Pity Our Enemies

I finally finished reading Borstal Boy.   In the afterward Benedict Kiely writes about what made Behan so special.   Kiely knew Behan and at the time was teaching Borstal Boy  to female students at a college in Virginia.  If only we could all be more like this:

They were, not surprisingly, impressed by words not customarily in use in respectable American homes: but much more they were impressed by the author’s vast and obvious humanity, by his humorous acceptance,  his abounding life and love of life.  His people, from the roughest screw (prison officer) in Walton to the gentlest boy in the open prison camp by the North Sea (and with the possible exception of the R.C. Chaplain who, quite without authority, cut him off from the sacraments), are almost all looked upon with sympathy, or, at any rate, with a sort of pity (“for very oft we pity our enemies”), or with defensive enmity that becomes perverted brotherhood.  You feel that if the worst of them had met him elsewhere,  and under less claustrophobic circumstances,  the unpleasant things might not have happened.  

Borstal Boy  is an account of Behan’s time in prison and reform school as a young prisoner.

Brendan Behan on Religion

This passage was written by Irish writer Brendan Behan and it is from the book Borstal Boy.   A borstal is a reform school for underage prisoners as an alternative to prison.  Walton is a jail in Liverpool that Behan was in before being moved to his reform school.  He was imprisoned for being caught in Liverpool with bombs as an I.R.A. member.  Because he would not renounce the I.R.A. he was excommunicated from the Catholic Church.  However, while at reform school he was allowed to serve Mass because he could read Latin, despite not being able to receive the Sacraments.   This passage is his reflection on religion right before he is about to serve Mass:

But I wasn’t bitter.  When I am in good humor, I could not be bitter about anything.  It was different in Liverpool, where the priest was an active enemy.  Here the priest had nothing to do with me, and I nearly lost interest in Sacraments,  and whether I was deprived of them or not.  Walton scalded my heart with regard to my religion, but it also lightened it.  My sins had fallen from me, because I had almost forgotten that there were such things and, when I got over it, my expulsion from religion, it was like being pushed outside a prison and told not to come back.  If I was willing to serve Mass, it was in memory of my ancestors standing around a rock, in a lonely glen, for fear of the landlords and their yeomen, or sneaking through a back – lane in Dublin, and giving the password,  to hear Mass in a slum public house, when a priest’s head was worth five pounds and an Irish Catholic had no existence in law. 

There were few Catholics in this part of the world and the priest had a forlorn sort of a job but Walton had cured me of any idea that religion of any description had anything to do with mercy or pity or love. 

English Catholics had no time for the Irish, except when they were begging from them.  They had no use for Paddy the navvy and Biddy the scivvy,  beyond taking their money when a new church was being built.  The aristocratic old English Catholics had some kind of double dealt immunity from the penal laws, and the conversions only started when the Irish got the Emancipation and it became legal and safe to be a Catholic,  and a lot of English shopkeepers’ sons gave up Methodist and became Catholics because the more romantic minded of them thought it brought them into contact with the great world of Italy and France, which was atheist or Catholic, but always lively. 

One of the fascinating things about Behan, from reading this book, is how open minded he is.  Even at a young age he is able to see the difference between the British Empire as a system and the English people, as many of his friends in prison and reform school are English.  He was able to have a disdain for religion but feel for a priest with a forlorn job.  He could be against a system, but treat people within that system as individuals.  He had a great mind.  I now understand why so many writers and songwriters remember him fondly. 

Literature as Propaganda


The above article is about how governments, The United States and The Soviet Union in this case particularly, viewed literature as a powerful tool for propaganda.  This story focuses on Doctor Zhivago and how the CIA had it distributed within The Soviet Union.  I always have felt that if more people read, and spent less time watching the brain deadening junk that is mainstream television, that this country would be better off.  Not a bold or original though I know, but most likely true.  

There is a really great book by George Orwell called All Art is Propaganda.  In the book Orwell uses literary criticism as a jumping off point to tackle larger ideas concerning politics and society.  It is a fascinating read that I highly recommend.  

As the review on amazon.com says:  All Art Is Propaganda follows Orwell as he demonstrates in piece after piece how intent analysis of a work or body of work gives rise to trenchant aesthetic and philosophical commentary.

Dust Before the Wind

The knell of the bells at the Gion temple 
Echoes the impermanence of all things. 
The colour of the flowers on its double-trunked tree 
Reveals the truth that to flourish is to fall. 
He who is proud is not so for long, 
Like a passing dream on a night in spring. 
He who is brave is finally destroyed, 
To be no more than dust before the wind.

From The Heike.  The Heike is a 13th century war tale from Japan.  The translation was done by P.G. O’Neil.  

Put Down or Backwards Compliment?

Julie Burchill is, of course, not loveable, and has pitifully late middle-aged legs.  Her naked body probably kills off marine plankton in the North Sea…Unchained from the cellar Burchill will make sure that you remember her…I shall be honored to attend her funeral and i might even jump into the grave.

Morrissey on Julie Burchill in Autobiography.  Burchill is a music journalist who once worked for the NME.  I know from living in the North East that you often rip on the ones you love as sort of a loving past time.  I get the sense North England, and Manchester particularly, is quite the same.  However, with Morrissey you can never be quite sure when he is giving someone a backhanded compliment and when he is slinging arrows at his enemies.  Just don’t ever accuse him of not having a sense of humor.

The Donut and not the Hole

I was talking the other day in one of my posts about how hard it is to experience things in the same way as someone else.  I remember one day I was in Book People, a large independent bookstore in Austin, and I was purchasing The Stranger for my girlfriend.  The Stranger is a novel by the French writer Camus.  In the books the main character kills a man.  He is sentenced to death for this crime however, largely because he did not cry at his mother’s funeral in the beginning of the book.

The cashier became excited when he saw me with the book and told me that it was one of his favorites.  I agreed and we talked for a few moments.  I then remarked that the book was funny as hell, as I always viewed the book as a very dry and dark comedy about the human condition.  The cashier’s smile disappeared and I could see he no longer agreed with me.  He then replied that he thought, “I don’t think that book is supposed to be a comedy.”  We finished the rest of our transaction in silence. 

So even if you like something that someone else likes, you may like it for different reasons.  So when you attempt to create something how do you take in all these different perceptions that will be at play, realizing that your own perception of your work, no matter how clearly you think you are defining it, may be lost on others?  You don’t.  The director David Lynch says quite simply that, “You need to focus on the donut and not on the hole.”   You need to work on things to the best of your ability and make them as good as you can.  You need to believe in what you are doing, because there is there is always the possibility that others will not get from it what you do.  In fact most people will not get what you are getting out of it and many will not get it at all.   Because of this you should be happy with what you created first and foremost. 

Some forms of art, like playing in a band or working on a movie, require reaching a consensus.  It’s best to stick to your guns, but realize what it is that you are trying to achieve.  Fight for the things that are most important to you and be willing to let others things go.  Only you can tell where that line is where something ceases to be a thing you believe in, and becomes something that you don’t recognize and that your heart isn’t in it anymore.  The ego will try to trick you and screw up that thought process.  Try to take yourself out of the situation, but again stay true to the work.  Although your instincts will sometimes betray you, once you become comfortable in what you do, more times than not your instincts will help guide the work and where it should go. 

It’s funny to see grown men in the studio arguing over a tambourine part.  I imagine on the set of a movie it is also funny to see people argue over small details as well.  There is a great deal of absurdity in the act of creating art.  If you are in an art form that requires consensus, even when there is a clear leader, you need to realize that other people have to find dignity in what they do.  They need to feel a sense of ownership in something if you are going to get them over the finish line.

So for the last time again, keep your eyes on the work.  Fight like hell for the things you believe in, let your opinion be heard on other matters, and then let the rest go.  All art and its reception is one half vision and one half a leap of faith.  

The Writer’s Almanac.


If you are interested in literature I highly suggest that you sign up for emails from the Writer’s Almanac.  My mom and my brother tipped me off to this.  It sends you an email every day with a different poem and a biography of a writer.  It’s short enough that you can read both fairly quickly and it almost always contains something interesting.