Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell was born in Berlin. She has lived in Ireland since 1985, working as a lecturer in Galway Mayo Institute of Technology. Her main fields of interest are Irish and English poetry and the work of William Shakespeare.

 

This harp shall never be silent: Tomás Mac Síomóin at 80
Tuesday, 13 February 2018 20:07

This harp shall never be silent: Tomás Mac Síomóin at 80

Published in Fiction

Jenny Farrell marks Tomás Mac Síomóin's birthday on 19 February with an essay on this subversive, internationalist writer, who translated the Communist Manifesto into Irish, satirises  contemporary neoliberal Ireland in poetry and prose, and is ignored and unofficially censored by the Irish literary-political establishment.

One of the tragedies that befell Ireland after Independence was that the aspirations for this newly liberated state were almost immediately replaced, as Liam O’Flaherty put it, by the “tyranny of the Irish Church and its associate parasites, the upstart bourgeoisie, the last posthumous child from the wrinkled womb of European capitalism”. O’Flaherty’s novels of the 1920s describe this sad state of affairs and its impact on the people of Ireland.

Following a few short years after partial Independence in 1922, the authorities of the Irish Free State set up the Committee on Evil Literature in 1926, from which grew the Censorship of Publications Board in 1929. The banning of Liam O’Flaherty’s “The House of Gold” was its first act. Ostensibly targeting ‘indecent’ literature, it was a de facto ban on intellectual exchange of any kind, causing intellectual and cultural stultification.

The impact of the official banning of books and its knock-on effect of unofficial and self-censorship can hardly be overestimated. While official banning is no longer implemented, unofficial censorship continues to this day. It is at its most serious in Irish language literature. Students keen to propel this native language into modernity are presented largely with inferior modern literature in their courses, or ‘safe’ stories idealising rural life. Socially subversive and global issues do not feature, being considered “too dark”.

But frustration generated by such unofficial, low-key censorship, has been the fate of Tomás Mac Síomóin. Small editions, absence from libraries and bookshops, missing from reading lists in school and universities – he is patronisingly regarded as too difficult, in short unsuitable. A developed modern literary culture doesn’t exist in Irish, he admits ruefully.

Mac Síomóin, who holds a PhD from Cornell University, worked as a biological researcher, university biology lecturer, journalist, editor, publisher and writer, initially exclusively in Irish. His literary output is remarkable by any measure. He writes poetry, short stories, novels, and stands out as a translator of world literature, both fiction and poetry, into Irish, or Irish poetry into Spanish, Catalan and English. He also writes non-fiction.

Mac Síomóin has won literary awards from the Irish Language authorities, which have never quite translated into the national recognition and literary fame they deserve. Out of disgust at the abandonment by modern Ireland of the social, linguistic and cultural ideals of the Irish Revolution and their replacement by Anglo-American consumerist values, Mac Síomóin left Ireland, like so many writers before him. He began to translate some of his own work into English in an effort to reach a broader audience. Among these translations are his collection of short stories, “The Diary of an Ant”, and the novels “The Cartographer’s Apprentice” and “Is Stacey Pregnant”.

JF TMS Harp Cover

Two further books, the non-fiction exploration of the Irish neocolonial psyche, “The Broken Harp” , and his brilliant re-writing of Swift, “An Immodest Proposal”, he penned directly in English, and which has been published along with Swift’s original text and one by O’Flaherty, “The Cure for Unemplyment”, by Nuascéalta under the title “Three Leaves of a Bitter Shamrock” (2014).

As is evident in every word he writes, Mac Síomóin is an internationalist and has deep regard for social revolutionaries, both in his native Ireland and abroad. He has translated Mayakovsky into Irish, he has written a novel set in revolutionary 19th century Cuba and written while living in contemporary Cuba. He has translated and published “The Communist Manifesto” into Irish. His most recent book is the bilingual (Irish-Spanish) account of the contribution of the Argentinian-Irish Bulfin family to the cause of Irish independence.

Apart from its roots in the 20th century Gaelic poetries of Ireland and Scotland, mainly Máirtín Ó Direáin and Somhairle Mac Ghill-Eathain, Mac Síomóin mentions a range of international influences on his poetry, such as Fernando Pessoa, Nicanor Parra, and Antonio Machado, on his work. The Czech, Miroslav Holub, in English translation was an early influence, his dual vocation of scientist and poet serving as a model for his own life path.

Currently, he is working on a book of translations into Irish of his selection of the Spanish poetry of Antonio Machado: “Ceol an Easa” (Waterfall Music) to be published in 2019. A semi-autobiographical book of memories and musings is still in the forge. An “Interview with the Devil”, a text in Irish (or possibly bilingual), is still in the preparatory stage.

Mac Síomóin has in common with O’Flaherty and others that he writes scathingly, in the great Irish satirical literary tradition, of contemporary neoliberal Ireland and the inhumanity of the contemporary world. This has found its expression in dystopian visions, where hope of emancipation is scant, but extant in some small way.

The plot of Mac Síomóin’s first and longest novel, the untranslated “Ag altóir an diabhail: striptease spioradálta Bheartla B (At the devil’s altar: the spiritual striptease of Beartla B), develops in a rural lunatic asylum, where an inmate (Everyman) is driven to madness by his failure to solve the enigma of woman, in this case, the cyborg Juliet. The tawdry illusions that cloak the idyllic valley in which the asylum is located—essentially contemporary Ireland, are peeled off, one by one.

In his novels, Mac Síomóin presents the reader with imprisoned people. In “The Cartographer’s Apprentice”, they are confined to a certain space and time, which is governed by a menacing theocracy. In “Is Stacey Pregnant”, the prison is a traffic jam, from which there is no escape and that ends in sinister disappearances of people engineered by a new-old breed of Orwellian pigs. Inhuman machinations, willingness to sacrifice people, denial of dignity, lurk everywhere. Such dystopia has its firm and growing roots in our 21st century normality. Yes, it may strike the reader as extreme, but taken as hyperbolic metaphor, it serves perfectly the purpose of highlighting the true and unmasked nature of our times. Mac Síomóin writes with a Swiftian black humour that creates enough distance for the reader to reflect on the text.

Mac Síomóin has no time for “rural idyll” literature. “Thinking outside the box is of the essence of my vocation as a writer” he says. “We inhabit a unidimensional material universe plus its cognitive shadow, our rationalization of that reality. Alternative organizations of experience within this reality are subversive, evil, forbidden by herd wisdom.” Such “dystopian” narratives, fragment a fundamentally amoral reality, laying the groundwork for a radical conceptual re-ordering. Thus, the traumatic car jam of “Is Stacey pregnant?” is an imagined Euro-Ireland in the grip of neoliberalism. A traumatic stress applied to this society dissolves its previous ideological superstructure and social cohesion. “The Cartographer’s Apprentice” relates the need of all coherent societies to guarantee conformity to their norms. Signaling dysfunctionality is part of the creative destruction that must always precede the new”, he says.

Intriguingly, Tomás Mac Síomóin adopts a different voice in some of his poetry. Here, we encounter the same interests but a different handling of the material, a separate tone. Mac Síomóin equates poetry writing, for simplicity’s sake with painting, where all the infinite and ever-evolving resources of language, rhythm, metaphor etc. are available to the poet to create whatever effect he wishes, whatever image he wishes, or feels impelled to create, for example.

Tomás Mac Síomóin continues a glorious tradition. The generation before him produced authors with a social conscience and political understanding, writing in Irish. Among these are such outstanding political activists as O’Flaherty and Mac Grianna, members of the CPI; Ó Conaire, former IRA member, trade union activist and socialist, once contesting an election; Pearse, cultural nationalist and leader of a military uprising against British imperialism in 1916; Ó Cadhain an IRA member, socialist and political prisoner.

All contributed significantly and lastingly to Literature in Irish, unafraid to creatively generate new linguistic forms, contributing at this level, too, to the growth and renewal of the Irish language. It hardly needs pointing out, that this is the natural way for a language to expand in its contemporary registers, not by bureaucratic decree.

In this sense, Tomás Mac Síomóin - through the pioneering nature of his Irish language literature as well as his political understanding and contribution - is very much in the tradition of O’Flaherty, Ó Conaire, Pearse, Mac Grianna and Ó Cadhain.

Tomás Mac Síomóin, who turns eighty on 19 February, has stood firm against those who would rather he wrote of thatched cottage idylls or middle-class, mid-Atlantic, midlife crises. He shows us the world as it is and invites the reader to see it as incommensurate with humanity`s ideal. In order to change the world one must first understand it. As Liam O’Flaherty wrote:

And the censorship of literature was imposed, lest men like me could teach the Irish masses that contact with dung is demoralizing, that ignorance is ignoble and that poverty, instead of being a passport to Heaven, makes this pretty earth a monotonous Hell.

Terry Eagleton’s comment in his article “Only Pinter remains” (The Guardian, 2007), that “For almost the first time in two centuries, there is no eminent British poet, playwright or novelist prepared to question the foundations of the western way of life” applies equally to Ireland, if ‘eminent’ means known to the general reading public. In Ireland, too, the literary-political establishment suppress any serious challenge to the status quo. This is why we need writers such as Tomás Mac Síomóin.

Let me end with one of his poems, about Victor Jara, the great Chilean communist poet and singer, who was brutally murdered by Pinochet’s goons after they had destroyed Salvador Allende’s socialist Chile on September 11th 1973. Jara's weapon was his guitar. During the extended English genocidal campaigns in Ireland, Gaelic poets and harpists were systematically hunted down and murdered.

The same old brutality, at the service always of the same old domination by the same old ruling classes.

Jara

by Tomás Mac Síomóin

They heard a harper
Boldly strum
On the floor of their hell;
Weaving the dawn
Through the words of his song
They smashed his fingers
One by
One

But untouched
By nimble fingers
Each chord sang
Its song of the dawning,
Of mankind’s hope,
Of the wretchedness of our days

They ripped each rebel chord
From its wooden bed.
‘Viva la muerte’ howled
Those sons of Cain.

Failing to silence
The poet’s bright song they brought
A slender hempen noose
To throttle a poet
Who dared weave treason
Through the joy of his poems

A rebel hand drew back
the grave`s stone lid
In the dawn’s bleak light
The grave is empty;
That selfsame angel proclaims again
To the selfsame deaf man
That this harp shall never be silent
From now to the crack of doom. 

 

In Praise of Communism
Friday, 09 February 2018 22:21

In Praise of Communism

Published in Poetry

The outstanding German communist playwright and poet Bertolt Brecht was born on 10 February 1898, 120 years ago. To celebrate the anniversary, Jenny Farrell has sent us one of his poems, which was translated by her father, Jack Mitchell. The image is by Mark Titchner, an artist who lives and works in London.

In Praise of Communism

by Bertolt Brecht

It is reasonable. You can grasp it. It's simple.
You're no exploiter, so you'll understand.
It is good for you. Look into it.
Stupid men call it stupid, and the dirty call it dirty.
It is against dirt and against stupidity.
The exploiters call it a crime.
But we know:
It is the end of all crime.
It is not madness but
The end of madness.
It is not chaos,
But order.
It is the simple thing
That's hard to do.

......and its name is Communism
Thursday, 01 February 2018 12:20

......and its name is Communism

Published in Poetry

On the 170th anniversary of the publication of the Communist Manifesto, Jenny Farrell introduces Brecht’s poetic re-writing of the Communist Manifesto, with its ‘spectre of communism, which continues to be a threat to the rulers and a friend to the damned of the earth.’

In February 1848, Marx and Engels published “The Communist Manifesto” (TCM). It remains to this day a remarkable piece of literature, a lucid and powerful explanation of politics, economics and culture. It outlines the central importance of class in understanding human history, and a programme to guide our struggle for a more humane, communist society with no class-based divisions.

Almost one hundred years after its first publication, on 11 February 1945, German communist poet and playwright Bertolt Brecht noted in his diary the plan to re-write this text in verse. He was still living in exile in Santa Monica. The end of WWII was approaching and with it the question concerning the future of Germany. Brecht recorded in his journal on 10 March1945: “terrible newspaper reports from Germany. Ruins and no sign of life from the workers”.

Brecht hoped to infuse the original text with “new, armed authority”. The past century had witnessed ever-deeper crises and two horrendous wars. It had also seen for the first time in history a successful revolution, in which the proletariat had taken power. Armed with this historical perspective, the awareness of later Marxist theory, and the need to revive the idea of communism as the only alternative to barbarism, Brecht resolved on this spectacularly ambitious challenge.

With Lucretius’s didactic poem De rerum natura (On the Nature of Things) in mind, and the added challenge of hexameters, he began writing a didactic poem “On the Abnormality (Un-nature) of Bourgeois Relations”. At the heart of four intended cantos, two were to be a versification of the Manifesto, plus an initial one on the difficulties of understanding the nature of society, and a final one to demonstrate the monstrous increase in barbarism. Brecht wrote the second canto first, versifying the first chapter of TCM. This is the only part that Brecht worked on and fully developed. However, Brecht did not publish it during his lifetime, and the poem remained a fragment. Yet “The Manifesto” is awe-inspiring and truly memorable.

In his versification, Brecht follows the original text, often using its terms and famous formulations, but changing some of these around in the interest of dramatic effect and also modernising it. Take the opening stanza: TCM famously begins: “A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of communism”. Brecht uses the phrase “A spectre is haunting” in the opening line, and marvellously personifies it as present in various places and situations around the world. He withholds the name of the personified spectre until the end of the stanza, creating an arc of tension and adding dramatic emphasis to the word “Communism”.

Here is an extract, translated by Jack Mitchell:

Wars ruin the world and a spectre is haunting the ruins.
Not born in war, seen around in peace too, for some time now.
Nightmare to rulers but friend to the children that live in the townships.
Shaking its head as it peers into half-filled plates in poor kitchens.
Standing in wait then for those that are weary at pit-head and yard-gate.
Visiting friends in the prisons, passing in without pass-card.
Seen even in offices, heard in the lecture-halls, personally
Sometimes mounting giant tanks and flying in death-dealing bombers.
Speaking in various tongues, in all tongues. Keeping silent in many.
Guest of honour in ghettos and slums, the terror of palaces
Some here to stay, and for ever: its name is Communism.

Apart from its friendly and ever-present character, Brecht stresses the fear “palaces” have of the spectre, and its willingness to defend itself. The new world situations enter into the image as the spectre mounts tanks and death-dealing bombers, referring to the Soviet army in WWII defending the Soviet Union from Nazi invasion.

JF EasternFrontWWIIcolage

The difference between the original text and its poetic ‘translation’ is evident in the gentleness with which Brecht describes the spectre’s actions: vivid actions take the place of theoretical explanation. This is not a judgement of better or worse, it is a comment on the specific nature of art and poetry. Art and poetry capture the nature of the world and of society in specific, individualised images, whereas a text like TCM aims to outline some general principles of history and society. Although it occasionally illustrates its points with references to art, it operates on a different, more abstract level.

 Another way in which Brecht departs from the original is that he addresses his readers directly. He also establishes the speaker as intermediary between the reader and the founders of scientific communism:

Much you’ve heard tell of it. This, however, is what its founders say.
If you read history you read of the deeds of immense individuals;
Their star, in its rising and falling; the march of their armies;
Or of the pomp and destruction of empires. For them, for the founders
However, history is foremost the history of conflicts of classes.
They see the peoples internally split into classes and
Warring within. Patricians and knights, plebeians and slaves
Nobles, peasants and craftsmen, proletarians and bourgeois today
Keep in their turn the whole mighty household in motion, creating
And distributing the goods that are needed for living, but also
Fighting their fight to the death, the old fight, the one for dominion.

A central theme in TCM are the modes of production, and production itself. While Marx describes the objective laws of capitalist production, Brecht invests his imagery with the sense of natural laws. While Marx presents facts and outcomes, Brecht focuses on activities:

Never before was unleashed such a wild surge of creation
As that which the bourgeoisie in its epoch of sway has unfolded
One which bowed nature to man and made steam and electrical power
Cleared rivers for shipping and continents ready for tillage.
Never before had humanity guessed that asleep in its womb
Such liberations were lurking and powers of production like these.

Overproduction in capitalism, leads to its reversal, the destruction of commodities. The following quote is from the translation by Darko Suvin (see endnote):

Immemorial hunger had plagued the world when granaries emptied:
Now, nobody knows why, we’re hungry when they’re too full.
Mothers find nothing in the bare pantry to fill the small mouths
While sky-high mountains of grain rot behind walls.
& while bales upon bales of cloth are warehoused, the ragged family,
Overnight kicked out of its rented home, wanders freezing
Through emptied city quarters.

He illustrates the commodity nature of all labour:

Just as the capitalist sells his commodities, likewise the worker
Sells his commodity, namely his labour-power, being subjected
Therefore to competition and all the ups and downs of the market.
Appendage merely to the machine he sells his simple knack
Costing no more than the cost of his keep and whatever little he needs to
Reproduce and bring up his kind, that most useful of species
Since labour-power’s price, like the price of all other commodities
Depends on its cost of production. Out of the tiny workshop of old
Handicraft grew the great factory ordering army-wise
Work and the workers, slaves of the bourgeois state but also
Slaves of a certain bourgeois, his overseers and the machine.

He highlights the way capitalist production dehumanises:

Instead of feeding off
Its proletarians, now it must feed them. It needs to employ them
But has no employment for them and yet lets their numbers swell.
And dehumanization wins, marking the victims
and victimizers….

 He also draws on other, later works of Marx, including for example the theory of cyclical crises and the hidden fetishism of commodity economy, adding this to the Manifesto.

The house does not exist for dwelling, the cloth for dressing
Nor the bread for stilling hunger: they must bring Profit.
If the product however is only used, but not also bought
Since the producer’s pay is too small – were the salary raised
It wouldn’t pay to produce the commodity – why then
Hire the hands? For they must produce at the workbench more
Than a reproduction of worker & family if there’s to be
Profit! Yet what then with the commodities? In good logic therefore:
Woolens and grain, coffee and fruits and fish and pork
All are consumed by fire, to warm the God of Profit!
Heaps of machines, tools for entire armies of workers,
Blast furnace, shipyard and mine and iron and textile mill
All sacrificed, cut up to appease the God of Profit!
Yet their God of Profit is smitten with blindness. He never sees
The victims. He’s ignorant. While he counsels believers he mumbles
Formulas nobody grasps.

 Note how specifics evoke all the senses and make the images more memorable: “Woolens & grain, coffee and fruits and fish and pork” appeal to our senses of touch, smell, taste and vision. “Blast furnace, shipyard and mine and iron and textile mill” add red heat, the contrasting coolness and paler colour of the sea, the darkness and depth of the mines, the women and children of the textile mills, the sounds of industry.

JF At the Coal Face. A Miner Pushing a Tub 1942 Art.IWM ART LD 2240

At the Coal Face. A Miner Pushing a Tub, Henry Moore, 1942

Brecht’s “The Manifesto” is not simply a reiteration of TCM in verse form. It is more than that, it is an expansion of the original based on Marxist theory. Readers in later times will bring their experience to the poem.

Now however those weapons wielded with deadly effect
To shatter the feudal world are turned on the bourgeoisie.
Yes it too has brought forth a class that will bear those death-dealing
Weapons against it, for all through the centuries, bound in its service
Grew with the bourgeoisie also the proletariat of the modern
Workers, living by labour and finding work only so long as they
Work in the bourgeois interest, increasing his capital interests.
Just as the capitalist sells his commodities, likewise the worker
Sells his commodity, namely his labour-power, being subjected
Therefore to competition and all the ups and downs of the market.
Appendage merely to the machine he sells his simple knack
Costing no more than the cost of his keep and whatever little he needs to
Reproduce and bring up his kind, that most useful of species
Since labour-power’s price, like the price of all other commodities
Depends on its cost of production. Out of the tiny workshop of old
Handicraft grew the great factory ordering army-wise
Work and the workers, slaves of the bourgeois state but also
Slaves of a certain bourgeois, his overseers and the machine.

“The Manifesto” saw a number of re-workings. Upon his return to Berlin, Brecht went back to the draft several times. Communist composer and fellow exile in the US, Hanns Eisler, later regretted the fact that he and Feuchtwanger had discouraged Brecht in this project. He said:

If we had an epic by Brecht, “The Communist Manifesto”, then this would have gone down in human history as a very rare work of art indeed. (…) we did not consider then that Marxism must be disseminated in many ways, in many areas and in manifold subtleties. (…) much becomes attractive by being poeticised, that is deemed boring in the flatness of everyday life, the difficulties of class struggle, or academic classrooms. Brecht casts a golden sheen.

The world-famous spectre that Marx described so clearly still haunts the world, wherever wars devastate innocent populations, man-made famine stalks poor countries, workers are paid poverty wages, and the powerful oppress the dispossessed. The spectre explains the reasons for such devastation and oppression. It speaks in countless languages, and is expressed in many cultural activities – sport and religion as well as all the arts. Those cultural activities are also the site of continuous struggle, throughout history, as ruling classes seek to control and manipulate them, and veil or corrupt their fundamentally social, co-operative nature in order to obtain consent and maintain social order, so that economic exploitation can proceed unchallenged.

Yet still people fight back, economically, politically and culturally. In short, the spectre of communism continues to be threat to the rulers and a friend to the damned of the earth:

Therefore the one class capable of defeating the bourgeoisie
And shattering the fetter its state has meanwhile become
Is, in our time, the working class. It is this by its size and condition.
All that once guaranteed life in the older society now is
Rubbed out, done away with, in the life of the proletariat.
Propertyless, head and provider no longer to wife and children
Hard to distinguish by nation or native place now, for the selfsame
Subjection at the selfsame machine marks him from Essen to Canton
Morals and religion confront the proletarian as fata morganas
Mirroring to him, far off unattainable, Edens in deserts.
/…/
His is the movement of the immense majority, and his dominion is
Domination no more but the subjection of all domination.
There oppression alone is oppressed for the proletariat must
As society’s undermost stratum, in rising, completely demolish
The social set-up entire with all its uppermost strata.
It can shake off its subjection only in shaking off all
Subjection from all people.

Works consulted:

Rita Schober, "Brechts Umschrift des Kommunistischen Manifests" in Vom Sinn oder Unsinn der Literaturwissenschaft, Mitteldeutscher Verlag Halle Leipzig, 1988.
Hans Runge, "Das Manifest" von Bertolt Brecht, Sinn und Form, Heft 2-3, 1963.
Robert Spaethling, "Bertolt Brecht and the Communist Manifesto", The Germanic Review, Columbia University Press, vol. XXXVII, 1962.
Socialism and Democray online, On Brecht’s “The Manifesto”: Comments for Readers in English, April 11, 2011.
Most quotations used here are from a translation by Jack Mitchell, unpublished.

For the full text of Brecht’s poem in English, please see the translation by Darko R. Suvin 1999, 2001, accessible here.

JF commmanifest

USSR stamp, 1956
Monday, 01 January 2018 19:36

Our common humanity: Robert Burns and For A' That

Published in Poetry

Jenny Farrell discusses the focus on our common humanity in Robert Burns's For A' That, and the way it foretells the 'programme which will govern the world of liberated humanity'.

Every so often, history presents us with an amazing affirmation of our common humanity, a sense of continuity, the passing on of the torch. This applies supremely to Robert Burns’s song For A’ That.

Robert Burns was born in Alloway, Ayrshire, on 25 January 1759. He lived in an age of revolution: the American War of Independence, the French Revolution, the anti-slavery and anti-colonial revolution in Haiti and an agrarian revolution in Scotland, to name some landmark events. The capitalist modernisation of agriculture brought with it financial gain on the one hand, and social polarisation on the other – wealthy tenants versus a rural proletariat.

JF Dean Castle in 1790 Ayrshire 3

Dean Castle, Ayrshire, 1790

A class struggle in the modern sense ensued. Those owning the means of production, providing food to the battlefields and the industrial centres, made enormous profits. The poor had too little to live on, and financial crisis, hunger and tuberculosis swept over Scotland.

The dispossessed of Scotland, among them Robert Burns, warmly welcomed the new ideas coming from across the Atlantic. “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal”, was joined a few years later by the French declaring a new era of liberty, equality and fraternity. At this time, in 1795, not long before his early death aged 37 in 1776, Burns wrote his most famous song For A’ That, a song celebrating and affirming the idea of the universal brotherhood of the dispossessed:

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave - we pass him by,  = we pass by the coward who is ashamed of his poverty
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,  = aristocratic rank is only the face stamped on a coin
The Man's the gowd for a' that.        = gold

At the heart of all of Burns’s poetry are the concerns of the ordinary people of Scotland. By addressing the specifics of their lives, Burns achieves a universality that applies to all working people. He gives voice to milkmaids and ploughmen, weavers and farmers’ wives, soldiers and travelling musicians, creating a cosmos in which ordinary folk can recognise themselves as part of a whole community. Such complete and realistic portrayal of the people asserts their common humanity and engenders pride in themselves, and a hatred for their enemies. Depictions like these help Burns’s readers to feel the conflict between their humanity and the misery they endure.

Ultimately, this portrayal of ordinary people points to the need for revolutionary change. This prophecy of communism – in the sense of a common cause, expressing the essential commonality of working people – lies at the core of Burns's poetry, and is perhaps most clearly articulated in For A' That. It reflects a sense of dignity, a scorn for the rich and a longing for universal brotherhood. The ideas of liberty, equality and fraternity are no abstract slogans, but already extant, rooted in the lives of the people, logical projections of their humanity.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.                = take the prize
For a' that, an’ a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a’ that.

Ferdinand Freiligrath, a poet of the German bourgeois revolution of March 1848 to July 1849 (later a renegade), first translated For A’ That into German (Trotz Alledem) in 1843. Freiligrath, who knew Marx and Engels, was a member of the Bund der Kommunisten (Communist League - founded in London in 1847), and a member of the editorial board of the revolutionary daily Neue Rheinische Zeitung, published by Marx and Engels between 1848 and 1849.

Freiligrath picked up Burns’s torch of revolution.He changed the text of Trotz Alledem to suit the German situation, whilst retaining the title, rhythm, and main idea, and it was printed in the Neue Rheinische Zeitung on 6 June 1848. This text survives in the German political song movement to this day.

JF Rheinische

The final edition of the Neue Rheinische Zeitung, printed in red ink. Its editors were threatened with arrest or exile. Marx emigrated to London.

On 8 November 1918, the German sailors’ mutiny in Kiel sparked revolutionary revolt across the country. When it reached Berlin, Karl Liebknecht proclaimed a free socialist republic of Germany. On the 9 November, Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg founded a new daily revolutionary paper, Die Rote Fahne (The Red Flag) as the paper of the Spartacus League, of which they were the leaders, and shortly afterwards of the Communist Party, founded on 1 January 1919. Two weeks later, on 15 January 1919, both Liebknecht and Luxemburg were murdered.

Liebknecht wrote the editorial for 15 January the previous day. It is his final public statement, and his legacy. The article, seizing the torch of revolution, is entitled Trotz alledem (For all That) and ends:

The defeated of today will be the victorious of tomorrow. (…) The German working class’s way to Golgotha is not over ... we are accustomed to being flung from the peak into the depths. Yet our ship keeps a straight course firmly and proudly to its destination. And whether we will still be alive when this is achieved - our programme will live; it will govern the world of liberated humanity. For All That!

 JF window


This window can still be seen in the former GDR Council of State building in Berlin

For A’ That

by Robert Burns

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an' a' that;
The coward slave-we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a' that!
For a' that, an' a' that.
Our toils obscure an' a' that,
The rank is but the guinea's stamp,
The Man's the gowd for a' that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an' a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man's a Man for a' that:
For a' that, and a' that,
Their tinsel show, an' a' that;
The honest man, tho' e'er sae poor,
Is king o' men for a' that.

Ye see yon birkie, ca'd a lord,
Wha struts, an' stares, an' a' that;
Tho' hundreds worship at his word,
He's but a coof for a' that:
For a' that, an' a' that,
His ribband, star, an' a' that:
The man o' independent mind
He looks an' laughs at a' that.

A prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an' a' that;
But an honest man's abon his might,
Gude faith, he maunna fa' that!
For a' that, an' a' that,
Their dignities an' a' that;
The pith o' sense, an' pride o' worth,
Are higher rank than a' that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
(As come it will for a' that,)
That Sense and Worth, o'er a' the earth,
Shall bear the gree, an' a' that.
For a' that, an' a' that,
It's coming yet for a' that,
That Man to Man, the world o'er,
Shall brothers be for a' that.

The Aleppo Room: a lost world of cultural harmony
Saturday, 23 December 2017 21:23

The Aleppo Room: a lost world of cultural harmony

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell shows the poignant seasonal relevance of the wonderfully inclusive art in the Syrian Aleppo House.

With everything that is happening in the world at the moment, it might seem facile to think of this season as one of good will. And yet Christmas is as good a time as any to reflect on a magnificent piece of art, exhibited in the Berlin Museum of Islamic Art. It is a wood panelled interior of the reception room from an in early 17th century Aleppo House, which expresses supremely good will to all. What makes this so special and poignant is its cultural and religious inclusiveness.

A prosperous Christian citizen, the Armenian merchant Isa ibn Butrus (Jesus, son of Peter), in the town of Aleppo, commissioned the painted panels of the walls of the reception room in his house in 1600. This was the room into which his guests would first arrive, so it had a representative and expressive function.

The paintings in what is now known as the Aleppo Room are the oldest collection from a Syrian residential house from the Ottoman period. The Christian owner engaged craftsmen from the best workshops of the time to paint a variety of themes. (The name Halab Shah ibn Isa, one of the craftsmen, appears on the cornice.) These are based on Islamic book illustration of that time, floral and geometric designs, and are executed in the best Ottoman tradition. Christian themes from the Old and New Testaments, including a depiction of Mary with Child, have their place alongside courtly scenes based on Persian book illustrations. The selection of decorative Psalms, Arabic proverbs and Persian principles which frame these scenes deepen the impression of a community of different religious beliefs living together peacefully. The room is a visual expression of this harmonious diversity.

JF the aleppo room

The central panels are located at the back of the room’s main section, to both sides of a wooden cabinet door set into the wall. Middle Eastern courtly scenes are painted on the left-side panel, including a royal sitting on a throne, a hunt and a hunting party with a prince holding a falcon. Old and New Testament biblical themes portrayed on the right-side panel involve Salome’s dance in front of King Herod, the Last Supper and the sacrifice of Isaac. What adds to the interest of these images is the fact that they reflect the Middle Eastern origins of Christianity and the natural inclusion of this religion into the regional culture. It makes complete historical and cultural sense to the Aleppo artist to depict the characters in the paintings in Middle Eastern dress. 

Other panels inside the room display more individual illustrations from either Middle Eastern courtly and hunting scenes, or Christian subject matters. They also show illustrations of the Arab love story of Leila and Majnun of Nizami (1141–1202) from the Haft Paykar, or the Virgin Mary and Child, or Saint George. Fantastic and real animals are depicted alongside these.

JF AR 2

The inclusivity of the themes of these paintings make these earliest surviving wall panels such a significant collection. They are evidence of a peaceful plurality of culture that could perhaps only have arisen in the Syrian trading town Aleppo.

In a world of growing economic inequality and exploitation, and the inevitable cultural accompaniments of suspicion, xenophobia and downright racism, it does not take a cynic to point out that such cultural inclusivity and harmony has been utterly lost, in a time when it is so badly needed for the survival not only of Syria, but of all of us.

 

Swift's satires of English colonialism
Monday, 11 December 2017 09:52

Swift's satires of English colonialism

Published in Fiction

On his 350th anniversary, Jenny Farrell outlines how Jonathan Swift's books expressed and strengthened Ireland's cultural struggle against English colonialism.

Jonathan Swift was born 350 years ago, on 30th November 1667.

Swift belongs to both the literature of Ireland and to that of England. Gulliver's Travels and A Modest Proposal formulate and express a radical Irish position inside an English-dominated literary culture. They express the resistance and criticism of a literary oppositional culture, and so is part of Ireland's cultural struggle, intertwined with its political struggle against English imperialism.

Modern Irish literature in English begins with Swift, and Gulliver's Travels is its first work. It is Swift's 'Irish point of view', his concern with Ireland, particularly with Ireland's colonial status and with Irish liberation, which defines Swift's literary radicalism.

The dominant culture in eighteenth-century Ireland - that of the Anglo-Irish Ascendancy, to which Swift belonged - was not a specifically Irish culture. It was a culture that had more in common with English eighteenth-century culture than with that of the ordinary Irish people. It was an English-controlled culture, and its function was to ensure English hegemony in Ireland.

JF Jonathan Swift satire master proposal w636 h600 high

Swift’s commitment to the cause of Irish liberation and his passionate sympathy with the common people of Ireland developed over time, after moving to Dublin when he became Dean of St. Patrick's Cathedral in June 1713. Sixteen years later, with A Modest Proposal (1729), he had become the champion of the common people of Ireland, the masses of the Irish poor. A Modest Proposal is among the most vehement indictments of a ruling class in all literature, literally suggesting that the rich are cannibals - that they eat the children of the poor.

In his earlier book, Gulliver's Travels, too, Ireland's colonial status and the relationship between Ireland and England is paramount. In Part III of this book Swift describes a visit to the flying island of Laputa ('the whore') and its enslaved neighbouring continent and capital Lagado and in chapter 3, he discusses "insurrections".

The king has three ways of dealing with insurrection: either to "inflict the inhabitants with Dearth and Diseases", or to "pelt them from above with great Stones", or to let the island "drop directly upon their Heads which makes a universal Destruction both of Houses and Men". However, this latter measure would destroy the King's own "Demesne", and the foundation stone on which it rests might "crack" or "burst" and "the whole Mass would fall to the Ground". Swift suggests that resistance and insurrection are commonplace in colonies and that such colonial war might end either with the de-struction of the oppressor, or with the annihilation of both sides.

The reader is also presented with the parable of a successful Irish revolution. The inhabitants of Lindalino (Dublin) who "had often complained of great Oppressions" successfully rebel. The resistance they offer is so effective that the king, though "determined to reduce this proud People", "was forced to give the Town their own Conditions". "I was assured by a great Minister", the parable comes to a close, "that if the Island had descended so near the Town, as not to be able to raise itself, the Citizens were determined to fix it for ever, to kill the King and all his Servants, and entirely change the Government".

Swift's sympathies lie clearly with the "proud People" of Lindalino. There is nothing in the text that would imply a criticism, or even a 'distancing', of their methods and intentions. Unsurprisingly this whole section was omitted from all editions (including the first) until 1899.

The parable of an Irish Revolution anticipates a successful rebellion. Swift envisages complete national freedom and, by implication, the destruction of the oppressing island, the killing of the king, and an entire change of "Government". Historically, the parable anticipates the ideological position of the United Irishmen, i.e. that of revolutionary Republicanism at the end of the eighteenth century.

Colonial oppression and exploitation are major themes of the Travels, commenting on the condition of England. The most bitter indictment of the colonial system, is at the end of the book, after Gulliver's return to England. Gulliver gives the reasons for his hesitation to deliver "a Memorial to a Secretary of State" concerning his journeys. It is a passage of savage irony, anticipating the sarcasm of A Modest Proposal:

To say the Truth, I had conceived a few Scruples with relation to the distributive Justice of Princes upon those Occasions. For Instance, a Crew of Pyrates are driven by a Storm they know not whither; at length a Boy discovers Land from the Top-mast; they go on Shore to rob and plunder; they see an harmless People, are entertained with Kindness, they give the Country a new Name, they take formal Possession of it for the King, they set up a rotten Plank or a Stone for a Memorial, they murder two or three Dozen of the Natives, bring away a Couple more by Force for a Sample, return home, and get their Pardon.

Here commences a new Dominion acquired with a Title by Divine Right. Ships are sent with the first Opportunity; the Natives driven out or destroyed, their Princes tortured to discover their Gold; a free Licence given to all Acts of Inhumanity and Lust; the Earth reeking with the Blood of its Inhabitants: and this execrable Crew of Butchers employed in so pious an Expedition, is a modern Colony sent to convert and civilize an idolatrous and barbarous People.

Swift’s satire is first and foremost aimed at the condition of England. Part I criticises English society in dystopian terms: England seen as ruled by an oppressive, unjust, and "ambitious" royal family, assisted by a vain, selfish oligarchy, implicitly opposed to the idea of "a free people".

JF gulliver winter houyhnhnm yahoos

 This is further developed in Part II where the satire gains considerably in depth and sharpness, in the ironic dialogue between the King of Brobdingnag and Gulliver, which reads as utterly relevant to our own times. Take, for example, the theme of war. Gulliver is the ironic spokesperson of progress - in truth the point of view of an aggressive, expanding bourgeoisie - when he informs the king of the tremendous "Progress" made in Europe by the invention of gunpowder. He offers him the "Secret" of this invention. The king, however, is "struck with Horror" at its barbarity.

The condition of England question is revisited in Part IV. In chapter 5, Gulliver informs the rational horse of the "State of England", the "Causes of War among the Princes of Europe" and begins to "explain the English Constitution". Swift's criticism is devastating - its principal object is the existence of war. The 'civilized' world is presented as permanently at war, ruled by the wolfish principles of selfishness, lust for power and profit, and aggression - the true motives and causes of war. The reference to Ireland again is obvious:

If a Prince sends Forces into a Nation, where the People are poor and ignorant, he may lawfully put half of them to Death, and make Slaves of the Rest, in order to civilize and reduce them from their barbarous Way of Living.

JF Gulliver u Hvajninimů Grandville

Any satire implies or presents some kind of ideal norm. Gulliver's Travels, too, contains a number of positive values Swift believed in. There are positive characters, e.g. the rational horse in Part IV, the farmer's daughter in Part II and the kind captain who rescues Gulliver at the end of Part IV. They are demonstrations in terms of practical living of how humans should act. The most radical statement of humanist political ethics is in in chapter 7 of Part III, where Gulliver sees Alexander and Hannibal, Caesar, Pompey and Brutus. Here, Swift lists positive moral and political qualities, which have lost none of their importance today.

Thus, Swift's radicalism is expressed in his devastating satire and total rejection of ruling-class culture, and in his passionate quest for a society free from exploitation and domination. Behind the attack on aggressive English colonialism is a vision of a society in which human liberty is a reality, and a social order exists that deserves the name of humanity.

 This article is based on Thomas Metscher, The Radicalism of Swift (2015), Connolly Books Dublin.

 

Patrick Kavanagh_monument at Grand Canal, Dublin
Thursday, 30 November 2017 16:25

Patrick Kavanagh

Published in Poetry

On the 50th anniversary of Patrick Kavanagh's death, Jenny Farrell draws out some of the political meanings of Patrick Kavanagh's poem Epic. 

The Irish poet Patrick Kavanagh (21 October 1904 – 30 November 1967), who died fifty years ago, is not as well known internationally as he should be. He has been declared the greatest Irish writer after Yeats.

Kavanagh was born in a small village in the Irish countryside, his parents and his people were poor peasants. He left school at 13. He can be compared to John Clare in England and Robert Burns in Scotland. Like them, he wrote about the reality of peasant life, about the poverty of rural life, and the reality of a country dominated by the Catholic Church.

He writes an anti-pastoral, setting reality against a sentimentalised version of country life imagined by the educated city dwellers, or by influential figures such as Ireland’s first Prime Minister, Eamonn de Valera, whose romantic vision was expressed in a famous speech given in 1943, where he states:

The ideal Ireland that we would have, the Ireland that we dreamed of, would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as a basis for right living, of a people who, satisfied with frugal comfort, devoted their leisure to the things of the spirit – a land whose countryside would be bright with cosy homesteads, whose fields and villages would be joyous with the sounds of industry, with the romping of sturdy children, the contest of athletic youths and the laughter of happy maidens, whose firesides would be forums for the wisdom of serene old age. The home, in short, of a people living the life that God desires that men should live.

This was not the kind of Ireland that corresponded with reality. Kavanagh was the first writer to oppose this view and one of his great works, where he openly presents a realistic picture of rural Ireland is THE GREAT HUNGER.

It’s an ironic title as this is the Irish phrase for the Famine, a time of starvation, a huge national trauma that occurred in the mid-19th century and caused the unnecessary death of a million Irish and the emigration of many more. Kavanagh, however, does not refer to this Famine but to the starvation of the rural population and one farmer in particular, Maguire, of sex and the right to have a wife and a family.

It is a satire in a way, because nature will have its way and not everybody in Kavanagh’s home place lived by the rule of Catholic teachings. Kavanagh’s depiction of rural Ireland was anti-pastoral.

The poem I want to look at here, though, is a much shorter one. It emphasises the fact that if art is honest, unromanticised, unblinkered about its subject, and set in a specific time and place, then it will contain contact points for other people, in other places and times.

EPIC

I have lived in important places, times
When great events were decided; who owned
That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land
Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims.
I heard the Duffys shouting ‘Damn your soul!’
And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen
Step the plot defying blue cast-steel –
‘Here is the march along these iron stones’
That was the year of the Munich bother. Which
Was more important? I inclined
To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin
Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind.
He said: I made the Iliad from such
A local row. Gods make their own importance.

The title creates the anticipation of a long poem about the deeds of legendary or heroic figures in the past history of a nation. Instead, we have before us a fourteen line poem, a sonnet. It is loosely based on a Shakespearean sonnet, which comes in three sections of four lines each and a two-line conclusion, the couplet.

In the first four lines (quatrain), Kavanagh creates a sense of irony: I have lived in important places, times/ When great events were decided: This is the stuff of an epic poem, we think, until we read on, as Kavanagh seems to joke with us, contradicting that expectation: who owned/ That half a rood of rock, a no-man’s land/ Surrounded by our pitchfork-armed claims. Is this an incident of national importance? It would appear to be the opposite – a petty if at times deadly serious feud over an eighth of an acre (a tiny, tiny piece) of barren land.

In the second quatrain, the focus moves in on the parties ‘at war’; we visualise them and hear what they are shouting. The language the poet employs takes on a military tone: no-man’s land, Surrounded, armed. At the level of sound, the phrase Rood of rock is echoed in Surrounded, reinforcing the connection between the piece of land in question and its military defence. Pitchfork-armed suggests the deadly earnest and aggression accompanying the feud.

These people are prepared to kill for their claim. This evocation of  aggression and militarism is continued over the next 3 lines: I heard the Duffys shouting ‘Damn your soul’/ And old McCabe stripped to the waist, seen/ Step the plot defying blue cast-steel - / ‘Here is the march along these iron stones’. The Duffys and McCabe are the two parties to the feud.

However, the line I heard the Duffys shouting ‘Damn your soul’ suggests other Duffys as well – Eoin O’Duffy’s supporters who in the 1930s were Ireland’s own would-be fascists, and extreme Catholics. They too could have been shouting ‘Damn your soul’ in Dublin around the time this poem is set. This connotation subtly introduces a national dimension to the local scene of rural aggression and threat.

It is developed even further in the image of McCabe marching around this tiny piece of land (plot): Step the plot defying blue cast-steel, the word step suggests goose-stepping Nazis and blue cast-steel surely evokes guns as well as describing the pitchforks, indeed the word plot is commonly used to refer to a grave.

Just like the Duffys before, McCabe is also quoted Here is the march along these iron stones. March means both border and to walk in a military fashion or indeed a military tune. And in this line, the stones are no longer simply rock, they are made of iron, just as cannons are.

All these references to warfare do not simply apply to the local row. They are suggestive of the situation in Europe in the 1930s, when O’Duffy’s men were around, and Hitler and Mussolini on the rise, preparing for war. The Spanish Civil war was being waged by anti-fascist republicans from Spain and around Europe against General Franco, who was supported by Germany and Italy. While Eoin Duffy fought on Franco’s side, there were also Irishmen fighting in the International Brigades on the Republican side against Franco.

In this way, the farmers’ readiness to kill reflects the atmosphere in Europe. And, as if to confirm what the reader has been thinking, the opening of the third quatrain confirms the year: That was the year of the Munich bother.

Kavanagh is referring to the Munich Agreement signed in September 1938, where Hitler, Mussolini and the prime ministers of Britain and France agreed to let Germany annex a part of Czechoslovakia - the Sudetenland) in an attempt to avoid a war. Why does Kavanagh describe this agreement as a bother? Because it was treacherous (it excluded Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union from the decision) and because it was simply a trick by Hitler.

While the poet on one level simply describes the feud between two farmers and then says that this happened in 1938, on another level he has given a sense of the increasing militarism of the 1930s in both Europe and Ireland.

In that sense, the question that follows the full stop in line 9 and goes on to the next line: Which/ Was more important? is not perhaps as simple as it may seem. Important refers back to epic and the poem’s opening lines about important places and great events. The images of the farmers have shown that they reflect their times even if their feuds and behaviour seem at first glance to be unconnected to the momentous events in Europe. But Kavangh continues to play with the ambiguity of the very local, the national and the international: I inclined/ To lose my faith in Ballyrush and Gortin.

Interestingly, he continues the sentence without a full stop and says on the next line (to allow the reader to contemplate this choice for as fraction): Till Homer’s ghost came whispering to my mind. This line brings the reader right back to the notion of epic as Homer is the author of two of the world’s greatest epic, the Iliad and the Odyssey.

The final two lines in a Shakespearean sonnet sum up and comment on the twelve lines that go before. Kavanagh does the same here as he ‘quotes’ Homer: He said: I made the Iliad from such/ A local row. This is perfectly true. The battle of Troy, the story of which the Iliad tells, raged for ten years and was ostensibly over the minor event of Helena’s ‘abduction’ from Greece (Sparta) by the Trojan Paris (she went along with him of her free will). However, what makes Homer’s Iliad an epic is the way he writes about it, not the cause of the battle. The poem’s final statement could be uttered both by Homer or Kavanagh: Gods make their own importance. 

This is another reference to the Iliad where the Greek gods all take sides in the battle between the Greeks and the Trojans. It is the fact that Homer fills the poems with the legends of the Greeks that makes this epic poem such a central piece of Greek and indeed European culture.

In other words, even if a poet writes about a local row, the way he writes about it can give it greater political significance, make it important to the way a nation sees itself. Kavanagh is thus not only giving us a sense of the general political situation in Ireland and in Europe, but showing us how poetry itself has a political function in the way it connects the personal and the political.

Delacroix, Hamlet and Horatio before the Gravediggers, 1843
Wednesday, 29 November 2017 11:04

Shakespeare’s Gravediggers – the first appearance of working people on the world stage

Published in Theatre

Jenny Farrell discusses the prophetic politics of the Gravedigger scene in Shakespeare's Hamlet, in which class-based justice and fundamental human equality are discussed by those whose task it will be to 'set right the time' by revolutionary upheaval. The scene is the first appearance of working people on the world stage.

There is hardly a country or a language in the world that is not familiar at least with Shakespeare’s name. His poetry has had an impact on the English language like no other. How can this enduring and all-encompassing popularity be explained? Has Shakespeare anything to say about the times we live in?

Hamlet is one of the most famous, if not the most famous, of Shakespeare’s plays. Yet one scene in it is hardly ever fully played out, and when it is, it is considered a piece of comic relief: the gravedigger scene at the beginning of the tragedy’s final act. A closer look at this scene reveals much of what Shakespeare is about and what he has to offer a 21st-century audience.

Act 5 opens with the first appearance of working people as independently acting persons on the world stage. They are two gravediggers discussing corruption in society, their own worth, and the equality of all humankind. The significance of this can hardly be overestimated.

The scene begins with the gravediggers, entirely on their own and completely self-sufficient, chatting and commenting on social injustice. Suicide victims were not normally buried in a churchyard in those days. The gravediggers comment how this rule does not apply to the nobility and how lawyers ensure this: “Crowner’s quest [coroner’s inquest] law.” They laugh at their own logic that therefore the wealthy have more reason to kill themselves than their ordinary fellow-Christians: “Great folk should have countenance in this world to drown or hang themselves more than their even Christian” (their equals).

This train of thought quickly moves on to an astonishing expression of self-respect: “There is no ancient gentleman but gardeners, ditchers, and grave-makers. They hold up Adam’s profession.” A connection is being made by the gravedigger to the Peasant Revolt of 1381, in which one of the leaders, John Ball, asked in a sermon:

When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the gentleman?

These words, spoken at the time of the peasant rising in a sermon at Blackheath, near London, became legendary. The next sentence is: “From the beginning all men by nature were created equal.” John Ball deduced the equality of humankind from their common descent from Adam. He advocated social equality for all, and the gravedigger develops this idea. A gentleman’s coat of arms is swiftly reinterpreted to mean physical arms as the only arms worth having. They enable people to work and to build. This in turn leads to banter about a gravedigger building the most permanent of houses: “The houses that he makes last till doomsday.” 

The working people in this scene are given more space than the actors in a previous scene. They are more clearly drawn as individuals; they have a direct and unromanticised relationship with their job, which Hamlet and Horatio comment on. They are superbly confident. The humour they bring onto the stage acts as a comic relief to the mounting tension of the main plot, but it is far more than that: it is a manifestation of the absolute integrity of the gravediggers.

The gravediggers are even more radical in their understanding of death than Hamlet. Hamlet had displayed a profoundly materialist concept of death (i.e. physical without reference to a soul) at the time of Polonius’s death, yet he is taken aback at first by the unceremonious treatment of human bones by the singing gravedigger.

The gravedigger’s throwing about of skulls, irrespective of whose they might be, parallels Hamlet’s earlier statements about the levelling role of death, suggesting the natural equality of all humankind. This is an instance of doubling, or restating of an idea. In addition, Shakespeare is making the point that the working gravediggers have reached the same insights as the university-educated Hamlet through their work, their lives, and independent thinking.

Hamlet vents his disgust at double standards with Horatio (more doubling, as the gravediggers just discussed the same) before he addresses the gravedigger. But he is in for a surprise when he begins talking to the gravedigger. This man is his equal in the important matters of punning speech, honesty, and absoluteness.

The theme of a fundamental common humankind-ness, a kind of emotional communism, is underlined as Hamlet joins the gravedigger, along with Horatio. They all occupy the same space and have a scientific discussion about the process of decomposition, linking it with Hamlet’s comments about death at the time of Polonius’s demise.

At this time, in the graveyard, we see representatives of the working people together with the humanist prince and the humanist middle-class scholar. They understand each other fully and without hierarchy. At the level of language they are equals: no-one can outwit the gravediggers. Basic human equality is emphasised, and social criticism made, as they toss around the skulls.

When Hamlet is given the skull of Yorick, the court jester of his childhood, he vividly recalls him and alludes once more to the perfectibility of humankind as well as the material nature of death. Hamlet, Horatio and the gravediggers are natural allies. There are only a few occasions in the play when Hamlet feels relaxed and with his own kind of person - a person of integrity and honesty. This scene is one of those moments; another is when he interacts with the actors.

When asking ourselves why Hamlet finds it difficult to “set right” his time, we must consider what allies are available to him. They are all gathered in the churchyard. It becomes clear that his undertaking is all but impossible, and that a solution lies in the future. It would be another forty years or so before similar characters would be a strong enough force in English society to challenge and execute their king, or form movements whose objectives included a more just and equal society, in the English Revolution of 1640–1660.

In this context the function of the scene within the tragedy becomes extraordinarily clear. It expands our understanding of Hamlet’s alternatives, which are historical and linked to class forces as well as personal, even if their time has not yet come. It is clear that in this episode social inequality and human equality are being discussed by those whose task it will be to 'set right the time' - by revolutionary upheaval. In this centenary year of the Russian Revolution, which was the first successful take-over of state power by representatives of workers and peasants (including gravediggers), the episode is more relevant than ever.

Jenny Farrell’s book Fear Not Shakespeare’s Tragedies: A Comprehensive Introduction (2016), published by Nuascéalta, is available online.

 

The Art of Revolution
Monday, 27 November 2017 13:39

The Art of Revolution

Published in Visual Arts

Jenny Farrell celebrates the democratising power of Revolutionary art.

With the Russian Revolution of 1917, the dispossessed took control over their destiny, for the first time in history. How did artists respond to this liberation?

Artists from all artistic movements worked with Soviet power. The revolution offered the state and the arts a real opportunity to merge their programmatic ideas. Lenin saw social and cultural revolution as inseparable and the artistic avant-garde embraced the new opportunities.

The arts were to be democratised, artistic production transferred from the private to the public sphere, and ‘the streets to be turned into a celebration of art for all’. The 1918 May Day celebrations were a first impressive manifestation of this.

The next major assignment was the decoration of Moscow and Petrograd for the 1918 October celebrations. Over 170 artists participated, exhibiting an immense range of artistic expression. Alongside images of workers, soldiers and peasants, there were ambitious modernist projects, such as Altman’s transformation of the Alexander column on Petrograd’s Palace Square into a ‘Flame of the Revolution’ devouring the symbols of tsarism. Altman fused geometric structures in shades of red to create a dynamic composition, which attracted international attention.

 JF 1 nathan A

Nathan Altman, sketch of the Palace Square monument (1918)

Great artistic variety marked the time immediately after the revolution. From the early 1900s, there was a significant Russian avant-garde. Many of these artists engaged with the challenges of a new society. The constructivists, for example, criticised bourgeois ‘embellishments’, demanding a truly new era in art beginning with ‘the new houses, the new streets, the new commodities’ created by the proletariat. Art was not to be a ‘sacred temple’. The new starting point was to be labour, the factory, producing art objects for all. This innovative art was inspired by left-wing futurism. Meyerhold pursued a similarly original approach in the theatre, and the modern medium of film with Eisenstein and Pudovkin’s outstanding productions took its triumphant course. A mass audience turned the art of the avant-garde into a broad movement.

The ‘poster and meeting period’

Lenin was keenly aware that the revolution depended on overcoming the cultural backwardness of the vast country, with a small working class and millions of largely illiterate peasants; education was a primary cultural task. Some ethnic minorities had no modern script. Lunacharsky became commissioner of Education and Culture.

Lunacharsky oversaw the early ‘poster and meeting period,’ in which experimental artists pursued revolutionary innovation of various art forms, aiming to enhance the political possibilities of art. Poster art blossomed, exhibiting a whole range of design principles - Dmitry Moor’s world famous ‘Have you enlisted?’ and his poster ‘Help’, occasioned by the famine on the Volga, are composed in concise, expressive pictorial language.

The ROSTA windows

In an effort to respond quickly to current affairs, Mikhail Cheremnych put a hand-painted poster in the window of the Russian telegraph agency (Rosta) in Moscow in 1920. This initiated the satirical Rosta windows, of which painter and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky became the chief representative. Over a hundred assistants reproduced the hand-painted Moscow posters using templates, often making 300 copies. Stencils were sent to other cities. In the days before radio, these windows announced news faster than newspapers.

JF7 Agitation and propaganda poster by Vladimir Mayakovsky 2

Agitation and propaganda poster by Vladimir Mayakovsky

In over two years, more than 1,600 posters were produced; Mayakovsky supplied the texts for almost all of them. This work necessitated direct communication at the centre of his art, reaching out to the new reader. A new “language” combined word and image. Over-dimensional characters dominated and images accentuated words.  Mayakovsky’s rhythmic language and appeal influenced the entire collective of Rosta artists.

JF 2 Vladimir Lebedev

Vladimir Lebedev: Work needs the rifle beside you. Petrograd Rosta window 1920

In his poetry, Mayakovsky also revolutionised language, infusing the energy, confidence and stride of the revolution and displaying this on the page:

My most respected
                            comrades of posterity!
Rummaging among
                             these days’
                                             petrified crap,
exploring the twilight of our times,
you,
      possibly,
                    will inquire about me too.

And, possibly, your scholars
                                           will declare,
with their erudition overwhelming
                                                     a swarm of problems;
once there lived
                        a certain champion of boiled water,
and inveterate enemy of raw water.

Professor,
             take off your bicycle glasses!
I myself will expound
                                 those times
                                                   and myself.

I, a latrine cleaner
                          and water carrier,
by the revolution
                         mobilized and drafted,
went off to the front
                              from the aristocratic gardens
of poetry.

Mayakovsky invested enormous energy in touring the USSR with his verse and reciting it to large audiences.

Imagery and tradition

Given an 80 per cent rural and up to 75 per cent illiterate population, visual imagery was paramount. Motifs came from Russian fairy-tales, folk art paintings and even Russian orthodox icons. The ‘new masters’ were symbolically represented as giant figures, wrapped in red tunics or shirts, clearly surpassing the ‘old days’. They were especially popular.

JF8 AGC F 001439 0000 209x300

Marc Chagall’s ‘Peace to the Shacks, War on the Palaces’ (1918-1919)

Art had to take effect among the people, as Mayakovsky stated: ‘The streets are our brushes, the places our pallets. To work, futurists!’

Proletkult (proletarian culture) aspired to a revolutionary working class art, inspired by the building of a modern industrial society in backward, rural Russia. In October 1917, Bogdanov founded a cultural organisation of the proletariat, encouraging workers to write, furthering proletarian culture.

Red memorials

JF9

Obelisk to the Revolutionaries

When the revolution suffered foreign military intervention (from February 1918), Lenin initiated ‘monumental propaganda’, to communicate the ideas of the revolution through monuments. Among the first assignments was to redesign the tsarist Romanov Obelisk in Moscow to commemorate great revolutionaries, inscribing on it Marx, Engels, More, Winstanley, Stepan Razin, Owens, Saint-Simon, Bakunin, and many more. This declared the international character of the proletarian revolution. (The obelisk recently reverted to its pre-revolutionary form.)

Revolutionary tableware

Agitation porcelain holds a special place within ‘agitation and mass art’. Petrograd artists discovered in 1918, in the imperial porcelain manufactory, large quantities of unpainted white plates, which they designed with slogans and original ornaments. These china objects took on an indoor poster function reflecting the artistic nature of the outdoor posters. This revolutionary tableware still conveys the spirit of those years. The variety of these works of art is overwhelming. Avant-garde artists decorated traditional delph, constructivist and suprematist artists, such as Malevich, Kandinsky or Suetin designed cups and jugs of the future.

JF4 Red ribbon

Chekhonin: Red Ribbon (1919)

A new aesthetics arose from artists identifying with revolutionary transformation. Representing individuals not as separate but as part of their people, depicting them as torchbearers of a new humanity. This was a singular achievement of the revolution. Never before had the dispossessed been presented in art as the decisive factor in historic change, never before had they been made artistically worthy on such a scale. In this sense, the art of revolution began with some new forms, and above all with a new central character.

 

 

The Art of Revolution
Sunday, 12 November 2017 19:12

The Art of Revolution

Published in 1917 Centenary

Jenny Farrell celebrates the democratising power of Revolutionary art.

With the Russian Revolution of 1917, the dispossessed took control over their destiny, for the first time in history. How did artists respond to this liberation?

Artists from all artistic movements worked with Soviet power. The revolution offered the state and the arts a real opportunity to merge their programmatic ideas. Lenin saw social and cultural revolution as inseparable and the artistic avant-garde embraced the new opportunities.

The arts were to be democratised, artistic production transferred from the private to the public sphere, and ‘the streets to be turned into a celebration of art for all’. The 1918 May Day celebrations were a first impressive manifestation of this.

The next major assignment was the decoration of Moscow and Petrograd for the 1918 October celebrations. Over 170 artists participated, exhibiting an immense range of artistic expression. Alongside images of workers, soldiers and peasants, there were ambitious modernist projects, such as Altman’s transformation of the Alexander column on Petrograd’s Palace Square into a ‘Flame of the Revolution’ devouring the symbols of tsarism. Altman fused geometric structures in shades of red to create a dynamic composition, which attracted international attention.

 JF 1 nathan A

Nathan Altman, sketch of the Palace Square monument (1918)

Great artistic variety marked the time immediately after the revolution. From the early 1900s, there was a significant Russian avant-garde. Many of these artists engaged with the challenges of a new society. The constructivists, for example, criticised bourgeois ‘embellishments’, demanding a truly new era in art beginning with ‘the new houses, the new streets, the new commodities’ created by the proletariat. Art was not to be a ‘sacred temple’. The new starting point was to be labour, the factory, producing art objects for all. This innovative art was inspired by left-wing futurism. Meyerhold pursued a similarly original approach in the theatre, and the modern medium of film with Eisenstein and Pudovkin’s outstanding productions took its triumphant course. A mass audience turned the art of the avant-garde into a broad movement.

The ‘poster and meeting period’

Lenin was keenly aware that the revolution depended on overcoming the cultural backwardness of the vast country, with a small working class and millions of largely illiterate peasants; education was a primary cultural task. Some ethnic minorities had no modern script. Lunacharsky became commissioner of Education and Culture.

Lunacharsky oversaw the early ‘poster and meeting period,’ in which experimental artists pursued revolutionary innovation of various art forms, aiming to enhance the political possibilities of art. Poster art blossomed, exhibiting a whole range of design principles - Dmitry Moor’s world famous ‘Have you enlisted?’ and his poster ‘Help’, occasioned by the famine on the Volga, are composed in concise, expressive pictorial language.

The ROSTA windows

In an effort to respond quickly to current affairs, Mikhail Cheremnych put a hand-painted poster in the window of the Russian telegraph agency (Rosta) in Moscow in 1920. This initiated the satirical Rosta windows, of which painter and poet Vladimir Mayakovsky became the chief representative. Over a hundred assistants reproduced the hand-painted Moscow posters using templates, often making 300 copies. Stencils were sent to other cities. In the days before radio, these windows announced news faster than newspapers.

JF7 Agitation and propaganda poster by Vladimir Mayakovsky 2

Agitation and propaganda poster by Vladimir Mayakovsky

In over two years, more than 1,600 posters were produced; Mayakovsky supplied the texts for almost all of them. This work necessitated direct communication at the centre of his art, reaching out to the new reader. A new “language” combined word and image. Over-dimensional characters dominated and images accentuated words.  Mayakovsky’s rhythmic language and appeal influenced the entire collective of Rosta artists.

JF 2 Vladimir Lebedev

Vladimir Lebedev: Work needs the rifle beside you. Petrograd Rosta window 1920

In his poetry, Mayakovsky also revolutionised language, infusing the energy, confidence and stride of the revolution and displaying this on the page:

My most respected
                            comrades of posterity!
Rummaging among
                             these days’
                                             petrified crap,
exploring the twilight of our times,
you,
      possibly,
                    will inquire about me too.

And, possibly, your scholars
                                           will declare,
with their erudition overwhelming
                                                     a swarm of problems;
once there lived
                        a certain champion of boiled water,
and inveterate enemy of raw water.

Professor,
             take off your bicycle glasses!
I myself will expound
                                 those times
                                                   and myself.

I, a latrine cleaner
                          and water carrier,
by the revolution
                         mobilized and drafted,
went off to the front
                              from the aristocratic gardens
of poetry.

Mayakovsky invested enormous energy in touring the USSR with his verse and reciting it to large audiences.

Imagery and tradition

Given an 80 per cent rural and up to 75 per cent illiterate population, visual imagery was paramount. Motifs came from Russian fairy-tales, folk art paintings and even Russian orthodox icons. The ‘new masters’ were symbolically represented as giant figures, wrapped in red tunics or shirts, clearly surpassing the ‘old days’. They were especially popular.

JF8 AGC F 001439 0000 209x300

Marc Chagall’s ‘Peace to the Shacks, War on the Palaces’ (1918-1919)

Art had to take effect among the people, as Mayakovsky stated: ‘The streets are our brushes, the places our pallets. To work, futurists!’

Proletkult (proletarian culture) aspired to a revolutionary working class art, inspired by the building of a modern industrial society in backward, rural Russia. In October 1917, Bogdanov founded a cultural organisation of the proletariat, encouraging workers to write, furthering proletarian culture.

Red memorials

JF9

Obelisk to the Revolutionaries

When the revolution suffered foreign military intervention (from February 1918), Lenin initiated ‘monumental propaganda’, to communicate the ideas of the revolution through monuments. Among the first assignments was to redesign the tsarist Romanov Obelisk in Moscow to commemorate great revolutionaries, inscribing on it Marx, Engels, More, Winstanley, Stepan Razin, Owens, Saint-Simon, Bakunin, and many more. This declared the international character of the proletarian revolution. (The obelisk recently reverted to its pre-revolutionary form.)

Revolutionary tableware

Agitation porcelain holds a special place within ‘agitation and mass art’. Petrograd artists discovered in 1918, in the imperial porcelain manufactory, large quantities of unpainted white plates, which they designed with slogans and original ornaments. These china objects took on an indoor poster function reflecting the artistic nature of the outdoor posters. This revolutionary tableware still conveys the spirit of those years. The variety of these works of art is overwhelming. Avant-garde artists decorated traditional delph, constructivist and suprematist artists, such as Malevich, Kandinsky or Suetin designed cups and jugs of the future.

JF4 Red ribbon

Chekhonin: Red Ribbon (1919)

A new aesthetics arose from artists identifying with revolutionary transformation. Representing individuals not as separate but as part of their people, depicting them as torchbearers of a new humanity. This was a singular achievement of the revolution. Never before had the dispossessed been presented in art as the decisive factor in historic change, never before had they been made artistically worthy on such a scale. In this sense, the art of revolution began with some new forms, and above all with a new central character.

 

 

Page 1 of 2