World War I: The Unspoken Legacy

The traditional interpretation of the Great War’s ending is to examine how the map of Europe changed after all the carnage. The Austria-Hungarian Empire broke into the two discrete nations of Austria and Hungary; at the same time, two other nations were formed, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia. That other empire, the Ottoman, ceded their lands in Asia but kept a presence in Europe as Turkey. Poland, long a playground of the Austrian-Hungarians, Germany, and Russia, was reconstituted. The new lands of Estonia, Finland, Latvia, and Lithuania came out of Russia. The history lesson often closes with how the terms of the Treaty of Versailles for Germany seeded the rise of Adolph Hitler. There is another haunting, much less discussed consequence of the First World War, an unspoken legacy, which is the violent and volatile situation in the Middle East.

Step back for a moment, back before the war, to 1907. Leaders from around the British Commonwealth met in London for a conference to discuss the status of self-governing British colonies. The London Colonial Conference would confer dominion status to the colonies, but not before expressing concerns about an Arab threat to British imperialism and Europe. The report and its recommendations to Prime Minister Henry Campbell-Bannerman are chilling:

To promote disintegration, division, and separation in the region.

To establish artificial political entities that would be under the authority of the imperialist countries.

To fight any kind of unity—whether intellectual, religious or historical—and take practical measures to divide the region’s inhabitants.

To achieve this, it was proposed that a “buffer state” be established in Palestine, populated by a strong, foreign presence that would be hostile to its neighbors and friendly to European countries and their interests.

Move forward in time: Arthur James Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, declared his support for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in the area known as Palestine, an area of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. The month: November. The year: 1917. The problem: the British High Commissioner in Egypt, Sir Henry McMahon, had already entered into an agreement with the Sharif of Mecca, Husayn bin Ali, through a series of letters written in the years 1915 and 1916 in which McMahon promised lands in exchange for Arab support against the Turks, a German ally. T.E. Lawrence, embedded amongst the Arabs, shaped Arab dissent against the Turks.

Balfour and McMahon were not examples of one hand not knowing what the other hand was doing. The Balfour Declaration was addressed to Lord Rothschild, intended to solicit his support (he bankrolled British work in the Suez area of Egypt), the support of British Jews and their American relations. The United States entered the conflict in April of 1917. British diplomacy did not end there. In 1916, Britain brokered the Sykes-Picot Agreement with…the French, with Russia’s approval, to divide Arab lands with the Ottoman Empire into provinces ruled by Great Britain and France. The gentlemen’s agreement was being discussed at the same time McMahon was writing and receiving letters from Sharif. The unexpected Russian Revolution of October 1917 provided another unexpected result: the Bolsheviks exposed the duplicity. The Arabs voiced their displeasure. T.E. Lawrence, instrumental in the Arab Revolt against the Turks in 1916, voiced his own displeasure with his superiors in London: The Home Office had compromised his reputation with his Arab allies.

The Sykes-Picot division was such that British took land (southern Iraq) and, more importantly, access to the Mediterranean (Jordan, the Jordan River). The agreement would establish the British Mandate, a set period of time after which the British would vacate the land. The French took a part of southern Turkey, Syria, and Lebanon; they, too, established their own mandate, the French Mandate. Russia would get Istanbul and the Turkish straits. The Arabs, who had helped the British, were left outside the tent. Of the two Mandates, the French Mandate expired first, but not before the French established the “confessional” model of government in Lebanon. In short, positions in the government’s cabinet were decided along religious lines, thereby seeding sectarian discord and violence. Lebanon would become the smoldering matchstick in the haystack.

British Prime Minister Lloyd George and French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau managed to do some clever footwork to negate the Hussein–McMahon agreement. Letters between men of honor meant nothing. It would seem that the Balfour Declaration would come back to haunt the British, or was the duplicity part of a greater plan? The League of Nations backed the British Mandate in 1922 and 1923 respectively. Throughout the 1930s, both Arab and Jewish nationalism fermented: the British would quash the Arab Revolts of 1936-1939. The British Mandate was set to expire in 1948. The British administered Palestine, west of the Jordan River, and ceded the land east of the river to Hussein bin Ali for his help against the Turks with T.E. Lawrence. The British in effect had both sides of the river. The eastern side would become independent in 1946.

In the eleventh hour of 1947, the United Nations voted to partition Palestine before the British Mandate expired. The UN resolution, in addition to spelling out the details of the British departure, recommended independent Arab and Jewish states. The emphasis is on two independent ethnic states. The majority of Jewish leaders accepted it. Arab leaders, for the most part, rejected it because it violated the UN’s own charter for national self-determination. The General Assembly approved the resolution. At midnight, in the last minutes of 1947, the British terminated the Mandate, and the UN recognized the State of Israel. Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, and Syria attacked Israel. The result is the 1948 Arab-Israeli Civil War. The flood of refugees from the conflict has not stopped since.

Its colonial empire in the ether, the British kept a presence in the Middle East until they surrendered the Suez Canal in 1954. The financing of the Canal was another feast, another opportunity for foreign investors. There is no doubt that the discovery and documentation of the horrific magnitude of the Holocaust added to the urgency for an ethnic Israeli state, but the debacle had begun with colonial imperialism and politics, with opportunities while the world was at war, 1914-1918.

The Number One recipient of defense aid from the U.S. is Israel, and not far behind is Lebanon.

Odd bedfellows: the haystack and the match.

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Wednesday’s Woman: Yvonne deSousa

Meet Wednesday’s Woman: Yvonne deSousa. I met the irrepressible Yvonne at the 2014 New England Author Expo.  I invited her here to introduce herself and her book on living with MS. says: “In the US, the number of people with MS is estimated to be about 400,000, with approximately 10,000 new cases diagnosed every year (that’s 200 new cases per week).”

What’s so Funny about Chronic Illness?

One day four years ago I got myself up and headed to work where I was expecting it to be pretty busy. No big deal, of course, we all have busy days at work and I was prepared for it. My legs had been tingly and numb for the last several weeks and so I was shuffling around my office like a drunken sailor. But I could still function. And I happened to like drunken sailors so it was all good.  Then I received a somewhat unexpected call from my doctor who told me to leave work and get to a hospital two hours away immediately as my recent test results showed I had multiple sclerosis. The head of neurology at that particular hospital was waiting there to save me. Oh, and I should be prepared to stay in the hospital for several days.

Did I mention that this all took place one week before Christmas?

Shocked, I managed to do what I was told but I was in automatic pilot mode. Actually, automatic co-pilot mode as I was able to reach my little brother who drove me to the hospital. Once there, I met the aforementioned head of neurology who issued this informative declaration- “I’m not going to lie to you, MS sucks.”

Sucks???? That’s the best this well studied doctor could come up with? I could pretty much guess that myself and I didn’t even go to medical school.

Luckily, I didn’t have to stay at the hospital and as my brother walked me out of the building two hours later he desperately tried to cheer me up. In so doing, he said something that would change my life for the better in the aftermath of this terrifying news.

“You know, you could totally get one of those handicapped-parking plates now….”

I couldn’t believe it. Yes, technically a handicapped parking plate could be a small bonus to this sucky news but seriously, I was overwhelmed. I had just been told I had a chronic, debilitating, no known cure disease of the central nervous system. And Christmas was in just a few days. Parking was the last thing on my mind and I told him so. He responded, “Seriously, if you don’t want to use it right away you could let me borrow it.”

It was then that I doubled over, with laughter. You see, this brother of mine was a semi-pro dirt bike rider who drove a huge Ford F150 pickup truck with two dirt bikes in the bed. I pictured this monstrosity of a vehicle backing into a handicapped spot and I couldn’t help myself. The laughing just hit and I couldn’t stop, even losing my breath a bit.  Weird thing was, when I stood up and got myself together I realized I felt better.  It was as if my little bout of mirth released a spat of feel good emotions that helped beat up on the not so feel good emotions I was battling. It was a realization that would stay with me in the days to follow.

Sure, I would get a little upset when I started to process the diagnosis and the changes it would mean in my life. (I now had to give myself shots – yes shots, three times a week!   And the shots were made from, I’m not kidding here, Chinese hamster ovary cells. How does that happen? What was wrong with the Portuguese hamster’s brain cells or the Italian hamster’s liver cells? And why hamsters? Did the scientists even try goldfish or guinea pigs or any other pets?) But more than angry, I would become frustrated. Here are some of the chronic illness frustrations that well, basically, sucked.

One of the most dreadful MS symptoms, a vise like squeezing of the abdomen, is called a hug. Who thought THAT name was a good idea?

Stress is very, very bad for chronic illness. If you have a chronic illness, don’t get stressed. But what is more stressful than being told you have a chronic illness?

Overactive bladder is a symptom of MS. To treat it, you can take medication. The medication however causes the most vicious dry mouth known to man. To treat that, you must drink more water which will negate the benefits of the medication. (I was trying to work through this frustration as I moved my pillow and TV into the bathroom.)

Before I knew it, my life with MS found me in the midst of a series of bizarre and frustrating adventures. It was immediately apparent that if I was going to keep what little sanity I had while dealing with the insanity that is life with a chronic illness, I was going to have to use my sense of humor.  And like that, I was surviving an MS diagnosis. No, scratch that. I was thriving through an MS diagnosis! And giggling. And before long, I started writing too.

The result is MS Madness! A “Giggle More, Cry Less” Story of Multiple Sclerosis.   It details the journey of my accepting MS and the wacky adventures that followed.  Adventures such as: becoming a secret agent to pay for my new drugs, experimenting with legal speed, “accidentally” kicking an annoying male doctor in the crotch, getting married in a grocery store, shouting the F-bomb in my church parking lot just as Mass was starting and many more.

MS happened to be the suckiness that I was dealing with. But don’t we all have a little suckiness in our lives? The goal of MS Madness! is to show everyone that with a strong sense of humor, you can survive almost anything.

cover-halfI like to think of my book as the story of what would have happened had Bridget Jones been diagnosed with MS. Except I don’t wind up with Colin Firth in the end.

Not yet anyway…

MS Madness is @ Amazon in Print or Kindle

MS Madness is @ Barnes & Noble in Print or Nook

In addition to her book, MS Madness! A “Giggle More, Cry Less” Story of Multiple Sclerosis, Yvonne deSousa also writes a weekly blog on her website,, where she continues to use a giggle stick to beat up on chronic illness.

Yvonne is on Facebook. On Twitter with the handle @YvonnedeSousa

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World War I: The Enduring Cost

I am making this statement as an act of wilful defiance of military authority because I believe that the war is being deliberately prolonged by those who have the power to end it. I am a soldier, convinced that I am acting on behalf of soldiers. I believe that the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest. I believe that the purposes for which I and my fellow soldiers entered upon this war should have been so clearly stated as to have made it impossible to change them and that had this been done the objects which actuated us would now be attainable by negotiation.

I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust. I am not protesting against the conduct of the war, but against the political errors and insincerities for which the fighting men are being sacrificed.

On behalf of those who are suffering now, I make this protest against the deception which is being practised upon them; also I believe it may help to destroy the callous complacency with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share and which they have not enough imagination to realise.

The statement is from Siegfried “Mad Jack” Sassoon. His declaration of war against War is as concise as Lincoln’s commemoration at Gettysburg: Sassoon’s 235 words to Lincoln’s 272. The quote is given in full because its accusation is relevant today, almost one hundred years after it appeared in The Times on 31 July 1917. Then and now, war is the parlor game of hawks, who themselves have skirted military obligation through connections and wealth. Politicians create it, perpetuate it, and regular, ordinary people die in it.

Sassoon, a highly decorated officer, had seen Death in the trenches. His brother Hamo had died at Gallipoli in 1915, a military catastrophe that should have ended Churchill’s career. Sassoon’s near-suicidal acts of bravery were legendary among the men in the 3rd Battalion, Royal Welsh Fusiliers. The tipping point, however, came in March of 1916 when a close friend of his in the Battalion, David Thomas, had been shot in the throat. Thomas walked in from No Man’s Land to the first-aid station and choked to death on his own blood. His death would haunt Sassoon for the rest of his life.

Sassoon would have been court-martialed for that letter had it not been for the intercession of poet and comrade-in-arms Robert Graves, who pled for clemency before the Review Board. Sassoon had not only criticized the war and the politicians; he had refused to serve. Graves would convince the authorities that Sassoon should not be prosecuted for treason because he suffered from neurasthenia, the convoluted term of the day for ‘shell shock.’ In a word, Sassoon was out of his head and could not be held accountable for his actions or words. Sassoon was shipped off to the military hospital at Craiglockhart in Scotland, where he underwent psychoanalysis with psychiatrist W. H. R. Rivers. Other treatments for ‘shell shock’ at the time included physical exercise, hot and cold baths, and shock therapy. While at Craiglockhart, Sassoon mentored Wilfred Owen. Sense of perspective: the United States had entered the war in April 1917, Owen died in April of 1918, and Sassoon would later enter politics, find religion, and die in 1967. Pat Barker would fictionalize Sassoon’s convalescence in the novel (and later movie) Regeneration.

Shell shock, war weariness, battle fatigue are all locutions for what we now call PTSD. Neurasthenia was the term applied to officers, whereas the enlisted men were dismissed as slackers, or worse: hysterics. Nerves and nervousness were psychosomatic conditions associated with women, although we now know that artillery explosions can cause neurological damage, and alter behavior. In 1917, “shell shock” would disappear from the literature. Another euphemism appeared: NYDN, or Not Yet Diagnosed Nervous, which the men called, Not Yet Dead Nearly.

Then and now, the emotional fallout of war is not to be discussed because it is unmanly, less than dutiful, a badge of shame. In 1943, General Patton slapped Pvt. Charles H. Kuhl for saying, “I guess I can’t take it.” Patton could not understand why the soldier was there in the hospital since he had no visible wounds. Patton slapped him, yes, but what had not been mentioned at the time to the public was that Patton had drawn his revolver and shoved it in the young man’s face. A detailed report of the incident went to General Omar Bradley, who locked it up in his safe and did nothing. The incident made news only after a doctor on the scene sent a report to Eisenhower’s surgeon general, Brigadier General Frederick A. Blessé. Eisenhower scorched Patton and exiled him to Sicily.

While that detail is from another time and another war, the culture of hierarchy, of testosterone-addled machismo remained — still remains — albeit the military claims to acknowledge PTSD — treat it, and trains troops to prevent it in training. Today, numerous organizations, either government-sponsored or veteran-founded, help veterans deal with PTSD. Organizations such as The Wounded Warrior Project, The Heroes Project and Team Rubicon have generated public awareness about PTSD and assisted veterans with re-entry into society.

However, the men who seek help are often stigmatized. Charles Durning, Lee Marvin, Audie Murphy, Louis Hayward – these are all veterans from WW II who suffered horribly from PTSD in silence. They and others would suffer from alcoholism, depression, nightmares, inexplicable bouts of rage, and survivor’s guilt. Hayward might not be a familiar name to most readers. Louis Hayward, a Marine captain, supervised the photography corps during the amphibious assault on Tarawa in 1943. For four sleepless days, he endured artillery fire, avoided sniper fire, and engaged in hand-to-hand combat, while documenting the slaughter of six thousand men. He quietly came home a shattered man. His marriage to Ida Lupino crumbled.

Sassoon had dared to question the insanity of his day, only to be labeled temporarily insane. Perhaps Sassoon the poet had glimpsed the tribal truth: that humans like to kill each other, but can neither acknowledge this instinct nor sustain it. Deep down human beings seem to know that to kill is wrong and endless slaughter will only make the mind and body break and rebel. The fact remains, however, that that those in the echelons of power above or those in the society below do not want to know that, despite all the rhetoric about patriotism and sacrifice, blood is thirst and it must be shed. War might be Hell, uncivilized, but it is also the mark of Cain, then and now.

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Wednesday’s Woman: A Voice from the North

2014 is the centenary of Tove Jansson’s birth, and Helsinki’s Ateneum Art Museum is celebrating her art and life with an exhibition that runs until this September, when her drawings and paintings will be on exhibit in Japan. A biography of Jansson by Boel Westin in English appeared in January and the New York Review Books will release an anthology of her writings in October 2014, which will coincide with the release of an animated feature film Moomins on the Riviera in her native Finland.

Although born in Helsinki on 9 August 1914, Tove Jansson belonged to the minority Swedish-speaking population of Finland and therefore wrote in Swedish. Born into an upper-class family, young Tove was well educated — she studied art in Helsinki, Stockholm, Paris, and Rome — before World War II altered her life and, probably, her psyche. Finland faced direct Soviet aggression in The Winter War of 1939-1940 when temperatures dropped to negative double digits, in what was truly a heroic David and Goliath fight. After two massive invasions, Finland ceded land to the Russians. The loss of the lands in Karelia and the subsequent displacement of hundreds of thousands of Finns haunted the people of Finland. With Allied support nominal and lacking, the Finns allowed the passage of Hitler’s troops to engage the Soviets in Operation Barbarossa. While Finnish President Risto Ryti declared war on Russia he did not formally ally his nation with Hitler. The Finns, who did not accept Nazi ideology or anti-Semitism, would call the remainder of the conflict the Continuation War. The psychological anxiety should not be underestimated.

Tove Jansson, a painter of landscapes and still life, drew humorous and endearing magical creatures in a fictitious hardy Finnish landscape of lakes, rocks, sea, and valleys. As the brutal and nerve-wracking war boomed in the background, with Tove’s brothers in the army, she drew her Moomins. In her first two Moomin books, The Moomins and the Great Flood (1945) and Comet in Moominland shortly afterwards, catastrophe lingers overhead, as her displaced creations try to find stability and relish the pleasures of a simple life. Finn Family Moomintroll, translated into English in 1951, would catapult her career into the international spotlight, leading to an offer to provide a Moomin comic strip to a British newspaper, which in turn led to syndication and millions of Moomin fans worldwide.

The hippo-like Moomin is to Finland what Harry Potter is to fans today. Moominmania, however, never took hold in the United States. Established and fortified by her Moomin success, Tove Jansson would spend the rest of her life drawing, painting, and creating sculptures in her studio on a small island in the Finnish archipelago of the Åland islands. Tove created more picture books, wrote some adult fiction, and produced public works throughout Finland. She illustrated all her own books, Swedish translations of The Hobbit and other titles. Her Moomins would inspire films, operas, and plays. Characters like Moominmamma and Moominpappa, Sniff, Snufkin, and the Snork Maiden became household names, a vivid part of childhood memories for generations of British and Scandinavian children.

In 1956, she met her lifelong partner Tuulikki Pietilä, herself an artist and a Finnish-American. They would collaborate on artistic projects. Homosexuality was illegal in Finland until 1971; it was decriminalized in 1999, so Tove either lived in the closet, or saw no need to make a public statement. She lived her life with a reverence for the landscape and with love for her family and friends. Jansson would write Tuulikki into the Moomin family as the character Too-ticky. JoSelle Vanderhooft makes an argument that Tove’s sexuality influenced her Moomin oeuvre in that there are no gender expectations or societal structures in the Moomin world, only openness and interpersonal harmony.

Tove Jansson died in 2001 at the age of 86. Finland considers her a national treasure. Tuulikki Pietilä died eight years later.

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Good To Be The Ghoul: The Werewolf

Of all the creatures in horror films and literature, the werewolf seems to be the least glamorous, the least sexy and threatening. Unlike vampires, witches, or zombies, his identity is not fixed. Even among shape-shifters, the wolf is but a choice among many options. The explanation for poor lupine self-esteem could be that the werewolf is a temporary state: a few hours of madness, always at night, and always associated with the full moon. Let’s face it: the werewolf is a boring guy in need of a PR makeover.

He — the werewolf, who until recently had been exclusively male — is no vampire who charms his victims with an accent, turns into a bat, or terrorizes them with incisors. Until the 1981 movie The Howling, the werewolf had no sex life or tribe. He was the loner, a situation that could be attributed in great part to nineteenth-century Romanticism. He is no possessor of spells and incantations, no conductor between worlds like witches. He — again, only male until recently in film and literature — isn’t even interested in, or capable of, turning others into a werewolf. He is rather poor at self-promotion. The werewolf is, in short, a somewhat tragic figure, lone wolf jokes aside. He is milquetoast Larry Talbot or angst-ridden Oz of Buffy fame most days of the month until that pesky full moon rises and brings out his canine side. The werewolf is a cursed figure.

As banal as it sounds, the werewolf represents the instinctive and animal part within us. Men are dogs. There is also that midlife crisis, from which women are either immune or far cleverer at hiding. The lunar cycle gets it shade of lore here, too, from controlling ocean tides, hormones, and being the cause of irrational behavior. Are not these transformations of man into the wolf possible metaphors for puberty, midlife crises, or, in the case of women, for menopause? Lon Chaney’s metamorphosis is quaint when compared to the harrowing scene in American Werewolf in London. Nobody I know who saw that in the theatre the first time ever forgot that scene; but even then, that movie was laced with dark humor. Dracula yawns, as if the werewolf is nothing more than a distant cousin of Fido on a bad day.

The curious thing about werewolves is that their pedigree starts in the ancient world as incidental creatures, disappears well into the late medieval era, and then reappears as if two breeds of werewolf had developed in Germany and Eastern Europe. The persecutions of werewolves and witches have had a lot in common. I suspect that this is the case because trying animals was common in Medieval Europe. Witches have animals for familiars and there was a spate of animal attacks in certain parts of Europe. It was a terrible time for animals. Animal trials were business as usual in Medieval Europe. A horse, for example, could be found guilty of kicking a human to death and then executed in one of those splendid auto-da-fé Michel Foucault loved so much. In the few incidents in which a person was accused of being a werewolf, there was cannibalism and the suggestion (in hindsight to us moderns) that the accused might have been a serial killer.

The werewolf legend does, however, have a lighter and more rational dimension to it. Remember Romulus and Remus, the two babes, who founded Rome? They were suckled by a she-wolf. In today’s world, it is not uncommon to hear about animals that protect and nurture a human baby, or cross the species line and care for an orphan. We shouldn’t anthropomorphize, but there are times when animals demonstrate far more compassion than bipeds. The wolf is the totem animal of Rome in Italy. Fun fact: in Latin, “lupa” means prostitute. The Romans had the Lupercalia celebration every February to honor shepherds and the god of the forest, Pan, in front of the cave where Romulus and Remus were suckled. Celebrants wore wolf pelts and festivities were known to get kinky.

There are many Germanic names that include the “wolf/wulf” stem (think Beowulf), but there is a richer and seldom discussed werewolf tradition in Scandinavian literature, namely in saga literature. The Vikings seen in the amusing “What is in your wallet?” commercials are berserkers. These men were fierce and feared and called the Úlfhednar, or wolf-men. More like a Scandinavian version of Special Forces, these warriors were dedicated to Odin and they went into battle wearing wolf pelts, known to “hamask” or change form, which meant they became ferocious as a pack of wolves. They are not romantic, tragic figures; they were formidable fighters. Pure testosterone. We have Nordic noir, and we may have Nordic wolf literature in the future, but the precedents are there in the saga literature of the past.

Teen Wolf enters its fourth season on MTV Monday nights. Unlike the Michael J. Fox version in the eighties, this Teen Wolf is not a howler; it has received critical praise.

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Wednesday’s Woman: The Voice of South Africa

A famous man took the podium and read a poem entitled “Die kind” (The Child). He did this on an august occasion, the celebration of a new chapter in his nation’s history: a now freely elected parliament would see South Africa into a new future; and he, its first democratically-elected president, would lead the nations. The language of the poem is Afrikaans; the man was Nelson Mandela; the poet, Ingrid Jonker; the date: 24 May 1994. Ingrid Jonker had died in 1965. Just as Virginia Woolf before her, so had she surrendered her life to the waves.

The late Nelson Mandela had said this, amongst other things, about Ingrid Jonker on that day:

The certainties that come with age tell me that among these we shall find an Afrikaner woman who transcended a particular experience and became a South African, an African and a citizen of the world.

Her name is Ingrid Jonker.

She was both a poet and a South African. She was both an Afrikaner and an African. She was both an artist and a human being.

In the midst of despair, she celebrated hope. Confronted with death, she asserted the beauty of life.

The full title of the poem is “Die kind (wat dood geskiet is deur soldate by Nyanga)” or in English, The child who was shot dead by soldiers at Nyanga. It had been inspired by a phrase from Dylan Thomas’s poetry and the shooting death of a child. Jonker composed the poem to commemorate a slain child and to express her defiance against apartheid, against the senseless violence at Sharpesville, Langa, Nyanga and Vanderbijl Park in March of 1960.

Protestors had peacefully gathered in those places and, in the spirit of nonviolence, offered themselves up for arrest to contest the colonial practice of dompas, the need to produce a pass which stipulated where, when, and how long a black South African could stay in a white area. I should point out that ‘dompas’ literally means ‘dumb pass.’ Unfortunately, the principles of nonviolence did not work on 21 March 1960 or the days thereafter. People were shot. People died. A mortified Ingrid saw the photograph of a woman with her dead child in her arms. The child, who had been sick, who had been in transit to a doctor, carried in his mother’s arms, had been shot dead. Look at the title of the poem in Afrikaans and notice the parenthetical. Jonker, in my view, places death within the parenthesis, but subverts it later in the poem, as if there is this initial fact (shot dead) and then later, denial (is not dead/Who shouts Afrika). The parenthesis fails to contain injustice, suggests an aside. Later in the poem, she describes things that that boy might have done as a man, but cannot and will not  because of the last devastating line:

This child who just wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga is everywhere

the child grown to a man treks through all Africa

the child grown into a giant journeys through the whole world

Without a pass


Search online and you will invariably find Ingrid Jonker compared to Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton, poets who ‘confessed’ their struggles and demons. The comparisons perplex me, for Jonker may have committed suicide like Plath and Sexton, may have been self-destructive like them, too, but her poetry is very different from theirs. Plath is often an angry poet and Sexton, indignant. All three poets are technicians of meter. In this poem, “The Face of Love” (Gesig van die liefde), dedicated to her lover Jack Cope, she braids the specific and the eternal aspects of the Beloved and Love. I think that this poem can be read (in translation, at least) top-down and then bottom-up.

Your face is the face of all the others
before you and after you and
your eyes calm as a blue
dawn breaking time on time
herdsman of the clouds
sentinel of white iridescent beauty
the landscape of your contesses mouth
that I have explored
keeps the secret of a smile
like small white villages beyond the
and your heartbeats the measure of
their ecstasy
There is no question of beginning
there is no question of possession
there is no question of death
face of my beloved
the face of love

Jonker did have a tumultuous life: a mentally unstable mother who died when she was ten; money problems; a failed marriage, although it produced a daughter, Simone, in 1957; and later, affairs with the much-older Jack Cope and then with the married André Brink. Both men were writers and active in the fight against apartheid, and both men rejected her. The relationship with Cope led to pregnancy and an abortion in 1961. Abortion would remain illegal in South Africa until 1997. She was mercurial and contradictory. Jonker experienced bouts of erratic behavior. She had undergone shock therapy before she ended her life. She believed that she had lost her gift for words. She was 32 years old.

One can only conjecture the emphatic horror and pain that Jonker must have felt when she saw that photograph. While the abortion and the dramas in her romantic life contributed to a stay at a mental hospital, I place the greater parcel of blame for her unhappiness squarely on her father, Abraham Jonker, a National Party Member of Parliament and Minister of Censorship. He wasn’t a simple domestic tyrant. His very public  position allowed him to attack artists, including his daughter.

I leave the reader with the statement that he had allegedly made after she walked into the sea and drowned: “They can throw her back in the sea for all I care.” Father and daughter, although they shared the craft of writing, were political antagonists. She dedicated her first volume of poems to him. His response? He was offended and disowned her after its publication. He criticized her work at every turn. In a word, he makes Sylvia Plath’s “Daddy” seem demure.

Jonker would produce three volumes of poetry of increasing power and range. Here, at this link, Tony McGregor provides the reader with a deeper, nuanced appreciation of Jonker’s diction and themes. Black Butterflies is both a collection of her poems translated into English, by André Brink and Antjie Krog (2007), and a film from director Paula van der Oest (2011). Unfortunately, the two available translations of her poetry into English are out of print. That compounds the tragedy.

Ingrid Jonker deserves more readers.

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Good To Be The Ghoul: The Vampire

Season 7 of True Blood premieres Sunday, June 22 at 9 p.m. E.D.T.

We live in the era of the undead. Consider the vampire. It casts no reflection — like most politicians — charms us with a CEO’s charisma and brims beautiful and dangerous, sexual and violent beneath the surface. We have all met them in business, in relationships, in social circles. This species of the undead is the emotional parasite, the needy creature that feeds off of our life-energy. This vampire is the narcissist and passive-aggressive soul-sucker until the light of our good reason exposes them, and we stake a claim for our own psychic survival.

The genealogy of the vampire in cinema and literature is like a fog that never lifts. It is everywhere in the collective unconscious, since almost every culture on the planet has the vampire in its imaginative store. The misdirection, the divergence, is in the blood. Literally. The first generation of vampires, from time immemorial until about the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, had always been almost exclusively female; the intended victims, either children or birthing mothers. This female entity is technically a demon, whether it is the Assyrian and Babylonian Lilitu the Hebrews called Lilith, or the Lamia or Mormo of Greek mythology. Infanticide is the unspeakable crime here. The object, the blood, is symbolic: kinship and dynastic succession are destroyed. The demon becomes the succubae and witches.

When the shift moves from the destruction of mother and child – family blood and heredity denied – to sex, we will see vengeful demon become sexual predator, the succubus who visits men at night; haunts them through erotic dreams; seduces and destroys them. Blood isn’t the only bodily fluid lost. Cast aside the Freudian orgasm-is-death analogy, the kiss of death, or the inherent misogyny in the belief that women are sexually voracious and rapacious, because the crucial element in the evolution of the vampire is not gender or sexuality, but the change in the blood type, so to speak. To the ancients, the vampire is unnatural because it lacks blood, and therefore humanity; it is a spirit, and not undead. The spirit is in torment. Any mention of soul is Christian theology thrown into the mix later. This vampire has physical needs.

The modern vampire, from Irish writer Bram Stoker’s Dracula on, uses blood for nourishment, yes, but also to recruit others into the brood. This is very different in that it is a reversal of the destruction of succession seen in ancient folklore. The vampire of the past merely wanted to feed and survive, whereas the new vampire wishes to reproduce, extend its line; create an occult family. Recent versions of the vampire in contemporary literature and cinema try to de-emphasize the undead aspect of the vampire. The Strain Trilogy from Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan posits that vampires are the result of a viral infection, whereas vampires are genetic mutants in Deborah Harkness’s The All Souls Trilogy. Blood has become a symbol for an epidemic or pandemic, AIDS, Ebola or other viruses notwithstanding.

Supernatural traits have made them comic-book heroes, capable of walking in the daylight (Marvel Comics’ Blade). The town of Bon Temps in True Blood has enough kinky sex and violence that Caligula might blush or feel envious. Vampires are corporate bad guys (Daybreakers) who put their fangs behind the desk and attempt to harvest humans in an orderly, but timely fashion, while getting all entrepreneurial in a rush to manufacture synthetic blood. Modern vamps are confused, conflicted about their birthrights and purpose; they may desire the adolescent coming-of-age (Richelle Mead’s Vampire Academy), or struggle with their hybrid nature; some even want a soul (Joss Whedon’s Angel and Spike characters), while others may want to do some good in the world (Ivy in Kim Harrison’s The Hollows series). Bearing a soul is an affliction, a curse, whereas sociopathic tendencies are more about flouting social rules than the eternal questions of Good versus Evil.

The unintentional vampire is an interesting figure. There is little choice here, but is potentially more horrific because aspects of the paranormal and human collide. A perfect example is Anne Rice’s Claudia in Interview with the Vampire. She is a terrifying blend of victim-turned-into-vampire with a sexual appetite, yet is a killer trapped inside a doll’s body. As for the subtext of homosexuality in vampire films: blood-lust is blind. The modern vampire, misunderstood, maligned, sometimes tragic, is thoroughly romantic and melodramatic, although the reader seems to forget that it is a serial killer, a killing machine.

In the Victorian era the vampire experienced a sexual revolution of sorts. Sheridan Le Fanu, another Irishman, wrote a novella, Carmilla, in which the vampires are lesbians. Again, in keeping with the outsider tradition, homosexuality is outside the purview of Nature. Not sure whether this has been commented on, but I find in Stoker a cultural critique. His Dracula is cultured, charming and Eastern European, as if to say that all that is old and European is deceptive, decadent, and deadly. Isn’t it also interesting that Abraham Van Helsing has evolved into an action hero? The vampire slayer is an entirely different genre.

Murnau’s Noseferatu, for example, is closer to the pre-Victorian image of the vampire – this in itself is ironic because Bram Stoker’s widow sued Murnau for copyright infringement. Murnau’s story is less concerned with sexuality, which Broker’s novel is, as it is with Evil. Count Orlock is not handsome or sophisticated as Stoker’s Dracula. Max Schreck’s Orlock is thoroughly hideous, with his freakish claws, bat-like ears and head; in short, he is a monster, which is exactly what the vampire represents, Christian or pagan.

Yes, Virginia, vampires do exist. It could be the relentless boss or your passive-aggressive partner. The way life is lived could be vampiric in that it siphons off precious mortal time for the sake of survival. Check the mirror, Virginia. The vampire could be you.

Next month, Good To Be The Ghoul examines the werewolf.

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