Josna Rege

404. Colo(u)rs

In Family, Music, Nature, reflections, Words & phrases on October 22, 2017 at 5:43 pm

In Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved, set in the aftermath of slavery, the protagonist Sethe’s mother-in-law Baby Suggs (“Baby Suggs, Holy” when she was a lay preacher teaching newly freed people to love themselves), having lost just about everyone she had ever loved, gave up on people, particularly whitepeople, and spent her last days contemplating colors, one color at a time. She spent a long time on yellow.

The colors in my father’s oil paintings are rich and warm, the watercolors luminous, filling every square inch of the canvas. Migmar always brought him flowers because he loved them so much. “He is like a woman,” she would say every time, full of wonder at his passion for them. Even when he no longer had the energy to paint, he continued to derive great pleasure from just drinking them in. Taking scraps from his art studio out to the trash last week, I found a list of colors, probably a shopping list for oil paints. There were also pages and pages of elaborate color-mixing formulae and charts, bringing home to me all over again how much colors had meant to him.

I love colors too, but being a person who has derived my greatest pleasure from words, I enjoy rolling their names off my tongue (and the English spelling rolls best): Prussian blue, chrome yellow, rubine red, Havana lake, burnt umber, raw sienna, jet black, carmine. Alert to intertextuality, I mentally reference writers from Aldous Huxley (Crome Yellow) to Toni Morrison, The Rolling Stones to Donovan. Here’s the Mexican folk song  De Colores, a celebration of Nature, freedom, and unity in diversity (Spanish and Engish lyrics here).  And Donovan’s Wear Your Love Like Heaven, which, belated Hippie that I am, I continue to love despite the fact that it was coopted in an advertisement for make-up.

Colour in sky, Prussian blue
Scarlet fleece changes hue
Crimson ball sinks from view
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love)

Lord, kiss me once more
Fill me with song
Allah, kiss me once more
That I may, that I may
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love like)
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love)
La-la, la-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la

Colour sky, Havana lake
Colour sky, rose carmethene
Alizarin crimson
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love)

Lord, kiss me once more
Fill me with song
Allah, kiss me once more
That I may, that I may
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love like)
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love)
La-la, la-la-la, la-la-la, la-la-la

Can I believe what I see
All I have wished for will be
All our race proud and free
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love like)
Wear your love like heaven (wear your love)

Lord, kiss me once more
Fill me with song
Allah, kiss me once more
That I may, that I may
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love like)
Wear my love like heaven (wear my love)

Carmine.

Words need not replace things-in-themselves. Sometimes I too feel like taking to my bed and simply contemplating colours, slowly, deliciously, one at a time. But there is work to be done, and I’m not dead yet. In these times, when the light of freedom is being dimmed all over, colours are falling out of favor. Time to celebrate them all the more. In the meantime, I can sing, mix, and continue to dream, in glorious color.

Carmine.

 

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403. Free from Thought

In Media, Politics, Stories, Teaching, United States, Work, writing on September 30, 2017 at 3:22 am

The purpose of Newspeak was not only to provide a medium of expression for the world-view and mental habits proper to the devotees of Ingsoc, but to make all other modes of thought impossible.
                      George Orwell, “The Principles of Newspeak”

Newspeak and doublethink are addling our brains. Doublethink is making it increasingly difficult to discern truth from lies, fact from fiction, but Newspeak actually limits the range of ideas that it is possible for us to entertain, and as such it is even more dangerous.

George Orwell gives us an example of Newspeak in The Principles of Newspeak, an appendix to his 1949 dystopian novel Nineteen Eighty-Four (which shot up the sales charts earlier this year in the wake of President Trump’s Counselor Kellyanne Conway’s use of the term alternative facts—lies, in plain English). The word “free” was still in the Newspeak vocabulary, but only in the sense that, for example, a dog may be declared “free from lice”; it was not possible to use it in the sense of “politically free or intellectually free, since political and intellectual freedom no longer existed.” “Freedom from” was still a thing (as we say in today’s sloppy parlance), but “freedom to,” not so much—not at all, in fact.

I’ve been thinking these dismal thoughts a lot recently, especially since I’m teaching a first-year seminar on the subject of citizenship and the media,. We’re currently considering the possibilities of democratic citizenship in a “post-truth era”—with the adjective “post-truth” defined by the Oxford Dictionaries as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”  If the range of people’s thoughts is indeed being narrowed by 21st-century Newspeak, then even the most assiduous information-gathering and fact-checking is in vain, because it is not merely disregarded; it can no longer be recognized.

Talking points—or, as Urban Dictionary defines them, “political and moral signposts for the walking dead”—have had a powerful role in narrowing the range of possible thought on a subject. Disseminated by think tanks and political parties, they feed people politically and ideologically driven ideas in neat little sound bites that are repeated so many times across the news media that they become the default response, even as the people who have imbibed them ad nauseam and in turn spew them out may be unaware of the underlying ideology, believing that they are echoing their own opinions and beliefs. We have former host of The Daily Show Jon Stewart to thank for bringing the use of political talking points to our attention. Here, compiled by Stewart, are 50 talking points used on the right-wing Fox News channel—all proven to be lies after being fact-checked.

I love my students and find them intelligent, skeptical, and, with some encouragement, fully capable of independent thought; but like most of us, they are out of practice. Thanks to the Newspeak disseminated in a constant barrage of commercials and internet memes, their brains are overstimulated and, in the hurricane of flying debris of wordsimagessoundsstaticflotsamjetsam&sheerstuff, they cling to talking points as to anchors, ports in a storm. The trouble is, the media barrage makes sustained thought nigh-impossible and the talking points become substitutes for it.

What has sparked these gloomy reflections is an assignment on fake news in my first-year seminar that does not seem to be going as planned. After some reading, writing, and discussion about the role of “fake news” in the 2016 election and the role of social media in a “post-truth” era, I asked students to research and present a fake news story that went viral, was influential, and was finally exposed as a hoax. It would be both educational and fun, I thought, and the hands-on group exercise would reinforce some of the reading they had done.

Students’ initial written responses seemed to indicate that they had understood the reading. They were full of the kind of sentiments that make the professor happy because they echo her own words in the classroom: concerns about the future of democracy and the promise and pitfalls of the internet. But when students were asked to browse the reputable fact-checking sites and bring to class a selection of the most damaging fake news stories, what did they come up with? Stories that looked as if they were fresh out of the trashiest tabloids.

Mcdonald’s accused of using human meat in its burgers

Disney claims Hocus Pocus 2 is in production—a sequel at last, after 20 years.

J.K. Rowling fires off a round of anti-Trump tweets after watching a misleading video of his encounter with a handicapped child visiting the White House.

Apple Computer is charged with deliberately slowing down old iPhones so as to sell its new models.

The Daily Mail claims that an asteroid will destroy the earth.

Hardly earth-shattering stories—well, apart from the earth-shattering one. I guess I’m out of touch; students were aghast that I had never even heard of Hocus Pocus. Maybe I just need to lighten up. If we’re all going to die anyway, what does it matter whether it’s death by Twitter-induced nuclear war with North Korea or by a rogue asteroid colliding with the planet?  To quote a ‘friend’ of a ‘friend’ on Facebook when I pointed out that a compromising photo of Hillary Clinton they were all enjoying no end was doctored: “Why let the truth get in the way of a good laugh?”

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402. Land Where Our Fathers Died

In Books, Immigration, Inter/Transnational, Music, parenting, people, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on August 31, 2017 at 4:27 am

Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri’s second short-story collection, opens with an epigraph by Nathaniel Hawthorne that also provides its title:

Human nature will not flourish, any more than a potato, if it be planted and replanted, for too long a series of generations, in the same worn-out soil. My children have had other birthplaces, and, so far as their fortunes may be within my control, shall strike their roots into unaccustomed earth.  (from The Custom-House, introduction to The Scarlet Letter)

Like Hawthorne’s children, I had a different birthplace from that of my father, and my son, in turn, had a different birthplace from mine. Do I feel that, as a result, I was raised in richer, more generative soil? I was born in my mother’s city and country, but we didn’t stay there long. For much but not all of my childhood I was raised in my father’s country, though far from the red earth of his coastal home. By the time I was coming of age we had landed on a third continent, far across the the sea and home to neither of my parents, where I was forced to strike my roots into unaccustomed earth. As a result, I will constitutionally and forever question settled concepts of home, country, and belonging.

While I reject the notion that blood and soil (Blut und Boden, that hateful Nazi slogan), race and place, have some sort of mystical unity, I know from personal experience that for some people, place is much more important than for others—that while they may be able to live anywhere (for humans are almost infinitely adaptable) they can only come fully alive in the place where they were born and raised. For them that place will always and forever be home. Some lose their minds, lose their way, even end their own lives. Do we then look at them as failed transplants, as Salman Rushdie describes some of the characters in The Satanic Verses? Should they never have been wrenched from their native soil?

But then, look at Ellis, the protagonist of Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn. When she emigrates from Ireland to the United States, she is forced to leave everything that was familiar to her. There is a long, lonely period of adjustment; but then she works for independence and education, finds love, begins to make the unfamiliar familiar, to put down new roots. Returning “home”, she finds that everything is easy in some respects, seductively, romantically comfortable; yet the growth she has achieved in unaccustomed earth has developed parts of herself that ultimately mean more to her.

One must return to “blood and soil,” the sickening chant of the Nazis and White Supremacists as they marched with flaming torches through the street of Charlottesville, Virginia just three short weeks ago. Why was it so chilling? These men—they were overwhelmingly male—had come together to claim that they, the self-defined “White Race”, belonged to the soil of this country as Blacks did not, as Jews did not, as immigrants would never do; and that they were fully prepared to shed blood defending this soil against racially alien intruders. This country was theirs, they snarled, in a way that it could never be mine, that as far as their children’s fortunes lay within their control, they would strike their roots deeper into their own native soil.

I’m with Hawthorne: that soil is played out; and so is that hate-filled song. Yes, we must be prepared to fight to preserve our sacred Earth, but in this century all earth must be unaccustomed. While I hold an abiding affection for the two places on earth that nurtured my dear parents, I myself am a cosmopolitan, even though at times the word sticks a little on my tongue. I want to belong to a place, but I do not. When I see the people forced from their homes by the flooding in Texas and Louisiana, my heart goes out to them, but then I read of the death and displacement caused by the flooding, not just in Mumbai, home to many members of my family, but also throughout South Asia, including Bangladesh and Nepal, and my heart breaks its bounds again. I cannot feel for one people to the exclusion of all the others.

Commuters walking through waterlogged streets, Mumbai (Reuters)

Where does this leave me? A global citizen, facing potentially catastrophic climate change in uncertain times with my fellow earthlings. I’m grateful to my father for having showed me, at a young age and by his example, how to strike my roots into unaccustomed earth; this radical unbelonging is the condition of our age, and it is a condition that will better prepare us, not to soak the depleted soil with yet more blood, but to come together with others for our mutual survival, and that of our planet.

CODA
I once heard it said that one did not feel a sense of belonging to a place until one’s fathers had died there. Well, now my own beloved father has died here in the United States, and though I can scarcely say how I feel, it’s not exactly belonging, but rather, a renewed sense of responsibility to a place that we all must share. Here’s how another revered ancestor, Pete Seeger, put it:

To My Old Brown Earth

To my old brown earth
And to my old blue sky
I’ll now give these last few molecules of “I.”

And you who sing,
And you who stand nearby,
I do charge you not to cry. 

Guard well our human chain,
Watch well you keep it strong,
As long as sun will shine.

And this our home,
Keep pure and sweet and green,
For now I’m yours
And you are also mine

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