Sympathy for De Selby – Part One

I

That no true Paddy would ever cut a tree into a rectangle has long been one of the axioms by which pegamequemegusta has led its increasingly obtuse life. The Paddy is after all a raggle-taggle creature, his talk garrulous and brimming like the vowels of his native tongue. Moreover, millennia of rain have left his edges poorly-defined. Living so exposed to the elements, traditionally the Paddy had no need for precision time-keeping tools such as those fashioned by the valley-dwelling Swiss. So it was we looked with some dismay a few years back when under the guise of modernising reforms, Dublin’s O’Connell Street saw its fine London Plane trees removed.

The tree, of course, was not native to the island, having its roots in 17th century Spain. Yet after a 100 year residence, it’s fair to say the trees had become more Irish than the Irish themselves. So it was sad to see these sturdy friends of ours hacked down and replaced by puny, inescapably French specimens. The natives had been robust yet wavy, the geometry of their cylindrical trunks offset by a delightfully asymmetric dispersion of branches. They were well able to take a storm. The colonisers, on the other hand, were straight from the pristine Jardin de Luxembourg. They took the form of rectangles and looked shakier than a frigateful of General Hoche’s wastrels. Pegamequemegusta stared aghast at the manicured Parisian abominations, shorn like effete poodles. The Sons of Róisín had made a very poor investment indeed. The Paddies had bought into the idea that Nature not only had been overcome but was also ripe for humiliation. Pegamequemegusta saw it was time to leave.

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I

That no true Paddy would ever cut a tree into a rectangle has long been one of the axioms by which pegamequemegusta has led its increasingly obtuse life. The Paddy is after all a raggle-taggle creature, his talk garrulous and brimming like the vowels of his native tongue. Moreover, millennia of rain have left his edges poorly-defined. Living so exposed to the elements, traditionally the Paddy had no need for precision time-keeping tools such as those fashioned by the valley-dwelling Swiss. So it was we looked with some dismay a few years back when under the guise of modernising reforms, Dublin’s O’Connell Street saw its fine London Plane trees removed.

The tree, of course, was not native to the island, having its roots in 17th century Spain. Yet after a 100 year residence, it’s fair to say the trees had become more Irish than the Irish themselves. So it was sad to see these sturdy friends of ours hacked down and replaced by puny, inescapably French specimens. The natives had been robust yet wavy, the geometry of their cylindrical trunks offset by a delightfully asymmetric dispersion of branches. They were well able to take a storm. The colonisers, on the other hand, were straight from the pristine Jardin de Luxembourg. They took the form of rectangles and looked shakier than a frigateful of General Hoche’s wastrels. Pegamequemegusta stared aghast at the manicured Parisian abominations, shorn like effete poodles. The Sons of Róisín had made a very poor investment indeed. The Paddies had bought into the idea that Nature not only had been overcome but was also ripe for humiliation. Pegamequemegusta saw it was time to leave. 

II

It was no coincidence, of course, that the nouveau-mortos in the Corpo had taken their dull inspiration from Paris. They spoke openly of copying the Champs-Élysées. However, it is not just toadiness or the lack of imagination of their employees that led them to this. Nor is it merely the wealth or pervasive quantities of elusive qualities such as class that have made Paris so influential. No, dear naïve, handsome reader, its strength comes from the adoption of geometrical principles. Amazingly, it still appears to be largely unacknowledged even today that these abstract forms are effectively a unique kind of cerebral nosh – brain cocaine we might say, if we were sufficiently recovered for another tilt at David McWilliams’ crown. Rectangles, triangles, – my God – squares! All of these transcendental ideals, not just eternal but eternal and unchanging, evoke the same slathering response in the French intellect as our rocky, moss-stained cliff-base in pegamequemegusta’s poor Paddy mind. 

But why the French? For we would never make so outrageous and unfounded a claim as to suggest that the French people were always thus. No, this is not a characteristic of their race, nor a product of some geographical conditioning unique to the west of the European peninsula. The poor sods had the rule run over them, quite literally. A diabolical pastry chef flattened them with the rolling pin of rationality before using dialectics to mold their minds into predetermined shapes. The genius of it was that it was all under the guise of liberté – just as the McVickers would do with Play-Doh some 150 years later. The infection can be traced to the 17th century and an apparently innocuous flirtation with Aristotelian poetics. Initially it appeared to be benign, and even proved to be a useful tool for getting rid of despots. However, they were already lost; the age of chivalry was gone. The Enlightenment hadn’t brought about any real revolution; ’twas merely a crass exercise in rebranding. The Sun King remained. 

The Revolution abolished the traditional provinces in order to institute even greater levels of control. They were replaced by départments to ensure all towns and cities were no more than a day’s horseride from their respective centres of judicial powercloser. In addition, there was a sweeping program of name-changes to destroy regional identity that would make Brian Friel’s worries look like the hysterical witherings of a man yearning for the time when Snickers was still Marathon. A further aspect of this process was that thenceforth standard French would be imposed ruthlessly by the odious Académie francaise so that everyone would speak the same way. Order, control, homogenisation, the obliteration of all identities deviant from those approved of by a central power. The French colonised themselves. 

Lest you doubt our assertions here, oh dear francophile reader, barely a few weeks after the Bastille was stormed, the mob had succeeded in having the nobles relinquish their control over the system of weights and measures. In the midst of revolutionary turmoil, Condorcet and his buddies set about decimalising the world in a unified, universal system “for all peoples for all times”. Arbitrary abstractions seeking global, a-historical hegemony. 

It was clear the process had been completed when this mental perversion was extended to the very physiognomy of Paris. Under Napoleon III, the city was redrawn by Baron Haussmann. Perspective, angles, abstract forms brought down from the realm of pure mind; straight from Rome, the Eternal City. Straight avenues are about military parades, about showing power. Whether capital or military, they’re about control. These straight lines also imposed themselves in our consciences – masquerading as rationality when they’re anything but. They’re but ghosts, spectres haunting centuries of classical thought wasted on mind/body dualities. Everything outside or but on the threshold of this fortress of order is irrational, subjective, inconsequential. Such a strong hold does this classical way of thinking exert on the mind that it sees itself as uniquely valid, the only way of approaching truth, despite the fact that the only truth attainable through the method is implied by the original premise. Thus over time, the apparently liberating exercise of rationality becomes, in Foucault’s phrase, the castle of our conscience. 

III

In Argentina, too, there were many who would have the trees cut into rectangles. President Domingo F. Sarmiento, in particular, championed the idea that a chronic lack of form was responsible for the barbaric character of its people. He begins his 1845 book Facundo with a lament that no scientist had thus far been able to measure, with “barometre, compass and octant”, the sprawling Argentine Republic. Subtitled Civilisation and Barbarism, Sarmiento argues that only an influx of European culture, of European order, can save the land from its native wildness.

Now this attitude is immediately familiar to us from many other tales of colonialism, the Paddy included. Yet what really grabs pegamequemegusta’s attention in his analysis is that he attributes this wildness to geography. The bleak expanse of the pampas, he claims, is to blame for the formless mess that is the national psyche. The lack of mountains and fortifiable strong points in the Pampas, according to Sarmiento, “has imprinted upon the Argentine character a certain stoic resignation to violent death […] and perhaps this may explain, in part, the indifference with which death is given and received.” This “sea on land” results in a dispersed populace which is impossible to govern and which, shock horror, is not inclined to construct follies or develop culture as there is no-one to show it off to! Instead, the habitants of the Pampas, the gauchos, are “happy in their poverty”, in their barbarism. Sarmiento tuts along with Walter Scott that their main past-time is knife-fighting and racing horses “til they burst”.

How sorely do they need the octant, the compass; how essential is it to run the rule over them so that civilisation can impose some soothing form on the chaos! In 1868 Sarmiento received a medal for having introduced wicker to Argentina, but he was after something far more solid. As president, he had the width and breadth of the land pinned down with telegraph poles (“to bring peace to the Republic”) and he established the first telegraphic communication with Europe. He also oversaw the first census of the nation. The beast was being tied down, now it had to be civilised, educated – in the ways of the West, claro. Hence Sarmiento’s insistence on the extension of Argentina’s schools network, the murder machine.

Another key aspect of Sarmiento’s attempt to tame Argentina in the name of science and progress was the genocide of the indigenous peoples who inhabited the land.  One of the surprising things you notice when you travel around the provincia de Buenos Aires, which is bigger than France incidentally, is the amount of towns whose names reflect the languages of the long since dominated indians, such as Mar de Ajó (guajhó ti meaning a swamp or marsh in the tongue of the original inhabitants). Far more abundant, however, are those named after colonels and generals or with military names, such as Las Armas. These come from the campaigns, contemporaneous with the extermination of the natives of North America, led by Sarmiento’s army.

“For the savages of America I have an overwhelming and irrepressible repugnance. These indians are no more than disgusting wretches, every one of whom I would have hung without a second’s thought. [….] Incapable of progress, their elimination will be providential and useful, sublime and grand. Not even the youngest must be spared, for even he is already consumed by the instinctive hatred of the civilised man.”

To this end, Sarmiento conscripted gauchos into the armed forces, in order to take out another enemy of progress. “The only human quality they have,” said Sarmiento of the now celebrated gaucho, “is the blood that flows in their veins.”

The gauchos also had a voice, however, one that expressed quite a different view of the rolling pampas. Like all weak-minded ideologues, spiritual cowards with a neurotic obsession with certainty, Sarmiento was distressed by the ungovernability of the pampas, the country’s sprawling id. The gauchos had embraced it, however, made it their home, accepted its hardships, rode free across the wilds unencumbered by barbarous rationality. José Hernández’s Martín Fierro relates the end of the gaucho way of life as progress steams across the land. Unlike the legend of John Henry, however, technology is not the enemy here, rather agents of the City:

The enduring popularity of Martín Fierro is testament to the fact that Sarmiento’s attempt to digitise the minds of the pueblo was not entirely successful. However, to this day the play of opposing forces implied in the subtitle of Facundo, Civilisation & Barbarism, remains part of the nation’s discourse. The idea that Argentina is but a distorted mirror image of Europe, its crack-addict cousin, and that it must strive to copy the motherland, is firmly embedded. It has become one of those tropes, commonplaces, a reflex in the national psyche. Despite the fondness for Martín Fierro’s andanzas, in the minds of many ‘Europe’ remains a synonym for progress, efficiency, modernity. Europe is good. When the new stadium in La Plata was inaugurated in advance of the Copa América this year, the commentator’s spoke of how European it was, how modern, as if it was another triumph by the Argentines over themselves. In a similar vein, despite being quite nationalistic in many respects, Argentines are never slow to run their country down, saying ‘Ah only in Argentina, eh?’, when usually they aren’t unique at all in their failings. Affording too much respect to the backward West is an unfortunate aspect of Sarmiento’s legacy.

IV

One might ascribe this attitude on the part of the South Americans to purely economic and historical factors. However, pegamequemegusta contends that it is ideological, that it has its roots in Sarmiento. Football provides plenty of examples of this. Brazil, for one thing, don’t seem to suffer from the same inferiority complex the Argentines do. Instead they have mística ganadora, as the vague but lovely phrase has it.

Though perhaps the Brazilians are a case apart in South America, owing to the insanely influential Papal whim that was the Treaty of Tordesillas. Besides all the racial, cultural and economic differences, there is of course supreme pancake of language. Yet it goes beyond the mere tongue they speak, it’s a question of attitude to that tongue. A few years back, for example, the Brazilians decided to build a museum devoted to the Portuguese language. The paltry, prosciutto-thin sliver of Iberia where it originated was barely mentioned. ‘Portuguese’ was the language of Brazil, by gum; the land yearning for the return of King Sebastian was little more than an embarrassment, a poorly-clad relative to be suffered out of sight at a back table.  The Spanish-speaking countries of South America, on the other hand, despite all the work gone into integration in recent years, still lack a body to observe and manage the use of ‘Spanish’. The Real Academia Española, as politically motivated and nefarious as its notorious French counterpart, remains the only entity that defines words and proper usage. This is despite the fact that castillian Spanish – insofar as even that exists – is a barely tolerable mush of brow-bespittling balderdash.

Even until the mid-20th century, most Argentine poets still regarded their own way of speaking as somehow not worthy of literature. When César Fernández Moreno finally broke the trend in 1953, the most natural thing in the world needed to be sold as an exaggerated polemic as he titled his (awesome) collection Argentino hasta la muerte, or Argentine ’til I die.

It’s an irredeemably false debate yet Europe weighs upon the country’s discourse like black matter causing light to bend, stories to flow into pre-ordained channels. Hence we have the essentially empty Tevez v Messi talk. Carlitos is representative of the pueblo, a loveable rogue, a hardworker, rough round the edges but honest. Messi is a suspiciously perfect stranger, from another planet, a freak as opposed to a manifestation of criollo genius as Maradona was. Or you might hear a more objective-sounding, purely football-related distinction whereby the stocky, powerful deadliness that defines Tevez could be argued to be more typically Argentine than the preternaturally speedy dribbling that characterises Messi’s game. Whichever way you look at it, it’s false. Besides the fact that Messi, after having spent half his life in Barcelona still has a thick Rosarine accent, just this morning [Friday] he stopped his Maserati to pick up an Argentine radio presenter (Andy Kusnetzoff) he recognised on the street for a bit of a chat (with no image-boosting interview); whereas Tevez this week gave us a clear example that he’s suffering from Liam Gallagher syndrome, having become a parody of himself.

Today in Argentina, contrary to what some of the gringo press are wont to say, no serious folk give any credence to this particular manifestation of the ersatz Apollonioan/Dionysian dichotomy. That is the preserve of Robbie Savage types and Mary from Clontarf. Not just because they’ve been worn down by the sheer surge of Messi’s stats and achievements, but because he has changed. We’ve all seen the changes in his game, how he’s added more and more facets to it, even seeming to become hungrier as the years (he’s 24, begob) have gone by, how he’s come out of his shell. He no longer looks quite so geeky, no longer sports the pegamequemegustan autistic gurn he does in the above video.

The revealing thing about it, though is that the question arose at all. All countries have their ghosts, all teams have their rivalries, real and imagined. However, the Johnny Sexton/Ronan O’Gara question has not, so farat least, involved any ruminations on the east/west, Dublin/country, Saxon/Celt, Catholic/Protestant, Parnell/Pearse, Tayto/King, Lidl/Aldi, vehicle/ve-hi-cal derivatives. Over here, though, it would, and as we’ve seen it’s inescapably linked to questions of urban design in Ireland’s capital, so pay attention. We’re not done yet.

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