Art in the word

The most beautiful script in the world is Arabic, without any doubt. It is a piece of art, and has been woven into works of great beauty for a thousand years and more. Personally I cannot make head nor tail of it, though goodness I have tried. I can at least appreciate the effect as art.

One might consider a script in pure historical terms, in this case a right-to-left Semitic script of the same root as Hebrew, or even derived from it, the forms of which are mirrored in shadow in the lines and names of the Arabic letters, but that is missing the essence on the page. Those swoops and loops (which frankly I have never been able to tell apart) can be a canvas on which a skilled calligrapher may play. Our own script, the Latin alphabet, is as regular as the Roman conception, letter by letter separate, written on the line, lines kept apart – all these things we take for granted. Greek and Hebrew keep regular too. The Arabic calligraphers though make the letters loop around each other, stack, merge, overlap, play together, weave in and out – how they can still be read I do not know, but it is beyond my cultural norms.

I must pause before an objection arrives and say that there is art also in traditional Chinese characters (if not in the modern, simplified forms) and it is used to some effect, but even these are not a patch on what has been done in Arabic.

There is beautiful calligraphy in our own script, and it likewise lifts the soul and imprints the personal into what might otherwise tend to dull regularity. It is never though used as part of artworks; we treat the two as wholly different domains. Where Arabic is different is a necessity forced upon that culture.

The cultural substrate of the Arab world in lapped in Islam (which itself in its local form is shaped by Arabian culture) and the precepts of the religion take strictly what is to us the Second Commandment, not to make any representation of a thing in heaven or on Earth. For us that is a command not to make anything that would be the subject of worship, and my Puritan instincts give me a distinct revulsion at icons and Romanist religious art which tend towards idolatry, but secular representative art is not forbidden (and reached its greatest flourishing in Protestant Europe). In the Muslim world the command has been taken as an absolute bar on representative art. That strict injunction cannot stop art from being made because the making of art is fundamental to humanity – instead it has cause a flowering of decorate art, and in this the swirling script of Arabia is a form.

This art is commonly connected with Islam and the most prominent examples are of Koranic verses and themes, but there are also Christian and even secular calligraphers, as beauty is universal. The combination indeed between the craft of the text and the beauty of a Christian message makes it a very appropriate medium within the culture. The words are the starting point and the pallet; the work of the calligrapher is to draw the viewer in, and there is a mystery in there, in all those interlaced swirls there is meaning even if not immediately apparent, and that in itself draws you in. That is a universal thing.

Another constraint is the limitation of the material – it is not random patterns but known words and phrases. This defies the idea we have that art should challenge the expectations of the view, but if it is a set text, it cannot. That said, the choice of text may challenge the expectations. In a tangle of curves your expectation (if you can read it) your expectation is drawn into it in delighted anticipation – all great art should create a dynamic relationship like this between the piece and the viewer.

Another idea we have is that art does not have a purpose but is art for its own sake: that idea is behind the decline of modern art into ugliness. Art must always have a purpose, though that purpose may be no more than to charm the eye.

These taken together are a lesson – a constraint can become a birth of new art that may exceed that which was forbidden.

See also

Books

Fill(et)ing the Lords – 1

It is only a few months since we were comparing the House of Commons to its behaviour before the Civil War. Now we have a Cavalier Parliament in the Commons, but with Cromwellian disdain for the House of Lords.

It is not that the Lords are positively rebellious, blocking the Commons, but they are either potentially threatening or useless. The live question is whether to attempt to reform it. The last person who did was Tony Blair, and while his changes looked as if they could shrink the House to a manageable size and fill it with experts, it has swollen even more and been filled with cast-off cronies. That was always going to be the end of the Blair reforms: William Hague said as much in an infamous speech he made at the time.

The remedy is harder, because no one can agree on what the ideal House of Lords would be.

We in the general public may see it the way Oscar Wilde did in A Woman of No Importance: “We in the House of Lords are never in touch with public opinion. That makes us a civilised body.”

That is not a satire though: it is the ideal. In America, the Senate was devised to be the elder, learned body restraining the passing enthusiasms of the popular house; the “fickleness and passion” as Madison put it. Bagehot thought it valuable as “formidable sinister interest may always obtain the complete command of a dominant assembly” needing a second chamber of an opposite sort to oppose the captive chamber; but he also observed that “The cure for admiring the House of Lords is to go and look at it.”

Idealism fails. The Commons may be captured by an enthusiasm for a few years, and often are, but in the Lords it may be embedded for a generation. The best characterisation of the House in its reality is one of Tony Benn’s observations: The House of Lords is the British Outer Mongolia for retired politicians.

The Liberals wanted to replace the Lords with an elected chamber back in Gladstone’s day, and it has never happened, because MPs will not brook a rival set of chancers like themselves. Every parliament has those promising unspecified reform, or abolition, election or goodness knows what.

Until the ideal is determined, the remedy cannot be. Most other countries have a second chamber, because they follow at a distance the Westminster model. We can look at what they have done, and that is enough to put us off reform. No other though has our Outer Mongolia for retired or failed politicians (Outer Mongolia by the way has no second chamber).

Pound-shop peerages handed out like toffee have made the House of Lords intolerable or embarrassing. Boris Johnson has promised to consider reform, but did so just after handing out more toffees.

What to do? Another article, I feel.

See also

Empire, interrupted

If it is not China, it is Russia or Iran or Turkey: dangerous states with ambitions far beyond their borders and memories far beyond our histories.

We expect certain behaviour of great nations. We expect them to respect their borders and others’, to grant equal respect to all settled nations, big or small. We expect them to respect their own people too of whatever tribe or tongue. We are outraged when China does not respect these norms, nor Russia, nor Persia, nor (increasingly) Turkey.

This is a moment in time. The West has had relative peace for three-quarters of a century after millennia of continuous bloodshed . Peace has brought prosperity beyond imagining. This period of time has been a new world such that the old is itself inexplicable to the upcoming generation. We have settled the world as it should be and demand that it remain. Others disagree.

The west has declared the norms for the whole world. For China though, with a civilisation stretching back millennia, the states of the west are mere children, and they see that the children have imposed their ideas on others for their own convenience.

The borders of the world were defined by the Empires of the West. All nations of ambition have in the past ages expanded as they could, swallowed neighbours, reformed failing cultures around them, found sparsely inhabited lands and colonised them. The great, enduring Asiatic empires were China, the Ottomans, Persia and Russia, each with its own age of expansion, consolidation and corruption. Persia and China were great civilisations when the English were a scatter of hut-dwelling tribes in the damp fens of north Germany. They faltered, and in the case of China it drew inward, disgusted at the state of the world it could see at its fringes.

The Western expansion is natural to us. We swept the oceans and settled the farthermost shores. We drew the borders of the whole world and defined what is acceptable, the universal concept of international law, the jus gentium taken from our history, religion and philosophy and our Westphalian conception of the autonomy of states. Then we stopped. We insisted on respect forever for borders we drew. We, the West, called an end to empire and the End of History itself.

China awakes. She finds that while she slept, the children of the world made rules. Had China not paused for a while in her natural expansion, China might have trodden where the western states do.

You might imagine an ambitious statesman looking out from the old Imperial capital of Peking, heir to the Emperors, seeing the almost empty land of Australia, say, and thinking that if the Yuan dynasty had not looked inwardly, it might have been their junks finding the Great South Land. Now white people live there but sparsely. Then he might wonder why history must stop where white people say it should, conveniently at our maximum expansion. The British and the Russians took advantage of China’s weakness to hem her in, and now, with those forces withdrawn, expect the Chinese to remain where they are. Should two centuries of weakness in four millennia of civilisation define them forever? Then they may wonder why this particular moment of time should be their eternity. It is not by their rules.

Iran, or Persia, is an empire older even than China’s, humbled repeatedly by outsiders but always counting herself the elder. To be scolded by the Americans, people of a state with less than two and a half centuries behind it, is insulting.

Closer west is Turkey, founded as an empire in the age of the Crusades, swallowing and adapting the Byzantine Roman civilisation it supplanted. For centuries the Ottomans ruled all north Africa and Arabia and south-western Europe, to be overtaken and cut down only in the Industrial Age. Thus they may be wondering what would have been had Turkey had the tools of industrialisation first. It is a hundred years this year since the empire was liquidated at Sèvres. Resentment is not lost in what is a brief time for such an old empire. When we read that the new Turkish government is sending guns and men to Syria we assume that they are concerned for their borders, but they are making the war longer, not securing peaceful bounds. When they send guns to Libya, then we may see that Libya was Ottoman territory until just over a hundred years ago, as was Syria. They may see it as theirs still in that same sense that we would resent any foreign country gaining political or cultural hegemony in India.

We live in a moment of time. In this time we have seen that by peace and the standards developed in the West there has been unprecedented prosperity and welfare. We cannot however assume that all other nations, the older nations with their own cultures and histories, see it the same way nor see any reason to stop their history.

See also

Books

The Eighteenth of June

A fine day for marking British-French relations, as the President of the French Republic visits London, to mark 80 years since Charles De Gaulle summoned all patriotic Frenchmen to resist the Germans.

De Gaulle was a most remarkable man, and reading of him, his actions, his personality and his certaine idée de la France, one can only admire him, in a way it is hard to do for any other Frenchman: he was the epitome of what France aspires to be.

It is another anniversary that came to mind more readily on the 18th of June: Waterloo. It was a climactic date indeed for British-French relations: renowned as the army’s greatest victory in a long history of crushing victories, the monstrous, breaking wave of the war that brought the calm withdrawal to peace.

It was stout-hearted men who won the victory, with the unbending line of musket, rifle and bayonet, the two sides commanded by the greatest generals of the age – Napoleon and Wellington, meeting for the first and only time on this field. Such a meeting could be nothing more than heroic, vast and calamitous.

All you young girls with sweethearts out yonder,
Go you gaily and buy the black gown –
Here’s ten thousand to one I would lay you
That he fell on the eighteenth of June.

The victory overwhelming and bloody.

After Waterloo, there was some skirmishing all the way to Paris and a few redoubts to be persuaded into surrender, but nothing great: twenty-three years of war were effectively over on the eighteenth of June. Not for another ninety-nine years were British arms engaged on the continent of Europe.

It ended the mad tumult of ideas and tyranny that the French Revolution set off, and enabled the birth of the new, greater British Empire with a civilising, liberating mission across the world. Now surely that is to be celebrated each year on this day?

Let us make a reparation to Africa

Handing the commentary over to William Wilberforce, in the words he urged on the House of Commons in 1789:

When we consider the vastness of the continent of Africa; when we reflect how all other countries have for some centuries past been advancing in happiness and civilization; when we think how in this same period all improvement in Africa has been defeated by her intercourse with Britain; when we reflect it is we ourselves that have degraded them to that wretched brutishness and barbarity which we now plead as the justification of our guilt; how the slave trade has enslaved their minds, blackened their character, and sunk them so low in the scale of animal beings that some think the apes are of a higher class, and fancy the orangutan has given them the go-by. What a mortification must we feel at having so long neglected to think of our guilt, or to attempt any reparation!

It seems, indeed, as if we had determined to forbear from all interference until the measure of our folly and wickedness was so full and complete, until the impolicy which eventually belongs to vice, was become so plain and glaring that not an individual in the country should refuse to join in the abolition; it seems as if we had waited until the persons most interested should be tired out with the folly and nefariousness of the trade, and should unite in petitioning against it.

The mischiefs we have done…

Let us then make such amends as we can for the mischiefs we have done to that unhappy continent.

Let us recollect what Europe itself was no longer ago than three or four centuries. What if I should be able to show this House that in a civilized part of Europe, in the time of our Henry VII, there were people who actually sold their own children? What if I should tell them that England itself was that country? What if I should point out to them that the very place where this inhuman traffic was carried on was the city of Bristol? Ireland at that time used to drive a considerable trade in slaves with these neighbouring barbarians; but a great plague having infested the country, the Irish were struck with a panic, suspected (I am sure very properly) that the plague was a punishment sent from Heaven, for the sin of the slave trade, and therefore abolished it.

All I ask, therefore, of the people of Bristol is, that they would become as civilized now as Irishmen were four hundred years ago. Let us put an end at once to this inhuman traffic. Let us stop this effusion of human blood. The true way to virtue is by withdrawing from temptation. Let us then withdraw from these wretched Africans those temptations to fraud, violence, cruelty, and injustice, which the slave trade furnishes.

Wherever the sun shines, let us go round the world with him, diffusing our beneficence; but let us not traffic, only that we may set kings against their subjects, subjects against their kings, sowing discord in every village, fear and terror in every family, setting millions of our fellow-creatures a hunting each other for slaves, creating fairs and markets for human flesh, through one whole continent of the world, and, under the name of policy, concealing from ourselves all the baseness and iniquity of such a traffic.

Hans-towns established on the coast of Africa…

Why may we not hope, ere long, to see Hans-towns established on the coast of Africa as they were on the Baltic? It is said the Africans are idle, but they are not too idle, at least, to catch one another. Seven hundred to one thousand tons of rice are annually bought of them. By the same rule, why should we not buy more? At Gambia one thousand of them are seen continually at work. Why should not some more thousands be set to work in the same manner? It is the slave trade that causes their idleness and every other mischief. We are told by one witness, “They sell one another as they can.” And while they can get brandy by catching one another, no wonder they are too idle for any regular work.

Total abolition…

I have one word more to add upon a most material point. But it is a point so self-evident that I shall be extremely short.

It will appear from everything which I have said, that it is not regulation, it is not mere palliatives, that can cure this enormous evil. Total abolition is the only possible cure for it.

The Jamaica report, indeed, admits much of the evil, but recommends it to us so to regulate the trade, that no persons should be kidnapped or made slaves contrary to the custom of Africa. But may they not be made slaves unjustly, and yet by no means contrary to the custom of Africa? I have shown they may; for all the customs of Africa are rendered savage and unjust through the influence of this trade; besides, how can we discriminate between the slaves justly and unjustly made? Can we know them by physiognomy? Or, if we could, does any man believe that the British captains can, by any regulation in this country, be prevailed upon to refuse all such slaves as have not been fairly, honestly, and uprightly enslaved? But granting even that they should do this, yet how would the rejected slaves be recompensed? They are brought, as we are told, from three or four thousand miles off, and exchanged like cattle from one hand to another, until they reach the coast.

We see then that it is the existence of the slave trade that is the spring of all this internal traffic, and that the remedy cannot be applied without abolition.

Again, as to the middle passage, the evil is radical there also; the merchant’s profit depends upon the number that can be crowded together, and upon the shortness of their allowance. Astringents, escarotics, and all the other arts of making them up for sale, are of the very essence of the trade; these arts will be concealed both from the purchaser and the legislature. They are necessary to the owner’s profit, and they will be practiced. Again, chains and arbitrary treatment must be used in transporting them; our seamen must be taught to play the tyrant, and that depravation of manners among them (which some very judicious persons have treated of as the very worst part of the business) cannot be hindered, while the trade itself continues.

As to the slave merchants, they have already told you that if two slaves to a ton are not permitted, the trade cannot continue; so that the objections are done away by themselves on this quarter; and in the West Indies, I have shown that the abolition is the only possible stimulus whereby a regard to population, and consequently to the happiness of the negroes, can be effectually excited in those islands.

I trust, therefore, I have shown that upon every ground the total abolition ought to take place.

I have urged many things which are not my own leading motives for proposing it, since I have wished to show every description of gentlemen, and particularly the West India planters, who deserve every attention, that the abolition is politic upon their own principles also.

A principle above everything…

Policy, however, sir, is not my principle, and I am not ashamed to say it. There is a principle above everything that is political; and when I reflect on the command which says, “Thou shalt do no murder,” believing the authority to be divine, how can I dare to set up any reasonings of my own against it? And, sir, when we think of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is there in this life that should make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God.

Sir, the nature and all the circumstances of this trade are now laid open to us; we can no longer plead ignorance, we cannot evade it, it is now an object placed before us, we cannot pass it. We may spurn it, we may kick it out of our way, but we cannot turn aside so as to avoid seeing it; for it is brought now so directly before our eyes that this House must decide, and must justify to all the world, and to their own consciences, the rectitude of the grounds and principles of their decision.

A society has been established for the abolition of this trade, in which dissenters, Quakers, churchmen, in which the most conscientious of all persuasions have all united, and made a common cause in this great question.

Let not Parliament be the only body that is insensible to the principles of national justice.

Let us make a reparation to Africa…

Let us make a reparation to Africa, so far as we can, by establishing a trade upon true commercial principles, and we shall soon find the rectitude of our conduct rewarded by the benefits of a regular and a growing commerce.

Books