Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell was born in Berlin, and works as a lecturer in Galway Mayo Institute of Technology. She is the author of Revolutionary Romanticism - Examining the Odes of John Keats, Nuascéalta, 2017.

 

Silenced voices from the margins: Irish working-class writing
Thursday, 14 March 2019 15:29

Silenced voices from the margins: Irish working-class writing

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jenny Farrell reviews a new anthology of working-class writing

A History of Irish Working-Class Writing, edited by Michael Pierse (CUP 2017) is a book to be greatly welcomed. It is the first study of such scope, attempting to present and analyse the entire body of Irish working-class literature. It begins with the first writings of rural workers in the 18th century and brings the reader right up to the present day.

The study of working-class literature was a significant field of Marxist research in the socialist countries, beginning in the Soviet Union, where the works of such authors were translated, analysed and published from early on. It is left to the German expert Gustav Klaus, author of the Afterword, to state this.

Twenty-two chapters examine various aspects of this seriously under-researched field of literature, ranging across three centuries and three continents. The book attempts to give as comprehensive an overview as possible. Its publication coincides with similar companions to the working-class literature of Britain and the United States. 

There is of course always a degree of reservation when working-class literature comes under the scrutiny of largely middle-class academics. In parallel to the militancy with which the gender of authors acceptable to writing about women is scrutinised, one might ask: How familiar are these academics with the working-class experience? How much of this experience will be grasped? What do they see, and what not? How high-handed will they be in commenting on the literary production of the working class? These are valid concerns.

In antagonistic class society, the working class comprises of those people who possess nothing but their labour power. They are in an exploitative relationship with the owners of the means of production, the bourgeoisie, and participate only marginally in the fruits of their labour. As producers of surplus value, they create the basis of national wealth, yet their living conditions are frequently precarious. The rural proletariat must be included among working-class writers. Small farmers are a periphery group of the rural proletariat, who often hardly exist above subsistence level, while contributing to the national wealth. Equally peripheral to the working class are the ever-increasing number of people in precarious employment, and the unemployed.

Working-class authors must be read not merely in terms of their origins but also of how central this experience is to their writing, how aware they are of the inhuman and war-hungry system that exploits them, how their characters envisage their own emancipation and a better, more humane and peace-loving world.

One of the most striking omissions in the book is any recognition of working-class writing in the Irish language. There is no dedicated chapter on this, nor is there any meaningful inclusion of writers in Irish.

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Decorated initial by Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin, 1821

We mention some of these here to indicate the seriousness of this exclusion. Mícheál Óg Ó Longáin (1766–1837), cowherd and labourer, later teacher and scribe, joined with the United Irishmen in their anti-colonial struggle. From a long line of Gaelic scribes, Ó Longáin, born when the role and prominence of Gaelic scribes was all but lost, eked out an existence, working as a wandering labourer, and living in poverty for most of his life. Neither is there any discussion of the 20th century literary giants Pádraic Ó Conaire, Máirtin Ó Caidhin, Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, or Máirtín Ó Direáin.

Pádraic Ó Conaire wrote the finest (only) no-holds-barred novel Deoraíocht (Exile) dealing with the raw reality of the Irish working class and Gaeltacht diaspora in early 20th century London, and a plethora of short stories in which his identification with the working class is made clear. 

Máirtín Ó Cadhain, a left republican who spent the 2nd World War years in the Curragh prison camp, is arguably the finest 20th century Irish-language prose writer. His collections of short stories and novel Cré na Cille (Graveyard Clay) reflect the grinding poverty and hopelessness of his people, the small farmers and fisher folk of the West Galway Gaeltacht, on whose behalf he agitated all of his adult life.

The prose writing of Dónall Mac Amhlaigh, a building labourer in Northampton and the English Midlands, especially his Dialann Deoraí (An Emigrant’s Diary) – express the life and feelings of mid-20th c fellow Gaeltacht labourers in England. A member of the British Labour Party, his writing breathes his socialist sensibility. 

Máirtín Ó Direáin

Máirtín Ó Direáin is the best 20th c Irish-language poet. His childhood in a poverty-stricken household in Inis Mór, Aran, instilled in him a lifelong sympathy for all oppressed, by the capitalist order which finds full expression in his poetry. His fine lament for James Connolly mirrors that of Somhairle Maclean, the leading 20th century Scottish Gaelic poet, of marked communist sympathies, remembered also for his poetic celebration of John Maclean and the Red Clyde.

In the early chapters, there is also a surprising sense of insularity. Although the popularity of the radical Scottish poet Robert Burns among the working class in 18th and 19th century Ireland is mentioned several times, there is no exploration as to why that might have been the case. Indeed, the epochal upheaval of the American and French Revolutions, their unprecedented and hope-inspiring effect on the working classes of all of Europe with the promise of equality, comradeship and liberty, are not part of the picture. Yet these events, along with the anti-colonial revolution in Haiti, were major factors in the development of the United Irishmen, who had mass support in Ireland and in their later years increasingly attracted working-class members. Without such a contextual, historical context, the writings of the working class lose the meaning they had at the time.

Robert Tressell Cover resized

Occasionally, the tone of an author towards the writer discussed comes across as slightly patronising. Dublin-born Robert Tressell’s The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is the first major working-class novel in English literature. It was written between 1906 and 1910 and first published posthumously in abridged editions in 1914 and 1916. Tressell (Robert Noonan) found no publisher and no editor, and the abridged versions removed his socialist ideas from the novel. Its full text only appeared, exactly as he first wrote it, in 1955. The working class has widely embraced the novel as an important text about their experience and written from their own point-of-view. It is not merely about the working-class experience – it also reflects on ways out of it.

The Tressell-like main character Owen is a Marxist, and tries to explain to his fellow house-painters how the system works, the Great Money Trick, and how to change this life-denying system. Never before in the English realist novel, had the actual labour process been central to the depiction of class struggle. For the first time, Tressell reverses the assumption that life begins where work ends – work is essential to fully lived human life. A character’s attitude to labour is a touchstone of his/ her humanity.

This novel is discussed at different points in the study, but not always in full recognition of its achievement. For example in Michael Pierse’s own chapter, he generalises to a degree that devalues the differentiated image of the working class presented by Tressell. Paul Delaney on the other hand goes into deeper analysis in his chapter on early 20th c working-class fiction.

In chapters on working-class writers from the North of Ireland, there are glaring exclusions of just such authors. For example, the chapter entitled ‘Poetry and the Working Class in Northern Ireland’ focuses almost exclusively on the not so working-class in subject matter: poets Heaney, Mahon and Longley. Such emphasis on the existing canon occurs in several chapters and in a way misses the point. There is no reference to Ciaran Carson, bilingual (Irish and English) son of a postal worker and highly regarded writer and translator of poetry in both languages. There are other omissions, including again the Irish language tradition, for example Gearóid Mac Lochlainn. Equally, the names of Northern working-class fiction writers do not appear in this book: Danny Morrison, poet Ciaran Carson’s novelist brother Brendan Carson, Sam McAughtry or Ian Cochrane. Nor, strikingly, Man Booker Prize winner Anna Burns’s novels. They are not even listed in the many lists of writers that appear (without much comment) throughout this book.

However, despite these shortcomings, A History of Irish Working-Class Writing is a very good starting point for anybody seeking to discover something about this vital tradition. It highlights the stature of Sean O’Casey, Brendan Behan and other titans of Irish working-class literature. The authors have collected many names and writings of Irish working-class writers in Ireland, Britain, the US, Australia and New Zealand. For this reason alone, this book is an invaluable resource. Some of the better chapters discuss the literature they present in detail and analysis, making for more interesting reading.

rita ann higgins 2

Rita Ann Higgins

Two chapters that stand out for me in this respect are chapter 11 on ‘Solidarity and Struggle in Irish-American Working-Class Literature’ and chapter 14 on ‘Early 20th century Working-Class Fiction’ both of which look at their texts in terms of socialism and internationalism as well as offering more in-depth analyses. In other chapters, such engagement with the actual texts would have enriched them. For example, Heather Laird writing about working-class Irish women writers, comments about Rita Ann Higgins that she is one of the few female writers whose poems “feature female speakers with a strong grasp of the part state institutions play in consolidating the power dynamics that underpin the prevailing socio-economic and gender status quo”. After such a statement, the reader expects to be presented with the text and the evidence. Surely, one of the questions we have about working-class literature is not simply the setting but about in what way the writers’ understanding of their class within capitalist society is forged into an awareness of how to bring about a change to their lives.

This book proves that an independent archive of working-class writings must be set up to collect documents and manuscripts often deemed unworthy of publication by commercial publishers and unrecognised by mainstream academics. A great example for such an undertaking is The Working Class Movement Library, founded in Manchester by Ruth and Edmund Frow. Only in this way will important records of working-class lives, such as their autobiographies, but also their other writings be collected as the aesthetic statement of what the lives of so many were and are like.

A History of Irish Working-Class Writing is an academic publication. Priced at £79.99, it is ironically well beyond the means of the working class. However, despite its shortcomings, it is a valuable reference book. Everybody with an interest in working–class writings, as the voice of those who are marginalised and silenced in the writing of history, literary and art criticism, should ensure that their local library owns a copy for their readers.

A History of Irish Working-Class Writing, CUP 2017, is available here

Butcher's Dozen: Bloody Sunday, 47 years on
Thursday, 14 March 2019 14:46

Butcher's Dozen: Bloody Sunday, 47 years on

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell protests the decision only to charge one paratrooper, and introduces extracts from Thomas Kinsella's poem, Butcher's Dozen

Shock and disbelief is the reaction of most people in Ireland to the decision of the N. Ireland Prosecution Service (NIPP) only to charge one British paratrooper, “Soldier F” in connection with the murder of 14 innocent civil rights marchers on Derry’s “Bloody Sunday”, 30th January 1972. 

This morning relatives and friends of the Bloody Sunday victims had marched to Derry’s Guildhall in anticipation of the NIPP’s announcement.

The NIPP’s decision reflects the arrogant stance of the British establishment to these crimes committed in Ireland. Indeed, it echoes the Northern Secretary Karen Bradley’s statement last week that all killings by the British army and police during the Troubles were “not crimes”.

Her statement and today’s legal decision only to prosecute one soldier stand in direct contradiction to the findings of the Saville Inquiry and to the apology made by former British PM David Cameron in parliament, stating that the killings were “unjustified and unjustifiable”. 

Lord Saville’s public inquiry into Bloody Sunday ran for over 10 years.  Lord Saville found those killed and injured were innocent, and that the killings were unjustified and those killed posed no threat. It overturned the first, discredited report into the killings, by Lord Widgery, in 1972, which said British soldiers were fired on first and some of those killed had been armed.

Its report, in June 2010, identified 22 former British soldiers who could be charged with murder, attempted murder, causing grievous bodily injury with intent, or perjury. It has now taken almost 9 years for the NIPP to whittle that number down to one anonymous scapegoat, “Soldier F”. Saville linked him to the killing of 4 people on Bloody Sunday. According to the brother of victim Michael Kelly, what stood out about the evidence “Soldier F” gave to the Inquiry “he showed absolutely no remorse for what he did”.

Today, one of the solicitors for the Bloody Sunday families praised their tenacious 47-year campaign for justice that had resulted in the historic public inquiry and the prospect of actual prosecutions.

Alas, their campaign for justice is not yet over. The families will study this decision very carefully and look for legal possibilities to challenge today's decision before the High Court. They will seek to have the number of soldiers prosecuted increased as well as ensure the accused are named rather than they remain anonymous, as was the case at the Saville Inquiry. 

“Bloody Sunday” was a watershed in the North of Ireland conflict. It was to result in the decline of the powerful civil rights movement and the rise of the Provisional IRA. The peaceful demonstrations demanding equal rights for Catholics in the late 1960s exposed internationally the sectarian, repressive and gerrymandered regime operating in Britain’s backyard, “Northern Ireland”. 

In August 1969, the British Labour government brought British troops onto the streets to stop the pogroms against the Catholic community by the armed, sectarian pro-British N. Ireland police force, the RUC.

The British Labour government disarmed the RUC and began to introduce democratic reforms. However, in June 1970 the role of the British state changed, when Edward Heath was elected Prime Minister. The Tories – or to give thei official title the “Conservative and Unionist Party” – were in power, and they sympathised with their fraternal party in the North of Ireland, the Unionist Party, that had controlled the sectarian state for almost 50 years.

Repression of the Catholic community rather than democratic reforms became the order of the day, culminating in internment without trial in August 1971.

The demonstration in Derry on 30th January 1972 had been aimed against internment. The killings on “Bloody Sunday” were seen as a deliberate act by the British Tories and their Unionist allies to force the unmanageable peaceful protests for civil rights off the streets. Both at home and abroad it was more acceptable to fight “terrorism” than to deal with peaceful demonstrators demanding their civil rights. Besides, in N. Ireland the British army could perfect its anti-insurgency techniques.

So, while only one of the soldiers who fired the shots is to be prosecuted, the politicians, civil servants and army officers who pulled the strings are not. Of late, particular attention has been drawn to retired General Sir Mike Jackson. He was second-in-command of the army in Derry on Bloody Sunday.  During his evidence at the Saville Inquiry he suffered from severe memory loss.

This contrasts with his disputed account of another mass killing in Northern Ireland months before Bloody Sunday. In August 1971 during internment the Parachute Regiment shot dead 11 innocent people, including a mother and a priest, in what is now known as the “Ballymurphy Massacre”. Jackson was press officer for the Parachute Regiment, stationed in Belfast, and he briefed the media that those killed in the shootings were Republican gunmen. This view was contradicted on Monday last at the on-going inquest into the “Ballymurphy Massacre”, when the then commanding officer of the Parachute Regiment, Gen Sir Geoffrey Howlett, 89, admitted that of those killed “most if not all were not IRA”.

Jackson’s role in Northern Ireland did not hamper his career, which saw him involved in the wars in Yugoslavia and Kosovo. On 1st February 2003 he became chief of staff of the British Army, a month before the illegal invasion of Iraq – another war where those who pulled the strings go completely unpunished.   

Irish poet Thomas Kinsella’s poem “Butcher’s Dozen” was written in the immediate aftermath of Bloody Sunday, following the Widgery report which whitewashed the atrocities, and published on 26 April 1972.

Kinsella later said:

The Widgery report was a great insult. [My] response was instant; the poem itself was written and issued in seven days. … I debated with myself at the time whether to keep it anonymous, but that would have been wrong. Commitment is important when faced with wickedness and injustice. … The poem was some at some personal cost, however. There was a considerable loss of readership – a permanent chill in the atmosphere from readers of my work, and from friends. I received a letter from one friend who simply put an end to our friendship. They signed off, “No British person would behave in such a way.” This continued even after total vindication [in] the Saville report; and the apology [from prime minister David Cameron] in the British parliament. I stand over my decision to write [it].”

The poem opens in tone and rhythm reminiscent of Shelley’s The Mask of Anarchy, written after the Peterloo Massacre in 1819:

I went with Anger at my heel
Through Bogside of the bitter zeal
- Jesus pity! - on a day
Of cold and drizzle and decay.
A month had passed. Yet there remained
A murder smell that stung and stained.
On flats and alleys - over all
It hung; on battered roof and wall,
On wreck and rubbish scattered thick,
On sullen steps and pitted brick.
And when I came where thirteen died
It shrivelled up my heart. I sighed
And looked about that brutal place
Of rage and terror and disgrace.
Then my moistened lips grew dry.
I had heard an answering sigh!
There in a ghostly pool of blood
A crumpled phantom hugged the mud:
"Once there lived a hooligan.
A pig came up, and away he ran.
Here lies one in blood and bones,
Who lost his life for throwing stones."

It continues, commenting on British justice:

"The shame is theirs, in word and deed,
Who prate of justice, practise greed,
And act in ignorant fury - then,
Officers and gentlemen,
Send to their Courts for the Most High
To tell us did we really die!
Does it need recourse to law
To tell ten thousand what they saw?
Law that lets them, caught red-handed,
Halt the game and leave it stranded,
Summon up a sworn inquiry
And dump their conscience in the diary.
During which hiatus, should
Their legal basis vanish, good,
The thing is rapidly arranged:
Where's the law that can't be changed?
The news is out. The troops were kind.
Impartial justice has to find
We'd be alive and well today
If we had let them have their way.
Yet England, even as you lie,
You give the facts that you deny.
Spread the lie with all your power
- All that's left; it's turning sour.

As various ghosts of the dead speak, one refers to the witches’ broth in Macbeth – only this pot is worse!

A joking spectre followed him:
"Take a bunch of stunted shoots,
A tangle of transplanted roots,
Ropes and rifles, feathered nests,
Some dried colonial interests,
A hard unnatural union grown
In a bed of blood and bone,
Tongue of serpent, gut of hog
Spiced with spleen of underdog.
Stir in, with oaths of loyalty,
Sectarian supremacy,
And heat, to make a proper botch,
In a bouillon of bitter Scotch.
Last, the choice ingredient: you.
Now, to crown your Irish stew,
Boil it over, make a mess.
A most imperial success!"

Kinsella’s concluding lines will stand for the way many in Ireland feel today:

I stood like a ghost. My fingers strayed
Along the fatal barricade.
The gentle rainfall drifting down
Over Colmcille's town
Could not refresh, only distil
In silent grief from hill to hill.

JF butchers dozen resized

For the full text, please click here.

 

IWD 2019: Pioneers of Women's Emancipation in Ireland
Thursday, 07 March 2019 15:22

IWD 2019: Pioneers of Women's Emancipation in Ireland

Published in Cultural Commentary

To mark International Women's Day, Jenny Farrell reviews Pioneers of Women’s Emancipation in Ireland, by Priscilla Metscher

Since times immemorial, people involved in the struggle for a better world have given expression to their aspiration not only in political texts and deeds, but also in artistic ways. These artistic expressions are not mere decoration, but an integral part of understanding and changing the world.

As explored in a previous article, the United Irishmen (and women) made extensive use of literary satire, and published songs in their political publications. Mary Ann McCracken wrote insightful, emancipatory letters to her imprisoned brother, Henry Joy. James Connolly took time out to write two plays and over twenty songs, poems and ballads. The play "Under Which Flag?" was first performed by the Workers' Dramatic Company in Liberty Hall three weeks before the Easter Rising (March 26, 1916). To quote the Irish suffragist Francis Sheehy-Skeffington who reviewed it:

It is a play of country life in Ireland at the time of the Fenian Rising... the dramatic conflict is fought around the person of Frank O'Donnell, a farmer's son, who in the first act announces his attention of joining the English Army, but at the end of the third act, having been shown the right path by his parents and sweetheart, and the old blind patriot Brian McMahon joins the fighting forces of the Irish Republican Brotherhood instead.

In the play, the farmer's wife Ellen replies to her eldest son Pat's intention to emigrate to America.

Far off hills are always green. Always slaving for other people, is it? And do you think you will get out of that by going to America? Faith then, you won't. The poor of the world are always slaving for other people, always going hungry that others may be fed, naked that others may be clothed, badly housed that others may live in palaces. 'Tis the way of the world in America as well as in Ireland.

In a short story discovered recently and attributed to Connolly, "The Agitator's Wife", another powerful woman character features at the heart of the piece. To quote Connolly: "No revolutionary movement is complete without its poetical expression."

Priscilla Metscher’s study, Pioneers of Women’s Emancipation in Ireland (Connolly Books, 2018) focuses on the political thinking, activities and lives of eminent Irish fighters for women’s emancipation, from a Marxist perspective. The author examines in turn Mary Ann McCracken, Anna Doyle Wheeler, William Thompson and James Connolly.

Mary Ann McCracken’s (1770-1866) emancipative ideas concerning the lot of women in her day are revealed in the correspondence with her brother Henry Joy McCracken, a founding member of the Society of United Irishmen, while he was imprisoned in Kilmainham Jail. The goal of the United Irishmen was a separation from England and the setting up of a republic along the French model. Women were sworn into the Society and some actively participated in the ’98 Rising. Mary Ann McCracken is just one example of how mainstream historiography has neglected women’s contribution in shaping the outlook of their society. It is through her we can see that feminist ideas were gaining ground in Ireland in the late 18th century.

Next, Priscilla Metscher turns to two outstanding figures among the early socialists in the first decades of the nineteenth century, Anna Doyle Wheeler (1785-1848) and William Thompson (1775-1833). Both came from the Irish Ascendancy and had connections with leading socialists in Britain and France. Their ideas on the emancipation of women are expressed in their jointly authored Appeal of One Half the Human Race, Women, Against the Pretensions of the Other Half, Men, To Retain Them in Political and Thence in Civil and Domestic Slavery, which was first published in 1825. This publication went further than the writings of the English feminist Mary Wollstonecraft by creating a set of concepts regarding the mutual oppression of the sexes under social inequality. While Wollstonecraft had commented on the degradation endured by women, Wheeler makes practical proposals concerning the equal rights for all citizens.

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Anna Doyle Wheeler

Irish socialist James Connolly took a firm stand on the question of equal rights for women. He saw it as one of the prerequisites of a future socialist society in Ireland:

Of what use … can be the re-establishment of any form of Irish state be if it does not embody the emancipation of womanhood.

Where necessary Connolly took direct action. When the Belfast textile manufacturers began to speed up production, Connolly, on request from the women workers, organised them as a textile branch of the Irish Transport and General Workers’ Union.

Within the socialist movement in Ireland and Britain, Connolly stands out as one of the few socialist leaders of the time who insisted that the economic and political emancipation of women must be an integral part of any socialist programme. As Francis Sheehy-Skeffington, editor of the suffragist newspaper the Irish Citizen stated:

Mr. James Connolly…is the soundest and most thorough-going feminist among all the Irish labour men.

This study outlines the thinking and actions of each individual considered in it. Implementing their beliefs put them to the forefront of the political movements of their times. Priscilla Metscher considers these pioneers within their times, showing what they achieved, or where their thinking fell short. In this sense, they were both ahead of their times and of their times. By reading about and understanding these pioneers of women’s emancipation, the relevance of their insights and activism becomes clear. Their lives and work are to be recognized, celebrated – and above all built on.

The booklet is published by Connolly Books and available from them for €7, see here.

Building for a society of equals: 100 years of Bauhaus
Saturday, 23 February 2019 21:20

Building for a society of equals: 100 years of Bauhaus

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell celebrates 100 years of Bauhaus, the German art school started in 1919 

Inspired by Germany’s November 1918 Revolution, which was ultimately crushed by the Social Democratic Party leadership and the military, artists and intellectuals, anti-militarists and pacifists hoped for a new society for the common good. Many however had no clear political orientation or a full understanding of the causes of the war. Yet, despite this lack of clarity, socialist visions of the future were formulated, oriented to a more just society.

During its short existence (1919-33), a number of designers and architects emerged from the Bauhaus whose work lastingly influenced 20th century visual arts. Their philosophy was that everyday objects achieve beauty through simple form, material and colour.

At the initiative of Bruno Taut, Walter Gropius, Adolf Behne and others, the Workers’ Council for Art – named after the Workers’ and Soldiers’ Councils – set itself the goal of bringing current developments in architecture and art closer to the people: “Art and people must form a unity. Art should no longer be the pleasure of a few, but serve the happiness and life of the many.” In Gropius’ words: “the more their class pride grows, the more the people will despise imitating the rich and independently invent their own style of living. This understanding by the people is the fertile ground for the art to come.”

What was new about the school was its attempt to integrate art and craft, to bridge the gap between art and industry. The unity of arts had of course been a central tenet of the late 19th-century Arts and Crafts movement of William Morris and influenced Gropius’s planning for the school. Nevertheless, the Bauhaus was different to the Arts and Crafts movement in fundamental ways. Its emphasis was urban and technological, and it embraced 20th-century machine culture.

The Bauhaus began in Weimar in 1919 as a state school for art and architecture. The guiding principles in the Bauhaus Manifesto were community, unity of art, practical education, cooperation between craft and industry, and a sense of belonging to the people. All artistic disciplines were to be reunited under the leadership of a new architectural art.

The name Bauhaus plays on the German word Bauhütte (construction/ building hut) – the workshop, where the builders of the great medieval cathedrals worked together: quarrymen, plasterers, mortar-makers, stone-cutters, masons, and others. Here, there were no strict dividing lines between artists and craftsmen, and the builders were both in one. This was an important concept for the Bauhaus school. As the word Hütte means hut, the term was modernised to Haus (house). In this way, the term Bauhaus refers to a workshop, the sense of community and the equality of art and craft under the guidance of architecture, as cultivated in medieval cathedral workshops. Painting, sculpture, applied art, music and dance were to combine in the building of the future.

With this commonality of craft and art in medieval cathedral construction in mind, the “Cathedral of Socialism” was understood as a utopian building and embodiment of a future social structure, intended to overcome the consequences of alienation, the causes of which were seen more in the division of labour than in wage labour.

Walter Gropius added this woodcut by Lyonel Feininger to the founding manifesto of the Bauhaus in 1919 as the title page. A triad surrounds the cathedral spire: the three arts of painting, sculpture, and architecture, their rays flowing into each other. The choice of cathedral references the Bauhütte and underlines the centrality of architecture. The old-fashioned woodcutting technique combines with a futuristic cubist design.

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At the Bauhaus, painting and sculpture stimulated architecture, applied art and environmental design. In the visual arts, a certain affinity for the world of technology developed, while industry demanded a species-specific design of its products. The artists broke away from traditional forms; industry presented challenges with a multitude of new materials, products and devices. Form was to follow function, materials were to reveal the true nature of objects and buildings. Features of an object or building’s construction, such as steel or a beam, were to be highlighted rather than hidden as an integral part of the design, as part of its beauty.

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Bauhaus Dessau, built from 1925 to 1926 according to plans by Walter Gropius as a school building for the School of Art, Design and Architecture

The rectangular shape of the building, glass-curtain walls, and a distinctive vertical logo express the modern vision of the school. Glass walls create a bright interior and facilitate a view into the building’s inner purposes, transporting transparency and openness. These aspects, among others, reflect Gropius's vision of a more equal society.

At the heart of the Bauhaus philosophy was social living. A house should have a smooth, elementary form, as if it were industrially manufactured. The rectangular system and the Bauhaus signature flat roof were deemed equal surfaces with windows and doors. The aim was to achieve equality between front and rear, top and bottom, right and left. Every element of the building should be both supportive and supported. Architectural ideas reflected social perspectives - a society of equals.

One example of this is the Horseshoe Estate in Berlin. The Horseshoe Estate housed 3,000 members of a trade union building society set up in 1924. Bauhaus architect Bruno Taut, a committed socialist was asked to plan an affordable estate. The result were unpretentious, brick-built modernist flats in dramatic colours. They were then let or sold to trade unionists. The estate’s flat roofs led to a heated debate as the German right considered these un-German, “degenerate”. Indeed, in 1933, Taut fled Germany.

The suburban Horseshoe Estate expresses optimism for a new way of life and social equality. As with the school building, each part supports and is supported by the other and all look on to a green communal space around a small pool, fed by ice-age groundwater.

 B4  B5

                                               The Hufeisensiedlung (Horseshoe Estate) and its colourful doors

B6

Inside

Soviet artists provided inspiration for the Bauhaus: Malevich oriented his suprematist architects towards new architectural ideas of space, Tatlin’s Monument to the Third International illustrated the synthesis between the “technical and the artistic”, and El Lissitzky’s Proun series (pronounced pro-oon), an acronym for “project for the affirmation of the new” in Russian) was conceived as “a transfer from painting to architecture”.

The Thuringian Weimar workers’ government (social democrats and communists) was dissolved in 1923 under pressure from the military. Following a decision by the new government, the Bauhaus in Weimar finally closed in 1924 with the declaration that Gropius had “designed it one-sidedly communist-expressionist”.

The school moved to Dessau in 1925 and against the votes of the right-wing parties there. Following the NSDAP’s success in Dessau’s local elections of 1931, the German fascists subjected the institution to reprisals such as raids, and the arrest of students, thus forcing it to dissolve in 1932. Its move to Berlin was short-lived and ended in 1933.

The Bauhaus produced an incredible range of disciplines including theatre design, typography, painting, furniture, architecture, household goods, stained glass and experimental film, photography, music and dance. Many significant 20th century artists, designers and architects studied and taught there including Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Marcel Breuer and Lyonel Feininger - who designed the cover for Gropius's Bauhaus manifesto.

B7

Marcel Breuer: Wassily chair

Its influence has been enormous: Herbert Bayer's sans serif typefaces, Gunta Stolzl's weaving and fabric designs and Marcel Breuer's famous tubular steel chair, to name a few iconic designs.

Bauhaus Women

Beginning with the Weimar Republic, women in Germany gained the right to vote and the freedom to teach. When Walter Gropius opened the State Bauhaus in Weimar in 1919, he announced in his programme: “Every person of good repute is accepted as an apprentice, regardless of age and gender, whose talent and previous training is considered sufficient by the Master Council”.

But Gropius soon feared that the large number of women would damage the reputation of the school. He recommended that “no more unnecessary experiments” be undertaken, and demanded, “sharp segregation immediately after admission, especially in the case of the number of women who were too strongly represented”.

The fear was that female students would take valuable workshop places away from male students. Some women nevertheless conquered places in male domains, for example Dörte Helm and Lou Scheper in mural painting, while weaving was declared a “women’s class” from 1920.

The handloom was the only department managed by a woman, Anni Albers. The weaving mill soon became one of the most productive workshops. The ideas and innovations that the women weavers unleashed there were anything but traditional and led to a surge in development in industrial design and an artistic re-evaluation of textile art. In addition, they had such great commercial success that they became representative of the entire Bauhaus. When Bauhaus architect Meyer asked Albers to produce a wall covering for a new trade union lecture hall he was designing, she created an innovative hanging that joined the new material cellophane with cotton on either side respectively, to produce a surface that absorbed sound and reflected light at the same time.

The second largest area in which women excelled at the Bauhaus was photography. This modern medium offered artistically ambitious women not only opportunities to earn a living but also a field of experimentation for exploring themselves and their time. In their photographic works, these avant-garde photographers dealt with the “New Woman” and the images of women of their time.

In 1933, the Nazis banned many of the Bauhaus students from working. They were persecuted by the fascists because they were political, or they came from political “enemy territory”, or because of their Jewish origin. Their works were classified as “degenerate art”. They left Germany and spread their ideas around the world. When the Nazis built Buchenwald concentration camp, they required the former Bauhaus student and communist inmate Franz Ehrlich to designed the notorious camp’s gate, displaying the motto ‘Jedem das Seine’ (to each what he deserves) in Bauhaus typeface, in gruesome irony.

One of the most famous of the women students was Marianne Brandt, née Liebe. László Moholy-Nagy (1895-1946) became her mentor and teacher. On his advice, she joined the male-dominated metal workshop. There she gradually gained recognition and designed the first lighting fixtures for the Bauhaus building in Dessau. In 1928, she became head of the metal workshop – and made history as a Bauhaus designer. Moholy-Nagy called her his “best and most brilliant student” and said that she was the source of “90 percent of all Bauhaus models”.

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MT 49 tea extract jug

She became famous for the tiny tea infuser, the “MT 49 tea extract jug” made of silver and ebony, which is still an icon of Bauhaus decoration today - just like her lamp models. Brandt's infuser is distinctively Bauhaus. Rather like the infuser used with the samovar, it holds a concentrated extract, which may be combined with hot water to produce tea of any desired strength. Brandt recast the characteristics of a teapot as abstract geometric forms. The body hemisphere rests on crossbars. A tall ebony knob tops its asymmetrical round lid. The D-shaped ebony handle contrasts vertically to the pot's otherwise principally horizontal lines.

B9      B10

Marianne Brandt Photomontage

Following their principle “No day without a search”, Brandt also discovered photography. She experimented with perspectives and light and devoted herself to photomontage. She captured themes such as big cities, film and expressive dance. She critically examined war and militarism and asked how much room for manoeuvre a “women’s movement” had in her time. Before the Nazis defamed her works as “degenerate”, she was known throughout Europe as a designer, and renowned companies produced her designs in series.

The artistic avant-garde assembled at the Bauhaus hoped to be a force that would change society and shape a modern human environment. It was an important counter-force to conformity, Prussianism and militarism.

Milkman
Friday, 08 February 2019 09:04

Milkman

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell reviews the novel Milkman, a peripheral view on a besieged working-class community during the North of Ireland Troubles, which has won the Man Booker Prize

Belfast-born author Anna Burns has won the 2018 Man Booker Prize for her novel Milkman. The Booker’s chair of judges, philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, described it as “incredibly original”, and “None of us has ever read anything like this before.” Burns is the first North of Ireland winner of this award, previous Irish authors being Iris Murdoch, Roddy Doyle, John Banville, and Anne Enright.

Any novel about the Troubles makes a statement feeding into the way history will record those times, new generations will see them. Not only is there an Official Version, there are also the real experiences of both communities and various versions within each of these. Milkman must be seen in this context.

Milkman reads like a dystopian novel. We are in a time and place where names are not mentioned, places not named, people referred to in terms of their relationship to the anonymous narrator, or by another designation. Almost everything is expressed indirectly, by innuendo. In this way, the narrative style of the novel reflects the coded talk of Belfast, where names reveal an either/or identity, and pronunciation is a shibboleth.

The world presented is both dystopian and Belfast at the same time, specifically Catholic working-class Ardoyne, in the 1970s, because those times were as horrendous as they are described here. Anna Burns conveys this, highlighting the madness, by using a surreal narrative style. She also goes off on frequent tangents before returning to the main storyline. This can make for challenging reading on the one hand, but also earned the judges’ approval on the other.

Ardoyne is a Catholic enclave in Protestant North Belfast, one of a number of Catholic areas in Belfast that are completely isolated and therefore more vulnerable. Ardoyne is written into the novel in many ways, in the unnamed, geographical detail and above all, in the way people speak. The title itself expresses the book’s Belfast and North of Ireland theme: Milkman refers to the clandestine transportation of explosives in milk crates into the Catholic areas.

Of course, the word ‘Catholic’ is never used, and neither is ‘Protestant’. Instead, there are ‘renouncers-of-the-state’ and ‘defenders-of-the-state’, those who look ‘across the border’, the others ‘across the water’. The suggestion is that the micro-culture of everyday life is the same in both communities. However, the narrator expresses the experience of the nationalist working-class community. Reflecting general, incorrect usage, the narrator refers to the two Christian denominations as opposite religions. The twain only meet in the city centre in ‘mixed’ bars and, unexpectedly, in the French evening class. Here, the teacher struggles to get students to see the apparently familiar differently. Indeed, the students are sent out to really look at a sunset – the only vivid colour in the novel, the colour that defines the book’s striking cover.

Milkman himself is a 41-year-old paramilitary sexual predator, who is stalking our narrator. She is an 18-year-old daughter of a widowed working-class mother in this particular community. It is a community under siege by the British state and its “defenders”. However, the narrator is explicitly on the margins of this community, and this is her perspective. She does not relate the experience at the centre of the community, which is probably why the novel has not been happily received by all. Her viewpoint is that the ‘renouncers’ have control over her as they do over the entire community. She is not involved in the renouncers’ activities, yet there is little she can do to separate herself and live an independent life. Milkman and another paramilitary pursue her, indeed attempt to coerce her. At the same time, the narrator does not hide the fact that this crazy situation results from the aggressive, humiliating and controlling treatment of the community by the armed forces of the occupying state.

The absence of colour, of smells, and taste, is very noticeable. People in this place and at this time do not experience life fully. This is a half-life in the shadows, a deprived life, diminished by severe restrictions, curfews, unnerving total observation by state and ‘renouncers’, brutality and violent deaths. Indeed, killings and deaths due to the all-pervasive violence far outweigh natural deaths. Every family here has lost at least one relative, frequently more. Readers, who remember those days, know how true this feels. Even children cannot imagine non-violent deaths. However, the novel does not detail these graphically. The violence is not shown, just its effect on the people within the community, its toll on their personal freedom and entitlement to human living.

Part of this dystopian feeling of greyness and absence of humane living comes from the novel’s statement that people feel unentitled to happiness, especially to a fulfilling, loving relationship with a partner. Relationships are broken off when partners get too close. This adds significantly to the feeling of a life that is lived on the margins, an incomplete life. Only the burst of colour when the students of the French class are sent to really see the sun set over Belfast Lough indicates that another way of life is possible, one which is cross-community.

Despite the sense of entrapment, some of the community in this novel rebel, and some do look for happiness. The narrator is known for reading books while walking, books that are removed from the 20th century. She wants nothing to do with this reality around her and actively tries to separate herself from it. This is not entirely successful. Others who stand out for resistance are women – both the traditional housewives who break the curfew and engage in bin-lid banging to alert neighbours to danger. Early feminists also make an appearance in the story.

Milkman is a reminder of the bad old days. It documents aspects of the working-class experience of the Troubles. Other experiences, like that at the centre of the community, are not Burns’s theme. This novel reflects in a surreal tone the experience of a young woman on the periphery of her community, but not entirely on her own. It is an experience defined above all by the military force of the imperialist British state, and the responses such violence and oppression creates in the besieged and divided population.

A Curse on War: Mother Courage and Her Children, by Bertolt Brecht
Saturday, 12 January 2019 09:30

A Curse on War: Mother Courage and Her Children, by Bertolt Brecht

Published in Theatre

Jenny Farrell writes about Bertolt Brecht's anti-war play "Mother Courage and Her Children", first performed in Germany 70 years ago. The play has retained its relevance as a warning against war.

Brecht began writing this work on the day the Nazi army occupied Warsaw. He had watched as fascism took hold of broad sections of the German populace, and Hitler’s fascists prepared for war.
Brecht chose the Thirty Years' War as the historical background for “Mother Courage”. His focus was on the victims of war: the ordinary soldiers, the farmers, cooks, recruiters, sergeants, field preachers, and the plebeians - those who will feed the cannons sooner or later.

Mother Courage is a small trader, who buys goods and sells them to the troops with whom she is travelling, while trying to ensure her patchwork family’s survival. At first she succeeds in doing so, through her wit and repartee, and through her realism and pragmatism - qualities that identify her as part of the lower classes. When she finally loses her children, one after another, it is invariably due to her profiteering, her last-minute deals, her false priorities. It is her business that leads to the death of her children.

The children’s qualities - fearlessness, honesty, naivety and willingness to help - contribute to their demise in this war. Mother Courage, who risks everything for her business - hence her name - tries to reconcile the irreconcilable. Her failure, at the end of a seemingly endless war, is predictable. And yet she herself draws no consequences. She learns nothing, even when she exclaims that war should be cursed. In the end, she harnesses herself to her cart, which becomes the play’s central symbol. Business must go on. That she thereby contributes to the continuation of war never enters her mind.

But there is a counterpart, her daughter, the mute Kattrin. Initially, she seems like a pitiable victim, but she observes her mother's actions, registers the disappearance of her brothers and draws her conclusions. In the end, when Catholic troops are about to attack and slaughter the sleeping population of Magdeburg, she wakens them by beating her drum. She opposes war and acts when she sees the opportunity. She could be called the true ‘Courage’. Her deed is a beacon against the acceptance of war as fate, suggesting the possibility of a society not determined by war and profit.

The Berlin premiere of “Mother Courage” performance took place on 11th January 1949. Looking back later, with the rise of the Cold War, and with the Korean War in progress, Brecht wrote: "A new war threatens. Nobody talks about it, everyone knows about it. The majority of people are not for war.”

In this play, Brecht put on stage his ideas of a theatre that would regain its social meaning by developing practicable models of human existence. He wanted his audiences to see the characters on stage no longer as incapable of change, and helplessly at the mercy of their fate. He wanted them to realise that people are determined by their circumstances. And that not only can people change, but so can the ways they relate to each other, and the world that they create for themselves.

Rosa Luxemburg and the spiritual growth of the proletariat
Thursday, 03 January 2019 21:58

Rosa Luxemburg and the spiritual growth of the proletariat

Published in Cultural Commentary

‘The most precious thing' said Rosa Luxemburg, 'in the sharp ebb and flow of the revolutionary waves is the proletariat's spiritual growth.' Jenny Farrell presents two letters by Rosa Luxemburg, murdered one hundred years ago in Berlin by the proto-Nazi Freikorps.

Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, founder members of the German Communist Party and fearless anti-war activists, were murdered on 15 January 1919. It is not difficult to discover the details of their political and public lives. However, we would like to honour their memory by highlighting their spiritual and ecological awareness, through presenting two private letters by Rosa Luxemburg to the Russian-born Sophie Liebknecht, wife of Karl Liebknecht.

RL 1

These letters reveal the private person, the inner landscape of Rosa, an aspect rarely explored in the letters of Marxist writers. The correspondence highlights her sensitivity towards the way we express our humanity in our relationship with the natural world, and that our political, economic and cultural struggles for a humane existence are not ends in themselves, or merely material struggles. They are also moral and psychological struggles for an empathic, compassionate life, for an almost ecstatic, peaceful unity with oneself, with others and with nature.

1. Vronke, 2 May 1917

My dearest little Sonyusha!* Your dear letter arrived here in perfect time yesterday, 1 May. It and two days of sunshine have done much to cheer me up. For my heart was very sore these last few days, but now things are looking up again. If only the sun would stay that way! I am outside almost all day, strolling around in the bushes, searching every corner of my garden and finding all kinds of treasures. So listen: Yesterday, May 1st, I met – guess who? – a radiant common brimstone! I was so happy that my whole heart pounded. It flew up to my sleeve – I wear a purple jacket, and the colour probably attracted it – then it bobbed up and down the wall. In the afternoon, I found three different beautiful feathers: a dark grey one from a redstart, a golden one from a yellowhammer and a greyish-yellow one from a nightingale. We have many nightingales here, I heard the first one early on Easter Sunday, and since then it comes to the big silver poplar in my little garden every day. I put the feathers in a lovely blue box for my small collection: I also have feathers there that I found in the yard of Barnimstraße** – from pigeons and chickens, and also a beautiful blue one from a jay in Südende***. The “collection” is still quite small, but I like to look at it sometimes. I have already decided to whom I will give it.

This morning I discovered a hidden violet right next to the wall I was walking past! The only one in my whole garden. How does Goethe put it?

A violet in the meadow stood,
With humble brow, demure and good,
It was the sweetest violet.

I was so happy! I am sending you it here, with a kiss pressed lightly on it, may it bring you my love and my greeting. Will it still be little fresh when you get it? ...

Then this afternoon I met the first bumblebee! A very big one in the new shimmering black fur jacket with golden yellow belt. It hummed in a deep bass and flew first to my jacket, then in a big arc high above the yard. The buds of the chestnuts are so big, rosy and swelling, shiny with juice, in a few days they will probably pop out their leaves, which look like little green hands. Remember, last year, how we stood in front of such a chestnut with young leaves and you called in droll desperation: “Rosa! (You roll the “R” even more than I do), what can you say? What can you say at such delight?”

And another discovery made me happy today. You may remember, last April I phoned you both urgently at 10 o’clock in the morning to come to the Botanical Gardens and listen with me to the nightingale giving a whole concert. We sat quietly hidden in dense shrubs on stones beside a tiny streamlet; but after the nightingale, we suddenly heard a wistful call, which sounded something like this: “Gleegleegleegleeglick! I said it sounded like some moor or water bird, and Karl agreed, but we simply couldn’t work out what it was. Just think, one morning a few days ago, I suddenly heard the same lamentation near here, so that my heart throbbed, impatient to find out what it was. I had no peace until I discovered today: it’s not a water bird, but the wryneck, a grey woodpecker. It is only a little bigger than the sparrow and has its name because it tries to frighten its enemies by strange gestures and head contortions. It lives on ants only, which it catches with its sticky tongue like the anteater. The Spanish call it hormiguero – the antbird. Mörike by the way wrote a lovely funny poem on this bird, which Hugo Wolf set to music. I feel like I’ve been given a gift, knowing what the bird with the sad voice is. Perhaps you could let Karl know about this, he would be delighted.

What do I read? Mainly scientific books: plant and animal geography. Just yesterday I read about the causes of songbirds disappearing in Germany: it is due to increased rational forestry, horticulture and agriculture, slowly destroying all their natural nesting and feeding habitats: hollow trees, wasteland, scrub, and withered foliage in gardens. It was so painful to read this. I’m not worried about their singing for people, but the image of the silent, unstoppable demise of these defenceless little creatures hurt me so much, I had to weep. It reminded me of a Russian book by Prof. Siber about the destruction of the Redskins in North America, which I read in Zurich: Slowly but surely, civilised people drive them off their land and submit them to silent, cruel annihilation.

I must be unwell that everything shakes me so deeply now. Do you know? Sometimes I feel that I am not a real person, but some bird or other animal in a failed human form; inwardly I feel much more at home in such a small shred of garden as here, or in a field amongst bumblebees and grass than - at a party conference. I can tell you all this: you will not immediately sense a betrayal of socialism. You know, I will hopefully die for the cause anyway: in a street battle or in prison. But my innermost self belongs more to my coal tits than to the ‘comrades’. And this is not because, like so many bankrupt politicians, I find a refuge, a rest in nature. On the contrary, here too I find so much cruelty at every turn that I suffer a great deal. Imagine, for example, that I simply cannot forget the following little episode. Last spring I was on my way home from a walk across fields, in my quiet, empty street when I noticed a dark little spot on the ground. I bent down and saw a soundless tragedy: a large dung beetle lay on its back and defended itself helplessly with its legs, while a whole load of tiny ants swarmed over it and consumed it – alive! I looked at it, took out my handkerchief and began to chase away the brutal beasts. But they were so cheeky and stubborn that I had to fight a long battle with them, and when I had finally freed the poor wretch and taken him far onto the grass, two legs had already been eaten away ... I fled tormented, feeling that I had done him a very dubious favour.

There is long twilight in the evenings now. How I usually love this hour! In Südende I had so many blackbirds, here I can’t see or hear any. I fed a pair all winter and now it has disappeared. In Südende I used to stroll the street around this time in the evening; it is so beautiful when even in the last violet rays of daylight the rosy gas flames suddenly flicker in the lanterns and look so strange in the dusk, as if they were a little ashamed of themselves. Then the indistinct shape of a porter’s wife or a maid scurries through the street, quickly running to the baker’s or grocer’s to fetch something. The shoemaker’s children, with whom I am friends, used to play in the street in the dark until they were robustly summoned home from the corner. At this hour there always used to be some blackbird that couldn’t find rest and suddenly screeched or babbled like a naughty child, s startled rom sleep and flying noisily from tree to tree. And I stood there in the middle of the street, counting the first stars, reluctant to go home, leaving the balmy air and the twilight in which day and night nestled so softly together. Sonyusha, I will write to you again soon. Put your mind at ease and be cheerful, everything will be fine, even with Karl. I will write to Mathilde about your household worries and do whatever I can. Goodbye until the next letter, my dear little bird.

I embrace you.

Your Rosa.

* Russian pet name for Sophie (Sophie was a native Russian speaker, Rosa was very fluent)

** The Women’s Prison in Berlin

*** The district in Berlin where Luxemburg lived

Translated by Jenny Farrell

RL 2

2. Wrocław prison, mid-December 1917

Yesterday I lay awake for a long time – these days I can’t fall asleep before 1 a.m., but I have to go to bed at 10, because the light goes out then, and then I dream to myself about various things in the dark. Last night this is what I was thinking: how odd it is that I’m continually in a joyful state of exaltation – without any particular reason. For example, I’m lying here in a dark cell on a stone-hard mattress, the usual silence of a church cemetery prevails in the prison building, it seems as though we’re in a tomb; on the ceiling can be seen reflections coming through the window from the lanterns that burn all night in front of the prison. From time to time one hears, but only in quite a muffled way, the distant rumble of a train passing by or quite nearby under the windows the whispering of the guards on duty at night, who take a few steps slowly in their heavy boots to relieve their stiff legs. The sand crunches so hopelessly under their heels that the entire hopeless wasteland of existence can be heard in this damp, dark night.

I lie there quietly, alone, wrapped in these many-layered black veils of darkness, boredom, lack of freedom, and winter – and at the same time my heart is racing with an incomprehensible, unfamiliar inner joy as though I were walking across a flowering meadow in radiant sunshine. And in the dark I smile at life, as if I knew some sort of magical secret that gives the lie to everything evil and sad and changes it into pure light and happiness. And all the while I’m searching within myself for some reason for this joy, find nothing and must smile to myself again – and laugh at myself. I believe that the secret is nothing other than life itself; the deep darkness of night is so beautiful and as soft as velvet, if one only looks at it the right way; and in the crunching of the damp sand beneath the snow beneath the slow, heavy steps of the sentries a beautiful small song of life is being sung – if only one knows how to listen properly.

At such moments I think of you and I would like so much to pass on this magical key to you, so that always and in all situations you would be aware of the beautiful and the joyful, so that you too would live in a joyful euphoria as though you were walking across a colourful meadow. I am certainly not thinking of foisting off on you some sort of asceticism or made-up joys. I don’t begrudge you all the real joys of the senses that you might wish for yourself. I would just like to add to this my inexhaustible inner cheerfulness, so that I could be at peace about you and not worry, so that you could go through life wearing a star-speckled cloak, to protect you from all things petty, trivial and alarming.

If you enjoyed these letters, you can read more here.

The Student
Thursday, 03 January 2019 18:27

The Student

Published in Films

Jenny Farrell reviews The Student, a modern Russian film which is now available on DVD.

Russian cinema today explores capitalism against the backdrop of a past socialist experience. Open-minded visitors to former socialist states, and particularly to Russia, will come across this living memory and frequently an acknowledgement of the loss of humanist values since the defeat of socialism in Europe. It is interesting too, in this context, that the much favoured Western, seriously reductionist, identification of socialism with Stalin, is not the way it is remembered where it was once lived. Instead, the recollection is more multi-facetted and uppermost for many is a more people oriented society, with work, homes and a future. Many of those who were educated in this social system, retain a general understanding of Marxism from their school/ university days. This is the context for contemporary Russian cinema and specifically for Kirill Serebrennikov’s 2016 film “The Student”, available now on DVD.

Based on Marius von Mayerburg’s play Märtyrer (Martyr), the storyline is about a teenage school student, Venya, who causes havoc arising from his literal interpretation of the Bible. He has not been exposed to religion by his atheist single mother but by the school’s religion teacher. The film shows just how fundamentalist the Christian Bible can be read. Venya demands and achieves a change in girls’ swimwear for swimming classes. He correctly identifies in the school’s young biology teacher, Elena, as his natural enemy, whose death he will consider. She is the only force within the school who actively opposes this new-found ideology. Elena uses scientific arguments against a growing Christian fundamentalist force within the school. The priest and religion teacher on the other hand actively encourages Venya.

the student cannes interview serebrennikov4

Instead of sharing the biology teacher’s scientific standpoint, the principal suggests to her following a protest by Vanya against Darwin’s theory of evolution: “Why don’t you discuss this with the holy father? … To teach the children both creation theories…. You should really talk to the father to find a compromise.” This scene, which develops hilariously, shows where such irrational ideological ‘pluralism’ can lead. Past knowledge is surrendered because the arguments have been lost, or are suppressed.

When Venya starts sermonizing in the history class, the teacher comments: “People used to believe in something, but everything changed, they needed money, and they forgot about communism. Now there is something to believe in again.”

At least half of Venya’s lines are direct quotations from the Bible and chapter and verse are always blended on to the screen. Some of these quotes go like this: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have come to bring the sword, to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother. As for my enemies who didn’t want me to rule over them, slaughter them in my presence.” (Matthew 10:34) Thus, the film is a refreshing reminder that any accusations of fundamentalism in non-Christian religions, must be seen in the context of the past history and the continuing potential for, indeed reality of Christian fundamentalism. While the youthful Venya comes across as even more fundamentalist than the priest, the latter nevertheless encourages him to join the priesthood as this needs men like him.

The film possesses a distinctly realist feel. This is achieved for example by many unbroken, long, restless takes by the highly acclaimed DP Vladislav Opelyants, as well as hand-held sequences. The lighting is notably realistic and captures the cool natural daylight of Baltic Kaliningrad, where the film is located. The concrete breakwaters of Kaliningrad’s pier suggest ruins, in the context perhaps the ruins of the Soviet Union. In addition, Serebrennikov used a large number of nonprofessional actors. The musical score communicates dissonant and tragic elements that contrast ironically with the sinister sounding Slovenian metal rock hit ‘God is God’ over the opening menu and closing credits.

Increasingly, the school slowly appears to be changing into a church. The teaching staff, with the exception of Elena, have no arguments to counter the growth of fundamentalist religious ideas, no ideological defence. What hope is there? Only the film can tell.

stud1

Decolonising the mind: the life and work of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o
Wednesday, 05 December 2018 18:14

Decolonising the mind: the life and work of Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell celebrates the life and work of the African Marxist writer Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o.

Ngũgĩ turned 80 this year. He was born into colonial Kenya in 1938 and witnessed in his youth the Mau Mau War of Independence, which ended in1962.

Ngũgĩ has written prolifically. His first major novel Weep Not Child was published in 1964, followed by The River Between and A Grain of Wheat in 1967. Arguably his most famous (non-fiction) book is Decolonising the Mind, about the constructive role language in national culture, history, and identity.

In 1967, Ngũgĩ became lecturer in English Literature at the University of Nairobi, where he taught until 1977. Here, he campaigned for the change of name from English to simply Literature department, to reflect a change of focus from English to world literature, with African and third world literatures at the centre. The text On the Abolition of the English Department became one of many challenging the colonial inheritance:

If there is need for a ‘study of the historic continuity of a single culture’, why can’t this be African? Why can’t African literature be at the centre so that we can view other cultures in relationship to it?

The year 1977 was a dramatic turning point in Ngũgĩ’s life. His novel Petals of Blood was published, depicting neo-colonial Kenya uncompromisingly. The same year Ngũgĩ co-authored the savagely critical play, Ngaahika Ndeenda (I Will Marry When I Want), performed open-air with actors drawn from the workers and peasants of the village.

The play’s presentation of the inequalities and injustices of Kenyan society, and its identification with the cause of ordinary Kenyans, led to Ngũgĩ’s imprisonment without charge at Kamiti Maximum Security Prison on December 31, 1977. During his incarceration, Ngũgĩ decided to abandon English and start writing in his native Gikuyu. He writes about his experiences in his memoir, Detained: A Writer’s Prison Diary (1982). In it, Ngũgĩ relates a signal act of resistance: his writing of Caitani Mutharabaini (1981) on prison toilet paper - translated into English as Devil on the Cross (1982).

The reclaiming of African languages as keepers of memory, of African history, became central to Ngũgĩ’s postcolonial struggle. He comments in relation to the slave trade:

The first thing that happened to African people [in the Americas] was forced loss of language and names.

And:

Ninety percent of Africa’s resources are consumed in the west. But somehow the vocabulary has turned it the other way around – it’s the West that ‘helps’ Africa. A few things are returned and they call it ‘aid’.

Amnesty International successfully campaigned for Ngũgĩ’s release a year later, in December 1978. But he had become intolerable to the Moi dictatorship (1978-2002). A plot to kill him forced Ngũgĩ into exile, first in Britain (1982 –1989), and then the U.S. (1989-2002). There were also actual attempts on his life.

His novel, Matigari (1986) describes a man who, having survived the war for independence, hopes for a new and peaceful future. He finds his people still dispossessed and his corrupted land ruled by misery and fear. Hilariously, Dictator Moi, believing the novel’s main character to be an actual person, issued an arrest warrant for him!

Ngũgĩ continued to write prolifically. In 2006 the English translation of the Gikuyu language novel, Murogi wa Kagog, Wizard of the Crow, was published.

This epic comic novel set in the fictitious African “Free Republic” of Aburĩria, scathingly details the corruption, brutality and self-negation of neocolonial African dictatorship. Similarities with Kenya are not accidental, yet its scope encompasses more. It outlines the experience of the African continent in the 20th century, the slavery of its peoples, the colonial legacy as feeding into the neocolonial present:

…the Ruler’s rise to power had something to do with his alliance with the colonial state and the white forces behind it. (…) his friends in the West needed him to assume the mantle of the leader of Africa and the Third World, for Aburĩria was of strategic importance to the West’s containment of Soviet global domination. The Ruler accused the Socialist Party of forming one link in the chain of the Soviet ambitions. Aburĩria did not fight Western colonialism in order to end up under Eastern Communist colonialism, he declared (…) It is said that in only a month he mowed down a million Aburĩrian Communists, rendering the Ruler the African leader most respected by the West …

The leader of the underground resistance movement is a woman, Nyawĩra, who from the start emphasises a class analysis of society and the need and possibility of change. This courageous person finds a partner in Kamĩtĩ, whose opposition to the status quo grows over time as he gets to know and love her.

He brings to the relationship a tremendous amount of humour, a willingness to hide, heal and mock by impersonating a witch doctor, as well as knowledge of the medicinal properties of African plants. Together they forge the main positive and hope-giving force in the novel. They are supported by other brave people in the community, including some who grow into this role, some who change sides and those who do not betray. The most heroic among those resisting the many manifestations of the regime are women, who are shown to oppose and overcome domestic violence and other controlling relationships.

It is absolutely clear that Ngũgĩ cannot conceive of true African liberation without that of women – they are instrumental in bringing this about. Their emancipation is intrinsic to the liberation and freedom of their country. In fact, a women’s court to punish perpetrators of domestic violence is established as part of the Movement for the Voice of the People.

Nyawĩra puts this in Marxist terms:

I believe that black has been oppressed by white; female by male; peasant by landlord; and worker by capital. It follows from this that the black female worker and peasant is most the oppressed. She is oppressed on account of her colour like all black people in the world; she is oppressed on account of her gender like all women in the world; and she is exploited and oppressed on account of her class like all workers and peasants in the world. Three burdens she has to carry. Those who want to fight for the people in the nation and in the world must struggle for the unity and rights of the working class in their own country; fight against all discriminations based on race, ethnicity, color, and belief systems; they must struggle against all gender-based inequalities and therefore fight for the rights of women in the home, the family, the nation, and the world ….

Throughout this satirical novel the West’s involvement with the corrupt regimes in Africa is highlighted, here in particular with the Global Bank, from which they hope to secure an enormous loan, which in turn will lead to unparalleled austerity. However, the country’s political instability ultimately prevents this. When the country’s autocracy begins to crumble, the West plans a military coup.

Yet, Ngũgĩ rejects Western journalists’ favourite image of Africa:

they believed that a news story from Africa without pictures of people dying from wretched poverty, famine, or ethnic warfare could not possibly be interesting to their audience back home.

He underlines the humanity of the people above all and Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere is referred to positively in this novel. Nyawĩra and Kamĩtĩ’s ability to laugh together at the absurdity of the regime is in itself a sign of their strength, courage and moral high ground. By rejecting the generalised Western media African stereotype, Ngũgĩ enables the reader to draw parallels to other dictatorships around the world, mentioning those of Marcos, Pinochet and Apartheid South Africa at the very end of the book.

One of the most memorable moments in the novel is when one of the characters on the government side becomes afflicted by a psychological condition that makes him want to become white. Kamĩtĩ, as Wizard of the Cow, manages to ‘cure’ him by demonstrating that white is not white and he could easily end up a homeless white ex-colonial, after having renounced his name and language, in an ironic self-imposed re-play of the fate of the slaves. Ngũgĩ’s point is not just satirical, but also poignant in the careerist’s willingness to negate himself.

Although the government men are corrupt, superstitious and paranoid as well as willing to kill indiscriminately for personal gain, they are not beyond grasping where all this will ultimately lead to:

The Global Bank and the Global Ministry of Finance are clearly looking to privatise countries nations, and states. They argue that the modern world was created by private capital. (…) What private capital did then it can do again: own and reshape the Third World in the image of the West (…) The world will become one corporate globe divided into the incorporating and the incorporated. We should volunteer Aburĩria to be the first to be wholly managed by private capital, to become the first voluntary corporate colony, a corporony, the first of the new global order.

What is distilled in these quotes is written into the fabric of the novel, from where it inscribes itself indelibly into the reader’s imagination and becomes much more. The text is enriched with African fable-telling and humour. And one thing is made perfectly clear: there is no magic. It is a hilarious, exciting and brilliant read – it is a masterpiece.

The "War to End All Wars," like all the wars that have followed it, discarded human lives on all sides. Here, a German prisoner helps British wounded make their way to a dressing station. Image:  Imperial War Museum
Wednesday, 07 November 2018 13:37

The Discarded Soldier

Published in Fiction

 

Jenny Farrell introduces a little-known short story by Liam O'Flaherty

11 November 2018 marks the centenary of the ending of World War I. During that bloody slaughter, the propagandists described it as the “war to end all wars”. One hundred years and as many wars on the militarists in the USA and Europe, many of them the authors and overseers of the present conflicts from Afghanistan to Yemen, meet to promote this so-called “Great War” as something noble.  

There is nothing noble or honourable about such carnage. It is therefore appropriate to re-publish below a very short story, “The Discarded Soldier”, by the world famous novelist and short story writer Liam O’Flaherty, which presents the real and barbaric nature of war.

Liam knew what he was writing about. He not only fought in the trenches of Flanders as a member of the British army’s Irish Guards, but was wounded and shell-shocked in September 1917. His abhorrence of war is expressed poignantly in this text and his avant-garde 1929 novel “Return of the Brute”.

What is also interesting about “The Discarded Soldier” is it was published for the first – and probably only - time in The Daily Worker on 27 June 1925.  A daily columnist of the paper had requested this internationally renowned Irish author to pen the piece. Liam could hardly refuse, as The Daily Worker’s columnist was none other than his brother, Tom O’Flaherty.

The brothers came from the Irish speaking Aran Islands off the west coast of Ireland. Both were writers and both were involved in the communist movement. Both were founding members of two separate Communist Parties: Tom of the CPUSA and Liam of the CP in Ireland.

“The Discarded Soldier” was never collected and is virtually unknown.

In an advertisement in The Daily Worker on 13 June 1925, Tom describes Liam as “a young proletarian writer who has already won an international reputation through his books and short stories. (…) One of those short stories, dealing with the civil war in Ireland, in which he fought on the side of the Republicans, is listed in the collection of the best short stories produced In Great Britain during 1923. (…) the now only twenty-six years old … left a little fishing village in the Arran Islands on the west coast of Ireland at an early age for college, where he was trained by the Jesuits for the propaganda mission. He is anything but grateful to his tutors, as his writings show.”

We have Seosamh Ó Cuaig to thank for rediscovering this story.  He is the chairperson of the Liam and Tom O’Flaherty Society in Ireland that was founded in 2013. It was while researching Tom O’Flaherty that he came across “The Discarded Soldier”. Interestingly Seosamh, like Liam and Tom, is a native Irish speaker and hails from Connemara on the coast of Galway Bay, at the mouth of which lie the Aran Islands, the O’Flahertys’ birthplace.   

We share in the great pride and pleasure that People’s World, the successor to The Daily Worker, today republish this story from its early days.

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THE DISCARDED SOLDIER

By Liam O’Flaherty

THE Discarded Soldier had crawled to his garret to die. He lay on his ragged bed. He had lit the candle beside him to light him into eternity. His head peering from the bedclothes was a portrait of death. The face was pale and wan and haggard, like the face of a drowning man, sinking into a dark river in the moonlight. The light of his candle was his moon burning fitfully.

          The Discarded Soldier hugged himself close trying to find warmth. His lean hands wandered over the clothes, drawing them closer around his body trying to shield himself from the cold draughts. The veins on the hands stood out like blue snakes, crawling outside the flesh. Death was in his eyes. They were pale blue spots, with red facings, stuck in deep hollows. They were half closed with weariness.

THE hands dropped wearily on the clothes.

POOR Discarded Soldier. Poor useless cannon fodder. Poor scrapped tool of capitalism. But a few years back, he was a strong youth with bright eyes and smooth sleek body perfect in every limb and then … The recruiting sergeants came and looked at his body and they wanted him to fight the war for capitalism. They brought him from the freedom of his lonely home by the sea. They herded him into a battalion with others. He was sent among the monstrous guns, that spat out death. He was marched through fields sodden with blood to the trenches, where men lay huddled in holes, watching through the night for death.

          He was cheered and petted by fair ladies. They called him a hero. They sang to him. They feasted him. Fat men pinned medals on his breast – for valour they said.

          Then again he was hurled against unknown enemies, pushed from behind, cursed, urged on, beaten, imprisoned when he complained, sent on again to kill, amid the roar of guns, and the mud of the trenches.

THEN at last he was caught by a bursting shell and hurled into the air, amid red-hot bolts of steel and showers of earth and smoke. He was crushed into a jabbering mass of pulped flesh. He was no longer a hero. He was a wreck. Capitalism did not want him. The ladies no longer cheered him. They brought him flowers in the hospital for a few months and then forgot. The ribbons faded on his breast. He was cast into the great city, homeless, unwanted, penniless.

          Capitalism no longer needed him. Capitalism forgot him. Capitalism imprisoned him when he demanded food. The servants of capitalism beat him with clubs, when he cried for bread. They called him a Bolshevik, a public menace, a scourge of society. They threatened to throw him into a lunatic asylum.

          So he crawled into the garret to die, dreaming of his home by the sea – dreaming of the freedom of his youth and the warm sun.

THERE was not even romance in his ghastly death. He was not thinking of romance. He was thinking of his home and the sunlight. The hunger gnawing at his bowels made him weaker. It brought a mist before his eyes and transformed the noises that echoed in his ears. He was carried away from his garret to his home by the sea.

          The distant noises of the city traffic seemed to him the noise of the breakers at night rolling toward a rocky shore. The recollection brought a smile to his lips. He became delirious. He could see the dawn breaking now in his home. He could see the waves – gentle now and cheerful – surging calmly over the sandy beaches in an awed whisper.

          Then the sun rising in the east, over the hills, glistening on the dew-covered crags. The sun. The beautiful warm sun. The dying man tossed away the clothes. He wanted to bare his bosom to the sun. He stretched out his limbs with a sigh of gratitude. He wanted to bare every muscle to the regenerating warmth.

THEN he listened. Ha. There it was. The song of the lark as the bird soared into the fleecy clouds, singing its morning song of joy. He smelled the wild flowers, that grew by the sea. He saw the glistening sea weed on the rocks, bared by the receding tide. He smelled the salt sea breeze that swept over the ocean.

          Ha! He would soon get well, since he was back again in his home. He would soon be able to run and jump and shout as of old. No more hunger. No more tramping dirty, ugly streets. No more fetid smells in the slums. No more war, no more roaring guns, no more killing. Joy. To be back again in the sun – the great glorious sun that warmed him.

BUT, ah! The sun was too warm. The dying man licked his parched lips with his tongue. The drought of death was in his throat. His tongue was thick with it. His veins were on fire now. The fever of death was upon him – eating him and he thought that it was he sun. His brain grew dizzy. Then he smiled again. His head turned sideways on the pillow.

          His lips set in a smile.

          He saw himself approaching a mountain spring, beneath a towering cliff that sheltered him from the overpowering heat of the sun. He wanted coolness now and water. There it was in front of him – the water rippling out from the base of the cliff, gurgling like wine from a bottle. He knelt on the grassy knoll beside the spring. He stooped until his head was among the water-cress. The stream was at his lips smothering him.

THEN as the water lapped his lips, he stretched his limbs taut to enjoy the exquisite draught and … His spirit faded into the eternal night. The Discarded Soldier was dead.

This short story was originally published in the 27 June 1925 edition of The Daily Worker in Chicago. It was re-published for the first time since then by that newspaper's predecessor, People's World, on 9 November 2018. It re-appears here with permission.

 This link takes you to an evocative reading of the story by Fionnghuala Ní Choncheanainn, filmed by Eoin McDonnell in an atmospheric Aran setting, at our annual O’Flaherty festival on Inis Mór in 2014. More information about our society is available here.

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