Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Depression Reloaded

Was ist der Mensch - die Nacht vielleicht geschlafen, 
doch vom Rasieren wieder schon so müd, 
noch eh ihn Post und Telefone trafen, 
ist die Substanz schon leer und ausgeglüht, 
ein höheres, ein allgemeines Wirken, 
von dem man hört und manches Mal auch ahnt, 
versagt sich vielen leiblichen Bezirken, 
verfehlte Kräfte, tragisch angebahnt, 
Man sage nicht, der Geist kann es erreichen, 
er gibt nur manchmal kurzbelichtet Zeichen.

For what are you – maybe you could sleep last night,
But now already so exhausted just from shaving,
Before the postman comes and the first ringing of the phone,
Your essence is empty, the embers burnt out.
A higher, more general type of force,
Of which you’ve heard, whose presence you’ve sometimes even felt,
Abjures so many bodily regions,
Futile energy, tragically prepared,
You can’t even say, the spirit can attain this,
It only gives occasional, briefly illuminated hints.

(Gottfried Benn, Melancholie 1954)

At the end of the nineties, when I was struggling with depression, a good friend gave me this poem to read. Even in my inner landscape of hopelessness (or perhaps because of it) at the time, the work struck a chord in me – I felt that Benn had been where I found myself, and had found words to describe it.

Describing what this strange, sombre inner world is like is not easy, at least not for me. People who have never really been there tend to think of depression as being a state of complete and continual sadness but this, in my opinion, doesn’t really get to it. In German the English couplet, easy and hard, can be translated as leicht and schwer, light and heavy – when you suffer from depression everything is schwer, heavy. Just moving yourself takes more energy than you feel you have at your disposal. There are a lot of negative feedback loops here, drained psychic energy leads mostly to reduced physical energy (although there are often phases of agitation which are exceptions) which in turn leads to a reduction in endorphins whose lack reinforces an imbalance in cerebral neurotransmitters responsible for mood. Mind influencing matter, matter determining mind.

Medical science has moved away in recent years from a rigid diagnostic separation of endogenous and reactive depression. There are definitely tendencies towards neuro-chemical imbalance (which give rise to serious depressive and bi-polar as well as other mental disorders) which probably have a genetic component. But the formation of our particular personalities in our childhood and the concrete experiences we make in life all play important roles. The roots and reasons for any particular depression are as individual as the person suffering from it.

From Aristotle onwards the purpose of life has been seen by many thinkers as the pursuit of happiness, though what exactly this means is itself the object of much deep reflection and questioning. We can perhaps state that depression is the opposite or absence of happiness, though there may be occasions on which it is a sensible reaction, for various reasons. Evolutionary psychologists speculate about possible positive effects of depressive reactions – there may be something in the thought that a depressive rather than aggressive reaction in particular circumstances, e.g. where resistance increases the chances of being killed, has a positive result for individuals. While I tend to see the complex logical chains in many arguments claiming to be based on evolutionary psychology as being highly speculative, there is one aspect to this kind of thinking that I find interesting.

One model which is used, particularly in some therapeutic contexts, to approach depression is to see it as suppressed, or inwardly transferred aggression. The basic idea is that we are faced with all sorts of situations in our daily life which are potentially threatening. A basic, animal reaction to this kind of stimulus is the fight/flight response. But often, the fight instinct (aggression) cannot be acted upon – for all sorts of reasons. The aggressive energy must be directed somewhere; failing its proper target, we can tend (on the subconscious level) to suppress it by directing it inwards against ourselves. In particular situations, where such a response is repeated and reinforced it can become a general strategy of activity. Like a thorn which is not removed, such misdirected aggression works inward, infecting and poisoning whole areas of the psyche.

 Anyone who has taken the therapeutic road of coming to terms with depression has probably made the acquaintance of this model of seeing things, and there is a lot of value and truth in it – for many people at least. We should, however, remember that it is a model. Now, the great thing about models is that they don’t claim to be complete pictures or explanations of everything that’s going on. Moreover, they are not exclusive – rather they can complement each other, even if they also contradict each other on some levels. This is, in my view, very important when we are dealing with such deep, complex and wonderful realities as that which is called the human soul.

With this in mind, I’d like to suggest another model. Like a coin, which always has two sides, or a tree, which in sunlight will always cast a shadow, I think that those parts of our personalities which cause us suffering or pain are frequently the inevitable shadows of our most positive and cherished aptitudes. And this is also the case for depression. This chronic pain as a reaction to the senselessness, the heaviness of life, the deadening dulling in the face of the merciless intensity of cruelty and suffering (as personally experienced) is the shadow side of an openness and sensitivity for others, the other side of the coin known as empathy.

This has consequences for the strategies those who suffer from depression may choose for dealing with it. (Apart, of course, from professional help and – should it be considered necessary – medication. What I am talking of here should not in any way be considered as an alternative to the basic ways those much wiser than me have developed over years for dealing with something which has to be seen as a debilitating illness and a source of deep suffering for millions. And it also does not obviate the necessity of changing negative concrete factors in one’s life which have been identified as such and are changeable.) We tend to quickly resort to the language and imagery of warfare in our descriptions of dealing with illness; so people “struggle with”, or “fight” depression. Some may claim that this is only figurative language but language defines thinking – particularly when we are dealing with things which are difficult (if not impossible) to quantify such as feelings or mood.

You can’t fight depression. Fighting it only makes it worse, since one of the mechanisms which makes it function is to take every tiny failure and every setback in that “fight” as something which strengthens the condition enormously. The way forward is different; you have to accept your depression as part of yourself, an aspect of your personality which is the shadow side of positive attributes which you possess. If you really want to excise this tendency to depression from your personality then you’re also going to have to distance yourself from other things like empathy or sensitivity. And I don’t think that most of us (even in the depths of depression) would really want this, it is, after all, nothing less than a spiritual lobotomy.

Instead, you can embrace your depression as part of yourself, the necessary consequence of other parts of yourself which are unquestionably positive. And what is part of yourself is not the whole of what you are. There is much more to you than your depression, even if that can be difficult to believe when that black dog is hanging from your back. One of the most dangerous tendencies of depression is increasing tunnel-vision, an inability to see many of the options always available until, in the end, you can only see two – unbearable suffering or suicide. But there are always more options and depression need not define your whole personality. One way to realise this for yourself is to stop trying to deny it and instead acknowledge it as a part – but only a part of you. And a necessary part of you, an aspect of other attributes which define you at your best.

The strange thing is that, treated in this way, as just one attribute among many, depression tends to weaken and shrink. It is a darkness which thrives on the inner limelight; forced to share it, it withdraws more and more, muttering vague threats, into the shadows. Which is where it belongs.

This post is a continuation of a previous one:
I decided to write it as a response to the many courageous and honest comments which my first essay occasioned and feel thankful and honoured by those who revealed something of their own inner life here.

My present musings on the subject were initiated by a chance telephone conversation I had recently with an old friend who has had to bear with many difficult and extended visits from the black dog over a long period of years. G., I admire and am humbled by your endurance and courage. I love you, man.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Female Genital Mutilation

If you visit this blog regularly you will have noticed a new widget on the right-hand side, down towards the end. It’s a link to a petition being organised by Irish Amnesty International and other NGOs, the aim of which is to raise consciousness in Europe about the issue of female genital mutilation.

This petition, and the way I discovered it (on Facebook), is one of the positive things about the spread of the internet worldwide and its possibilities. This, of course, can be overemphasised and cynics may question the value of such actions. After all, how much difference does it really make for us to simply click a link on a website and spend less than a minute entering a few details and hitting a “Submit” button? Not much. But not much is not nothing and such actions have cumulative effects. Firstly, even the minimal engagement shown by digitally “signing” such a petition can be quite effective when multiplied by hundreds of thousands, and there have been many such internet actions in the past years which have had an effect in bringing the weight of worldwide public opinion to bear on particular issues, one of the most recent being the global publicising of the case of Sakineh Ashtiani, the Iranian woman sentenced to stoning to death for adultery. Secondly, such actions have the effect of raising public consciousness about issues and keeping these issues in the focus of public attention.

Thirdly, such actions are, in many ways, harbingers of new forms of individual participation in civil societies, hints of new ways of future empowerment, the first tentative steps maybe towards as yet undefined structures of what political philosophers and theorists call deliberative democracy. One of the basic premises of many old philosophical models of anarchism predicated complete freedom of information as a necessary stage in developing societies beyond centralised state structures. This was perhaps too simple, for one of the ways free information can be most effectively countered is to simply bury it in a flood of trivia – often the prevailing reality in our so-called information age. Yet the availability of information remains vital in the development of free, responsible societies and it is not a coincidence that many states with totalitarian, illiberal tendencies are quick to try to block access to particular web sites and to emasculate search engines.

But to come back to the theme of the link on this site, female genital mutilation is still commonplace in many countries in the year 2010. It is an unspeakably cruel, ghastly practice and it is a shocking indictment of our self-assured maturity as human beings that we continue to tolerate it in our world. The following is from the “End FGM European Campaign” site:

Three million girls and women are subjected to female genital mutilation worldwide each year. That's 8000 girls per day.
Female genital mutilation (FGM) is a form of violence against women and children that can amount to torture.

The practice violates:
  • Right to physical and mental integrity
  • Right to highest attainable standard of health
  • Right to be free from all forms of discrimination against women (including violence against women)
  • Right to freedom from torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment
  • Rights of the child, and
  • in extreme cases, right to life

Female genital mutilation has been documented in certain parts of Africa, Asia and Middle East, and it is now being encountered in Europe as well. Most often, girls and women are taken to their countries of origin during school holidays to be mutilated.
The European Parliament estimates 500,000 girls and women living in Europe are suffering with the lifelong consequences of female genital mutilation.
FGM constitutes a persecution qualifying for being granted refugee status according to the international human rights standards as well as European law. However, because of lack of uniform implementation among all member states of the European Union (EU), women and girls are put at risk of being returned to countries where they could be subjected to FGM…"[i]

“…There are several reasons provided to justify the practice of female genital mutilation:
  • Control over women’s sexuality: Virginity is a pre-requisite for marriage and is equated to female honour in a lot of communities. FGM, in particular infibulation, is defended in this context as it is assumed to reduce a woman’s sexual desire and lessen temptations to have extramarital sex thereby preserving a girl’s virginity.
  • Hygiene: There is a belief that female genitalia are unsightly and dirty. In some FGM-practicing societies, unmutilated women are regarded as unclean and are not allowed to handle food and water.
  • Gender based factors: FGM is often deemed necessary in order for a girl to be considered a complete woman, and the practice marks the divergence of the sexes in terms of their future roles in life and marriage. The removal of the clitoris and labia — viewed by some as the “male parts” of a woman’s body — is thought to enhance the girl’s femininity, often synonymous with docility and obedience. It is possible that the trauma of mutilation may have this effect on a girl’s personality. If mutilation is part of an initiation rite, then it is accompanied by explicit teaching about the woman’s role in her society.
  • Cultural identity: In certain communities, where mutilation is carried out as part of the initiation into adulthood, FGM defines who belongs to the community. In such communities, a girl cannot be considered an adult in a FGM-practicing society unless she has undergone FGM.
  • Religion: FGM predates Islam and is not practiced by the majority of Muslims, but it has acquired a religious dimension. Where it is practiced by Muslims, religion is frequently cited as a reason. Many of those who oppose mutilation deny that there is any link between the practice and religion, but Islamic leaders are not unanimous on the subject. Although predominant among Muslims, FGM also occurs among Christians, animists and Jews.”[ii]

The chairman of an Indonesian Islamic foundation which sponsors female “circumcision” defended the practice to the New York Times journalist, Sara Corbett, in 2006, citing three “benefits” for the victims:
‘“One, it will stabilize her libido,” he said through an interpreter. “Two, it will make a woman look more beautiful in the eyes of her husband. And three, it will balance her psychology.”’[iii]

As a father with two daughters, the very idea of this practice makes me profoundly sick. There are different forms of it, the most extreme being infibulation, the so-called pharaonic circumcision – if you really want to read the details they are available on the end fgm website or in the Wikipedia article on the subject. The writings of victims like Waris Dirie and Ayaan Hirsi Ali are also moving – and harrowing – descriptions of what goes on. Mutilation is generally forbidden by law even in the countries in which it is most commonly practised, like Egypt, but the law is often not enforced. The reason usually given for this is that FGM is deeply culturally rooted.

I confess to having little sympathy for this explanation. Culture cannot be put forward as a blanket justification for all kinds of barbarity; it could just as well be used to condone cannibalism, or slavery. But, with clenched teeth, I can accept the argument that the most effective means of combating this unspeakable abuse of basic human rights is patient educational work on the ground by social workers and local women activists. Who need support, including material support.

Which is one of the basic reasons for the petition to your right. Please sign it. It is part of a series of actions in Europe which will be running until December 10. If you’re on Facebook or another social network, post a link to it. If you have a blog or a website, copy the html code and put the widget on your own site. It is very little for us to do but if the few minutes we spend helps save even a few girls from this horror then they were surely well spent.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Ireland Wrecked

The economic chaos into which Ireland has been plunged since the world-wide financial crisis took off over two years ago reached a high point last weekend when the Irish government finally succumbed to generally perceived economic reality and formally applied for assistance from the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. According to conventional wisdom the country had no other choice; with a national balance of payments deficit of nearly a third, the country is practically bankrupt and the interest charges it would have to pay on the international money markets to borrow further had become so high that it no longer made any sense. The EU will give Ireland the money to keep it going but at a high price. Basically, Ireland has had to give up control over its own finances; it has to produce a four-year plan showing how it will reduce the deficit to under 3% (which will mean both deep domestic spending cuts and tax increases) and the plan will have to be approved and its implementation monitored by the EU and the IMF. Even as I write this, the government has just announced the way they propose to do this and by the time I have published and you have read the post, there will have been more events and comments (especially comments, since the Irish are a voluble people and enjoy endless discussions).

In the end, sadly, it won’t matter all that much. Ireland’s new paymasters are not particularly interested in the specific weighting of particular measures (although there are a few things, like Ireland’s corporate tax rates, about which many of the most powerful behind the country’s rescuers have quite strong views), just in the final results. And here they are perfectly within their rights. In the end, it is the taxpayers in the rest of Europe (particularly in Germany) who are paying to bail the Irish out. Moreover, although they may feel genuinely sorry about what the Irish people are going through, their basic motivation is much less altruistic; the policies followed by the Irish, before, during and after the crash have led to a situation in which the stability of the Euro as a common currency (and with it the economic well-being of the whole Euro-zone) has come under threat and so helping the Irish get out of the hole they have dug themselves is a basic issue of European self-interest.

There are very deep issues in the background here, with regard to the way we have abandoned our responsibility for the world to the new gods of “market forces,” with the seeming inability or unwillingness of governments the world over to take on international banking and financial institutions and their merciless preference for quick profits over the common good, even such basic premises as the idea of limitless growth in a (necessarily) limited world. But I won’t go into these here – in later posts, perhaps, if the muse so moves me. Here I want to comment on one specific aspect of the Irish political scene – how badly the Irish people have been served by their elected political representatives, particularly the country’s largest party, Fianna Fail, which has been in government since 1997.

I am Irish by birth and nationality; although I left the country over a quarter of a century ago, I have kept my Irish passport even if some of my reasons for doing so are not completely clear to me[i]. When I left Ireland in 1984, the country was in recession, largely because of the spending policies of the Fianna Fail government from 1977 to 1981. After they had been voted out, the new Taoiseach (Prime Minister) Garret FitzGerald presided over hard years of savings and cost-cuttings. I remember him telling the public at the time that, given the unacceptable level of public debt, the alternative would be the surrender of national sovereignty to the IMF, something which has now, in fact, occurred.

In the 90s many of my generation, who had left the country looking for better prospects a decade earlier, returned as the Celtic Tiger started to grow. In 1997, Fianna Fail was returned to power to preside over unprecedented years of prosperity and an even more unprecedented crash. In 1997 the tiger cub was still healthy, nourished as it was by capital investment transfers from the EU structural funds and the country’s attractiveness as a location for high-tech foreign (mostly US) companies within the EU, with a young, well-educated, English-speaking workforce with moderate wage expectations and, of course, a low rate of corporate taxation. With hindsight, thirteen years later, it can now be said that Fianna Fail mismanaged, overcooked and wasted the boom and have completely wrecked the country following the crash[ii].

How can one explain Fianna Fail to someone who is not Irish? It is complicated. The party was founded by Eamon de Valera and has its roots in the Civil War which followed Irish independence in 1922. It has been in power in Ireland for more than half of that entire period, either alone or – increasingly in recent years – as the largest partner in various coalitions. It has traditionally regarded itself as the guardian of nationalism in Ireland, as the party of constitutional republicanism even, in the words of its perhaps most notorious leader, Charles Haughey, as “the natural party of government.” Hard to categorise in a simple right/left political spectrum, it can be best described as a broad populist party, with certain similarities to the Gaullists in France, Congress in India or the Peronists in Argentina.

De Valera once famously commented that he had only to look into his heart to see what the Irish people wanted. His successors have followed this adage, with a continuing tendency to tune their policies to suit the mood of their electors and potential electors and clients. This tendency helps to explain the events of the past thirteen years. Confronted with the (for Ireland unusual) prospect of rapidly growing prosperity, Fianna Fail tried (successfully) to cosset the Irish people by avoiding unpopular decisions and encouraging the economy to overheat – particularly by doing nothing to stop an rapidly expanding bubble in the building sector. When I was involved in building a house in Germany in the early 90s, my Irish relatives and friends were shocked at the high costs of such a project here. Fifteen years later, they were paying around three times as much for comparable houses in Ireland.

The party and its leadership have also been repeatedly associated with corruption in the past thirty years. Two of its recent leaders (who were also Prime Ministers), Charles Haughey and Bertie Ahern have been implicated in receiving money in irregular circumstances. Haughey, in particular, received millions from various sources and only avoided formal prosecution in the years before his death because of his advanced age and ill health. Various Fianna Fail politicians have been forced to resign because of various financial improprieties, particularly relating to issues of land zoning. Recent years have seen others being questioned regarding their irregular use of their expense accounts to which they are entitled as elected public servants.

The various land-zoning scandals are interesting because they are symptomatic of the kind of relationship between the most powerful members of Fianna Fail and people in the property development area. Some of the most shocking evidence from the various investigative tribunals in recent years shows how Haughey was financially courted by a number of banks and also exposed a system of off-shore accounts. And so indications emerge of cosy connections between the banking world, the world of building and property development and various powerful and influential figures within Fianna Fail – an unholy trinity which presided over the fantasy boom which was the Celtic Tiger since the turn of the millennium and which led to the country massively living beyond its actual means for years. Of course, to complete the picture, it must be added that the Irish people happily colluded in the scam, allowing themselves to be fooled and bought off and re-elected Fianna Fail with regularity.

There is, unfortunately, something in the Irish mentality which has a sneaking admiration for what is called in Ireland the “cute hoor,” the clever personable rogue. The Irish are not alone here; I have often thought that Silvio Berluscone would feel completely at home in Fianna Fail. This, combined with the very intimate nature of Irish politics (one member of parliament for every twenty five thousand people) and a long tradition of clientism, starts to explain some of the success of the party.

But if Fianna Fail has a large responsibility for the course of events leading up to the inevitable crash, it is the conduct of the Irish government over the past two years which is really unforgivable. They have consistently tried to talk down the problem, or even talk it away. When the crisis first loomed, Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach, suggested that those who were voicing concerns about the economy should commit suicide. A blanket guarantee was given to the banks; their depositors, their shareholders and their bondholders. It is this guarantee which has finally led to the runaway meltdown which has forced Ireland – finally – to put up its hands in surrender. But right up to last weekend, the Fianna Fail government has persistently tried to play down the seriousness of the situation, including recourse to downright lies. Asked last Sunday about the scale of the assistance probably necessary from Europe – seventy billion, eighty? – the Irish finance minister replied – no, nothing like that. Three days later he has confirmed that the figure is likely to be around eighty five billion.

In such a situation in almost any country in the world, the government would have resigned. But the present Fianna Fail Taoiseach, Brian Cowan, refused to consider this until his junior coalition partner, the Green Party, finally pulled the plug. Even now, he is hiding behind the preeminent need to produce a budget and using this as an excuse to stave off an immediate election; the claim is that passing the budget and the necessary supplementary legislation means that elections are not possible before March. And he (and, to be fair, the opposition parties too) are still playing political bluff games.

In fact, elections could be held by the end of the year. Cowan, whose party and government have clearly lost any moral mandate from the people, could talk openly, honestly and completely with all the opposition leaders to have the budget and the necessary ancillary legislation passed in the next two weeks. It might entail the politicians spending ten to twelve hours a day in parliament and working over the weekends but that is what they are (in Ireland’s case extremely highly) paid for. There is no point in arguing about the budget, its parliamentary approval in a shape acceptable to the EU and IMF is a perquisite for releasing the funds and guarantees Ireland needs. If the parties cannot agree on particular specifics, then the government version can be passed with the understanding that a new government may do some fine tuning in these areas. And then let the politicians look for a mandate from the people. Given the hard years for the country ahead, this is absolutely vital.

Sadly, expecting Fianna Fail to do this is like expecting turkeys to vote for Christmas. At the moment their standing in the polls is under 20%. This means that most of their parliamentary representatives will lose their seats. But this is inevitable now that the Greens are pulling out of the government and prolonging the agony only makes the situation for the country worse. What Ireland needs – as quickly as possible – is a new government with a firm mandate from the people. If the government party members had even a smidge of patriotism left they would acknowledge this and act accordingly.

The chance is then there, despite all the hardship and pain, for a new beginning. Ireland has a chance to learn from all this, to grow, to find new ways forward based on the ingenuity and creativity of its people, on solidarity and hard work. And, in my opinion, a positive part of this would be the Irish voters recognising Fianna Fail as part of the old problems rather than the new solutions.

Friday, 19 November 2010


Bad misfiring in synaptic gaps.
The wrong fuel mix;
Dopamine, serotonin, noradrenalin, acetylcholine
(sometimes other stuff too),
It’s complicated –
Amazing, really, that for most of us it works
Most of the time.

The result is suffering,
The crushing weight of senselessness.
Darkness, dreariness,
The feeling that it’s all just too hard
And pointless

And frightening too.

There are memories – more, knowledge –
That it hasn’t always been like this,
That there has been joy and hope
And beautiful luminous sunrises
And the caress of loving hands
And contentment at work well done.

And that they all meant something.

There somewhere
But packed away behind glass,
Wrapped in cotton-wool,
Useless now,
Impotent against
Actual hopelessness.

There’s the huge heroic effort
(unnoticed, unsung)
Just to function,
To keep up appearances,
To appear “normal.”
It’s not something others would understand anyway –
Your very own, personal hell.

(And who really gives a fuck anyway?)

Or – worse even –
That others start to see it,
Notice the crumbling façade
And start to worry
And ask solicitous questions
For which there are no answers …

Ah no, I’m all right, really!

Letters left unopened, telephone unanswered,
The bed becomes a haven of refuge,
A place to lie,
Sleepless, drifting in ever-smaller circles.
Sometimes there is enough energy in the evening
To get up
(For the evenings are somehow less threatening;
Another day has been managed … somehow)
And then spend most of the night up,
Watching meaningless television programmes,
Immediately forgotten.

Sometimes you cry,
Sometimes you are too empty, even for tears …

There are various types of depression, with various causes and triggers. Experts reckon that around 10% of the world population suffers or will suffer from what is officially known as major depression disorder at some stage during their lives, about twice as many women as men. It frequently co-occurs with other psychiatric and neurological problems, such as anxiety, alcohol and drug abuse, as well as Parkinson’s and dementia. It often afflicts people with chronic pain problems and cardio-vascular diseases.

It can generally be treated, at best with a combination of medication and psychotherapeutic support, and most sufferers succeed in finding joy and purpose in life once more. The majority recovers completely, for quite a few the episodes recur or become chronic but almost all of these can, with the help of medication, lead quite normal lives.

Many prominent figures have suffered from depression, including Abraham Lincoln, Virginia Woolf, Brian May, Ernest Hemmingway, Winston Churchill, John Stuart Mill, Robbie Williams, Jackson Pollock, Michelangelo, Kirstin Dunst and John Denver.

Some do not survive it; the suffering becomes too great and they end their own lives. I have lost two friends this way.

And I have made personal acquaintance with what Churchill called “the black dog.” It is almost a decade ago now and an experience I hope never to have to repeat. Those suffering need our support – and our encouragement to seek professional help, particularly because a common symptom is such a loss of energy and motivation that they may not be able to take this step themselves.

[This theme is continued in the following post: ]


The "Crying Eye" picture has awakened quite a lot of interest online since I published this. Here is a link to the site where I found it.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Two Hundred Years Ago: Visiting 1810

Before the year ends, I thought I might invite you to join me on a journey back in time, back two hundred years to 1810.

Why have I chosen two hundred years? I was thinking about past and present recently and I realised that, despite the fact that the world looked very different then, it is, in fact, not such a long period. Let me explain my reasoning. My paternal grandfather was born in 1876 (he married late and my father was his youngest son). My first grandson was born one hundred and thirty one years later and can, therefore, confidently expect to be alive in 2076. So in my own family five generations can expect to cover two hundred years and my father has personally known, in his own direct lineage – from his father to his great grandson – members of the family whose lives, taken together, will probably span two centuries.

So join me in my time-machine and let us take that trip back to 1810. Don’t worry, it’s quite safe and we won’t be staying long; just long enough to briefly look at what’s going on and what life is like then.

The population of the world has just recently topped one billion (around a seventh of what it will become 200 years later) and the population of London, probably the world’s largest city, is around one million. The mightiest country in the world is France. Napoleon Bonaparte is at the height of his power, dominating Europe with all the major powers as his obedient allies (the one exception being the British whose forces under Wellesley, the future Duke of Wellington, are doggedly fighting the French occupation forces in the Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal). To cement his own family’s dynastic pretentions Napoleon, who has ruled for six years now as Emperor of the French, has this year divorced his wife Joséphine and married the Princess Marie Louise of the Austrian House of Habsburg. He is busy reforming Europe according to his own views, imposing many of the Enlightenment ideas of the French Revolution, particularly his legal code, wherever his writ holds sway. His catastrophic invasion of Russia is still two years away.

With Austria, Prussia and Russia cowed, Britain remains the only obdurate enemy of France. In Britain the Industrial Revolution is taking firm hold; steam engines are in widespread use for pumping mines and driving machines in the many cotton works in central England and in the rapidly growing iron and steel industry, where technical advances and new production methods have increased quality and output enormously. British demand for cotton is creating a boom for the slave-based plantations in the southern states of the United States. Social dislocation and unrest are growing because of the major changes industrialisation is bringing and the first “Luddites”, groups of hand-weavers deprived of their livelihood by the new industrial cotton mills, will mount their violent attacks on those mills next year. The increasing industrialisation has gone hand-in-hand in the past hundred years with major changes in agriculture, from the development of four-crop rotation and the spread of new crops like the potato, to the introduction of various machines and the increasing use of horses rather than oxen (Jethro Tull being perhaps the greatest innovator in this whole area) and all this has changed life on the land deeply in Western Europe, above all in England.

Tension is rising between Britain and its former colonies across the Atlantic, a tension which will result in war in two years time, but for now things are peaceful. James Madison is president of nearly 7.2 million Americans, of whom 1.2 million are slaves. The US did a huge land deal with Napoleon seven years ago, buying the sovereignty over most of the Midwest from France, the so-called Louisiana Purchase. New Orleans will feature prominently in the rise to fame in the coming war of 1812 of a certain Andrew Jackson. Mr. Jackson is no great friend to the Indians, and indeed more and more Native Americans are becoming worried about the spread of white settlers across the Mississippi and into their lands, the most well known of whom is the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who will, like many other Native Americans, ally with the British in the coming war and lose his life fighting. That war will also see “The Star Spangled Banner” being written and will definitively confirm the existence of Canada as a political entity independent of the USA.

Latin America is in uproar as more and more areas take advantage of Spain’s powerlessness as a result of defeats by Napoleon to declare their independence (the first declaration of Mexican independence [the famous Grito de Dolores] by the priest Hidalgo y Costilla has taken place on September 16), but Spain keeps control of most of its non-American provinces, particularly the Philippines. Brazil is well on its way to independence as the whole Portuguese government has moved there two years ago, fleeing from the French, so that Portugal hardly exists at the moment.

Indonesia is temporarily under British control, as a result of the occupation of the Netherlands by the French. This period under Britain will last only last ten years altogether, until 1816, but the British are making their mark; among other things by insisting that horses and carriages drive on the left. China is ruled by the Manchu and Japan by the Tokugawa shoguns. In India John Company (the East India Company) has extended its control over most of the country, thanks in no small measure to the Governor General from 1798 to 1805, Marquess Wellesley (the older brother of the future Duke of Wellington), who is now British Foreign Secretary, though large areas are still ruled by independent Indian princes.

Apart from the northern Mediterranean shore, where among other things Napoleon has lost Egypt to the British, Portuguese colonies in some costal areas like Angola and Mozambique, and South Africa, where the British have taken over from the Dutch four years ago, Africa remains the Dark Continent. With one major, horrifying exception; it has been the source of slaves for hundreds of years, both from East Africa, through Arab slavers, and European slavers shipping millions from West Africa to the Americas. But Britain has abolished the slave trade three years ago now and since the beginning of 1808 the importation of slaves into the United States has been illegal.

Beethoven writes Für Elise in 1810, the first bars of which are probably the most frequent music ever played on the piano, and this year Robert Schumann and Frederic Chopin are born. Walter Scott publishes The Lady of the Lake and Jane Austin is putting the finishing touches to her first major work Sense and Sensibility, which will be published the following year.

Ladies fashions have been changed enormously by the French Revolution, with stiff brocades having almost completely disappeared in favour of much more casual, comfortable forms. In at the moment, dictated naturally by Paris, is the high-waisted so-called Empire style, with dresses closely fitted to the torso under the bust, falling loosely below, and muslin the material of choice. Wigs are rapidly disappearing and gentlemen’s clothing has been taking on a recognisably modern form as full length breeches, linen shirts and dark overcoats are usual, knee-breeches and stockings still being worn only by older, conservative men. And it is not only fashion that was dictated by Paris; French is the language of the educated and the aristocracy throughout all of Europe and the official language of diplomacy.

But such concerns are far from the minds of the great majority of people all over the world, who live a precarious life in direct dependence on nature and the land. Whether in Cheshire or China, Belgium or Bengal, Umbria or the Ukraine, most people are farmers or farm labourers, have little to do with money, usually go barefoot and get up and go to bed with the sun. Most can neither read nor write and there is little or no security beyond the next harvest. People marry young and families are large, but infant mortality is high, many women die in childbirth and few people reach a ripe old age. Even the towns and cities are, by our standards, very dark after sunset – though the first gas-lights will be introduced in London next year.

Despite horses and stage-coaches, for the vast majority of people the rule is simple; if you want to go somewhere you walk. Most people never travel more than a few miles from their place of birth anyway, unless, as a man, you have the bad luck to be forced into an army or the romantic stupidity to voluntarily go for a soldier. And then you really walk, hundreds sometimes thousands of miles, often in the space of a few months – in 1812 Napoleon’s Grand Armée will move from the Polish border to Moscow in eleven weeks and (those few who survive) leave Russia again in thirteen (June 24 to December 12). On foot and fighting major battles on the way.

So, my friends, I think we have been here long enough. Let us go back to our time-machine and return to the 21st Century. We have seen a world very different to our own and yet, for all that, a world not so very far away. I started this piece with the example of my father to try to get a sense of subjective generational time, let me finish with another example. Imagine that when you were a baby, a very old person (maybe a neighbour or a relative), over ninety years old, came to visit you and caressed you on the head. Now imagine that that person also had the same experience as a baby, being personally “blessed” by the oldest person in their neighbourhood. If you are over twenty years old today, then that old man or woman was already alive in 1810.

The past is closer than you think.

See my other time machine journeys; to 1762 and 1911

Saturday, 13 November 2010

November Rain

Samhain, the old Irish Celtic festival of the beginning of winter (the remains of which we still celebrate in Halloween) is behind us and the past week here has proved the truth of it. Grey is the prevalent colour and rain has become the default weather condition. A storm blew through last night and swept away most of the remaining leaves from the trees, leaving stark bare branches silhouetted before scudding clouds and drifts and blankets of fallen foliage everywhere, turning into slippery mush on many of the wet roads. And punctually many of my friends and family and acquaintances have already succumbed to the first of the inevitable winter colds and infections.

Despite all the comforts of civilised 21st Century life, despite the fact that I am a city-dweller, despite the reality of my daily routine which leaves me almost completely independent of the weather conditions, I am continually reminded of how aware I am of the seasons and the weather, how much they, in a very visceral fashion, can affect me – and not just me but the whole human societal environment in which I live. In the case of November, this is actually something quite positive, for, the more the month progresses and the shorter and more unpleasant the days become, the more the glittering, tacky tinselly, warm and welcoming anticipation of Christmas and New Year grows in power.

This is all, of course, only the case for those of us who live in the Northern Hemisphere, those south of the equator, in countries like Australia and Argentina, South Africa and Paraguay, New Zealand and Chile are now heading into early summer (the lucky bastards!). And for those who live closer to the equator, like my friends in Trinidad, the Philippines or Indonesia, the length of the days does not vary so much anyway and the seasons are quite different. But even in India, Diwali, the most important Hindu “New Year” festival is celebrated around the beginning of November – and I wonder, despite quite differing legends concerning their origins, whether there is not a long-forgotten common Indo-Aryan-European root for Samhain and Diwali.

I digress, however. It remains an historical fact – determined in the end by global geography – that the greatest part of human history has unfolded in the Northern Hemisphere. While Africa (probably the savannah area around the Rift Valley) is the original cradle of modern humanity, its basic spread has been northwards since then, with the last areas of the Southern Hemisphere, South America and (above all) New Zealand settled only comparatively recently, after the end of the last Ice Age. (See map, sourced from Not only this, but for four fifths of modern humanity’s history (from 50,000 to 10,000 B.C.E) almost all our ancestors lived in the Northern Hemisphere during an ice-age. For much longer than the recorded history of all of civilization, our forebears struggled to wrestle a precarious existence from a harsh world in which the greatest threat was the icy cold of winter.

More than this, up to around two hundred years ago, the vast majority of humanity lived in direct dependence on what they could obtain from nature, either by killing, gathering, husbanding or cultivating it. In marked contrast to the life-style hundreds of millions of us (and practically all of those technologically empowered enough to read this blog) today follow, the overwhelming majority of humanity for practically its whole chronological history has needed a deep and immediate sense of weather and the seasons just in order to survive. While I am generally sceptical about imputing various human characteristics to nebulous notions like “racial memory,” I do not at all rule out the hypothesis that there are aspects of our feelings about the seasons which may sit very deep in our genes. It would provide, at least, some depth to our undoubted inclination to be very suspicious of winter and do everything possible to psychologically divide it up in a manner to help us get through it sanely.

My pre-Christian Gaelic ancestors had, at any rate, an intelligent, sophisticated and deeply season-based method of dividing up the year and organising their lives in accordance with it. There were eight major high festival days; the equinoxes and solstices (21st of March, September, June and December) and four high feasts half way between them respectively, marking the beginning of the four seasons. Spring begins on February 1, the feast of the goddess Bríd (Imbolc), Summer on May 1 (Beltane), Autumn on August 1 (Lughnasadh) and Winter, as already mentioned, on November 1 (Samhain).[i]

With November winter begins – and things get serious. What hasn’t been harvested up to now (with some small exceptions) will not survive the rain and cold (or the animals) in a useful condition for much longer. Nature is winding down its energy expenditure, most plants and many animals going into hibernation and those who can get out, like the migratory birds, heading off for warmer, more comfortable regions. The next six weeks are so are the last chance to batten down the hatches, get everything collected and tidied up to survive the really cold and hard weeks which come after mid-winter and the shortest day of the year on December 21.

In a world of globalised trade and commerce, where we can buy almost every kind of fresh fruit and vegetable all year round, it’s easy to forget that only a couple of generations ago, even the residents of the richest countries were largely dependant on what could seasonably be produced or locally stored. The capability of the human body to store surplus energy as fat has become a source of concern to most of us and a serious health-threat for many, far removed from its original evolutionary purpose of providing us with resources to help us survive through the lean winter months. In a society in which feeling cold evokes the easy response of turning the thermostat up a couple of degrees, we no longer remember how much effort was involved in just keeping the ambient temperature at a level which kept people from shivering – splitting wood and hauling coal, building fires and keeping them going, long woollen underwear and multiple layers of clothing, despite all of which chilblains were an ever-present menace. In all the wonderful historical stories we see on film and television one of the basic facts of life in the past is seldom shown, for most of the winter most people were cold most of the time; even the rich, since their castles and mansions were generally draughty, badly insulated and inefficiently heated, even with roaring fires. To simply keep warm enough to feel comfortable, people in the past had to consume more calories (all the more so because brutally hard physical work was the order of the day), which explains many of the accounts of the incredible amounts eaten (by those who could afford it). Historically, hypothermia was a constant – and deadly – threat.

So, when we shudder with unwillingness and resentment at having to expose our pampered selves briefly to the cold November rain, maybe there is a little more to it than just a reluctance to face discomfort. Somewhere in the background, lurking in our hindbrains, perhaps there is a certain genetic memory inherited from hundreds of generations of ancestors, huddled close together to preserve a common warmth around fragile fires, thankfully gnawing on fat for energy, looking out of poor shelters at the grey wet November weather and knowing that it is only a precursor of much worse to come. Life has indeed, for very many of us, become a lot better.

[i] This paragraph contains necessarily a large amount of simplification and there is much scholarly dispute about the details of everything I have stated here – one example being the relationship (if any) between various Celtic godesses known as Briganta/Bríd/Brigid and the Irish Saint Brigid. Many neo-Pagans today celebrate the Celtic feasts, the Wiccans seeing all eight of them as forming the Wheel of the Year.

The photo at the beginning of this post is reproduced from , a blog well worth a visit.

Monday, 8 November 2010

The Grandeur that is Rome

In the middle of the 80s I lived in Rome for two years, two years which changed my life completely.

At the time I was a member of the Dominican Order of the Catholic Church and very unsure about my future membership of the same. My superiors, recognising my confusion, suggested that a change of scene might help me to focus more and offered me the opportunity to move from my native Ireland and continue my theology studies elsewhere – in Rome to be precise.

I was sceptical. My theological views and positions on Church issues in general were extremely liberal, even radical, and I had the feeling that Rome was not going to be the most absolutely comfortable place for someone deeply suspicious of the official Church authority structures, who felt clerical celibacy was wrong, who was in favour of the ordination of women, thought that homosexuality should be regarded as a normal sexual variation, etc., etc. On the other hand, I was able to recognise that I was deeply unhappy and unsure in the priory (that’s what Dominicans call their monasteries) in Dublin where I had been living for nearly six years and so I agreed to the deal.

[My suspicions of how I would find the Church environment in Rome turned out to be pretty accurate. Six years after the accession of John Paul II to the pontificate, the resurgence of neo-traditional troglodytes was gathering momentum. I experienced a world and mind-set completely divorced from anything I could identify with reality or good sense, so that I started to caustically call clerical Rome “the dead centre of the Catholic Church” and, indeed, this experience certainly contributed to my subsequent radical realignment of my relationship to it. But that’s another story about which I may write here sometime in the future …]

Roma – una vita non è basta! (Rome – a lifetime is not enough!), say the Romans in their typical Italian understated fashion. In this case, however, the saying is not exaggerated. Indeed, when you think about it, it is understandable, for this city has been one of the most important in the world – continuously – for more than two thousand years. It has been damned as the Whore of Babylon and celebrated as the Eternal City. It has dominated Europe and the Mediterranean world politically for hundreds of years and, even while its political power was waning, it was building up a religious empire which today still spans the world. It is an ancient city, a cosmopolitan modern European capital and everything in between. There is no kind of story this city has not seen, from the most sublime to the most deeply tragic, with everything in between here also, and every generation which has lived here throughout the long march of history has left its mark somewhere in the city, usually higgledy-piggledy interposed with all the marks left by the preceding generations.

And it was here that I landed in September 1984. I had the great fortune to live in the centre, a few hundred metres from the Coliseum, in the Collegio San Clemente, the house beside the historical Basilica San Clemente, named for the traditional third successor of Peter as “bishop” of Rome. The house and church were given to the Irish Dominicans hundreds of years ago and they are still there.

The Basilica itself is a microcosm of Roman history, an insider tip for visitors to the city, situated on the old Via San Giovanni in Laterano, the street which runs downhill from the Lateran Basilica to the Coliseum. The Basilica is a twelfth century church, much of it still in the original state (and even the subsequent additions are themselves valuable and do not appreciably take from the original), built on top of a fifth century church, built in turn over a Roman domus, Mithraic temple, alleyway and storehouse dating back to the first century C.E. It has all been excavated and is well worth a visit. When I was there, there were always groups of (mostly young) archaeologists around, working under the expert leadership of the distinguished scholar Professor Federico Guidobaldi, and I learned much from him and them (and enjoyed some great parties with them too!). You can find out more about San Clemente here: - do so, it’s well worth a look. For me, a history graduate who had had a special interest in late republican and early imperial Roman history from my schooldays, living in a place like that was a simply amazing experience.

There’s one story about S. Clemente you won’t find in most of the guidebooks and its historical accuracy is debatable, still it is well worth telling. Either in the middle of the 9th or at the end of the 11th Century (depending upon which source you take) a scholarly woman, disguised as a man, was reputedly elected to the papacy; the (in)famous Pope Joan. Her identity was finally revealed when she went into labour on a procession between St. Peter’s and the Lateran Basilica. She collapsed before the doors of S. Clemente and it can be (and has been) speculated that she actually gave birth to her child, dying in the process, inside the church or its courtyard[i]. Just another Roman story, one of millions.

But there are so many impressions Rome left on me that I can only hint at a few of them here; eating pizza on a balmy September evening at a street-side table on the Viale Aventino, working through the tourist-thronged vastness of St. Peter’s to stand in quiet awe before the sad, sublime beauty of the Madonna’s face in Michelangelo’s Pietà, looking down at the moonlit ruins of the Forum from the Capitol, drinking wine on a dreamy warm afternoon in a small, sun-drenched piazza in Trastevere, wondering at the beauty of the silhouettes of the pines on the ridge of the Palatine as seen from the Circus Maximus before a clear twilit sky, jogging around the Coliseum in the early morning, sitting with a cappuccino to watch the tourists in the Piazza Navona, the embracing sweep of Bernini’s twin colonnades in St. Peter’s Square …

And then, the unexpected joys; the wonders to be discovered around every corner. Like the day I wandered idly into a small church near the Piazza Navona. It was San Luigi dei Francesi and happens to be the French national church. But its true glory can be found in a side-chapel to the left, the (at first sight) gloomy Contarelli Chapel, dark intimations of large canvasses. Put a coin in the slot to switch on the illumination and you are confronted with … pure genius; three masterpieces by Caravaggio all dealing with St. Matthew, the most magnificent, perhaps, The Calling of St. Matthew – the ineluctable gaze and gesture of Christ defining a radical change in his destiny for the flabbergasted tax-collector.

Rome has been the background to many changes of destiny, including one of my own. There was a German girl I’d got to know … rather well. Making my way home to San Clemente early one morning, dazed with love and uncertainty about the future, the thought struck me that her apartment in the Via Panisperna, where we’d spent the night together, was in the middle of the Subura, that ancient area north of the Forum which had been a crowded melting-pot of ordinary Romans and immigrants from all over the Roman world over two thousand years ago. The impoverished but noble family of the Julii Caesari owned an insula [a Roman apartment house] there and, if the sources can be believed, it was there that the greatest of the family, Gaius, spent his childhood.

Rome can really do your head in.

[i] Most historians now agree that there is little basis in fact for the Pope Joan story. Still, it’s another good example of the truth of the old Italian saying: Se non è vero, è ben trovato [Even if it’s not true, it was well invented].


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