On May 25, 1994, president Nelson Mandela addressed the newly formed democratic parliament of South Africa, and read a poem by Ingrid Jonker, 'The child who was shot dead by soldiers in Nyanga' (1960).
Here is the historical footage (in an excerpt from the documentary 'Korreltjie niks is my dood'), and the full text of the poem...
The child is not dead
the child raises his fists against his mother
who screams Africa screams the smell
of freedom and heather
in the locations of the heart under siege
The child raises his fists against his father
in the march of the generations
who scream Africa scream the smell
of justice and blood
in the streets of his armed pride
The child is not dead
neither at Langa nor at Nyanga
nor at Orlando nor at Sharpeville
nor at the police station in Philippi
where he lies with a bullet in his head
The child is the shadow of the soldiers
on guard with guns saracens and batons
the child is present at all meetings and legislations
the child peeps through the windows of houses and into the hearts of mothers
the child who just wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga is everywhere
the child who became a man treks through all of Africa
the child who became a giant travels through the whole world
Without a pass
In an age when techno-utopian visions seem to have become America's most successful export product, we might do well to turn to Father Brown for a sanity check. Always one to modestly and benignly debunk his fellow man's delusions, G.K. Chesterton's endearing, rational priest-detective is here confronted with a man who believes in something called a Psychometric Machine - an early lie detector - to discover a murderer.
The story, titled 'The Mistake of the Machine' (1914), is almost a century old.
"I reckon you'll be shocked," replied Greywood Usher, "as I know you don't cotton to the march of science in these matters. I am given a good deal of discretion here, and perhaps take a little more than I'm given; and I thought it was an excellent opportunity to test that Psychometric Machine I told you about. Now, in my opinion, that machine can't lie."
"No machine can lie," said Father Brown; "nor can it tell the truth."
"It did in this case, as I'll show you," went on Usher positively. "I sat the man in the ill-fitting clothes in a comfortable chair, and simply wrote words on a blackboard; and the machine simply recorded the variations of his pulse; and I simply observed his manner. (...) Isn't that better evidence than a lot of gabble from witnesses -- the evidence of a reliable machine?"
"You always forget," observed his companion, "that the reliable machine always has to be worked by an unreliable machine."
"Why, what do you mean?" asked the detective.
"I mean Man," said Father Brown, "the most unreliable machine I know of. I don't want to be rude; and I don't think you will consider Man to be an offensive or inaccurate description of yourself. You say you observed his manner; but how do you know you observed it right? You say the words have to come in a natural way; but how do you know that you did it naturally? How do you know, if you come to that, that he did not observe your manner? Who is to prove that you were not tremendously agitated? There was no machine tied on to your pulse."
"I tell you," cried the American in the utmost excitement, "I was as cool as a cucumber."
"Criminals also can be as cool as cucumbers," said Brown with a smile. "And almost as cool as you."
Read the whole story: 'The Mistake of the Machine'.
From an oilfield boomtown documentary that is also a sims game, to a crowdsourced music video that makes your cursor part of a swarm - this year's Doclab program at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam showed that 'interactive reality' has matured to the point where it's the idea and story that count and not the fact that you can click on it.
To be sure, there are still plenty of experiments exploring the possibilities of new technology - such as Arcade Fire / Chrome piece 'Just a Reflektor', which creates an interactive experience by connecting your phone to your computer screen, and Bot & Dolly's 'Box', a robot performance exploring projection-mapping on moving surfaces.
But the most interesting projects are those that curb their fascination for technology to let the story take center stage. The three examples below also show what happens when documentary crossbreeds with a variety of other genres. Their interactivity is really the only common denominator.
'Fort McMoney' is a live unfolding, interactive documentary on an epic scale about the Canadian oilfields near the town of Fort McMurray. Investigating the influence of the oil industry on this modern boomtown, whose social and ecological fabric is stretched to tearing point by the influx of oildiggers from all over the world, the documentary let's you explore the town and meet its inhabitants. But it also let's you in on a series of political debates that, while locally framed, clearly have global relevance. Where this project really gets big (and perhaps a little too big for its own good) is that the results of the weekly user referendums are visualized in an aimated town simulation, creating a kind of parallel reality. Very interesting to immerse yourself in, if you have the time.
'Type:Rider' is a video game that traces the history of typography, with each level exploring a well-known font, from classics like Garamond, Futura and Helvetica to the infamous Comic Sans. Beautifully designed and very playable, the game also includes written chapters on each of the fonts, and while probably not everyone will bother with this educational aspect of the project, 'Type:Rider's strength is in the way it employs gameplay itself to evoke a great and often underappreciated part of our cultural history.
'Do Not Touch' is Moniker's video for Light Light, the collaboration of Dutch bands zZz and Saelors. (Incidentally, zZz already have a track record of great videos, including 2008's 'Running with the Beast'.) In what Moniker describes as "a celebration of the nearing end of the computer cursor", this web-based video tracks your mouse movements across a series of fun tasks and shows the aggregate of all visitors' cursors in one great swarm. This humorous and playful project, using inventive yet fairly simple interactivity, offers a great example of crowdsourced interaction, creating a video that continually evolves with each new viewer. It also makes the by definition individual experience of operating your mouse into a crowded phenomenon that behaves with an uncanny group instinct.
This was the harvest of two live screenings earlier this week, 'Playing with Reality' and 'The Age of the Interface', but the Doclab website contains many more projects.
'Salinger' is the kind of documentary you have to be glad the famous writer didn't live to see. The sensational tone, bombastic music and papparazzi zoom lenses all add to an uncomfortable invasion of J.D. Salinger's literary legacy - which is conveniently reduced to 'troubled genius' and 'we have a right to know what's in the safe'.
You could also argue the other way, that 'Salinger' tells the important story of a cultural obsession, America's paradoxical relationship with literary rite of passage 'Catcher in the Rye' (1951), which both held up a mirror to a phony society and became the professed inspiration for several acts of senseless violence. The film indeed epitomizes this obsession, but nowhere does it manage to reflect on it, as most of the interviewees are far too busy recounting their own little adventure stalking the troubled genius.
However, the documentary, which showed at IDFA this week, does make some intriguing claims about new Salinger books to be published starting in 2015, providing a first answer to the long-standing mystery of what the author had been working on since his last publication in the 1960s up to his death in 2010.
This half century of reclusive writing would, according to the filmmakers' unidentified sources, include new material about Holden Caulfield and a chronicle of the Glass family, as well as works dealing with Salinger's experiences in WWII and a religious manual on Vedanta Hinduism.
Now that's something to look forward to, but it doesn't mean you need to see the film: this article tells you all you need to know.
Update: And this article, reporting three stories leaked online, including a prequel to 'The Catcher in the Rye' titled 'The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls'.
A chance discovery, Norwegian band The White Birch, who named themselves after a Codeine album. Their 2006 album 'Come Up For Air' would probably be labelled chamber pop, with melodious, melancholic songs revealing a fragile beauty. The album cover reflects the music rather wonderfully.
The quiet atmosphere of 'Come Up For Air' and its crystalline yet intimate production recall Talk Talk, while the slow-moving songs and male-female duets remind of Mojave 3's 'Ask Me Tomorrow'.
Album highlights include 'Your Spain', 'Seer Believer', 'Stand Over Me' and 'The Astronaut'.
Despite the long tail we were promised, this one's hard to find. But well worth seeking out!
In his recently discussed poem 'November', J.C. Bloem describes the peculiar Dutch light of this month of rain and gloomy fog as "ongekleurd namiddaglicht", literally "colorless late afternoon light". So what does this light look like? It seems impossible to photograph in any evocative way because it would just look grey and, well, colorless.
Two years ago I posted some shots of November fog in the polder. Here are a few more attempts...
To be fair, there are also some beautiful November days, when the light is clear and crystalline, and the sun sets in a slow, deep burning of color...
(Photos taken near Kokengen - on different days.)
To start off November in suitably stoic fashion, here is J.C. Bloem's poem 'November' - a classic in Dutch literature. From its famously gloomy opening line (how much more dreary does it get: "it's raining and it is November"!), it proceeds with utter resignation to describe how age and the habit of life, as Pessoa would say, slowly force us to submit to the dull march of time, until even the memory of youthful dreams has faded and only an empty eternity remains.
Is it really that bad? Well, yes, this is Holland, it's raining and it is November...
It's raining and it is November:
Autumn lays siege now to the heart
That sadly, though more wont than ever,
Endures its secret pains apart.
And in the room, where resignation
Sees daily life pass as it may,
From streets that speak of desolation
A bleak light falls at close of day.
The years pass by but never alter,
The difference will soon be gone
Between dim memories that falter
And what is lived and is to come.
Lost are the ways I knew of gaining
Release from time in earlier days;
Always November, always raining,
Always this empty heart, always.
Translation by John Irons. (It seems there should be another translation, in an English collection of Bloem's poems, but I haven't been able to find this.) Anyway, here is the Dutch for comparison:
Het regent en het is november;
Weer keert het najaar en belaagt
Het hart, dat droef, maar steeds gewender,
Zijn heimelijke pijnen draagt.
En in de kamer, waar gelaten
Het daaglijks leven wordt verricht,
Schijnt uit de troosteloze straten
Een ongekleurd namiddaglicht.
De jaren gaan zoals zij gingen,
Er is allengs geen onderscheid
Meer tussen dove erinneringen
En wat geleefd wordt en verbeid.
Verloren zijn de prille wegen
Om te ontkomen aan de tijd;
Altijd november, altijd regen,
Altijd dit lege hart, altijd.
Bloem's strict meter and rhyme, along with his precise, chiselled style, make this poem devillish to translate, but Irons renders it very skillfully, keeping the rhyme and beautifully conveying its relentless cadence. Let's have a closer look at some of the poem's complexities and those almost-certainly-impossible-to-translate nuances.
As said, the opening line is classic Dutch dreariness. But the second line immediately exacerbates the situation. By starting with "weer" ("again"), it emphasizes the endless cycle of the seasons and introduces the poem's theme: the relentless passage of time, of getting older and resigned to the dreariness. With this single word, it's not just raining and November, it's far worse: it's raining and November yet again. The interval between Novembers is getting shorter and shorter, and soon (at the end of the poem) it will be "always November, always raining". So it seems essential to include this word, in favor of "now" and with as much emphasis as possible, for example like this:
Autumn again besieges the heart
The second quatrain ends on a quintessentially Dutch, painterly description of the November light: "een ongekleurd namiddaglicht" (literally, "a colorless late afternoon light"). It is something that anyone who has spent a winter in Holland will recognize (and abhor), the glassy, desaturated quality of the daylight that never seems to quite wax beyond twilight. This light drains the world (the room, the heart) of color, both the color of summer and of youth, and the result is worse than the blues or even the mean reds.
To describe this light as "bleak" is certainly fitting, but perhaps something stronger is called for? Interestingly Irons, in a detailed discussion (pdf) of his translation, had "wan" in an earlier version but replaced it with "bleak".
The replacement of 'wan' by 'bleak' is an attempt to characterise the late-afternoon light better. The word 'wan' is a bit old fashioned and has 'sickly' connotations, whereas 'bleak' has a touch of 'the prospects are bleak' about it.
Ideally, however, the light is not just bleak or wan, but includes a rendering of "namiddaglicht", something that English doesn't do as readily as Germanic languages, but could be something like "a bleak close of day light". Except, of course, that this messes up the rhyme and the whole stanza would need to be revised.
Another solution, or compromise, would be to emphasize the colorlessness of the light in favor of "close of day", resulting in:
Shines a colorless light of day
The third quatrain poses translation challenges in some archaic Dutch words. First there is "allengs" ("gradually", "progressively") which conveys the creeping change, the slow fading of all difference between past and future. Irons' "will soon be" sounds like a good solution. The stanza then ends on the verb "verbeid" (related to "abide", a combination of waiting, bearing and staying), which would ideally be rendered as "abided", rhyme permitting. To make matters more complex, the third and fourth quatrain share the rhyme on "eid/ijd", linking "verbeid" ("abided") with "tijd" ("time") and "altijd" ("always") - which is another way of summing up the whole poem in three words. Irons has wisely ignored this added nuance.
Or does the line need something weightier than "to come" for "verbeid"? A possibility, fitting the near-rhyme of Irons' version, would be:
And what is lived and to be borne
And then, in the final quatrain, Bloem delivers the death blow that we knew was coming from the beginning. The stress on the first word, "verloren" ("lost") echoes the earlier "weer" ("again") and creates a second pivot point in the poem. What was once, before November came, a whole year full of color and the possibility of temporary release from time's yoke, has now become a permanent colorless November, a final and inevitable resignation to the dullness of time.
The closing lines of 'November' are so simple (no translation difficulties here) and epigrammatic - they could have served as Bloem's epitaph.
Always November, always raining,
Always this empty heart, always.
Again we ask, is it really that bad? In Bloem's unflinching, dark worldview, yes. Man is simply not equipped to win the battle against time. But there may be consolation, of a sort, in his clear, eloquent formulation of the loss, in merely being there.
"And then," he states in 'De gelatene' ('The Stoic'), "it could have been so much worse."
For more Bloem in English, see these translations by Irons (pdf) and another five poems online. Both include what is probably his most well-known poem, 'Dapperstreet' ('De Dapperstraat').
Ryszard Kapuściński has often been called the "reporter of the century", the 20th century that is, for his unique brand of literary travel reportage. 'Travels with Herodotus' ('Podróże z Herodotem', 2004) was his one of his last books, a thoughtful and inspiring homage to the world's first travel reporter, Herodotus.
The first to realize the world's essential multiplicity was Herodotus. "We are not alone," he tells Greeks in his opus, and to prove this he undertakes his journeys to the ends of the earth. "We have neighbors, they in turn have their neighbors, and all together we populate a single planet."
Since the 1970s Polish journalist Kapuściński wrote a string of books, reporting from all over the world, including Africa ('The Emperor', 'The Shadow of the Sun'), the Middle-East ('Shah of Shahs'), the Soviet Union ('Imperium') and Central America ('The Soccer War'). His almost novelistic approach to reporting journalism epitomized a new genre of 'literary reportage', with other practitioners like VS Naipaul and, in Dutch, Lieve Joris. Despite revelations after his death that he may at times have taken too many literary liberties with his factual material, Kapuściński's books still stand as incredibly insightful accounts of historical transformation, connecting the sweeping political shifts of the 20th century with personal stories - indeed showing that political reality is always made up of a rich and complex tapestry of personal histories.
In 'Travels with Herodotus' Kapuściński looks back on his own career as a travelling reporter, from his first bewildering assignments in India and China to later adventures in revolution-torn Africa. And he recalls how before his first journey beyond the Polish borders - and beyond the Iron Curtain, which in the 1950s was in the process of being raised - he received a gift which was to become a lifelong companion on his travels: a copy of 'The Histories' by Herodotus of Halicarnassus, written two and a half millennia ago.
Led by his fascination for this book, Kapuściński's primary journey in 'Travels with Herodotus' is in time, as he retraces Herodotus' travels, analyzes his reports and muses on the methods, intentions and lasting legacy of the man he considers to have been "the first globalist".
In the world of Herodotus, the only real repository of memory is the individual. In order to find out that which has been remembered, one must reach this person. If he lives far away, one has to go to him, to set out on a journey. And after finally encountering him, one must sit down and listen to what he has to say - to listen, remember, perhaps write it down. That is how reportage begins; of such circumstances it is born.
Written in the fifth century BC, 'The Histories', to put it simply, invented history. (The Greek word 'historia' translates as inquiry, research, or as Kapuściński prefers, investigation. It is where our word history originates.) Never before had anyone surveyed the known world methodically, researching its peoples, their customs, beliefs and origins. From Homer's mythological odyssey to Herodotus' factfinding missions was a stunning leap.
Specifically, Herodotus set out to explain how the great conflict of his time, between the Greeks and the Persians - and in a wider context, between Europe and Asia - came into being. For Kapuściński the encounter, or clash, between the West and the rest of the world, particularly what used to be called the Third World, is a theme that runs through his work. Not surprisingly perhaps, as he witnessed firsthand how former European colonies the world over were wresting their independence from dying empires. He experienced how his own reception as a European in these new and often chaotic nations changed. In short, he saw how relations between peoples and cultures were fundamentally changing, and it is from this perspective that he reads Herodotus.
[Herodotus] is the first to discover the world's multicultural nature. The first to argue that each culture requires acceptance and understanding, and that to understand it, one must first come to know it. How do cultures differ from one another? Above all in their customs. Tell me how you dress, how you act, what are your habits, which gods you honor - and I will tell you who you are. Man not only creates culture, inhabits it, he carries it around within him - man is culture.
Further on he adds, in what sounds even more like a mission statement for his own work:
Herodotus is never shocked at difference, never condemns it; rather, he tries to learn about it, to understand and describe it. Difference? It serves by some paradox only to emphasize a greater oneness, speaking to its vitality and richness.
In 'The Other' (2006), a collection of lectures, Kapuściński explores the theme of the encounter with the Other in a time of globalization - a question he defines as central to the 21st century. Drawing on the philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas, among others, he pleads for an open dialogue between equal Others (as opposed to the two alternative options he sees: waging war or building walls), where the attempt at understanding becomes an ethical responsibility. Again, Herodotus serves as an archetypical model.
Traveling and encountering various tribes and peoples, Herodotus observes and records that each of them has its own history, which unfolds independently from yet parallel to other histories - in other words, that far from being one story, human history in its aggregate resembles a great cauldron whose perpetually simmering surface sees incessant collissions of innumerable particles, each moving in their own orbits, along trajectories that intersect at an infinite number of points.
Kapuściński goes into some depth retelling the stories of Darius and Xerxes, visiting the sights of their palaces and battlegrounds, and juxtaposing the Persian despotic rulers with their Greek counterparts, the city states of Athens and Sparta feuding among themselves until the eleventh hour. But by far the most interesting parts of 'Travels with Herodotus' are Kapuściński's attempts to bridge 2,500 years of history and understand how Herodotus worked - as if he were admiring a colleague working under much more difficult circumstances than he ever experienced.
It is interesting to ponder what people in those times understood by "the world." There were still no adequate maps, atlases, or globes. Ptolemy would not be born for another four centuries, Mercator not for another two millennia. It was impossible to gaze down on our planet taking a bird's-eye view (could there even have been such a concept?). One acquired geographical knowledge by becoming aware of a neighbor not of one's own people, and one passed on that knowledge orally.
And perhaps even more fundamental than the lack of geographical knowledge, Kapuściński reflects, was the pre-modern experience of time.
Herodotus discovers something else as well, namely, the multiformity of time, or, more precisely, the multiplicity of methods of measuring it. For in the old days, peasants calculated time by the seasons of the year, city dwellers by generations, the chroniclers of ancient states by the length of the ruling dynasties. How does one compare these measurements, how does one find a means of conversion or a common denominator? Herodotus wrestles with this issue constantly, searches for solutions. Accustomed to an exacting mechanical measurement, we do not realize what a problem the computation of time once presented, how much difficulty lurked therein, how many riddles and mysteries.
Imagining such basic and, to us moderns, mindboggling challenges, Kapuściński manages to bring to life Herodotus' classic work in a way that the high school history books - or indeed the laboriously translated passages from the original Greek under the stern guidance of our own Mr Crocker-Harris - never did.
Kapuściński once called his own work "literature on foot", emphasizing how the only viable method of reportage, of collecting facts and opinions about the world, is to go out and ask the people who live there. (As we enter the age of big data and desktop journalism, this basic fact is worth reiterating.) In 'Travels with Herodotus' he attempts to timetravel on foot, patiently and humbly following the steps of the man Cicero called the "Father of History", comparing his experiences to his own in the 20th century. He warns himself - and us - for the dangers of what he calls spatial and temporal provincialism, of taking one's own limited worldview, from one culture and one era, and making it all-important.
The antidote to both kinds of provincialism, of coure, is travel, seeing the world and reading the classics. Kapuściński and Herodotus make great travel companions, both humbling and inspiring.
I found gongoozle deep in the Oxford English Dictionary while I was researching The Horologicon. To gongoozle is to stare idly at a canal or watercourse. At the time, I thought it a weirdly precise and unnecessary word, but since then I've noticed gongoozlers everywhere. Walk along a riverbank or seafront on a sunny afternoon and you'll see lots of people happily gongoozling. I realised that I'd been gongoozling for years; I'd just never known the word.
Mark Forsyth's 'The Horologicon' collects "all the useful but forgotten, and obscure but necessary words" in the English language. Judging from his top 10 lost words, the book is a vocabular treasure trove with all sorts of conversational uses, like launching into an incomprehensible bdelygmia.
To snudge is to stride around as though you're terribly busy, when in fact you are doing nothing. It's particularly useful for the modern office, especially with the invention of the smartphone. You can snudge around all day without anyone realising you're checking up on the score in the Ashes.
And to sprunt, in old Scots, means "to chase girls around among the haystacks after dark," another delightfully specific verb for a timeless and universal activity.
For more linguistical pearl diving, check Forsyth's blog The Inky Fool.
Update: Here's another useful one, from Forsyth in the WSJ: ultracrepidarian, "giving opinions on subjects you know nothing about".
Some great street art spotted in Glasgow... 'Girl with magnifying glass' by Smug (note the girl's necklace - more visible here) and 'Balloon-floating taxi' by Rogue-One. 'Take what you need' fittingly anonymous.