paleo Ideofact

Wednesday, June 11, 2003
I love James Lileks' wonderful site. This page, from his recent series on post-War, pre-mall America, reminded me of something from my past. Lileks writes:
Between the Kay’s and the Berland’s store (far right) is a Lerner Shops. Kress, for those who lived in Kresge Country, was, well, like Kresge's, which was like Woolworth's. Kress built much bigger stores than its rival, and rented out the top. (Incidentally, Kress and Kresge split up the country, and never competed head to head. Making the story even more peculiar, Kresge's full name was S. S. Kresge, and Kress went by S. H. Kress. The Kress chain is gone, but the elegant storefronts remain in many smaller downtowns. Kresge, of course, shortened its name, abandoned downtown, and became K-Mart.
My first ever job was as a stock boy at a Woolworths. The store had a manager, an associate manager, and beneath them, two assistant managers. One of them was a guy named Mr. Kresge (actually, a very nice guy -- when my fellow stock boys and I were about to graduate from high school, bound for college, he lamented that we weren't old enough for him to take us out for some "joy juice," to which a pal of mine responded, "Hey, prohibition ended decades ago.").

Nice though he was, like everyone else at Woolworths, we had a nickname for him: Mr. K-Mart.

Even more troubling history
Sorry to carry on about this, but I can't help myself. I'll be brief: apparently, Jeronimus Cornelisz (also referred to in the text of Mike Dash's book Batavia's Graveyard as Jeronimus Corneliszoon), the mad heretic mutineer of the subtitle, legally assumed control of the shipwrecked survivors. Meanwhile, Francisco Pelsaert, the commander of the Batavia, made all those aboard the long boat he took in search of water swear an oath that they agreed with his decision to abandon the search and head for Java -- which according to Dash (in the text this time, not the footnotes) was an act of desertion -- a dereliction of duty.

When he signed on with the Dutch East India Company, Cornelisz was a broken man -- bankrupt (which, to the mercantile Dutch, was as much a moral as a financial sin), his infant son dead of syphilis, his reputation ruined. The great venture by which he would restore his fortunes ended shipwrecked on a chain of islands with no fresh water and limited opportunities for securing food. His two commanding officers left him in charge of the survivors. He first spread the population out among the various islands, but was well aware that the food would not last. To rectify this, he began by ordering the killings of the sick, the lame, and eventually women and children. (If he ordered these killings at all -- the evidence for this comes from Pelsaert's journals, based on the confessions of the "mutineers" extracted under torture.) I do not for a moment sympathize with Cornelisz -- faced with a difficult situation, he turned to a monstrous solution -- but I do have a certain affinity for truth, and as such, it is hard for me to credit the account Dash gives. A little skepticism would have served him well.

Tuesday, June 10, 2003
Shouted down? ...
...or perhaps politely asked to stop speaking -- the article is unclear. has published an English translation of remarks delivered by Kamal Mirawdeli to a meeting of Iraqi intellectuals in London in December of 2002. The note at the top of his remarks says that Mirawdeli was stopped halfway through his speech. I wish they had said why. One reason may be that the rhetoric seems intended to wound, and there is very little in the way of constructive criticism in the speech. It's not too hard to imagine that, if you're an exile from a totalitarian state, you wouldn't feel the need to sit through a blistering critique of totalitarianism. On the other hand, if you're religious fundamentalist totalitarian, or a communist totalitarian, or an Arab nationalist totalitarian, who lost out to the Ba'ath quasi-National Socialist brand of totalitarian, you might not take too kindly to a denunciation of totalitarianism generally.

On the other hand, beginning with a statement that the the semantics of the conference are a waste of time probably didn't endear him to his fellows. But I wonder whether Mirawdeli's focus on Arab culture (which oddly enough includes Turkish and Persian culture) didn't ruffle the feathers of his Arab listeners:
The Middle Eastern dominant state culture which creates the individual in its own image, keeps him in his cell, and makes the intellectual an instrument of the Sultan, and peoples his slaves. The Arab Middle Eastern dominant state culture is in all its meanings, dimensions and effects, a salafi, reactionary, racist, supremacist, enslaving and illusionist culture. In a word, it is an ideological culture. It is rather ideology before being culture.

It serves the state power, and functions to maintain the racist discriminative enslaving institutions of the state which are based on the worship of the individual/the ruler. The essence of trouble with Arab and Middle Eastern culture [including Turkish and Persian] is its inability to recognise the Other. Its inability and resistance to recognise difference, diversity and plurality. It is a despotic unitary culture based on the repression of the other, conquering and assimilating him. It is the culture of marginalizing others and destroying them. It is a deformed historical heir to all the repressive and oppressive traditions, methods and forms of Oriental despotism.

It is a culture which survives and thrives on the past: sanctifying the past, glorifying it and petrifying it for the purpose of repressing the present and restraining the future. It is a consumist culture: consumes, but does not produce; takes but does not give; interprets but does not comprehend, resides in the past but lives as a parasite on the present of others. It is the culture of Deity-father, Prophet-leader, and the Sole-commander of One obedient marching nation. It is the culture of muddle, merger and melting that systematically suppresses aspiration, separation, differentiation, definition and distinction. It is the culture of roaring oratories, deluge of rhetoric and drought of reason. It is the culture of reproduction of repressive totalitarian power which enslaves the individual and insults man’s dignity and humanity.
This comes roughly at the middle of the speech, after Mirawdeli says that the average Arab man or woman is half animal, half human, by which he means:
His animal half represents his enslavement by the state.

His human half represents his legitimate natural noble human aspiration to become a fully fulfilled human being who can think freely and express his thoughts freely.
I wonder when he was asked to stop speaking (or shouted down). In what I imagine was the undelivered portion of the address, he writes movingly of the plight of the Kurds:
I was a child when I felt that my language was being killed. But I didn’t hear any voice of protest, just the noise of jungle beasts. I was a child when I felt that the songs of my village were being murdered. But I didn’t hear any voice of objection, just the howl of jungle wolves. I was a young man when my younger brother was killed with napalm. But I heard no voice protesting the death of my brother, just the bloodthirstiness of jungle beasts. And my native village was destroyed with chemical weapons in March 1988. I heard no voice of condemnation, just the bawl of jungle beasts.

Then the town in which I grew, studied and taught and in which over 100,000 lived, was bulldozed to earth in August 1988. But I heard no voices of protest, just the roars of jungle. When I returned to my Kurdistan in 1992 after 10 years in exile, there was no more “my Kurdistan”. My village was rubble and weeds. My town was rubble and ruins. 4000 other villages and towns had been obliterated. Over 2000 people, many I knew, had disappeared.

But 70 years of calling for fraternity, common history and destiny, shared religion and faith, did not create even one voice of conscience, one genuine protest, one true sense of solidarity. Even the news was not allowed to be whispered. Many still do not know, many know but still deny. Kurdish holocaust never happened because those who did it were Arabs and Muslims! All Arab countries were supporting Saddam in his genocide against the Kurds with money, arms, propaganda and political and diplomatic support. Arab writers and poets were competing to sing Saddam’s heroism and Arabism. Saddam was the symbol for all Arabs: great Father, the embodiment of Arab values and mission.

Brothers, for me the values of Arabism were no more than the values of jungle. And what you call Islamic Shari’a, was no more than the law of the jungle. I did not hear an Arab voice, an Islamic voice condemning the mass killing of Kurdish muslim women and children. So, believe me, it is not Saddam. It is the culture which produced Saddam and before Saddam produced many Hajajs and Zaids. It is the culture of despotism which prevails and predominates Arab life and Islamic societies. It is this unitary culture that knows only one and sacrifices the rest for one.
The whole piece is worth reading, and pondering...

A contemporary question
The other day, I reread the whole of the Zbigniew Herbert essay, Still Life with a Bridle, available in this collection. I quite liked this passage, referring to the period when the Dutch painter Torrentius was imprisoned for impiety:
...a special commission of experts was convened, headed by Frans Hals, to examine whether one could perform art under prison conditions. It is deplorable that the report on this important and, unfortunately, still contemporary question has not survived to our times.
Herbert, a Pole, referred of course to Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe; I was almost going to add some optimistic note, but as yet there's little call for it -- in far too many countries, this remains a contemporary question.

Sunday, June 08, 2003
I'm still reading Mike Dash's Batavia's Graveyard, which is subtitled, The True Story of the Mad Heretic who led History's Bloodiest Mutiny. Authors don't always get to choose their subtitles, so perhaps Dash can be forgiven the one gracing his tome.

I'm only 139 pages into its 332 pages of text (plus 131 pages of notes -- I've been reading those as I go along). I've reached the point of the book in which the Batavia, a Dutch East India ship carrying more than 300 people and a fortune in silver, has run aground and broken up on Houtman's Abrolhos, a chain of islands and reefs about 110 miles west of Australia. The commander of the ship, Francisco Pelsaert, and the ship's captain (he was the senior naval officer, but took orders from Pelsaert, an official of the Dutch East India Company), Ariaen Jacobsz, set out in a longboat with 45 or so of the sailors and the survivors, seeking aid. About 250 others remained shipwrecked (the rest presumably drowned). The third senior officer, Jeronimus Corneliszoon, remained behind -- he is the mad heretic of the subtitle.

I noted below, a little further up, that the connection Dash tries to make between Corneliszoon and Torrentius -- to establish heretical views -- is shaky at best (and indeed, was Torrentius even a heretic, or perhaps an altogether different sort of phenomenon -- a Dutch precursor of the Marquis de Sade?); in another end note, Dash writes that "there is no definite proof" that Corneliszoon was an Anabaptist (although there is some evidence for it, although some of it points to him being a Mennonite, who certainly differed from the predominant Calvinist theology but were peaceable, and did not have a potentially bloodthirsty millenniarian theology).

So far, the evidence for heresy strikes me as rather weak (of course, heresy is an elastic term, and although I come from Calvinist roots, I would hardly be comfortable with the notion that any Christian sect that deviated from the Calvinist line was heretical). So too, now, seems to be the evidence for mutiny.

In his fourth chapter, Dash explains that a sweeping conspiracy, involving Corneliszoon, Jacobsz the captain, the boatswain, and many others had taken root on the ship. Allegedly, they planned to kill Pelsaert and turn pirate. The only thing that prevented its coming to fruition was the shipwreck itself.

If the ship's second and third ranking officers were participants, it stands to reason that the aim of the mutiny -- the commander himself -- is the only one who has to be deposed. (True, others in the crew may be loyal to the captain, but if a mutiny is planned by the senior officers, it should be relatively easy to do away with the top man -- who might be poisoned or quietly strangled in his quarters and dumped overboard -- and then apparently legally take control of the ship.) Dash even informs us that Pelsaert was taken ill with a high fever for about three weeks, and hung between life and death. Corneliszoon had been an apothecary before sailing on the Batavia -- surely this would have been the perfect opportunity to do away with the commander. Yet instead the mutineers arranged to have eight sailors smear the face of a high-born woman with a mixture of dung and tar in the hopes that Pelsaert's punishment would be so severe that the crew would spontaneously rise against him.

I read with interest this line in the endnotes (which is not alluded to in the text):
The only surviving material concerning the beginnings of the Batavia mutiny can be found in Pelsaert's journals. Much of the information was extracted under torture and -- given the potential impact that the mutiny was likely to have on the commandeur's career -- it is unfortunate that there is a total lack of corroboration. The accuracy of the testimonies recorded thus remains open to question; nevertheless, the account that emerges from the journals is internally consistent and -- in places -- so outrageous that it seems unlikely to be outright invention.
Under torture, men and women have admitted to any number number of fantasies concocted by their inquisitors that were internally consistent and, in places, quite outrageous. Indeed, physical impossibilities were confessed to -- flying through the air, causing illness and misfortune with incantations, consorting with the devil. So too elaborate conspiracies -- wrecking the Soviet economy, plotting counterrevolution, overthrowing Stalin. The testimony of torture is useful for understanding the suspicions, ideas and worldview of torturers, not of the tortured. That it is Pelsaert's journal -- his summaries of testimony given under torture -- which is the sole source of this information does not greatly improve upon its reliability.

None of this is to say that Dash will not deliver in the chapters I have yet to read a tale of horror the events of which were authored by Corneliszoon. But I'm still waiting for both the mad heretic and the mutiny to make their appearance...