Edward Abbey: Desert Warrior

Over the last two years I’ve found myself reading a lot of what is often loosely called ‘nature writing’.  This is partly because of my forthcoming book  on the Pyrenees and my research into the so-called ‘discovery’ of the Pyrenees that took place during the nineteenth century.  This was a period when the Pyrenees were transformed in the imagination of the outside world from an austere border region into a landscape of pleasure and fascination, where tourists went in search of the ‘sublime’ and ‘picturesque.’

Tracing this transformation through the writings of nineteenth century travellers, artists and scientists has been a hugely enjoyable and poignant experience, whose pleasures were enhanced by own visits to some of the lanscapes they wrote about.  But their descriptions of mountain landscapes have also seemed especially moving in an era haunted by mass extinctions and very real possibilities of ecological collapse.

Nowadays hardly a week goes by without some grim new announcement of another disappearing species, from hedgehogs and skylarks or the incredible 76 percent decline in flying insects that has taken place in Germany in the last 27 years.  The writers who ‘discovered’ the Pyrenees from the late eighteenth century onwards inhabited a world in which such things were largely unimaginable.  They left the cities of an emerging industrial civilisation behind them in search of the emotions that ‘untouched’ grandiose natural spectacles were believed to offer, and they made these landscapes known through their writings – writings which in turn enticed more people to follow in their footsteps.

Of course these places were never as undiscovered as these city-dwelling writers believed.   But the expectations they brought with them gave their writings a real intensity and depth of feeling.   You find a similar sense of discovery in Charles Darwin’s descriptions of Brazilian rain forests or the Galapagos, in W.H. Hudson’s memoirs of his Argentine childhood or his descriptions of his travels in Patagonia.  And it wasn’t necessary for urban readers to go so far afield.   “Why, we must have been blind all our lives; here were the most wonderful things possible going on under our very noses, but we saw them not”, wrote Water Besant on reading Richard Jefferies’s descriptions of the English countryside.

‘ Nature writers’ often address this ‘blindness’.  The best of them, like Thoreau or Barry Lopez, have an ability to evoke and describe the peculiarities of individual landscape, and also to make their readers feel what it’s like to be in the places they describe.  I’m currently reading Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire – a quirky and brilliant evocation of the desert landscape around the town of Moab, at what later became Arches National Park in southeast Utah, where Abbey worked for a period as a park ranger in the mid-50s.

Abbey was an unusual and quirky character.  Photographs of him show a gaunt and forbiddingly intense Old Testament figure with a long beard – the kind of guy you might expect to find in a Clint Eastwood movie living in a cabin in the middle of nowhere with a Winchester rife ready to receive any unwanted or unannounced visitors.  He looks not entirely unlike the Unabomber, and Abbey has more than a hint of the rightwing anarchist technophobe about him.

He is a beautiful, angry and often acerbic writer however and Desert Solitaire (1968) is a magnificent piece of work.  On one hand it’s a poetic evocation of the extreme desert landscape of southern Utah, mixing physical descriptions of the desert and its flora and fauna with tales of Indians, cowboys, uranium prospectors, in memorable passages such as this:

Time and the winds will sooner or later bury the Seven Cities of Cibola, Phoenix, Tucson, Albuquerque, all of them, under dunes of glowing sand, over which blue-eyed Navajo bedouin will herd their sheep and horses, following the river in winter, the mountains in summer, and sometimes striking off across the desert toward the red canyons of Utah where great waterfalls plunge over silt-filled, ancient, mysterious dams.

Abbey’s book is also a staunch defender of America’s wild spaces.  He was an outspoken and sarcastic critic of what he calls ‘industrial tourism’ – a phenomenon that he saw expressed in the national park system through the construction of roads, hotels, to cater for a new generation of motorized tourists.  Abbey rejected the notion that ‘any and all forms of construction and development are intrinsic goods’ and warned that such a philosophy would result in ‘ the eradication of the last remnants of wilderness and the complete subjugation of nature to the requirements of – not man – but industry.’

For Abbey, such parks transformed landscape into mere commodities and denied visitors the visceral physical connection with the natural world that he regarded as the essence of the wilderness experience.  He called for roads and cars to be banned from national parks altogether, since:

A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles.  Better to idle through one park in two weeks than try to race through a dozen in the same amount of time.  Those who are familiar with both modes of travel know from experience that this is true; the rest have only to make the experiment to discover the same truth for themselves.

Writing about nature can sometimes be a substitute for experience, particularly when such writings deal with far-off landscapes that readers are unlikely to visit.  Abbey’s book was not intended to do this.   It’s certainly possible to ‘experience’ the Utah desert through his compelling prose, but ultimately his book is an invitation and an urgent call to action to his fellow citizens to re-immerse themselves in the wild spaces that even then he recognized were under threat.  At the end of the book he writes:

The tourists have gone home…the great majority of, answering a mystical summons, have returned to the smoky jungles and swamps of what we call, in wistful hope, American civilization.   I can see them now in all their millions jamming the freeways, glutting the streets, horns bellowing like wounded steers, hunting for a place to park.  They have left me alone here in the wilderness, at the center of things, where all that is most significant takes place.

Abbey’s remarkable book is a reminder of why even one of the harshest and most inhospitable landscapes in the United States was significant, not only to itself, but to American society.  Today, in the early 21st century where industrial civilization has placed the survival of the planet – and our species in doubt- it reads like one of many warnings that were ignored.

We don’t know yet whether it is too late to do anything about this.  But Abbey’s urgent insistence on the ‘significance’ of wilderness remains no less relevant than it was when it was first written, and it can still serve to remind us of what we are in danger of losing forever.  

 

Peter Kosminsky’s Islamic State

The violence that we call terrorism has always been surrounded by a curious paradox. On the one hand virtually every terrorist emergency in history has declared terrorism to be a unique threat to society,  yet the societies under threat are generally not encouraged and are even actively discouraged from thinking about what terrorism is, who terrorists are, what they want, and why they are inclined to do the things that they do.

This reluctance is often fed by the belief that terrorism is so toxic that it cannot be analysed without its toxicity spreading.  Thus Conor Cruise O’Brien once said that no one should try to understand the IRA, because even trying to understand its motivations was the first step towards legitimisation.  And when the Spanish filmmaker Julio Medem made his remarkable documentary The Basque Ball: Skin Against Stone  about ETA, he was vilified by the Spanish government and also by the Association for the Victims of Terrorism, which accused him of ideological collusion with terrorism.

Such reactions are on one level entirely ridiculous. Terrorism is a human activity and it should be liable to intellectual scrutiny, like any other activity.   It should also be possible to look at imaginatively, as writers do.  Crime writers do this every day without being accused of intellectual collusion with rape, gangsterism or paedofilia or serial killing.    Armies seek to understand the tactics and strategies of  their opponents and assess their strengths and weaknesses.

None of this should be rocket science.  Yet it’s amazing how unwilling we are to do this when it comes to terrorism.  Too often we allow governments and dubious ‘terrorism experts’ pushing very specific ideological agendas to interpret terrorist violence for us. They use terms like ‘radicalisation’ when we have no idea what this term really means or how it takes place.   They wage ‘wars against terror’ with no strategic coherence and no clear goals that only make the problem worse.

They use banal tautologies such as ‘the aim of terrorism is to terrorise’, when often it is quite clear that ‘spreading fear’ is only one component – and often quite a minor one – in the strategic intentions behind such violence.   They describe atrocities as wars on ‘our values’ when it is quite obvious that such crimes have a very different motivation and target.

Given this context, Peter Kosminsky has performed a valuable service in writing and directing a drama about the most vilified of all terrorist groups.  I am only two episodes into it, but it’s already clear that The State is a compelling and deeply disturbing journey into the nightmare caliphate created by Daesh/ISIS in Syria and Iraq, which should leave no discerning viewer in any doubt that this ‘state’ is an abomination.

The Islamic State that Kosminsky describes is savage, reactionary, misogynistic, tyrannical, and cruel, fanatical, dishonest and manipulative.   It chops off heads and hands in front of young children and exposes its recruits to high-production atrocity videos in order to condition them to the cruelty that it expects.

All this is depicted from the point of view of four British Muslims who make the journey to Raqqa.  Kosminsky does not  spend much time on the personal back stories that motivated them to leave the UK.  He is more interested in exploring how Islamic State was able to manipulate them into embracing its vision of religious purity, by presenting itself as a defensive jihad on behalf of oppressed Muslims and as a rebellion against a supposedly corrupt and immoral world, that can only be purified through the most fanatical and reductionist version of the Sharia.

In one scene, the cult-like ‘mother superior’ who inducts the women volunteers lectures them on divorce, immorality, and commercialised sex of the world of jahiliya – Sayyid Qutb’s modern reworking of the state of pre-Islamic ignorance.   In another, a military trainer hectors the male volunteers on the evils of women who urinate and bleed.  Even in hospitals, ISIS is so obsessed with female behaviour that the British doctor-volunteer can only treat women and cannot be left alone with a man.

Kosminsky also shows the ‘positive’ appeal of ISIS: the ‘band of brothers’ bonding between the young fighters who receive their kalishnikovs; the yearning for a religiously pure and morally-unambiguous Islamic life; the sense of comradeship that comes from fighting in a meaningful cause; the artful propaganda; the teams of ISIS men who try and seduce women over the Internet into becoming ‘lionesses’; the eschatological and millenarian fantasies of the end of the world and the day of judgment that ISIS seeks to bring about through war.

So this is a serious – and in fact the first – attempt on television to imagine what ISIS is like and why people have been attracted to one of the most horrific political movements in modern times.  Kosminsky and Channel 4 ought to be congratulated for that.   But no one will be surprised that he has been vilified by the Sun, the Daily Express and the Mail.  The Sun   quotes the Zionist neocon and former British army colonel Richard Kemp as a ‘terror expert’, who has called the drama ‘the jihadist equivalent of inspiring war epics such as Band of Brothers or Dunkirk. ‘

The best that can be said about this is that it is not a very intelligent observation, because it ought to be quite clear to anyone with a pair of eyes that Kosminsky’s characters are embarked on a journey to the heart of darkness that is not inspiring at all.  Kemp’s comments are not as dense as the witless Christopher Stevens in the Daily Mail,  who has described the series as ‘pure poison – like a Nazi recruiting film from the 1930s.’  Well those films may have worked for the pro-Nazi  Daily Mail at the time, but the comparison bears no scrutiny in relation to Kosminsky’s film.

Watson is shocked – shocked I tell you – that one of the characters refers to ISIS as ‘ ” a real supercool club”. There is no irony in her voice.’  Goodness, no irony.   Don’t Daily Mail critics actually learn how to analyse a text or a film?  Apparently not, because the ‘irony’ may not be in the character’s voice, but it is made obvious by the glaring discrepancy between the expectations of Kosminsky’s naive recruit and the horrendous reality all around her.

Stevens has little time for nuance or dramatic subtlety.  He wants his messages served up on a giant platter with a large sign pointing to them, and so  he works himself up into the lather of Dacre-suppurating moral indignation that Daily Mail writers just can’t help, and describes  Kosminsky as ‘the epitome of the London media luvvie who is desperate to demonstrate that he is less racist than anyone else at his Hampstead dinner party. He”s been the subject of a South Bank Show profile by Melvyn Bragg. You get the picture.’

In fact we don’t.   And Stevens’s insistence that ISIS is a ‘death cult’ is not enlightening. It is just an insult and a cliché that explains nothing except what Stevens thinks ISIS is. Kosminsky’s drama, on the other hand,  attempts to understand what ISIS itself thinks it is, and any viewer with any serious interest in understanding this malignant phenomenon should pay it serious attention.

The Sun, the Express, and the Mail are  written by people who don’t want to think and clearly don’t want their readers to think either.  But given the magnitude of the mess we’re all in, we need writers who do, and The State is a rare and brave attempt to ask serious questions about something that is really too serious to leave in the hands of the likes of Christopher Stevens or Richard Kemp.

 

On Writing and Silence

A loyal follower of this blog and Internet friend asked me last week why I haven’t blogged much recently, so I thought I should explain to those who are interested. There are three main reasons.  In the first place, I’ve been extraordinarily busy.  I’ve been writing two books, one of which required a lot of rewriting.  I’ve also been helping to organize the One Day Without Us campaign, which really has eaten into my working day, particularly in October, when it was almost impossible to do anything else.

Secondly, so many horrific,depressing – and complex things have happened this year that I have felt unable to keep up with them or say anything meaningful about them in the time that I have had.

My inability to speak out about Trump, Brexit, Syria, Yemen and so many other things is also related to an ongoing personal political crisis that I have yet to resolve.  In November last year, one of the people who criticized my ‘international brigades’ post asked me why I kept writing things.  I told him I wrote because there wasn’t any choice for me.  It’s what I do and what I’ve always done.   At the same time I’ve always asked myself what value writing has – not just mine – but any writing.  What does it do?  What does it achieve?

One of my favourite writers is the great Austrian satirist Karl Kraus ‘ the master of venomous ridicule’, as Stefan Zweig once called him.  Kraus’s venom and his ridicule sometimes bordered on the misanthropic – not a position I’ve ever wanted to find myself in – but he wrote with real brilliance about the nationalist insanity of World War II, in his essays and also in his sprawling play The Last Days of Humanity.   In an essay on the outbreak of World War I, Kraus said that essentially that the world had become so corrupt and debased to the point that language itself had not meaning and therefore the only thing writers could do was step forward and say nothing at all.

Of course he didn’t do that – he was a writer after all.   But one writer who did retreat into silence was Isaac Babel.  Estranged from Stalinist literary culture and from Stalin himself, he decided to write nothing and say nothing.  In Stalinist Russia that wasn’t good enough of course.  Silence was a political position, because it wasn’t support for the regime.  Because Babel didn’t loudly proclaim the revolution and its inane cult of socialist realism, he was objectively counter-revolutionary and that’s why he was eventually shot, in effect, for saying nothing.

My own temporary silence on this blog owes more to Kraus than to Babel.  It isn’t that I consider silence a statement, but lately I have just not been able to find the words with which to respond to the depraved lunacy and collective stupidity that is sweeping my country and the Western world lately.

And that isn’t all.   I’ve always thought of myself as on the left and of the left and I still do, but there’s so little I admire or respect about the British left right now it’s really hard to feel I ‘belong ‘ to it. On one level I never did . I didn’t call my blog ‘notes from the margins’ for nothing. If I had any use as a writer writing about politics, it was from that marginal critical position, which didn’t pin me to any established party or network or make the representative of anything.

That changed somewhat when Stop the War began posting my pieces – something that I was ok with until I found myself accused of ‘representing’ positions that I didn’t have.   But 2016 has been a kind of critical rupture for me, following the debacle of last November w/ the ‘international brigades’ fiasco and the almost complete abandonment of critical faculties by sections of the left back then – which still continues albeit in trickles – , not to mention Stop the War’s cowardly abandonment of myself and Chris Floyd.

Then there was Brexit,and it’s little wannabe sister Lexit, propagating the cynical/opportunist and downright foolish idea that a no vote was somehow ‘progressive’ – coupled with a refusal to recognise the racism unleashed and legitimised by it, and a willingness to effectively throw some three million EU citizens under the Brexit bus in the vague hope that something good might turn up out of the mess for the left, or the working class or the revolution.

Let me make it absolutely clear – a left that behaves like this and thinks like this, no matter how cleverly, is not a movement that I feel anything in common with or want to ‘belong’ to, or speak for or speak to.   There really aren’t any words to express how disgusted I am by this and how shameful I find it.

And now we have McDonnell, McCluskey and Lewis coming from the soft left promising to ‘listen to concerns’ about immigration, when they should be challenging them.

And then there is the left and Syria. It isn’t just the ‘revolutionary’ posturing by people who would never go anywhere near a Syrian battlefield, many of whom are busy picking up MAs and PhDs while spouting platitudes about armed struggle.Or the  vicious insults if you don’t accept their starry-eyed vision of the Syrian revolution. Fascist bag carrier. Truther. Ghouta denialist. Assad supporter. Piece of shit. ISIS lover – I’ve heard it all from these great humanitarians over the last few years.

It isn’t just the certainty about things that are not always certain. Or the jostling for a morally superior position, using Syria as an excuse to pursue old sectarian vendettas in a new form. There are also the  leftists who talk about Assad as if he were the good guy in this, and a representative of the ‘axis of resistance’ etc, and now t’s all Israel’s fault etc

To me the Syrian war is an unmitigated horror. Is that the ‘correct’ line? Is it enough? No. Do I know the ‘truth’ about Syria?  No.   But I find it astounding that Syria has suddenly become a test of how left or how moral or how revolutionary you are. I do not accept that we ‘have blood on our hands’ for Aleppo and not for Yemen, or South Sudan, or Mosul, or Gaza.

Why does the ‘left’ play games like this? Why, when faced with wars, do  so many leftists believe that you always have to support one side or the other? Suppose you don’t think any of the sides are ‘good’?

In the end I don’t know  why the left behaves like this, but like I said, I don’t admire or respect it (hey don’t worry, i know the feeling’s mutual), and it’s made it very difficult for me to write blog posts or even facebook posts – except on racism and migration.

The thing is, for much of my life I felt that the left were the good guys – regardless of the many historical crimes that some leftist regimes have carried out, and that the left, with all its contradictions, still offered answers to the various scourges of militarism, racism, war, poverty and social justice that it was incumbent on my generation to try and solve.

Now I’m not sure if that’s true. I’m not even sure the left, especially the ‘revolutionary’ left has any future at all except as a subculture – and a forum to attack anyone who isn’t Marxist enough for it or as revolutionary as they think they should be.

In fact I’m not really that sure about anything right now, and that’s why I haven’t written very much on this blog.   That doesn’t I’m going to retreat into silence or withdraw from the world. It doesn’t mean that I intend to follow the Nick Cohen route.

I have no intention of shutting down the Infernal Machine permanently.  After all,  I might have Karl Kraus whispering in one ear, but I also have Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s great poem Bol! [Speak} next to my desk, which declares quite rightly:

Speak, this brief hour is long enough
Before the death of body and tongue:
Speak, ‘Cause the truth is not dead yet,
Speak, speak, whatever you must speak.

So I wish you all a peaceful ending to this year of lunacy, and I look forward to seeing you all again  in 2017, ready to wage the many struggles that still have to be waged.

Banned Books Week Appearance

This Thursday I’m speaking at the British Library as part of Banned Books Week. Among other things I’ll be talking about the ‘banning’ of my own book Unknown Soldiers back in 2007, something I’ve never done before. I shall also be discussing a range of free speech-related issues with the children’s author Melvyn Burgess and Jo Glanville from English PEN. It promises to be an interesting evening. For anyone who wants to come here are the details:

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Banned Books Week: Censorship and the Author

Upcoming Event

An evening of discussions on the current threat of censorship to literary works and the issues surrounding free speech.

While we might wish to consign book burning to the pages of history, the censorship of books remains a present and pressing concern. In particular, the challenging of books aimed at young adults that deal with teenage issues in an open and direct manner, such as Paper Towns by John Green and Junk  by Melvin Burgess, which have become almost commonplace in recent years.

As part of Banned Books Week (25 September to 1 October), join us for an evening with Melvin Burgess and guests.  Winner of the prestigious Carnegie Medal, the Guardian Children”s Fiction Prize and the LA young adult book of the year award, Burgess is the author of a series of acclaimed but controversial novels for young adults (Junk, Lady: My Life as a Bitch, Doing It) dealing with subjects such as heroin addiction and teenage sex.

Click here to view our  book list  for Banned Books Week.

This event is taking place at the British Library.
Click here to book tickets.

Banned Books Week was initiated by theAmerican Library Association (ALA) in 1982 in response to an increasing number of challenges in the US to books in schools, bookstores and libraries, and in particular, books aimed at children or young adults.

Islington Library and Heritage Services, along with the British Library and Free Word, are  celebrating Banned Books Week and drawing attention to censorship and free speech working  alongside the American Library Association.

Speakers

Melvin Burgess  is the winner of the prestigious Carnegie Medal, the GuardianChildren”s Fiction Prize and the LA young adult book of the year award. He is the author of a series of acclaimed but controversial novels for young adults that deal with subjects such as drug addiction, homelessness, teenage sex and cosmetic surgery.

His first book, The Cry of the Wolf was published in 1990, but it was not until the publication of Junk, a novel dealing with homelessness and teenage heroin addiction, that he achieved mainstream success.

Further award-winning novels include the fantasy Bloodtide (1999) and the controversial Doing it which dealt with teenage sex. His most recent novelHunger was published in 2014.

Matthew Carr is a writer and journalist  who has written for a range of publications  including Esquire, the New York Times, History Today, the Observer, the  Daily Telegraph and the Guardian.  He is the author of  five non-fiction books and his  first novel,  The Devils of Cardona,  was published in June 2016 by Penguin Random House in the US.

Matthew blogs about politics, books, history, cinema, music and other things on his website:  www.infernalmachine.co.uk. He is on Twitter @MattCarr55.

Jo Glanville (chair) has been  the Director of English PEN  since  2012, having come from  Index on Censorship  where she worked  as an award-winning editor since 2006. She was a BBC current affairs producer for eight years and appears regularly in the media as a commentator on culture and freedom of expression, including in the Guardian, the Daily Telegraph and  the London Review of Books.

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