Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Questions for a thief

I wouldn't go as far as the anarchist provocateur and cocaine smuggler Abbie Hoffman, who entitled his autobiography Steal This Book, but I have a relaxed attitude to the ownership of texts. There's a finite amount of space on the shelves in my study, and my wife has made it clear that any volumes found creeping up the hall and into the lounge or our bedroom will be dealt with mercilessly. Because I like to buy books, I have to give them away regularly, too.
I wasn't upset, then, to discover one of the books I left on a table at Nathan Homestead Gallery has disappeared. The table is part of the Ghost South Road exhibition that Paul Janman curated for the gallery, and its books, maps, old magazines, and photocopied essays are supposed to help visitors to the show reflect on the images that Paul and his fellow photographers Ian Powell and Todd Henry have put on the walls. Paul and his friends have photographed places and peoples associated with the Great South Road's military history, so I put Vincent O'Malley's essay 'Te Riki ki Waikato: the invasion of the Waikato and its aftermath' on our table, and added The Needle's Eye, Errol Braithwaite's vivid but forgotten 1965 novel about colonial soldiers who move up and down the road between the taverns and balls of Auckland and the swampy battlefields of the Waikato.
An old topographical map I found in an op shop, complete the name, address, phone number, and annotations of its former owner, uses red stars to indicate roadside clearings where shots were fired in 1863 and '64, and redoubts where soldier-settlers and clergymen shivered behind earthen walls after dark.
Other objects on the table were intended to extend the Waikato war and the Great South road through space and time. An account of a restive, pagan Britain by Tacitus was supposed to remind visitors to the gallery that the colonisers of Aotearoa were once colonised by Rome, and that the road the British built into the Waikato Kingdom was consciously modelled on the highways the Romans ran across the realm of Boadicea.
Peter Eckart's enormous Moon Base Handbook, which features commendatory blurbs by famous science fiction writers and filled with incomprehensible equations and diagrams, was supposed to pose questions about humanity's next great imperial expansion. If space is the final frontier, will it be a frontier tamed with laser cannons and pocket theodolites?
When I visited the gallery on Saturday I noticed that the copy of Sven Lindqvist's Terra Nullius that I'd left on the table had gone. Lindqvist is a octogenarian Swede who divides his time between deserts and libraries. His most famous book is 'Exterminate All the Brutes!' , and describes a journey through the Sahara with an old and cumbersome computer loaded with historical documents for company. After finding an oasis and Lindqvist sets up his computer, and begins to read about Europe's nineteenth century colonisation of Africa. He moves from one half-forgotten text to another, collecting atrocities and noting the rise of a sort of pseudo-scientific ideology, then makes the shocking but utterly credible conclusion that Nazis ideology and the techniques of the Holocaust were invented in Africa, by generations of colonial administrators and writers.
Terra Nullius describes Lindqvist's journey through the deserts of Australia, where he ponders the dispossession of the Aboriginal peoples, and discusses the role that the Aboriginals' extraordinary intricate cultures have played in the development of Western anthropological thought. The title of Lindqvist's book refers to the British belief that Australia had been an empty, uninhabited land before 1788. The Aboriginal peoples may have occupied the continent for many thousands of years, but their hunter gatherer culture was so distant from the paradigm of European civilisation that they could be treated as ghosts.
I liked Terra Nullius so much that I didn't notice, until I read a scabrous review of the book by Aussie Hugh Brody, that Lindqvist had managed to journey for months without meeting a single Aboriginal. Brody thinks that Lindqvist prefers his computer screen to people, and that Terra Nullius is really a disguised expression of the guilt Swedes feel about the wealth and safety of their society, and about the collaboration with Nazism that helped make them wealthy and safe. I agree with some of Brody's points, but I still think Terra Nullius is a fascinating book, and that it was worth adding to the table at Nathan Homestead.
I folded a photocopy of Richard Polt's essay 'The Question of Nothing' into Terra Nullius. Polt is an American philosophy who has the rare ability to make the ideas of Martin Heidegger, the German founder of existentialism who notoriously became a follower of Hitler in the 1930s, seem not only comprehensible but interesting.
'The Question of Nothing' examines typically Heideggerian phrases like 'The nothing nothings itself' and 'Why does nothing not exist?' and argues that they were intended to create a mixture of dread and joy - an 'abyssal wonder' - that can stimulate humans to perceive the world in new ways. For Heidegger, a mood like anxiety is valuable, because it can make us stop and look in new ways at the world around us. Objects that we normally treat as 'transparent', and activities that we can normally complete unconsciously suddenly become problematic, and disclose new meanings. We begin to open a door, and for the first time perceive the roundness and firmness and coldness - the thingness - of its knob. We stop swinging a hammer, and wonder at its power and shapeliness.
I put 'The Question of Nothing' into Terra Nullius because I was interested in whether Lindqvist and Heidegger were, at some level, doing the same thing. Lindqvist wanted his readers to see the people who filled a supposedly empty land: Heidegger, according to Richard Polt, wanted his readers to see the previously invisible world in which they lived. I wondered whether Heidegger's Nazism, which was spectacularly confirmed by the recent publication of his anti-semitic personal notebooks, made any good intentions in his philosophy irrelevant. What, I wondered, would Lindqvist have thought about his words being juxtaposed with those of the German philosopher?
I was intrigued to find, on Saturday, that the thief of Terra Nullius had removed 'The Question of Nothing' from the book, and left it on our table. Was this a repudiation of Heidegger's arguments, or of his politics, or of both? Did the thief take Lindqvist's book because he or she wanted to learn more about the colonisation of Australia, or was he or she trying to keep Australia's dirty history out of our exhibition? And why did the thief take Lindqvist, but not O'Malley, or Tacitus, or a blueprint for the colonisation of the moon? Perhaps I'll find out in time.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]

18 Comments:

Blogger Richard said...

Scott that table and the idea of it fascinated me almost the most. I spotted the Tacitus (who I think I translated or it may have been Julius Caesar when I did Latin at Tamaki College in the mid 60s and indeed it shows the Roman's and Caesar seeing the Germans as "savages" and he writes about the woad the Britons used and something of the priests of those ancient times, the Druids, and of the Anglo-Saxons and Germanic tribes he notes they burnt piles of living people alive...of course the information or misinformation echoes the colonial exaggerations of the Imperialists such as the Spanish and later the British and others in the colonization of the Americas and also the world....

But I was looking at 'Terra Nullius' when you talked to me about it. As it happened I recalled I had a copy at a home in the "Australian section" of my library. I was inspired (as I had recently read 'Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee' after having had a copy for about 40 or more years unread): so I read my copy which is paper back at home. I also got Victor to read it (he read 'Bury my Heart...' before I did). I then got a copy of 'Exterminate All The Brutes!" which of course takes it's title from Conrad's 'Heart of Darkness' which I have read about 5 times. I used to read a lot of Conrad as a teenager so, inspired by Lindqvist I read 'The Nigger of the Narcissus' which is a fantastically good book. Following Lindqvist (I agree with his views in both the other books and his method is interesting also, rather like Kundera who hovers between fiction, Lindqvist intersperses his dreams (this made me think of your own poems and I wondered if you had been influenced by them). Conrad is pivotal I think to understanding literature and history. He is also a "great read", the storm in that book is wonderfully described. The Nigger, following L. as I said: could be seen on one level as Africa or taken more widely The Other (I had a slso read an essay as I said by Kapuscinksi called 'The Other' as I mentioned also to you...). Conrad knew of the depredations of the Belgiums and others including all European colonial powers so Mr. Kurtz (who can also be seen in different ways so I think Eliot is seeing him also as more than representing White colonists gone mad.) But the arguments he puts forward hold great force. I read an essay by Achebe more recently and I agree, of course Conrad and Elspeth Huxley were not Africans, nor was Joyce Carey...but there works stand as much as Alex La Guma's book 'Time of the Butcher Bird' about South Africa, Achebe's 'Things Fall Apart' (which is very moving), 'The Beautyful Ones are not Born' by Ayi Kwei Armah, (these and other books I read in a course called 'Post Colonial Literature' with Sebastian Black and another lecturer...(and they are great books): but he was wary of my mention of 'Mister Johnson' by Carey, and Conrad's books...But I think it is necessary to see "both sides" and Mister Johnson was also a favourite book as well as Alan Paton's 'Cry the Beloved Country'....

It is a puzzle it [Terra Nullius] was stolen but try and get another copy as it is an important book as is his other book based on Conrad's works etc and his travels.

10:31 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

In Australia and Africa Sven Lindqvist travels with books he has read which I think is an advantage. He is like a ghost traveler and he possibly felt that contacting Aboriginals (he saw them but probably or possibly didn't speak to or contact any) was some kind of violation or intrusion, or he was frightened of them, I don't know: I don't think it affects the validity of what he says or writes...In his books there is a kind of psychological angst or kind of crisis he himself seems to be going through. This means that the personal intersects with the 'reality' around him which is the history which is ongoing. It would be interesting to read about him also. But that is no problem, the book is not about him as such (it is in a way it about him and what is around him): and what he has in those books are illuminating and very much worth reading.

But that table is indeed interesting. I see Dennys Trussell fossicking there. A candidate? Surely not. A poet musician, a gentleman and a scholar. But it wasn't me!

10:32 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Text has no place in art.

1:22 pm  
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12:03 am  
Blogger Terry Coggan said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

9:03 am  
Blogger Terry Coggan said...

James Robb has recently discussed the Lindqvist book on his blog:
https://convincingreasons.wordpress.com/2017/05/30/apology-anthropology-and-colonial-genocide/

9:17 am  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Thanks for your comments RT and the link Terry. Alas medical dramas have stopped me replying!

4:19 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Terry Cogan thanks for the link to James Robb's post re 'Terra Nullius'. I disagree with his critique but it is the kind of direction I would have taken as a young man (in say 1970) when I believed in progress, Communism, science etc. The rot for me started strangely with my reading of one of the greatest of books 'Gulliver's Travels' and an argument with Don Smith, Professor of English (this was in 1992 I think when I had returned to University to study philosophy and literature etc). He was adamant against my claim that the satire of the Royal Society by Swift was over the top and I claimed that science would solve things. In fact I have now realised that science solves nothing.

Swift of course did achieve some social and political 'successes' but I think he was rightly rather unenthusiastic about what I used to think was possible, that is, human "progress". If history tells us anything it is the opposite. The killing, the injustice, etc, goes on.

But he does point to some positive developments which I concur like. We have to act I think as if we had a kind of 'local progress'.... we cant quantify or measure it but it is a positive way of acting.

I think the apologies are a start. Also the information getting out there via Lindqvuist and others is good. We at least need to know what has happened.

I feel that Malinowski as far as I know what I do made great steps. (It is true that it is nearly impossible for an 'objective' or non-disruptive anthropological investigation to take place). I disagree with Robb re him, and also am wary of the conclusions of Marx and Engels. I think that Lindqvist, with all his eccentricities (Robb leaves out this personal aspect which is what makes the book: it is one man's view backed by history...and he includes his feelings and reactions to hotels, the long lonely roads and so on. This happens also in 'Exterminate All The Brutes!" which has Lindqvist's dark dreams, no doubt engendered by his thoughts and reading and indeed his travels.

But those things aside Robb does a great summary and has some links and valid comments for sure. Good on him and I hope I am wrong in my rather pessimistic view of the human state...I really think that the ideology almost preceded the class struggle and the development of Capitalism (although it is very true that these aspects, in their turn, have been down played too much also). But I think that that white (European or Eurocentric thinking also dominates thinking right now and that indeed some groups of people are quite unique as Malimowski thinks)....

But again, I applaud Robb's review: it is good to see anyone supporting the Aboriginal and other idigenous peoples' in any ways and to see what is not simply a raging polemic using cliches. It is an intelligent review which I will think about more.

It seems by the way that poor Maps is ill or his family hence his silence as he says. I wish him well.

7:30 pm  
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11:33 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Takes one to know one. A fake historian making up fake history and then dissing others who do the same. Hypocrite!

7:32 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Yeah he is a thief of other people's ideas- nothing original about him. His stuff is is all about promoting himself. the biggest ego on the block.

7:35 am  
Blogger Dr Jack Ross said...

'Exterminate All the Brutes!' is a fascinating book. I haven't read Terra Nullius, but given the account above, I think I will. I thought Lindqvist was pretty up-front about his rather weird 'method' in the former book, though. The dodginess of it was, I thought, the point: avoiding the veneer of respectability in fields where none can exist.

10:10 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I agree re 'Exterminate All the Brutes!' It got me back to Conrad. As a teenager I read Conrad quite a lot but I had forgotten a lot reading them mainly as sea adventures but more recently I have revisited him and Scott's point of his book table was the range of subjects that interact with the GSR project...and thus of course there is a parallel with Lindqvist. As I said I talked to Scott about some of the books and I knew I had 'Terra Nullius' for some time, unread. It is relevant and it is fascinating. I then read 'Exterminate...' and I feel I want to read 'Heart of Darkness' again and some of those stories he mentions. But there are some other interesting books mentioned in 'Terra Nullius'. The struggle of the aboriginals is ongoing right now and parallels that of the Tangata Whenua here (in fact in a recent meeting for more rights and possibly a treaty of some kind Maori were involved. The right wing in Australia don't want a treaty though. (Strange as they always break treaties in any case.)

It will also one day be interesting to read more, say a biography of Lindqvist. He mixes things as you know. Terra Nullius could have a better arranged bibliography (with page numbers showing where some books mentioned are first cited). Some books I cant cross ref. But otherwise it is good. Exterminate I didn't have a bibliography or map, although I referred to an atlas I have beside my bed. Otherwise both books are great.

It's almost as if, no matter how many times we read about these injustices and Imperialism etc it still evades us. There is always something missing, it's no one's fault. It's still almost as if it didn't happen. I mean I know all these things did (given the 'shifting' nature of history)....In anycase that premise of his re the Holocaust is a strong one...and needs more 'discussion'. By chance I saw Nicky Hagar and Stephenson's book 'Hit and Run' and it seemed that that follows on from "Bury My Heart...' and Lindqvist's books...

But the silence around the ongoing injustices (all round the world and the escalations and misunderstandings and the fear or paranoia rising etc) and is intense. Actions such as those (and the cover ups by our military and in particular the Heads of the SAS and the NZ Army and John Key) by the NZ SAS in killing civilians and then turning a blind eye etc are what increases the resentment which eventually translates into 'terrorism'. In fact civil war in Europe could well happen.

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2:04 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This guy is an internet troll people. He spends his life trashing other because he has nothing original to say. Treat everything he says or does with sceptism!! He hurts a lot of people including his family.

6:30 am  
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11:22 pm  

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