Friday, 25 March 2011


Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 29th August 1780 – 14th January 1867) was a French Neoclassical painter. Although he considered himself to be a painter of history in the tradition of Nicolas Poussin and Jacques-Louis David, by the end of his life it was Ingres’ portraits, both painted and drawn, that were recognized as his greatest legacy.

From Wiki

“A man profoundly respectful of the past, he assumed the role of a guardian of academic orthodoxy against the ascendant Romantic style represented by his nemesis Eugène Delacroix. His exemplars, he once explained, were "the great masters which flourished in that century of glorious memory when Raphael set the eternal and incontestable bounds of the sublime in art ... “I am thus a conservator of good doctrine, and not an innovator.” Nevertheless, modern opinion has tended to regard Ingres and the other Neo-classicists of his era as embodying the Romantic spirit of his time, while his expressive distortions of form and space make him an important precursor of modern art.”

But I want to talk about the eroticism in Ingres’ painting. The way he painted women, reflecting the parts of the female body that were considered to be erotic according to contemporary style. Just as today’s female fashion seems to be a penchant for a generous mouth and full, bee-stung lips, the desired style in Ingres’ day, was for an ivory, translucent skin, rounded, gracefully formed limbs, an elegant neck, décolletage and a long back.

Although rare and little known during his time, his works are very famous today and include The Bather of Valpinçon, La Grande Odalisque and The Turkish Baths. They rank among the most daring and enigmatic paintings of the 19th century.

Whether naked or clothed, you can see from the way Ingres’ painted women, that his eyes lingered; he delighted in the female form.

I think that eroticism is enhanced by clothes, and while Ingres’ painted many, many nudes, the painting I want to look at first, is of Mademoiselle Caroline Rivière.

Jonathan Jones writes in , the Guardian newspaper, 2nd August 2003;

“Mademoiselle Rivière was 15 when Ingres painted her. The portrait was shown at the Salon of 1806 along with his pictures of her parents and Napoleon. By the end of the year she was dead.

The sexuality Ingres usually reserved for harem fantasies slips, over into the real and respectable world in this charged portrait. His obviously intense visual relationship with his subject and his contentment to look, with a clinical waxy fetishism, at Mademoiselle Rivière's full lips, bared neck, long gloves and spectacularly serpentine boa, lend this picture drama.

The beauty of the painting is its sublimated stillness. Fragile like porcelain, with smoothed hair, Mademoiselle Rivière is incongruous against a rural backdrop. She is a clothed odalisque, an unreal being in the French countryside. She makes you think of Ingres’ paintings of Greek myths, in which you sense that a supernatural power is about to smash through the surface of his vision. Ingres’ paintings suggest overwhelming forces, inside and outside the artist. He is far greater and more ambitious than we recognise if we dwell solely on the "accuracy" of his portraits.

This image of femininity seizes a quality of youthful candour just on the brink of a womanhood that Mademoiselle Rivière, who died that very year, was never to know. The sunlit openness of the spring landscape, the simplicity and slight stiffness of the stance, the natural ruddiness of cheeks and lips, the dazzling whiteness of the dress and swan's-down boa (which offended those 1806 Salon critics accustomed to a darker, more shadowed palette)--such elements create a purity and innocence foreign to the atmosphere of cultivated artifice and sensuality in Ingres’ portraits of mature women. Appropriate to the age of the sitter, Mademoiselle Rivière’s sensuality is nascent rather than overripe. Indeed, the chiselled clarity of the head, centred beneath the arcing upper frame, smacks of something strangely archaic. The staring, almond-shaped eyes; the fixed smile; the stylised geometries of hairline, eyebrows, ear locks- all recall an early moment in an artistic cycle, whether Egyptian, archaic Greek, or Italian quattrocento.”

From the Louvre website

“Ingres set the erotic tone of 19th and 20th-century French art. In Rome in the late 1800s,he painted a nude for the king of Naples; in 1814 he did his Grande Odalisque, now in the Louvre. The liberation of the eye is the great revolution of painting in 19th-century France and, in Ingres’ inspection of nudes, you see, for the first time, the overt voyeurism that was to be taken to an extreme by Degas.

La Grande Odalisque painted in 1814, Ingres transposes the theme of the mythological nude, whose long tradition goes back to the Renaissance, to an imaginary Orient. This work, his most famous nude, was commissioned by Caroline Murat, Napoleon's sister and the queen of Naples. Here, Ingres paints a nude with long, sinuous lines bearing little resemblance to anatomical reality, but renders the details and texture of the fabrics with sharp precision. This work drew fierce criticism when it was displayed at the Salon of 1819.”

She looks over her shoulder at the viewer inviting observation. She is owned and paid for, she doesn’t challenge the viewer; she will move, when and where, she is told. You can trail your fingers down the length of that long, long spine. You can caress her. Test the weight of that firm breast in the palm of your hand. She will offer no resistance. Her owner has granted his permission. And the feather fan; is she going to masturbate with the handle?

From the Louvre website

“The woman lying on a divan is offering herself because she is nude and turns her face towards us. The painting's title, which means "harem woman," and the accessories around her conjure up the sensuous Orient. But the woman is also discreet because she shows only her back and part of one breast. The nude was a major theme in Western art, but since the Renaissance figures portrayed in that way had been drawn from mythology; here Ingres transposes the theme to a distant land.”

From The Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine.

“La Grande Odalisque, a painting by Jean-Auguste Ingres (1780-1867), was throughout the 19th century notorious for its anatomical inaccuracy; in particular, the woman was said to have three lumbar vertebrae too many. This view was accepted by all art critics, but never tested and proven. We measured the length of the back and of the pelvis in human models, expressed the mean values in terms of head height, and transferred them to the painting. The deformation was found to be greater than originally assumed (five, rather than three, extra lumbar vertebrae), and to involve both the back and the pelvis. Ingres' paintings skilfully combine realism and symbolism. We suggest that the deformation may have been introduced for psychological reasons. By placing the harem woman's head further away from her pelvis the artist may have been marking the gulf between her thoughts (expressed by her aloof, resigned look) and her social role (symbolized by her deliberately lengthened pelvis).”

From the Louvre website.

“The Valpinçon Bather, Ingres’ first great nude, is the model for all his later nudes. She is already typical of Ingres’ style, with its sumptuous textures (for example, the turban), sinuous harmony of line, and depiction of the serene attitude and chaste sensuality of the woman's body-all enlisted in the quest for absolute perfection.

The work featuring a bathing woman is generally known by the name of one of its nineteenth-century owners. It was one of the works Ingres sent to Paris in 1808 when he was studying at the French Academy in Rome. This early work is a masterpiece of harmonious lines and delicate light. The woman's superb nude back left a deep impression on the artist; he returned to it in several later works, most notably the Turkish Bath”.

The woman is turned from the viewer; there is no fear of being found out. It is as if the woman, fresh from her bath, is in a peepshow. We can indulge in our private, debauched fantasies to our hearts’ content.

From Wiki.

“Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867) described the model as having a "deep voluptuousness", yet in many ways she is presented as essentially chaste.This contradiction is apparent in many elements of the painting. The turn of her neck and the curves of her back and legs are accentuated by the fall of the metallic green draperies, the swell of the white curtain in front of her and the folds of the bed sheets and linen. However, these elements are countered by the cool tone in which her flesh is rendered, as well as by elements such as the cool and elegant black-veined marble to the left of her. There is a stillness, a concentrated calm which only serves to heighten the implicit eroticism - what if, one wonders, she were actually to turn around?

Ingres returned to this form of this figure a number of times in his life; culminating in his The Turkish Bath of 1863, where the central figure in the foreground playing a mandolin echoes in rhythm and tone the model of the Valpinçon bather.

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu travelled extensively. In 1716 she wrote the following in her journal after visiting a Turkish bath. One hundred years later, Ingres copied her description into his sketch book.

: "... il y avait bien la deux cent baigneuses; les premiers sophas furent couverts de cousins et de riches tapis; et toutes etaient nues. Cependant il n’y avait parmielles ni geste indecent, ni posture lascive…”

There were certainly two hundred (female) bathers there; the first sofa’s were covered with cushions and rich tapestries, and they were all nude (naked). However, none of them had indecent gestures or took on lascivious poses.

From that brief passage, Ingres painted his erotic masterpiece. However objective Lady Mary intended her account to be, it had the reverse effect on Ingres, for it inspired him to paint, forty five years later, one of the most erotic paintings that had been seen by the world.

Ingres combined all the elements into his greatest painting, Le Bain Turc, completed in 1863. This was originally a square composition, but only a photograph by Marville exists of the painting in this format. It was commissioned by Napoleon, but returned to the artist on the insistence of the Princess Clothilde, who was shocked by the lascivious postures of the naked figures.

Once the painting was back in the studio Ingres exercised his true mastery and miraculously turned it into a tondo. The circular composition is so convincing that it is hard to believe that it was ever conceived otherwise. An oil sketch exists showing how he rearranged the arms of the figure on the right. The right arm had previously fallen downwards. He raised it behind her head, but at the same time cunningly managed to keep the profile of the hand by transferring it to the arm of the figure below, where it now half conceals the bashful lady's face.

The Turkish Bath is erotica for the connoisseur. What at first seems to be a disorganised extravaganza of female flesh, is actually a carefully arranged series of images, where the eye is led around the steaming bath; our eyes’ journey around the painting is dictated by Ingres. First the magnificent back of the Valpinçon bather; here, she strums a lute. On the right a woman sprawls languidly, displaying herself without reticence. Two girls play with each others’ fat nipples. And it goes on and on. The air is hot and steamy; the scent of female arousal and smoky drugs, make the viewer giddy.

From Wiki.

Ingres relished the irony of producing an erotic work in his old age, painting an inscription of his age (AETATIS LXXXII) on the work. - He did not paint this work from live models, but from several croquis and paintings he had produced over the course of his career, re-using 'bather' and 'odalisque' figures (he had earlier produced La Grande Odalisque) he had previously drawn or painted as single figures on a bed or beside a bath. The figure best known to have been copied is from his The Bather of Valpinçon, reproduced here almost identically and forming the central element of the new composition. The figure with her arms raised above her head in the right foreground, however, is based on an 1818 croquis of the artist's wife Madeleine Chapelle (1782-1849), though her right shoulder is lowered whereas her right arm is raised (an anatomical inconsistency usual in Ingres’ work - La Grande Odalisque has three additional vertebrae). The other bodies are juxtaposed in various unlit areas behind them.

In 1867 Ingres told others that he retained “all the fire of a man of thirty years.”

When he said that, he was eighty two years old. Good for you Monsieur Ingres!

All of the paintings featured here can be seen at the Louvre.

Big thanks to Jan Vander Laenen for the translations from French to English.

Friday, 18 March 2011


Once upon a time, long, long ago, there were no stories. Life, must have been just about survival, finding shelter, finding food. But I think that human beings must have discovered language, by the time they created the cave paintings.

Because the cave art pictures tell stories, stories of the hunt, the kill. We don’t know why they were painted; perhaps they were for religious purposes. But yes, the cave artists told stories. Just like the great Artists that would follow them, thousands of years later, the cave art painters were using stories to communicate with other people.

We continued to tell stories. We were insatiable in our love of being told a tale. Thank goodness for Homer and the Greek myths; the people who wrote down the Nordic myths and all the other mythologies of the world. And I’m leaping forwards thousands of years; to Geoffrey Chaucer, and “The Canterbury Tales,” and around about the same era, the mid-fourteenth century, Giovanni Boccaccio, and “The Decameron.” For the first time in our story telling history, we had fully rounded characters, with psychological depth. They are not gods with fabulous powers, they are people, like ourselves with histories, hopes and fears.

And, of course, there is the wonderful “Arabian Nights,” or “The Thousand and One Nights”, “Les mille et une nuits”, recited nightly by Scheherazade. Those wonderfully
mesmerising stories, telling us of fabulous creatures, geniis and magic lamps.

From Wiki.

The main frame story concerns a Persian king and his new bride. He is shocked to discover that his brother's wife is unfaithful; discovering his own wife's infidelity has been even more flagrant, he has her executed: but in his bitterness and grief decides that all women are the same. The king, Shahryar, begins to marry a succession of virgins only to execute each one the next morning, before she has a chance to dishonour him. Eventually the vizier, whose duty it is to provide them, cannot find any more virgins. Scheherazade, the vizier's daughter, offers herself as the next bride and her father reluctantly agrees. On the night of their marriage, Scheherazade begins to tell the king a tale, but does not end it. The king is thus forced to postpone her execution in order to hear the conclusion. The next night, as soon as she finishes the tale, she begins (and only begins) a new one, and the king, eager to hear the conclusion, postpones her execution once again. So it goes on for 1,001 nights.

The region of Mesopotamia has an old and ancient civilisation. We have re-named it “the Middle East”. If we think about the region at all, we probably think of religious fanaticism and terrorists. Osama bin Laden and the Ayatollahs. But Mesopotamia had literature, probably before we had even discovered language. “The Arabian Nights;” or “The One Thousand and One Nights, has genre of storytelling which has influenced writers right up to the present day.

The writers of The Arabian nights, introduce us to many literary devices. Two of these are the concept of the narrator; Scheherazade herself. And the cliff hanger. Scheherazade, begins her story, but leaves off at a crucial moment. In terms of the storytelling technique, the king spares her life for another day, the reader wants to know how the story ends; so does the king. For the modern reader, Scheherazade gives us the first form of the serialisation. It still works today in stories and particularly in television.

From Wiki.

“The King lay awake and listened with awe as Scheherazade told her first story. The night passed by, and Scheherazade stopped in the middle of the story. The King asked her to finish, but Scheherazade said there was not time, as dawn was breaking. So, the King spared her life for one day to finish the story the next night. So the next night, Scheherazade finished the story, and then began a second, even more exciting tale which she again stopped halfway through, at dawn. So the King again spared her life for one day to finish the second story.”

Then there’s the unreliable narrator; how do you know whether the narrator is telling the truth? The writers of The Arabian Nights use this to great affect in "The Seven Viziers" (also known as "Craft and Malice of Women or The Tale of the King, His Son, His Concubine and the Seven Viziers"), a courtesan accuses a king's son of having assaulted her, when in reality she had failed to seduce him (inspired by the Qur'anic/Biblical story of Yusuf/Joseph). Seven viziers attempt to save his life by narrating seven stories to prove the unreliability of women, and the courtesan responds back by narrating a story to prove the unreliability of viziers. The unreliable narrator device is also used to generate suspense in "The Three Apples" and humour in "The Hunchback's Tale"

Vladimir Nabokov uses the unreliable narrator in “Lolita.” How do we know if the vile Humbert Humbert is telling the truth? He is narrating the tale to us. I think that Charles Dickens uses it too, in “Great Expectations.” The long story is told from Pip’s point of view. Dickens also used the cliff hanger device; many of his stories were published in serialised form.

There are elements of horror fiction in the Arabian Nights. The horrific nature of Scheherazade's situation is magnified in Stephen King's Misery, in which the protagonist is forced to write a novel to keep his captor from torturing and killing him. The influence of the Nights on modern horror fiction is certainly discernible in the work of H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe.

There’s the prototype for the very best of crime fiction; worthy of Sir Conan Doyle in “The Tale of the Murdered Young Woman” In this tale, a fisherman discovers a heavy locked chest along the Tigris river and he sells it to the Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, who then has the chest broken open only to find inside it the dead body of a young woman who was cut into pieces. Harun orders his vizier, Ja'far ibn Yahya, to solve the crime and find the murderer within three days or else he will have him executed instead. This whodunit mystery may thus be considered an archetype for detective fiction. Ja'far, however, fails to find the culprit before the deadline. Just when Harun is about to have Ja'far executed for his failure, a plot twist occurs when two men appear, one a handsome young man and the other an old man, both claiming to be the murderer. Both men argue and call each other liars as each attempts to claim responsibility for the murder. This continues until the young man proves that he is the murderer by accurately describing the chest in which the young woman was found.
The young man reveals that he was her husband and the old man her father, who was attempting to save his son-in-law by taking the blame. Harun then demands to know his motives for murdering his wife, and the young man then narrates his reasons as a flashback of events preceding Harun's discovery of the locked chest. He eulogizes her as a faultless wife and mother of his three children, and describes how she one day requested a rare apple when she was ill. He then describes his two-week long journey to Basra, where he finds three such apples at the Caliph's orchard. On his return to Baghdad, he finds out that she would no longer eat the apples because of her lingering illness. When he returns to work at his shop, he discovered a slave passing by with the same apple. He asked him about it and the slave replied that he received it from his girlfriend, who had three such apples that her husband found for her after a half-month journey. The young man then suspected his wife of unfaithfulness, rushed home, and demanded to know how many apples remained there. After finding one of the apples missing, he drew a knife and killed her. He then describes how he attempted to get rid of the evidence by cutting her body to pieces, wrapping it in multiple layers of shawls and carpets, hiding her body in a locked chest, and abandoning it in the Tigris river. Yet another twist occurs after he returns home and his son confesses to him that he had stolen one of the apples, and a slave had taken it and run off with it. The boy also confesses that he told the slave about his father's quest for the three apples. Out of guilt, the young man concludes his story by requesting Harun to execute him for his unjust murder. Harun, however, refuses to punish the young man out of sympathy, but instead sets Ja'far a new assignment: to find the tricky slave who caused the tragedy within three days, or be executed for his failure. Ja'far yet again fails to find the culprit before the deadline has passed. On the day of the deadline, he is summoned to be executed for his failure. As he bids farewell to all his family members, he hugs his beloved youngest daughter last. It is then, by complete accident, that he discovers a round object in her pocket which she reveals to be an apple with the name of the Caliph written on it. In the story's twist ending, the girl reveals that she brought it from their slave, Rayhan. Ja'far thus realizes that his own slave was the culprit all along. He then finds Rayhan and solves the case as a result. Ja'far, however, pleads to Harun to forgive his slave and, in exchange, narrates to him the "Tale of Núr al-Dín Alí and His Son Badr al-Dín Hasan".

The tales vary widely: they include historical tales, love stories, tragedies, comedies, poems, burlesques and various forms of erotica. There are so many themes for tales in these wonderful stories; the list goes on.
 Frame story
 Story within a story
 Dramatic visualization
 Fate and destiny
 Satire and parody
 Science fiction elements

And whom do we have to thank for this wonderful collection of stories? We don’t know.

The first stories in written form seem to go back to the 9th century, according to historians and scholars, but it is not known how long the stories may have existed in folk history before they were specially recorded in written form.

From Yahoo Answers.

“The Arabian Nights, is a collection of folk tales and other stories. The original concept is most likely derived from a pre-Islamic Iranian prototype that relied partly on Indian elements, but the work as we have it was collected over many centuries by various authors, translators and scholars across the Middle East and North Africa. The tales themselves trace their roots back to ancient and medieval Arabic, Persian, Indian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian folk-lore and literature. Though the oldest Arabic manuscript dates from the 14th century, scholarship generally dates the collection's genesis to around the 9th century."

"The tales in the collection can be traced to the ancient and medieval Arabic, Indian, Persian and Egyptian storytelling traditions. Many stories from Indian and Persian folklore parallel the tales as well as Jewish sources. These tales were probably in circulation before they were collected and codified into a single collection. This work was further shaped by scribes, storytellers, and scholars and evolved into a collection of three distinct layers of storytelling by the 15th century:”

We have a Frenchman, Antoine Galland, to thank, for bringing the collection to Europe and translating it for us..

From Wiki.
Antoine Galland had come across a manuscript of The Tale of Sindbad the Sailor in
the1690s and in 1701 he published his translation of it into French. Its success encouraged him to embark on a translation of a 14th-century Syrian manuscript of tales from The Thousand and One Nights. The first two volumes of this work, under the title Les mille et une nuits, appeared in 1704. The twelfth and final volume was published posthumously in 1717. Galland translated the first part of his work solely from the Syrian manuscript, but in 1709 he was introduced to a Christian Maronite monk from Aleppo, Hanna Diab, who recounted fourteen more stories to Galland from memory. Galland chose to include seven of these tales in his version of the Nights.

Mystery still surrounds the origins of some of the most famous tales. For instance, there are no Arabic manuscripts of Aladdin and Ali Baba which pre-date Galland's translation, leading some scholars to conclude that Galland invented them himself and the Arabic versions are merely later renderings of his original French.

Galland also adapted his translation to the taste of the time. The immediate success the tales enjoyed was partly due to the vogue for fairy stories which had been started in France in the 1690s by Galland's friend Charles Perrault. Galland was also eager to conform to the literary canons of the era. He cut many of the erotic passages as well as all of the poetry. This caused Sir Richard Burton to refer to "Galland's delightful abbreviation and adaptation" which "in no wise represents the eastern original." Burton’s translation was greeted with immense enthusiasm and had soon been translated into many other European languages: English (a "Grub Street" version appeared in 1706); German (1712); Italian (1722); Dutch (1732); and Russian (1763). They produced a wave of imitations and the widespread 18th century fashion for oriental tales. 

I only know the stories from children’s versions read to me, or from Christmas pantomimes. So my task, which I am looking forward to, is to read the tales as an adult.

Friday, 11 March 2011


I ask myself; am I racist? My response is swift; “No, of course not. Of course not. Never.” It may sound like a case of; “the lady doth protest too much,” but honestly, I don’t believe I am racist. I don’t think I’m better than anyone else, simply because they are a different colour to me, or they speak with a different accent. Those people are different to me. It doesn’t make me more important than them.

But it doesn’t hurt, does it, to have these internal dialogues sometimes? I kind of got put on the spot recently; or rather something jumped out at me, and I put myself on the spot. I was watching television, Holby City, a sort of hospital melodrama series on BBC1. This was the situation. A very English lady was quite obviously, uncomfortable at being examined by two doctors. She was white, the doctors were both black. The tension, at first, seemed to come from the patient’s modesty. An elderly lady, confronted by two youngish men, invading her privacy.

The scene went something like this:

(Woman patient in bed in hospital. A black doctor either side of the bed. The doctors need to examine her.)

WOMAN -- I don’t want you to touch me.
DOCTOR 1. -- Did I hurt you?
WOMAN. -- I want to make a complaint….Oh, what would be the point? Your sort always stick together.
DOCTOR 2 -- Your sort! What do you mean by our sort?
DOCTOR 1 -- She means doctors. Doctors always stick together.
DOCTOR 2 She means blacks! Blacks always stick together. You are racist!
WOMAN (looks at doctor 1) I am not racist. (she is silent for a moment, thinking) What is so wrong about wanting to be with your own kind?

I felt discomforted. I knew that the writers of Holby City, were making a point. The woman patient obviously was racist. She didn’t want to be close to black people, she didn’t want them touching her, breathing on her. She didn’t want to mix with them. She didn’t like them. Clearly, she could never be educated into changing her views. In her view of the world that is simply how it is. Black people and white people should not mix. And that’s when I thought, well what is wrong with wanting to be with your own kind? I debated with myself and the internal debate got quite irritated with me.

It seems to me, that the female patient in the scenario, was pointing out the obvious difference between her white self and the two black doctors. It would be silly to say that there is no difference; quite obviously, there is. Okay, all three in the scene are human beings, but human beings of a different colour. The woman’s prejudice has a long history and it is racist -- I try to imagine a scenario in which the patient in the bed is black and finds it repulsive to be treated by two white doctors. It makes a peculiar kind of sense, but it doesn’t, and I think that is because I don’t have a reference point in history to locate it to. I just can’t imagine it happening.

It is about difference, I think, and being afraid of someone who isn’t like you. Take away the colour model -- the difference could be someone of a different sexuality as you, a different religion, or no religion. The fear manifests because the individual is afraid of changes happening, the status quo being upset.

Scholars, like Michel Foucault, talk about “the Other.”

From Wiki.
“The Other or Constitutive Other (also the verb othering) is a key concept in continental philosophy; it opposes the Same. The Other refers, or attempts to refer, to that which is Other than the initial concept being considered. The Constitutive Other often denotes a person Other than one’s self; hence, the Other is identified as “different”; thus the spelling often is capitalised.

A person's definition of the 'Other' is part of what defines or even constitutes the self (in both a psychological and philosophical sense) and other phenomena and cultural units. It has been used in social science to understand the processes by which societies and groups exclude 'Others' whom they want to subordinate or who do not fit into their society. The concept of 'otherness' is also integral to the comprehending of a person, as people construct roles for themselves in relation to an 'other' as part of a process of reaction that is not necessarily related to stigmatisation or condemnation. Othering is imperative to national identities, where practices of admittance and segregation can form and sustain boundaries and national character. Othering helps distinguish between home and away, the uncertain or certain. It often involves the demonization and dehumanisation of groups, which further justifies attempts to civilize and exploit these 'inferior' others.

The region where I live in the U.K. has a lot of immigrants from Eastern Europe, particularly Polish people. I’ve overheard people grumble about them coming here; taking “our” jobs. Having access to our health service; “isn’t it shocking that there is even a Polish section in our small, town library?” They say that the Polish are miserable; they don’t smile, they don’t make eye contact with you.”

The “difference” has manifested itself; the people from Eastern Europe are the new “Other”.

Social Scientists talk about the “Folk Devil”, and “Moral Panics.” Folk Devils, like the Other, threaten the social order.

From Wiki.
A moral panic is the intensity of feeling expressed in a population about an issue that appears to threaten the social order. According toStanley Cohen, author of Folk Devils and Moral Panics (1972) and credited with coining the term, a moral panic occurs when "a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests." Those who start the panic when they fear a threat to prevailing social or cultural values are known by researchers as "moral entrepreneurs", while people who supposedly threaten the social order have been described as "folk devils."

“Moral panics are in essence controversies that involve arguments and social tension and in which disagreement is difficult because the matter at its center is taboo. The media have long operated as agents of moral indignation, even when they are not self-consciously engaged in crusading or muckraking. Simply reporting the facts can be enough to generate concern, anxiety or panic.”

Writing in the Independent newspaper, Tuesday 1st March 2011 Terence Blacker talks about Race. The article is actually about Racism in comedy, but I think it has pertinence here. Comedians feel the pressure of what it is “politically correct” to make jokes about.

“Have we ever been in such a muddle about the way race should be handled in our culture? One would think that comedy would lead the way in laughing at hypocrisy and confusion but, increasingly, it avoids the issue. There is a new nervousness about, as if laughing at prejudice is always in danger of being mistaken for laughing with it.

The problem is that these assumptions, sensible as they may be, strike at the heart of good comedy. Difference is funny; the clash of old and young, the past and the present, become meaningless if the writer is too nervous of offending the sensibilities of viewers, however unthinking those reactions may be. The result of this carefulness is to reduce the interesting, funny contrasts between different parts of our changing nation to a bland sameness. It is easier, less discomfiting, to look at what have in common.

We live in a society where difference is all around us, we should be celebrating those differences, not looking for reasons to be fearful.”

We have to pay attention to attitudes like the woman in the BBC hospital drama. Her distaste for black people, has its roots in the same ethos as Hitler and the Nazi party’s distaste for Jews. The Jew is the Nazi version of the Folk Devil. The Jew is the Other. The Holocaust, in all of its vile horror, is the manifestation of the Moral Panic at its most disgraceful and extreme. It is a shameful, disgusting event in history. Yet it happened; we don’t necessarily learn from history -- it could happen again. And the mood continues.

While on a skiing holiday in Austria, a friend took a taxi from the airport. Wanting to practice his German, my friend talked with the cab driver. This is in the year 2010, last year. The cab driver got onto the subject of the Jews. He talked about an International Jewish conspiracy to bring down the world banking systems. Jews were seeking world domination, infiltrating into governments and populations. Taking up positions in matters of culture; the Arts, television and film. Hmm…where have we heard that before?

You could almost write a little formula for demonization of a particular group. Gay people have felt the full force of it.

1.Set them apart, make jokes about them.
2.Start rumours about them.
3.They are dirty. They spread filthy diseases, which they pass on to unsuspecting straight people.
4. They congregate in exclusive groups.
5.Shout down anyone who tries to start a discussion, saying that the subject is taboo; be morally indignant and align the dissenter with the homosexuals. Jeer at him and suggest that he is one of them.

You only have to add that homosexuals are intending to become the majority, by proselytising their debauched practices to the young into the mix; start shouting, “what about the kids,” and you have the beginning of a moral panic. You certainly have homosexuals as the folk devil.

No, I’m not racist; neither am I homophobic. I may often be silly, cynical and make light of important subjects. I may be guilty of feeling uncomfortable when discussions get heated; so I’ll make a joke, try to lessen the tension. I can think of any number of people of my own ethnicity and sexuality, with whom I wouldn’t want to spend thirty seconds.

Friday, 4 March 2011


Samuel Taylor Coleridge was born in 1772, the 14th child of a Devon clergyman. Before his death in 1834, he wrote many poems and prose works (often of a religious or spiritual nature) which have become recognised as significant components of the Romantic movement. His work varies, ranging from short lyrical ballads, epic supernatural poems and long philosophical pieces.

He is often seen as playing second fiddle to his close friend William Wordsworth, but he was responsible for shaping much of the other's major writing. Coleridge's work is often beautiful, strange and haunting. His poems are still popular today, especially famous pieces like The Eolian Harp, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Christabel and, perhaps the best known, Kubla Khan.

The Romantic movement is generally acknowledged to have taken place between around 1780 and 1830, and poetry particularly, can be seen to be the beginning of 'modern' thinking about nature, spirituality and philosophy; even anticipating twentieth century ways of thinking, such as Gaiaism and Environmentalism.

During this period, poets began to challenge traditional views of rationality, religion and human interaction with the world around us. While still drawing upon the images and sensibilities of their predecessors, the Romantic poets began to assemble a vision of a harmonic universe that did not rely on the old hierarchy of God, human, beast and plant. Part of the Romantic movement also embraced Pantheism;

“…the view that the Universe (Nature) and God are identical. Pantheists, thus do not believe in a personal, anthropomorphic or a creator god. The word derives from the Greek: pan meaning ‘all’ and  theos meaning ‘God’. As such, Pantheism denotes the idea that “God” is best seen as a way of relating to the Universe. Although there are divergences within Pantheism, the central ideas found in almost all versions are the Cosmos as an all-encompassing unity and the sacredness of Nature.” (Definition from Wiki.)

The populist view of these men and women is one of proto-hippies, wandering around the countryside stoned, hallucinating and becoming one with nature. While some of these elements do hold true, this simplistic overview misses many of the deeper social, political, religious and intellectual issues raised by these pioneers of poetry. Some of the great names to be associated with the movement were William and Dorothy Wordsworth, William Blake, Lord Byron, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats and Thomas de Quincey.

Kubla Khan was written in 1798, but not published until much later at the request of Lord Byron. The poem is usually printed with a preface written by Coleridge that explains some of the detail of how it came to be written. Specifically, he claims that the original work came to him in a dream while he was under medication. The poem was meant to be some 200 - 300 lines long3 and came to the poet fully formed. However, he was interrupted when he was writing down the work and when he came to continue, all he could remember was the remaining fragment. The vision of a palace built for the mighty Kublai Khan, came from the book Purchas's Pilgrimage which Coleridge says he was reading when he fell asleep.

Here is the little tale; it amuses me, but also reminds me of the many times that I have thought of a wonderful metaphor, usually when I’m doing something dull, like washing the dishes. Nothing as glamorous as being stoned in an opium haze -- only to find that the wonderful idea, has just slipped away.

“The Person from Porlock, was an unwelcome visitor to Samuel Taylor Coleridge during his composition of the poem Kubla Khan. Coleridge claimed to have perceived the entire course of the poem in a dream (possibly an opium-induced haze), but was interrupted by this visitor from Porlock (a village in the South West of England, near Exmoor) while in the process of writing it. Kubla Khan, only 54 lines long, was never completed. Thus "Person from Porlock", "Man from Porlock", or just "Porlock" are literary allusions to unwanted intruders.”

English poet and essayist Thomas De Quincey speculated, in his own Confessions of an English Opium Eater, that the mysterious figure may have been Coleridge's physician, Dr. P. Aaron Potter, who regularly supplied the poet with laudanum.

The poem mixes fantastical images of the place where Kubla Khan had ordered his pleasure dome to be constructed with Coleridge's yearning to return to the vision. In purely Romantic terms, the imagery in the poem shows the serene beauty and frightening violence of nature tamed by human thought and craft. There is also a spiritual undercurrent in the veneration of the environment and the prophetic wisdom of the ancients. The poet also places his own involvement within a religious framework by saying that he has 'drunk the milk of paradise' by having this dream. More modern interpretations might focus on Coleridge's relationship with drugs and how he seems to wish to withdraw into his hallucinations. A parallel could be drawn between the imagery of a contradictory landscape and the human psyche.

However the poem is viewed or interpreted, its timeless beauty and surreal qualities make it stand out as one of the great works of English literature.

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree :
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
    Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round :
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree ;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

    But oh ! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
    Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover !
    A savage place ! as holy and enchanted
    As e'er beneath a waning moon was haunted
    By woman wailing for her demon-lover !
    And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
    As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
    A mighty fountain momently was forced :
    Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst
    Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,
    Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher's flail :
    And 'mid these dancing rocks at once and ever
    It flung up momently the sacred river.
    Five miles meandering with a mazy motion
    Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
    Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
    And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean :
    And 'mid this tumult Kubla heard from far
    Ancestral voices prophesying war !

    The shadow of the dome of pleasure
    Floated midway on the waves ;
    Where was heard the mingled measure
    From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice !
    A damsel with a dulcimer
    In a vision once I saw :
    It was an Abyssinian maid,
    And on her dulcimer she played,
    Singing of Mount Abora.
    Could I revive within me
    Her symphony and song,
    To such a deep delight 'twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome ! those caves of ice !
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware ! Beware !
His flashing eyes, his floating hair !
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close your eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise.