These days, seems like there’s a check-list whenever a new sci-fi flick comes out, a formula for articles, think-pieces, and commentary to be made, ritualistically whipping up the internet into a self-righteous froth. These last few days have been more-or-less the same.
Caught the new Blade Runner earlier this week, at the local Vue. Not our usual cinéma de choix, but they’ve implemented a pretty hefty reduction on Monday ticket prices – perhaps they’re feeling the financial pinch.
I’m not a Dickhead (though I’m certainly guilty of being a dickhead…), so I didn’t go into this overly invested. Well, that’s not precisely true – I was concerned by the cutting of some of the early trailers, which seemed to be action-heavy in a way that didn’t sync with my memories of the original film (it’s been about a decade since I saw it last – couldn’t tell you which version, though I recall overdubs – and I’ve not read any Philip K. of novel length) which seemed a shame. I allayed my fears remembering that it was Villeneuve directing (which was a leap of faith in itself – I’ve not yet seen Arrival) and was reassured that the atmos, at least, would be on point. I wasn’t disappointed.
More on the ritualistic criticisms, though – as per usual, there have been accusations of vacuousness (untrue) misogyny (kinda true) and racial insensitivity (pretty accurate). Maybe it’s because I’m not paying as close attention, but I don’t really get the sense that other genres, outside of the speculative like sci-fi or fantasy, get the same sort of treatment. This is not to say there are no criticisms lobbed at your latest Disney effort, or the most recent Scandi-noir police procedural or what have you – when these films are egregiously out of step they are rightly upbraided – but they don’t seem to have the same rubric of criticism applied. Perhaps it’s because, as speculative fiction, sci fi looks at the possibilities for the future, and a future that leaves out large chunks of the present is both morally and structurally myopic. Perhaps it’s because the audience of this genre overlaps significantly with the Tumblr crowd of rambunctious moral arbiters. Who’s to say?
I, white cis het male that I am, feel that the film for the most part avoids accusations of misogyny. It certainly portrays many of its female characters in an overtly-sexualised manner, but, insofar as I can tell, this does not a misogynistic film make—the portrayal of misogyny is not misogyny tout court. Importantly, and this is where the film stumbles on other criticisms, the portrayal of women in Blade Runner 2049 is in keeping with that of the original Blade Runner, insofar as the society’s approach to gender is concerned. The world of the original was a grossly sexist place, and so too is that of the sequel. As much as the Blade Runner-verse happens in a time-line adjacent to our own real-world one, it’s probably a faithful representation of what would happen to our society in a hyper-commercialised future – hell, it’s probably what we’re headed towards at the moment. It’s not as if the multi-story holographic adverts that dance above the street-level replicant manifestations of the product don’t have real-world analogues. This is just a dialled-up version of what we already have, with the pop-princess du jour filling our various media with a commodified sexuality, reinforcing and guiding the trends of society’s actual sex workers, the logics of pornography stamped into us day-in, day-out.
Blade Runner 2049 doesn’t revel in its portrayal of misogyny. It’s not lurid, it’s not exploitative. It definitely has characters that use women, or woman-analogues, in a less-than-positive light (the protagonist foremost amongst them), and shows a society that, much like our own, is pervaded by the otiose relish of the female form, but to do otherwise would be dishonest to the story it is telling. A protagonist who possesses all the right views on women, whilst also on the arc that the story requires of him, would jar. A society that is as steeped in a runaway capitalism as that of Blade Runner but also respects women is a contradiction in terms – sexism, just as racism, is concomitant with capitalism; they can’t be pulled apart. Hell, this is a society that is literally built on slaves – it’s the whole thrust of the story – why would you expect it to have anything but trash gender politics? But, even in showing all this, the film doesn’t become complicit in it. While it doesn’t go so far as to damn what it shows – it’s more harsh on the hollowness of these relationships than the power imbalance inherent – it doesn’t actively enjoy it, either. It has ample opportunity to: the “love scene” between the protagonist and his “partner” could have been much more sordid, aimed entirely at titillation. Instead, it is used to underline the core concerns of the series, that of the nature of personhood and the ambiguities, the uncanniness, of possible human-adjacent realities.
The more accurate complaint revolves around non-white people in the film, or, rather, the lack-thereof. The setting of Blade Runner 2049, much like its predecessor, is Los Angeles and its environs. Picking up on some of the now-standard cyberpunk tropes, this Los Angeles is doused in Asian culture, from signage to the sartorial to gustatory. However, there are few, if any, actual Asian people in evidence. I’ve seen some clever epicycles deployed to explain this, the best yet being a comparison with the diffusion of American culture in our own world. In many countries around the world, so the argument goes, be they European, Asian, or, increasingly, African, you will find American businesses and products, replete with English signage, despite the absence of Americans, on the ground, perpetuating and guiding the effort. This is a product of the success of American cultural imperialism, the victory of American propaganda world-wide, as it portrays itself as something desirable, as synonymous with “success.” It was just this that led to the cyberpunk trope in the first place – during the Eighties, when so much of this stuff was codified, Japan was economically bullish, and the future, so it seemed, belonged to them. Thus, anything set in the near future looked like a fusion of Anglo and Japanese culture, with the hegemony of Japan redesigning the way American streets looked, the language that was spoken there, the food that was consumed.
All good, but the original Blade Runner, unlike its sequel, had plenty of Asian people on the streets themselves, as well as the signage and culture and what all. Where have they gone in the intervening 30 years? There’s been speculation that the Asian countries could have “gotten their shit together” and gone off-world – the existence of the extra-terrestrial colonies is a feature that looms large over both the original and the present Blade Runner – but this can’t account for every individual, and certainly doesn’t make sense of the real-world demographics of LA. The original film had a key character in Gaff, played by Edward James Olmos, who drew from his own mixed background to try and give a poly-racial feel to the film. Gaff is relegated to a few lines in a single scene in 2049, and I can’t recall any other Hispanic character – with dialogue or without – throughout the film. Evidently, much of the shooting was done in Hungary, so I can understand the logistical difficulties in importing the right mix of extras simply for atmosphere. Even so, the absence of nearly any brown or black faces in such a melting pot as Los Angeles is a bit stark.
All in all, I think Blade Runner 2049 comes through bruised but whole. Not a perfect film, but this isn’t a Bergman we’re talking about. The cinematography is beautiful, with very tasteful CGI. The pacing is, contrary to my original concerns, true to the original, and this, coupled with the seemingly-trademark Villeneuve soundscape, allows for a sustained meditation on what it means to be human. Performances were neither stilted nor overdrawn to camp. Could the story have been more nuanced? Were all angles satisfactorily explored? No. Does the plethora of criticism find purchase? Yes. As ever with these things, your best bet is to take a look yourself, and make your own opinions. Especially if you can grab some steeply-discounted Monday night tix.
Comment on the American Election
Does Hillary Clinton face enormous amounts of misogynistic abuse? Without doubt.
Is this a major issue? You betcha.
The rhetoric that has been lobbed at Clinton in this election cycle, and back in 2008 as well, by both the left and the right is reprehensible in the extreme and needs to be countered in every instance. It is damaging to women everywhere, working to preclude eligibility to the highest office in America, and by extension, one of the most powerful positions in the world, purely on the basis of gender. Attacking Clinton on this level has rippling effects that reach far beyond this single presidential race.
This is not to say, though, that Hillary Clinton merits the Presidency. Her attackers may couch their positions in sexist rhetoric, and their aims are betrayed by this, but attacked she deserves to be.
What are the crimes of Donald Trump? Unscrupulous business practices, likely tax evasion, the whipping up of racial animus the likes of which haven’t been seen in a generation. These things have palpable, real consequences – hundreds of lives worsened or ruined, scores of individuals suffering physical assaults, businesses that people looked to for their livelihoods ripped apart. Donald Trump, while not a fascist in the ways we have known before, is a reckless, dangerous cretin, and to allow him access to the powers associated with the Presidency would be a grave mistake. What we have seen of him thus far, his blundering unpredictability, should give us pause.
How does Hillary Clinton stack up in comparison? The prospect of a Trump presidency is one that is all the more frightening for its mystery – we don’t know what he’d be able to achieve, how much damage he would be able to inflict. On the other hand, we know exactly what will come of an HRC presidency. She’s held enough high offices, been close enough to the power structure of the US now, for decades, to allay any questions one might still have.
Hillary Clinton is a murderous, corrupt, racist neo-con, and a presidency with her at the helm will be a continuation of the current murderous, corrupt, racist regime we’ve had for decades.
The damage that Donald Trump has been able to inflict upon the world pales to insignificance when compared with that of Hillary Clinton. When Secretary of State in 2009, Clinton supported the vicious military coup that toppled the democratically elected government of Honduras, legitimating the violence and internationally-maligned illegal conduct of the actors. In the wake of this, violence against LGBTQ people has spiked, the economy has tanked, and organised crime has seized control of ever more of the country. Hillary Clinton has been hawkish for her entire political career – her opposition to regime change in Haiti in ’94 came not because she was averse to needless death but because the effort was ‘too disorganised.’ She voted for the war in Iraq in 2002, quibbling over her motivations only after the whole thing came apart at the seams. At the time, she vocalised her support for that most-American of policies, gunboat diplomacy: “I believe in coercive diplomacy.” Despite paying lip-service to not involving America in Pakistani engagements , the drone-strikes that have killed thousands of civilians since 2008, all reservations evapourated upon being confirmed Secretary of State. She was a proponent of the surge of troops in Afghanistan under Obama and was for regime change in Libya. In Syria, she has been a supporter of dumping ever-more weapons into the ring, supposedly to aid the ‘moderate’ militias, in truth untraceable once they touch ground. It is plausible that a Clinton Presidency will raise tensions with Russia to the point of disaster.
Racism, particularly against blacks, has been woven into the cloth of America from its start. That said, it was the policy choices of the Clinton administration in the 90’s that set the scene for the current rash of institutionalised violence playing out now – with 102 unarmed black people murdered by police in 2015, and, at last count, 36 this year. Adding those that were armed with anything deemed a ‘weapon’ causes both numbers to multiply steeply. The heightening of the racist war on drugs, the implementation of the fundamentally flawed 1994 crime bill, the scapegoating of urban ghettos and those forced to live in them as source of all of society’s ills – these actions have brought America to where it is today. And Hillary Clinton, with her talk of young, black “super-predators” vocally supported it the whole time. While it was Trump that took ‘the Birther Movement’ to it’s farcical extremes through Obama’s two terms, but it was her campaign in 2008 that sowed the seeds of distrust, questioning Obama’s status as an America. We saw the same tactic used this primary season, with the Democratic National Committee – which we know to have been in cahoots with Clinton’s team due to leaked emails – actively triangulating to undercut Bernie Sanders on grounds of his Jewishness and his atheism. Clinton has shown again and again that she is shameless in her use of racist rhetoric to achieve her aims.
Trump, with his “small loan of a million to get on his feet,” his multiple bankruptcies, his dozens of failed businesses, exemplifies what it means to be part of the moneyed elite. His conduct, the fact that he is not held to account, is symptomatic of the state of American capitalism in the 21st century. It is Hilary Clinton, though, who is complicit in the creation of this situation. Clinton has been the tool of Wall-Street for decades, participating in the repealing of the Glass-Steagal Act in 1999 that lead directly to the financial crisis and world-wide economic recession of 2008. She has opposed efforts to reinstate it and has said that she will not do so if elected president.
In what has quickly become the take-away soundbite from Monday’s Presidential Debate, Clinton reeled off a list of her undoubtedly impressive accomplishments when questioned by Trump on her stamina. It is true, she is possessed of a strong fortitude, especially when we recognise that she has risen to her position in a system stacked against her as a woman from the start. But as we can see from the sample above, it is just these accomplishments that preclude her from deserving the Presidency. Or would do, if it were not the case that, in this day and age, the division of the American people, the grovelling abetment of the moneyed, the callous interventions into other nations’ governments is exactly what the President is meant to do.
Hillary Clinton, scion to war-criminal Henry Kissinger, canny fixer for Wall Street, inveterate racist, would, in any other pairing, be without doubt the villain. It is a sorry state of affairs that she looks the lesser of two evils.
The Vesuvius Club
It’s a hackneyed turn of phrase – we’ve all heard it, whether directed at ourselves in moments of deep personal opprobrium, or, later, jesting with friends, bonding over the fact that we are all of us imperfect beings – but, Mark Gatiss, I’m not even mad. I’m disappointed.
I picked up The Vesuvius Club: Graphic Edition from the local library a while back. The comic version of Gatiss’ 2004 novel of the same name, the work is a condensed version of Gatiss’ text coupled with Ian Bass’ art. Black and white, the depiction is a blend of real-to-life and caricature, stark lines with negative space in solid fill. Far from the worst I’ve seen, it remains perfunctory – there isn’t much here that benefits a second viewing; it’s all surface.
The volume covers a single arc, and runs to 100 pages, as well as character splashes and newspaper-style adverts on the inside covers. It’s here that the frustrations set in. The design, at least to my mind, sets you up for something similar to Moore and O’Neill’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen – both series cover the same period, the late Victorian/Early Edwardian, both have a puckish reverence for the aesthetics of the era, both blend the mundaneity of the period with the fantastical. It’s a bit of a difficult comparing much of anything in comics to Moore’s work – there is almost always a clear divide in quality, in depth, in novelty, etc., etc. What little I’ve read of Gaiman’s work sometimes comes close, but I’ve seen little else. Which is all to say that it might be a little unfair to compare this, an adaptation of a work, from a writer of various media, to that of a focussed effort from a master of the form. The failure to achieve greatness, however, is not what I’m so frustrated by.
Moore, as a story-teller, is definitely not without fault, and League, for all it’s depth and detail, is a flawed work that, at least in the main run, collapsed under its own weight. While clearly riffing off the period each issue was set in – it was, after all, an effort to blend all of literature – the whole arc was steeped in Moore’s particular style of progressivism. Though the characters themselves may have been constrained by Edwardian values, the narrative itself didn’t play to those rules – indeed, so much of the story is driven by Mina Harker’s efforts to assert herself in a “man’s world” playing a “man’s role.” When odious, racist depictions surfaced, they were almost always undercut and inverted; acting, rather than as signifiers for themselves, to show off why these caricatures were wrong in the first place.
To its benefit, Vesuvius is not totally without this – the protagonist is bisexual, and one of his accomplices gay, and this is not treated as morally reprehensible by the tone of the narrative, if not always their fellow characters. However, I fear that Gatiss may have played it too straight in his appreciation for and representation of mores of the period. Characterisation of other elements in the story are lifted almost whole-cloth, without any evidence of satire or nuance, from the racist and bigoted tropes of the era. There is a stereo-typical ‘mandarin’ looking awfully a lot like something Mickey Rooney may have played who, inevitably, runs the Opium Den, and then the villain, in the reveal, turns out to be a transvestite. And mad. ‘Cause nothing’s more twisted and evvilll than a mentally distressed person with a penchant for women’s dress.
Cultural appropriation is a hot topic in the literary world at the moment, what with Lionel Shriver’s recent key note pushing back against what she feels is political correctness gone mad, and the inevitable blow-back she received as others circled the wagons (for my part, I think both parties are wrong). Vesuvius, though, is obviously not a case of appropriation as much as it is stale tropes that were rankly offensive when they first surfaced, let alone more than a century later. What is worse is that we all know Gatiss is better than this – his work in Doctor Who and Sherlock (“The Abominable Bride” aside…) are some of television’s better efforts, so it’s not as if the man is a serial offender or endemically prejudiced.
I can only hope that this is a singular misstep in an otherwise reputable career. Evidently Vesuvius has been in production for the small screen for a while. Hopefully they clean it up a bit.
Another Country, James Baldwin
It’s a funny thing – Baldwin writes with the density, the patience, that I’d love to bring to bear myself. Despite a limited cast of characters, the world he creates is full, more than likely because he has captured some of the most important elements of our own – an honesty, if a situated one. He describes life richly for his characters, whatever gender, orientation or race they may be, heartening fare in these latter days of identity politics, by way of a slow build – artless in its execution, in the best sense of the term. There are some novels, some stories, that can leave you saddened upon their completion – the characters have become, in a way, friends, and the end of the story is a parting that, despite the best efforts of imagination, you know to be final. A melancholia descends, irrespective of how the story ended – for good or ill. For all Baldwin’s skill, despite the quality of the work, Another Country was not, for me, one of those stories.
As per his reputation, Another Country does an admirable job at exploring, interrogating, race relations in post-war America. Not only do we have a frank exposure of the well-meaning yet chronically blind white liberal, destined to foul their best-intentioned efforts, but, even-handedly, there are examples of ways in which, despite whatever legitimacy it may have had in the offing, old hatreds, generational hatreds, can reach up and blind living beings, choke out the present and prevent any growth or change. The interplay of White and Black, the power dynamics that surge and boil in the New York of the early 60’s – races crammed in together, classes defined by the thinnest of streets yet living worlds apart – this is on display in Another Country, with all its terrible starkness. The characters, though none wish for it, are dealt a hand that needs to be reckoned with before any real life can happen. The problem, of course, is that the reckoning may simply be beyond them.
Baldwin, himself a gay man, also looks at the way we deal with a sexuality that is given to us, much as race is, in a straight cut, pre-packaged form. Throughout the novel, many of the characters battle with, protest against, or come to terms with feelings that they have for one another, for friends, for those of the same gender more generally. The way that this is wrapped up in racial relations is key – do white men use black men the same way that they use black women? Is the sexuality of white people, as one character believes, invariably twisted, such that they should mythologise black bodies and push on them their fears and hatreds? What does it mean of a man, his masculinity, that he should go with another man – the active submission, is it an emasculation? Is there power in the submission?
The description of sexual acts, while direct, never descends to the torrid. More often than not, the reader is left pitying the actors, rather than feeling aroused. It should be noted that while we have a rich examination of what it means to be an American man – there are characters of other nationalities, existing mostly as an example of dissimilarity – the characterisations of women, be they white or black, was a bit thin. It’s not to say that they weren’t enfleshed, but rather that they find the pole star of their motivation in their male associations. Without having done an exhaustive search, I’m fairly certain the book fails the Bechdel Test (whether or not we want to take that as worthwhile methodology, it is still something). This may not even be by negligence – the novel is set in a world that predates the sexual revolution, let alone its souring. Very much, it describes a Man’s World. The character that wants to make it on her own realises she will need to use, and be used by, men to do so. The housewife realises that she has infantilised her husband all the years of their marriage, providing him with tastes and positions because he was so vacuous. In doing so, she destroyed the love she had for him. It may be a comment on just how deep-rooted the tyranny of Heterosexual Masculinity was (continues to be?) that the woman characters can’t be otherwise than the reflection of their male counter-parts, but I’d be more comfortable with broader strokes. As is, it’s left open to accusations of inconsideration.
The scope is somewhat limited in the professions the characters take – all are either artists – writers, actors, musicians – or their hangers-on, industry types, etc. Some successful, most struggling. There are descriptions of their associations with more generic, more mundane workers – whether historical relations, or the stuff of daily life – so it is not as if the wider milieu are left totally unrepresented. However, it should be noted that there are important restrictions in place because of the set under examination. That said, the slow unfolding of the story allows for the characters, in moments of dialogue or internal asides, monologues, the space to both present and ruminate on real, fundamental elements of what it means to be a person in the modern world. This is what I meant by the patience of the piece. There is time enough to get a sense of what the characters mean, what they feel, even if it is self-contradictory, or patently wrong, or needlessly prejudiced, or whatever. It provides a groundedness that lends credibility to the work, makes it come alive and say more about the world than a bare few hundred pages of ink ought to.
As I was saying some several hundred words ago, it was a clean break on finishing Another Country. I’ll continue to digest it, no doubt, over the coming days and weeks. What I won’t do, however, is pine for the continuation of the story. And this is likely because I know the continuation of the story. We live it, with our Ferguson’s and our Stonewall’s, our Bataclan’s and the daily, ever-present anxiety of personhood and meaning and position. I don’t want to know more about the characters of Another Country because I already know too much.
White Supremacy at Western, Cultural Chauvinism at Ottawa: Against Identity Politics and Multiculturalism
Against Identity Politics and Multiculturalism
Over the past week or so, we’ve seen some frankly bizarre things coming out of Canadian Universities. I’m talking, of course, of the rash of “White Student Unions” opening en masse throughout Canada and to a much greater extent in the States, and the banning of a <free> yoga class, for students with disabilities, at the University of Ottawa. The two look dissimilar on the surface, but you don’t have to scratch very hard to see that they’re sourced from the same ugly place.
The student union shenanigans came to my attention by way of my alma mater, the University of Western Ontario – or as it calls itself now, “Western” (West of what, you may ask? It’s a mystery to me, situated as it is in decidedly the East of the country). It didn’t take long before the truth came to light, that this was a semi-elaborate hoax by a number of people via the more vile sections of the Internet. Initially, I didn’t think it worth writing on. With the second situation, though, it became worthwhile to at least highlight their mutual basis.
My initial reaction to news of the White Student Union – similar, I assumed, to the original example coming out of Maryland – was one of disappointment, and a bit of surprise. Don’t get me wrong, Canada is a deeply racist place, and somewhere like Western, with an incredible amount of privilege in stark contrast to the city it dominates (a city that is statistically above the national average, by every metric, when it comes to poverty), breeds a very particular kind of racism. But Canada’s history, and, flowing from that, its race relations are different than the United States’. We don’t have nearly as much organised white supremacy, certainly none so forthright as the KKK or an equivalent. While we certainly have our fare share of racial animus, particularly in the wake of the recent Paris attacks, racists in Canada seem much more secure in their societally-structured superiority than their American cousins. Content to continue their oppression behind the veil of the dominant culture, they are less strident, less vitriolic. So, why, all the sudden, this decidedly American turn? What threat did they feel that drove them out into the light?
Of course, the fact that this whole thing seemed so weird showed it up for what it was – a hoax. My feelings on this are mixed. First, and mostly, I’m glad that it is a hoax, as it’s not especially good to have an organised hate group with free reign on a campus, let alone a society. Make no mistake, White Student Unions are hate groups, and it’s only a fool or provocateur that says otherwise. My second, lesser, reaction is one of regret – while, as I said, it’s not beneficial for these groups to be able to present their misinformation under the assumed imprimatur of a University, it would at least be useful to know who they are, and to have their existence underlined in the eyes of the public. It’s too easy for groups like this to remain in the background, out of sight, and for the rest of society to carry on in ignorance. If this were a legitimate front, at least it couldn’t be ignored, swept away like a bogey-man. At least then Canadian society would be forced to look in the mirror and reckon with its reflection.
Before wrapping up the first issue, I’ll turn to the second. Seemingly on grounds of cultural appropriation, a free yoga class has been cancelled at the University of Ottawa. This has come to light only in the last week or so, as it has been under discussion since September, the start of the semester. The ridiculousness of this has been picked up internationally, it’s so preposterous. It’s been a while since I read anything in-depth on Indian culture or history and I’m hesitant to tread without the requisite research, but as others have pointed out, the appropriation of Yoga in particular is a pretty absurd target for moral outrage. Yoga, as we know it today, was developed specifically for export and cultural miscegenation centuries ago. To turn around now and blame white practitioners for its uptake? It’s this kind of bleeding-heart, shoot-from-the-hip, ill-educated foolishness that deserves mockery of all and sundry.
This calls to mind the recent flare-up at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, where kimonos were provided during a Monet exhibition for visitor photo-ops. People, mostly uni-aged students, protested this as racist appropriation. In a turn of the surreal, a counter-demo was held, mostly comprised of elderly Japanese immigrants, in defence of the kimono use. Hilarity ensued. Once again, the group protesting was incredibly ill-informed on the subject they were inveighing over. Kimonos, much like the practice of Yoga, were and continue to the reserve of the upper echelon of their respective societies. Throughout their history, the vast majority of Japanese people were unlikely to see a kimono in their lives, let alone wear one. All those mystics and swamis that so typify the Orientalist conception of India? A slice of a strata in a horribly oppressive caste system. Find me the suicidally debt-burdened farmer in Uttar Pradesh that opens his day with a salute to the sun, and I’ll let you have your little (mis)appropriation lockout.
To wrap up, I’ll try to show how, while ostensibly distinct, the two originate from the same place. Both of these events, very clearly, come by way of Identity politics. The White Student Union in Maryland was initiated using the same rhetoric and motivations as other sectarian student groups. The difference being, rather glaringly, that the majority of American society is a White Student Union, whereas minority groups to a degree require and benefit from clear delineations of intent and representation. The recent hoax, the mushrooming of fake White Student Unions, served a dual purpose – both to stir up anger and distress within the progressive portion of society, and to disseminate the ideas of white supremacy. The yoga class debacle too comes from Identity politics, which often sees the policing of dialogue, of space, and of conduct to the point of choking all discourse. This, and the kimono case, are just single passages in an incredibly tawdry book. Racism needs to be opposed, and past wrongs redressed, but to do this by way of cultural chauvinism or dilettantish victim pageantry is a gross misstep.
Identity politics, whether employed by white racists or misguided social justice warriors, even multiculturalism itself, they are products of divisive, obscurantist ideology. Writing in the wake of Zizek’s racist remarks on the Euro migrant crisis, Sam Kriss sums up the failings of multiculturalism:
“Multiculturalism is a profoundly antihumanist discourse: its basic unit is not the distinct and individual subject but the distinct and individual culture. And while there’s a case to be made for antihumanism…any discourse that takes culture rather than class (or even race, sexuality, or any of the other axes of oppression) as its basic unit strays into murky, fascoid territory.”
As Kriss says, multiculturalism flattens out the terrain of relations. Abstracting from the realities, the complex, contradictory, nuanced facts that make up individuals, multiculturalism instead looks at people, every person, as no more than a token carrier of their larger culture, itself divined by some mystical, spurious process. It should be little wonder that Canada is split into so many little enclaves, gated communities and self-imposed ghettos following this dogma. Merkel was right – the experiment of multiculturalism has utterly failed. She was wrong about the reasons, though. It was always doomed to failure.
Adolph Reed Jr. goes further than Kriss, arguing against any of the alternate options provided above. Reed has expounded on this multiple times, arguing that Identity politics is nothing more than Neoliberalism. Picking out the hypocrises involved in the acceptance of Caitlyn Jenner and the castigation of Rachel Dolezal, Reed writes
“…race politics is not an alternative to class politics; it is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism. It is the expression and active agency of a political order and moral economy in which capitalist market forces are treated as unassailable nature. An integral element of that moral economy is displacement of the critique of the invidious outcomes produced by capitalist class power onto equally naturalized categories of ascriptive identity that sort us into groups supposedly defined by what we essentially are rather than what we do.”
Reed goes on to point out that the society that shifted ever so slightly, where the infamous 1% that own and direct the wealth of our world, when changed to reflect the “racial” and “gender” makeup of the greater body politic, would have to be found just by the arguments of the Identitarians. The obvious error of this underscores the failings of the position, the failure to both aim at the goals they espouse and the failure of the strategy to get them there.
At the end of it all, there are very few things that are fixed in our lives, really fundamentally stable, I mean. So much of what we are – our race, our gender, our culture, to a degree, even our sex – is socially determined. What cuts across all of those, though, is class and the power relations that determine it. All those that live and struggle under the banner of the progressive, we’re nominally on the same side. It’s time we start acting like it. We can’t let stupid, misinformed, impassioned bullshit, puerile Identitarian nonsense, continue to divide us. We have too much to lose.
If you’re actually interested in change, in winning the fight, stop and think for a minute about your tactics. Are they really aimed at victory, or are they just there to carve up your pile of the shit-heap, making you feel good in your safe corner of the midden?
Charlie Hebdo: A Return to Tribalism?
I don’t know, of course, I wasn’t there. People that were, though, and the records others left, attest to a shift in attitudes during the later half of the Twentieth Century. It’s true, the USSR was busy oppressing its populations, and the Americans were eagerly establishing their hegemony everywhere else, but, so I’ve been told, perspectives of some people were shifting.
Done away with was the old mode of thought, and there was a realisation that we’re all in this together – one species, one planet, and a fragile balance that we could readily tip towards disaster if we so chose. In short, for some, the concept of Tribalism was dying off. Shortly around the time of my birth, the rotten fabric of Stalinism ripped itself apart, and even that division looked as if it were gone (though we all know how that has turned out). I suspect this was, at least in part, the frame of mind Fukuyama possessed when he declared the future to be over, even if he himself helped build the road we walk now.
I’m having some trouble with this piece – I feel as if I’ve not the right to authoritatively talk about the situation, that I’ve nothing new nor insightful to add. A large part of the desire to say anything, on this subject, is due of course to the recent attack on the Charlie Hebdo paper in France, and its aftermath. Trying to make sense of it.
There have been reams of position papers and statements and blog posts over the last couple of days, from every perspective under the sun. Some of which, are quite good. A lot of them, though, and the language they frame the situation in, provide evidence for a return to tribalism, and that is more of what I want to talk about, here. The conversation around Charlie Hebdo is only the latest piece in this development.
I guess the mask really came off back in 2001 – it was clear following the start of the “war on terror” that we were returning to an “us vs. them” narrative. Since then, the majority of Western nations have seen reductions in civil freedoms, ironically enough usually in the name of defending those same “founding” freedoms and “core” values. Muslims of all ethnicities have been vilified, portrayed as the sole-source of violence and perpetrators of “terrorism.”
Don’t get me wrong, there are well-established connections between fundamentalist Islam and violence. The key point, however, is the fundamentalist part. Fundamentalist Christians have chalked up a higher body count – granted, they’ve had a longer time to kick at the can. Fundamentalist Buddhists, contrary to the Western stereotype of peaceful saffron-robed mystics, are doing a great job out in Myanmar at slaughter – killing Muslims, I might add.
Invariably, the fundamentalist aspect points to people’s religiousity being co-opted politically. Using ostensible differences between groups of people to drive a wedge between them, manipulating them for power/gain/what-have-you. There’s likely a conversation to be had about how much any religion is a mere power-play, but I don’t think that this is the place for it.
We see this division happening elsewhere, as well. Invariably, post-2001, it is tied up with difference of religion, but the nascent success of UKIP, and the Front National, and the Dutch Party for Freedom (I can go on…) are all couched in the masterful use of dividing domestic populations against “immigrants” (so long as the “immigrants” are brown/Muslim/Eastern-European) – positing all of, or the most grievous of, society’s ills on the Foreigner, rather than looking at the situation in a systemic and nuanced manner.
Furthermore, on the level of geopolitics, we’ve seen the recent, tri-directional, flare-ups between Russia, the EU, and the States, played out in the Ukraine. We here in the West have been handed a stock narrative – the Russians are bad, and they are motivated to do bad things because they are Russian. Meanwhile, the truth of the matter, as ever, is much more complex. The pro-EU Maidan protests were, from the start or shortly following that point, co-opted by fascists. Eastern and Southern Ukraine, including what has become the Donetsk Republic, are filled with a variety of perspectives, including strong voices for autonomy from both Kyiv and Moscow. We don’t really hear about that, though. Another situation, thrown into decidedly stark relief by all the attention, demonstrations, and solidarity with Charlie Hebdo, is the on-going slaughter of Nigerians at the hands of Boko Haram. Mainstream media is beginning to look into the situation, as they well should, but solidarity for the people affected there is minimal in comparison with the few to be killed in the attack on the magazine. And why would it be? They aren’t white, nor Euro, nor even, you know, civilised – it’s just black people killing black people, like they always do. Like, in Rwanda, right? Who saw that one coming? Another geopolitical example – Kobane. The Kurds were able to fend off Daesh, by the way. I imagine you didn’t hear about it, though. Doesn’t really serve to stoke the fears of ISIS, does it?
Even those with comparatively positive messages are buying into this narrative – this article, here, for example, argues that Muslims world-wide ought to speak out against atrocities. The author states
“CNN featured a Muslim American blogger whining about the fact that Muslims are expected to condemn jihadist attacks. I no longer have any patience for this sort of view. Those of us who are proud of our heritage, who have diverse and complex relationships with the Islam of our forebears, can make a difference by speaking out against every single one of these crimes whose miserable perpetrators wrongfully claim to act as agents of the religious heritage we value.”
I don’t take issue with anyone speaking out against the ills they see in the world – but the fact that the author so brusquely throws aside nuance – “I no longer have any patience for this sort of view” – is problematic. Speak out if that is what your conscience compels you to do, but don’t essentialise people based on creed, “race,” or gender. American Muslims speak out against the assumption that they should comment on these atrocities for a very good reason – because the assumption that they ought to is tantamount to lumping them in with the offenders, with stripping them of their agency as persons, and declaring that their faith is the totality of their being, incontrovertibly setting them apart from “the rest of us.” For my part, I’ve not any patience for patsies, however well-meaning they may be.
I don’t think I’m proposing anything new here – if you’ve been paying attention this last decade and a half, none of this should come as a surprise. It’s just that, for myself, I’ve always looked at the world as a totality – we might have our cultural differences and our experiential ones, but, for me, those were ephemeral, accidental to who we were as human beings. Our commonalities outweighed our differences, and it was through that, through exploration of common ground and the things that we hold together, that progress could be made. As it stands, the world is being carved up, and we are being told to believe that there are Others out there, outside the well-known walls of the Tribe, that we can never know nor come to agreement with. There is no conspiracy here, no cabal with a master plan. Like everything else in this world, this path to division is built of an aggregate of small choices, decisions made day-to-day. The path, though, is leading us to a world I don’t think is worth living in. Don’t settle for the easy answers. Don’t let yourself be twisted against your brothers and sisters. All we have on this ball of rock is one another.
You must forgive me the horrors I am about to relate, if ever this missive finds its way to you. My hands falter in the writing, and yet I will stay true to my pledge, I will make my account known, in spite of its attendant darknesses.
What fools we were! What blind innocents, taken in by the first smiling countenance we stumbled upon! I know not how much time I have remaining to me, so I will relate what I can with due haste.
As of my last record, we were waiting for Chief Rezu, the devil, to organise a mission to guide us back to society. Ah! If only we had cleaved more closely to the exact wording of Mbubu’s translations! We ought to have seen this fate in wings – but, no, we must confront what this life gives us as per our station, lest we be unmanned in His vision. Forward!
As I said, we waited for this mysterious feast the Lord of the Mahagger told us of. A day passed, and another. As they ran by, spent in idleness here amongst these savages, our numbers began to thin, though we did not notice it at first. On the third morning, I was awoken by a great hubbub. Kaseem, who had since become the nominal leader of the Mohemmadans, in their reduced state, was accosting a rather ill-bred exemplar of the Mahagger. Of course, neither man, despite the invective ejected by both sides, could understand the other, and it wasn’t until Mbubu arrived that any sense could be made of the situation.
The noise of there altercation, though, was decidedly great, and crowd began to form. Soon enough, the ordained translator was located, and the two men were able to finally communicate. Kaseem, finding the first Mahagger he could, had started berating the man, demanding to know where his three compatriots were. It seemed that, over the course of the last three days, one after another of the Moslem mariners had simply disappeared. None had mentioned anything about leaving the camp to their brethren, nor had they elicited any odd behaviour, the way the bedeviled Faisal had before his own disappearance.
As dialogue was laboriously translated, one side to another, the gathering came to the attention of Chief Rezu. When the Head Man was made fully aware of the situation, it was as if a dark cloud passed over his Blackamoor’s face. All would be made clear to us in time, he said, and we were forced to concede to his authority in the matter.
Tensions rode high the remainder of the day, with a near-brawl between another two of the Arabians and a lone Mahagger tribe member. Thankfully, Kaseem was able to reign in his comrades, else, I’m not sure what would have happened. At last, night drew near, the appointed time for this mysterious feast, and for the revelation of the whereabouts of the absent Arabs.
We all gathered at the paved parade grounds that had been the site of our earlier celebrations. Evening was drawing on, and a great fire had been built in the centre of the space. A troupe of dancers began to wave and writhe before the flames, in a most diabolic manner – the twistings of their bodies, the infernal rhythm, it could in no-way be born of a well-intentioned purpose. Watching the spectacle, I grew aware of a strange furnace-like protrusion amidst the fire.
After a hair-raising crescendo of drums and wind instruments, the dancers abruptly withdrew, and, in their place – the missing Arabs! The three men, draped in chains and battered bodily, were dragged out from some hidden corner and forced to kneel before the raised dais of Chief Rezu and his Consorts. There were shouts from the imprisoned men’s peers, surprised to see their comrades returned in such a state. Before any could more than raise himself from where he sat, Mahagger guards armed with wickedly sharp spears cautioned against any brash action.
A Mahagger man, a Lieutenant of Rezu’s, stood on the platform and called for silence. These men, we were told, had committed the crime of assaulting the Chief’s Consorts, a crime for which there was only one punishment: death. Rezu’s grim face split into a smile, revealing those evil, cruelly pointed teeth. The men, for their own part, seemed to understand the gravity of what was said, and protested their innocence. Vicious blows from spear shafts silenced them.
Following a signal from the Lieutenant, two Mahagger approached the furnace, and, with the aid of pairs of metal tongues, removed a red-hot bronze vessel from the fires. The fiendish vessel, a bowl of broad dimensions, was carried to the first of the accused. Initially, we were at a loss as to what was meant to happen, and then, then it became all to clear. It was the first victim that understood ahead of us, letting out a low, animal howl before the glowing urn was up-ended over his head. I, I cannot put to writing the horror of that poor soul’s demise. I but close my eyes now and I see it playing out before me, again and again.
Amidst the howls and wild screeches, the Lieutenant once again signaled his accomplices. One of the chained Mohemmadans fainted dead away, and the other broke out into gibbering uncontrollably, at times laughing, others weeping, switching ‘tween the two in the blink of an eye. As the Mahagger brought a second bowl to bear, a great “Nein!” rolled across the plaza.
Hans had leapt to his feet, brandishing a revolver he had secreted somewhere about his person. Without waiting to see if his directive was followed, he shot dead the men holding the bowl. There was a moment of stillness once the incandescent object thudded to the ground, and all gathered paused, trying to grasp what had transpired. Then Chaos was loosed.
A battle erupted, as Hans turned his weapon on those spear-wielding Mahagger closer to us, and the Moslems sought to avenge their murdered comrade. Several of us, Anhalt, myself, others of his company, repaired to our erstwhile dormitories to arm ourselves. We had, of course, not brought our rifles with us to the “feast.”
As I had said, these buildings were but sticks and mud, hardly defensible. Following Anhalt’s lead, once we had acquired our guns, we made for the stone pyramids and their trackless galleries. As formidable as our modern arms are, we were hopelessly outnumbered without sufficient shelter.
It was as we beat our way across the village to the relative safety that the worst betrayal of all befell us. Just as we were nearing the portal to the underground catacombs, I espied Mbubu. I called out to him, thankful to see that he had made it through the carnage thus far unscathed. A Mahagger warrior rushed out from behind a building, running at his top speed toward us, equipped with spear and shield. Anhalt, my dear friend Herr Anhalt, shot the knave down, the force of the well-struck blow knocking the kaffir back some yards. Alas, he proved his worth as sportsman at the end! As the German knelt to reload his rifle, Mbubu, the deceiver, picked up the fallen spear, and, before I could utter warning, hurled it at Anhalt. The deadly missile struck the man full-on in the chest, his topee tumbling off his head into the dust at his feet.
Had I not restrained him, Hans would have run to engage Mbubu, hand to hand. Alas, a troop of Mahagger, lead by none other than Rezu himself, had just rounded the corner. We made haste to find a secure position within the complex, but, before we had quit the scene, Mbubu called to us. His face, lit from underneath by fire, was terrible to behold. “I am slave no-longer, devil white!” It was the last I saw of him.
We made it into the tunnel, though another spear caught one of the accompanying Germans, a man named Alexis, in the leg. He bravely held the entrance while we travelled further in. I can only hold to hope that he passed quickly. As it was, the black demons were on our tails promptly enough. We paused for a moment at a junction, shooting off a volley back at our pursuants. There were four of us then.
Conrad was felled when the rogues rushed us once more – the tightness of the corridors, it made reloading our guns exceedingly difficult, and we didn’t have time enough to cover our own retreat. The situation was growing desperate. Seeing an opportunity, knowing that we would be picked off individually if we didn’t come some defensible redoubt, Hans ushered myself and Jorge, the doctor, into the first room we came upon. The door, made of stone, was quickly shifted into place. It was then that we took notice of what dungeon we had barricaded ourselves in, what our last resting place would likely be.
Once we got a torch going, we saw that the room was filled with a grotesque menagerie of artefacts, likely some store-house for the holy relics of these villainous Mahagger. It was at that point that any lingering doubts about the innocence of those poor Moslems, any vestige of confusion, was removed from my mind. Jorge examined what looked to be the flute used in the celebration at our arrival. Scheinbein. Mensch. Shinbone, human. A shudder ran through me, remembering the haunting melodies played on that macabre instrument. If only we had listened to what our bodies were trying to tell us! Too late. Under Jorge’s expert eye, it was determined that the flesh had been removed not by tools but by teeth, human teeth. Not only have we fallen in with a tribe of murderous barbarians, but they exhibit that most unholy of tendencies, that most vile of sins, cannibalism.
The other artefacts, and there were many, showed much the same source in their construction. Things too ghastly to describe in close detail, but the use of skin, and bone, is quite common. Or, I should say, was. Whatever our fate, I can rest easy knowing that we have destroyed these evil relics.
Our situation is grim. They have tried the door three times, and thrice we have turned them back. But time is on their side. We are short of shot, and, what’s worse, we have no food nor any water. We will stand to the last, but I fear for our fate should we be captured alive.
I doubt that this will ever reach you, but, on the faintest glimmer of hope, I write.
Goodbye, my love,
Hugh Octavius Pleasant
Early January, 187-
My Darling Josephine,
Sultana amongst Queens, Contessa of the Peerage
We are saved! Oh, my heart, we are saved!
The auspicious choice to cut in-land, to leave behind the false promise of the river and the far shore, has set us on the course of success. Soon, no doubt, the suzerain Rezu, in his great beneficence, will organise a deputation to lead us back to civilisation! But, I jump ahead of myself.
As I wrote, there was a vote cast some few days ago, on whether to return to the sight of our stranding, or, on the advice of Herr Anhalt, to forge on into the wilderness. We were pushed into the decision due to a veritable cataract, a cascade that belongs more to a bestial epoch than our diminished age. Impassable, by any effort. So, we cast our ballots, as there was some disagreement, and kept to the rule of vox populi. Onward we strode!
The first leagues were difficult, to be sure. But, as I had mentioned, we were strengthened by the growing indications of inhabitance. Anhalt’s congenital interest in the antiquarian seemed to spread out amongst the rest of the group – we all shared the excitement he had earlier elicited, and it took but the smallest stack of masonry, the merest mud-bespattered periapt, uncovered in our zest to blaze a path, to set us all alight with a jovial perturbation! Well, I say ‘all of us,’ but I recall that the Moslems of our band were, at that point, possessed of a decidedly dolorous demeanour. We others, though, every mile brought an increase in levity we hadn’t felt since even before our ill-luck at mouth of the river, since before we visited those slave isles with their wicked trade.
The first signs of the Mahagger people, which is the name of this tribe that make their home here in the decadent city of Tör, were their eyes. Like animals of the wild, great hunting felines and such, we could see their eyes at night. At first, it set loose a prodigious fear in our breasts. They stalked us, those first nights, haunting the darkness as we delved deeper into their lands. Finally, when I could take no more, I instructed Mbubu to make an overture to them, to open dialogue and precipitate whatever was to come. I had had enough!
Rousing his whipchord body, Mbubu called out into the gloom. From amidst a group of three, maybe four sets of eyes came a barked, unintelligible response. A time elapsed, and then three of the natives entered into the glow of our campfire. One of them, whom must have been their leader, continued to speak to Mbubu in that queer, click-laden language. After some time, an accord seemed to be struck. The language being indiscernible, body language alone let us see this, the natives and Mbubu untensing visibly. They broke into smiles, revealing startlingly white, filed teeth. Ghastly in appearance as it was, the incontestably human gesture still put us at ease. Physically, they were smaller than Mbubu, though just as lean. Their heads are hairless – whether by artifice or naturally, I could not say. All three of the men, and the others that we would meet later, had a raised line of scars along their cheek bones that swept up to behind their ears. The women of the Mahagger tribe, who we would meet when we finally reached Tör, had instead of the facial scars a pictogram of sorts, a circle with an angled double line, on their stomachs. Perhaps dictated more by the environment than any sense of decorum, both sexes were quite scantily dressed, allowing the eye to discern the virility of their bodies, the simple power they possessed in their svelte musculature. There is something to be said for simple living, after all!
So, we met with our first examples of the august, most ancient Mahagger tribe. They supped with us that night, and, on the following morning, brought us to their city. Their knowledge of the surrounding area, the secret trails and the more sparsely vegetated glens, allowed us to make better time than we had since we entered this jungley wilderness. Traveling along the worn paths, our party was joined throughout the day by more and more of the tribal fellows, an honour guard to usher us into their burg.
As dusk was drawing close, we at last came clear of the obstructing herbage and found ourselves looking upon the great stone pyramids we had espied from afar previously. Titanic, they dominated the view. From where we stood, we could make out three separate buildings, rising above the treetops to some 150 feet. Not a match, then, for those storied tombs of Khufu, but, it must be noted, these Mahagger, who I have on good authority have inhabited this land since time immemorial, are dealing with a terrain much less hospitable to the human form than the Ancient Egyptians!
Alas, recent centuries have not been kind to the Mahagger, as evidenced by the fallen status we were presented with upon reaching their capitol. The generations that erected those granite monuments are long gone – the current people reside in crude mud and reed huts at the feet of their forebears’ temples.
Their reduced architectural abilities have not hampered their generosity, though! From our position at the edge of the brush, we could see a delegation on its way to meet us – seemingly, some of our escort had run ahead to notify those at our destination. At their head was none less than the Chief himself, the aforementioned Rezu, as well as his Royal Consorts, numbering five individuals of surpassing comeliness. In addition to the standard cheek scars, the suzerain had a pair of dimpled lines running the vertical length of forehead, set apart the width of the bridge of his broad nose. His Consorts, in addition to the customary feminine markings, sported a swirling pattern about their breasts. Yes! It is true! Womenfolk of the Mahagger go as unclothed about their torsos as their men, much to the consternation of we Europeans. When Mbubu translated our rightful shock, the women laughed it off, as if it were a great jest or the like! You must understand, these are a people for whom the Good Word is a novelty, a recent accession. They are a tribe lost to Time, let alone the universal understanding of decency. But, again, I am getting ahead of myself.
The deputation reached us, and a ceremonial proclamation, or so we must assume, was made, with Mbubu doing his hurried best to translate. Following his lead, we made our obeisance to the Regal ensemble. By way of Mbubu’s gloss, we were all individually made known to the Chief Rezu. Upon hearing whom we were and from whence we had journeyed, the man broke into a wide grin, revealing filed teeth identical to his subordinates. It was an image more jarring even than our first introduction to that specific, primal alteration – it could be accepted adorning the rude physiognomies of the tribesmen, but there, set in the stately visage of Rezu, it was a thing out of place. Yes, I admit it, this man bore about him, despite his barbaric surroundings, the stature of Royalty. A true-born King, if albeit a low one.
When our plight was made clear to him, the desperate situation we had been in erstwhile to our discovery of the land of the Mahagger, Chief Rezu grew sombre. Upon some reflection, he said that he knew of a way to help us. Though the Mahagger shunned the outside world, due to a religious taboo of some sort, they knew of the comings and goings on the borders of their land, and could guide us back to our place of resting. Or so Mbubu translated. For now, however, we were to be his personal guests.
That first night there were great celebrations – even if the Mahagger don’t usually mix with folk from beyond their country, they seemed well-enough pleased to have visitors. Much revelry ensued, with plenty of food and special, tribal dances performed for our benefit. You can understand the palpable relief we felt, and the slightly surreal nature of it all – in the span of less than 72 hours, we went from suffering severe deprivation, lost in an unknown land with little hope of salvation, haunted day and night by terrors we could not name, to relaxing amidst this quasi-civilised community, close enough to home to see it in the mind’s eye.
That being noted, the slight lack of balance we were all feeling, can render the next episode somewhat more understandable. Following the dances, a lone figure entered the broad, flag-stoned parade space. A youth of indeterminate sex, scarcely over the age of twelve by my estimation, proceeded to play for us a most haunting dirge upon a flute of what must have been the long-bone of some animal. It was quite beautiful, but disconcerting. Eerie, in an inexplicable way. There was a particular perturbation amongst our Mohammedan peers, but then, their distaste of the Arts is well known, isn’t it? It did, however, leave us all feeling a bit…unsettled. Abruptly, the song was finished, and so too was the night’s festivities. We were shown to the quarters which have housed us these past few nights – a luxury in comparison with what little shelter we could scrounge amidst the wet trees ad damp earth, even if the buildings were beyond vulgar, in truth.
In the intervening time between then and now, we have grown acquainted with our hosts. Spurred on by Anhalt, we have done much exploring of the architectonic wonders abounding this city. Beneath the pyramids is a network of catacombs, running deep into the earth and beyond even the ken of the learned Chief.
Ah! That reminds me! Rezu was telling us: we are not, evidently, the first white people the Mahagger have encountered! Yes, fantastic as it may sound, the Chief swears that, some several centuries ago, this very city of Tör was ruled over by a white woman of exceeding beauty, who was said to have been alive since the world itself was young. An un-aging Queen of terrifying attractiveness! We, understandably, chalked this up to myth – you know how these native-types are – but what a mystery, nonetheless! There are passages in the catacombs, rooms within the pyramids, which I have seen with my own eyes as I am a Christian man, that depict this ancient Queen, and it is true, the graven face is of no Nubian source. A mystery indeed!
I look forward to the exploration of these histories that our visit will no doubt spur on – this is, in fact, a great success for Herr Anhalt, and, no doubt, for the scientific community as a whole! And to think, if not for our wreckage, bleak as it may have seemed, this ancient tribe may have gone on, unbeknownst to the outer world, until at last the final representative died out, taking his secret knowledge with him to the grave. What good fortune we have had! Though the passing of our comrades is a grievous blow, to be sure, what cost is that stacked against the vast increase in human knowledge that will no doubt come of this? I regret only that I am not schooled in these sciences, these archaeologies, that I could do more work while I am here. That labour must be left to others.
The Chief has said that all will be organised for our final travels soon, but, first, there is meant to be a great feast, one to dwarf the celebrations that festooned our arrival. This will take place tonight or tomorrow night, the timing seems to be a bit unclear. These are a very holy people, in their own way, much given to omens and auguries. It is no doubt upon something of this sort that we wait.
Thus, I record, with great happiness, the events of the last few days. With any luck at all, I may soon be drawing this extraordinary Adventure to an end, and returning, if not home, then at least to the company of my compatriots in our most civilised Colony!
Hugh Octavius Pleasant
Late December, 187-
My Shining Light, my Josephine
It’s been two days now since I last recorded my thoughts, and those two days have been the most difficult I’ve experienced in my life. I say this, but I can only see the coming weeks and months to be far worse, and so, perhaps I should describe them, not as my most trying period, but as a Purgatory, of sorts, the antechamber for something much worse. As you might guess, my frame of mind is not an optimistic one.
Some of our cohort have begun to show signs of illness – succumbing, no doubt, to the unhealthy vapours that surround us day and night. I pray that we reach higher ground soon. One of the Arab crew, his name, I believe, is Hafiz, has taken on a terrible colour – the man, not very robust to begin with, has developed a unhealthy shade to his dark flesh, and can be seen to sweat something profusely at every hour. Meanwhile, one of Herr Anhalt’s men, a certain Klaus, has been struck more directly. His fever is already at an advanced stage, and he vomits up what little he has left to him almost like clock-work. Without the appropriate medical attention and supplies, I fear he will not last long.
In stark contrast to our more unhealthy members, Mbubu is in his element. Honestly, I couldn’t say that I’ve seen him more pleased at any time in our months’-long acquaintance. Here we are, stranded in a barbarous country, surrounded by the Lord alone knows what menacing beasts, and he strides about, chipper than Disraeli propping up Papists. One would not be remiss in believing that he actually enjoys the bites of these stinging gnats, these devil-mosquitoes; that they fill him with a sense of well-being, rather than the awful irritation the rest of us receive. The flies in these parts, they are nothing like the marsh midges of home. Wing-span the breadth of my hand, if not greater. Needle the length of a quill. Savage land, antediluvian beasts. It stands to reason.
Oddly, though, there are signs that, once, long ago, this land may not have been as primitive as we now find it. Every few miles, we come across brick-work, the makings of old embankments built into the former river’s edge, before it shifted away and left them stranded in grassy hummocks. At one point, there must have been some organised society ‘round these parts, possessing greater technological abilities than are exhibited by Mbubu’s rough countrymen.
It has piqued the interest of Herr Anhalt no end, stirring in him the fires of scholarly passion. If Mbubu be counted a merry fellow, then Anhalt is a lively one, despite the uncertainty of our condition or our future. He has the upbringing to continue to express concern over poor Klaus, but you can see the tension it brings him to restrain himself so. I daresay, if we were slightly better prepared, I suspect that the good Saxon could think of fewer places he might wish to be. As it is, his constant desire to inspect the piles of masonry has hindered our progress up-river, poring over the shambled mounds each time we come across one. I can’t think we are headed towards any great place of Sanctuary – I have in fact begun to resign myself to our fate; to place myself fully into the hands of Providence – but I can see that the slowing of our pace has begun to grate somewhat on the nerves of the remaining Mohammedan crew. Herr Anhalt, in his lust for Antiquities, is, alas, blind to it. I will keep watch, to make sure the situation should not overboil into any great tragedy. If we are to survive this, we will need to band together, to express a proper, collegial attitude to one another, and see this through like Men! To divide ourselves against one another will only brook disaster.
Ah, evening draws close. The sun at last sets itself down, releasing us from its sweltering grasp. The steamy jungle is nearly bearable during the night. It is a shame that footing is so treacherous hereabouts, otherwise, it would be a straightforward choice to travel under the cloak of darkness, to avoid Helios’ wilting orb. Though I suppose there are the wild brutes to concern ourselves with, as well. They do seem to be more active during the night. It is a beneficent turn that we have as robust a man as Hans along with us – I fear that some of the coarse animal howls we are subjected to at night might prove to unsettle some of our less resolute comrades, otherwise. Just last night, the countryside echoed with the mad laughter of some sort of demon – Mbubu tells us that it was merely a type of wild dog, but I scarcely believe him – no dog, that ancient friend of man, could utter such a loathsome sound, such a spine-chilling racket.
I can see Hesperus rising. What with the thick foliage above us most times, the sight of the stars has grown much scarcer than it was while asea. It is not something I regret – they seem to peer down at us in a most inhospitable way, as if they were so many leering eyes, looking on with ill-intent. Oh, it is a grim mood that has grasped me!
H. O. P.
Late December, 187-
I do not know if this letter will ever reach you. I write it more as a way of cataloguing our current situation, dire as it is, than as a missive. Truth be told, I feel as if I need to record the recent events of the past to believe them myself, to try and make sense of what has happened to us.
It has been two days since we were wrecked. I do not know where we are, though there is some agreement that we are on that great river, the Zambezi, or in one of its branches as it drains into the Indian Ocean. But I get ahead of myself.
We were making good time, with a strong wind at our backs. Captain Ihsan, God rest his soul, thought we might make the Colonies a few days ahead of our anticipated arrival, even. Of a sudden, our benevolent weather turned against us. With nary a warning on the horizon at sundown, a storm struck us in the mid of the night. A storm, but no storm I’d ever yet experienced! It seemed as if the wind came from the four directions at once. Almost immediately, our sails were ripped from the dhow, so fierce were the gales. I think I shall remember the awful cracking of the timbers till my death day. The good Captain, and perhaps two or three of the crew, were caught in the ropes and rigging when the sails and masts fell overboard into the abyss of the sea. The hapless sailors, much as they had made their lives by the ocean, were in turn claimed by it. Do not think me a coward! There was no saving them – the sky was illuminated by a flash of lightning, the masts cracked, and, within 3 heartbeats, the men and the whole mess had been sucked down. I did see Ihsan, illuminated in a second flare of light, face shouting soundlessly, for but a moment. And then he and the rest were gone. The vision will haunt me. I but close my eyes and I am back there, deck bucking and rolling beneath me, lashed by wind and stung by rain, and the face of the doomed man, sinking beneath those malicious waves…
Our trials were not finished with the loss of the captain and the sails, though. No, the ship was driven inland at a frightful speed. In my foolishness, I saw this as a blessing, and cried out “We are saved!” Herr Anhalt, standing immediately next to me, for, in the din, my voice could not have carried further, shouted in my ears, pointing out the dark, tooth like shapes sometime-illumined in the stormy froth: “The rocks!” Whatever terror I had experienced before then, whatever sense of dread gripped me, was over-surpassed at once. As we were drawn down in a trough of a great wave, the rocky fangs rising up before us, my stomach also fell, far below me feet. I’m unashamed to say that I fainted in the face of it. It is not a small thing to be confronted with such a forceful testament of one’s own mortality.
I say I fainted, for that is what must have happened – the next situation I recall, chronologically, saw me bodily lashed to the rails of the ship, alongside all the remaining passengers of that ill-fated vessel. It was Mbubu, I was later to find out, who had saved my life, securing me with ropes to what little security availed him, preventing my unresisting body from being swept into the sea. He, Hans, and some of the more robust members of the crew saw to it that all remaining souls were secured, in hopes that, if the ship itself should break up, perhaps some would survive, attached to the flotsam rather than being lost singly, dashed against whatever the cruel stones had in store for us.
Alas, to be wrecked on those rocks, such was not our destiny that night. I know not how we avoided those great claws the mere sight of which had stolen my consciousness earlier, but we were thrust between so many crags and splinters of stone that, at each turn, it looked as if the ship would be claimed, punctured by talons sharpened by crashing waves. Nothing less than the Hand of Providence itself could have guided the ship safely through that maelstrom, and I daily thank Him for our deliverance.
Eventually, and it must have happened quickly enough from an outside perspective, though it seemed an eternity to us, we were through the chain of shoals. Still driven by wind and wave, our bark, rudderless, made for the river mouth. In a tidal bore that must have been one of the greatest known in these parts, certainly the largest I have heard tell of anywhere, we were thrust some distance upstream. For a time, the ship was sucked back down the river course, as the flood waters pulled back. However, soon enough a second great wave drove us inland once more, further than we had traveled initially. What followed sounds like something out of a tall tale, a fantasy, but, I assure you, it is nothing but the truth! I anticipate, if ever we make our way back to a civilized part of our world, that a delegation will be sent out from the Royal Society to study the phenomenon, it is so astounding. The process I have described, of being pulled back and thrust forward by the powerful sweeping of brackish waters, repeated itself, what must have been a dozen, sixteen times. There came a point where many of us, still lashed as we were to the ship, grew sick with the forwards and backwards motion we were subjected to and spilled the contents of our stomachs in a most unmanly way.
Suffice it to say, by the time the strengthy onslaught subsided, we found ourselves out of sight of the sea, well inland. The ship had come to rest on a sand bar to the side of the river, the early portion of what will one day become an oxbow lake, if my geographical training hasn’t failed me. Seeing that we were out of imminent danger, most of us dozed off where we were tied, uncaring for comfort or what the future might hold in store, only knowing in our exhausted state that we were out of immediate danger.
When morning broke, we arose to survey the wreckage. Of the storm, only its damage could be seen – the sky was open and cloudless, the serenity provided almost in a mockery of what it had unleashed upon us the night before. It was at that point we realized how far we had been pushed inland – what seemed an almost supernatural distance. Of the 28 who had been aboard not 18 hours before, only 20 were left. I had only witnessed the demise of the Captain, and thus can only assume that the others were swept to sea between my fainting and the securing of all remaining bodies. Of our stores, most of our food was lost or destroyed by the water. Fortunately, we have a good supply of shot, and Hans, as I have written previously, is an exceedingly quality sportsman. With a bit of luck, we should be able to live off the fruit of the country before long.
However, our current plight is akin to that of poor hapless Job – what the Lord provides with one hand, He takes away with the other. The very land that may provide us our life may in the end be the undoing of us. Our supply of quinine is nearly spent, and the vapours of the swamp, known to cause the Fever, already rise up about us. It is only exacerbated by this heat – we would, in fact, be better off with an overcast day.
To return to the sea, inadvisable. Even if we were able to shift our de-masted dhow, Captain Ihsan was our navigator. We would be hopelessly lost, even if the ship did prove sea-worthy. We Europeans have had to rely on Mbubu to communicate with the remaining members of the crew – Anhalt, learned as he is in the Antiquities, does not hold amongst his abilities conversational Arabic. And those crew that remain, speak nothing but. Once more I am rendered grateful for that timely choice of mine to recruit Mbubu to my side. If we are to come out of this alive, I suspect that I will grow to depend on him ever-more. As I was saying, none of the crew members, rude individuals that they are, could navigate the deep ocean or even the coast-lines themselves.
Thus, the only avenue that remains open to us is to carry on in the direction we were so mercilessly thrust – upriver. We do our best to remain optimistic about finding some community along the river’s shores. The alternative – hundreds of miles of trackless waste – is too grim to bear. The day has been taken up organizing what little remains to us of stores and equipment. Once it is divvied between each man, we will set out, and, with God smiling down on us, we shall reach Deliverance.
Hugh Octavius Pleasant
Though I try to keep my mind from it, if I should, over the course of our trek, perish, it buoys my spirit to think that, God willing, I will be able to make an account of myself to you, before I should render myself up to Providence.
I love you eternally,