the teaching of English in schools.

The Jews he writes about, including his own parents and ancestors back to the eighteenth century, were divided on the Enlightenment, either loving or hating it – loving it as releasing them from what was seen as the superstition of orthodox and mystical religion, with the fearfulness and devious it was thought to promote in Diasporic Jews, or hating it as threatening the appreciation of all that could not be encompassed by rationality.

Oz’s father was decidedly of the rationalist Enlightenment persuasion. He despised Shmuel Agnon as a ‘Diaspora writer’: ‘his stories lack wings… they have no tragic depth, there is not even any healthy laughter but wisecracks and sarcasm… pools of verbose buffoonery and Galician cleverness’ (66). (Galicia: ‘a historical region in East-Central Europe, currently divided between Poland and Ukraine’ – Wikipedia.)

Note that ‘healthy laughter’: Enlightenment – away with stuffy and fussy conventions, euphemisms, avoidances and indirectnesses – abandon waistcoats, ties and old world formality for the open necks and shirt sleeves of the blonde and tanned young Kibbutzniks. Away with ‘sarcasm and cleverness’, ‘the complexes and complexities so typical of the shtetl’ (36). Against the unhealthy Agnon contrast Tchernikowsky, the admired poet who wrote ‘shamelessly about love and even about sensual pleasures’.

‘In keeping with his temperament of a rationalistic Lithuanian Misnaged [opponent of Hassidic Judaism], he loathed magic, the supernatural and excessive emotionalism, anything clad in foggy romanticism or mystery, anything intended to make the senses whirl or to blinker reason’ (66). Hasidic tales were cases of the despised ‘folklore’.

‘My mother used to listen to him speak and instead of replying she would offer us her sad smile, or sometimes she said to me: “Your father is a wise and rational man; he is even rational in his sleep.”’

At the end of his life, though, Oz’s father ‘gradually succumbed, like someone finally releasing his grip on a handrail, to the mysterious charm of Peretz’s stories in particular and Hasidic tales in general’ (37).

(And, as an aside: where did the previous generation, still in Eastern Europe, think the Enlightenment was to be found? Where else but in Germany:

Some eighteen months before the Nazis came to power in Germany, my Zionist grandfather was so blinded by despair at the antisemitism in Vilna that he even applied for German citizenship. Fortunately for us, he was turned down by Germany too. So there they were, these over-enthusiastic Europhiles, who could speak so many of Europe's languages, recite its poetry, who believed in its moral superiority, appreciated its ballet and opera, cultivated its heritage, dreamed of its post-national unity and adored its manners, clothes and fashions, who had loved it unconditionally and uninhibitedly for decades, since the beginning of the Jewish Enlightenment, and had done everything humanly possible to please it, to contribute to it in every way and in every domain, to become part of it, to break through its cool hostility with frantic courtship, to make friends, to ingratiate themselves, to be accepted, to belong, to be loved ... (101))

But an Enlightenment rationalist outlook like that of Oz’s father could coexist with a variety of romanticism. His mother, on the other hand, had been formed by a different, debilitating version:

Both my parents had come to Jerusalem straight from the nineteenth century. My father had grown up on a concentrated diet of operatic, nationalistic, battle-thirsty romanticism (the Springtime of Nations, Sturm und Drang), whose marzipan peaks were sprinkled, like a splash of champagne, with the frenzy of Nietzsche. My mother, on the other hand, lived by the other romantic canon, the introspective, melancholy menu of loneliness in a minor key, soaked in the suffering of broken-hearted, soulful outcasts, infused with vague autumnal scents fin de siècle decadence. (241)

Something in the curriculum of the school she had attended in the twenties in Lithuania,

or maybe some deep romantic mustiness that seeped into the hearts of my mother and her friends in their youth, some dense Polish/Russian emotionalism, something between Chopin and Mickievicz, between the Sorrows of Young Werther and Lord Byron, something in the twilight zone between the sublime, the tormented, the dreamy and the solitary, all kinds of Will-o'-the-wisps of 'longing and yearning', deluded my mother most of her life and seduced her until she succumbed and committed suicide in 1952. She was thirty-eight when she died. I was twelve and a half. (203)

Amos Oz on Israel and Arabs

Like many of us I imagine, I've been in discussions and arguments and even falling-outs over Israel. From my youth I remember the image of idealistic kibbutz; I don’t remember taking much notice of the 1967 Six Day War. I paid little more attention until recent years when I've read one book and a few articles about the history of Israel. A few months ago I read a piece in one of the papers about Amos Oz and gathered that his A Tale of Love and Darkness (trans. Nicholas De Lange, Vintage 2005) gave a detailed personal account of being on the inside of that history.

So that was my big holiday read. As it turns out it’s far more than a personal memoir, going into his family history before the various moves to Palestine and back into the nineteenth century in Eastern Europe.

I wasn’t in fact clear when I started whether it was a memoir or a novel – the blurb didn’t say; the clarity and detail of scenes from his very early childhood and even from episodes before he was born are of a sharpness we associate with novels. The book is about all sorts beyond his own life: characteristics of Diaspora Jews, the feelings of Jews in countries like Poland and Latvia about the ‘real’ Europe to the west, what Jewish children were taught in Jewish schools in Lithuania about Israel, attitudes to the Enlightenment and religion, anti-semitism in Europe; the shabbiness and poverty of the actual Palestine the émigrés encountered (‘The Levant is full of germs,’ his grandmother declared on landing) compared with the image presented in the propaganda, growing up in Jerusalem, the contrast between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion and Begin, the end of the British mandate and the shameful conduct of the British…

The big question people like me have about Israel concerns, of course, the rights and wrongs of its occupation of a land which had previously been more or less Arab, in so far as it was occupied at all and acknowledging that there were still some Jews who had lived there from ancient times. About the legitimacy of Jewish demands for their own state, a homeland, I had no doubts: after their experience of the ‘civilised’, ‘advanced’ states of Europe in the 1930s and 40s, who would say they should trust to their citizenship of any of existing state? But about their relations with the Arabs? Well, one passage in Oz’s book was, I thought, sane and helpful on this and it’s the account I’m inclined to subscribe to until I’m taught otherwise.

Here it is, from pages 418-19:

Monday, 27 July 2009

Brittany stuff

I'd hoped to present you with some nice architectural photos from Finistère but something went wrong with iPhoto when I downloaded them and they're lost. Gateposts of larger farmhouses had struck me as interesting -- granite, carved, square section with interesting top sections. I was going to say how they seem to have symbolic force, as if they have a meaning... Never mind -- next year, perhaps.

Also the villages, or settlements since they're often not bounded but spread across a stretch of landscape like crofts in the west of Ireland. Nearly all the villages and towns are satisfying to look at and I think the reason is standardisation. The colour of practically all the buildings is either that of their material, grey granite, or white. All the woodwork (doors, window frames and shutters) is a strong colour that's the same across the village or district -- usually a greyish blue or dark green. Not white, as in too many English houses. The roofs are all of slate, never of tile.

My neighbour assured me that there was no regulation enforcing paint colour; it was a matter of custom. Whether the same is true for wall and roof materials I don't know.

A final factor is that all the buildings are oriented the same way, even when the road they're on curves. So you get a pleasing rhythm and regularity over the irregular, contingent landscape of small fields cleared in the general bracken, thorn, gorse, broom, honeysuckle and, where there's shelter, ash.

I'll keep trying to get some decent photos that show the architecture.

Meanwhile, the best I can offer you is some sea and estuary: St Malo, Pointe du Raz, Audierne.

Saturday, 25 July 2009

"What is English?"

Just got an email from a student at the Bread Loaf School of English in Vermont inviting me to contribute a brief statement on ‘What is English?’, for some documentary she’s making. I dashed off the following. It doesn’t fulfil the brief but gives expression to stuff I've been thinking and reading recently.

English teaching in its essentials went on before there was any such subject. At Hawkshead Grammar School in the 1780s Wordsworth’s teachers of classics, maths, science, whatever, put books his way — often their own precious copies -- and especially contemporary poetry; they encouraged his own poetry writing and provided a good library. William Hazlitt arriving at Hackney (Dissenting) Academy a few years later and at about the same age, failing to submit a written assignment and under questioning from his teacher, explained that he was already writing his own substantial essay on the foundations of moral life and was invited to continue that and skip the official assignments, simply showing his drafts every so often. The point is, ‘English’ in each case recognised and supported a basic need to explore thoughts and ideas and to find a voice.

English essentially recognises what should be, could be and often is going on anyway: discovering literature (broadly defined) and having recourse to writing and talking as means of discovering and exploring ideas, of understanding the world and of finding and making expressions of one’s experience of it. In the 19th century plenty of working people made their own breakthrough into such an intellectual life, but English teachers can promote it (when they’re not preventing it). At best they lead students to possibilities, helping them get better at literate pursuits and engage with the society’s public discourses.

English belongs in the Enlightenment project — the Enlightenment as in Locke, Hume and Adam Smith and not Bentham, and as broadened by Romanticism to encompass imagination.

Thursday, 23 July 2009

‘He do the Police in different voices’

In Melvyn Bragg’s In Our Time recently someone remarked that the constant unannounced shifts of apparent speaker in The Waste Land make it read like the script for a radio play (a genre not yet invented in 1922).

The general idea that’s regularly put forward about the changing and indeterminate voice in modernist literary works is that it reflects the nature of experience in the new world of modernity, particularly after the First World War. We’d lost the Victorian sense of the security and stability of self and world and now experienced ourselves as constituted by the confusing diversity of discourses that passed through us.

I've never quite recognised that account of our experience. I don’t think I've ever experienced myself as an unstable assemblage of discourses; at the most I sometimes find my ‘inner speech’ incorporating quotes or enacting some style I've picked up from a speaker or writer. Certainly, it took me well into adulthood to arrive at a stable way of speaking – which accent was me, what register – but it was never as if there was no originating centre. It may actually be the case that in some sense we’re made out of the discourses we live amongst, but I never experienced myself like that.

Is the difference between Eliot and me simply that nearly a century has passed since 1922 and that by now we’re used to modernity with its cacophony of voices and its loss of a dominant authoritative voice – the confident enunciator we meet in the sentences of Victorian prose? Very obviously, with the 20th century intellectuals did experience a profound change of ambience: ‘On or about December 1910 human character changed,’ wrote Virginia Woolf. Authoritative discourse no longer had its source in one ruling class but was dispersed – Bakhtin’s heteroglossia; one discourse was always ironised by juxtaposition with another. So writers’ sentences were less inclined to comport themselves as pronouncements of the last word and more inclined to be expressions of ‘what I'm thinking at the moment’ or presentations of possibly thinkable thoughts to which the author is making no definite commitment and in which only tentative illocutionary force is invested: i.e. the guy isn’t actually going to so far as himself saying what his sentences are saying.

Here’s the contrast as described by Bonamee Dobree in 1934 (Modern Prose Style). He quotes a ‘typical piece of nineteenth-century prose’ and says that

‘in its way it is excellent. But the rhythms and inflections are quite different from those of today: it consists, not of thoughts closely followed, not of ideas suggested, but of utterances, of pronouncements….we have the end-stopped phrase: there is a door banged at the end of each, and we feel as though we were on parade receiving orders.’ (225)

l like what Dobree says about what’s going on here (220-21):

‘To say, then, that the hall-mark of good modern prose style is an essential fidelity does not imply that writers of previous generations were charlatans and liars, only that they owed fidelity to other things. And it is here that the spirit of our age imposes itself upon our style. All the previous ages whose writers have been quoted or referred to here had something they could take for granted, and it never occurred to the older writers that they could not take themselves for granted. We can be sure of nothing; our civilization is threatened, even the simplest things we live by: we are on the verge of amazing changes. In our present confusion our only hope is to be scrupulously honest with ourselves, so honest as to doubt our own minds and the conclusions they arrive at. Most of us have ceased to believe, except provisionally, in truths, and we feel that what is important is not so much truth as the way our minds move towards truths. Therefore, to quote M. Cocteau again, 'Form must be the form of the mind. Not a way of saying things, but of thinking them. Perhaps that Is why we nowadays instinctively mistrust any one who pontificates: and, as a matter of experience, if we examine the writings of the pontificators, people skilled in 'a way of saying things', we invariably find that their style is bad, that falsity has crept in somewhere. The writer is not being faithful to the movement of his mind; he is taking things for granted, and he fills us of to-day with uneasiness.

‘We have, then, to judge of the integrity of a modern writer by this sense of himself that we feel he has. If we are to respond, he must (we suppose) be aware of himself as something a little uncertain in this shifting universe: he also is part of the material which he has to treat with respect: he must listen to himself, so to speak, to hear what he has to say. He must not pre- judge, or force an issue: we must be able to imagine that he is talking to himself. In no other way can he achieve a style, which is the sound of his voice, which is the man himself.’

Well, by the time we get to my generation we’ve got used to being sure of nothing – we’ve never known any other condition. So it’s understandable that we don’t identify with the sense of shock, disorientation and confusion that early modernist works are held to express.

On the other hand, it may be that those works aren’t expressing states of mind so much representing the state of the world, that they’re not saying the mind is made up of fragments but asserting that art must now, like our world, be made out of fragments, including, for Eliot, the usable remains of older cultures.

One result is works of wonderful beauty. The quotes from former ages in Eliot, and in Pound’s Cantos, glow like jewels set in drab material. The lines are enhanced by being lifted from their original contexts and stripped of their enunciatory function: we’re enabled to contemplate them as objects in their own right.

Wednesday, 22 July 2009

What it takes to run a good school

Some English schools that had, for whatever reason, experienced disastrous decline in performance have been taken over from their local education authorities and handed to other bodies to be given a fresh start and run as ‘academies’. These academies seem quite diverse, as do the outfits that run them. In some, perhaps most, business has the dominant say: a firm or group of businesses, for instance, might form a trust, provide some of the finance, appoint the head and determine the general character and strategy of the school.

The headteacher is likely to be chosen for being the sort of good manager or leader that businesses respect: one who motivates staff, gives all concerned a sense of having a stake, keeps standards high. In schools that were formerly run down, dispirited and out of control, this sort of new management, when it works, must bring huge relief and hope. In academies that set out to improve the education of children in the poorest and most disadvantaged areas, the importance of that transformation can’t be underestimated. Whether it really takes removal from local democratic control to achieve such change is a contentious issue but not the one that’s concerning me here.

Some academies seem to be doing well under that type of headteacher. In the end, though, that business model of leadership, motivation, purposefulness, determination and so on surely can’t be enough. Schools are about forming persons, and specifically their minds – what they know, how they think, their command of the public discourses of learning. They effect this formation by managing the students' encounters and interactions with knowledge, with the developed intellectual culture of the society and a wide range of its products. Learners have to be induced to move into difficult, strenuous engagement with the academic and arts disciplines; the scope of their knowledge, thinking and response has to be expanded out of all recognition and way beyond what would come about through ordinary exposure to life, television and the internet. School students need to develop along routes that can potentially lead to their being educated and cultured, to use the latter word in the unembarrassed way that, say, Russians do: the resources of intellectual culture – its habits and its knowledge – have to get internalised.

This must mean that besides a generically ‘motivating’ management, schools need intellectual leadership. I don’t know if the head himself or herself has to fill that role, but key teachers if not all teachers need to be philosophers. They need to have thought deeply about the purposes of education and what it is to acquire ease and familiarity within the main arts, science, social science and mathematical disciplines, what’s involved in the transition from being a kid on the street to someone who begins to be a mathematician or classical musician or historian, or at least who reads widely by choice and habitually has recourse to writing as a diverse means of expression, thought, discovery and invention.

Schools won’t get there simply by having some sort of generic ‘high standards’ for behaviour, attitude and assiduity, or even just an unspecified belief in the children (‘Yes, you can’) -- and then, for ‘content’, simply trusting to the government-provided programmes of studying and testing; they need to know what they’re doing in a deeper sense and to engage seriously with the nature of academic knowledge. The teachers need to be educated and cultured people with a desire to induct the young into the worlds in which they lead their own intellectual lives.

To resume

Now, what was I saying? I've been in Brittany for a month, no internet except occasional sessions with coffee in Bar le Roulis, Esquibien, facing the ocean, the ferry pulling out to Ile de Sein, the vast empty beach with greater black back gulls, hikers on the coast path…

Just in case you find that my ideas have radically changed over that interval, you might need to know about my reading:

Richard Bronk, The Romantic Economist
Muriel Spark, The Abbess of Crewe (hilarious)
Tommy Steele, Bermondsey Boy
Amos Oz, A Song of Love and Darkness
Alan First, Night Soldiers (spies, 1930s, Le Carré-like, good book for long car ferry journeys)
Douglas Dunn, Selected Poems
Seth, George Sprott 1894-1975, a picture novella – big lovely present, thick card covers, 36 x 30 cm
Terry Eagleton, The Gatekeeper, another memoir (like Steele)
For my French, a policier by Joseph Bialot – good for idiomatic dialogue, though I rapidly tire of crime fiction and haven’t bothered to finish it.

I won’t list the ones I took but didn’t read. I might have if it had rained a lot but the weather was either hot and lovely, too hot or just nice and great for walking the coast path, with occasional showers, mainly at night. The Finistere type of landscape is called la lande, translated ‘moor’: gorse, bracken, bramble, broom, heather, honeysuckle, ivy, with deer, rabbits, hawks, meadow pipits and swallows. My ideal house would have swallows to sharpen my sense of the onset of spring and winter because they are wonderful birds to watch.

The books that most unexpectedly impressed me was Tommy Steele’s autobiography. I read it because my research into the history of Walworth or Mina Road School relates to Bermondsey and Southwark at the time Tommy was living there. Bermondsey Boy was well written, funny, interesting and moving – I ended up liking and respecting the guy: he’s decent, talented in pursuits outside show business, intelligent – and literate because he missed a lot of (sec mod) school through illnesses and instead read because there was nothing else to do in hospital, indiscriminately and voraciously, almost like Amos Oz as a kid. Kenneth Allsop in The Angry Decade (1958) thought Tommy Steele was a healthy development after the charts had been dominated by American singers.

Might write more about one or two of the books now I'm back in business and things are quieter, it being late July.

Now I've got all my photos to go through and all those taken by the people who were with me and have posted them on PhotoBox.