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Tuesday 24 April 2018

Fake Words: Problems of Transliteration from Russian and Ukrainian

The late Fred Halliday – a Professor who once warned the London School of Economics against entangling itself with the Gaddafi regime – thought that the role of diasporas in the politics of their homelands is always negative. The idea is expressed in a posthumous collection of his essays, Political Journeys (Saqi 2011). Diasporas, especially moneyed ones, adopt a proprietorial attitude towards a homeland to which they have little or no intention of returning, whether the land is Armenia, Ireland or Israel. Diaspora organisations use their influence to support hardline positions against local politicians when those are inevitably tempted to pragmatic adjustments aimed at making peace with neighbours who, in the diaspora view of things, are supposed to remain enemies forever.

When it comes to soft power, to culture rather than guns, diasporas unite around traditionalist, conservative positions. Culture is something to be upheld and to remain the same, brought out for high days and holidays but otherwise preserved in a well-funded museum. Living cultures, of course, change all the time and those who inhabit them are lax about the boundaries between their own and those of their supposed enemies.

In Ukraine, for example, inhabitants are frequently polled and asked to identify themselves as either Ukrainian or Russian speakers and willingly do so. However, those who thus identify themselves are very often found mixing the two supposedly distinct languages, with or without awareness of what they are doing. This may well be true for a majority of the population, though those who are formally classified as speakers of a mixed language, labelled Surzhyk, are counted at between 10 and 20 % of the population. I think there is little doubt that is an under-estimate.

Left to their own devices, most speakers gravitate towards mixing and that is something language purists cannot tolerate. In France, the Academie Française fights an unending rearguard action against it.

In relation to Ukrainian, diasporas, notably in the USA, are on permanent alert to ensure that in writing about Ukraine, English language authors transliterate from good Ukrainian versions of words rather than equivalent but bad Russian ones. Thus it is that we have come to write about Kyiv not Kiev. If you don’t want to annoy your Ukrainian friends, but want to keep life simple, you can get by with a very simple App which converts the G in your translation to H and O to I, and so on. So Kharkov (a transliteration from the Russian version of the city name) becomes Kharkiv and the place name ending which indicates a town goes from –gorod to –horod. The list isn’t that long. 

The trouble with this way of trying to keep your friends happy is that you may end up using words which are not simply anachronistic but, worse, may never have been used by anyone until linguistic ideologues armed with their App inserted them into the pages of Wikipedia and other online sources. An ideologue and still less an App does not recognise that the road to error is paved with the mechanical application of things which may be good enough for everyday rules of thumb but not for more serious calculation.

Early on in her book, Red Famine: Stalin’s War On Ukraine (2017), Anne Applebaum mentions the well-known fact that “John Hughes, a Welshman, founded the city now known as Donetsk”, about the spelling of which there seems to be no argument, and goes on to say that it was “originally called ‘Yuzivka’ in  his honour” (p 9).

Oh no, it wasn’t! Hughes had been invited to the Donbass [Ukrainian Donbas] by Russia’s Tsarist government in 1869. It was no modest undertaking that was projected: Hughes formed an English company to raise three hundred thousand pounds for the construction of an iron smelter, a rail-producing plant, the development of coal mines, and the building of a long branch railway line to connect to the main Russian network. All this is documented in fascinating detail in Theodore H. Friedgut’s two volume work, published in 1989 and 1994 by Princeton University Press, under the title Iuzovka and Revolution, transliterating from the Russian Юзовка the name of this company town named after its founder. The Iu  at the front can be replaced by Yu to avoid the un-English feel of the former, but what tells us that this is a Russian word is the O in both the Russian original and the English transliteration.

Iuzovka or Yuzovka was briefly called Trotsk [after Trotsky] in 1923 though even now that’s hard to document, was officially renamed Stalino in 1924, and converted to Donetsk in 1961. I don’t think anyone ever called it Yuzivka. Yuzivka is an invention. It’s a fake word and to use it anachronistically is to allow a historical falsification. But when I googled Yuzivka I got 17 500 results, slightly ahead of Yuzovka, well ahead of Iuzovka. The ideologues have been very busy. It’s rather as if Flemish nationalists had gone through the Internet converting all occurrences of the very old French-speaking city name Liége into Luik which is what road signs in Flemish-speaking parts of Belgium now call it, sometimes to the confusion of naïve foreign motorists (they confused me first time I tried to drive there).

In a historical work to use Iuzovka / Yuzovka does  not suppress the Ukrainian language or Ukrainian identity; it reflects the fact that in the period of its existence until its name was changed, Iuzovka / Yuzovka was an overwhelmingly Russian town, planted in the Donbass by the Imperial government and built and managed by foreigners, of whom there were many. Hughes himself died in St Petersburg in 1889, but he was only there because he was negotiating deals for the Iuzovka plant.
Only by acknowledging that they did things differently in the past, even named differently, can one then go on to consider how the inhabitants of Iuzovka related to the surrounding and undoubtedly Ukrainian countryside. Friedgut is blunt:

“The nearby Ukrainian peasants were not on the best of terms with the mining settlements and viewed them as foreign both ethically and ethnically…. The relatively few Ukrainians employed in the mines and metallurgy works were also embroiled in ethnic tensions despite their acculturation to the dominant Russian milieu of the region” (volume 1, page 208)

“The separation of Russians and Ukrainians remained throughout the entire period [1869-1924]. Until the Soviet regime brought him by force majeure, the Ukrainian peasant was least inclined to enter the mines or factories as a hired worker, and first to leave it in time of crisis. His ties to his village were strong and directly at hand.  The Donbass thus remained within the Ukraine but not of it” (vol 1, page 331)

There was never a Ukrainian Yuzivka, only a Russian Iuzovka, and that is one reason why we have a problem still today, not only with names but with the guns of the Donetsk People’s Republic.

Sunday 22 April 2018

Review: Sara Baume A Line Made By Walking

This is very good. There is really no plot, but right through I wanted to keep reading. It’s true that I did not read it as a novel but rather as an autobiography recollected – that is, crafted – in tranquillity. There is an enormous amount of skilful, talented crafting here. There is also a lot going on and any summary will be partial: a young woman holed up in her late grandmother’s isolated bungalow going through a nervous breakdown or, at least, a long episode of serious depression which makes isolation less of a challenge than human contact, less of a challenge than human intercourse. There is no sex and that is very striking and when it is alluded to, it appears only in the context of violence or the threat of violence: being followed, being stalked, being attacked. There is some use of alcohol to escape and consistent use of the natural world both as a thing to think the depression and sometimes overcome it. An obvious compare & contrast book to read beside this one would be Amy Liptrot’s The Outrun (reviewed here on 19 September 2016  ).

The author makes use of two devices which are played off against the main narrative. Frankie (the narrator) photographs animals dead in the garden or at the roadside and each of the ten chapters is titled for the dead animal whose photograph appears somewhere in the chapter pages: Robin, Rabbit, Rat, Mouse, Rook, Fox, Frog, Hare, Hedgehog, Badger - the usual cast of roadside fatalities.  I have my doubts about this. Modern digital printing allows for small grey and white images to be inserted into text (usually as 600 dpi jpg’s), at no extra cost,  rather than separated out onto expensive gloss paper photograph pages. I don’t think these thumbnail snaps work very well, in this book or in others I have looked at, and it may be that Baume’s descriptions would have sufficed – or worked better - without the inevitably disappointing grey-scale photographs themselves. Baume somewhere rightly remarks that making it bigger does not make it art, but in the case of photographs I don’t think you can appreciate them as thumbnails. Miniatures almost certainly do not work as art – that is why museums of miniatures are museums of curiosities rather than museums of art.

Her second device, very impressively deployed, is to find an art work – usually a work of conceptual art – which relates to a theme, a topic she is discussing and to list and thumbnail- describe the work in a separated paragraph which always begins with a formulaic phrase on the pattern of  Works About Killing Animals, I test myself: …

 Some of these works are well-known like Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) or Richard Long’s A Line Made By Walking (1967), but most are more obscure. Though Baume at the end of the book (pages 303- 307) urges us to go to the works ourselves, I suspect she has actually and accidentally already illustrated the weakness of conceptual art: that you don’t have to see it, experience it, to respond to it. You just need a description – you just need the Concept which it was designed to illustrate. Conceptual art is basically illustration of an idea, and that is its weakness and banality as art; its realisation (often elaborate and costly, as well as fugitive) is pretty much irrelevant. We can all debate the Concept all night with only a nod to the work which illustrated it. There is really no need for us to confront the work itself, if indeed it exists to be confronted anywhere. Frankie/Baume effectively says as much herself:

Works about Time, I test myself: Christian Marclay, The Clock, 2010. A 24-hour film, a collage of extracts… Each extract represents a minute of the day .. I have never seen it for real. Right the way through from beginning to end. I don’t imagine many people have. Nevertheless, I love this piece. I love the idea. (p 181)

Actually, you don’t love the piece if you haven’t seen it. And it would almost certainly be a waste of your time to watch it. When back in 1997 London’s Tate Gallery screened Gillian Wearing’s Sixty Minutes it would have caused a log-jam in the gallery if visitors had paused for sixty minutes to watch it. The gallery correctly assumed that everyone would give it at most a few minutes, to get the general idea, and then move on. I only had to sit cross-legged on the floor (no seats provided) for 17 minutes to outlast any other visitor in that period by at least ten minutes. What would we say about a commercial cinema film which could not hold its audience for more than a few minutes at most after which they would all leave because they had got the general idea?

Put differently, Baume could simply have made up the majority of pieces to which she refers, and in a work of fiction, who could object to that?  There would have been no loss of idea.

Saturday 21 April 2018

Review: Kelley Swain, The Naked Muse

This is a readable, gently written and gently paced book which spins off reflections on painting and (briefly) photography from the writer’s own experience of working as a life model. That experience is reflected upon in more depth and from more angles than I would have imagined possible and strikes me as a considerable achievement.

The author does have to navigate a particular context which I suspect imposes some restraints on the narrative. She is still young (born 1985) with a world of family, friends, boyfriends and an ex-husband. She wants to write about  life modelling experiences in identifiable environments – one assignment sees her employed for a month long course in Bruges and the narrative around this is central to the book. I think that this inflects the narrative towards modesty and positive assessments. 

We get something on the erotic charge in art but not much about erotica and its relation to the over-arching genre of art and we get a rather awkward passage (pages 58 – 61) about submissiveness and restraint. The problems arise from having chosen straight autobiographical narrative and would be eased by moving towards fiction or towards hard-edged social science. But then we would not have the book we have here.

I noticed a couple of proofing slips; “Holland and the Netherlands” (page 48) should read “Belgium and the Netherlands”.

Tuesday 17 April 2018

Essay: Hobbyists, Writers, Academics, Journalists

Hilary Mantel is annoyed by those who ask silly questions at literary festivals – perhaps the problem is simply that intelligent question at a literary festival is an oxymoron – but, anyway, she is annoyed enough by the inane question Do you write every day? to want to snarl back, Of course I write every day, what do you think I am, some kind of hobbyist? I saw a chance when I read that in The Guardian, 16th April 2016.

As academics got themselves properly organised in the twentieth century they marked their territory in two important ways. They invented ways of expressing themselves which form what is now the superordinate genre of academic writing, its presence most obviously signalled by the literature review and by footnotes and Harvard-system bibliographies and bad writing. In doing this, they successfully marginalised the superordinate genre of belles lettres which had hitherto allowed anyone with the right social background and half an education to put pen to paper and tell you what they thought about, well, anything really but most obviously, the future of civilisation -  unarguably a topic about which we are all entitled to an opinion. T S Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948) can serve as a familiar-enough example of such belles lettrism though when you look closely at it, it’s really rather clichéd and I have criticised it on this Blog [ 12 November 2012] for that and other reasons.

But academics did a second thing. Enabled by institutions which provided them secure livings with salaries and pensions, they were able to see off not only the belles lettristes but also the hobbyists who had pursued knowledge as a pastime which might or might not result in the occasional publication which might, occasionally, be a very good publication. But for hobbyists, their salaries and pensions were elsewhere and pursuit of those might occupy a good deal of time, certainly enough to inhibit daily writing. For me, the stand-out but already anachronistic hobbyist of the twentieth century is the Reverend W. Keble Martin, author and illustrator of The Concise British Flora in Colour. This is what Wikipedia says:

The Concise British Flora was published in May 1965 when the author was 88. The book was the result of 60 years' meticulous fieldwork and exquisite painting skills, and became an immediate best-seller. He completed over 1,400 paintings in colour and many black-and-white drawings before the book was finally published.

Nowadays, for any academic who allowed themself to think that they could be that late-flowering then a Research Assessment Exercise would prove a grim reaper. Ah, yes, Reverend, still working on that Flora are we? Perhaps you would be interested in our restructuring plan. Have you thought about early retirement? You’d have more time and we’d be shot of you.

Academics, as they have invented themselves and been invented by their hosts, are not only pushed into productivity but into gregariousness. They are more or less obliged to put themselves about, though when I look at online CVs I find it hard to believe that the obligations are quite so ferociously extensive. Believe the CVs, and it seems that academics are pedalling furiously simply to keep the aviation business airborne. As for all these editorial boards or the journals which enable them, some must surely be no more than Potemkin fronts designed to impress a passing benefactor; they surely can’t all be for real.

More importantly, I suspect this kind of gregariousness, made possible by the co-operation of others like you but combined into the competitive context of academic research, also leads to the kind of group-think which makes some university departments fairly indistinguishable from theological seminaries and political groupuscules, both completely sectarian in their thinking. True, it was only in the twentieth century that universities really sought to distinguish themselves from seminaries, hoisting the flag for the pursuit of truth in a context of tolerance, but there are many signs that they have become half-hearted about that pursuit and are now reverting to an older type of institution, one which valued conformity and distrusted difference and which doled out livings only to those who subscribed to the right articles of religion.

Some hobbyists are gregarious, but not all. Some are recluses and eccentrics and simply disappear from view into the bottomless pit of research they have selected: Who was Jack the Ripper? Who wrote Shakespeare’s plays? Who did Queen Victoria actually sleep with? But this is actually one of the reasons why hobbyists can be important. They don’t have any economic dependence which might push them towards conformity with any prevailing orthodoxy, they can decide for themselves what is important, and they can find their way into whatever research methodology they find comfortable.

Some journalists are able to free themselves up in the same kind of way and, even inadvertently, produce original work which stands up very well to academic scrutiny. So Svetlana Alexeivich who won the Nobel Prize for Literature isn’t in any obvious sense a hobbyist, but she is a single-minded journalist who has picked her own topics and invented her own methodology. She’s under no group pressure to conform, though she has often been under direct political pressure to mind what she does. A superficial assessment might conclude that she is simply an oral historian and that, of course, oral history is accepted and practised in the academic world. No need to make a fuss. But she isn’t just another oral historian. It is not only that she has sought out those who have hitherto had no voice – most obviously in The Unwomanly Face of War, a best-seller when originally published in a first, censored, version in 1985; the uncensored version appeared in English in 2017 and I reviewed it here on 5 September 2017 . It is also that she has a distinctive methodology, of her own invention. First, she sits and waits and listens patiently, just as a psychoanalyst might. Second, she won’t always take No for an answer. She’s respectful but not deferential – she has a job to do.  She’s not making polite tick-box enquiries. Third, if they cry she often cries too. She can’t help it. It’s why she’s doing the research in the first place. But it certainly helps along the research because those she interviews feel they can trust her. She cries too.

You might argue that, well, she could have done all that as a Professor at Minsk University. But that’s not true. She would not have had the same ideas and, even if she had, she would not have been permitted to pursue them in the conditions prevailing in the then USSR. The Unwomanly Face of War was completed in 1983, after years of research. It was turned down flat for publication because it undermined official narratives. Perestroika made it briefly acceptable, with some of the sex and violence taken out, but with the turning back of the clock in the former USSR, it is now once again not acceptable. Yet, you might say, all it does is to interview at length Soviet women (and girls – many falsified their ages to join up) who fought at the front in the Second World War. The Soviet academics of the 1970s? They weren’t interested. Alexeivich was an eccentric or a trouble-maker.

But she is morally serious, producing work which is polyphonic and  inter-textual with major cultural and political issues, and that may be typical for a journalist but not for a hobbyist. Hobbyists are often trying to get away from that kind of seriousness, interesting themselves in things on which the fate of civilisation most definitely does not hang – things which are exotic and obscure and, at least apparently, pointless. In contrast, it might be argued, even when it looks pointless, academic work at least tends to fit into some larger, over-arching and morally serious project.

I am not sure this argument will stand up. It doesn’t take long if you riffle through the Fellows of Oxbridge colleges or Fellows of the British Academy to find those who are pursuing pleasant hobbyist research into the pointless, but for the fact that they are salaried and the hobbies are hallowed by long tradition. Yet there are only so many Fragments of the Ancient World which can be regarded as significant, or so much seriousness of purpose which you can strain from a study of Virginia Woolf’s breakfast.

Twenty years ago, I took early retirement from university teaching and at the same time decided that I would supplement my income by becoming a stamp dealer. Though I don’t present myself as a particularly up-market one – I don’t have headed notepaper – I do now possess a fund of exotic, obscure and pointless hobbyist knowledge. If, for example, you should want to know whether an Armenian stamp from the period 1920 to 1923 is genuine, or the overprint genuine, or the postmark genuine – well, then I am one of the three or four go-to people in the world who will give you a reliable answer, often with a narrative attached – the postmaster at Basargechar was an idle fellow who never cleaned his canceller and so, yes, this dirty smudged postmark you are showing me is most likely genuine because that is how they all look. In contrast, if you had shown me a cancellation of Novo-Bayazet, I would expect it to be crisp and clear – conscientious chap there.

But just as you could put Virginia Woolf’s breakfasts into a wider context, so I could set my pointless knowledge into a wider context which would, for example, point to the renewal of postal activity in 1922 – 23 as evidence for some success on the part of the Bolsheviks in turning around the country from the low point to which it had descended in the period 1918 – 21. I could also point to the evidence of ideological change which meant that for 1922 – 23 you can no longer find stamps cancelled as a favour for collectors and dealers, whereas in 1920, that is pretty much all you can find. The Bolsheviks chased the speculators from the post offices, if they had not already fled the country.

But a difference remains. You can get a Ph D for setting Virginia Woolf’s breakfast into a larger context; it is not clear that you could get one for expanding on the tale in the previous paragraph. The former is High knowledge, the latter too Low. And if there is one thing which surely separates academics from hobbyists, it is snobbery – snobbery of similar kind to that which has Hilary Mantel dismissing the non-professional writer who doesn’t write every day.

The modern forms of snobbery are quite varied and include the self-righteousness of young academics who think they are radical or subversive or cutting-edge and consequently will only to reply to emails from people whose names and affiliations they recognise. They know who their Facebook Friends are and that’s what really matters.

But I have my own snobberies. I can’t quite take seriously my knowledge of Armenian postal history because much of it – not all of it - is second-hand. I haven’t done the archival research, both collateral and essential, for the obvious reason that I don’t read Armenian. I have to rely on the work of the late Professor Christopher Zakiyan who was a Soviet-era musicologist in his day job and a philatelist in his hobby-time. He researched the Armenian archives in Yerevan – no mean feat – and found many documents which cast a great deal of light on the work of the Armenian post office in the years after World War One and he published his work in Russian and some of it in English.

But the fact that I couldn’t make sense of the archives consigns me to being a researcher of the second-rank, except in those areas which do not require knowledge of the Armenian language. For example, I have re-constructed the printing history of one series of Armenian stamps purely forensically: you don’t need the archives to study the sheet formats, the paper, the gum, and so on. You need the stamps in front of you.

But universities are also full of researchers of the second-rank. A few years ago, I advertised to employ someone as an assistant on editing some of my earlier academic work for re-publication. I did not hesitate to interview someone who had completed a Ph D on a French post-structuralist thinker, only to discover during the interview that they did not read French. Well, I thought, surely that’s essential if you are writing about a living thinker who writes in French, not least because without that ability you have no access to the untranslated secondary literature in French. However good the translations of your subject may be, you are still limited in what you can achieve and in a Ph D there should be such a  prior constraint on the limits of your achievement.

That thought might get a Hear! Hear! from academics who are adepts at working in the original languages. But I am willing to qualify my snobbery. The original language matters less if you are, for example, a philosopher trying to engage with an argument which can be fairly well expressed in translation and which has already been fairly extensively discussed in languages other than the original. So if someone wanted to write a Ph D on Frege’s theory of Numbers in relation to his theory of language, I would not absolutely insist that they learnt German first - though I would say that they really had to look seriously into the nuances of meaning of Sinn and Bedeutung in German as well as in their English translations as Sense and Reference, and I would do that because I had somewhere read (in English) that this was probably going to be relevant.

But in arguing along these lines, I do incidentally weaken the snobbish belief that academics do it better. There will be hobbyists who outsmart them for purely chance reasons: they grew up bi-lingual, for example, or they travelled with a circus so have a head start in understanding circus life.

Ah, but what about Methodology? Isn’t the real problem with hobbyists that they are methodologically naïve? Well, I am sure many are – just as are many academics, those for example who still conduct banal and pointless psychology experiments. I’ll agree that many hobbyists are heavily into making lists, accumulating facts, and not doing much more than assembling a cabinet of curiosities even if they title a work A History of Victorian Lamp Posts ( I hope there isn’t one; I don’t want to upset anyone). But it’s not inevitable and it is not a distinguishing mark which leaves all academics comfortably on the other side of the line. For some academics, methodological sophistication does not rise above playing safe with the routines of academic writing.

Review: Jordan B Peterson, 12 Rules for Life. An Antidote to Chaos

To get to this book, you have first to get past the brand. There is @jordanbpeterson on Twitter; Dr Jordan B Peterson on Facebook; and Jordan PetersonVideos  on YouTube. The book itself is copyrighted to Luminate Psychological Services Ltd, which is not promising.

This book of the brand has been launched in the UK with a front cover endorsement which characterises Peterson as One of the most important thinkers to emerge on the world stage for many years. But since this endorsement comes from a small London-centric magazine, The Spectator, it is not very persuasive. For The Spectator one suspects that the world stage is conveniently located just round the corner. Couldn’t the publisher have come up with something more convincing?

So there is a Brand and I thought of Dale Carnegie and Billy Graham as I read the book; towards the end, the author introduces Charles Atlas and so then I had a trio of names linked to self-help brands, the Charles Atlas link supported by the author’s strong-jawed photograph.

Self-help books are not bad in themselves; but they sometimes get submerged under self-promotion and, of course, under hype and inflation of their claims. At many points, I wanted to give up reading but my rule is that I can only review a book if I get to the end; so I got to the end.

There are strong passages in the book and unusual insights. I was not really troubled by the author’s intelligent and consistent Christian conservatism and I agreed with him almost completely in his critique of post-modernist/post-structuralist university work in the humanities and social sciences, much of which now amounts to nothing much more than badly-written Sunday school piety backed up with an unpleasant morality police. I also thought his Rule 11 “Do Not Bother Children When They Are Skateboarding”  nicely and powerfully persuasive. I think he likes children and that is always a big plus.

But the weakness of the book arises from what I shall call the author’s violations of Occam’s Razor. Applied to the present work, Occam’s Razor would advise you to use only the arguments necessary to establish your conclusions. To get to the conclusion that it is healthy to start the day with a good fry-up breakfast (page 18), you probably don’t need to back it up with Biblical exegesis or a disquisition on Heideggerian Being. But the book is larded with such exegesis and disquisition, much of it repetitive as if the chapters have been written independently and not checked for duplication of material. There are only so many times I want to read the Moral which can be derived from the story of Cain and Abel.

The Rules do interlink and place emphasis on the importance of taking responsibility for oneself, for trying to improve oneself, for being honest with self and others, for accepting the fact that it is a background of order which can convert its opposite, chaos, into meaningful creativity and progress. A theme emerges which is about coming to terms with the limitations which suffering and death impose on us and I think what he says is carefully considered, thought-provoking and helpful. I think it could be pulled out to make a much shorter book on that single theme. I might well read that, but not another 400 rather repetitive pages like those which we have here. And he should get rid of Luminate Psychological Services.