Sunday, June 18, 2006

Beatles Retrospect

A plethora of materials have recently become available on the Beatles' early days, including their electrifying performances on the Ed Sullivan Show. Consequently, this would seem to be a good moment to look back and ask the question that often doesn't find an easy answer: "Why were they so good?"

As a boy, listening to the Beatles, it was difficult to put a finger on the reasons why they were so much better than all the other artists around. Forty years later, I feel that I can now tentatively touch on some of the points that made them superior.

First, as a band they were very tight: incredibly tight. They had played together for years in Liverpool and Hamburg and this constant practice made them able to almost read each other's minds, musically speaking. They had learnt the various popular music styles of American rock and blues so well, that they even began to surpass the originals.

Secondly, there was the high standard of musicianship. All the three principal members played guitar, did vocal harmonies and wrote songs. What's more, at least in the early days, they were happy supporting each other and even seemed to enjoy it. It was difficult to say who the leader was, as the three principal members were interchangeable in complex and subtle ways.

Thirdly, George Harrison was a greatly underestimated guitarist and he gave Lennon and McCartney's compositions a uniform and generic feel. In order to appreciate this point one needs to consider just how different John and Paul's work seemed in the early days after the split. It had been George's chiming guitar chords that had largely created that particular Beatles "sound".

The final feature that made the Beatles unique, is also probably the most obvious: the elevated song writing skills of Lennon and McCartney and to a lesser extent, those of George Harrison as well. It's difficult to say exactly why they were so much better than everyone else, but it had a lot to do with their tight understanding as a group. The songs released during the first part of their recording career sounded almost the same live as on record. Furthermore, as the Anthology discs show, even complex later songs like Strawberry Fields, A Day in the Life and Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, were already fully formed on guitar or piano, before being worked up to their final lush forms.

True genius is uncommon, but these simple three boys from Liverpool undoubtedly had it in abundance.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Lawrence Of Arabia And Washington Policy Makers

There is a rumor about that some Washington policy makers are trying to understand the "Arabic mind" better by reading T.E. Lawrence's monumental account of the First World War Arab revolt, rather misleadingly entitled "Seven Pillars of Wisdom." If true, this is indicative of just how superficial and far behind modern intellectual thinking Washington is.

Edward W. Said and other post colonial critics have long since established that Orientalism was in large part the West's own perspective on the East, regurgitating an Orient that was acceptable to the colonial masters. In this body of work, there were frequent references to the Arab or Islamic "mind", as if it was really something as arcane and difficult to understand as the Martian "mind". Said makes the pertinent point that it is only the Arab's "mind" that can be discussed in this way. It would give offence to talk about the black "mind" or the Jewish "mind" in the same manner. In a nutshell, Said contends that Islam and the Arabs in particular, have been subject to a lot of pseudo-Orientalist criticism on the part of Western scholars. The purpose of the bulk of this pseudo scholarship is not really to understand the Arabs better, but to assert the superiority of the West. Certainly, Lawrence's Seven Pillars would fall clearly into Said's Orientalist category. In his pivotal work, Orientalism, Said describes Lawrence's work as an imaginative attempt to reshape the East in his own image. It is Lawrence who leads the Arab revolt against the Turks and all of the Arab motivations, attitudes and thought processes are filtered to us through the Laurentian Orientalist-colonial style. Even Lawrence's disappointment at the betrayal of the Arabs by the British, is seen as a personal offense to Lawrence's own honor. We get no coherent picture of how the Arabs felt about their betrayal.

If Washington policy makers are indeed re-reading Lawrence, then it would merely be the continuation of a common attitude of the West towards peoples who are considered "inferior". The real mind set is ignored and the foreign point of view is mediated through the opinions of Western "experts". This attitude has certainly been clearly at work during and in the aftermath of the invasion of Iraq. Americans were told that ordinary Iraqis hated Saddam and would welcome the American military as an army of "liberation". Of course, someone got the script wrong and the actual perception of ordinary Iraqis was and is that the U.S., without provocation, has set down an army of occupation in their country. The situation is rather similar to that in Northern Ireland some decades ago. While most of the Catholic pro-Republicans didn't get involved in violence personally, they passively supported the IRA against what they considered to be a British army of occupation. It is worth noting also that it is only during the present century that the Irish have truly started to be considered as equals by the British rather than as a colonized people.

Where will all the present misconceptions in Iraq eventually lead? It is impossible to say with any real assurance, but the long term outlook for West and East is certainly looking bleak.

Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Edward W. Said And Post Colonial Criticism

Most readers will have heard of the influential literary and cultural critic, Edward W. Said, who passed away a couple of years ago. His two most influential books were Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism. In these works Said expounded his post colonial theory that Orientalism had been an esoteric body of knowledge created by the West with the intention of keeping the East in subjugation. By understanding everything about the conquered peoples, perhaps even more than they understood about themselves, the colonial powers asserted their dominance and suitability to lead. However, this great scheme of learning, which began in earnest with Napoleon's conquest of Egypt in 1798, always ignored the ordinary natives, the lives of the people who had to live with colonialism every day of the week. In Culture and Imperialism, Said took the argument a step further. Asiatic history, for Europeans, only real began with their own conquest of large tracts of Asia. The people of Asia were merely a passive group receiving the benefits of rule from abroad, presumably gratefully. Said points out that it was only in the last days of Empire that struggle against colonialism by indigenous peoples seemed to be noticed by their colonial masters. It almost seems to have come as a surprise to some of them that Indians, Algerians, Malaysians, Indonesians didn't want to continue being governed by England or France forever. Colonialism then, expropriated the land and wealth of indigenous peoples and reduced them to virtual servitude in their own country. Nevertheless, these same people were expected to feel 'grateful' to their colonial masters for bringing them into the modern world by giving them roads, railways, hospitals, etc. Certainly, they were not expected to plot the death and destruction of those who controlled them from far away. It was a system based on greed, rivalry and exploitation that no right minding person could support for a day longer than necessary. Thus, destruction of the colonial system was always inherent in colonialism from the beginning and only a monster could have anything good to say about its results in the modern world: so goes the traditional Said argument.

All this is fine and as a liberal and democratic man I find myself agreeing with almost all of it. But there is a small voice inside my head which tells me that Said and other similar critics of Imperialism and Colonialism seem to believe in some intrinsic quality in man or God that shows demonstrably that all these things were horrible abominations that must never happen again. However, is that absolutely true? I remember reading a lecture some years ago by the French Existentialist, Jean Paul Sartre, where he says that he is an existentialist humanist because he wants to be: because he believes that this is the right direction to take. However, he adds that there is nothing deterministic about his belief. Nothing was inevitable. If enough people wanted to be democrats, then democrats they'd be. On the other hand, they might just as easily choose to be fascists. Nothing was determined absolutely. The world was a place of choice where people put their choices into action and worked out the consequences of those choices.
I think this kind of argument would be deeply disturbing to Said and his acolytes. They like to appeal to man's reason in the modern age and to the the obvious injustice of systems of government and domination that make virtual slaves of millions of people for the betterment of just a few. However, are we really so sure about our own rationalism? Isn't it possible that in the future other men may come along who will make other choices and believe very different things? How can we be sure that the Nazis were the last political group who will believe in the racial superiority of one or several races over others? How can we be sure that our own democratic and egalitarian "truth" will be the last "truth"? Other men, at future times and in future places may make very different decisions to the ones that we are comfortable with.

I think that in his secret heart, Edward Said understood all this very well

Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Open Heart

At twenty-one, I loved you
More than I will say.
At thirty-one, I seemed to
Be dying every day.

Tracked you down in Rome's back streets,
Desperate for a glance;
Trapped you out where Tiber meets
The Bacchanalian dance.

Somewhere down in old Marseilles,
We had it all to do;
Couldn't quite explain a way
Two lovers could get through.

Finally, in Winchester,
We blew it all apart:
(As secret passions fester,
So does the open heart!)

Saturday, June 03, 2006

The Mystery of the Universe

The mystery of the Universe,
Is really quite naive.
Its sense is merely pondering
What God has up his sleeve.

Don't look for great eternal truths,
They simply don't exist;
And only seem important when
Philosophers get pissed.

Friday, June 02, 2006

Icons Can't Be Laid

Getting laid in tinsel town,
Is prerequisite,
For those who wish to wear a crown
And on a throne to sit.

Marilyn was often juiced,
Before she hit the top.
And even Hepburn was well goosed
Before they had to stop.

"You scratch my back, I scratch yours,"
Was all you heard them say:
(Producer's and director's scores,
Updated every day!)

Yet in the film, they seemed so chaste,
Those icons of the screen;
All sweeping gowns and breasts well laced
And manners most serene.

Well, seems that all was not
As fantasy portrayed.
(It's true most of us like it hot,
But Icons can't be laid!)