In the Critics this week

John Burnside celebrates chance encounters with animals, Ray Monk looks at Wittgenstein, Alice Gribbin interviews John Banville and John Gray reviews Rowan Williams's ventures beyond the wardrobe door.

The Critics section of this week's New Statesman opens with John Burnside's ode to animal encounters, “of the fleeting, gorgeous exchange of a look” that is "an occasion of quiet, if short-lived joy." He laments that “real animals, wild animals, have all but passed from our lives.” “There is so little of the wild in us.” This is tragic because as “Paul Shepard has said … I suspect the greater loss is of another kind – the way a local fauna links the concept of self and the uniqueness of place in different cultures. The loss of non-human diversity erases nuances in identity. We are coarsened by the loss of animals.’”  In Burnside’s opinion this coarsening means that “Nature poetry has become more urgent than ever,” praising in particular William Stafford’s “laconic and unsettling” Travelling through the dark, which asone of the most beautifully dramatised moments in modern poetry, creates a scene in which the only live thing seems to be the car engine, and the man.”

The car aimed ahead its lowered parking lights;

Under the hood purred the steady engine.

I stood in the glare of the warm exhaust turning red.

A similar outlook can be found in Rowan Williams’s The Lion’s World: a Journey into Narnia. As John Gray writes in his review, “Williams argues that theism can counteract a narrowly anthropocentric viewpoint. Pointing to the central role of animals in [C S Lewis's] Narnia [novels]”. “‘The passionate campaign against nature itself is typical of the most toxic kinds of modernity’ – in which human beings are set apart from all other creatures, then invested with the special rationality needed to subjugate and remodel the world.” Williams's book is a “concise, pellucid, richly thoughtful study [which] can be read with profit and enjoyment by anyone, whatever their beliefs or lack of belief, who is interested in fundamental questions about the places of humankind in the scheme of things.” Gray is uncertain of the relevance the book’s epigraph, which echoes Wittgenstein’s aphorism “'Whereof one cannot speak, thereof on must be silent’… a maxim that has attracted a good deal of criticism … it has never been entirely clear what the gnomic philosopher meant.”

Serendipitous, then, that Ray Monk has the answer to this exact question. “Wittgenstein made clear in private conversation and correspondence, he believed those things about which we have to be silent to be the most important.” “For Wittgenstein, to think, to understand, was first and foremost to picture” and “not everything we can see and therefore not everything we can mentally grasp can be put into words.” Monk explains that is why Wittgenstein puzzlingly referred to himself as a disciple of Freud. Furthermore, he sees these strands of thought as embodied evocatively in a recent exhibition, Wittgenstein: Philosophy and Photography. “The exhibition began with its most intriguing item: a composite  photograph made up of four portraits or Wittgenstein and his three sisters. At first, it looks like a picture of a single person … enabling one to see directly the very strong family resemblances that existed between these four siblings.” Monk emphasizes that this notion of ‘family resemblances’ “is cruical to Wittgenstein's later philosophy”.

Alison Gribbin's interview with John Banville on Ancient Light, his latest novel about a 12-year-old who has an affair with his best friend’s mother, also has some philosophical and Freudian moments. Banville tells Gribbin: "The older I get, the more I realise writing is a process of dreaming… we like to imagine we’re in control, but actually we’re not. I think I’m less the writer than I’m the written.” He also clarified the assertion he made on Radio 4 that "writing sex into a novel is impossible" by saying that “the act is wonderful but writing about it is terrible … The erotic always tends to affection, love or negative things. You can’t write about fantasy without being ridiculous. I would love to write a pornographic book- I think it’s a great challenge.” Watch out E L James! Considering the inherent eroticism of the subject matter, combined with the strong first-person voice, Gribbin asks Banville if we are supposed to long for the interiority of the mother. He replies that “the point of Mrs Grey is that she lives on the surface.” “Nietzsche says: on the surface, that’s where the real depth is. It’s true. All a work of art can do is present the surface. I can’t know the insides of people.”

One might imagine then that Banville would be as enthused as Ryan Gilbey about a moment in the film Take This Waltz, in which a husband “gazes through the window at Magot [his wife] – her lips mouthing the words to a song that he cannot hear, her head moving to a rhythm that is inaccessible to him and likely always will be.” Gilbey, however, was less enamoured of the movie as a whole, arguing that actress Michelle Williams is "sometimes all that separates Take This Waltz from Amelie.”

Last, but not least, Brian Dillon reviews Will Self’s latest, and Man Booker-longlisted, novel Umbrella, about the Encephalitis lethargica epidemic, which sucked “victims into somnolence, torpor and coma." "The patients had not merely spun down into slow-mo; they had been seized first with a variety of tics and tremors, clawing motions and darting eye movements. In this sense, as Will Self discerns, theirs was a suitably modern, even modernist, affliction.” As such “Umbrella is as much a novel about the historical slump of modernist fiction – and its potential reanimation – as it is about the fates of encephalics.” “Yet Umbrella is not exactly a pastiche of modernist styles, nor… an effort to recharge those modes at one century’s remove… its relationship with modernism is as much a matter of historical allegory as structural or textual affinity.” “All of which suggests that Umbrella is a complexly textured, conceptually forbidding thesis about the modern, its art and their discontents. This being Self, though, there is also a great deal of humour.”   

Author John Banville, interviewed in this week's New Statesman (Photograph: Getty)
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Inside Syria's unending siege, civilians, not soldiers, are the victims

In Aleppo, civilian strife is just another tool of war.

Maria is a young mother who lives in Aleppo. She missed her opportunity to flee when the Syrian-Turkish border was closed to all but the seriously injured in early 2015. With her two children – Fadi, aged five, and Sama, aged nine – she stayed in the city.

Maria’s husband was killed by a barrel bomb that fell on their neighbourhood in 2014. After that, she took the children and moved in with her husband’s family. Her married brother-in-law asked her to be his second wife. She accepted the offer for the sake of security. This year he, too, was killed when a bomb fell on his shop.

Speaking to her on Skype, I referred to Aleppo as a city under siege and she quickly corrected me. “The city is not under siege,” she said. “We are human beings under siege.” Maria clearly felt offended by my words. She moved the conversation on to the images of a young Syrian boy, sitting in an ambulance, which have appeared on newspaper front pages around the world – a symbol of the human suffering in Aleppo. “What can I say? His silence and shock reflected all the pain of Syrians.”

Tearfully, she described her living conditions. “There are two widows, with three children, who live all together with our old mother-in-law. The good people around us try to give us food and clothing.”

She added: “Before, I used to cook a big meal for me and my family-in-law every day. My late husband was well off.” The children don’t go to school but they get some lessons at home – Maria used to work as an Arabic language teacher at a high school in the city.

The household’s other widow, Safaa, joined our conversation. “Since the first day of Eid ul-Fitr [the festival that marks the end of Ramadan, this year on 6 July], the siege began in Aleppo. There was no food or water. Children cried and could not sleep because of hunger.”

Safaa made food from pulses that she had managed to save, particularly lentils. As the area around the city is rich in olives and well known for producing za’atar herbs, the extended family depended on reserves of these for nutrition. “Al-za’atar al-akhdar [a dish of the herb, olive oil and a few other basic ingredients] has saved the reputation of Aleppo and its people,” Safaa joked, and both women laughed.

Then, suddenly, the Skype connection was lost and they both disappeared.

Another Aleppo native to whom I spoke, Ayham, described his desperation as he finished his engineering degree before fleeing Syria. “I am my mother’s only son, so I didn’t want to do military service, and I left, as I felt so insecure,” he told me. He had been living in Shahbaa, a neighbourhood controlled by Bashar al-Assad’s regime, while completing one application after another to study abroad. Eventually he was successful and he has now made it to a university in Europe.

Ayham’s parents were pushing him to leave because they knew that he was part of an underground anti-Assad protest movement. “There are two Aleppos,” he explained. “One is free and the other is controlled by Assad’s regime. Both are very unsafe . . . Living hungry was easier than living under threat.”

There are roughly two million people in the city, most of them women and children. Since the second day of the siege, there have been no fruit or vegetables available and only a few bakeries are producing bread. Compounding the starvation, the bombing has been intense, hitting hospitals, ambulances, blood banks and the Syrian Civil Defence base. Assad’s regime is targeting vital resources for civilians.
Even after rebel forces, in co-operation with the Islamist faction Jaish al-Fateh, managed partly to break the siege and open a new road into the south of the city through the Ramoussa area, they could not bring in enough food. The little that made it inside immediately sent prices soaring. Civilians could not use this road to escape – jets were targeting the routes in and out.

The eastern areas of Aleppo, which are still under the opposition’s control, are also still without aid, because of how risky it is to get there. All the talk coming out of the city today is about decisive battles between Assad’s forces and the rebels in the southern quarters. Civilians put the recent air strikes down to these conflicts – it has long been believed that when the regime loses ground, it intensifies its bombing as revenge, and to send a message to those who continue to resist.

People in Aleppo and the north-eastern territories of Syria are suffering and dying. They have no other choice. It seems that both Isis and the Assad regime are trying as hard as they can to destroy Syrian civilians, whether through direct attacks or by gradual starvation.

There is little information available, as both sides attempt to prevent the media from documenting life under siege. Isis accuses journalists of being agents of Assad, while the regime portrays reporters as terrorists. Pro-Assad social media accounts have alleged that Mahmoud Raslan, who took the footage of the boy in the ambulance, has links with terrorism. The same channels have yet to say much about Raslan’s subject – Omran Daqneesh, the five-year-old whom he showed, bloodied and stunned, after the boy was pulled from the rubble caused by multiple air strikes. Omran’s ten-year-old brother, Ali, has since died from injuries sustained in another attack.

After four hours, I heard back from Maria. She apologised for losing the connection and asked me not to worry about her. “All of us are fine. We did not die yet,” she said. Her daughter, Sama, has not been to school since last year, she told me, and now studies only Arabic poetry. They have no books, so she depends on the verses that Maria knows by heart. Sama misses her school and her friends, and though she remembers their faces she has forgotten their names.

Maria has made a doll for her out of scraps of fabric and they call it Salwa. Together, they sing Syrian folk songs for the doll, in particular one that goes: “Hey Salwa, why are you crying? I need a friend.” Maria is resigned. As she says, “We are back in the Stone Age.” 

K S is a Syrian journalist, based in Sweden since 2014

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser