Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

17 OCTOBER, 2013

The Prescient Poem 10-Year-Old Anne Frank Penned in Her Schoolmate’s Friendship Book

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“For-get-me-not.”

Long before Facebook, young people exchanged musings on life in friendship books (abbreviated, amusingly enough, as FBs) — small booklets or hand-bound pamphlets, also known as poetry albums, which a person would pass around for friends and penpals to fill with verses and inspirational quotes. This shared journal was a kind of primitive cross between Tumblr and Facebook — yet another example of vintage versions of modern social media. In the Netherlands, these booklets were known as pöesiealbums and were especially popular among schoolgirls.

In The Secret Museum (public library) — which also gave us Van Gogh’s never-before-seen sketchbooks and the surprisingly dark story of how the Nobel Prize was bornMolly Oldfield unearths a friendship book entry by none other than Anne Frank, who penned a short verse in her friend Juultje Ketellapper’s poetry album in June of 1939, a couple of weeks after Anne’s tenth birthday.

Anne Frank's entry in Juultje Ketellapper's friendship book

On the third page of the book, Anne glued a photograph of herself, then inscribed each corner of the page with “For-get-me-not.” On page four, she wrote her short poem:

Dear Juultje,

What shall I write here?
Wait, Dear Juul, I have an idea:
Good health and all the best!
Be good be full of zest,
And whatever fate may be divining,
Remember every cloud has a silver lining.

In memory of your friend
Anne Frank

Anne Frank's tenth birthday, 1939. Anne is the second girl from the left, and Juultje the fifth.

Oldfield ponders:

I could imagine Anne sticking in that photograph herself — that same fun, expressive face, now famous — then carefully writing her words into her friend’s book. Her writing was very neat.

It was a time when Jews were still treated largely on par with Amsterdam’s non-Jewish citizens — a time when it was possible for a child as bright and joyful as Anne to have many friends, both Jewish and not, and to inhabit her childhood with the beautiful buoyancy of trusting the future stretched wide open with hope and promise. The poem is thus at once optimistic and crushingly ominous in its prescience of what that future, so grimly different from her childhood hope, held for Anne.

Anne Frank's bedroom

While it’s hard — morally repugnant, even — to consider anything about Anne’s tragedy a “silver lining,” the closest we get to such consolation is her enduring legacy, preserved thanks to her famous, existentially indispensable diary. In it, with equally heartbreaking prescience, she writes:

You’ve known for a long time that my greatest wish is to be a journalist and, later on, a famous writer.

And if anyone had the right — the desperate urgency — to seek such a “silver lining,” it was Anne’s father, Otto, who was the only surviving member of the family and who honored his daughter’s wish by bringing her diary to life with a wish of his own:

I hope Anne’s book will have an effect on the rest of your life so that, insofar as possible in your own circumstances, you will work for unity and peace.

Photographs from The Secret Museum, courtesy of Molly Oldfield / Harper Collins

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14 OCTOBER, 2013

Celebrated Political Theorist Hannah Arendt on How Bureaucracy Fuels Violence

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“The rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.”

“Every man has a right over his own life and war destroys lives that were full of promise,” Freud wrote to Einstein in their little-known correspondence on war and human nature.

In her indispensable 1970 book On Violence (public library), the celebrated German-American political theorist Hannah Arendt (October 14, 1906–December 4, 1975) considers the evolving role of warfare in the context of the twentieth century. Writing a generation after the Atomic Age and at time when the threat of biological weapons was just beginning to penetrate our collective conscience, her meditation is all the more poignant and timely half a century later, in the age of drones and WMDs and all the political negotiations that surround them.

Arendt writes:

This century has become, as Lenin predicted, a century of wars and revolutions, hence a century of that violence which is currently believed to be their common denominator. There is, however, another factor in the present situation which, though predicted by nobody, is of at least equal importance. The technical development of implements of violence has now reached the point where no political goal could conceivably correspond to their destructive potential or justify their actual use in armed conflict. Hence, warfare — since times immemorial the final merciless arbiter in international disputes — has lost much of its effectiveness and nearly all of its glamor. “The apocalyptic” chess game between the superpowers, that is, between those that move on the highest plane of our civilization, is being played according to the rule: “if either ‘wins’ it is the end of both.” Moreover the game bears no resemblance to whatever war games preceded it. Its “rational” goal is mutual deterrence, not victory.

She adds:

It seems symbolic of this all-pervading unpredictability that those engaged in the perfection of the means of destruction have finally brought about a level of technical development where their aim, namely warfare, is on the point of disappearing altogether.

But one of Arendt’s most prescient points has to do with the burden of bureaucracy as a trigger for social unrest:

The greater the bureaucratization of public life, the greater will be the attraction of violence. In a fully developed bureaucracy there is nobody left with whom one could argue, to whom one could present grievances, on whom the pressures of power could be exerted. Bureaucracy is the form of government in which everybody is deprived of political freedom, of the power to act; for the rule by Nobody is not no-rule, and where all are equally powerless we have a tyranny without a tyrant.

Bureaucracy in Siberia, from ‘Bureaucratics,’ photographer Jan Banning's portraits of bureaucrats around the world. Click image for full series.

Considering other theorists’ definitions of power as “the instinct of domination” driven by the urge “to command and to be obeyed,” Arendt argues bureaucracy is its greatest aberration:

These definitions coincide with the terms which, since Greek antiquity, have been used to define the forms of government as the rule of man over man—of one or the few in monarchy and oligarchy, of the best or the many in aristocracy and democracy, to which today we ought to add the latest and perhaps most formidable form of such dominion, bureaucracy, or the rule by an intricate system of bureaux in which no men, neither one nor the best, neither the few nor the many, can be held responsible, and which could be properly called the rule by Nobody. Indeed, if we identify tyranny as the government that is not held to give account of itself, rule by Nobody is clearly the most tyrannical of all, since there is no one left who could even be asked to answer for what is being done. It is this state of affairs which is among the most potent causes for the current world-wide rebellious unrest.

On Violence remains a must-read. Complement it with Susan Sontag on the violence of photography, then revisit Freud and Einstein’s letters on violence and human nature.

Portrait of Hannah Arendt (1944) courtesy of the Estate of Fred Stein

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11 OCTOBER, 2013

How Virginia Woolf’s Orlando Subverted Censorship and Revolutionized the Politics of Lesbian Love in 1928

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A beautiful fusion of the tools of science fiction, the feats of feminism, and the polemics of homosexuality.

“Much preferring my own sex, as I do,” Virginia Woolf wrote in a letter to a friend in the 1920s, “[I] intend to cultivate women’s society entirely in the future. Men are all in the light always: with women you swim at once into the silent dusk.” As her exquisite love letters to and from Vita Sackville-West tell us, Woolf made good on her intention — but nowhere does her lesbian sensibility come more vibrantly alive than in her novel Orlando: A Biography (public library), published on October 11, 1928. A parodic fantasy-biography of a young hero who adventures across three centuries and changes genders, the novel is based on Vita’s life and work; her son, Nigel Nicholson, famously called it “the longest and most charming love letter in literature, in which [Virginia] explores Vita, weaves her in and out of the centuries, tosses her from one sex to the other, plays with her, dresses her in furs, lace and emeralds, teases her, flirts with her, drops a veil of mist around her.”

Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Lisa Congdon for our Reconstructionists project. Click image for details.

In an essay on Orlando from the altogether fantastic 1997 anthology Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings (public library), Cornell’s Leslie Kathleen Hankins writes:

Orlando came out of the closet as a lesbian text in the 1970s and remains out as critics continue to discover and celebrate its subversive, pervasive, and persuasive lesbian strategies. The complex and witty lesbian text plays an elaborate game of hide and seek with the reader and the censor, teasing with taunts: “What can we suppose the women do when they seek out each other in society?”

More than anything, Hankins argues, the novel mocks “compulsory heterosexuality” and challenges homophobia in an age decades before common society would come to accept same-sex love and nearly a century before the law would. In this way, rather than making explicit statements about censorship like so many famous authors have done, Woolf chooses instead to tease and taunt the censor with her literary magic wand, which she uses, more than anything, as an empathic tool. Consider this seemingly simple, infinitely evocative passage:

As all Orlando’s loves had been women, now, through the culpable laggardry of the human frame to adapt itself to convention, though she herself was a woman, it was still a woman she loved; and if the consciousness of being of the same sex had any effect at all, it was to quicken and deepen those feelings which she had had as a man.

Hankins notes:

With this simple, understated passage, Woolf pulls a fast one on the censor, creating a radical text that enables readers to repudiate homophobia and experience lesbian desire.

Cover of the first edition of Orlando, 1928

But the novel, Hankins cautions, isn’t only a lesbian text — it is a lesbian feminist one, a combination that comes with its own singular rewards and “opens up fascinating networks of artistry and agency in the novel.” More than that, it bespeaks Woolf’s brave opposition to the era’s anti-feminist undercurrents of queer male culture. Hankins then revises Vita’s son’s famous proclamation and elaborates on the broader implications:

Throughout the novel, Woolf brings feminism squarely into the queer realm by confronting the sexually ambiguous protagonist with this/her own complicity in the misogynist sex/gender system and by encouraging a feminist conversion experience. … By tying lesbian erotics to feminist politics, Woolf seduces non-feminist lesbianism. We may reclaim Orlando as the longest and most charming lesbian feminist love letter in literature, recognizing its narrative strategies as specific responses to the heterosexist censorship and non-feminist gay and lesbian cultures of Woolf’s day.

The complex text of Orlando is a letter with multiple dueling addressees, addressed not only to Woolf’s “common reader” but lovingly to Vita (the lesbian lover), mockingly to the censor (intent on banning lesbian love), and polemically to straight, gay, and lesbian readers — and the tension between the addressees provides much of the wit, delight, and power of the novel.

To be sure, Woolf didn’t shy from engaging with the politics of censorship directly. When Radclyffe Hall’s seminal lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, released several months before Orlando, was challenged and Hall was put on trial for obscenity less than a month after Orlando’s release, Virginia was eager to testify in Hall’s defense and signed a petition — decades before Facebook had rendered those moot exercises in personal guilt-alleviation — on the deadly effects of censorship for writers. Her most powerful stance against censorship, however, was Orlando itself. Hankins writes:

Woolf’s lesbian signatures, messages, and strategies were shaped by the brooding presence of the censor, for no lesbian writer in 1928 was immune from the perils of censorship. … She lampoons the censors and censorship trials in her outrageous mock masque trial and sex change at the centerpiece of Orlando. … Placing Woolf’s strategies in Orlando within the censoring climate of her day reveals the text as both an accommodation to censorship and a profoundly witty and powerful critique of censorship.

In a strange and wonderful way, Orlando plays with possible realities and challenges social impossibilities in a way that science fiction so frequently and so deftly does, rendering Woolf’s novel an unsung masterpiece of the genre. Though Hankins doesn’t touch on this directly, she captures the essence of such a comparison beautifully:

In a brilliant rhetorical coup, Woolf chose to spotlight the various strategies for avoiding the censor, making these options and strategies the topic and the focal point of her book. Was it necessary to hide lesbian love? Well then, turn the novel into a rollicking game of hide and seek! Did censorship require that lesbian love be interrupted? Well, then turn the tables and make a game of interrupting heterosexual love throughout the book! Was a sex change necessary to provide the appropriate heterosexual coupling of boy girl boy girl? Well then, make the compulsory sex change the centerpiece of the novel! Turning compulsory heterosexuality into a carnival of Eros, Woolf toys with the options by using the sex change subversively rather than for protective coloration. She draws attention to the constructed nature of the sexuality and gender of her protagonist and torments the censor with daring suggestions of cross-sex desire — all the while demurely obeying the dictates of censorship. In cheeky defiance of the censor, Woolf complies with the letter of the law while outrageously demolishing the spirit of the law. Her deft targeting and teasing of the censor seems to me the most radical and daring choice because it renders farcical — and thereby critiques and disrupts — compulsory heterosexuality and censorship per se.

And yet, despite all its implications for feminist theory and lesbian history, Orlando remains, above all, a love letter. On the day of its publication, Vita received a package containing not only the printed book, but also Virginia’s original manuscript, bound specifically for her in Niger leather and engraved with her initials on the spine.

Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings is fantastic in its entirety — highly recommended.

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