A Non-Fiction Writer’s Holiday

By Myrna Kostash | July 23, 2003

Is it possible for a nonfiction writer to have a pure holiday? I thought so, as I left Edmonton for Heathrow on a month’s holiday in June. I had planned it as a leisurely itinerary from one friend to another, in England, Scotland and the south of France, visiting people and places not even remotely connected with my current writing projects (Byzantium, and the North Saskatchewan River). However, I was still reading newspapers and hanging out at my favorite provocative venues and collecting pamphlets and postcards, so it was inevitable that the on-going world of controversy and contention caught my attention, even as I dawdled in cafes and bookstores, and strolled on heaths and firths, and, at five o’clock in the afternoon in the French village of Montlaur in my cousin’s soon-to-be B&B, drank a glass of pastis no matter what.

Take France, for example. Massive strikes plans had been going on for some weeks by unionized workers against proposed national reforms to their pension, but the day I flew into Carcassonne all was quiet – for a day. Settling down with the pastis on a scorching late afternoon, I read a couple of newspapers, the national Le Monde [June 14 2003] and the regional La Depeche du Midi [June 17 2003]. In the former, I learned that thousands of militant strikers in Marseilles whistled and hooted at Bernard Thibault, Secretary General of the CGT (France’s largest congress of labour unions) when, instead of calling for an immediate general strike, he had encouraged people to send postcards to their MPs "pour amplifier la mobilisation." As if.

Further into the paper, I read of a fascinating, even ghoulish, show-down at a venerable leftist journal, Politis, between one of its founding editors, Fabrice Nicolino, and the rest of the editorial board together with a passel of the journal’s readers. The dispute had been provoked by Nicolino’s column of May 8, 2003, in which he editorialized on the issue of pension plans and retirement packages – the very issues dearest to the unionists’ hearts. Nicolino’s politics are on the eco-left, and the spectre of millions of retiring baby boomers, fat with their pensions, descending on the French equivalent of Wal-Marts and SUV show lots and Burger Kings, made his hair stand on end. The reporter on the case wondered: "Is it possible to criticize the opposition to the planned retirement package reforms in a magazine of the Left?" Or had a chasm in fact been opened up between the two movements: socialism and ecology?

Nicolino argued that the 500 million middle class consumers of the "north" are unleashing an ecological catastrophe, "probably out of control," even as the residents of the "south" are reduced to living on one or two Euros a day. "We are living longer and longer, we really don’t work more than 23 to 25 years. Those with pretentions to extreme leftism have become reactionary. Why don’t we hear the least criticism of the proliferation of useless goods and of the hyper-consumption dear to so many pensioners?"

The usual suspects, the "indignant," discharged their volleys in the next issue. "Do you really believe that the pauperization of pensioners will aid in solving climate change?" "How will it help the situation of the countries of the south to have French workers work longer hours for incomes reduced by 30-40%?" Nicolino refined his argument: he did, "in principle," support the unions’ demands; the problem was that these demands bore no relationship to the global ecological crisis, "the drama that dominates and shapes our epoch, "and he found himself no longer in solidarity with those who "fight for the maintenance of their often privileged personal situation without questioning the concrete means by which we live and spend." The editorial committee of Politis in turn was inflamed by the debate, which led to Nicolino’s decision to resign. Still, he has his fans. One of them congratulated him on his "courage" for going on the offensive against that cliché of economic opinion of all French political classes, "that our happiness
is directly related to our [economic] growth," and another, at Politis itself, admitted that the left is too hung up on the "cult" of progress and growth. [www.politis.fr]

The columnist in the regional paper, Jean-Pierre Bedei, while deploring the caricatured image of a France cut in two according to the old Marxist formula of the "class struggle," nevertheless described the rhetorical environment in just those succinct terms: "…a rather surrealist Manichean confrontation between ‘bourgies’ and ‘proles’ which has rapidly evolved into hateful invective, exacerbated by a disproportionate police intervention." …I think I’ll have some more of that pastis, please.

As it happens, the part of France in which I was holidaying – Languedoc-Roussillon – is no stranger to violent social struggle. Only a few kilometres down the road lies the village of Lagrasse and its medieval abbey founded, according to legend, by Charlemagne as he passed through on his way to fight the Moors in Spain. During the French campaigns, incited by Pope Innocent III to repress the popular Cathar "heresy" [the rigid demarcation of good and evil worlds, with the Catholic church firmly in the latter] which rooted itself in southern France in the thirteenth century, Lagrasse’s abbot played the dubious role of mediator in the savage crusade. (Those murdered in the devastated cities all around here in Languedoc numbered in the tens of thousands.) In other words, he "secured the surrender" of the rebel city of Carcassonne to the king in 1226. You can tell from the tone of the rest of the pamphlet distributed at the abbey-museum that this was a happy ending from the point of view of the French state and a once-terrified Church. But you have to wonder whether Cathar dualism, which reached right back into the Gnostic heresies of the early Church in the east, has ever really been wiped out, or lost its usefulness. As a religious historian explains its appeal: "Dualism was always attractive because it explained the role of devils, who were everywhere." (Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity)

The Church reserved for itself the right to redistribute among the faithful Crusaders the lands confiscated by the defeated heretics. Alas, come the Revolution of 1789, the monastic community, reduced to fourteen monks, was itself dispersed, and the property nationalized.

Crusaders and religious military orders such as the Templars poured war-like and ardent out of their southern French castles to overthrow the adversaries of the Christian faith, Cathars, Huguenots and most especially Moslems in the Holy Land. Yet here I was, some 800 years later, in the city of Narbonne, after a pleasant lunch of mussels and frites in the pitiless heat of the breezeless cathedral square, making a tour of "The Oriental Mirage," a collection of "Orientalist " paintings in the Museum of Art and History. All is forgiven, it seems, at least on the French side. Here, for example, is the bare-breasted Black girl at the ornate (must be Turkish) fountain, balancing a jug of water on her head, and the bare-breasted Gypsy maid, bearing a warrior’s helmet on a silver platter. The Muslim adversary has become "the inspiring source of colors and forms for a Europe fascinated by the fantasy of a Harem." Nineteenth-century writer Theophile Gauthier quipped that "Europeans talk a lot about poetry, Orientals put it into action." Sumptuous and shimmering, this mirage of the Oriental "other" is the erotic analogue of that other Oriental subject, served up to the Crusaders: hook-nosed, hissing, and in scandalous occupation of Christianity’s holy sites.

As someone who has spent the last several years obsessed by the history of the cultures at the eastern end of the Mediterranean (Byzantine, Slavic, Ottoman, Orthodox), it was useful to be reminded of how western Europeans see their own historical context, which is to say, usually without reference to eastern Christianity. So, for example, the French remain traumatized – to judge from a tourism brochure, "Discover Cathar Country" – by the fact that it was a Catholic primate, Innocent III, who rallied the "only crusade ever led on Catholic lands," Christians shedding Christian blood in appalling and pitiless violence – but remain untroubled by that equally horrific anti-Christian crusade, the Fourth, that culminated in the sack of Constantinople in 1204, capital city of the Christian Roman Empire, aka Byzantium. And the Eastern Christians weren’t even heretics!

In London, in the new and grand British Library just down the street from King’s Cross station, I spent a couple of vigilant hours at the special exhibit, "Painted Labyrinth: The World of the Lindisfarne Gospels," curious to see how far east that world extended. It was a gorgeous exhibit, dedicated to an 8th century masterpiece of illuminated manuscript right there under glass, written and painted in honour of the Northumbrian saint, Cuthbert. "If you’re interested in understanding more about yourself and your heritage you’ll find new questions and new answers to the maze of the past," a Library brochure assured me. Well, Anglo-Saxon and Celtic culture is part of my heritage, along with those Byzantines, given my grandparents’ homesteads in English-speaking Canada: would I understand myself better?

About a hundred years after Byzantium’s emperor extraordinaire, Justinian, built Christianity’s largest and still stupendous monument, the Hagia Sofia [Holy Wisdom] in Constantinople, Irish monks founded the remote and cheerless monastery at Lindisfarne. When it came time to bury their great saint, Cuthbert, they wrapped him in "exotic silks from the eastern Mediterranean," dyed purple in a technique that remained unknown in the west for another few centuries. When they sat down to paint their miniatures on the vellum pages of the Gospel, they laboured under the influence of the "linear style of mosaic portraits" gloriously achieved at Ravenna, that Byzantine city of Justinian patronage. Four hundred years after the peoples of the eastern Mediterranean received their Ecclesiastical History – ten volumes, by Eusebius, Bishop of Caesarea – the English peoples finally received theirs from Bede, Britain’s first historian, in 731. Unlike the worldly Eusebius, Bede never travelled outside his home terrain, Northumbria, just one instance of the shrunken world of western Christianity compared to the intellectual and literary riches of the late Greco-Roman civilization inherited by Byzantium. But, as we all know now, the Brits would have their day, and this superb manuscript from Lindisfarne graphically fuses the cultures that lie in the British brain stem: Celtic, Romano-British and Germanic.

But in June 2003 young Londoners are post-imperial navel-gazers, to judge from the polite and well-dressed crowd packed into the theatre of the ICA [Institute for Contemporary Art] a stone’s throw from Buckingham Palace, for a panel, "Empire Strikes Back," organized by The Economist magazine. They came not to denounce the American Empire but to look again at their own historical legacy. "Can empires be double-edged," asked the flyer, "traumatically imposing modernity and even democracy on their subjects?" (I should have brown-bagged a chicken curry sandwich to tide me over this one.) The questions arrived direct from panelist Niall Ferguson’s book, Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World, which has revised the dire version of the British Empire (the one all we New Leftists from the 1960s-70s recognized from the work of dissident historians such as Robin Blackburn, another panelist). "’Imperialism is a fashionable term once more," the flyer continued, with a nod to Ferguson’s best-seller.

Ferguson, youthful, cheeky, and rather full of himself, declared that "the British Empire was good for the global economy and therefore for global welfare," and charged the American Empire with being in denial of their own global power – he called it Inattention Span Disorder. "Greatness is being thrust on the USA," he lamented, a la Michael Ignatieff, and no one even hissed. With a sigh and heave of his shoulders, Blackburn once more trundled out the artillery of Marxist economics – "empires don’t deliver economic development but semi-colonialism" – and argued that it is nationalism and social movements from below, not empire, that will deliver "freedom." No one cheered. For all that the crowd was youthful, diverse and attentive, it was oddly passionless. During the Q&A that followed, the panelists had all the best lines about values and empire ("The USA and Islam both believe in the connection between morality and a belief in God," the moderator, Ngaire Woods from Oxford University, interjected) and I never got the chance to ask my question of Blackburn: "Is all resistance futile?"

The Enlightenment, Ferguson asserted to considerable hilarity, is a Scottish achievement. He was dead serious. It came from Calvinism "and Islam isn’t going to produce anything like it." I thought about that one-liner a few days later in Scotland, reading the Scottish papers while enjoying drams of peaty whiskey in one of Robbie Burns’ favorite pubs in Dumfries. Maybe the Scots aren’t going to reproduce it either, to judge from one columnist’s anguished survey of Scotland’s "culture shock." Liverpool had just been announced Britain’s Capital of Culture for 2008, as Glasgow had been in 1990 (utterly changing it.) But that was a long time ago. Now, in a devolving, but always Labour, Scotland, the political class no longer seems to believe, as they did in Thatcherite 1990 and as Liverpudlians now do, that "culture is not only about providing great art but is seen as the key to regenerating cities and transforming lives," in the words of columnist Magnus Linklater in Scotland on Sunday [June 8 2003]. No, in spite of the invigorating examples of Welsh and English cities reinventing themselves through artistic innovations – a flour mill turned into an electrifying art gallery, a re-landscaped port, an Arts Council touting the arts as a social unifying force – Scotland chooses philistinism. Standstill budgets, freezing of opera production, measuring outcomes instead of creativity, no obvious political champion of the arts: "Our approach," writes Linklater, "is niggardly, grudging and parsimonious."

The complaint was awfully familiar. I had left Alberta for a holiday and came full circle around to the same old place. Mind broadening, isn’t it? Travel, I mean.

2343 words July 23rd, 2003


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