Steep Stairs Review. Volume 9

December 16, 2014

In an academic environment of endlessly themed journals, Steep Stairs Review is proudly a celebration of the eclectic. Though connections between articles could very well be forged with a tentative thread, contributors including academics, researchers and teachers have always been most tangibly united by their passion for sharing ideas that have inspired them at the time of writing. This issue sees the re-launch of Steep Stairs Review after a two-year reflective break; and as a testament to our love of disparity, we have an intellectual feast to tempt the exploratory palette. This includes, amongst others, an appreciation of melancholy, the exploration of the relationship between reading and physicality, the psychological healing power of narrative, cross-cultural representations of China’s Han dominance, important developments in eastern Mediterranean agriculture, and of course the evolution of human history and the concept of happiness.

To begin with, Glen Jennings, incorporating his own lived experience as a foreign student in the Han heartland of eastern China, in Voices from China, commemorates David Eimer’s courageous endeavour in his book, The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, to recount the lived experiences of ethnic minorities, who struggle to survive under China’s Han dominated political economic and military rules. After presenting an overview of Han dominance of the minorities such as of Uighurs and Tibetans, and all the great wrongs Mao Zedong and his successors have afflicted on them, Glen relives for the reader Eimer’s physical, political and emotional journey to China, and critically analyses Eimer’s interpretations of his encounter with the ethnic minorities and with a General in the Wa army.

Michael Heald’s review of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind reinforces Yuval Noah Harari’s endeavour to fill the gap in our understanding of human history by questioning every aspect of its development, being cognitive, agricultural or scientific, and by revisiting what constitutes happiness. Throughout his review, The History of Happiness, Michael critically reviews Harari’s discussion of key transitions in human history such as Cognitive Revolution leading to humans’ domination of the planet. He also critically reviews Harari’s interpretation of how the currents of history have shaped human societies and individual personalities.

Next is Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy: An Appreciation by Raymond Hardy and Gayle Allan. After Gayle’s review of the term ‘melancholia’ and its association with great artistic creativity, Ray highlights the influence of Burton’s book, Anatomy of Melancholy, on the past 400 years of English authorship, focusing on the author’s use of the metaphor “a dwarf standing on the shoulders of giants can see further”, which is used repeatedly in all knowledge disciplines. Both Gayle and Ray highlight the importance of reading not only of Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy, but also of various disciplines from philosophy to modern natural sciences. Moreover, the piece underlines the importance of ongoing search for knowledge.

In keeping with Gayle Allan’s and Raymond Hardy’s acknowledgment of the intersection between texts and representations of ‘madness’, Susan Karpasitis, inTrauma Narratives in the Basement: A Psychoanalytic Reading of The Book Thief, considers the relationship between psychological trauma narrative through a revisiting of the best selling 2005 novel The Book Thief. She proposes that the author, Marcus Zusack, uses narrative to soothe, process and re-imagine complex traumas, and that literary motifs conspire to illustrate the layering of individual and collective societal traumas.

Further commenting on the ability of narrative to infiltrate reader experience on subconscious and unconscious levels, Colm McNaughton, in On Reading Joyce Reading the World: Reflections on How to Read Ulysses in Interesting Times, investigates the unexplored physical relationship between text and body in James Joyce’s Ulysses. Stripping the text back to its visceral and aural foundations, Colm argues that by allowing the Joyce to read the reader, Ulysses becomes a transformative and supremely intimate experience – a far cry from the inaccessible elitist reputation it has recently come to shoulder.

Next, Tamar Lewit, in When the Fields Were Joyful, commemorates the golden age for the eastern Mediterranean during AD 400-600 with agricultural revolution, specifically in oil and wine production. Tamar takes the reader to a time “when the fields were joyful, olive trees rejoiced, and farmers, merchants and craftspeople rode a wave of success and innovation”, and revisits the debate over the so-called calamitous impact of Arab invasion on the eastern Mediterranean economy in the 7th century.

Next is a selection of poems by Danny Fahey and Nazanin Ghodrati. In his imagist inspired poem, Jen taking the salad out of the refrigerator, Danny captures a fragmented moment of beauty that is often taken for granted and thereby left unseen. In her poems, Wings of Promised Chain and Ode to Empty Facade, Nazanin expresses one’s internal bid to grapple with the imposed realities of the external world.

The final piece, Walking New York: The Agony and the Ecstasy by Jennifer Mitchell, tells of her trip to New York, and the joyous pain of walking NY streets and sidewalks.

 

Steep Stairs Review Editors, Susan Karpasitis and Nazanin Ghodrati

Voices from China

December 16, 2014

Eimer, D 2014, The Emperor Far Away: Travels at the Edge of China, London, Bloomsbury.

Reviewed by Glen Jennings

Everything I know about ethnic politics in China I learned on the football field. As a foreign student at a university located in the Han heartland of eastern China, I was required to live in a dormitory exclusive to foreigners, way across campus from the Chinese students who could visit us only by passing through security and showing their ID cards. But my foreign classmates and I were allowed to play in the university-wide football competition, in an exclusively foreign team. Our rag-tag collection of Americans, Australians, Canadians, Danes, Japanese and Swiss managed to overcome our language barriers and football inexperience to win the competition. As university champions, we went on to represent our classmates against a rival university from the same Chinese city. A very large crowd of Chinese students from our university came to watch the game on our home ground, to support the other team. When our team won the game, the disappointed crowd immediately dispersed, except for a handful of students who came to congratulate us. These few students were Tibetans and Uighurs. The next year the Chinese authorities enforced new rules: foreign students were no longer permitted to play in the football tournament.

Book front cover

David Eimer’s new book about the borderlands of China looks carefully at the lived experience of ethnic minorities who survive under rules set by China’s Han-dominated political, economic, and military elite. Eimer first travelled to China in 1988 and lived there from 2005 to 2012, filing stories for Britain’s Sunday Telegraph and Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post. Comparisons between his first exposure to China as a young man and the current state of events inform this excellent and accessible book, along with diverse experiences collected during his years of journalism, and his extensive travels across the country.

China has grown immensely as a world economic power from 1988 to today, and Han dominance of the minorities has clearly increased, not without some ethnic violence such as the Xinjiang riots of 2009 that led to approximately 200 deaths (mostly Han) and 1,700 injuries. Large-scale and strongly resented migration of Han people into minority areas like Xinjiang and Tibet has continued, to the point where Han people now outnumber Uighurs in the so-called Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, and Uighurs make up only 10% of the population in their own capital city of Urumqi. Urban ‘renewal’ – or in some cases urban ‘apartheid’ – has destroyed or reduced the ethnic character of ancient cities such as Kashgar on the old Silk Road, or created ethnically divided cities such as Urumqi in Xinjiang and Lhasa in Tibet.

Minority language bans have remained in schools, and publication restrictions have prevented access to works on local history, literature, and religion, enforcing Mandarin on ethnic minorities and endangering ancient languages and cultures. Religious restrictions have remained in force or have been strengthened – such as the ban on children under 18 years of age attending the mosque, or the blanket prohibition on religious practitioners working for the Chinese state, the latter being one of the key reasons why employment opportunities are so limited for some minorities.

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The History of Happiness

December 16, 2014

Harari, Y 2011, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, Harvill Secker, London.

Reviewed by Michael Heald

Book cover

A striking difference between Yuval Noah Harari’s approach in Sapiens and that of most other historians to date, is that Harari directly addresses the issue of progress by daring to grapple with the fundamental question of what constitutes happiness. This is how he puts the situation:

Most history books focus on the ideas of great thinkers, the bravery of warriors, the charity of saints and the creativity of artists. They have much to tell about the weaving and unravelling of social structures, about the rise and fall of empires, about the discovery and spread of technologies. Yet they say nothing about how all this influenced the happiness and suffering of individuals. This is the biggest lacuna in our understanding of history. We had better start filling it (p. 396).

In this book, Harari begins the task, and makes a highly significant contribution. This is not to say that he neglects the more conventional role of the historian: to give us the story so far, as he sees it. And Sapiens tells the story of humanity in a lucid, bold and exhilarating manner. Of course, a single book dealing with such a massive span of time necessitates much condensation, and a brief review of such a volume can only exacerbate the situation.

I will therefore select some key transitions in human history to which Harari directs particular attention.To get the story up and running, let’s start with humans standing upright. This led, as Harari explains, to a narrowing of women’s hips, such that babies had to be born prematurely, or else the head would become too large. Characteristically, Harari links this moment of physical change to a profound cultural consequence:

…since humans are born underdeveloped, they can be educated and socialised to a far greater extent than any other animal. Most mammals emerge from the womb like glazed earthenware emerging from a kiln – any attempt at remoulding will only scratch or break them. Humans emerge from the womb like molten glass from a furnace. They can be spun, stretched and shaped with a surprising degree of freedom. This is why today we can educate our children to become Christian or Buddhist, capitalist or socialist, warlike or peace- loving (p. 10).

This kind of broad and lucid historical perspective is one of the greatest qualities of Harari’s writing:  with its assistance, we look around us at the kaleidoscope of human cultures and behaviors, both harmful and beneficent and everything in between, and see this present maelstrom beginning as a four-legged creature gets to its feet and raises itself upright!

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Burton, R 1621, Anatomy of Melancholy, J.W. Moore 1857, s.1.

By Dr. Raymond Hardy and Gayle Allan

 

Anatomy of Melancholy

It was at a family gathering in May 2014 that I was chatting with my 82 year-old Uncle Ray. He commented on how, in retirement, his interests and reading had broadened. The nature of our discussions led me to recommend to him one of my favourite books, Robert Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy. I suggested he read it and send me some first impressions. When he did, his reaction was so strongly positive, and his pleasure in it so apparent, we thought it might be fun to write an appreciation of this wonderful book together. Although it could be thought that we have little in common academically (Ray has two degrees in Engineering and a PhD in Mining, while my background is various degrees in the Arts area), we are both higher education teachers and life-long students. Ray has lectured in Civil Engineering for seven years of a total of more than 60 years in the mining industry, while I have been teaching and learning for over 25 years.

So, we meet in our shared lecturing experiences, and our pursuit of a life of scholarship, to offer this joint appreciation of Robert Burton’s magnificent opus, The Anatomy of Melancholy.

GAYLE

In Classical, Medieval and Renaissance medicine, melancholy was one of the four humours, fluids that determined the mental, physical and spiritual health of the body. Good health relied on all four humours being balanced, thus promoting a feeling of ease and comfort. Any dominance by one or more humours caused dis-ease. A person whose body contained an excess of melancholy was said to suffer from melancholia, with symptoms of fear, sadness, withdrawal, fits of rage, and suspicion. Melancholia had various disease profiles (it was said to be the cause of jealousy for example), which depended on the mix of the other humours and the severity of the imbalance. Those who suffered from melancholia were said to have a melancholy temperament.

Historically, melancholia was thought to be a spur to great artistic creativity. Aristotle saw it as a condition that “afflicted all great men”, although he, and his Classical and Medieval counterparts, also generally viewed melancholia as an “unwelcome disease” (Schiesari 1992, p.7). However, the condition was valorised in the Renaissance period, initially by Florentine philosopher Marcello Ficino (like Burton, a self-confessed sufferer), who argued that melancholia was an indication of the especially gifted, an “elite illness” that enabled the sensitivity and despair necessary for creative thought and production. However, Ficino was clear that melancholia only afflicted men (not women) in this particular way, and was regarded as a “specific representational form for male creativity” (Schiesari 1992, p.7). Some critics view Ficino’s efforts to valorise the humour as an attempt to nullify the feminising potential of melancholy – the sadness, the sensitivity, the tearfulness, the exaggerated emotional states – and reclaim it for men. Many of his other counterparts soon followed suit.

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Zusack, M 2005, The Book Thief, Sydney, Picador.

By Susan Karpasitis

Book cover

Idly browsing the racks of the local second hand book store, I was more than a little disconcerted by a copy of Marcus Zusack’s The Book Thief (2005) buried in the depths of the $5 basket, dumped unceremoniously beneath a battered copy of Austen’s Northanger Abbey. Whilst there isn’t time here for a sufficient defence of the qualities of the aforementioned mock- Gothic masterpiece, I would like to take a moment to offer some compelling reasons as to why The Book Thief (celebrating its ten year anniversary in 2015), remains a hugely important narrative in contemporary literature.

An over-zealous literary trauma theorist could be forgiven for suggesting that The Book Thief was purposely written to illustrate some of the most important concepts in contemporary trauma theory. In fact when read from a traumatalogical perspective, it is hard to reconcile the seemingly luke-warm critical acclaim for this novel with its deserved placement as trauma novel of the naughties.

To begin with a very basic overview of literary trauma: based on the psychoanalytic ideas of Sigmund Freud, and later Jacques Lacan and Cathy Caruth, trauma theory purports that when traumatic events occur, the brain in a protective gesture, blocks them from fully entering consciousness. They are repressed and buried in the depth of the psyche, for the large part inaccessible to the conscious individual in normal everyday life. However, these traumatic stimuli refuse to remain buried and often assert themselves as intrusive images and waking nightmares; as symptoms of trauma-related illnesses such as PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), or through unconscious acts of repetition. The Book Thief cleverly illustrates many of these traumatic tropes, including fragmented narrative structures, intrusive imagery and the subjective perspective of ‘death’ as a character. The two aspects of conveying trauma that I would like to focus on in this article are the use of narrative as a therapeutic tool and the setting of the basement in Himmel Street.

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Joyce, J 1922, Ulysses, Sylvia Beach, Paris.

By Colm McNaughton

We live, to invoke the Chinese curse, in interesting times. Our human beings are moving, consuming and decaying in the context of the demise and likely collapse of Empire. When I invoke the term Empire I am not merely referring to the ongoing economic, political and spiritual crises that is the United States, whose reign commenced at the end of the Second World War. Through taking a longer view of history – la longue durée – we are also living through the end times of the rule of this big blue planet by a series of European Empires and their proxies, which was kicked off by the so-called discovery and looting of the Americas in 1492. This rule began with the collaboration of the Iberian Peninsula with a number of Italian city-states. Ascendency of the capitalist world system was transmitted to the Dutch, then the British and now the baton has been passed on to the United States. The shadow of this process of hitherto unimagined wealth accumulation has unleashed a tidal wave of destructive forces ranging from the military-industrial complex with its nuclear, chemical and biological arsenals, through to climate change, extensive pollution of land, sea and air and widespread species extinction. We are presently living through one of the most profound (this time human–induced) waves of species extinction that this planet has ever witnessed. Let the good times roll on!

Ulysses

There is no end to easily accessible distractions or corporate backed deniers that are more than willing to help us smudge, or if you prefer completely avoid, the profound implications of this unsettling state of affairs. Truffle infused roast chicken with rosemary and lemon potatoes anyone? My sense is that deep in the marrow of our bones we know what is happening – if we are willing and able to listen, because the art of listening is the source of new stories. It is at this historical juncture that I want to introduce, or perhaps re-introduce to you the author James Joyce, and his confronting, sometimes difficult, though fecund work, Ulysses. To help us on this sojourn I need to make a few introductory remarks.

Firstly, reading Joyce (and here I am thinking particularly of Ulysses and Finnegans Wake) is not in any traditional sense about ‘reading literature’. At a number of levels his experimentation both in form and content defies – or is it explodes? – innumerable assumptions, conventions and categories, not only in relation to how we relate to the written word and the Western storytelling tradition, but also how we understand and relate to our own bodies, human and non-human others and the cosmos itself. Reading Joyce is a bit like being repeatedly tripped up and destabilised. The question is how do you want to respond to this experience of deep-seated uncertainty and uprootedness.

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When the Fields Were Joyful

December 16, 2014

By Tamar Lewit

“Let the field be joyful…all the trees of the wood rejoice!” (Psalm 96, p. 12, King James Bible)

The year is AD 500. The magnificent and once pre-eminent city of Rome, conqueror of millions, has been sacked by Vandals – the sword-wielding, not the spray-can kind. Germanic tribes have seized territory across Europe and Africa. Throughout the Empire, marble columns, lavish mosaics, and monumental amphitheatres for brutal gladiatorial contests have been transformed. Some have been abandoned and used for burials, some replaced by churches, or cannibalised for defences, some are now crowded with small, roughly-built shops, workshops and apartments which would have horrified the populace’s sedate ancestors. The reasons will fuel conferences a millennium and a half into the future, at which archaeologists will argue cantankerously.

But in AD 500, the fields and orchards of the eastern Mediterranean are singing for joy, the hub of an economic boom based on wine and olive growing, which will last at least three centuries. With trade comes the spread of a technological revolution, perhaps unique in the ancient world, the first major technological transformation in olive and wine processing in a thousand years.

Depiction of an innovative screw press Khirbat al-Mukhayyat (Mount Nebo, Jordan) Franciscan Archaeological Institute

Depiction of an innovative screw press
Khirbat al-Mukhayyat (Mount Nebo, Jordan) Franciscan Archaeological Institute

Archaeologists have, in the last two to three decades, uncovered new evidence in the eastern Mediterranean – the Near East, Cyprus, Turkey and the Aegean – for an unexpected flourishing in the 5th to 6th centuries AD of agriculture, rural settlement, synagogue, church and monastery building, land improvement through irrigation and terracing, and expansion of production into marginal regions. The boom is epitomised in the Negev Desert, where agricultural centres produced oil and wine for export, and elaborate dams, drainage channels and agricultural walls all supported highly intensive land-use in an inhospitable region never exploited for intensive agriculture before or since. Recent climatological studies suggest that at the time the climate of these regions may have been wetter and warmer, a climatic phase particularly favourable to agriculture.

Amphorae typically used to transport wine and oil around the Mediterranean (Photo courtesy of Jemima Hoffman).

Amphorae typically used to transport wine and oil around the Mediterranean (Photo courtesy of Jemima Hoffman).

Amphorae from eastern Mediterranean oil and wine exports, as well as other products, have been found throughout the Mediterranean at urban centres such as Beirut, Marseille and Rome, and were even carried North through the Dardanelles to regions around the Black Sea and Crimea, as well as West as Spain, Portugal, Britain, Southern France and areas of North Africa.

Such a broad trade implies not only a high level of agricultural production, but an effective network of merchants, shipping and even overland transport (mules and camel trains), in an age when transport routes for bulk products were arduous, slow and expensive. Transport to the West is particularly significant, given the collapse of central Roman government and state protection of trade and transport routes after the late 5th century. Yet enterprising post-5th century eastern Mediterranean merchants still travelled in the western Mediterranean, Black Sea and Europe, as attested in textual sources (which often term them collectively ‘Syrians’), as well as archaeological remains.

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By Danny Fahey

So, right hand holding the door’s handle, she bends
at the knees and leans into the open fridge
as she talks to me about events of the day —
her hair falls to the left side, her face
faces me even as her left hand reaches into…

the refrigerator’s light
catches her perfectly

and this frozen moment reminds me
of all the reasons why— and isn’t it
just like the mind
that it takes a shard to capture the whole.

All the years…all the minutes…
blend and are forgotten until a moment
such as this when she leans into a fridge

and I remember everything
but not everything…
just the essence — the way a smell
can capture the entire
when in reality it is but a part.

Wings of Promised Chain

December 16, 2014

By Nazanin Ghodrati

Photographed by Marco Monetti

Photographed by Marco Monetti

He slept with bombs exploding in his head
Singing quietly what his mother had said
Of a sunny world that would take his hand
Alas he didn’t know it was No Man’s Land

He voyaged far on tears of many souls
Scratched by wooden daggers that gradually unfold
Though his heart was weakened by every single blow
Thoughts of the sunny world made his weary eyes glow

Now he’s standing on the rocky shores
No welcome sign on these wide-open doors
And yet he has to fly on wings of promised chain
Nothing’s there for him but pain pain pain.

——-
Nazanin Ghodrati is an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) lecturer. Her literary interests are in Gothic, horror and absurdist fiction, as well as in confessional poetry.

Ode to Empty Facade

December 16, 2014

By Nazanin Ghodrati

Nobody noticed the empty facade
But it still stood tall
It was much emptier that you thought
And the most deceptive of all

The lonely facade, once full and booming
Is now just swallowed
It must have taken eons of destruction
For it to become hollowed

Oh no, it was always too empty
Standing carelessly tall
Much too hollow all this time
And the most deceptive of all.

———–
Nazanin Ghodrati is an English for Academic Purposes (EAP) lecturer. Her literary interests are in Gothic, horror and absurdist fiction, as well as in confessional poetry.

By Jennifer Mitchell

Walking New York

Read whole story here:
Unfortunately the site where this story was published, Storehouse, has folded, and with it this story. Alas.

———-
Jennifer Mitchell is a Literature teacher, and has academic interests in the intersections between literature, modernism, and the built environment.