Bumps and grinds

Super-Infinite: The Transformations of John Donne, Katherine Rundell, Faber

Katherine Rundell describes her biography of John Donne as a work of evangelism about someone who was Shakespeare’s contemporary and was in his league. A frequent writer about animals in the London Review of Books, here she is fascinated by the unique creature that is Donne – lover, preacher, neologist, poet – and by the intensity of his poetry and sermons, that enlighten life like no other.

Like Saint Augustine, his life could be seen in two halves, though Rundell suggests that his life was more complicated than that. Like Augustine, Donne was enthusiastic for romantic love in his youth, bombastic and keen to succeed. Like Augustine, Donne converted from a minority faith (Catholicism in Donne’s case) to that of the majority, becoming a senior figure in the Church, but with his words continuing to probe facets of life, such as suicide, that others skated over.

Donne was born into a Catholic family at the time of Elizabeth’s Protestant reign. He went to war with Elizabeth’s navy, the experience staying with him as metaphorical fodder for his poetry and sermons. After his youthful lustiness, he described married life as like being in the doldrums, that area of ocean abandoned by winds where nothing happens. He studied at Oxford, and law in London, was thrown into prison because his wife was under-age. He circled the royal courts, curried favour, flattered like no-one else, eventually became dean of St Paul’s, a position as much political (and lucrative) as pastoral. (Donne, applying for the role, described it as belonging to both ‘church and state’, as indeed it did.) Rundell, not so shabby herself with the use of the occasional deft metaphor, describes his position as a ‘pinata’ that, if hit well, poured out riches. But from the pulpit Donne also searched for God, Rundell suggests, rather than extrapolating from some point of arrival, teasing out meaning and the attributes of God from the world he observed, like Augustine riveting his listeners with his restless hunger.    

He wrote inimitable love poetry, some of it decidedly odd, such as ‘The Flea’, in which Donne delights in the fact that the blood of him and his lover are intermingled in the bloodsucking insect. Rundell notes that he never shied away from, and revelled in, the earthiness of bodies, their delights and frailty, wonder and strangeness. His most famous words – ‘no man is an island’, ‘for whom the bell tolls’ – show his understanding of the interconnectedness of lives.

Samuel Johnson thought his writing was all over the place, but T S Eliot thought this was exactly his genius. His poetry kicks and staggers, bumps and grinds, the lack of fluidity drawing attention. Rundell prints in her book later pastiches of his poetry that were meant to convey something of his use of metaphor, but they are conventional and dull, further highlighting just how arresting Donne’s poetical oddness was. Later poets who tried to ‘tidy’ the poems killed them.

Rundell says Donne had a ‘hyperbolic streak’ and embodied the extremes of humanity. He described his own poetry as harsh. But, Rundell writes, this was partly to draw our attention to life, in all its complexity. He ‘took pleasure in extravagance’ – in clothes, lovemaking, describing the wonders of Creation. The hyperbole – or, better, the intensity and originality of insight – extended from the physical to the metaphysical. (Not that the two were strictly demarcated for Donne – David Edwards, another Donne biographer, observes how Donne used surprisingly fleshy language for the spiritual.) As illness took its toll, he wrote more about death, possibly to ‘turn fear into longing’. He used his pain to ready himself for eternity; Rundell suggests it knocked him into shape, in order to fit through the door to eternity – or the ‘super-infinite’, as Donne somewhat oxymoronically and characteristically hyperbolically put it.

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Matisse on the road to abstraction

I’ve been thinking about a painting by Matisse, View of Notre-Dame (1914). Actually, there are a number of views of Notre-Dame that Matisse painted at the time. The one I am thinking of is the culmination of a series. It’s a refined, abstracted image, mainly in blue tones, with a little black, the blues still marked by obvious, even hasty, brushstrokes, the towers of Notre-Dame still there, but a little hard to make out if you didn’t know the painting was of the cathedral, the foreground dominating the picture, in previous versions perhaps a little off-centre, but here the foreground dominating. The lines of street, river and bridge have been simplified to a handful of uniform black lines. One patch of green still places the large trees to the right of the cathedral. A vertical line on the right still references the window frame evident in other paintings of the same scene, echoing the way Degas would frame his paintings, as if voyeuristically, a still surprising innovation (if we put aside for a moment the way all the innovations of modernist filmmaking have made such framing seem natural).

Matisse’s painting is a nice illustration of the collision of the realist and the abstract. You could make a case for it being either, and many contemporary viewers will see it as somewhat abstracted, a panorama distilled into a fleeting glimpse or even memory. And yet this may not have been the opinion of abstract artists of the mid twentieth century, for whom abstraction was all about removing any representational reference and purifying visual art so that it referenced merely itself or at least a feeling, mood, idea, a deliberate synaesthesia, so that it wasn’t merely a reproduction of what we see gazing upon the ‘real’ world. Like de Kooning’s women Matisse’s view is hardly photorealist, but it retains a remnant of the representational. (De Kooning was criticised for this remnant, or re-insertion. Ironically, those images became his most famous.)

The tension between the realist and the antirealist is not an exclusively twentieth century phenomenon, Linda Nochlin notes in one of the essays in her Making it Modern (Thames & Hudson). Typically, she is attuned to elitisms – not just that of excluding women – here, she is writing of the experiences of the lower classes as appropriate subjects for art, bringing in the likes of Caravaggio, Courbet and the so-called Kitchen Sink Painters. In the context of her writing, the abstract has links to the heroic, classical and religious art of ages past that was not naturalistic, in the sense that it didn’t depict everyday life, especially that of the lower classes.

Where this gets interesting is that in the trajectory of twentieth century art, abstract art should seem like the natural inheritor of the developments of Impressionism, where things got a bit fuzzy, looser, and Cezanne and the Fauves took it in all sorts of interesting directions. And yet, this is not entirely the case, because the Impressionists were always going on about how their art, innovative as it was, tried to replicate the experience of seeing, and wrestled with the emerging science of optics. In other words, it strived for realism, and its subject matter tended to be the art of the everyday. I assume that this, in a funny way, gets to the heart of opposing arguments over what art is supposed to do.

Realism is about particular experience, whereas the antirealist favours the universal. (The drive for the universal and pure lies behind the architecture of Mies van der Rohe, with its lack of the recognisably site-specific.) It can be either radical or conservative. Realism these days may be seen by most people as different to high abstract art, as more accessible and less edgy. And yet Courbet, for his realistic depiction of peasants, was seen as radical. Zola et al saw realism in literature as a kind of honesty against the subterfuge of art that was selective and symbolic, a forensic, scientific art. Zola embraced the notion of realism being class-specific; snobbish critics assumed the lower classes incapable of appreciating more symbolic art. And there are parallels here to the way abstract art is viewed both from above and below, the symbolism of which being widely seen as radical and hard to ‘get’ – ‘understanding’ it a sign of artistic sophistication in the viewer (from the high viewpoint) or simply pretentious nonsense (from the low viewpoint).

For modernists, realism is ‘documentary’. The goal of abstraction is to move beyond representation of the visual. Interestingly, while this opens up possibilities, it also limits them. In the nineteenth century realism was seen as letting any old thing into a painting; the antirealist was about purity and convention, the classical. One can trace a line through Courbet, Cezanne, the Fauves, the Cubists to Abstract Expressionism, yet, equally, Ab Ex is decidedly purist and universal. Realism tried the trick of making 2D look 3D. After-all, representative painting is often talked about in terms of its cleverness, which seems to be, sometimes explicitly, the cleverness of deceiving our eyes, whereas abstract art is all about the act of painting itself, a form of honesty which flips on its head the notion that realism in art is honest.

The dichotomy is too simplified, says Nochlin. There are always currents, and things are more complex, even within one artist. She notes that in one medieval relief, commented on by Roger Fry, the angels are portrayed in a purist style, the peasants more individualised – appropriately, you would think, considering the religious reasoning behind this. Courbet’s painting of an artist in the studio (himself) seems realist, with bells on, but, says Nochlin, it also has its element of symbolism – it is making a claim about the artist in general, rather than just about the artist who is Courbet. And is an artist such as Auerbach painting and drawing particular persons, or is he, in a way, working out an almost-abstract style that doesn’t really convey the essence of a particular person or place? Where does Australian Indigenous art, with its kind-of aerial view but deep symbolism, sit in this?

Then there is the painting of Richard Diebenkorn, which moves between abstract and representational. In fact, Diebenkorn’s ‘Ocean Park’ series borrows heavily from Matisse’s Notre Dame view, but goes the whole hog, with nothing recognisably representational in the pictures, even though the series so obviously references the landscape, and the colours of the sea.

I was thinking about all this when I noticed that Jed Perl, in a recent New York Review of Books essay, makes a different point about antirealism and realism, or the abstract and the representational (one can argue about the differences between the two pairings). Whereas Matisse perhaps was moving in one direction, Perl thinks that current artists too easily think they can move in both directions, or be in two places, at once. He thinks the distinctions between the abstract and the representational, argued over ferociously, are worth arguing over, and an artist thinking they can do both is in danger of just trying on different artistic styles, making them cycling fashions. Of course, in Perl’s argument we are also in danger of getting stuck on semantics, because doesn’t abstract art ‘represent’ something anyway, even if it is the artistic process, or feelings that aren’t visual? Perl points out that Fairfield Porter said the same thing and added that realist art can be somewhat abstract in looks.

Nudes on the studio walls

Making it Modern, Linda Nochlin, Thames & Hudson

The late Linda Nochlin’s essays concern two aspects of women in art: how they are portrayed and how they make art. In this latest collection of her essays from Thames & Hudson she notes that a group portrait of Impressionists in a studio from the 1870s by Bazille, despite its innovative informality and lack of focal point, still contains all male artists, and the only women in the painting are nudes on the studio’s walls. She further notes that the Impressionists never portrayed women artists in the act of painting, unlike their male counterparts. So while the Impressionists were making progress in some quarters, and there were women painters amongst their numbers, the idea of what women could do and how they should appear in art, as distinct from men, remained. (It is arguable that this distinction, which is more than a mere distinction – more than ‘separate but equal’ – hasn’t really gone away.)

With such a deep knowledge of the history of art, Nochlin is able to notice subtleties and the impermanence of what we may think are standard ideas about art. She notes that earlier in the history of Western art, nude portrayals were generally of men. Women’s nude bodies as objects of fascination in art are a more recent development, reflecting a turn from overwhelmingly religious content. In an intriguing comparison of Pissarro and Cezanne she notes that while Cezanne’s bodies, male or female, are treated like simply objects in the landscape, therefore erasing some of the differences in the way the sexes are portrayed in painting, Pissarro tended to see women as individuals with inner lives, rather than types or objects, meaning that even his bathers are imbued with a sense of their individual personalities.

Writing about Renoir’s women she discusses what is ‘natural’ for women, in the process showing the complexity of these ideas, and their position in the context of sexual and other politics and flowering modernity. Renoir, perhaps rightly, saw the problems with women being involved in industrialisation – the exploitation involved, the extra burden on women. But in noticing this, he also fell back on ideas of a supposedly natural distinction between the sexes, and what the roles of women should be, perhaps explicit in his numerous fleshy nude bathers placed in an Edenic landscape.

In this latest collection, Nochlin is not exclusively focussing on feminist concerns, but ranging widely, making connections across genres and timescales, such as the ongoing distinction between realism and antirealism. Linking Ellsworth Kelly’s and Degas’s use of space might not make sense until Nochlin does it. While also discussing the tension between colour and drawing, as she puts it, she focusses less on Degas’s subject matter, and more on his construction of space within a painting. Construction of geometric space becomes the main point of (some of) Kelly’s work. There is also an intriguing comparison of David and Courbet, both coming out of a revolutionary milieu, but approaching it very differently – David elevating the events of the revolution to classical status, then eliding his own downfall, Courbet envisaging later revolutionary events in more pedestrian and proletarian terms, his time in prison visually represented in a self-portrait as a defiant portrait of revolutionary ideals betrayed. This visual dialogue between not just contemporaries but across the history of art makes Nochlin’s writing particularly insightful.

Birdsong in Spring

In the garden at this time of year blackbirds are busy. They race back and forth, collecting nest building material. We have climbing vines on the fences, perfect places in which to build nests, as if we have engineered the space just for them. But there is little gratitude – they are indignant towards our human presence – the cube of the backyard is their domain. They explode out of hiding places, signalling their disapproval.

Otherwise, their song is a marker of Spring. I don’t know if their song is decidedly different in Spring, maybe I just notice it more. Author Steven Lovatt says they certainly have shinier feathers in Spring, and do vocalise more. In the early morning they seem chirpier, in the late evenings, they seem slower, more melancholy, melodies drawn out in a Miles Davis line. Along with busy rattles and trills, in the evening they have a strong ‘pink-pink’ call, apparently a signal to rivals.

Lovatt says they used to be woodland birds but adapted well to the suburban environment. They are innovators and entrepreneurs, but in a decidedly middle-class setting, thriving in the quarter acre block of the Australian dream. Australian bird expert Darryl Jones says they need suburban gardens for nest building materials, vegetation cover and soil for worms and insects. They don’t thrive well in inner cities, except for in large parks with garden beds, notes Lovatt. We see them patrolling the back lawn, turning their heads, listening, hurling themselves like javelin throwers into the soil.

Lovatt’s book Birdsong in a Time of Silence is a product of the English lockdowns. A lesson, he says, is that we need to stop and listen. We have been quick to resume our post-lockdown lives, but wellbeing comes with the pauses. Pauses allow connection with the non-human world, and necessary recuperation. His book is about bird calls in particular, and the challenge of describing and understanding them. Nature writer Henry Williamson noted that starlings imitate barge whistles and milk bottles clinking. That’s easy enough, but there is a difficulty in translation. (We can see this in how differently bird calls are described onomatopoeically in different languages.) Lovatt describes house martin calls as a little wet. He writes about rising notes, bells, gold and silver notes, ambulance sirens, highly-strung lyres. He describes calls as soul-bearing, bubbling.

We have lorikeets at this time of year, feeding on nectar, as do wattle birds. The parrots seem a little peeved, and keep up an irritated chatter, until they blast off through the foliage like fighter jets, with accompanying machine-gun screeches, not unlike the irritated blackbird. Wattle birds make sounds something like chickens; also weird gurgles and clicks, and then an early morning call like a slow car alarm that, with the hot morning sun, wakes us very early in the middle of summer.

Birds can probably discern rapid phrases better than us. Scrutiny by bird experts reveals subtleties in what initially seem like stock phrases – birds are jazz artists improvising on standard melodies. They also have dialects – in New Zealand, it was observed that introduced birds, just like in a human diaspora, keep up traditional dialects that have been gradually lost in their places of origin. At the same time, birds of different species seem to share a basic language. Smaller English birds of different species emit similar alarm whistles to alert each other of the presence of raptors. The pitch, it turns out, makes the call easy to hear but difficult to trace to the source, so that the alarm caller won’t give him or herself away.

As well as men

The Story of Art (without Men), Katy Hessel, Hutchinson

Sometimes an author hits on a concept that fills a major gap, that in hindsight seems glaringly obvious. Katy Hessel has written a history of art made by women that takes its structure and title from Ernst Gombrich’s ubiquitous textbook The Story of Art, which, accessible as it is, by the sixteenth edition still had only one female artist in it. There are other books about women in art – Phaidon has a recent book, for example, but it has an artist per page, rather than a woven narrative, as Hessel’s does.

Hessel takes inspiration from the late Linda Nochlin, who in the 1970s was asked, ‘why have there been no great women artists?’ This question became the title of a famous essay in which Nochlin responded by outlining how the making of fine art and the writing of its history in the West has been skewed towards the male perspective. (Nochlin has a book of essays about women artists, but the essays sit individually, rather than, again, comprising a chronological narrative.) Hessel has an Instagram account called ‘thegreatwomenartists’ and in her The Story of Art (without Men) she effectively answers Nochlin’s interlocutor with ‘but there are and have been’.

Hessel agrees with Nochlin that women’s status in Western art has been less than men because they were denied education and travel, access to the (nude) human body and art institutions and were generally seen as not capable of the kind of art men made. The kind of art they did make was seen as inferior. It’s great that Hessel, in her history, talks about quiltmaking (even if she quickly returns to ‘high art’ in the narrative), as it is one thing to say women can do as well as men, quite another to recognise traditional women’s craft as being as good and skilful as oil painting.

Still, Vasari, in his sixteenth century Lives of the Artists features four women, including a nun, of whom he perceptively noted that she didn’t have the same opportunity to study real-life models as other artists. Women artists were often the daughters of artists, such as the entrepreneurial Artemisia Gentileschi. In the eighteenth century, there were hundreds of women artists working in Europe. They were well paid and respected and often taught others. But as famous as women artists could become, once they became mothers they were often quickly forgotten.

Women didn’t just compete with men; they were pioneers. Rosalba Carriera’s art was fundamental for establishing the look (for good or ill, depending on your tastes) of the rococo, and innovated in pastels. Anna Atkins produced the first book of photography. Janet Sobel pioneered Abstract Expressionism, influencing the later superstars, but she is little known. Camille Claudel, the partner of Rodin, was influenced by him, it has been claimed, but Hessel suggests it was the other way around. Similar claims of who-influenced-who can be made of Duchamp and Baroness Freytag-Loringhoven, Diego Riviera and Frida Kahlo, Kurt Schwitters and Hannah Hoch, Jackson Pollock and Lee Krasner, Willem and Elaine de Kooning. (But it’s not only men who do the borrowing – Barbara Kruger’s celebrated text-based art owes a lot to Sister Corita Kent’s protest art of the 60s.) After the wild and often perplexing manifestations of performance, installation and video art, recently women artists such as Cecily Brown, Mickalene Thomas and Jenny Saville have been returning to and reinventing (yet again) figurative painting.

By the later twentieth century, women were innovating particularly in overt feminist and political art. The Guerrilla Girls made art that was more protest sign, and famously asked if women had to be naked to be seen in the world’s famous art museums. This also led to questions on how political visual art was meant to be. Putting politics over aesthetics can seem heavy-handed, but art is inextricable from the social conditions that produce it. Like Nochlin, Hessel is aware that this includes not only feminist concerns, but also political, racial, economic and technological contexts.

Hessel’s book aims to give us the parallel story of women artists. But, somewhat strangely, this prompts the thought that Hessel’s book may only be a station along the way to something more comprehensive: one would think there is still scope for a history (or histories) of art that is balanced in its approach to gender, perhaps titled something like The Story of Art (with both Women and Men Represented Fairly).

Modern Prometheuses

Atoms and Ashes, Serhii Plokhy, Allen Lane

Serhii Plokhy begins his new book about six nuclear disasters by noting that in Pripyat, the city that housed the workers at the Chernobyl plant and is now deserted, there was a statue of Prometheus. He suggests, rather drolly, that the statue’s meaning changed after the 1986 meltdown. One wonders why whoever raised the statue didn’t think through the whole Prometheus story. Didn’t anyone have a hint of reservation about putting up such a hubristic monument?

The power, evident in nuclear bomb detonations, is astounding. You can understand Oppenheimer’s comments about humans becoming god-like. You can understand why it’s irresistible to the hubristic, but they are playing with fire. A common theme throughout the chapters of Plokhy’s book is that while, typically, there was a lot of planning about how a nuclear power plant should work, there was a lot of wishing that a disaster wouldn’t happen, and a lack of disaster planning. At Windscale in the UK, site of a fire at a nuclear power station in 1957, there was planning for normal circumstances, but no-one, it seems, had thought through how a fire would be contained if one broke out. It was all precaution and no contingency. More than once, tellingly, Plokhy quotes industry insiders saying, after the fact, that they thought the same way the builders of the Titanic had. From Windscale to Chernobyl to Fukushima, there was not enough information sharing, too much arrogance and denial. A strength of this book’s particular format is the message that people don’t learn. Effectively, Plokhy ends each chapter wondering if the modern Prometheuses manipulating nuclear energy needed disaster to realise the dangers.

Two of his chapters are not about nuclear power generation. His first is about the 1954 Bikini Atoll test, named ‘Castle Bravo’. This was a disaster in the sense of environmental destruction and the contamination of people in the area. The test was far larger than expected, and hundreds of times more powerful than the Hiroshima bomb. Equipment thought to be out of harm’s way was unexpectedly destroyed by the size of the explosion. Radiation was double what was expected. Locals on surrounding atolls were contaminated by radioactive ash – with hair loss, itching and later, much worse – as were a Japanese fishing crew missed in sweeps of the area. (Contaminated fish made it all the way back to Japan.) This was, of course, on top of the obliteration of coral ecosystems in the area. Part of the reason for the test was that the military just didn’t know what might happen. One thinks of schoolboys and matches.

The military went ahead with the test even though wind conditions, by their own estimations, weren’t ideal. In the US, in what would become a recurring theme, the chairman of the Atomic Commission played down the seriousness of the contamination. Soon after, there were petitions for a ban on testing, as fallout circled the globe. The Marshallese people petitioned the UN, arguing that the US was not acting as it should in its trusteeship of the islands where the tests were held. (As if the US was interested in the welfare of the residents.)

Cold War rivalries added to the dangers. In the Soviet Union, Plokhy writes, the choices of reactor, with their inherent instabilities, and cost- and corner-cutting, were due not primarily to the demand for electrical energy, but to a perceived need to keep up with the US, whose reactors were of a superior standard. At Chernobyl, disaster was compounded by a culture of secrecy internally – the Soviets didn’t learn from each other, as problems that might have prompted solutions were covered up. (The same problems that occurred at Chernobyl had already been observed at a Leningrad plant.) Also, due to their rivalry with the US, the Soviets were reluctant to admit error externally. (Not exactly an exclusive position, as we have seen.) The state swung into action to evacuate and decontaminate, but, as with Windscale, ‘managing’ the crisis meant not informing locals and the wider European community of what exactly was going on. The theoretical safety of a reactor is always potentially compromised by surrounding political, environmental, societal and economic factors.

At Fukushima, by 1988, targets were trumping safety protocols, and in 2002 there was a scandal regarding falsified safety reports. When disaster struck in 2011, containment was heroic but ad-hoc. The tsunami’s scale had perhaps not been anticipated, but this was in a country prone to regular earthquakes and tsunamis. The Fukushima plant was positioned geographically to take advantage of nearby seawater for cooling, but this proved a disadvantage. A seawall built for protection was breached (actually by a third wave, which was the slowest but also the highest). While the reactors were well above sea level, generators in the basement of the turbine halls weren’t. Unlike Chernobyl where evacuation was at least orderly, evacuations at Fukushima weren’t, not helped by the devastation caused by the tsunami.

There is a common argument that nuclear power generation is justified because of the relatively lower costs. Plokhy argues that this is simply not the case, and that while day-to-day costs once a plant is up and running are reasonable, the costs of building, decommissioning and disposing of radioactive waste are more than that of both fossil fuels and renewables. Then there is the cost of clean-up after mishap, which in the case of the American Three Mile Island incident, is expected to continue in one form or another until the hundred-year anniversary of the incident. Advocates are quick to call out what they see as fearmongering, and take a utilitarian stance, pointing to the safe operation of numerous plants worldwide, but the potential costs of just one misadventure are so high.

Amongst philosophers there is a theory of a cosmological bent that in the universe there’s probably a lot of civilisations like ours but that when these civilisations discover nuclear power, they end up inevitably destroying themselves because it is too hard to control. This would explain why we have had no contact or haven’t been visited by them. Put aside for a moment the question of whether the other civilisations argument has legs, probability-wise, and make of this what you will, but you can see the logic. One of the common responses, accompanied by something of a sigh of relief, to power station failures or nuclear brinkmanship such as what happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis (which Plokhy has also recently written about) is, ‘it could have been a lot worse’.

The logic of demolition

Islands of Abandonment: Life in the Post-Human Landscape, Cal Flyn, Harpercollins

It starts with weeds growing and paint flaking. Windows break, birds and animals get in. Mould grows, wallpaper peels. Sagging, splintering, sliding, gaping, rotting, crumbling – houses slide into disrepair and decay. In Detroit, ‘scrappers’ come, hollowing out, stripping properties of anything valuable – metals, wiring, waterproofing. The last ignominy might be a deliberately lit fire. Otherwise, creepers cover houses, trees sprout, surrounding, engulfing, splitting.

In Detroit, the city council has demolished something like 20,000 abandoned houses. About the same number remain. There is some logic to demolition – an abandoned house is like contagion. As is well reported, one broken window and suddenly all of them are broken. Streets with abandoned houses encourage more abandonment. Some houses were being vandalised and burnt anyway. A vacant lot could be mistaken for a park, I guess. But all the demolition in Detroit has left a strange urban landscape – visible in aerial shots: a gleaming city centre fringed by remaining houses dotted through suburbs like farmhouses amongst small-acre farms. Demolition is seen by governments as a solution, but it is its own expense, and includes the dangers of toxic building materials – lead, asbestos.

Then there are the automotive plants – the Packard plant reputedly the biggest abandoned building in the world (only recently the subject of a court case and an order for demolition). The death of Detroit’s – Motor City’s – motor industry in the 60s meant the population dropped from a high of 1.8 million to half a million. Collateral damage to churches, schools, theatres, office buildings – grand, ornate edifices, significant architecture, which gathers dust and attract the urban explorer, camera phone at the ready.

A chain, in a backward running film of civilisation – weeds, trees, birds, rats. Predators move in – coyotes, foxes, owls, falcons. (Not that there aren’t such animals in vibrant suburbia, but in Detroit they are reclaiming their natural terrain.) In Islands of Abandonment Cal Flyn notes that chroniclers of Detroit’s decay use the term ‘The Blight’, a deliberate name from theorists who liken the city to a natural ecosystem. But urban decay is like a fungal disease in an orchard. (Residents have taken matters into their own hands, mowing abandoned parks, making vegetable gardens in empty plots. In some suburbs long abandoned townhouses are being reclaimed and fixed up. Look it up on the internet – the so-called Mansard twins, in Brush Park – two 3-storey brick houses, gloriously worthy of a film set, restored and sold in 2021.)

Flyn has a good eye, vision translated into words – all the ways Pripyat – the city that serviced Chernobyl – is crumbled, crumpled, bent, invaded by plants (see Stalking the Atomic City for a recent chronicle of the wild lives of frequent intruders into the Chernobyl restricted zone). While in the zone trees are still affected by radiation, animals thrive, despite lingering ‘hot spots’, where workers discarded clothes, particularly-contaminated materials, signposted invisible fires still burning. There is the lure of the forbidden, but also curiosity over what Flyn calls the ‘post-human landscape’. Sometimes this interest is criticised as voyeuristic, but there is a long history of the aestheticisation of ruins – evocative, sublime.

Sites of contamination are reclaimed slowly. In Colorado, at an abandoned military site, chemicals leach into the soil, but it is a haven for wildlife. So too the demilitarised zone between the Koreas – a haven unless an animal steps on a landmine. In Cyprus, in the No Man’s Land patrolled by Turkey, result of a decades long standoff between Greece and Turkey, there are orchids and rare tulips, flower shows for the birds.

Modernity has increased the human manipulation of the landscape exponentially, but it’s not all one-way. The collapse of the Soviet Union meant the abandonment of farmland, impossible to un-collectivise, in Russia and eastern Europe. Farmland to grassland to birch to spruce. Darkness finally closing in, in the last ecological chapter. In New England in America’s north-east: land-clearing in the 1600 and 1700s, abandonment in the 1800s, forest returning, the fiery annual autumnal tourist show barely hinting at a recent blip. (But the forest emptied of its original human inhabitants.)

More than once Flyn says that while there are no excuses for war and pollution there is something beautiful and merciful about slow reclamation and rejuvenation. Verdun witnessed the mass insanity of millions of tonnes of ordnance in WWI, the endless churning of land – bombing mud essentially – the deaths of hundreds of thousands of men. While one extremely contaminated site remains, the wonky landscape, still showing the signs of trenches, is verdant.

Cetacean obsessions

Strandings, Peter Riley, Profile

Soundings, Doreen Cunningham, Virago

Soundings and Strandings both deal, in their own ways, with the lives and deaths of whales, and the way people seek connections with them. Peter Riley has something of a cetacean obsession, but is interested in how human society views whales, in the afterlives of whale bones, in the motley group of collectors who defy laws and societal conventions to trade in bones and scrimshaw (pictures carved into whale teeth). Doreen Cunningham tracks living whales, seeking healing, community and an understanding of motherhood.

Whales strand regularly on the shores of the UK, where Riley lives, and always have, but while there is a theory that solar flares upset whales’ natural navigation systems, it’s also surmised – and fairly likely – that noise pollution – the hammering hum of ships and drilling, the whine of jetskis – does the same, especially in enclosed waterways.

Stranded whales, like comets, used to be seen as signs. In medieval times they indicated judgement, their sudden, off-putting conspicuousness marking a world off-kilter. Riley describes a stranded whale as like a moon fallen or a meteorite. A whale on a beach seems out of place, although it perhaps shouldn’t be, like finding a derailed train on a suburban street. It’s a sign of a larger world that we are often oblivious to.

Scavenging, along with beachcombing, used to be normal. In places like Cape Cod in the nineteenth century, it was a much-needed supplement to other income-generating activities. A dead whale or a shipwreck was a bounty for coastal locals. Now, whale scavengers are seen as somewhat deviant and macabre – appropriately perhaps, since worldwide trade in illegal whale bones and teeth is sometimes for super-rich collectors. Sometimes whale artefacts are still used for witchcraft, an indication, perhaps, of human responses to the power of whales.

Riley’s first encounter with scavengers is when as a teen he is asked to help a woman clandestinely wrestle a sperm whale jaw into the boot of a car. The incident lodges in his brain, he keeps thinking about her, he goes in search of others in this whale subculture, to the point where he needs to go into therapy to deal with his whale – and whale-hunter – obsession. (It’s probably no surprise to learn that he’s also a Herman Melville scholar.) Riley meets ‘Big Blue’, a reclusive scavenger, an oracular figure out of an Iain Sinclair book, who trades in scrimshaw.

Riley also writes about the symbolic power of whales. In Moby Dick, the white whale’s meaning is multifarious, standing in for God or evil, certainly for powers beyond human control. The philosopher Hobbes uses the image of a whale for the nation state. Riley notes how Britain has historically been compared to the whale, in contrast to France, which is often compared to an elephant – both titanic creatures, or monsters, that feature in the Bible as leviathan and behemoth. Whales were also used symbolically during the financial crisis, with one rogue trader described as a whale, while the outgoing financial tide stranded many. The idea of stranding relates to Riley personally too, he finds.

Doreen Cunningham similarly finds herself stranded. Her book is an account of being suddenly a single parent and out-of-work. Rough, prickly and smart, she also tenderly compares her experience of mothering with that of mother whales guiding their calves through a watery world that is often dangerous. She decides to take her pre-schooler son on a whale-watching trip, following whales up the west coast of North America, as a form of therapy.

Her account alternates between Mexico, where whales are tourist curiosities, and the Arctic, where whales are integral to traditional lifestyles. She feels an affinity with the local people, who are always dealing with outsiders who want to explore, drill for oil or otherwise disrupt traditional lifestyles. One Alaskan elder identifies modern culture as a bigger problem than climate change, altering traditional ways detrimentally, although of course climate change makes its mark in reduced ice cover, affecting fishing and hunting times, while commercial fishing encroaches on traditional territory and pipelines upset the migrations of caribou.

Indigenous Alaskans are given allowances for hunting but also have deep respect for whales, an understanding of their place in ecosystems, which unavoidably includes death – for some whales, providing so that others can live. Part of Cunningham’s story is being an outsider (not to mention a vegetarian), coming to terms with this way of life, loving whales while doing so, and being welcomed into the community.

This, of course, complicates the story of whales and their relationships to humans. While in the West we have become ideologically conservation minded, our modern lifestyles are polluting the whales’ world and threatening their numbers, this on top of the history of large-scale commercial whaling in the twentieth century, even if now most of us are appalled by the handful of countries that continue to do so. In the Arctic, Indigenous peoples want to continue traditions that are now seen as suspect, because of the threats to whales from other quarters, threats that are contrary to Indigenous ways of living within their environment, and that Indigenous Alaskans are largely not responsible for.

Living in virtual reality

The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, Justin E H Smith, Princeton

Reality+, David Chalmers, Allen Lane

If you haven’t read the blurb for Justin Smith’s The Internet Is Not What You Think It Is, its argument is probably not what you think it is. You may imagine the book is about the dark net, or about how the technology behind the internet is different. You might think it is about the dominance of the big tech companies – and Smith certainly bemoans this fact.

You might be surprised by his conclusion that the internet has turned bad – dumbing down language and attention spans. Indeed, like the fact we have too many physical, manufactured products (partly the cause of our environmental woes), it could be argued that there are too many internet-based cultural products that are proving a distraction. Though he is not arguing that we are heading for a scenario envisaged in the film The Matrix, our immersion in the internet, social media in particular, is distracting and addictive – misleading in that it pretends to enhance relationships while reducing them. It is controlling and undemocratic – we have gone from the Arab Spring to the state control of China and Russia, and the corporate control that entangles politics and commerce.

The problem is less the amount of information on the internet and more about how and where we find it. Most websites are designed to keep us moving, the information designed not so much for enrichment but for entrenchment of over-simplified opinions, of tribalism. We are led from one thing we like to another and not challenged to consider other opinions.

Smith is not wholly critical. He includes a paean to Wikipedia, which, he says, has risen in status. Wikipedia is not what we used to think it is – unreliable – but what the internet should be. But his most surprising argument is that as an information provider and a means of communication, the internet is not so much a revolution as a continuation. He spends what seems like a surprising amount of pages discussing thought experiments and inventions from hundreds of years ago. He also discusses the pervasive networks in nature – from whale communities to spider webs to fungus – to argue that the internet is not as unnatural as we might think.

But he notes how rather than the internet reflecting reality, reality is being shaped to look like the internet, in particular social media. We are increasingly told we are brands, including in academia, where popularity can be more important than depth of teaching. In a way, we are already living in virtual reality, a world mediated by computers.

Which brings us to David Chalmers’ book about the philosophy of virtual reality. The book is something of a response to Nick Bostrom, who famously argues that statistically we are likely to be in a simulation. The argument goes that once we have sophisticated enough technology, computer users will be running millions of simulations of our universe, populated by ‘people’ who are conscious but don’t know they are in a simulation. In this case, it is overwhelmingly likely that we are the simulations and not in the original universe. (A variation of this is that some alien civilisation has created the simulation.)

This might seem highly unlikely, but it’s hard to come up with a counter-argument, and as a thought experiment, despite sounding like something out of Hitchhikers’ Guide to the Galaxy, it has ethical and even theological implications, such as the proposition that our simulator herself might be a simulation, leading to ‘who created God?’-type questions. You may find this fascinating or dismiss it as the kind of nonsense philosophers get up to when they are left to their own devices. But on the internet and in virtual worlds there are already ethical questions on, for example, what constitutes sexual harassment.

Chalmers explains that there are different types of simulated worlds. Minecraft is one, where we (the users) are outside the sim world and realise we are. The Matrix is a sim world where our physical bodies are outside the sim world, but we operate within one unknowingly. Then there are sim worlds populated by purely sim beings. These will be a form of AI, which leads to the question of whether AIs can become conscious. They have to be for Bostrom’s argument to work; after-all, we are conscious.

There are some big ‘if’s here. If we are in a simulation, purely sim creatures, and the simulation is indistinguishable from reality – what it’s simulating – and we don’t know it’s a simulation, it’s hard to know what the point of calling it a simulation is. If we’ll never know, nothing much changes. And could someone in a simulation create a simulation? We are getting into the realm of the world resting on an endless succession of turtles.

There are also big assumptions here that reminded me of the old joke that on current rates of growth we can project that in ten years’ time two out of three Americans will be Elvis impersonators. Similarly, and importantly, are there erroneous assumptions here that technology will just keep improving exponentially until simulations of entire universes are possible?

Smith also notes that all this AI talk hangs on the not-yet-provable assumption that consciousness is possible if you are in a simulated world, and that consciousness must be possible within computers, an assumption that indicates how we think of the world as reflecting computer technology, and not the other way around. We don’t really know what consciousness is, and don’t know how it switches on, so-to-speak, at a certain level of complexity. I think it’s fair to say that consciousness is gradual – think of the development of pre-schoolers – and that society programs us – we are not simply self-automated – but I agree with Smith that none of this is settled. The internet is relevant here, says Smith, because AI will likely need the internet’s vast store of information to become conscious. That is, if consciousness requires simply a level of complexity within information processing units, rather than some other more intangible thing we are currently missing.

While in the notion of computers becoming conscious there seems to be an anti-anthropocentric tendency, a desire to prove that humans are nothing special, and replicable by technology, it is interesting that in the idea of AI consciousness, often termed ‘the great leap’, there is also a longing for transcendence. And there seems also to be something solipsistic in the fact that in extrapolating from the fact that we can create computers, we can envisage some future ‘us’ being advanced enough to create whole universes, including intelligent beings, as if we were gods.

You can’t seem to get to where you’re headed

Bon and Lesley, Shaun Prescott, Giramondo

In Shaun Prescott’s new novel, title character Bon’s ordinary life is making the long commute from the city to an unspecified job with which he is not particularly happy. One day he gets off the train at Newnes, a town somewhere out west of Sydney, in or beyond the Blue Mountains, towards Bathurst. (Newnes is actually an abandoned mining town north of Lithgow, here reimagined.) It’s a nondescript town, with industrial ruins and a shopping centre also heading that way, an everywhere and nowhere. ‘It’s time’, he thinks, in a kind of parallel of those who decide it’s time to make the tree change. But it’s a whim, not a plan, and it’s like a dream. It’s not entirely clear it’s not a dream.

Fellow commuters disperse, they catch connecting buses that don’t connect to anywhere. Trains are suspended indefinitely. Eventually Bon meets up with talkative local Steven, and crashes at Steven’s house. Hours drift into days and weeks. They watch videos, eat junk food, have strangely philosophical conversations, drink alcohol copiously. They fall into a numbing routine.

They are soon joined by Lesley, another disaffected and stranded city commuter, and Steven’s mostly silent brother Jack, who makes experimental electronic music and puts it on the internet where he hopes no-one will hear it.

In Prescott’s previous novel The Town unexplained sinkholes appear. Here there are ‘portals’ – paths and roads – into the bushlands that surround the town and are ominous, as with forests in a Fairy Tale. It becomes increasingly difficult to imagine a way out of town – they can hear the freeway but don’t seem to know how it connects to town, and the trains and other essential services seem to be permanently bypassing the town. (It becomes like those unsettling dreams where you can’t seem to get to where you’re headed.) But they wonder if the portals can lead them to the fabled town of Sofala – where nothing happens, we are told, but in a beautiful way. If Newnes is a dystopia, Sofala is the utopia, a dream and a refuge.

Prescott says the novel has no point, that it’s just a work of imagination. But it’s nevertheless full of meaning, prompted by modern life and the strangeness of quiet suburbia – which is available in rural settings too – where things are going downhill, where there’s an unnamed absence, far from the prominent places where government money gets splashed. Newnes is a purgatory between the big city and the charming rural towns one reads about, where those with means escaped during the pandemic.

The book could be a commentary on a life where we wonder, how did we get here? Is life happening elsewhere? What would happen if I spontaneously changed tracks? Am I at risk of falling through the cracks? Newnes – note the similarity to the word ‘newness’ – is the chance for something new, but it’s not necessarily improvement. The characters are, to a certain extent, victims of circumstances out of their control and without decent explanations. Even so, the four find in each other a way to negotiate life.

Lesley, who is described as ‘extremely navy in presentation’, becomes a mother figure to the ‘improvised family’. She stoically shepherds the three men, describing the problems of family life simply as similar to maths problems. As the novel progresses, it becomes weirder, and the brothers Jack and Steven regress to a point where Lesley brushes their teeth for them and puts them to bed at seven o’clock, as if they are toddlers.

The weirdness is pervasive. Newnes seems abandoned, but a mysterious ‘Colossal Man’ in a hatchback follows them around town from a distance. At one point they endure, nightly, an unseen mob throwing rocks onto their roof, so that it sounds like a hailstorm. Bon and Steven are hired by an unseen employer to pull the contents out of abandoned houses and burn them in the backyards, for no specified reason.

The novel’s concerns made me think about what we experienced in the pandemic. There were privations and assaults, and exit roads that proved not to be so, and the external world seemed to be bearing down, putting pressure on the places where we huddled together, prompting us to ask deeper questions and to seek alternate ways of connecting with community and family, in ways that were often ‘improvised’.