Archive for the 'history' Category

a calm & normal heart, by chelsea t. hicks

treaties are for settlers, too.

in which i succeed in naming three (3) emotions

I’m sad she’s dead, for the usual human and parasocial reasons.

I’m genuinely curious if also worried about what comes next.

And I’m angry, I am so so angry, about the British empire.

As a white Australian I exist because of what Britain saw as surplus population it could send to administer its stolen wealth. The ways in which my life was predetermined, the ways in which I was raised and educated to be a colonial bureaucrat, were callous and calculating and fundamentally genocidal, and have left me traumatized.

The thing about Elizabeth. The thing! That I managed to grope towards just now, is that she was a human sacrifice to empire. She had no choice and no escape. She had to do her duty.

And she did her duty flawlessly. She was incredible at it. A genuinely awe-inspiring triumph of will.

And she shouldn’t have done that. For two reasons. One (the most important) is because the Empire is a death cult that murdered millions on her watch. The other is that her performance of that duty is and always will be forced on the rest of us as the standard we will inevitably fail to meet.

I admire her. But I will not seek to emulate her. Her indulgence of powerful men and her racism were ruinous even in her immediate family, and catastrophic for the world. What she did so amazingly well is a thing that should never have been done.

Which loops back to sorrow. Those glimpses of the woman she could’ve been: the 18yo ambulance driver, the rider galloping her own racehorse.

What a fucking waste and betrayal of all her strength and integrity, to pour it out in the service of maintaining a corrupt status quo.

What a waste of mine.

uncertain glory, by joan sales

who’d have thought that explosion of joy would end five years later in the most absurd butchery . . .

homage to catalonia, by george orwell

Human beings were trying to behave as human beings and not as cogs in the capitalist machine.

thresh & hold, by marlanda dekine

I care for Henrietta Lacks and all the names whispered in my ear by the live oak trees. I don’t care about the father of modern gynecology, honored on South Carolina’s golf course capitol.

putting the mans in mansfield park

The title is Jeremy’s excellent joke about Bridgerton, occasioned by my return to reading Austen (“Do you read novels?” “Yes! All six, every year.”) I began this time with Mansfield Park, long my least favorite for all the reasons it’s usually people’s least favorite; Fanny and Edmund are a bit dull. Reading it this time around, though, I was struck by how very much this book is not a romance novel or any kind of love story.

The title Mansfield Park could be arguably related to the judge whose famous verdict stated, “The state of slavery… is so odious… whatever inconvenience, therefore, may follow from the decision, I cannot say this case is allowed or approved by the law of England; and therefore, the black must be discharged” (White). The irony of such a title would no doubt have appealed to Austen.  Bertram’s country estate was supported by a slave driven economy.  By naming his estate Mansfield Park, Austen was delivering a quiet jab at slavery, an institution against which its namesake struck a blow thirty years earlier.

Austen and Antigua – Slavery in Her Time

The third act of Mansfield Park consists of Henry Crawford’s proposal to Fanny, and of the efforts of Sir Thomas, Mary and even Edmund to persuade Fanny to accept him. Henry is rich. His feelings for Fanny, once frivolous, have become sincere. She is a good influence on him. Fanny herself is poor. Henry is offering far more than she can reasonably expect to command on the open marriage market; there will never be another offer like it. Sir Thomas – her uncle, the slaveowner – is at pains to point this out to her; along with the fact that Fanny owes Sir Thomas for her care and education since she was nine years old. This would be an acceptable return on his investment.

Fanny says no. Being Fanny, she doesn’t say it with the panache of Lizzie Bennet rejecting Mr Collins or Darcy Proposal #1, but she does say no. Despite the awful powers arrayed against her, of family feeling, obligation, economics, reputation, and even (in Edmund’s case) real affection for her and concern for her interests, she holds to her inner truth, which is that she dislikes Henry and always will.

In a letter to her sister Cassandra, Jane said of Mansfield Park: “Now I shall try to write of something else, & it shall be a complete change of subject–ordination.” Edmund’s taking orders is part of the plot and the main driver of his conflict with Mary. His ambitions are modest, but through the church he hopes to have a small part in making the world a better place. Mary’s ambitions are vast and selfish; at her peak, she hopes for Edmund’s brother to die, so that she can marry an Edmund who stands to inherit his father’s baronetcy and estate.

But I wonder sometimes if Jane was hinting at the other meanings of ordination. Putting things in their proper order: Tom is the first son, and Edmund is the second. Plotting co-ordinates on a Cartesian plane: a place for everything, and everything in its place. Social order: no one getting ideas above their proper station. Austen never directly compares Fanny’s position to those of Sir Thomas’s slaves in Antigua, thank God, because that would be unconscionable. But Fanny’s constraints are real. She can’t have a fire in her room. She can’t choose to visit her family, and once there, she can’t choose to return to Mansfield Park.

Fanny has precisely two degrees of freedom. She can think, and she can feel. She thinks a lot. She’s a reader and a nature lover. Her eye for gardens and landscapes, which I skimmed over when I was younger, is a lot more resonant now that I have arrived at my own connection with my ecosystem and watershed.

And she feels, most notably, antipathy towards Henry. Her steadfastness in refusing him overturns the social order, which dictates that she has no choice but to accept such a superficially advantageous match. In refusing him, Fanny sets his material wealth at a lower value than her own integrity. It’s an affront in a society like hers (and ours) that prioritizes extractive capitalism – cruelty and greed – over every other consideration, including personhood and the sustainability of the planet itself.

Settler colonialism works by violently severing the connection between a person and their personhood, and between communities and their land. The potential energy released by that severance is captured and hoarded as wealth and inequity. In this year of our Lord 20 and 22 we still struggle to know the truths of our own secret heart, because the state would prefer that we didn’t transgress its preordained categories for us. Those of us who are settlers still live in alien countries on stolen land, the names of whose wild things are lost. We haven’t moved past Mansfield Park. We haven’t even started.

orwell’s roses, by rebecca solnit

Authoritarians see truth and fact and history as a rival system they must defeat.

the dawn of everything, by david graeber and david wengrow

The Roman Law conception of natural freedom is essentially based on the power of the individual (by implication, a male head of household) to dispose of his property as he sees fit.

the valis trilogy, by philip k dick

“Time is a child at play, playing draughts; a child’s is the kingdom.” As Heraclitus wrote twenty-five hundred years ago. In many ways this is a terrible thought. The most terrible of all. A child playing a game . . . with all life, everywhere.

believers, by lisa wells

The truth, according to Finisia, was simple: our purpose on earth is to tend and keep the garden of God’s original planting.

more

After a pretty good run of books, including two history/biographies each of Imperial Rome, the First Fleet, the Donner Party and Hollywood in the seventies (spoiler: it’s settler colonialism all the way down), I have come to an annoying halt. You know when you pick up this book and that and you KNOW they’re good and if you were in another mood you would devour them, but today, eh? That.

Mostly, I think, it’s that I want to read more books exactly like Emma Southon’s Agrippina and A Fatal Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. Imagine I, Claudius rewritten by Tamsyn Muir: hilarious, serious, queer and profane.

I want this kind of telling of my own history, but the closest I found were the biographies of Esther Johnston, my umpty-great grandmother the Jewish convict and First Lady of New South Wales (Esther), and of her contemporary – NOT friend – Elizabeth Macarthur (A Room Made of Leaves). Weirdly, both books end halfway through the story, with Esther’s triumphant closure being social acknowledgment by Elizabeth, while Elizabeth’s is feeling a sense of connection to her Paramatta farm despite knowing perfectly well that she had wrested the land from it’s traditional custodians.

I mean, those narrative choices make sense when you consider that Esther died an alcoholic widow and Elizabeth’s entire life was mythologized to justify the attempted genocide of the indigenous people. The true stories are kind of a bummer and don’t fit traditional (imperialist) Chosen One story structures. But this is where Emma Southon is so fucking good. Agrippina’s story is also embedded in histories of violent dispossession and oppression, but Southon embraces the ambiguity and complicity and tragedy. Plus there are jokes and swears.

The Donner Party books – The Indifferent Stars Above and The Best Land Under Heaven – came closer to scratching that itch if only because there is no way to frame that story as anything like a triumph. The worst you can do (and this has been done plenty) is to cast it as a weird aberration, a sort of Californian Dyatlov Pass incident, whereas in fact it’s the logical consequence of white Western expansionism, manifest destiny literally eating its young.

And that’s how you get the US state of California, superimposed (by force) on the Bear Flag Republic and the Mexican Californios and Spanish Alta California and before and throughout all of that a landscape of indigenous cultures and languages maybe as ancient and diverse as those in Papua New Guinea. I went on to read The Mighty Franks and Hollywood’s Eve, both of which have to reckon with the titanic legacy of Joan Didion, the ur-pioneer. And look, back in the 90s I venerated Didion like any other young white woman would-be new journalist, but when you read Roberto Lovato’s Unforgetting and are reminded of her callous line on El Salvador, “Terror is the given of the place,” that veneration turns a little sour. Given by whom, exactly?

Hollywood’s Eve makes a decent case for Eve Babitz – sensualist, humanist – as a counterpoint to Didion’s ironic analyst, but it’s weird and deeply Californian that each in the wake of profound personal tragedy has taken a hard right turn. I can’t think of a neat way to end this post. History, and especially history with white women in it, is just like this: frustrating, messy and inconclusive.

spqr, by mary beard

The beginning of empire and the beginning of literature were two sides of the same coin.

the white possessive, by aileen moreton-robinson

It takes a great deal of work to maintain Canada, the United States, Hawai’i, New Zealand, and Australia as white possessions.

agrippina, by emma southon

Being a woman near power is lose-lose most of the time.

a room made of leaves, by kate grenville

Sydney Town was a dusty ugly angry place, a sad blighted bit of ground on which too many souls tramped out their days dreaming of somewhere else.

esther, by jessica north

When the Pilgrim Fathers had sailed in the Mayflower to establish the first European colony in North America, there had been only about a hundred colonists—all of them free settlers—and half of them had died during their first winter. Captain Phillip was taking more than a thousand people—most of them already weak, unhealthy convicts—on an eight-month voyage to the other side of the world.

the indifferent stars above, by daniel james brown

What they remembered for the rest of their lives was not the cabin itself but rather the warm, yellow lamplight that shone out through loose chinking—light coming to them through the black night as if miraculously, beckoning them to come back in out of the cold, to the hearth of humanity.

a fatal thing happened on the way to the forum, by emma southon

It was an outrageous moment in Roman history and not one person complained because everyone suddenly knew the consequences of complaining. Everyone knew that there was no power balance between the Senate and the people of Rome. Democracy was a charade. There was just the Senate and they would kill to keep it that way. And there would be no consequences when they did.

the last of the wine, by mary stewart

They have passed a law forbidding logic to be taught.

code girls, by liza mundy

It was a nice posting; the intercept operators could hitchhike into San Francisco. Chamberlain began fiddling with her dial, trying to pick up the Hiroshima station she received. Hiroshima sent out a very good signal. Now all she got was dead air. There was nothing at all.