I am reading a great travel classic written in the 1950s about two Swiss who drove a ratty old Fiat from Yugoslavia to the Khyber Pass on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border. Nicolas Bouvier’s The Way of the World describes Persian politics in Tabriz in 1953, when Muhammad Musaddeq’s government was overthrown by a Royalist coup. Wonderful stuff!BTW, is this where we’re headed?
The Musaddeq trial, which had just opened in Tehran, led to fears of skirmishes in Tabriz. They didn’t take place because that very morning the Governor demonstrated to the town that he was in full control: five armoured cars, several mortars and twenty trucks, carrying troops whose numbers had been increased for the occasion.
The Governor was a wily old man, a cruel jester, oddly esteemed even by opponents of the government he represented. He was forgiven much because everyone knew he had no political convictions and had entirely devoted his rule to building up his personal fortune, with a skill that had won him many admirers. Tabriz had always been a recalcitrant town, but it recognized ‘fair play’, and well-aimed shots. That unexpected parade, for example, which had the town by the scruff of the neck when it woke up, was absolutely in the style of the man to whom the town referred familiarly by his first name. A despot, of course, whose disappearance would have been welcomed with relief, and who was intently watched in case he should slip up. Meanwhile, informed, bland, pitiless and efficient, he was impressive. The town, familiar with despotism, granted his talent.
I have just finished a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov (1860-1904) entitled The Wife and Other Stories which has been, by far, the best book I have read so far this year. Even though her translations are being increasingly considered as clunky and slightly archaic, I really enjoyed Constance Garnett. The following discussion on happiness vs. unhappiness is from a story entitled “Gooseberries.”
I saw a happy man whose cherished dream was so obviously fulfilled, who had attained his object in life, who had gained what he wanted, who was satisfied with his fate and himself. There is always, for some reason, an element of sadness mingled with my thoughts of human happiness, and, on this occasion, at the sight of a happy man I was overcome by an oppressive feeling that was close upon despair. It was particularly oppressive at night. A bed was made up for me in the room next to my brother’s bedroom, and I could hear that he was awake, and that he kept getting up and going to the plate of gooseberries and taking one. I reflected how many satisfied, happy people there really are! What a suffocating force it is! You look at life: the insolence and idleness of the strong, the ignorance and brutishness of the weak, incredible poverty all about us, overcrowding, degeneration, drunkenness, hypocrisy, lying…. Yet all is calm and stillness in the houses and in the streets; of the fifty thousand living in a town, there is not one who would cry out, who would give vent to his indignation aloud. We see the people going to market for provisions, eating by day, sleeping by night, talking their silly nonsense, getting married, growing old, serenely escorting their dead to the cemetery; but we do not see and we do not hear those who suffer, and what is terrible in life goes on somewhere behind the scenes…. Everything is quiet and peaceful, and nothing protests but mute statistics: so many people gone out of their minds, so many gallons of vodka drunk, so many children dead from malnutrition…. And this order of things is evidently necessary; evidently the happy man only feels at ease because the unhappy bear their burdens in silence, and without that silence happiness would be impossible. It’s a case of general hypnotism. There ought to be behind the door of every happy, contented man some one standing with a hammer continually reminding him with a tap that there are unhappy people; that however happy he may be, life will show him her laws sooner or later, trouble will come for him—disease, poverty, losses, and no one will see or hear, just as now he neither sees nor hears others. But there is no man with a hammer; the happy man lives at his ease, and trivial daily cares faintly agitate him like the wind in the aspen-tree—and all goes well.
In Chapter 9 of his book about Australia entitled In a Sunburned Country, Bill Bryson writes about an encounter with New South Wales’s Australian Flies, called in Australia “March Flies,” because that’s when they manifest themselves.
I had gone no more than a dozen feet when I was joined by a fly—smaller and blacker than a housefly. It buzzed around in front of my face and tried to settle on my upper lip. I swatted it away, but it returned at once, always to the same spot. A moment later it was joined by another that wished to go up my nose. It also would not go away. Within a minute or so, I had perhaps twenty of these active spots all around my head and I was swiftly sinking into the state of abject wretchedness that comes with a prolonged encounter with the Australian fly.
Flies are of course always irksome, but the Australian variety distinguishes itself with its very particular persistence. If an Australian fly wants to be up your nose or in your ear, there is no discouraging him. Flick at him as you will and each time he will jump out of range and come straight back. It is simply not possible to deter him. Somewhere on an exposed portion of your body is a spot, about the size of a shirt button, that the fly wants to lick and tickle and turn delirious circles upon. It isn’t simply their persistence, but the things they go for. An Australian fly will try to suck the moisture off your eyeball. He will, if not constantly turned back, go into parts of your ears that a Q-tip can only dream about. He will happily die for the glory of taking a tiny dump on your tongue. Get thirty or forty of them dancing around you in the same way and madness will shortly follow.
And so I proceeded into the park, lost inside my own little buzzing cloud of woe, waving at my head in an increasingly hopeless and desultory manner—it is called the bush salute—blowing constantly out of my mouth and nose, shaking my head in a kind of furious dementia, occasionally slapping myself with startling violence on the cheek or forehead. Eventually, as the flies knew all along, I gave up and they fell upon me as on a corpse.
I am currently reading Martha Gellhorn’s Travels with Myself and Another. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because she was not only an ace war correspondent, but also the third wife of Ernest Hemingway. In the middle of a trip across Africa, she writes the following:
On the face of it, missionaries here are a doomed lot. They have been in Africa for over a hundred years and even if conversion to Christianity is merely a head count, I doubt they are a roaring success. I wouldn’t preach anything to the blacks, not anything at all. If they want our kind of medical care, it should be given to them, but ideally by trained black doctors, though that may disturb the Darwinian balance of their world and their lives. A child is born each year; the hardiest live. The survivors have to be strong enough to endure this appalling climate and land. Much better to teach the women birth control. But I think nothing will be taught or learned for a very long time, and I do not consider this a disaster by any means. Who are we to teach? Leave them alone is my cry; let them find their own answers. We cannot understand them and the answers er have found haven’t been anything to cheer about, for look at us….
The following passage appears in the Res Gestae (The Later Roman Empire A.D. 354-378) of the 4th century Roman historian Ammianus Marcellinus. This appears in a chapter about the Emperor Constantius’s attempts to head off a powerful Persian invasion. I cannot help but think that eagles don’t exactly key on their prey’s screams of fear.
When wild geese, in their migration from east to west [?] to escape the heat, approach the Taurus mountains, where eagles are common, their fear of these formidable birds leads them to stop up their beaks with small stones, to prevent a cry from escaping them, however hard-pressed But when they have passed over these hills in rapid flight they let the stones fall, and so pursue their way free from fear.
Robert Bontine Cunninghame Graham (1852-1936) was a world traveler par excellence, a splendid horseman, a controversial member of Parliament for North West Lanarkshire, and one of a handful of super-great travel writers. I am currently reading his Mogreb-el-Acksa about a trip to the forbidden city of Tarudant in Southern Morocco. He never made it to his destination, but his descriptions of his attempt are world-class literature. The following single long sentence is taken from his Preface to the book.
So I apologise for lack of analysis, neglect to dive into the supposititious motives which influence but ill-attested acts, and mostly for myself for having come before the public with the history of a failure to accomplish what I tried; and having brought together a sack of cobwebs, a pack of gossamers, a bale of thistle-down, dragon-flies’ wings, of Oriental gossip as to byegone facts, of old-world recollections, of new-world practices half understood; lore about horses’ colours, of tales of men who never bother much to think, but chiefly act, carving their lives out, where still space is left in which to carve, and acting thus so inconsiderately whilst there still remain so many stones unbroken, social problems to be solved, and the unpuncturable pneumatic tyre not yet found out.
I have just enjoyed reading Rosemary Mahoney’s Down the Nile: Alone in a Fisherman’s Skiff about her trip—solo—in a rowboat between Aswan and Qena. I loved her description of what it’s like to drive in Egypt. Following is a selection from her chapter on Luxor.
Egyptians drive in a fashion that could only be described as chaotic. They seemed compelled to position their car in front of the one ahead of them at any cost. At night they drove with their headlights off until an oncoming car approached, at which time they helpfully blinded the opposing driver with a sudden flash of the high beams. And Egyptian highways were minefields of disaster. There were always skinny figures leaping across them at just the wrong moment, entire families sitting down to picnics in the middle of them, cars speeding along them in the wrong direction, men stopping their cars to pee in the fast lane, sudden pointless barriers stretched across the road, or wayward oil barrels, or boulders, or a huge herd of hobbled goats. Every ten miles or so the hideously crushed hull of a truck or car would appear at the edge of the road, the rusting, twisted remains of past accidents, and yet these gruesome and shockingly numerous reminders never seemed to chasten Egyptian drivers. They raced and careered and honked their way along with the heedless abandon of people who believe either that they are invincible or that life has no value whatever.
The woman in the above photograph is Milena Jesenská, with whom Franz Kafka carried on a torrid correspondence in 1920. Although she was a married woman (albeit unhappily), Kafka was strongly drawn to her. The relationship, such as it was, petered out when Milena did not want to run away from her marriage. Milena herself was a writer, and in a letter to Max Brod written in August 1920, provides a riveting description of Kafka. She was to live on for another twenty years, dying in 1944 in Ravensbrück Concentration Camp.
Life for him is something entirely different than for all other human beings; in particular, things like money, the stock market, currency exchange, a typewriter are utterly mystical to him (and they really are, too; just not for the rest of us), they are the strangest riddles to him, and his approach to them is completely different than our own. Can his office work be considered the customary performance of a service? Any official position, including his own, is something very puzzling to him, very admirable, like a locomotive is for a small child. He doesn’t understand the simplest things in the world. Were you ever in a post office with him? After he composes a telegram and picks out whatever little counter he likes best, shaking his head, he then drifts from one counter to another, without the slightest idea to what end or why, until he finally stumbles on the right one, and when he pays and receives change, he counts it and discovers one krone too many, and so gives one back to the girl behind the counter. Then he walks away slowly, counts once again, and in the middle of descending the last staircase he realizes that the missing krone belonged to him after all. So there you stand next to him, at a loss, while he shifts his weight from one foot to the other, wondering what to do. Going back is difficult; upstairs there’s a crowd of people pushing and shoving. “So just let it go,” I say. He looks at me completely horrified. How can you let it go? Not that he’s sorry about the krone. But it’s not good. There’s one krone missing. How can you forget about something like that? He spoke about it for a long time, and was very dissatisfied with me.
And this repeated itself with different variations in every shop, in every restaurant, in front of every beggar. Once he gave a beggar a two-krone piece and wanted one back. She said she didn’t have anything. We stood there for a good two minutes, thinking about how to deal with the matter. Then it occurred to him that he could leave the two krone. But no sooner had he taken a few steps when he started getting very cross. Of course this same man would be eager and extremely happy to give me twenty thousand krone with no questions asked. On the other hand, if I were to ask him for twenty thousand and one krone and we had to change money somewhere and didn’t know where, he would seriously consider what to do with the one krone I hadn’t been allotted. His anxiety in the face of money is almost the same as his anxiety in the face of women. Or his fear of things official. Once I telegraphed him, phoned him, wrote him, begged him in God’s name to come see me for a day. I really needed it at the time. I cursed him to high heaven. He didn’t sleep for nights, tormented himself, wrote letters full of self-destruction, but he did not come. Why? He couldn’t ask for leave. He was unable to ask the director, the same director he admires in the depths of his soul (seriously!) for being able to type so quickly—he wasn’t able to tell the director he was going to see me. And as for saying something else—another horrified letter—how could he? Lie? Lie to the director? Impossible…..
No, this world is and remains a riddle to him.
It is a pity that Milena’s letters to Kafka no longer exist. Because she was still uncertain about divorcing her husband, when Franz died in 1924, she had her letters destroyed so that they would not provide incriminating evidence. In her own way, she was a major Czech literary figure.
To begin with, there are a hell of a lot more than 13,000 homeless living on the streets of Los Angeles. I would put the number at close to 5-10 times that many. I have just finished reading Sam Quinones’s excellent book The Least of Us: True Tales of America and Hope in the Time of Fentanyl and Meth, from which the following paragraph is taken:
We used to believe people needed to hit rock bottom before seeking treatment. That’s another idea made obsolete by our addiction crisis and the current synthetic drug supply. It belongs to an era when drugs of choice were merciful. Nowadays people are living in tents, screaming at unseen demons, raped, pimped, beaten, unshowered, and unfed. That would seem to be rock bottom. Yet it’s not enough to persuade people to get treatment. In Columbus, Ohio, Giti Mayton remembers a meth addict who was hospitalized with frostbitten, gangrenous hands, yet who left the hospital in midwinter to find more dope. San Francisco and Philadelphia, two cities with years of experience with heroin, are seeing users homeless and dying like never before. The dope is different now. Today, rock bottom is death.
Writing in 1959, the Old Junkie had a vision of Trump’s America. The following passages are from William S. Burroughs’s Naked Lunch:
The Old Court House is located in the town of Pigeon Hole outside the urban zone. The inhabitants of this town and the surrounding area of swamps and heavy timber are people of such great stupidity and such barbarous practices that the Administration has seen fit to quarantine them in a reservation surrounded by a radioactive wall of iron bricks. In retaliation the citizens of Pigeon Hole plaster their town with signs: “Urbanite Don’t Let The Sun Set On You Here,” an unnecessary injunction, since nothing but urgent business would take any urbanite to Pigeon Hole.
Americans have a special horror of giving up control, of letting things happen in their own way without interference. They would like to jump down in their stomachs and digest the food and shovel the shit out.