January 2007


Over the weekend I watched The Queen, which, happily, is up for awards this Oscar season. I’ll spare a plot summary, and rather suggest that it is a film well worth watching- a fine, if slow in places, story arc, with good witty dialogue and some lovely cinematography- any film with big sweeping shots of the Scottish Highlands gets some appreciation from me, whatever its other merits.

The most interesting aspect of the film I thought was its portrayal of value-shift, as manifest in the orgiastic public overflow of emotion in response to Diana’s death. The Queen finds herself unable, at first, to simply accept that people are actually acting this way- she insists for some time that the newspapers are merely sensationalizing the story; upon coming to accept the public’s true feelings she believes they will quickly pass. When that does not happen she finds herself truly perplexed at the shift in value in British society- not only in the excessive emoting, but also in the apparent lack of respect for even the vestiges of tradition and protocol. This includes British religious attitudes. In one scene Tony Blair is conversing with the Queen’s secretary, who tells Mr Blair that the Queen understands herself to have been appointed by God to her position. Mr Blair reacts to this statement by contemptuously asking, “What does God have to do with it?” However, where many other films would lead us to applaud such a progressive attitude, The Queen casts an unfavourable light upon such flippancy and, if you will, vulgarity. We are led to believe that perhaps there is something to be said for tradition, honour, values, and the rest. This is a refreshing perspective to be seen in a movie, particularly one being screened on the local mega-plex.

Schumpeter remarked in 1919 that imperialism necessarily carries the implication of “an aggressiveness, the true reasons for which do not lie in the aims which are temporarily being pursued…an aggressiveness for its own sake, as reflected in such terms as ‘hegemony,’ ‘world dominion,’ and so forth…expansion for the sake of expanding….”

“This determination,” he continues, “cannot be explained by any of the pretexts that bring it into action, by any of the aims for which it seems to be struggling at the time…. Such expansion is in a sense its own ‘object.'”

Perhaps this has come to apply in the American case, and we have gone beyond the belief in national exception to make an ideology of progress and universal leadership into our moral justification for a policy of simple power expansion. In that case we have entered into a logic of history that in the past has invariably ended in tragedy.

William Pfaff, Manifest Destiny: A New Direction for America

Tree of thin tracery-
As leafage now
only the myriad stars.

Shiki (1867-1902)

Myself and time, like birds
or ships at sea, slip past each other,
with nothing that stays put;
but what I’ve done amiss does not skip by,
but stays: this is life’s cruelest pain.
Not can I tell what to pray for, to live on, or be done:
it’s fearful either way. Come, think with me.
Through sins my life’s become an aching mess. But if I die,
ai ai! there’s no cure then for your old passions!
If this is what life appoints for you, its anguish is so great
that even when ended it holds no end of troubles,
but on both sides there’s a precipice. What’s there to say?
This then is what’s best
to look towards You alone, and Your kindheartedness.

St. Gregory of Nazianzus

From on God and Man: The Theological Poetry of St. Gregory Nazianzus, a part of St. Vladmir’s Seminary Press excellent and handy Popular Patristics Series.

The immediately striking thing about St. Gregory’s poetry is the almost existential, quite personal sense of internal struggle. The autobiographical sense of his poetry reminds one of St. Augustine, who is usually held up as the prime example of an initial move to more introspective, personal narratives. St. Gregory lacks the verve of a dramatic conversion story, but he strongly channels the sense of honesty and struggle, filtered through a clearly internally absorbed Christocentric, Trinitarian faith. Thus many of Gregory’s poetic self-narratives wander through darkness and near despair, but always return to a Christ-infused hope, even if it seems somewhat tenuous in a highly uncertain world.

Via Pitchfork Media, a new song from folk-of-sorts singer-songwriter Rosie Thomas: Much Farther To Go, off of her up-coming album These Friends of Mine. Her absolutely lovely voice is joined by Sufjan Stevens in a beautifully crafted exploration of memory, love, and loss.

The dilemma of immigration and identity ultimately converges with the larger problem of the valuelessness of postmodernity. The rise of relativism has made it harder for postmodern people to assert positive values and therefore the kinds of shared beliefs that they demand of migrants as a condition for citizenship. Postmodern elites, particularly those in Europe, feel that they have evolved beyond identities defined by religion and nation and have arrived at a superior place. But aside from their celebration of endless diversity and tolerance, postmodern people find it difficult to agree on the substance of the good life to which they aspire in common.

Immigration forces upon us in a particularly acute way discussion of the question “Who are we?”, posed by Samuel Huntington. If postmodern societies are to move towards a more serious discussion of identity, they will need to uncover those positive virtues that define what it means to be a member of the wider society. If they do not, they may be overwhelmed by people who are more sure about who they are.

Francis Fukuyama, Identity and Migration

The problem, of course, is that postmodern society is essentially devoid of concrete values; what values exist are remnants, memories and echoes from earlier epochs. That does not, however, necessarily rob a society of impetus; it is quite possible to forge actions and policies guided by nothing more than one’s immediate situation alongside the background remnants of values. It does seriously undermine such a society, even if not existentially. Can our society succesfully arrive at some common ground of value and meaning? I rather doubt it, at least for the foreseeable future.

Finished today a nice little tome, Ornamentalism, by David Cannadine, in which he argues, contra (well, under a mitigated contra really) Edward Said that British views of ‘the Orient’ were not all based upon race and the ever-abiding sense of ‘the Other.’ Instead, much British Imperial policy- particularly, if not primarily after the Sepoy Mutiny in 1857- was structured around ideas of class and hierarchy. Guided by a fusion, on the one hand, of pre-Enlightenment ideas of rank and hierarchy, which had little to do with race or ethnicity, and on the other an emergent British Imperial ideology, Imperial policy sought to recognize native aristocracy and hierarchies. These native hierarchies could be collaboraters with the British, who often saw themselves as protectors of native tradition, as Western capitalism engulfed the East. British Tories saw in native societies parallels with their own traditional, rural, aristocratic order; they also saw in such native societies a means of perpetuating the traditional ideas associated with such orders. Hence the British approached native culture and pre-existing hierarchies with a greater degree of respect and appreciation than Said would suggest. Most importantly, they saw in these societies a self-image, a reflection of their own traditions.

The problem- or rather, one of the problems- was that British constructions of native societies were often poorly drawn. They saw aristocracies and classes where there were none, or not as the British wished to percieve them. Not only that, but they tended to neglect the contingencies of native societies and their maleableness- prefering to see them as ancient and unyielding. The British found themselves unable to engage and confront the developing nationalist narratives and agitations in the rising educated middle classes- fueled by the sweeping technological change and urbanization of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries- of their holdings; nor did they consistently secure the adequate cooperations and collaberation of the native elite. All of these elements, Cannadine argues, contributed to the eventual failure of the British project in regards to native hierarchies- and the Empire in general.

Cannadine makes compelling arguments, considering the brevity of the book. His arguments for the importance of class and hierarchy in contrast to preoccupation with race are quite compelling, though, as he himself notes, the full reality of British Imperial imagination and activity is a mixture of both elements.

The salient point of Ornamentalism is, I think, its deconstruction of the radical separation and antagonism so often depicted as existing between ‘colonizer and colonized,’ ‘East and West,’ and so on. Instead, the historical reality in British Imperialism- especially in regards to India- is, as anywhere else in history, quite complex, with overlapping levels of Anglo-Indian relations and understandings. This is reflected in literature for example- the more I read of period writings from British India the more struck I am with the complex, multilayered relation of the British to the subcontinent and its subculture. Today I browsed through a volume of ‘Asian Miscellanies,’ which included, among other things, English translations of Mughal love poetry and two hymns to Hindu deities composed by an Englishman. Such example of ‘hybridity’ can be extended much further. William Dalrymple’s excellent book White Mughals presents a masterful examination of one such extension, in which a British official, James Kirkpatrick, married a high-class Indian, Khair un-Nissa (the idea and importance of class vis a vis race is prominent throughout, incidentally); in the process he converted to Islam.

In short, the interaction of ‘East and West’ is not and has never been simple or dualistic, much as some would like to think. This should be obvious enough, but we have a tendency, expressed in historical study and elsewhere, to desire easy systems and simplifications. History- and especially massive cultural interaction such as experienced in empire- cannot be easily systemized or simplified.

Next Page »