Missionary Position

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….

Wild Geese and Eagles

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.

A Sack of Cobwebs

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.

Gridlock on the Nile

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.

Life Is Different for Him

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.

Hitting Rock Bottom

TLOS ANGELES, CA – JANUARY 24: Lisa Rogers, a homeless woman, carries her tent as she relocates her camp on January 24, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. According to a 2016 report by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Los Angeles has the highest number of homeless people in the nation with close to 13,000 living on the streets. The annual Greater Los Angeles Homeless Count begins today and will continue through Thursday. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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.

A Warning to Urbanites

William S. Burroughs (1914-1997)

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.

Serendipity: Cholera vs Coronavirus

Lambeth Cholera Outbreak 1848-49

The more things change, the more they remain the same. The following is from A N Wilson’s The Victorians describing the outbreak of cholera in London in the late 1840s.

It was not until the cholera microbe was isolated and identified by Koch in 1883 that [Dr John] Snow’s brilliant hunch—turning to circumstantial deduction—was proved. Snow tried—and [Edwin] Chadwick too—to spread the gospel of cleanliness as a guard against water-borne disease: the creation of good drains; lodging houses for vagrants; public washhouses; quarantine for local visitors. The coal-miners were the group that suffered more from cholera than any other—Snow urged that their work conditions be divided into four-hour shifts so that they did not need to use the coal pits as privies. In parts of London where the classes washed their hands—Belgravia—the rate of death by cholera was 28 in 10,000, compared with 186 per 10,000 in poorer districts. But, of course, such measures could not be introduced without control, and—as in the case with the Irish [potato] famine—the true laissez-faire liberal would, quite literally, prefer death to state interference. [Italics mine]

Serendipity: On the Tram

An Old-Style Tram in Prague

The following is one of Franz Kafka’s brief stories in his volume entitled Meditation, shown below in its entirety. You will find it in Kafka’s The Metamorphosis and Other Stories (New York: Schocken Books, 1948). What an amazing description of a young woman of his day!

I stand on the end platform of the tram and am completely unsure of my footing in this world, in this town, in my family. Not even casually could I indicate any claims that I might rightly advance in any direction I have not even any defense to offer for standing on this platform, holding on to this strap, letting myself be carried along by this tram, nor for the people who give way to the tram or walk quietly along or stand gazing into shop windows. Nobody asks me to put up a defense, indeed, but that is irrelevant.

The tram approaches a stopping place and a girl takes up her position near the step, ready to alight. She is as distinct to me as if I had run my hands over her. She is dressed in black, the pleats of her skirt hang almost still, her blouse is tight and has a collar of white fine-meshed lace, her left hand is braced flat against the side of the tram, the umbrella in her right hand rests on the second top step. Her face is brown, her nose, slightly pinched at the sides, has a broad round tip. She has a lot of brown hair and stray little tendrils on the right temple. Her small ear is close-set, but since I am near her I can see the whole ridge of the whorl of her right ear and the shadow at the root of it.

At that point I asked myself: How is it that she is not amazed at herself, that she keeps her lips closed and makes no such remark?

Arthur’s Knights

Tapestry Showing Arthur and Guinevere

I am currently reading Chrétien de Troyes’s Arthurian tale Eric and Enide. I fell in love with this picturesque list of the Knights of the Round Table as detailed by this 12th century French author:

Before all the excellent knights, Gawain ought to be named the first, and second Erec the son of Lac, and third Lancelot of the Lake. Gornemant of Gohort was fourth, and the fifth was the Handsome Coward. The sixth was the Ugly Brave, the seventh Meliant of Liz, the eighth Mauduit the Wise, and the ninth Dodinel the Wild. Let Gandelu be named the tenth, for he was a goodly man. The others I shall mention without order, because the numbers bother me. Eslit was there with Briien, and Yvain the son of Uriien. And Yvain of Loenel was there, as well as Yvain the Adulterer. Beside Yvain of Cavaliot was Garravain of Estrangot. After the Knight with the Horn was the Youth with the Golden Ring. And Tristan who never laughed sat beside Bliobleheris, and beside Brun of Piciez was his brother Gru the Sullen. The Armourer sat next, who preferred war to peace. Next sat Karadues the Shortarmed, a knight of good cheer; and Caveron of Robendic, and the son of King Quenedic and the Youth of Quintareus and Yder of the Dolorous Mount. Gaheriet and Kay of Estraus, Amauguin and Gales the Bald, Grain, Gornevain, and Carabes, and Tor the son of King Aras, Girflet the son of Do, and Taulas, who never wearied of arms: and a young man of great merit, Loholt the son of King Arthur, and Sagremor the Impetuous, who should not be forgotten, nor Bedoiier the Master of the Horse, who was skilled at chess and trictrac, nor Bravain, nor King Lot, nor Galegantin of Wales, nor Gronosis, versed in evil, who was son of Kay the Seneschal, nor Labigodes the Courteous, nor Count Cadorcaniois, nor Letron of Prepelesant, whose manners were so excellent, nor Breon the son of Canodan, nor the Count of Honolan who had such a head of fine fair hair; he it was who received the King’s horn in an evil day; he never had any care for truth.