This Orient Isle by Jerry Brotton

But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make

Of hammered gold and gold enamelling

To keep a drowsy emperor awake;

Or set upon a golden bough to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium

Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

English readers of This Orient Isle would think of Shakespeare’s lines ‘this sceptred isle … this precious stone set in the silver sea’ from Richard II, but the Irish would probably remember Yeats’s poem Sailing to Byzantium.

Unknown.jpegLike the final stanza of that poem, the pages of the book are filled with references to oriental gold. Ironically, for lovers of Yeats’s poem, Brotton tells of a gift, from Queen Elizabeth I to Sultan Murad III, not the other way around, of a clockwork organ which was played, in 1599, to entertain ‘the lords and ladies of Byzantium’ in the same palace that Yeats chose for his golden mechanical bird. The Sultan was not ‘drowsy’ but delighted, and offered the organ-maker, Thomas Dallam, his choice of the palace concubines. It seems that Dallam merely accepted a bag of gold.

This Orient Isle explains Elizabeth’s alliances with the Ottoman and Persian Empires as well as the Moroccan Sultanate, relationships which frequently distracted her from her ‘disastrous military campaign to try to crush Catholic rebellion in Ireland’.

The Rainbow Portrait depicts Elizabeth in oriental fabrics

Although Brotton does not dwell on it, the narrative suggests many parallels to Europe’s current relations with the Islamic world. As Edward Said points out in his theory of Orientalism, Judo-Christian Europeans often see Muslims as the ‘Other’, as something alien and dangerous. Said argues that because of misunderstanding or ignorance, we cast all Muslims as the enemy in the ‘war on terror’.

Brotton sets out to detail and analyse, the process by which Protestant England, with her queen who was to be excommunicated in 1570, was seeking an alliance with this ‘Other’. England was struggling against against Catholic Spain, France and the Holy Roman Empire who had a stranglehold on trade. In 1566, the Bishop of Winchester wrote ‘the Pope is a more perilous enemy unto Christ, than the Turk: and Popery more idolatrous than Turkery’.

The English merchants and explorers, like many current Europeans, did not have much of an understanding of Islam; one of them, Anthony Jenkinson explained, in 1558, the difference between Sunni and Shi’a in terms of their facial hair: ‘the Persians will not cut the hair of their upper lips, as the Bukharians and all other Tartars do’. The task of these emissaries, after all, was not theological but mercantile. In pursuit of trade Jenkinson tackled the frozen wastes of the North West Passage and arrived in Persia after a long and hazardous trek via Moscow. He found that the heavy cloth that he offered for sale was of more interest in the cold climes of Russia than in the warmth of Persia where he saw ‘golden and silken garments’.

Another traveller was Henry Roberts, the first English Ambassador to Morocco (1585).  Roberts, who had been a soldier, was settled in Ireland after a period of quashing insurrection. Not only was he reluctant to ‘yield his place’ in Ireland, but he had no experience of trade or diplomacy. Brotton writes that to ‘a soldier like Roberts, used to the monoglot world of England and Ireland and its stark religious divisions between Protestantism and Catholicism, the multi-confessional and polyglot world of Marrakesh must have come as a massive shock’. In the three years that he was there, however, Roberts seems to have spent more time engaged in military and political matters than commerce. He traded munitions and agitated for the Moroccan emperor, al-Mansur, to join an anti-Spanish league.

Roberts was working under the auspices of the Earl of Leicester, as was a later adventurer, Anthony Sherley. After Leicester’s death Sherley’s patron was the ‘equally intemperate’ Robert Devereux, 2nd Earl of Essex, who would, the following year, be attempting to subdue O’Neill in Ireland.

Sherley is described as ‘a born intriguer, a complete opportunist’ and ‘ a completely sinister person’. Nevertheless, shortly after his arrival in Persia in 1598, Sherley’s relationship with Shah Abbas was, states Brotton closer than ‘that of any other Elizabethan Englishman and Muslim ruler’. Extraordinarily, by 1599, Sherley was able to claim ‘the right to represent the shah’s interests in Europe and to act like a Persian Mizra (prince) with the authority to mingle with kings and emperors’. Now he ‘was proposing to broker a grand anti-Ottoman alliance between Persia and Europe’s Catholic rulers’. It is not surprising that he was never able to return to England.

It is surprising that in 1888 a pamphlet written by the Reverend Scott Surtees suggested that Sherley was, in fact, the author of Shakespeare’s plays. Surtees argued that Sherley knew the ‘habits and the ways, the customs, dresses, manners, laws of almost every known nation’ and obsessed that the name Antonio, used in so many plays, came from Sherley’s own forename, Anthony.  Whether or not Sherley was ‘he who wrote these plays’, Brotton, himself, is extremely interested in Shakespeare’s works and has searched through them, like a monkey looking for fleas.

Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri

In his first paragraph, Brotton, writes of Abd al-Wahid bin Masoud bin Muhammad al-Annuri as ‘a tall, dark, bearded man’ who in ‘is instantly distinguished from the crowd by his long black robe (thawb), bright white linen turban and the huge richly decorated steel scimitar, a Maghreb nimcha, which hangs from his waist’.  The implication, made clear later in the introduction, is that this man was the inspiration for Othello.  Brotton, states that ‘it is possible to discern some of the local raw material on which Shakespeare might have drawn for his portrayal of the noble Moor.’ The Morrocan envoy was in London in 1600-1601, the latter being the year that Shakespeare started writing Othello. But Brotton’s rather pedestrian recounting of the story of Othello in the chapter ‘More than a Moor’, along with his foregrounding of every possible reference to the Orient (such as the word ‘surely’ in Twelfth Night being an obvious pun on the name Sherley) are much less convincing and exciting than his account of Elizabethan deeds of derring-do.

Brotton, J.  This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and  the Islamic World.  2015. London: Allen Lane.

This review was first published in the Irish Examiner on 28th May 2016.



Martin Healy and Performative Writing

Still from “A moment twice lived”.

I read the phrase “performative writing” for the first time just a few days ago, when Professor Alex Davies sent me, in error, the essay list for Postmodernism in Literature and Film. I am not studying that unit.  But I read the titles anyway.

One essay title asks “How is Peggy Phelan’s Unmarked an example of performative writing?”  Another: “What kind of essay would be the most appropriate response to a book like Peggy Phelan’s Unmarked?  Write it.”  Intriguing?

It seems to me to be rather strange that I had no idea what Professor Davies was talking about: performative writing might be something that I am really interested in as a feminist, literature and theatre teacher and putative master in Literature. So I looked it up and darling Wikipedia is very helpful. I quote in full:

Performative writing is a form of post-modernist or avant-garde academic writing, often taking as its subject a work of visual art or performance art. It is heavily informed by critical theory, but arises ultimately from linguistic ideas around performative utterances. The term is often applied to a bricolage of other writing styles. It is claimed to be politically radical, because it thus ‘defies’ literary conventions and traditions.

It is often practiced by feminist writers. A notable current writer in performative writing is the performance art theorist Peggy Phelan. She describes the form as one which….

“enacts the death of the ‘we’ that we think we are before we begin to write. A statement of allegiance to the radicality of unknowing who we are becoming, this writing pushes against the ideology of knowledge as a progressive movement forever approaching a completed end-point.” (Mourning Sex, 1997)

Such a writing form is claimed to be, in itself, a form of performance. It is said to more accurately reflect the fleeting and ephemeral nature of a performance, and the various mechanisms of memory and referentiality that happen during and after the performance.[citation needed]

Critics of performative writing have described it, in practice, as: self-indulgent; insular; politically neutred due to its tiny elite audience and its neo-romantic individualism; obscurantist; often bearing only a loose relationship to the works of art it claims to be about; and dependent on the funding (of universities and public arts funding) of the very state that it claims to be against. Also that, when taught, it often paradoxically expects students to reveal personal truths and use experimental forms within a strict classroom regimen of grades, lesson attendance and exams. It can generally be seen to follow the pattern of much modernist writing, in that it seeks to create complex new literary approaches in order to seal off ‘high art culture’ from the attention of ordinary people and from a mass culture.[citation needed]

The term performative writing should not be confused with “writing that is performed”, i.e.: plays, radio or poetry readings.[citation needed]

Performative writing is sometimes referred to by the alternative name of ‘creative critical writing’ – which is not to be confused with straightforward creative writing.[citation needed]

The article was last moderated in 2014 and is crying out for modification.  But I do not think that I can be the one to contribute as I still do not fully understand what performative writing is.  So I looked further and found a PDF by Della Pollock published in 1998 which is entitled “Performing Writing“.  She gives a list of six things which performing writing is: evocative, metonymic, subjective, nervous, citational, consequential.   

Further down the Google page I found a piece of what I take to be performative writing – it reminded me of J.J. Abrams’ book S to which Donna Alexander introduced us.  I think it is a blog inspired by Pollack’s essay.  But I am not sure.  What I do know is that I still do not know what performative or performing writing is, unless I am in fact engaging in it myself, at this minute.  

So what does all this have to do with Martin Healy?  He is a London-born artist who lives and works in Dublin and his exhibition A moment twice lived is currently showing at the Crawford Gallery in Cork.  I went to see it today at about 1.45pm.  I invited members from my erstwhile Irish Writing and Film M.A. group but no one could come.  Perhaps because I gave them so little notice?  I chose to go because it was pick of the week  (p24) in Listings The Guide Scotland and Ireland in my favourite newspaper, The Guardian.  

Healy works in the media of video, photography, text and other.  There are three pieces on show, the other two being The long afternoon of eternity (2016) and Harvest (2015).  According to the information sheet A moment twice lived (2016) refers to “JW Dunne’s writing, in particular the book An Experiment with Time (1927) by way of a curiously overlooked painting in the Crawford Gallery’s collection by Nathaniel Grogan (c. 1740 – c. 1805) that only recently has been reattributed to the artist.  During the course of the film, a narrator refers to dreams and experiences of temporal dislocation, questioning our perception of the passage of time and its relationship to our understanding of the world. The narrator’s text is based on Dunne’s writings as well as notes from the J.B. Priestly Archive at the University of Bradford.”

How strange is all that referencing in and out of different media and different epochs?   And is the narrator the voice of the woman seen studying Grogan’s painting?  And what is the painting, hung in an adjacent room, called?  And what has the subject of the painting to do with the film?  And does the soundtrack reference the sound of a fire burning?  I don’t know.  But I like it a lot.

As to Harvest it was a strange beast:  

Still from Harvest – recording equipment is being set up

The film, according to the gallery leaflet “follows a character as he attentively records the sound of plants as they are watered over the course of a morning.  Blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, the work is characterised by the use of a real protagonist in a real environment who fastidiously attends to the plants in silence.  Healy ruminates on our relationship to the rhythms of the natural worlds and the phenomena that affect our existence.” 

Still from the end of Harvest – mist fills the space and water thunders

Towards the end of the film the large greenhouse structure fills with the mist of water whilst the soundtrack becomes thunderous.  It was strangely unnerving.  It reminded me of images of this morning’s cowardly attack on Brussels, and in particular on landside at the airport.

Still from – smoke fills the space which had thundered with explosions

I did not “ruminate” much on “our relationship to the rhythms of the natural worlds” but I did “ruminate” on “the phenomena that affect our existence”.  In other words I thought about those poor frightened people and their families.  It’s a terrible example of our behaviour in the world.

Is my writing performative?  Does it fit with the Wikipedia definition?  Check it out.    

And is it evocative? Metonymic? Subjective? Nervous? Citational? Consequential?  

PS  I hope the in-text citations will do well enough.  I’m tired now.