Pericles in the funeral oration for the first Athenians to fall during the Peloponnesian War said
Our constitution is called a democracy because power is in the hands not of a minority but of the whole people. When it is a question of settling private disputes, everyone is equal before the law; when it is a question of putting one person before another in positions of public responsibility, what counts is not membership of a particular class, but the actual ability which the man possesses. No one, so long as he has it in him to be of service to the state, is kept in political obscurity because of poverty. And, just as our political life is free and open, so is our day-to-day life in our relations with each other…We are free and tolerant in our private lives; but in public affairs we keep to the law. This is because it commands our deep respect.
This speech sets out, eloquently, the Athenian ideal of government and also of day-to-day life. This is the same ideal that continues to fire all Western Democracies until this past month. It is important to note that it is an ideal, something that shines as a goal, something that is not wholly realizable, that escapes all our attempts to totally fulfill as a matter of practical execution. Athenians did not apply this ideal to slaves in their time nor did the founding fathers of the American version apply this to Africans living in the New World. But, since this constitution is an ideal it has the capacity to be expanded to become inclusive so that Africans in the USA, other minorities can become citizens within this description. That is until 20 January 2017.
The new regime, because properly speaking, that is what the Great Leader’s government is, will soon become a junta, if the Great Leader gets his way. The Great Leader has every intention of severing the long link to the Athenian ideal. And the easiest, smoothest road to perdition is by identifying a group, any group as Other, as the enemy. In this way, citizenship, freedom and humanity are stripped from a small group, a minority to start with. But, the ultimate desire is to have total power, to secure authoritarian rule, to govern by Decree and Fiat. Discussion, debate, politics will be abjured. The press is already in the line of fire for standing in the way of despotism. Pericles’ ideal is not the model that the Great Leader seeks. In his vision, being human is not universal, it is only an attribute that people like him possess.
Who is “other” in this scheme? It is much easier to start with anyone with visible difference, a darker shade of melanin will suffice, a different religion, facing east and bowing low, anyone who is not one of us, an “immigrant” perhaps? And why does this despicable method work?
At one level, it is one of the most primitive principles in the animal kingdom, the xenophobic principle (E.O.Wilson).
The sight of an alien bird, for example, energises a flock of Canada geese, evoking a full panoply of threat displays accompanied by repeated mass approaches and retreats…A new bird introduced into an organized [chicken] flock will, unless it is unusually vigorous, suffer attacks for days on end whilst being forced down on to the lowest status.
The human equivalent is well demonstrated in the crowds that gather at the Great Leader’s rallies. That is the level of regression that the Great Leader’s crowds operate at and that’s not surprising- chanting in unison is designed to subjugate the rational senses so that poisonous ideas can take root. You now understand the role of the chant ‘Lock her up’, ‘Build the Wall’ and more recently ‘Fake News’. These are hypnosis inducing techniques that the Great Leader has mastered and uses effectively to great effect upon his self-selected subjects. These are the people who no longer regard themselves as citizens but rather are subjects in the sense of being subject to his powers and menaces. They have given up all authority, all autonomy.
It is true that the xenophobic principle is alive within human groups. Outsiders, no matter how defined are “other” and can be cast as an evil, monolithic force. The language used can dehumanize so that the “other” can be brutally treated, indeed killed without conscience. The systematic work to render all “immigrants” as “other” is ongoing. Next will be transportation, concentration camps, and murder. After all, these are “immigrants” and they are criminals, gang members, who murder and rape our women!
What is astonishing is that this insidious destruction of fealty is being executed in our presence, not at night, on trains away in a remote siding and a camp out of sight, but the assault, on common decency, was carried and is being carried out at airports, both at home and abroad, by perfectly normal and decent people. That’s the surprise and the shame.
Racism and entrenched xenophobia, not as a group phenomenon, but as an individual affliction, a malignant disease currently, like the plague, distempering those close to the Great Leader is another matter all together. You have to imagine the lowest form of self-esteem, think of the sludge at the bottom of a pond or canal, dark, filthy and foetid, then you have a grasp of the inner life of the afflicted. This is a grave condition, near fatal except for the possibility of describing another class (and it has to be a class) of people as not human and therefore without any effort our racists, the Great Leader’s team, can be better than some other human being. This monumental delusion can only be sustained by great effort of will. Hence, the gargantuan energy expended dressing up as Ku Klux Klan, or in the case of Aryan the Younger, wearing a brilliant white shirt, a dark tie, an over tidy hair and an erect stance, a caricature of the SS if there was ever one. But, the best exemplar is the Great Wizard himself, untidy, obese, unshaven, grotesque and deplorable on any scale- he hasn’t the energy to hide or dissemble the foul odours of his inner life. He is recognizably unpleasant. The inner pathology is actually quite simple- we have deep self-hatred that can only be assuaged by the hatred of others.
The Great Leader is in a very different category indeed. Our two-year old feeds on attention, the lust for the limelight is insatiable as is the belief that only his needs matter and sadly that he is the only sentient being in the universe. Allied to this is the unmistakable terror that he does not exist, that only when he occupies central station and is beyond doubt illuminated by the spotlight does he feel alive, just as some people need to self-cut, to see blood flow in order to re-affirm that they are alive and exist. The Great Leader’s lust for the spotlight is a malignant equivalent of this- deprived of this lifeblood, his very being is under threat, hence the impulse to be centre stage, and it does not much matter how this impulse is served. Lying is just one of the many schemes that call attention to the Great Leader. There are, of course, several motivations for the lying, as we say this sickness is over determined as to its origins.
The deep sense of emptiness, the terror of being non-existent, the dread that has no ready name but that is experienced as near annihilation, the impoverished spirit, hollow and already corrupted, and the mask of confidence that is just that, a mask that slips all too easily and that has to be supported by props: an executive table, a pen, paper, a football or baseball cap, mannerisms that are jerky and language that is stripped to mere grunts and single words, eschewing grammar and order. These are the props that mask utter unspeakable terror, an emptiness that clings like spittle to a non-existent self.
And as for relationships, think of the mimicry that infects the likes of Farage and Gove such that they leave their adult and responsible selves behind and pose for photos that undermine their integrity forever. Actually that belittle them, reducing any significance they previous had to no more than mere postscript in history. This mimicry, best described as echopraxia is how the Great Leader has chosen to undermine whatever autonomy these men had before appearing with him in photos.
As for the Vicar’s Daughter, hand in hand, fingers clutching, she was defiled in full view of the world. The Great Leader shows no sign of affection for his consort, except where it is stage-managed. He never or rarely looks at her, never openly seeks her comfort or interest, yet he is hand holding with the Vicar’s Daughter in record time. Think pollution, think moral corruption, think an un-washable stain. The Vicar’s Daughter’s moral rectitude forever compromised.
What can we learn from these encounters? Simply that the Great Leader is a mortally serious disease that seeks to infect and destroy whatever moral compass an individual has. But, that also the Great Leader’s relationships are at considerable risk of moral death. World leaders be warned.
Finally I want to turn to that matter of chaos. I was taught once that the physical three-dimensional world is the visible projection, the instantiated version of an individual’s inner life. And what can we say about the Great Leader from his isolation in the cavernous spaces of the White House, the absence of light, the scrambling for light at night, the need for rivalry and dysfunction between the members of his entourage, the restless frenzy and impetuous twitter finger, the reliance on tabloid sensationalism for information and the disdain for truth, for honest reporting and hunger for triumph and accolade in the face of defeat and dislike. The real uncoordinated, stuttering engine of his reality, all the witnessed impropriety and failures of judgment and the misjudgments and idiosyncrasies, what do they say abut the Great Leader? We can say that these visible chaotic architectures of his manifest physical world are but mere and trivial reflections of the chaos inside. Mind you, the inner chaos is several magnitudes more severe and destructive.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
This has nothing to do with optics. You and I can see pretty well. We are not beholding an illusion. The spectacle and performance before us, the displays of deceit and dissimulation are real enough. And the fast moving evolution of events, the rush as of Rapids approaching a precipice, a cataclysm, this is real too.
It is the rise of The Great Leader that has shown how naked power can arise from democracy and turn into tyranny. What would have been unthinkable just barely 21 days ago is now already more than realised. Tyranny is installed in the centre of life. How frighteningly & rapidly did things develop to this nadir of our common imagination.
In the centre of power is a man supported and surrounded by extremists with an agenda that is inimical to the interests of all but their closest friends and families. Racism, vulgar hatred of Islam, rejection of equal rights for women, the signalled intention to damage cross national institutions like the UN and EU including even NATO. In 21 days everything that ensured a secure but imperfect world has altered to create a blatantly imperfect world teetering on a precipice of intercontinental war, a world war. And there’s the suspicion that the newly installed Great Leader is dying to use the nuclear option. He is aided by a man who believes that we need to destroy the world in order to create a new world order that is Christian and capitalist, read white Christian.
How can it be possible that we have gone in such a short time from security to abysmal insecurity? How is it possible that we can wake to find that we are neither subjects nor citizens, merely disposable ciphers in the fantasy of creatures whose inner life is horrid and degenerate?
And most galling is the realisation that we are relatively helpless. That authority and power produces a trance like response in human beings- a willingness to obey, to avoid harm, to retreat to a place of safety even if one doesn’t exist. And that for most people, fear and denial of the obvious is the ready to hand strategy. It can’t possibly be true that we have elected a thief, a ruthless despot, someone with no morals, a liar true and true,, also through and through. That is the phase we are in, the vast majority cannot quite grasp the enormity of the problem. Even the politicians who ought to know better, who are used to what practical lying is about can’t quite see the stark difference between the new world and the old. Everyone is trying to do business as usual, scrutinising nominees, marching in defiance, telling jokes and hoping that it’s a dream.
But it’s not a dream, it is reality and an awful one too. The measures that are required will not be subtle or without damage. The. Great Leader is in the centre of power, he has encircled himself with his praetorian guards, his very own, not the nation’s security or secret service but his own paid for force. Imagine having to bring to bear on the White House, the symbol of power, anything like the armed ambush that it may require to eject the aberration that is the Great Leader from his lair. We are in for a nasty time indeed.
It is the long term damage to the notion of democracy that’s most severe. What now for countries like Zimbabwe, The Congo, what hope that the rule by consent will ever materialise. Given that the example of the Great Leader exemplifies the underbelly of democracy- you can definitely vote in a despot who rides in on the horse manure of lies and more lies. A person who trades on hatred and fear, whose determination for self enrichment excludes nothing whatsoever. Power is here for enrichment not for governance, except if governance is the incompetent managerialism that’s being projected. Talk of “deals” masks the incompetence and dishonesty of the protagonist.
But, that is not my real concern. It is the insidious accommodation of evil that is most troubling. That’s my concern. We human beings are no more than termites in our social organisation. Once we establish the power hierarchy the structures of obedience and obeisance crystallise. Since these power lines are invisible we don’t even recognise how subservient we are. Only a handful of people obey only their own conscience. Mostly we trade in submission, passivity and blind obedience. The ordinary, decent folk of Homeland Security did their duties- they handcuffed 5 year olds, locked up 80 year old widows frail and close to death from diabetes, separated families, deprived thousands of food and drink, trampled on their rights all at the say so of the Great Leader! I am yet to read of mass resignations, attendances at church to seek forgiveness or redemption. The unspoken cry is “I was doing my duty”. Like termites we are mostly unthinking and obedient.
The Great Leader may be despicable, may be contemptible, but his orders are being translated, enacted and carried out by perfectly ordinary people who this past Xmas would never have thought they were part of a tyrannical army. But, they are whether they like it or not. I am hoping that someone is keeping a record of their names and station. The time will come when they will have to answer for their actions. This time round we are all witnesses to barbarity and we will give evidence when the time comes.
I am also troubled by how the cry “Immigrant “ across vast swathes of the West is now a call to at the very least treat with utmost contempt or worse to kill. What this cry lacks in specificity it makes up for in its broad brush approach. The masterminds of evil no longer care to simply target black people, or Asians, or Hispanics, or muslims. The term “immigrant” can stand for whoever you wish in your local jurisdiction but we know who we are not referring to, don’t we. That’s the key- an understanding that “immigrant” is colour coded. A white American cannot by definition be an immigrant anywhere, even if he’s only been American for 60 seconds. An African American on the other hand even though his forebears have been in America for 500 years is still an immigrant. As for the Native American, he’s very definitely an immigrant, he’s only been here 10000 years and we all know “we built this country!”
The Great Leader and his praetorian guard have a lucrative commerce on the most primitive, most basic of emotions- fear and hatred. They’ve already grown immensely rich on it. These base feelings run their course but sadly, tragically need blood, gore, concrete enemies preferably war and defeat before they can be expiated. Watch out for war, not the proxy wars that have sufficed in 70 years but direct and savage war. The Great Leader needs to consolidate power, he needs to distract attention from his treason, he is counting on making even more money, and he is not intending to be thwarted.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
It has been the most remarkable few days. There’s been an underlying undertow in the air, an unseen wave that clutches at the feet, sweeping the sand away and undermining security. If you’ve ever stood at Bar Beach in Lagos with Atlantic high rollers surging towards you and crashing down, foam and spume everywhere, droplets of sea water and a fine film of whatever it is clinging to the sweat on the face, then you will know exactly what I am talking about. The Atlantic at Bar Beach upends all certainty. Well, that’s exactly what the news has been from Washington this past 10 days or so. It would be a cliché to quote the over-quoted WB Yeats “things fall apart the centre cannot hold” but it is for once truly apposite.
The only person firm footed as the sand slips away is the conductor of chaos and even he does not stand he sits before a large executive table surrounded by the fawning, lesser men who look on as he signs again decrees that deprive the poor of their health, as he removes the titles to their homes, as he moves to install hatred in the precincts, and as he prepares for war. He sits as Canetti says in Crowds and Power that Power positions itself- “the downward pressure of his weight confirms his authority and the longer he makes it felt the more secure he appears”. Canetti concludes “There is hardly a single human institution which has not made use of this fact [sitting firmly] to preserve and strengthen its position”.
The Leader sits and he issues decrees. This is not demotic assigned power or authority. This is the kind of power that at a gesture signals death; a mere raised eyebrow, a flick of the hand in a dismissive gesture, a turn of the corners of the mouth signaling disgust and the minions paraded for effect rush to carry out murder, to detain and torture, and before you know it as the blonde Angel of Death said “ We have their names” the voices of opposition will have their tongues torn from the roofs of their mouths, they will be ‘disappeared’.
And to properly understand the fear of questions, the rare News Conference, and the fear that both has to be masked and then turned to anger and hostility and ultimately to despotic muzzling of the inquisitive and curious, we must turn once again to Canetti. Asking questions are an exhibition of power, questioning enhances power. The Leader could not reasonably or possibly expose himself to questions. The Great Leader is beyond questioning. He knows everything as he is “clever”, very clever. As Canetti says, ‘The situation is most dangerous for the person questioned when short, concise answers are demanded; it is difficult, if not impossible, to dissemble convincingly in a few words”. All you have to watch is the Blonde Angel of Death (the one with the list of miscreant journalists) in meltdown- prolix beyond compare and leaking her anxieties, displaying her bleeding inner wounds, her lack of sleep without interruption. That is the signal fear, that the truth might be revealed once under scrutiny. There is only so much “alternative facts” that anyone can both utter and sell to oneself.
Answers restrict the movements of the person who gives…
it forces him to take up a fixed position and to remain there, whereas his questioner can shoot at him from anywhere.
I hope it is now clear why the Great Leader cannot abide questions. Much as the Bar Beach sucks away certainty, questions pull at the legs and seat of the chair, and the Great Leader is an immature retarded adult, whose tactics hide the fear that his terror will be exposed. Sadly he is in trouble already since his insecurities are all there to be seen and studied. The more the Great Leader uses props, the more the signing of decrees is orchestrated, the larger his entourage is, the more obvious are his defects, the lacunae in the core of his being.
But, it is impossible for a writer to ignore the absurdity of the transactions conducted in the language of dystopia- “Crooked H” when the Great Leader means “Crooked Me”. “The Carnage that is America” when the Great Leader means “The Carnage that is Me”. The Great Leader often refers to himself when he speaks of others. I was taught as a mere 6 year old boy that the person who shouts “Thief, thief” in the marketplace and who points to someone else is the very thief himself. That folk teaching is one worth keeping in mind today. Most significantly describing the media as the most dishonest people can be read simply in line with his previous mode of speech- “I’m the most dishonest person there is”.
The Great Leader also makes predictions by attributing events that have not remotely happened to other people- he accused John McCain of wanting to cause WWIII when there was nothing suggesting that at all- that was a significant leakage from the Great Leaders unconscious that’s worth hearing.
I must bring in Orwell (1984) who understood all this with immense perspicacity_
…the four ministries between which the entire apparatus of government was divided. The Ministry of Truth, which concerned itself with news, entertainment, education and the fine arts. The Ministry of Peace, which concerned itself with war. The Ministry of Love, which maintained law and order. And the Ministry of Plenty, which was responsible for economic affairs. Their names in Newspeak: Minitrue, Minipax, Miniluv and Miniplenty.
Personally I am going to be watching out for the Ministry of Love as it seeks to call hatred, the use of force and detentions against citizens and aliens alike, love actually!
And as to Newspeak, that language of deception, of dissimulation had a purpose. Its perverse intention was the diminution of vocabulary. It was much better for people to grunt, so that only simple purposive thoughts usually involving concrete objects or physical actions could be expressed and for that, there was the Great Leader himself as the model. Classes did not need to be set up, Twitter and its penchant for simplicity and crassness was the favoured medium and when the Great Leader actually spoke, well then, this was Newspeak in action. Peremptory and ill coordinated thoughts, and single words that lent credence to brute adjectives were his preferred choice- “Fantastic; Great; Sad; etc.”
We are unlucky to be living under a regime, for that is what this is, that is already describing the concepts behind oldthink– as wicked and decadent. So, morality, truth, honour, humane feelings, freedoms, all these are oldthink and must therefore be destroyed. The purpose was for the vocabulary to shrink and meaning to be erased. What dangerous times! Finally, all scientific terms must be banished- knowledge, intellectual activity, technical knowledge, expertise must all be destroyed. No surprises that the science of global warming and the independent expertise of the academic community must be systematically undermined and then simply declared false and irrelevant.
The Great Leader’s singular desire is not merely to have power, all to himself. But, to give commands, to sign decrees because that is what power allows you to do. And, the ultimate power is to decree that others die by signing decrees to send them to their deaths, at war. The many more he can send to their deaths, the more power accrues to him. Mind you, it makes no difference whether the dead are his subjects, his citizens or the enemy. The size of the mound is what counts. It is already clear that the Great Leader has every intention to cause death, a large number of deaths. He will not cease until he has accomplished this task.
Can he be stopped, that’s the question.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
Pheromones are the lineal ancestors of hormones as EO Wilson says. These chemical signals have several outstanding advantages. Small amounts can produce a signal that lasts for hours. They are energetically cheap to manufacture and can be broadcast quite readily. At one extreme they can cover barely a few millimetres. At the other extreme they can generate an active space of several square kilometres. And as to function, in algae, for example, they can be used by female gametes to attract male gametes much as they do in fungi. In Arthropoda they’re female sex attractants. In insects,male sex attractants and aphrodisiacs exist. In vertebrates, pheromones acts as dominance odours, and territorial & home-range markers. But do pheromones have any role in primates and in particular in human beings?
There is no strong evidence for pheromones in humans. The vomeronasal signal transduction systems are at the very most vestigial in humans. Nonetheless there’s some evidence of pheromone effects during the menstrual cycle where it may be that they act as primers, and in the maternal recognition of a newborn where they probably act as signals and in mood displays as modulators.
Well, that’s the science. It seems that with the development of colour vision in male primates and the visible sign of female oestrus, there was less need for chemical signals and hence the markedly reduced reliance on pheromones, or so it is argued. But, I’m not so sure that pheromones are that vestigial.
I can recall that long trip from Lagos out to the country. We were squeezed close together against the door in the backseat of an old Peugeot 304. And it was not long before the closeness of our bodies, the softness of her thighs against mine, and our breathing called to the deep well of desire and I for one was stirred. But, yet the awakened desire had to be muffled, battened down as we were travelling with other companions and it was not night but broad daylight.
That was when I first noticed the aroma of desire. I have no idea whether other people too know of this odour, this effluence that is at once personal and public. It had a cloying substance to it of musk, of sweat mixed with dampness and dusk. It was revelatory.
Many years before I had witnessed a fight, I had caught just the rarest glimpse of a knife flash in the sunlight, and then as if the bare skin was pulled tight and then sliced, glistening red blood welled up along the slice, beads on a string. But it was the smell of fear, something much like the sea, saline rinsed in sea weed. I have associated this rare smell with fear since then and I can smell it, an effluent from a grown man’s armpits. Sometimes it is rancid and sharp and sometimes sour but with a tang to it.
Well it was much the same, the aroma of desire wafted in the atmosphere, technically speaking, in an active space, but to my surprise the other occupants of the vehicle did not seem to have caught any whiff of how the aroused vitals secreted their inner mysteries, their secrets, broadcasting ardour and lust.
This talk of the past has brought back to mind memories that were until just now deeply buried. I can remember visiting my great grandmother in Isale Eko, within her agbole ile just off Eti Osa. We would park the car and then cross the road away from the canoes bobbing by the lagoon side, where the women had their crayfish stalls and fried crabs were sold. To get to her quarter you crossed over an uncovered gutter. Inside the quarter the residences were built along three sides of the courtyard. My great grandmother must have occupied a single room in this courtyard. I stayed with the Ss once, overnight. It was a single room with the parents’ bed separated off from the living space by a curtain that barely reached to the ground. We, the children slept on the floor together and the parents slept on the double bed of wrought iron. Sometime in the middle of the night, I was woken by the older boy who whispered that we look through a discretely torn hole in the curtain to look at the parents locked in an embrace that alternated between wrestling and rapid breathing and ugly and harsh noises. It was a mystery that only became clear many years later. Did the parents not realise that we were watching in tense silence?
Down the courtyard from my great grandmother’s was my mother’s aunt, aunty Mrs Johnson, or more precisely “anti”. She lived on her own, a frail light skinned woman. Her skin was yellowish and wrinkled, but not exactly. The skin seemed loose and too large for the underlying flesh. But it was her smell that I am always reminded of when I think of her. It is really an indescribable smell of dryness, of dandruff, of something ancient like parchment or the hollowed out earth where the drinking water pitcher was kept. She was my mother’s “anti” in the way that all older women were our aunties and older men were uncles. In the sense that all men, who were older in conversation were referred to as “my father” or “my mother” if female.
The correct use of language has bled my rich and profuse relationships of their vitality and vigour. Where I had innumerable brothers I now have one and my countless sisters and cousins are stripped to manageable single numbers rather than dozens. It is how the European norm of nuclear familyhood has eroded the entanglements of extended and luxurious fecundity, of the Niger Delta turning into the arid spittle like stream of a dried riverbed.
Mrs Johnson’s son, my mother’s cousin worked for the Lagos Municipal Transport Service as a bus inspector. He was always well dressed, when he visited at Xmas, in a suit with a white shirt and tie. He brought my mother two books on consecutive Christmases- both by Alan Paton- Cry The Beloved Country & Too Late the Phalarope– describing the impossible and intolerable situation of Africans in South Africa and one year he brought Albert Luthuli’s Let My People Go. He must have been well educated and I mean in the sense of somebody who read widely and knew what to think when few people were aware of anything outside of the Nigerian situation. We lost contact with him when the houses, the land along the lagoon were requisitioned by the government for the development of the second Lagos bridge. The families were moved to brand new flats in Surulere without the courtyard design of their former homes. For the first time the families acquired indoor lavatories instead of having to use potties, etc.
In the same courtyard, across on the far side a young couple with a young daughter moved in. The daughter was reputed to have told her parents as soon as she could talk that she was not their daughter but that she had recently died and that her parents lived in Abeokuta. Apparently she named her presumed parents and their address and when inquiries were made it turned out to be true that such a family existed and her account was corroborated. How strange after all these years to recall this.
Much of my early memories are tied to real places that still exist except for the courtyard just across from Eti Osa. I think perhaps because the real places no longer exist there is a strange feeling of uncertainty about these memories, as if I have just woken up from a dream and that these places are somewhere in my imagination except that memories of smells persist.
Aside from Mr Johnson’s odour, to get to Eti Osa you had to go across Carter Bridge from Ebute Meta to Lagos island. You turned left at the statue to the unknown soldiers, Soja Idumota. Here the characteristic smell of old Lagos clung to the nostril. This was where the night soil men dumped their ware after midnight or before dawn. The stench was of faeces mixed with the sea like marinaded compost. This smell was nicknamed “Sasarabia”.
To return to that trip. It was the first time that a thigh acquired a new value simply for being female. Even now at my age I am still mystified by the ability of a body part to acquire a heightened value and to provoke interest and desire for being female. But the aroma of desire has long ceased to be something that I consciously detect. Maybe age atrophies this sense just as it does hearing and sight. Maybe too, pheromones act at subtle levels of discrimination directing and limiting, ensnaring and sometimes provoking. Or, it might just be that I am past that age where nature cares much for my desires.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
The temperature was dropping in time with the darkening, approaching dusk. I walked across from Hotel Raspail, crossing the Blvd Raspail, through rue Hygens where clutches of youngsters sat on the doorsteps to the Ecole Bert and Gymnasium Huygens. They huddled ever closer together as if some secret conclave was in session, passing whispered messages from one person to another, like ants passing their scents on. I noticed that there was a couple in the group where the man grasped the woman’s shoulder close, not merely to signal their intimacy but perhaps also to lay claim to a possession, to exclude others and a like a vice to entrap the woman in his clasp.
I was back in Paris after 24 months away. I had caught the Eurostar from St Pancras to Gare du Nord. And, then to my surprise had found that I could travel, free, on the Metro to Vavin. Apparently there was smog in Paris and Parisians were being lured away from their cars with free travel on the Metro.
I went in to the Montparnasse Cemetery through the main entrance, picked up a map and guide to the main graves. It was a job orienting myself to the actual site of the varying divisions and then locating the tombs. I managed only a handful.
De Beauvoir and Sartre, then Beckett. Vallejo’s grave was difficult to find. I concluded that it was probably this simple, cracked concrete slab. If the map was right, this stretch and particular place was where it ought to be – even in death Vallejo was as much a pauper as he was in life, dying in penury in Paris, far away from his native Peru. Yet his poetry continued to speak across time and space to a particular kind of bleakness, of loneliness and internal anguish, of an absence of colour and gaiety, of greyness rather than black.
Marguerite Duras’ tomb was also not immediately apparent. Where I should have found her, there was merely this grey-pink marble, simple and again like Vallejo’s unmarked. I first heard of Duras when she won the Prix Goncourt in 1984 for The Lover– an extraordinarily powerful book despite its simplicity and economy. I then read more by her and found in her writing, crispness and a clarity that was dazzling. There was also a purity of purpose. If this unmarked tomb was her resting place it was worthy of her and in tune with her style and character.
I mistook Thierry Ravel’s grave for Maurice Ravel’s. The kind of error that shows up the cognitive systems’ manner of classifying the world- dominant themes that command the vista and obscure the background. This is the problem of figure-ground discrimination as it manifests itself with advancing age.
Samuel Beckett’s grave was grey granite, simple yet weighty like the man himself. I was reminded of an anecdote told us by C&P who had lived in the same block as SB. One day SB’s letter was erroneously delivered to C&P. They already knew that SB eschewed eye contact and familiarity, that he avoided small talk. C took the letter up to BS’ flat. She pressed the bell and SB opened the door. C said “this letter is for M. Beckett” and SB said “I’ll let him have it when he arrives back”. C&P loved telling this story that revealed SB’s character and his wish for anonymity. SB wouldn’t have survived well in celebrity culture.
Sartre and de Beauvoir’s tombstone was made of a light coloured stone that stood out amongst the grey and dark granite graves around it. Like Plath’s in Heptonstall, it was an obvious site of veneration and of pilgrimage. Pots of African violets, two single roses, a biro, pebbles, a bunch (bouquet) of flowers, sprigs of heather were the offerings made to these two gods. These offerings symbolized our sense of helplessness, the impotence we feel when we confront death. The fresh flowers destined to fade and then wither and die, the pots of African violets which too will expire once the soil is exhausted. As Derrida put it “only humans die, the other animals merely perish”. We are conscious of our mortality and this is the origin of tragedy- life that is lived under the shadow of death.
My visit to Montparnasse Cemetery, in the cold and as dusk fell was itself a symbol, a token of my desire to pay homage to these deceased writers, to say to myself that even in death they had achieved a modicum of immortality. Every night the ancient Egyptians, anxious about the possibility that the Sun might not rise next morning, prayed for the re-enactment of the endless cycle of life. But, here in the cemetery, my hands were growing cold, the trees had lost all their leaves, and endless multitudes of stone artefacts, erected to signal the future were silent and static. So many are grand and ornate, so many are even more dead and mute than those around them. There is nothing joyful or celebratory here. There is just sorrow and even more sorrow, which I suppose was better than indifference. Of all the writers buried here, it is Vallejo who would have understood most properly this cemetery for what was. He understood that life was a vertiginous abyss with pitiful and faint lighting, that poetry just about responded to the brief streaks of light but that in the end, the words too missed the point, the words soaked into the darkness and void of the abyss. Nonetheless, living was in the trying to escape this fate.
I went from the City of Death, from its unearthly, deathly silence of marble and granite tombstones to the Temple of Joy and Lust, the paradisal sanctum of eroticism, the Lido. Everything there was spectacle, spectacular. The stage was a focal point for Beauty to parade itself in the myriad forms of nude women- long legs, linsome limbs that were slender and inviting. Elegant swan-like necks and fine heads balanced like delicate eggs on stalks. Then the breasts- pert, full and pouting like Angelina Jolie’s lips. All the dancers, the men and women, were white, pale white, as if they had seen no sunlight whatsoever except for one African man.
The dancing was all in good taste, innocent in the way that Ella Fitzgerald’s voice was virginal and incorruptible. The thing is to think how much energy it took for Ella’s voice to transmit that etiquette of purity given the manner in which her ethnicity and identity were traduced in American society.
I drank my glass of Champagne slowly, I bit into the cheese slices, the pungent aromatics of corrupted milk breezing into my nostrils. French vinaigrette on the salad, tart and sharp woke up my senses. There was an increasing risk that even here, at the Lido, the immaculate women, for all their joie de vivre, the flesh and corpus, the dance and jingle- could do nothing to revive what the cemetery had induced in me, ice and gloom in the centre of my being.
But, it was more than that- when jazz is uprooted from the dark and smoky intimacy of a bar in downtown New Orleans and transported to the pristine and sanitized stage at the Barbican, it loses something vital; it goes cold and mechanical. It dies slowly.
Here too, at the Lido, these naked bodies prancing about, divorced sex and sensuality from eroticism and lust. The loss was of the primordial and primeval, the will to mate. This aboriginal fundamental instinct was replaced with a gaze that was empty, that did not long after, that did not desire but rather merely watched a spectacle.
At the end of the evening I returned to Hotel Raspail by the Metro. The stations at past midnight had started to fill with the homeless settling in for the night. An underground city of the dispossessed.
Photos by Jan and Femi Oyebode
It snowed, without stopping, for over nine hours. That was a number of years ago. Today it has rained all day. Then, the streets were empty and an unusual silence sat where the car tyres normally swished by. It was white everywhere. Although it was nighttime, the air was bright and clear, silvery blue, and every leaf and branch was frozen still, immobilized as in a picture.
We sat in front of a log fire, working, curtains drawn, wood smoke and ash in the air. This was a brief spell, a cold snap, and the picture was sharp and clean, not yet the slush brown of melting snow.
That morning our sitting room was bathed in light. It faced the early morning sun and on a day that was crystal clear, the sun shone like a strong beam of light and the room was ablaze with a brilliance that was at once liquid and hard.
The focal painting at the north wall of our sitting room is a market scene, colorful with dazzling yellows, reds and pinks that flourish like petals but are really scarves or headgears. Many of the women, in the painting, carry umbrellas and their goods or baskets are tin or brass bowls on the floor beside them. It was as if the light that flowed into our room flowed straight through into this scene in Lagos, a Mavua Lessor painting.
The log fire was burning in our fireplace. The flames were wrapping their tongues round a slender log, kissing and licking it and then dancing upwards, pointing towards the chimney. Odd and infrequent flakes of red hot ash flickered and died as suddenly as they rose. A low hum, and a quiet swirl of air, and the crackling and snapping sound of burning wood intermingled to say what couldn’t be said in words- It is hot, it is heartwarming, a hearth encloses the feeling of life, of joy, of closeness and family.
That morning, a new, previously unknown creaking of the floorboards started in a corner of the bedroom. It was surprising. That corner had never, previously, shown any inclination to draw attention to itself in 10 years. Usually, the floorboards underneath the radiator creaked as it stretched its length and width, pushing against the joists, limbering to the task of supporting our feet as we woke up to another morning. Then, there would be the low, thrumming, that rumble of the heater as the boiler started, far in the undergrowth of the house. But, this morning it was an alien creaking sound, perhaps of ghosts or spirits visiting, perhaps it was our own presence well ahead of schedule moving about whilst we lay in bed. Who knows?
The wall behind the head post of the bed separates us from our next-door neighbor. At the unearthly and magical hour of 3 in the morning, strange whirring noises, machine-like, buzzed (not exactly), more like a rotatory metallic sound came forth. What could this noise be? Doors opened and shut and then the lavatory flushed. The first time we heard this noise, we wondered whether it was a drill. Could our neighbor be a DIY fanatic, waking far before dawn to fit a picture hook or hang a mirror? But, the noise that had gone on for over 5 years, with no plausible explanation, suddenly ceased.
This same neighbour woke to start his motorbike at 4 in the morning for a ride that lasted 10 minutes at most, if that. Was he a drug pusher taking delivery or delivering? Was he an insomniac? Was he a spy, of the old school, making a drop? And the drilling noise, the clanking, the flushing of lavatories, what mysterious nocturnal activities did they signify? He has now changed from a motorbike to rattling the chains of a pushbike at the same unearthly hour (why exactly unearthly?), for the same brief, inexplicable ride before dawn.
The trace of imagination in the wake of snow arches upwards and inwards fueled by the warm fires of the hearth.
Photos by Jan Oyebode
Last Friday I attended a diwaniya. This was a male only gathering. My host, Ahmed, held irregular diwaniyas, inviting his friends round to his home. He told me that diwaniyas can be political but his were social in nature.
When I arrived there were already 6 or 7 men there. I took my shoes off and went into the diwan. The seats were against three sides of the wall of the room. I was introduced to each person, in turn, and shook hands with them. I noticed that when other guests arrived depending, I suppose, on the closeness or depth of friendship there was an exchange of kissing on each side and once again as appropriate.
Arabic coffee was served by an elderly Pakistani or Indian servant, a small man with greying hair, oiled and smoothed back. He sat with an impassive face, avoiding any direct eye contact, showing an inscrutability that spoke either of an indifference to the subject matter being discussed or perhaps pretended to an absence of spirit. First dates, then the most sparing of coffee, tribute to the toxicity of the drink. The usual manners were waived for me. I did not have to wiggle the top of the cup to indicate that I no longer wished for further cups! I simply cut through the air emphatically, as if saying off with his head! That seemed to say it clearly enough.
Then tea. Not mint tea but just tea in another small cup. This was sipped leisurely. Afterwards we were invited to join our host on the floor for fruits displayed in two bowls: oranges, tangerines, bananas, grapes and plums. More people arrived but now we did not stand up to greet them, it was not the order of things. My ageing joints had enough trouble sitting crossed legged on the floor, it would have been trying to keep standing and sitting.
Diwaniyas are banned in the Empty Quarter, for fear that they would turn into political events. Apparently they have been preserved at their purest form here. Every district, tribe, etc have their own diwans and hold regular diwaniyas. Sometimes the topics are strictly set as in an agenda and adhered to. Politics happens in these settings.
One of the guests, a young medical student talked about how he had lost interest in studying, in reading. He had decided to seek an administrative post once his medical studies were over. I had never met such loss of drive and enthusiasm. Apparently a lot of the youngsters feel this way. To be burnt out even before you’ve really embarked on life. To be bored, indifferent, without ambition, was this ennui?
Russian novels of the late 19th century have characters like this. Chekhov is full of these men from the gentry who lead dissolute lives, who have no ambition, no beliefs, no desire to achieve anything. I had imagined that it was a symptom of a serf economy. But maybe the the Empty Quarter has a serf economy, tremendously undeserved wealth and dependence upon an army of servants.
This ostentatious wealth coupled with the absence of need to work in order to live well probably serves as the ground for listlessness. A pernicious disease of be spirit that strikes at the core of the person, killing off the spring well of desire and resourcefulness. This young man’s revelation troubled me for a few days afterwards. It seemed to say our environments determine our inner spirit!
In Chekhov’s The Story of a Nobody, this young man reminded me most of Gruzin
a long-haired blond with bad eyesight who wore gold spectacles. I can remember his long, pale fingers, like those of a pianist; and in his figure as a whole there was something of the musician, of the virtuoso. In orchestras such figures play the first violin. He had a cough and suffered from migraines and generally seemed sickly and weak. At home he was probably undressed and dressed like a child…His attitude to work and to his moves from one post to another was exceptionally frivolous, and when people talked in his presence about ranks, awards, salaries, he would give a good-natured smile…He was a flaccid character, lazy to the point of indifference to himself, drifting with the current who knows where and why. Wherever he was led he would go.
I hadn’t thought that I would ever meet a Gruzin in real life or Ulrich from Musil’s The Man Without Qualities. Musil’s Ulrich was like my young man too-
”Give a fellow a totally free hand and he will soon run his head into a wall out of sheer confusion.” Or this: “A man who can have anything he wants will soon be at a loss as to what to wish for.” Ulrich repeated these sayings to himself with great enjoyment. Their hoary wisdom appeared to him as an extraordinary new thought. For a man’s possibilities, plans, and feelings must first be hedged in by prejudices, traditions, obstacles, and barriers of all sorts, like a lunatic in his straightjacket, and only then can whatever he is capable of doing have perhaps some value, substance and staying power.
Yet, I was surrounded by conviviality at the diwaniya. Even my young man without qualities took his estrangement seriously, examined it like a newly discovered archaeological object that had landed at his feet, prodded it and measured it, took a scan of its dimensions and inner structure but remained baffled, thinking ‘How have I come to this?’
Might the diwaniya not simply be ‘the impractical room that’s devoid of content’ that modernity fashions everywhere to be occupied by the emptiness lurking beneath the weave of clothing that masquerades as man?
Photos by Femi Oyebode