Archive for the ‘Books’ Category

eternity

1. What Happened to My Eternity T-Shirt

After six years, the lettering on my Eternity T-shirt has for some reason started to bleed and smear. It’s a shame, and it’s messy too; but it’s also kind of cool, because it now looks even more like Arthur Stace’s original chalk graffiti.

2. How I First Heard About Eternity

If you’re not from Australia you may not know about Arthur Stace. A true Aussie folk hero, Stace was a reformed alcoholic and born-again Christian who spread the gospel by writing chalk graffiti all over Sydney for decades in the mid-20th century. His one-word message was ETERNITY, written in a beautiful copperplate script despite the fact that Stace was otherwise illiterate. He’s estimated to have written the word 500,000 times over his career. As a longtime friend and graffiti aficionado/perpetrator says, “Dude got up.”

I first read about Stace in Peter Carey’s 30 Days in Sydney, one of a series of travel books written by famous authors. The Booker Prize-winning Carey is probably Australia’s most highly regarded living novelist. I read 30 Days in Sydney in 2005 while still living in New York, shortly after my first trip to Sydney, after I had already started dreaming of migrating here. (As it happens, Carey lives in New York.) Subtitled A Wildly Distorted Account, it’s a feverishly brilliant, sometimes hallucinatory meditation on Carey’s hometown that reads like a work of fiction; it’s one of my favorite books. In many ways I think it’s the best thing he’s written, though it’s probably considered a footnote to his career compared to bestselling novels like Oscar and Lucinda and True History of the Kelley Gang. Reading all of these books was an important part of my preparations for migrating – among other things, they gave me valuable glimpses of the dark side of life here.

In 30 Days, Carey interrupts his drunken, sometimes nightmarish misadventures while on holiday here in Sydney to muse on the enduring local appeal of this legendary figure and his ministry.

I had been at home in New York on the eve of the millennium celebrations and at seven forty-five on that Friday morning, while my wife and sons were still sleeping, I ran quietly down the stairs to witness my other home enter the year 2000… I turned to NBC, where I saw the opera house, the habour bridge. Then Sydney passed into the next century and the bridge suddenly exploded.

Few cities in the turning globe would equal that display at millennium’s end, and yet I, the sentimental expatriate, was less than enchanted and my emotion suddenly cooled. I’d seen this trick before. These fireworks were very similar to that display at our bicentenary in 1988. Then too the bridge grew green and fiery hair. OH WHAT A PARTY the Sydney Morning Herald had written then, and it had been true, the whole town was pissed. We had a classic Sydney rort and we disgraced ourselves with our total forgetfulness of what exactly it was that had occurred in this sandstone basin just two centuries before.

In the heat of our bicentennial celebration, the 50,000 years that had preceded the arrival of the First Fleet somehow slipped our minds. All right, it’s a white-settler culture. It’s what  you might have expected, but that does not explain why we forgot the white people too, or most of them. In 1988 we commemorated the soldiers, but the men and women beneath the decks just somehow were overlooked in all the excitement. The twin forces of our history, those two cruel vectors which shape us to this very day, had been forgotten and what we celebrated instead was some imperial and bureaucratic past towards which we felt neither affection nor connection.

Twelve years later I stared balefully at the fiery bridge but as the smoke cleared I spotted an unexpected sign. Just a little to the left of the northern pylon… a three-foot high word was written in illuminated copperplate.

Eternity

Seeing this, all my spleen was completely washed away, and I was smiling, insanely proud and happy at this secret message from my home, happier still because no one in New York, no one but a Sydneysider, could hope to crack this code, now beamed through space like a message from Tralfamador. What fucked-up Irish things it finally meant to me, I will struggle with later, but I cannot even begin to imagine what it might mean to a New Yorker.

An Aussie brandname? Something to do with time? Something, perhaps, to do with those 50,000 years of culture that this city is built on top of? But although 50,000 years is a very long time, it is not an eternity, and it is not why the people of Sydney love this word, or why the artist Martin Sharp has spent a lifetime painting it and repainting it… The secret of Eternity does not belong to Martin but he has been one of its custodians and I was determined to talk to him about it…

The man who designed Cream’s album covers for “Wheels of Fire” and “Disraeli Gears” looked all of sixty when I saw him, hungover, with his handsome face unshaved, and creased with a classic smoker’s skin. But I am of an age myself, and if I noticed the creases, I also noted with envy that his hair, though greying, was thick and strong.

I first saw Eternity when I was a kid, he told me as he rolled his second cigarette. I came out of my house and discovered this chalk calligraphy on the footpath. No one ever wrote anything on the streets in those days. I thought, what’s that? I didn’t think about what it meant. I didn’t analyse it. It was just beautiful and mysterious.

For years and years no one knew who wrote this word, said Martin. It would just spring up overnight. We now know the writer’s name was Arthur Stace. We know he was a very little bloke, just five foot three inches tall, with wispy white hair and he went off to the First World War as a stretcher-bearer. Later he was a ‘cockatoo’, a look-out for his sisters who ran a brothel. Then he became an alcoholic. By the 1930s, when he walked into a church in Pyrmont, he was drinking methylated spirits.

The church had a sign offering rock cakes and tea for the down and out.

Well, Arthur went in for the cakes but he found himself kneeling down and joining in the prayers. That is how he gave up the grog and got ‘saved’ but the God-given task of his life would be granted to him at another church, the Baptist Tabernacle on Burton Street in Darlinghurst.

On the day Arthur came into the Tabernacle the Reverend John Ridley had chosen Isaiah 57:15 as his text. For thus sayeth the high and lofty One who inhabiteth Eternity, whose name is Holy: I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.

Eternity, the preacher said. I would like to shout the word Eternity to through the streets of Sydney.

And that was it, said Martin. Arthur’s brain just went BANG. He staggered out of the church in tears. In the street he reached in his pocket and there he found a piece of chalk. Who knows how it got there? He knelt, and wrote Eternity on the footpath.

According to the story, he could hardly write his own name until this moment, but now he found his hand forming this perfect copperplate. That was sign enough. And from then on he would go wherever he felt God call him. He wrote his message as much as fifty times a day; in Martin Place, in Parramatta, all over Sydney people would come out onto their street and there it would be: Eternity. Arthur didn’t like concrete footpaths because the chalk did not show up so well. His favourite place was Kings Cross where the pavements were black.

Actually, God did not always send Arthur to write on the footpaths. Once, for instance, He instructed him to write Eternity inside the bell at the GPO although, Martin Sharp told me, the dark forces may have tried to rub it out since then. Of course he didn’t have permission. Arthur always felt he had permission ‘from a higher force’.

I didn’t have anything directly to do with that word appearing on the bridge, said Martin, but I have kept it alive; I suppose you could say that I have continued Arthur’s work. The paintings you know, but I have also just finished a tapestry of Eternity for the library in Sydney. I’m pleased Arthur’s work is finally in a library. He was our greatest writer. He said it all, in just one word. Of course he would be amazed to find himself in a library. And imagine, Peter, imagine what he would have felt, on that first day in Darlinghurst, to think that this copperplate he was miraculously forming on the footpath would not only be famous in the streets of Sydney but beamed out into space and sent all around the world.

I stayed with Martin talking for a long time, but we said no more about Arthur Stace. So it was not until much later that [sleepless] night… that I attempted to pin down the appeal of his message, not to Martin whose fascination seems both spiritual and hermetic, but to the less mystical more utilitarian people of Sydney.

You might think this is no great puzzle. But it is a puzzle – we generally do not like religion in this town, are hostile to ‘God-botherers’ and ‘wowsers’ and ‘bible-bashers‘. We could not like Arthur because he was ‘saved’, hell no! We like him because he was a cockatoo outside the brothel, because he was drunk, a ratbag, an outcast. He was his own man, a slave to no one on this earth.

Thus, quietly reflecting on what might be the idiosyncratic, very local nature of our feelings for Eternity, I began to follow the vein back to its source until, like someone who dreams the same bad dream each night, 200 years just vanished like sand between my fingers and I was seeing Arthur Stace as one more poor wretch transported to Botany Bay.

3. Why I Think Peter Carey Is Kind of Wrong About That Last Bit

Carey says the appeal of Eternity to Sydneysiders is “a puzzle” because “we generally do not like religion in this town.” Maybe. But which town is he referring to? The one he is familiar with, one populated with artists and writers? Sydney is a big place, made up of all kinds of people. Just recently I heard an elderly lady speak about the founding of the Uniting Church in Australia in 1977. It was a momentous occasion, the uniting of the Presbyterian, Methodist and Congregational churches into one entity with a decidedly progressive agenda – the church’s founding statement called for peace, human rights, the eradication of racism, justice for the poor and protection of the environment, streets ahead of its time compared to the Aussie mainstream. This lady proudly spoke of being there at the commemorate service at Town Hall 35 years ago. Perhaps Carey and his artist mates weren’t paying attention, but it was a big deal all the same.

Just to name one more example, Sydney also has a huge community of Polynesians, many of whom are churchgoers. A lot of them are into hip hop, and might therefore appreciate Arthur Stace as a graf legend as well as a man of faith. See what I mean? Which town are you talking about? What if someone said “We generally do not like art in this town.” It would be a pretty rude and dismissive thing to say, and someone who had devoted their life to it might object, but it might also be true. I recently read the autobiography of Robert Hughes, art critic and author of The Fatal Shore, the essential history of Australia’s convict experience; he had some very bitter things to say about his countrymen and their lack of taste. (Like Carey, he too lives in New York.) So it’s all about perspective.

“We could not like Arthur because he was ‘saved’, hell no! We like him because he was a cockatoo outside the brothel, because he was drunk, a ratbag, an outcast.” I get it, you’re suspicous of religion; and it’s true, there was something a little crazy about him. (There’s something a little crazy about all Christians, or there should be. Christians, and graffiti artists.) But I don’t think it’s fair to Stace to give all the credit to only the first half of his story. And anyway, who are you calling a ratbag, mate?

It’s absolutely true he’s an easy figure to love because of his humble, even miserable origins. And Carey’s spot-on in connecting Arthur’s story to the injustices of the convict past. But the crucial thing is that he was, as Stace himself would have put it, born again. If he had just stayed a drunk, none of this would have happened. He was inspired, and driven, by the tremendous feeling he got from being saved, and he did it in the most elegant and unintrusive (and yes, humble) way – while still getting that mystical, beautiful-yet-terrifying word out to everyone in the city for decades. That feeling is tangible when you look at that word; it speaks for itself. Can you imagine the same impact with a different word – a more pedestrian or “utilitiarian” word? UTILITY! Not really. That, I think, is the reason he’s a legend. Carey seems to have made a puzzle out of something self-evident simply because the faith thing jams his radar. Which I understand; I’m not trying to say you have to have faith to ponder eternity – not at all. I’m just addressing one lapse in his emotional logic. If you think I’m biased feel free to ignore me, but I think this case shows that even people who don’t partake can appreciate the power of faith if it’s genuine and comes from a place of love.

Not to nitpick Carey too much – his tripped-out perspective on Australian life and history constantly informs my own since migrating here, and I’m eternally grateful to him for teaching me the secret of Eternity. It’s something I’ve always taken as a sign that I came to the right place.

Advertisements

haudenosaunee

I recently read Charles C. Mann’s 1491 and it’s no exaggeration to say I was profoundly impacted by it. First published in 2005 and subtitled New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus, the book was truly revelatory for me. Attempting to gather all the current knowledge about pre-Columbian life in the Americas into one accessible but thoroughly researched volume, Mann has created a work that reads like a novel but carries the perspective-altering power of Jared Diamond’s similarly weighty tome Guns, Germs and Steel.

Mann’s stated goal with the book, other than the obvious one of painting a portrait as accurate as possible of what life was like before European contact, is to redress the annihilation of Indian history. Even those sensitive to the rights of indigenous people, he argues, tend to neglect their contributions to history. The fallacy of the “noble savage” endures to this day in the widespread belief among well-meaning liberals (especially environmentalists) that Indians were “one with nature,” living in a primeval wilderness, free of the constraints of society, in a timeless time. While it’s true that their societies were a good deal more egalitarian than European ones at the time of contact, this naïve view actually damages our ability to consider the Indians as agents of their own destinies, with civilizations, philosophies and technology that were in many cases on par with or more advanced than European ones at the time. More importantly, most historians now believe the Americas were much more populated than previously believed. There may have been as many people in Mesoamerica alone as in all of Europe in 1491. The “Aztec” capital of Tenochtitlan was, when Cortés arrived there in 1519, bigger than Paris – and much cleaner too, considering it had a functioning sewage system and Paris did not. The Inka empire that stretched for thousands of miles along the Andes Mountains of South America was the largest on earth at the time.

Much of the book is concerned with demonstrating the ways Indians tended the land and shaped their own environments, something the one-with-nature idea doesn’t give them credit for. There are fascinating indications that much of the North American “wilderness” was one gigantic public works project – something like a national park, except it covered the entire continent – carefully cultivated and maintained with controlled burning, so that Indians could farm and hunt according to their needs. (Incredibly the same might be true of the Amazon rainforest.) The reason the continent seemed empty when Europeans began to push westward – a perception that led to the myth of Manifest Destiny – is that most of the native inhabitants, up to 90% of the population, had been wiped out in a series of apocalyptic plagues of measles, smallpox and influenza – diseases that were brought over from Europe and spread like wildfire, killing millions of Indians that had never seen a white person. The “primitive” hunter-gatherers of the plains and the west coast that we’ve always assumed were charming relics of the stone age were actually post-plague refugees; the “primeval” wilderness (romanticized by Thoreau and others) was actually a post-plague wasteland, overgrown after years of neglect.

I’ve been wanting to talk about this book here, but not sure where to begin – there’s so much in it, so much to cover, it’s hard to type up a summary or rview without getting excited and overdoing it. But the Fourth of July seemed like a natural opportunity to share the below excerpts, which concern the crucial contributions of Indian culture to the American notions of liberty and independence. Though I’m very happily an expatriate living in Australia now, distance has given me perspective and a new appreciation of what it is to be American. Mann’s unabashedly bold hypothesis that Indians invented the modern ideal of individual freedom – which more or less forms the conclusion of his book – made me so proud and excited I wanted to punch the ceiling.

Fleeing the Nazi conquest of Europe, the writer Vladimir Nabokov took a ship to the United States in the spring of 1940. Although Nabokov was the scion of a noble Russian family, he detested the class-bound servility ubiquitous in the land of his birth. He was delighted when the lowly US customs officers on the Manhattan dock failed to cringed at his aristocratic bearing and pedigree…. Their straightforward, even brash demeanor, with its implicit assumption that everyone was on the same social level, enchanted him.

Nabokov was hardly the first emigré to be surprised by the difference between Americans and Europeans – a cultural divide that Henry James, like many others, attributed to the former’s “democratic spirit.” As has been widely noted, this spirit has consequences both positive and negative. The sense that anyone is as good as anyone else fuels entrepreneurial self-reliance, but can lead to what outsiders view as political know-nothingism. For better and worse though, this spirit is widely identified as one of America’s great gifts to the world. When rich stockbrokers in London and Paris proudly retain their working-class accents, when when audiences show up at La Scala in track suits and sneakers, when South Africans and Thais complain that the police don’t read suspects their rights as they do on Starsky & Hutch reruns, when anti-govenment protesters in Beirut sing “We Shall Overcome” in Lebanese accents – all these raspberries in the face of social and legal authority have a distinctly American tone… To be sure, apostles of freedom have arisen in many places. But an overwhelming number have been inspired by the American example – or, as it should perhaps be called, the Native American example, for among its fonts is Native American culture, especially that of the Haudenosaunee [“Iroquois,” or Five Nations].

…Compared to the despotic societies that were the norm in Europe and Asia, Haudenosaunee was a libertarian dream. [Mann cites evidence that the Haudenosaunee had one of the oldest forms of representative  governments on earth, a great council that relied on consent of the governed – including powerful women clan heads – and may have influenced the US Constitution.] …As Benjamin Franklin and many others noted, Indian life was characterized by a level of personal autonomy unknown in Europe. Franklin’s ancestors may have emigrated from Europe to escape oppressive rules, but colonial societies were still vastly more coercive and class-ridden than indigenous villages. The Haudenosaunsee, colonial administrator Cadwallader Colden declared in 1749, had “such absolute Notions of Liberty that they allow of no Kind of Superiority of one over another, and banish all Servitude from their Territories.”

Indian insistence on personal liberty was accompanied by an equal insistence on social equality. Northeastern Indians were appalled by the European propensity to divide themselves into social classes… The Baron of Lahontan, a 17th-century French adventurer, wrote that Indians could not understand why “one man should have more than another, and that the Rich should have more respect than the Poor… They brand us for Slaves and call us miserable Souls, whose Life is not worth having, alleging that we degrade ourselves in subjecting ourselves to [a king]…”

Indians who visited [16th-century] France [wrote the essayist Montaigne], “noticed among us some men gorged to the full with things of every sort while their other halves were beggars at their doors, emaciated with hunger and poverty. They found it strange that these poverty-stricken halves should suffer such injustice, and that they did not take the others by the throat or set fire to their houses.”

“When an Indian Child has been brought up among us,” Franklin lamented in 1753, “taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble with them, there is no persuading him ever to return. But when white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived a while among them, though ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of life… and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, when there is no reclaiming them.”

In the most direct way, Indian liberty made indigenous villages into competitors for colonists’ allegiance. Colonial societies could not become too oppressive, because their members – surrounded by examples of free life – always had the option to vote with their feet. It is likely that the first British villages in North America, thousands of miles from the House of Lords, would have lost some of the brutally graded social hierarchy that characterized European life.  But it is also clear that they were infused by the democratic, informal brashness of Native American culture. [Elsewhere Mann argues that the town hall meeting, that quintessential feature of New England life, was a democratic innovation borrowed from the Indians of the region.] That spirit alarmed and discomfited many Europeans, toff and peasant alike. But it is also clear that many others found it a deeply attractive vision of human possibility.

A plain reading of their texts shows that Locke, Hume, Rousseau and Thomas Paine took many of their illustrations of liberty from native examples. So did the Boston colonists who held their anti-British Tea Party dressed as “Mohawks.” When others took up European intellectuals’ books and histories, images of Indian freedom exerted an impact far removed in time and space from the 16th-century Northeast. For much the same reason as their confreres in Boston, protesters in South Korea, China and Ukraine wore “Native American” makeup in the 1980s, 1990s and the first years of this century.

So accepted now around the world is the idea of the implicit equality and liberty of all people that it is hard to grasp what a profound change in human society it represented. But it is only a little exaggeration to claim that everywhere that liberty is cherished – Britain to Bangladesh, Sweden to Soweto – people are children of the Haudenosaunee and their neighbors. Imagine – here let me now address non-Indian readers – somehow meeting a member of the Haudenosaunee from 1491. Is it too much to speculate that beneath the swirling tattoos, asymmetrically trimmed hair and bedizened robes, you would recognize someone much closer to yourself, at least in certain respects, than your own ancestors?

I love the last bit of imagery – the tattooed, freakish-looking Indian as the soulmate of the modern lover of liberty. It calls to mind punk rockers and Occupy protesters, and makes me think that indigenous styles must have influenced us over the years as much as their philosophies. Maybe we’re only now coming to grips with how deep that influence runs.

the montgomery method

Recently I posted a piece about Martin Luther King Jr’s global legacy, and later another one about religious unity during the protests in Egypt. Those two strands are tied together in this story on Comics Alliance:

Egyptian Activists Inspired by Forgotten Martin Luther King Comic

(Thanks to my friend Steven, who posted it on Facebook.)

The article details how The Montgomery Story, a comic book about King originally published in 1958 by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, was recently translated into Arabic and Farsi by the American Islamic Congress and distributed in the Middle East – including Egypt. The comic is an account of the historic bus boycott led by King in Montgomery, Alabama, and includes a primer on “the Montgomery method” – the program of nonviolent action that King initiated in the American civil rights movement and which proved so crucial in the struggle. The article hints the comic may have had an influence on some Egyptian activists during the resent uprising, and helped shape its largely peaceful nature.

Look, The Montgomery Story probably won’t ever win any artistic awards, but for a comic it is remarkably thorough and insightful in disseminating the spiritual values of nonviolent resistance and… well, love. It even includes a thoughtful recap of Gandhi’s satyagraha movement in India.

The translation and distribution of The Montgomery Story‘s Arabic edition was spearheaded by activist Diala Ziada, director of the AIC’s Egypt office. Ziada tirelessly promotes peace, civil rights and nonviolent change in the region with various media projects and sheer determination. Among her noteworthy projects is the Cairo Human Rights Film Festival, now in its third year.

It’s fascinating to read this Time Magazine profile, published in 2009, identifying Ziada as part of a “soft revolution” of Middle Eastern women pushing for change within Islam. It really highlights how the earthshaking events in Cairo this month have changed the paradigms completely – the story is so right and prescient about some things, and so completely wrong and outdated about others. How quickly our perspective has changed. Note the description of the trouble the first edition of the film festival encountered from the government authorities, and Ziada’s heroic efforts to keep it going:

The censorship board did not approve the films, so Ziada doorstopped its chairman at the elevator and rode up with him to plead her case. When the theater was suspiciously closed at the last minute, she rented a tourist boat on the Nile for opening night – waiting until it was offshore and beyond the arm of the law to start the movie.

I hadn’t heard of this woman until I read this article, and I have to say I’m seriously impressed with her courage and energy and her commitment to nonviolent principles. (And she’s only 28. Ever feel like you’re not doing enough with your life?) In covering the Middle East, the mainstream media has generally focused primarily on victims and bad guys, giving us impressions of violence and pathos and little else. That’s why so many of us were caught off guard with the uprising, a genuine people’s movement defying lines of class, gender and religion, and not dictated by the agendas of elites and foreigners.

The Comics Alliance article admits that since only 2000 translated copies of The Mongomery Story were distributed, its influence on the events in Egypt could not have been widespread. But righteous seeds have a way of germinating at just the right time, and having an impact far greater than it may seem at first. In this letter, Zadia insists the book has had an important effect on those it reaches:

When, at first, we went to print the comic book, a security officer blocked publication. So we called him and demanded a meeting. He agreed, and we read through the comic book over coffee to address his concerns. At the end, he granted permission to print, and then asked: “Could I have a few extra copies for my kids?”

The comic book has been credited with inspiring young activists in Egypt and the larger region… Last week I distributed copies in Tahrir Square. Seeing the scene in the square firsthand is amazing. Despite violent attacks and tanks in the street, young people from all walks of life are coming together, organizing food and medical care, and offering a living model of free civil society in action.

It’s quite an image, a young Muslim woman handing out copies of a 60-year-old comic book about the revolutionary vision of an American Baptist minister, right in the middle of her country’s greatest crisis. As the writer of the Comics Alliance article says, “It’s certainly cool that a comic book starring one of America’s greatest real-life heroes has inspired even one person to take to the streets in the way we’ve seen over the last several weeks.”

Click here for complete PDF versions of The Montgomery Story in Arabic, Farsi and English.