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In fact, there are many uses of the innumberable opportunities a modern life supplies for regarding – at a distance, through the medium of photography – other people’s pain. Photographs of an atrocity may give rise to opposing responses. A call for peace. A call for revenge. Or simply the bemused awareness, continually restocked by photographic information, that terrible things happen.
Folks I am beat. Today has been a long day. I volunteer with an organisation based in Sydney known as the Centre for Volunteering. Today the third annual New South Wales Volunteer of the Year Award was held at Parliament House, to celebrate and acknowledge the good works of people within the state who give of their time to help others, often with little recognition.
It was a wonderful morning. Standing in a packed out theatre of volunteers, all of whom evidencing incredible reserves of goodwill and determination, I really felt as if I was fortunate to have played some small part in helping the event go off without a hitch.
So I am quite tired at the moment and am about to prepare dinner for my lovely wife, so this is going to be a short and sweet review. Nevertheless, I mention the above for a reason, which is that oftentimes watching the news, reading the papers (or browsing my personal source of Orwellian ‘Two Minute Hate’, http://www.bocktherobber.com), I can’t help but feel we have become sunk in a mire of corruption, misery, greed and, quite frankly, evil. Is this the result of civilization, a growing sense of impotence at the suffering of others in the world? Or worse again, a voyeuristic impulse to observe and not interfere with the tragic events unfolding on our television screens?
In this discursive examination of the role played by photography in our awareness of atrocities both home and abroad, relating to war and/or violence, Susan Sontag questions to what degree our appreciation of these images is founded on an abiding voyeurism. At one point she quotes from Plato’s Republic, where Leontius, son of Aglaion, is reported to have approached the bodies of just executed criminals, despite his strong feelings of disgust. He runs up to the corpses and cries “There you are, curse you, feast yourselves on that lovely sight“.
How does that anecdote, apart from its classical origins, distinguish itself from a contemporary teenager browsing ‘SomethingAwfulDotCom’ (I’m not going to link to that site here)?
Sontag’s breadth of reference in this book is incredible. She concentrates for the most part on war photography and its origins, covering the period from the Crimean War up to Franco’s atrocities in the Spanish Civil War; from Vietnam to the Serb-Croat war in Bosnia.
She investigates the history of staged war photographs, such as the raising of the flag on Iwo Jima. Contrasting with such images of soldiers in war, meant to inspire hope for success in the conflict, or an image snatched from a moment of pure horror that is seared on to the mind of anyone who has seen it – Huynh Cong Ut’s photograph of Vietnamese children running from an American napalm attack, with their skin on fire – we have a delightful description of a photograph taken in London during the Blitz of three men inspecting a wall of books that has survived the bombing. I was inspired to track this image down, as for me it carries great metaphorical weight relating to the value of literature and present it to you below.
Sontag questions the argument that war photography has innured in us a sense of banality in response to images of death, by revealing that as far back as 1800 (!) similar concerns were being raised about news reporting. This was before photographs came on to the scene. It is as if exposure to the awareness of the evil that men do is thought of as being threatening to the moral character of the viewer. Hence the level of censorship in current war reporting and the phenomenon of ‘embedded journalists’.
There may be a visceral response on the part of the viewer to an image that would be considered horrific, but in no way does that justify the blanket censorship of such imagery. It is only through confronting these images that we can defeat that much maligned apathy towards the suffering of others.
Incisive, wide-ranging and brilliant in its argumentation. Fantastic book.
“Why did you leave Ireland”?
“I was sick,” he said. “I was sick of Ireland, he laughed.”
“Seriously, if you knew anything about the country you wouldn’t ask me why I left.”
There is a moment towards the end of this book when the protagonist Katherine Procter walks down Grafton Street in Dublin late at night, crosses the Ha’Penny Bridge over the River Liffey, continues on towards Blackhall Place and finally reaches her destination of Carnew Street. I smirked to myself when I read this and remarked to Stephanie that you could tell this book was not set in the present day.
Eight months ago I was mugged at knife-point in Dublin. Every day after that I was scared to go out on to the streets at night. I desperately wanted to leave the city. The date of our departure for Australia seemed an eternity away. When I think of Dublin now, that is what I remember, an unending, oppressive sense of fear. In a very real sense, I saw my travelling to Australia as escape.
Katherine is also looking to escape. Born and raised in Wexford, she has left her husband and child and fled to Spain. When she thinks of Ireland she remembers the dead relationship between Tom the man she married and her herself; her estranged son, who takes after his father in every respect; and finally she remembers the local people in the area who hated her family for being Anglo-Irish Protestants, who burned down her house when she was only a child. Her own mother left Ireland afterwards, terrified of the Irish and refusing to return from London. Now Katherine has followed in her foot-steps.
Barcelona is a world away from Enniscorthy. Katherine discovers an enclave of bohemian artists and begins to receive training in becoming a painter herself. She meets Miguel, an enigmatic man who uses art to frame the political upheaval in Spain following the Civil War and falls in love with him. Her mother sends her enough money to support herself and together with her new lover, she begins to reinvent herself, leaving her past as a member of the Irish landowner class behind.
The arrival of Irishman and Enniscorthy native Michael Graves in Barcelona puts Katherine on edge. Not only is he an insistent reminder of the life she ran away from, as a Roman Catholic he symbolises to her the same mob that attacked her home causing the breakup of her family when she was a child during ‘The Troubles’ in the South of Ireland. Furthermore he attaches himself to Katherine and Miguel from the moment they first meet him. She wakes up the first morning after encountering the Irishman to find him asleep beside her lover.
It appears that not only is her past not finished with her, but Miguel’s own history has caught up with the couple. He refuses to hide his anti-Francoist fervour, risking imprisonment. His status as a former revolutionary and a Catalan makes him a target for police intimidation. Katherine cannot understand why he insists on reliving his hatred for the Spanish fascist regime, why he cannot simply plan a future for them together. She slowly comes to recognize that Miguel’s wartime activities are not so different from the actions of the landless Catholics who attacked her family thirty years ago.
This is a beautifully written first novel by Colm Tóibín. The parallels drawn between the Irish and Spanish Civil Wars are cannily illustrated, with Katherine’s blinkered inability to recognize the hatreds of her own upbringing causing her to view the historical wounds of Spain as exotic curiosities. Tóibín’s writing is reminiscent of John Banville’s European Irish fiction, with protagonists finding inescapable echoes of Ireland on the Continent.
I strongly identified with Katherine as my own relationship with my homeland has become twisted by fear, despite knowing how irrational that feeling is. Funnily enough I continue to meet Michael Graves all over Sydney, the Irish accent reappearing at the oddest times. This is the life of an emigrant, I suppose, finding reminders of home wherever I go. More importantly though I am no longer afraid of returning home. Australia, and in part writing for this blog, allowed me the opportunity to heal.
This book is beautifully observed, thematically insightful and ferries its haunted protagonists to a welcome peace of sorts.
It was not a bang, it was a rumble, not overloud, but it thudded into all corners of the morning like a great door slammed in the deepest hollows of the sea. Beside me a heavy wire stay unexpectedly quivered like a cello string for a moment, then stopped.
Now, standing up unsteadily from the sea, was the famous Mushroom.
‘Where were you when it happened?’ Isn’t that the refrain after any major event, or historical signpost erected in hindsight? ‘What were you thinking when you heard the news?’ Historical accounts give a narrative to the events that overtake us throughout our lives, establishing a meaning, or telos as the philosophy lecturers say, out of the reports and findings that are pored over. The twentieth century still defines us, that is to say our understanding of the past one hundred years define us, our ideas of nationality, culture, who we are as peoples. The danger lies in being too selective in what we remember and what we ignore.
Robert Fox’s book is a collection of different writings on the twentieth century. It features easily digestible extracts from personal journals, biographies, reports and, as the twenty-first century approaches, web-blogs. There are even selections from the fiction of Kurt Vonnegut and Joseph Heller, folk songs from Woody Guthrie and gonzo ramblings from Hunter S. Thompson. The book begins with the age of discovery and ends with the century’s extended epilogue that followed the events of September 11 2001. A ‘clash of civilizations’, along religious lines on a scale not seen since the Second World War.
This book also describes the evolution of how we account for our history, the changes in the language employed to describe momentous events. Marie and Pierre Curie’s discovery of radium is an adventure that equals the race to the Antarctic between Scott and Amundsen. Britain’s Edwardian Age is seen as the last gasp of the Empire, with the fallout from the tragic expedition to the South Pole a presentiment of the dark days ahead. We refer to the First World War, placing it in sequence. To the peoples of Europe it was known as the Great War, which spread from the mainland to Africa and felled the Russian Tsarist regime. Fox presents John Reed’s ‘Ten Days that Shook the World’, once more, reporting the spontaneous cry ‘Revolutionary discipline! Property of the People..’ during the attempted sack of the Winter Palace. We have an account from the son of a Turkish soldier, whose father was left to die by his fellow troops somewhere on the side of a road. Then there is the Easter Rising in Dublin, seizing the opportunity to try and fight a beleaguered British occupation.
The cracks that followed a ‘peace that brings more victims tomorrow’ (a quote from a Serbian General from an article published in 1993) inevitably pulls Europe towards a second conflagration. The Spanish Civil War becoming a testing ground for German Blitzkrieg; the new form of journalism that evolves on the hoof courtesy of writers such as George Orwell soon coming to define the style of war reporting; the burning of the Reichstag; the grim doom levelled on European Jews by an insensible madman; and the centrifugal force of the conflict sucking in armies from America, Japan and Australia. Finally the testing of the atomic bomb at the Bikini Atoll, a death-warrant for the whole of humanity prematurely signed with the swirl of a mushroom cloud.
Fox darts and weaves between enemy lines to give a broader appreciation to the conflicts he covers. The story of a British POW escapee’s encounter with a sympathetic German lepidopterist in Occupied Italy was a favourite of mine, as well as the suspicion Robert Graves receives for carrying a copy of Nietzsche’s poems, portrayed in the press as ‘the sinister figure behind the Kaiser’. Then there’s Evelyn Waugh’s contribution to travel writing: ‘I do not think I shall ever forget the sight of Etna at sunset; the mountain almost invisible in a blur of pastel grey, glowing on the tops and then repeating its shape, as though reflected, in a wisp of grey smoke, with the whole horizon behind radiant with pink light, fading gently into a grey pastel sky. Nothing I have even seen in art or nature was quite so revolting.’
Fox’s selections are both intimate and revealing. I wonder if we even now realize how soon history will leave us behind.