Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell

Jenny Farrell is a lecturer, writer and an Associate Editor of Culture Matters.

 

East German Literature: Challenges and Triumphs in Cultural Recognition
Tuesday, 21 May 2024 21:45

East German Literature: Challenges and Triumphs in Cultural Recognition

Published in Fiction

Germany’s minister of state for culture, the senior Green politician Claudia Roth, one of the almost exclusively West German-born government officials, voiced her surprise at a recent literary event upon discovering that there were other books on East German (GDR) bookshelves than the ones she knew. This was a rare admission of sheer ignorance of the cultural background of one fifth of the German population – well over thirty years after ‘unification’.

The sum total of Roth’s knowledge of the arts in the socialist part of Germany is the Western knee-jerk response: ‘repression’. This view reveals fathomless ignorance, both of a highly cultured and educated public with thousands of outstanding, world-class writers, artists and musicians, and of the German and international humanist tradition from which they arose.

Instead, everything is done to extinguish any memory of this: literary prizes are awarded to writers who reinforce the Western hegemony of ideas, its sole claim to the interpretation of history.  Not only in Germany, but internationally too, novels about the ‘horrors of socialism’ tend to get more traction than books that present a more differentiated picture. The International Leipzig Festival for Documentary and Animated Film, has not had a local, East German management for 20 years, with Ms. Roth controlling the coffers. Any attempt to grapple with the radical denial of achievements and well-lived lives is suppressed or ridiculed.

And so it is with Jenny Erpenbeck: including the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which preceded the International Booker Prize, it is the sixth time this author has been nominated for the award. No other German writer has achieved this. While Erpenbeck is very well-known abroad, Der Spiegel has ignored her. She has never won the German Book Prize or the Leipzig Book Fair Prize. Indeed, Kairos did not even make it onto the longlist for the German Book Prize.

So the appreciation on the international stage of East German literature, written from an informed perspective, must be warmly welcomed. Not only did Katja Oskamp’s Marzahn Mon Amour win the 2023 Dublin Literary Award, Jenny Erpenbeck’s Kairos is now on the shortlist for the 2024 International Booker Prize. Indeed, Katja Hoyer’s Beyond the Wall has been received far more favourably internationally than in Germany.

To read Jenny Erpenbeck’s novel is an eye-opener for those who wish to find out more about life in East Germany (GDR) in the final years of its existence and beyond. Unprejudiced readers will discover a highly cultured society, a place where everybody has free access to education, training and a job. For readers who remember the GDR, the book includes deeper levels of meaning – a wealth of references to a dizzying array of fine artists who lived there or those who were  part of the antifascist tradition.

The novel spans the years 1986 to 1992, with the final section depicting the dissolution of the state, mass redundancies, plunges into unemployment, unaffordable rents and cultural hollowness. Erpenbeck knows what she is writing about: She was a young adult during the years the novel is set. Her paternal grandparents had been persecuted in Nazi Germany and lived in exile in the USSR, where her father was born. Both her grandparents were well-known authors in the GDR – her grandfather, Fritz Erpenbeck, was a publisher and wrote crime novels, and her grandmother Hedda Zinna addressed many themes, including the situation of women in the GDR. Erpenbeck’s father, John Erpenbeck, is a physicist and a writer. Her mother was an Arabist who lost her academic post with unification.

Jenny Erpenbeck builds her story of the final years of the GDR around the narrative of a relationship between a 19-year-old woman, Katharina, and a 53-year-old writer and radio broadcaster, Hans. The relationship soon develops into one of psychological control and masochistic overtones, making the young woman feel unworthy and dependent. Erpenbeck portrays her male protagonist Hans as a very well-read author who has had frequent affairs. In several respects, his childhood in Nazi Germany has cast shadows on his adulthood. This includes Hans’ need to blame and punish others for perceived ‘betrayal’, his latent violence, his need to feel superior and be controlling.

Katharina, on the other hand, only realizes late on that the relationship is destroying her, because she considers herself emancipated. Hans’ trajectory from a Hitler Youth to one who now unquestioningly follows a different flag is representative for his generation, while Katharina is more characteristic of her own age group, born into the GDR and naive to Hans’ manipulation.

Why does the author connect the story of this affair with the collapse of socialism? Erpenbeck herself explains in an interview that “Betrayal and lying are at the center of my work, as are the layers of truth”. When Hans in a fit of jealousy emotionally torments Katharina for having a fling with someone her own age while on work practice, she learns that if “I tell the truth, I get punished.” Erpenbeck explains:

Kairos is a slow process of how something meant as a kind of truth actually transforms into a relationship with lying at its centre. As it was in the political history of the GDR. Ideas were received enthusiastically in the beginning, a new start after fascist times. Slowly, a certain vocabulary was forbidden, a certain exchange of opinions not allowed. People started to deliver ready-made sentences.

However, she adds, “we are coming to a similar time now, because there are certain sentences that you are supposed to deliver and others sentences that you are not supposed to deliver anymore.” Erpenbeck does not turn a blind eye to the new reality of post-socialist Germany.

Aside from the relationship at the heart of the novel, Erpenbeck strives to capture not the spectacular or dramatic, but the everyday lives of people. Hans’ knowledge of early post-war cold-war history certainly adds to the deeper dimensions of history, reflecting times before Katharina was born. This includes, for example, the efforts made by the Soviet Union for a unified neutral Germany after the war:

“Adenauer sold the East for NATO membership.

What do you mean by sold”?

The Russians, he tells her, were willing to allow free secret elections throughout Germany — there was only one condition: a unified Germany was not to join a military pact directed against the Soviet Union.

Aha, she says.

Which makes sense in view of twenty-seven million Soviet dead in the War. They even applied to join NATO.

Who did? The USSR?

The USSR. But of course that wasnt approved. Anti-Communism was the name of the project all along — from Hitler to the Western Alliance to the Federal Republic.”

As the story progresses to the dissolution of the GDR and its annexation by West Germany, Erpenbeck incorporates detailed references and documents regarding the aspirations of many for socialism. These desires are integral to the intricate historical backdrop of the book:

Socialism must find its own democratic form, but not lose itself. That’s what it says in a paper that Katharina’s mother and Ralph put their names to and showed her over their drinks. In its quest for a durable form of social organization, humanity needs alternatives to Western consumer society. Welfare must not be at the expense of poor countries.

However, the swift emergence of capitalist, semi-colonialist reality soon dashes any hopes for a more democratic socialist system:

Already the eastern districts have started to smell different, clean and nicely scented West Berliners are inspecting streets that are named for the working-class president Wilhelm Pieck, the Bulgarian Communist leader Dimitrov, the socialist prime minister Otto Grotewohl — all names that mean nothing to them. They will use the word grey” to describe the section of the city that has no neon advertisements.”

(NB It is regrettable that the people mentioned here mean as little to the West German translator Michael Hofmann as they do to the West Berliners mentioned in this passage, resulting in incorrect translation. A cursory check in Wikipedia would have enlightened him, and even electronic translation software gets it right. I have therefore retranslated the excerpt above). 

In contrast to the flood of so-called memoirs of the East, often written by people who have no knowledge or memory of this epoch, Erpenbeck's narrative diverges from the prevalent Western discourse. Through her portrayal of ordinary lives, she poignantly illustrates the losses endured after 1990. There are no signs of dissatisfaction or social unhappiness on the part of the characters and their wider circles. When Katharina travels to Cologne for her aunt's 70th birthday, it is not a trip to paradise. Her aunt is no better off than before; she lives quite poorly in a basement flat. Money is very central, as are other Western values. Similarly, the characters' excursion to Moscow is depicted with depth and insight, reflecting Erpenbeck's nuanced approach.

In the book's concluding section, the atmosphere during the fall of the Berlin Wall is vividly recreated. In an interview with an East Berlin newspaper, Erpenbeck discusses her research into the momentous social upheaval of 1989/90 for the novel, highlighting discrepancies between historical facts and her own memories:

And it was only then that I realized how short the gap was between the fall of the Wall and the moment when it became clear that reunification was imminent. It was just eight weeks! From November to January. In my memory, the euphoria, the feeling of self-empowerment and the new beginning took up a huge amount of space. In reality, from January onwards, everyone had to make sure that they understood how the Federal Republic worked as quickly as possible. By then, the brief period of coming of age was already over.

About the wholesale redundancy of GDR employees she writes in Kairos, recreating the exact circumstances:

Early in December 1991, Hans is dismissed, along with all the other 13,000 employees of the broadcasting services of a state that no longer exists. And because the waiting rooms and corridors of the Berlin labor exchange are too small to take the 3,000 who are suddenly out of work in the capital alone, the labour exchange sets up for three days in the great broadcasting hall of the East Berlin Broadcasting Service and gives a guest performance there.”

On the full-scale destruction of a literature, reminiscent of the Nazi book burning, she comments:

Books Worth 240,000 Marks in the Trash: The Karl Marx bookstore on Wednesday cleared out its unsold stock. The manager says he needs warehouse space for new titles. Even quality literature had proved unsalable. For many tons of books, the trash heap is the final destination.”

Erpenbeck provides an insider’s perspective. Her characters are believable and lead fulfilling lives. East German readers appreciate Erpenbeck's portrayal of their lives and achievements, which resonates with their own experiences and preserves their dignity. Whether or not Kairos receives the International Booker Prize on 21 May, it is a book well worth reading.

Editor's Note: The judges clearly agreed with Jenny Farrell, as the book has won the 2024 International Booker Prize.

Class consciousness and a commitment to liberation: Duke Ellington and his music
Monday, 06 May 2024 13:31

Class consciousness and a commitment to liberation: Duke Ellington and his music

Published in Music

Duke Ellington, a prominent figure in music and cultural history, especially in jazz, died fifty years ago on May 24, 1974.

Edward Kennedy Ellington was born into a lower middle-class family in Washington on April 29, 1899. His mother was the daughter of a former slave. Both parents played the piano, so Ellington grew up in a musical household and began playing this instrument at the age of seven. Additionally, his parents instilled in their children the conviction that all people are equal, emphasizing that achievement and decency are the keys to progress and dignity.

Ellington's childhood was marked by pervasive racism, including the unrest of the ‘Red Summer’ of 1919, three months of bloody violence. As a Black man, Ellington also had to assert himself in a hostile and discriminatory industry. These early experiences of racism and discrimination naturally impacted on his music.

 red summer hero

'Red Summer', 1919

The 1920s were a time of artistic and cultural flourishing for Black Americans, particularly in Harlem. This Harlem Renaissance emerged in an era of intense racist oppression and social inequality, as a response to the ongoing Jim Crow era and the Ku Klux Klan. The artists of the Harlem Renaissance addressed the issues facing the African American community through their work and promoted awareness of the need for social and economic justice. The movement was an attempt to break through systemic racism and promote alternative forms of identity and solidarity.

In 1923, Duke Ellington founded an ensemble with his childhood friend, drummer Sonny Greer, which would later become the Duke Ellington Orchestra. Over the years, the ensemble grew into a fully-fledged jazz orchestra, gaining high fame. Originally emerging as a form of African American folk music (blues, work songs, and spirituals), the term ‘jazz’ first appeared in the early years of the 20th century and was initially used in connection with music originating in the southern United States. Thus, Ellington made a relatively new, specifically Black musical genre his form of expression.

The jazz musicians who joined Ellington's orchestra under his leadership included some of the most talented musicians of the time, including saxophonist Johnny Hodges, trumpeter Bubber Miley, and clarinetist Barney Bigard. They performed in Harlem clubs and later in the legendary Cotton Club, when it only allowed Black artists and staff, but no Black audience.

The music was often orchestrated to evoke a jungle atmosphere, projecting this idea onto African American employees as exotic savages or plantation dwellers. Ellington's contribution to music during the Harlem Renaissance went far beyond mere ‘entertainment’ and undermined these stereotypes. His ability to merge various musical influences and create a unique sound paved the way for future generations of jazz musicians and solidified his legacy as one of the most important figures in American music history, showing the potential of this artistic expression to contribute to broader movements for social change and equality.

An early success was “Black and Tan Fantasy” (1927), which referred to the name of the clubs where a mixed audience of Black and White patrons was admitted. The content of this composition was socially critical: a Black dancer dances herself to death due to love and financial hardship. The music included elements of blues, jazz, sacred, and classical European music (Chopin's Funeral March). This remarkable composition was a direct challenge to the derogatory stereotypes associated with the then-called ‘jungle music.’ Its syncopated rhythms, improvisations, and the use of brass instruments played on this, elevating this sound to a very sophisticated level.

Ellington’s class consciousness, particularly regarding the Black working class, was often subtly woven into his compositions. Compositions such as Harlem Air Shaft (1940) are excellent examples of his ability to depict life in urban Black communities. In Harlem Air Shaft Ellington musically portrays the cramped living conditions and lively atmosphere of a Harlem apartment building. The title refers to the airshafts in Harlem apartment buildings, capturing the atmosphere of bustling streets, crowded tenements, and pulsating energy. Ellington uses music to paint a sound portrait of everyday life in this neighbourhood, incorporating elements of swing, blues, and improvisation to evoke the landmarks and sounds of Harlem.

As the civil rights movement gained momentum in the 1950s and advocated for racial equality through direct action, such as mass protests, boycotts, and sit-ins, Ellington was sometimes criticized for his more restrained approach. While Ellington’s earlier stand primarily consisted of using a specifically Black genre and imbuing this with artistry and dignity, as well as organizing benefit concerts, his approach evolved over time. By 1961, Ellington had included non-segregation clauses in his contracts and refused to perform before segregated audiences.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Ellington acted as a ‘jazz ambassador’ on behalf of the U.S. Department of State. During those years, he also traveled to socialist countries, including a five-week tour of the USSR in 1971. He reports about this in his autobiography Music is My Mistress (1973):

Here no one ever moves from his or her seat until the entire concert and all the encores have been played. That impresses me very much. The enthusiasm is such, and the demand for encores so insistent, that some concerts run over four hours. Yet no one complains—not the audience, not the stagehands, and not even the cats in the band! The Russians come to hear our music, and for no other reason. Some are satisfied, and some are surprised how much they are satisfied.

They come prepared for our version of “Caravan,” which has long been a favorite in Russia, but not, I think, for our extended composition Harlem. After we have gone through the regular program, and are into the encores, and they are thinking they have heard all the band's stars, then I feature two of its new members, Johnny Coles on flügelhorn and Harold Minerve on alto saxophone, who never fail to excite them. I finish every performance by playing Billy Strayhorn’s “Lotus Blossom,” and that also is always graciously received. It seems to leave the audience suspended in euphoria, or beyond.”

Black, Brown and Beige

During the 1930s, the idea of a large-scale composition about the experience of racism in the United States emerged. The premiere of Black, Brown, and Beige: A Tone Parallel to the History of the American Negro took place in 1943 at Carnegie Hall as part of a benefit event for Russian War Relief. The three-movement composition addressed three specific epochs of Africans after their enslavement in North America: slavery, their involvement in wars, and the contemporary period, with a focus on “Harlem and all the little Harlems in the U.S.”

Ellington provided explanations for each movement, referring indirectly to the ongoing oppression. As Ellington writes in Music is My Mistress, the first section, "Black," addresses the connection between work songs and spirituals. A devout person, Ellington made this connection between sacred music and field music, with spirituals referring to a church that slaves had no access to.

“Black” begins with dramatic drums, suggesting the African roots of the slaves. Through alternating motifs, saxophone solos, and innovative instrumentation, Ellington gives voice to the workers of the past. The second half, “Come Sunday”, describes the movement inside and outside the church, with a shift from melancholy to exuberant joy.

In the second section, “Brown”, Ellington honours the contribution of Blacks in various liberation wars. The first of three dances, the “West Indian Dance”, celebrates the heroic deeds of the seven hundred free Haitians who came to the aid of the Americans during the Siege of Savannah (1779). It then moves on to the Civil War and finally to a lighter mood in “Emancipation Celebration”, referring to the Emancipation Proclamation issued by Abraham Lincoln on January 1, 1863, during the American Civil War, which declared that all slaves in Confederate-controlled territory should be freed. The horns play a clave-like rhythm representing the West Indian influences in American music. Ellington creates a driving rhythmic ground for the saxophones, reminiscent of a train. A trumpet and trombone duet represents the hopeful mood of young people after emancipation, while lonely saxophones capture the melancholy of older generations uncertain of their future.

Thirdly, it deals with the Spanish-American War, with the return of decorated heroes who continued to be denied basic rights. This section naturally resonated with the contemporary audience regarding World War II. The “Double V” campaign expressed African American hopes that the Black soldiers’ fight against fascism would mean an end to discrimination in their own country.

The final Beige movement criticizes contemporary racism. As Ellington writes, the movement expresses a new dignity for African Americans. It begins with lively music that reflects a certain stereotypical view of Blacks and is interrupted by a waltz that shows that there were “more churches than cabarets” in Harlem and that Blacks were educated and cultivated.

Each movement of Black, Brown, and Beige uses Ellington's jazz idiom in characteristic ways to depict the harsh lives of Blacks who contributed significantly to building American society.

Works such as “Jump for Joy”, “Deep South Suite” and “Beggar's Holiday” are further examples of Ellington’s political engagement and efforts for social change through art. “Jump for Joy” was a Broadway-like show that spoke out against racism and advocated for an end to discrimination in the United States. “Deep South Suite” and “Beggar's Holiday” addressed the discrimination and suffering of African Americans, particularly in the Southern states. Ellington's music denounced social injustices and sought to bring about change even before the civil rights movement gained momentum.

His commitment to liberation was primarily evident in his music. Through his diverse musical repertoire, he demanded the same level of recognition and respect that was accorded to white composers. Ellington’s influence is immeasurable, not only on US music and culture but also on the global stage. He undoubtedly ranks among the great musicians of the twentieth century.

Byron and the "Satanic School"
Thursday, 04 April 2024 09:50

Byron and the "Satanic School"

Published in Poetry

George Gordon Lord Byron was born in London on 22nd January 1788, and died 100 years ago, on 19th April, 1824. His father, an officer, died when the boy was three years old. His mother, of Scottish descent, then moved with him to Aberdeen. In 1794, he inherited the title Baron Byron on the death of his great uncle and was titled Lord Byron in 1798.

He attended Harrow and went on to study at Cambridge in 1805. Here he published his first volume of poetry, Hours of Idleness (1807) and his first satirical parody, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers (1809). After completing his studies, he travelled to Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey, a journey which he describes in the first two cantos of his early great verse epic Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (1812) and which brought him overnight success.

Up until then, Walter Scott had been the most successful author of ‘exotic’ verse narratives. Now Byron shifted the setting of this type of tale from the Scottish past to the contemporary foreign East, and adopted a more subjective perspective than Scott. Scott had developed the historical novel through his experience of great historical upheaval, writing novels that were based on real historical conflicts and class interests – in contrast to costume dramas. Byron extended this to the to the ‘Orient’.

Following several scandalous affairs, Byron married a rich heiress in 1815. However, the marriage was unhappy, and Lady Byron obtained a separation, accusing Byron of cruelty, madness and an incestuous relationship with his half-sister. The scandal ruined his social and financial standing. He left England in April 1816, never to return.

The radicalism of the labourers

However, Byron did not only leave for private reasons. Despite personal arrogance and prejudices, the increasing misery and radicalism of the labourers in the countryside had not escaped his notice and had aroused his anger at the ruling classes, including the church and the urban bourgeoisie.

In 1812, when the Frame-Work Bill was being debated in the House of Lords, which provided for the death penalty for the destruction of power looms, Byron made his famous maiden speech in defence of the Luddites. He argued to the Lords:

These machines were to them an advantage, inasmuch as they superseded the necessity of employing a number of workmen, who were left in consequence to starve. By the adoption of one species of frame in particular, one man performed the work of many, and the superfluous labourers were thrown out of employment. Yet it is to be observed, that the work thus executed was inferior in quality, not marketable at home, and merely hurried over with a view to exportation.(…) In the foolishness of their hearts, they imagined that the maintenance and well doing of the industrious poor, were objects of greater consequence than the enrichment of a few individuals by any improvement in the implements of trade which threw the workmen out of employment, and rendered the labourer unworthy of his hire.

He warned:

I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey; but never, under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return, in the very heart of a Christian country.

Byron, like Shelley and Keats, became the victim of an aggressive smear campaign by state and church, which exercised enormous power over public opinion. Yet it was only after he had left Britain that Byron became increasingly politicized in the fight against oppression in England as well as on the European mainland. In this respect he was also influenced by Shelley, with whom he remained in close contact for the rest of both their lives.

The impression made on Byron by Italian and Greek revolutionaries and his personal experiences in the wars of the suffering and fighting by the people led to a new, socially critical awareness. This was increasingly reflected in his poetry and motivated him to become personally involved in the Greek freedom struggle. 

The reception of Byron’s work by the establishment tends to focus on personal aspects, often reducing his life and poetry to women, sex, “unnaturalness” and money, disregarding his political ideas. So how are his political convictions expressed in his work?

The Enlightenment poet Alexander Pope was much admired by Byron. Pope’s work reflects the rise of capitalism in Britain. He portrays the reality of eighteenth-century England as the best of all possible worlds. However, the revolutions of the late eighteenth century, the industrial revolution and its impact on the lives of working people had heralded a new time. This brought with it, in the eyes of the English bourgeoisie, the danger that their own people might model themselves on those of France.

The alienation of the capitalist world

So Pope’s projection of a seemingly eternal, unchanging ground was torn from under their feet. Suddenly change was possible and was feared by the ruling class. It joined forces with the state church and together they began an unprecedented witch-hunt of those pushing for change. This campaign against all who were considered radical unleashed religious rhetoric, which is why the poet laureate Robert Southey accused Byron and Shelley of forming an “incest league” and a “Satanic school”. These intimidatory campaigns targeted the publishers to such an extent that they feared for their livelihood and freedom. So, Byron could no longer write like Pope. Society had changed fundamentally.

Byron’s first great success, the first two cantos of Childe Harold, initially reflected the prevailing European mood of world-weariness, a feeling of powerlessness in a hostile world, linked to motifs of loneliness and isolation. Other poems published in 1812 express a clearer political stance, for example An Ode to the Framers of the Frame Bill (published 2nd March 1812), in which Byron’s sympathy for the weavers is expressed, although he still believes that the parliamentary system can eliminate the grievances caused by individuals.

However, in the later cantos this loneliness turns into a growing awareness of the alienation of the capitalist world. Melancholy and world-weariness can have their roots in historical and social ills. In addition, the aristocratic outlaw, Byron’s lonely, proud hero, takes a stand against oppression in countries struggling for national independence.

This changed with Napoleon’s defeat at the Battle of Waterloo (1815). After that, Byron advocated radical political change more clearly. It was now that the establishment turned vociferously against him, and in 1816, Byron separated from his wife and young daughter, and went into exile.

Some of the poetry written at this time still contains moments of gloom and escapism, but it also increasingly calls for resistance against the reactionary regimes in Europe. In the third canto of Childe Harold, the speaker searches more intensely for ways out of alienation, out of an oppressive existence. An escape into poetry or nature is ultimately rejected. In his poem Prometheus (1816), Byron emphasises the need to resist tyranny and in the fourth canto, stanza 98, of Childe Harold he writes:

Yet, Freedom! yet thy banner, torn, but flying,
Streams like the thunder-storm against the wind;
Thy trumpet voice, though broken now and dying,
The loudest still the Tempest leaves behind;
Thy tree hath lost its blossoms, and the rind,
Chopped by the axe, looks rough and little worth,
But the sap lasts,—and still the seed we find
Sown deep, even in the bosom of the North;
So shall a better spring less bitter fruit bring forth.

Byron’s close collaboration with Shelley in exile in Italy and his personal experience of the liberation movement in Italy and Greece led to a better understanding of society and the revolutionary struggle of the people. In these countries struggling for national independence, including Poland, the Byronic hero was often seen as representing their quest for freedom and Byron became very well-known and celebrated.

Between 1816 and his death in 1824, he composed a large number of great satirical dramatic poems, including Manfred (1817), the unfinished Don Juan, Cantos III and IV of Childe Harold, Marino Faliero, Doge of Venice (1821), The Age of Bronze (1823) and The Deformed Transformed (1824).

The final victory of the allied powers in 1815 led to a Holy Alliance under the rule of Catholic Austria, Orthodox Russia and Protestant Prussia, whose declaration of principles was explicitly written in the name of the holy and indivisible Trinity and the divine Saviour. Dissent, non-Christian religions and natural religion were equally condemned, and the reactionary forces persecuted anything that smelled of French thought. In the context of English Romanticism, Coleridge's turning away from his earlier radical positions logically also included turning away from pantheism.

In Don Juan, Byron postulates that poetry can replace Christianity with new ways of understanding the world; John Keats did at the same time in Ode to Psyche, for example. Such a challenge was be understood as blasphemy of colossal proportions. A parallel to this is Goethe's Walpurgisnacht in his verse drama Faust, part I. Christianity is eliminated, and art is given central importance.

Postulating paganism as an alternative to the Christian religion was also deemed subversive. An inseparable part of this radical questioning of the existing Holy Alliance is the sensuality and this-worldliness inherent in ancient mythology. Sensuality is neither suppressed, spurned nor relegated to an afterlife.

Arising from his own experience of the national liberation movement in Italy, Byron’s point of view has clearly matured in Marino Faliero (1820). While the isolated, brooding hero was still at the centre of Manfred, now a repressive power opposes the people. As the Doge Marino Faliero joins the people in their struggle, Byron plays out his own conflict here with regard to alliances. The fact that he considers alliances at all and moves away from an individual struggle is a significant change. From the outsider position of Manfred, Byron now moves in a direction in which the alliance is conceived as a struggle against his own class; the strength of the movement lies in the alliance:

Should one survive,
He would be dangerous as the whole; it is not
Their number, be it tens or thousands, but
The spirit of this Aristocracy
Which must be rooted out; and if there were
A single shoot of the old tree in life,
'Twould fasten in the soil, and spring again
To gloomy verdure and to bitter fruit.
Bertram, we must be firm!

The character of Israel Bertuccio has the most developed political awareness. He involves Marino Faliero in the conspiracy, plans and leads its course. The rebel Bertuccio comes from the people and embodies their strengths. He fights selflessly for the freedom of Venice and its people. Byron has come to recognise that the leaders of such a liberation movement can, perhaps even must, come from the people. It is Faliero who joins the people, recognises their leadership role, and not the other way round.

In his new cantos of Don Juan Byron’s stories gain social significance, the dialectical relationship between the individual hero and the historical process emerge, and growing trust in the actions of the masses is felt:

50
But never mind;—‘God save the king and kings!
For if he don’t, I doubt if men will longer—
I think I hear a little bird, who sings
The people by and by will be the stronger:
(…)f,—and the mob
At last fall sick of imitating Job.

51
At first it grumbles, then it swears, and then,
Like David, flings smooth pebbles ’gainst a giant;
At last it takes to weapons such as men
Snatch when despair makes human hearts less pliant.
Then comes ‘the tug of war;’—’twill come again,
I rather doubt; and I would fain say ‘fie on ’t,’
If I had not perceived that revolution
Alone can save the earth from hell’s pollution.

The religion of rent, rent and more rent

For all that, Byron ultimately leaves private property – the basis of capital – untouched. He sees liberal state reform as the way to improve society and create more humane living conditions for the population. However, in one of his last poems, The Age of Bronze (1823), it is expressed that the greed for profit of the large landowners played a devastating role in politics and especially in the Napoleonic Wars:

Behold these inglorious Cincinnati swarm,
Peasants of war, dictators of the court;
Their ploughshare was the sword in the hands of hirelings,
Their fields fertilized with the blood of other lands;
Safe in their barns, these Sabine farmers sent
Their brothers to battle - why, for rent!
Year after year they voted for cent. after cent.
Blood, sweat and tears devoured millions - why? - For the rent!
They roared, they dined, they drank, they swore
To die for England - then why live? - For the rent!
Peace has made a general malcontent
Of these honoured patriots; the war was torn!
Their love of country, millions, all misspent,
How to reconcile? By reconciling rent!
And will they not repay the borrowed treasures?
No: down with everything, and up with the rent!
Their happiness, their unhappiness, their health, their wealth, their joy or dissatisfaction,
Being, purpose, goal, religion - rent - rent - rent!

In January 1824, Byron travelled to Greece, where he planned to take part in the struggle for liberation from the Ottoman Empire. He died of a “fever” in Missolonghi on 19th April before this could happen. Nevertheless, he became a national hero in Greece, which he still is to this day. His name – pronounced Veeron in Greek – is a popular name for boys; even an entire district of Athens (Vyronas, Βύρωνας, older: Vyron Βύρων) is named after him.

Fiction about fiction: 'The Living and the Rest', by José Eduardo Agualusa
Wednesday, 27 March 2024 14:45

Fiction about fiction: 'The Living and the Rest', by José Eduardo Agualusa

Published in Fiction

Since the Second World War, authors have regularly conceived of plots set around a cataclysmic event that cuts off people or places from the rest of the world. Some examples include Marlen Haushofer’s 1963 novel The Wall, José Saramago’s 1995 Blindness, and The Road, 2006, by Cormac McCarthy.

For many of us, the pandemic was the first time we seriously considered global disaster – the possible collapse of existing society – as a real possibility. It is hardly surprising that authors too continued to imagine where such sudden catastrophes might lead to. First published in Portuguese in 2020, but finished on 30 November 2019, Agualusa’s novel The Living and the Rest not only opens with a disquieting calamity, but uncannily anticipates the almost apocalyptic developments that have occurred since then.

A catastrophic weather event has hit not the mainland of Mozambique, possibly as a reaction to a cataclysmic bomb attack on Jerusalem by anti-Zionist Jews:

The prospect of a nuclear war, however, had given people a wake-up call. Huge spontaneous demonstrations happened in all the big cities of the world, from New York to Moscow, via Delhi and Beijing, demanding the complete dismantling of the different nuclear arsenals.

However, this news is not immediately revealed. Readers follow the lives and concerns of the protagonists on Ilha de Moçambique, who are mainly African writers, gathered there for a literary festival. Bar an ominous power outage and loss of the internet, the island does not seem too badly affected. There are, however, signs in nature, that the locals perceive: the depletion of fish in the Indian Ocean and the absence of stars in the night sky. All is not well, and this realization slowly trickles through to the assembled authors.

What makes this book an interesting read, in addition to the disaster that happens, is that we have precious few novels from Africa. Its author, José Eduardo Agualusa, is an Angolan journalist and writer of Portuguese and Brazilian descent, who resides on the Ilha de Moçambique. Agualusa, a prolific writer, was also the 2017 winner of the prestigious Dublin Literary Award for his novel A General Theory of Oblivion. Agualusa sets his novels in Angola and other places in Africa, writing from an informed perspective on Africa and African literature.

In one of the many discussions around literature at the literary event central to The Living and the Rest, we read:

While its typical colonial literature, with a view of the continent thats full of prejudices, the truth is that the author does make an effort to give the Africans a voice.

For non-African readers, the exposure Agualusa gives to African voices is an enrichment. His cast hails mainly from Angola, Nigeria, Mozambique, with several of them from multinational backgrounds. They discuss literature, imagination, and the relationship between fiction and reality. Mixed into all of this are the local legends of Ilha de Moçambique.

The novel’s construction is intriguing. Fiction and reality, protagonists and authors begin to merge, and trying to work it all out is a challenge with which Agualusa playfully presents the reader. In this regard, some readers may well find that the characters in the novel are less fully developed and convincing, less “real” than expected.

Increasingly, it becomes clear that this novel is not to be taken at face value. Events occur that seem incredible. Thus, for example, the baby born to Moira and David is born in the hospital that despite earlier assertions, is suddenly no longer derelict – it is quickly and inexplicably transformed. The present and past become fused through dead people coming alive. Other uncanny figures appear in the action, who turn out to be characters from the gathered authors’ books. Close to the end, David burns the notebook in which he has been composing a new novel: it ends exactly as the novel we are reading. And yet, there is also the unsettling anticipation, in a work of fiction, of both natural and political catastrophes that are about to happen. This once more underlines the ability of art to imagine a reality that is not yet an actual fact, but is a strong possibility in the outside world.

Agualusa has thus written fiction about the writing of fiction, creating an imagined reality, while subtly taking away the “fourth wall”. At the end of the day, he is asking readers to consider the power of the imagination, to question their expectations of novels, their perhaps over-readiness to suspend disbelief.

His technique is loosely based on Brecht’s “distancing”, the attempt to encourage the audience to think about what is being presented, by making them aware that they are being presented with something, rather than fully and without distance, identifying with the characters. But it is unlike Brecht in that the people and events readers are presented with have no strong political grounding in terms of the plot.

The Living and the Rest differs from some of Agualusa’s other work. The cataclysmic events in the outside world only touch on the novel’s figures and events in a mild, peripheral way. But of course, it is perfectly legitimate to explore different themes. Here, the author is mainly concerned with the nature of fiction and he makes clear that the book, its protagonists and its incidents, are fiction, and all the that this implies. However, what may have seemed excessive in 2019, and only touches on the novel from the outside, has certainly come closer to reality than may have seemed ‘reasonable’ at the time of composition.

International Women's Day: Women's Artistic Narratives in Times of War
Thursday, 07 March 2024 13:16

International Women's Day: Women's Artistic Narratives in Times of War

Published in Visual Arts

From its outset, International Women's Day was characterized by the fight for peace, against militarism and war. At the Second International Conference of Socialist Women at Copenhagen in 1910, resolutions concerning the “maintenance of peace” and “to combat internationally militarism and secure peace” were tabled in response to the growing threat of war.

Artists also addressed the issue of war – among them the outstanding German artist Käthe Kollwitz (1867–1945), celebrated for her versatility as a sculptor, graphic artist, and her remarkable woodcuts. Her work reflects a profound social and political awareness, capturing human emotions and suffering, particularly in the context of war and social injustices, with poignant resonance.

Kollwitz, who lived through both world wars and lost her son in the first days of the first world war and her grandson in the second, created the woodcut cycle War in 1921-1922. Seven plates focus on central aspects of war: The Victim, The Volunteers, The Parents, The Widow, The Widow II, The Mothers, and The People. Here we will look at the plate The Parents.

KK

Lacking the strength to stand, two kneeling, inseparable figures are leaning into and over each other in their darkest hour, grieving over the death of their child. The woman burrows deep into the crook of her husband’s arm, seeking support in him. Her face is not visible. He leans protectively over her and holds her sideways with his arm and hand. With his own head pulled between his shoulders, he simultaneously leans on her and covers his own face in desperation with his large right hand.

Together, the devastated couple form a cone shape, an extreme shrinking into the most condensed form. The black colour emphasizes their inexpressible pain, while the treatment of the wood creates contrasts – such as the horizontal lines of the man providing support with the more bent lines of the mother's garments, whose back is the most heavily pounded part of the work. The dramatic contrast between the dark, solid shape and the light-coloured background also heightens the effect.

A key aspect of the composition is that the viewer does not see the faces. The strong emotional impact emerges from the body language of the couple, which have all but merged into one. Their despair is deepened by the fact that it is not directed outwards, but very privately inwards. Viewers witness it, but from the outside. Our humanity is challenged in the face of such pain, and looking at this work we are moved to the core.

There is a certain similarity in composition in the painting by the young Palestinian artist Malak Mattar, born in Gaza in 1999. In this painting We Have in This Earth What Makes Life Worth Living, a mother wraps her arms protectively around her daughter, completely framing her face and upper body, creating a sense of profound security. She keeps her eyes closed and seems to be dreaming of peace: the sleeves of her blouse are decorated with white doves and colourful flowers.

The child’s serious brown eyes are open and form a contrast to the mother, as does her dress, which differs slightly in colour and shows motifs of olive branches with their elongated green leaves and small fruit. In addition to the fact that olive trees are strongly associated with Palestine, the olive branch has been a symbol of peace since ancient Greece. Picasso's dove also carries an olive branch in its beak. This picture contains both symbols, united in the longing for peace, and the composition is framed by a wonderfully peaceful, Mediterranean blue sky. The work expresses hope rather than despair, speaks of the deepest love between mother and child and thus affects the viewer emotionally.

Mattar

Mattar processes her experience of war and counteracts it by using strong colours and conveying confidence. She has already experienced five wars in her life and says about the trauma of war: 

Its not something that can be let go of, shaken off; it seeps into you and becomes a part of you. How can you process something that has not ended? People dont survive war, it affects your mental health.

The power emanating from the painting conveys the sense that the artist will continue to advocate for peace and justice in her homeland.

It is important to distinguish between wars of oppression and liberation wars, between imperialist invasion and resistance to it. Anti-imperialist wars create a different consciousness among the population.

In early 1942, the artist Sofia Sergeyevna Uranova (1910-1988) was drafted and remained in her division until the end of the war, advancing with it to Germany. For her military valour, Uranova was awarded the Order of the Red Star as well as several other war medals.

She experienced shelling, bombing, suffering and the death of friends. This everyday experience for her became the leitmotif of her art. Uranowa left behind a unique artistic legacy: her paintings involve people who are certain of their humanity in the face of an inhuman enemy, and confident of their ultimate triumph.

Uranowa

In this 1944 pencil drawing of a field hospital Nurse on Duty  the nurse, in the midst of the wounded, turns her tired gaze towards the viewer. For the moment, the patients are cared for. But all those depicted here will continue to fight, they are by no means discouraged, but are gathering new strength.

The memory of the Great Patriotic War is still alive in Russia and the former Soviet republics, and people still identify with their victory over German fascism.

The depictions by Vietnamese artists of their heroic army of liberation radiate a similar pride. Here, too, women fought alongside men for their liberation, as Trịnh Kim Vinh (b.1932), depicted in her lithograph Operation through the Jungle (1973). Trịnh received awards for her role in the resistance and for her contribution to the art of Vietnam. From 1964 to 1969, she studied art in Hanoi, focusing on women involved in the war effort. She completed postgraduate studies in lithography at the Dresden Academy of Fine Arts, and played a leading role at the Hanoi Art Academy for decades.

Vinh reszied

In her lithograph Operation through the Jungle, Trịnh shows six fighters at night in the dense jungle, with others following from the thicket. The men carry heavy weapons, a woman in the foreground is characterized by her medical bag, another walks behind her. Viewers sense friendship and confidence.

Wars often manifest themselves as sanctions and famine caused by the aggressor. The Irish people suffered such a holocaust in the mid-nineteenth century, when over a million people in Ireland starved to death while food was being exported from Ireland to England. This genocide was, and remains, a national trauma.

One hundred years later, in 1946, the Irish artist Lilian Lucy Davidson painted Gorta – the Irish word for 'hunger', today An Gorta Mór (The Great Hunger) is the term for the famine. It was a colonial-style 'ethnic cleansing' that continued to Leningrad in the mid-twentieth century, and to Gaza today.

Davidson

Davidson paints the burial of an infant in a style reminiscent of Kollwitz (e.g. the sheet Need from the cycle A Weavers’ Revolt, 1893/94). The ragged, skeletal figures appear ghostly, close to starvation. Two women and a man are depicted. The woman holding the wrapped-up baby, probably the mother or grandmother, looks down. The diagonal of her gaze goes over the child towards the spade which the father is using to dig the tiny grave. Only the little feet emerge from the cloth.

The woman on the other side of the man faces the viewer with her eyes closed – as if she were blind. It is possible that she is the mother, perhaps out of her senses from hunger and despair. It is difficult to tell the age of the three adults, they have suffered so much. The composition is triangular, with the man's head at the highest point in the centre.

He looks directly and unforgivingly at the viewer. Despite his great emaciation, he radiates strength, which runs diagonally from his raised elbow to the tip of his spade. The spade can quickly become a weapon. He will bury his child, but he will not forget anything, and he will take revenge. As in Kollwitz’s sheet Need (1893/94) or in van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters (1885), the wretched are in darkness. Davidson mainly uses brown earth tones and dark blue. However, the sky directly behind the figures remains bright and conveys a certain glimmer of hope.

What can art do? By engaging with these works of art, we as viewers relate what is depicted to our own experience. We feel a sense of common humanity, of compassion and solidarity, fused with anger and the will to change the world.

A monument to Lenin
Monday, 08 January 2024 16:36

A monument to Lenin

Published in Cultural Commentary

On Wednesday, 30 October 1929, the following article was published in the German Frankfurter Zeitung, translated into German by M. Schillskaya from a Soviet newspaper. The original Russian article had appeared following the 5th anniversary of Lenin's death in that year. It inspired Bertolt Brecht's poem 'The carpet weavers of Kuyan-Bulak honour Lenin'. To mark the 100th anniversary of Lenin's death, I have translated the article here into English for the first time since it appeared 95 years ago. Brecht's poem follows the article.

Just as Brecht let the newspaper report speak for itself, we will do the same, in memory of Lenin's power.

A monument to Lenin

There were once many fertile steppes in Fergana.
Around Syr-Darya, rich fields spread out.
Wheat, barley, oats and rice flourished there.

Even now, the skies around Fergana are bright and the gardens there are shady and cool. Gardens and steppes fall like blue waterfalls into the sandy desert, the desolate solitude and the poisonous swamps. This region was once the scene of great migrations of peoples, giant cities surged here, merchants, cobblers and kings lived in large dwellings. Young men made love tempestuously, Khans fought each other, and old men died peacefully. Now sand swirls and trickles here, blowing away the traces of the peoples and the last sad remnants of the hearths. Winds come from the Caspian Sea, hares are sucked in by the swamp, and the mosquitoes swarm over these marshes, more powerful than birds of prey. Once a fortnight the train comes through the Kuyan-Bulak railway station.

It whistles in the distance, emits hoarse cries at the sharp bends behind the sand drifts, or trills young and adventurously. The stationmaster then puts on his new cap and goes out to set the signal for entry. If the locomotive shouts young and shrill, it means that it will speed past the small Kuyan-Bulak station, leaving only a little smoke and a whiff of long distances on the platform. But if she screams hoarsely and with the last of her strength, you know that the train will stop in Kuyan-Bulak. It will bring water, hope and news. Then the whole of Kuyan-Bulak gathers on the platform. The cobbler Vasily Solntse and the community leader’s wife in an antediluvian smock, Semen Nikitish Trobka and the Red Army soldiers, white-blonde, light-coloured northerners. Two cisterns form the tail of the hoarse train, they bump against each other with their buffers, carefully painted with red oil paint, they bear the inscription “For petroleum”, but underneath it is written in chalk “For drinking water”. This water is intended for Kuyan-Bulak and should last for a fortnight. It always smells of petroleum, but everyone has got used to it and no longer notices it. Water without this odour would seem strange and unclean to the inhabitants of Kuyan-Bulak. They think that all water on earth tastes of petroleum and iron rust. The stokers and labourers of this slow train adjust the buffers for a long time, rattle chains, swear, smoke machorka and for some reason crawl under the train. The inhabitants of Kuyan-Bulak watch them with glee and never-ending curiosity.

Then the train moves on. The other train with the young, fresh voice races past, behind its windows lie strange, distant worlds as though in a fog. You only catch glimpses of blurred faces, suitcases and teapots. Sometimes you are lucky and catch a phrase of a song, but everything immediately scatters in the wind. The cobbler Vasily Solntse gazes after the train for a long, long time, his eyes glued to the railway tracks, to the steel lines of human migration. The stationmaster and the cobbler Vasily, the stationmaster’s wife in her antediluvian smock, Semyon Trobka and the Red Army guards, they all go home again. The station is quiet once more, there are few people here, the sky is bright and the swarms of mosquitoes are very large. Solntse the cobbler goes into his house, where behind the smoke-engulfed geraniums in the window, there are lots of pickled cucumbers, mandolin leaves and, for some reason, a mass of empty ammonia bottles.

Semyon Trobka has left the platform and sees Agripina Ivovna, the stationmaster’s wife, in the window. She is staring at the tracks and has wrapped herself in her dressing gown, decorated with birds, clouds, horsemen and flowers. She is freezing, shaken by fever as if she were sitting in a farmer’s cart. The white-blonde, fair-skinned Red Army soldiers are lying on their plank beds and chattering teeth can be heard from all the plank beds. They came here a year ago to protect the station from raids. They are all strong, giant Russian blokes, but they all suffer from the same illness - homesickness. When they have their attacks, they hunch over and all dream of the large, pale green meadows around Sudali (there may be a print error here, or else the town no longer exists) or Kaluga. They are also suffering from malaria, common in such places.

As soon as evening falls, all the inhabitants start shivering from the cold. From the highest authority, the stationmaster, to the half-wild Sarts living in their yurts, they all suffer from the terrible swamp disease, malaria. It is a gruesome hour when the sun disappears behind the sand drifts. Behind the railway station, white mountains of camel bones shimmer, and behind this ancient camel graveyard, a dense cloud of mosquitoes rises, humming and singing. The bite of the malaria mosquito is sharp and its hum is piercing. The whole railway station is filled with the song of mosquitoes, the swarms of mosquitoes enter the houses through the closed shutters and crawl under people’s clothes. Then the poor, orphaned Sarts, descendants of the Kokand Khans whom Peter the Great colonised, squat in their yurts, shaken by fever, dreaming of the distant, wondrous gardens in Namanhan, where it is cool and shady and a mild, yellow sun shines through wild apple trees and maples. Meanwhile, the Red Army soldiers whisper with hot lips on their beds. “At this time of year, the forests of the Kaluga region are in full bloom and the cows are calving.”

To suppress malaria, the swamp has to be doused with a layer of petroleum, but there is no petroleum at the Kuyan-Bulak station, it’s a long way to the town, and to get there is a lot of bother.
*
This is how many small railway stations in Soviet Russia lived and still live today. Apart from his wife and the few people at the station, the stationmaster never spoke to anyone for more than five minutes, because the trains never stop for more than five minutes. Last year, however, this withered and lonely station became the scene of a major event.

At the end of December, Stepa Gamalev, the Red Army man, with the agreement and co-operation of the stationmaster, the only administrative representative, and with the help of Vasily Solntse, the only representative of the proletariat, arranged a meeting of all the inhabitants of Kuyan-Bulak, Hare Spring in the local language. Vasily Solntse walked along the only street in the village and asked everyone to turn up at the Hare Spring tomorrow at sunrise. The inhabitants of Kuyan-Bulak tore themselves away from their looms and gazed after the man for some time. The next morning, the whole of Kuyan-Bulak had turned up at the Hare Spring. Stepa Gamalev took the floor and addressed the humble citizens of the U.S.S.R, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. He said that the day on which Lenin was to be commemorated was approaching. He said that on that day the life and deeds of this man would be spoken of in Moscow and in all the Soviet states of the republic, and that in his native village, in the Kaluga region, all the peasants would gather in the reading hall. He said that even the small, forgotten Kuyan-Bulak would have to acquire a plaster Lenin.

The orphaned, poor descendants of the Kokand Khans no longer dreamed of the wondrous gardens of Namanhan, they listened attentively to the strange man and remained silent. When Stepa Gamalev switched to commercial prose and explained to them that they would need money to buy such a Lenin, they nodded their heads understandingly in their high, pointed caps. After a week had passed, they brought the products of their labour, which had cost them many a sleepless night, into town on the clattering railway. With much haggling and bargaining, they sold their carpets to the merchants, and when they returned home, they gave the fourth part of their earnings to the Russian man, for Lenin.

There is no twilight in Kuyan-Bulak. Night here immediately turns into bright day, as if an electric light switch had been turned on, and just as quickly the bright day turns into a dark night. The fever shook the inhabitants of this small station more and more violently. Malaria brooded over the station like a smouldering, poisonous fire, and it was barely possible to catch one’s breath. In January, before Stepa and Vasily left for the town to do the shopping they had arranged, a second meeting of all the inhabitants of Kuyan-Bulak was held at the Hare Spring.

This time everyone came without hesitation, and Stepa Gamalev again spoke good words that penetrated deep into the hearts of the Sarts. He said that Kuyan-Bulak was one big fever. To suppress it, it would be necessary to pour a thin layer of petroleum from Semipalatinsk over the swamp behind the ancient camel graveyard; the mosquito swarms would die from it. It would be better to buy petroleum for the joint money instead of the plaster bust, because then the Sarts and Russians would no longer be shaken by fever at night. And it would also be a much better monument to Lenin, because he always looked after the Sarts and Turkmen and other tribes. The Sarts understood him immediately and nodded their heads vigorously in their high, pointed caps.

Two weeks later, on 21 January, the train to Kuyan-Bulak arrived as usual and, as usual, it shouted from afar in a hoarse voice at the sharp bends. The station master put on his new cap and went out to set the signal for entry. And as always, the whole of Kuyan-Bulak left the looms and came to the station. This time the train brought three cisterns. The third contained petroleum. The train was greeted with shouts of joy and the earlier sleepiness was blown away. The engineers, who had been travelling this route for a lifetime, were amazed. Clamour in Kuyan-Bulak? And when the train left the station five minutes later, leaving behind only a little smoke and the whiff of long distances, the inhabitants of Kuyan-Bulak, led by Stepa Gamalev, set to work.

The poor, orphaned descendants of the Kokand Khans took filled buckets in their hands and all went to the swamp, all of one mind. On that day meetings and assemblies were held all over the republic, enthusiastic speeches were made in towns and villages and good deeds were performed in Lenin’s memory. The requiem roared over hamlets, villages and large cities. Streams of black petroleum flowed over the swamp behind the Hare Spring.

If you ever use the Central Asian railway line and pass the small Kuyan-Bulak station, remember that this name means Hare Spring. The train only stops there for five minutes and, if you have time, you will see a red rag on the station building with the inscription:

This is where Lenin’s monument was to stand, but instead of the monument, petroleum was bought and poured over the swamp. This is how Kuyan-Bulak extinguished malaria in Lenin’s name and memory.

You will hardly have time to finish reading this inscription, because the train will only stop for five minutes, the locomotive will scream with its hoarse voice and rush off into the yellow sandy desert. You will speed past a few houses with smoke-covered geraniums in their windows, and grey hares will leap away across the sand drifts, scared to death.

Carpet weaving 1901

The carpet weavers of Kuyan-Bulak honour Lenin

by Bertolt Brecht

1
Often and copiously honour has been done
To Comrade Lenin. There are busts and statues.
Cities are called after him, and children.
Speeches are made in many languages
There are meetings and demonstrations
From Shanghai to Chicago in Lenin’s honour.
But this is how he was honoured by
The carpet weavers of Kuyan-Bulak
A little township in southern Turkestan.

Every evening there twenty carpet weavers
Shaking with fever rise from their primitive looms.
Fever is rife: the railway station
Is full of the hum of mosquitoes, a thick cloud
That rises from the swamp behind the old camels’ graveyard.
But the railway train which
Every two weeks brings water and smoke, brings
The news also one day
That the day approaches for honouring Comrade Lenin.
And the people of Kuyan-Bulak
Carpet weavers, poor people
Decide that in their township too Comrade Lenin’s
Plaster bust shall be put up.
Then, as the collection is made for the bust
They all stand
Shaking with fever and offer
Their hard-earned kopeks with trembling hands.
And the Red Army man Stepa Gamalev, who
Carefully counts and minutely watches
Sees how ready they are to honour Lenin, and he is glad
But he also sees their unsteady hands
And he suddenly proposes
That the money for the bust be used to buy petroleum
To be poured on the swamp behind the camels’ graveyard
Where the mosquitoes breed that carry
The fever germ.
And so to fight the fever at Kuyan-Bulak, thus
Honouring the dead but
Never to be forgotten
Comrade Lenin.

They resolved to do this. On the day of the ceremony they carried
Their dented buckets filled with black petroleum
One after the other
And poured it over the swamp.

So they helped themselves by honouring Lenin, and
Honoured him by helping themselves, and thus
Had understood him well.

2
We have heard how the people of Kuyan-Bulak
Honoured Lenin. When in the evening
The petroleum had been bought and poured on the swamp
A man rose at the meeting, demanding
That a plaque be affixed on the railway station
Recording these events and containing
Precise details too of their altered plan, the exchange of
The bust for Lenin for a barrel of fever-destroying oil.
And all this in honour of Lenin.
And they did this as well
And put up the plaque.

This translation is taken from: Bertolt Brecht. Poems 1913-1956. John Willett and Ralph Manheim (eds.) with the co-operation of Erich Fried, London, Eyre Methuen, 1976.

Prophet Song: A wake-up call for the middle classes?
Wednesday, 13 December 2023 13:46

Prophet Song: A wake-up call for the middle classes?

Published in Fiction

Oh, oh, people of the earth
Listen to the warning the seer he said
“Beware the storm that gathers here”
Listen to the wise man.

- The Prophet’s Song, Queen, 1975

That Paul Lynch’s novel Prophet Song has won the 2023 Booker Prize signifies a notable awareness regarding the dismantling of democracy in the Western world. It underscores the realization that the erosion of democratic principles is a pressing concern that transcends borders and could impact any country.

While dystopias are not a new concept, Lynch distinguishes himself by projecting this descent into darkness onto contemporary Ireland. Rather than imagining a distant time or place, the narrative unfolds in the present – right here, right now.

It all begins with a sudden clampdown on the Teachers Union of Ireland. Their officials have planned a protest march, and the government will not have it. Swiftly, the leaders disappear, never to be seen again. From here, matters rapidly go from bad to worse, to disastrous. And just when readers think things cannot deteriorate any further, more catastrophes strike. Through the eyes of Eilish Stack, the author shows a world of one-time perceived security unravelling and finally disintegrating completely.

Microbiologist Eilish Stack is married to the full-time union official Larry, both are employed, have four children and command a middle income. It is from Eilish’s perspective that the story is told, and this vista does not expand. What happens outside of Eilish’s world is too vague to form an important part of the narrative. Working-class people who touch on the narrative are described entirely as she perceives them:

.....an odd-jobs man from the flats nearby, an ex-junkie with hardly a tooth in his mouth, she cannot recall his name, last year Larry gave him twenty quid to clean the gutters” or a child with “the quick eyes and feral manner of a youngster from the flats.

No suggestion that these people may well have experienced the heavy hand of the law long before this. However, Eilish is experiencing the arbitrary nature of the state for the first time. It makes her and Larry question their belief in democracy.

Look at you lot, she says, the unions bowed and silent, and at least half the country in support of this carry-on and casting the teachers as villains – Something inchoate within her knowledge has spoken and she feels afraid, she can hear it now and speaks it silently to herself. All your life you’ve been asleep, all of us sleeping and now the great waking begins.

Eilish joins protests, approaches lawyers but above all tries to keep up a semblance of normality for her children and fearing for their safety, she discourages active resistance. The rapid deterioration of order is mirrored formally by the absence of paragraphs and a clear delineation of often extensive dialogue, placing the responsibility on readers to impose structure on a narrative that appears to lack order.

From other characters around Eilish, readers gain some indication of how the country has found itself in its current state. Two years ago, the electorate had voted in the National Alliance Party (NAP). They established a new branch of the secret police, the Garda National Services Bureau (GNSB) and introduced emergency legislation only two months ahead of the novel’s action. Among the more astute political observations are those from Eilish’s father, Simon, who otherwise suffers from dementia. For example, he comments about his newspaper: “I don’t know why I still read this thing, he says, there is nothing in it but the big lie.” Simon also comments on how the ruling ideas are the ideas of the ruling class:

if you change ownership of the institutions then you can change ownership of the facts, you can alter the structure of belief, what is agreed upon, that is what they are doing, Eilish, it is really quite simple, the NAP is trying to change what you and I call reality, they want to muddy it like water, if you say one thing is another thing and you say it enough times, then it must be so, and if you keep saying it over and over people accept it as true – this is an old idea, of course, it really is nothing new, but you’re watching it happen in your own time and not in a book.

However, Simon is not heard. Politically aware readers search in vain for any kind of clues regarding the exact nature of this party or more to the point, who stands behind it.

One ominous clue is that an NAP member parachuted to top management at Eilish’s workplace is Paul Felsner – a German name, connoting rock. The Nazi allusion is further contained in the Party’s name which is remarkably like the NSDAP. However, unlike for example the dystopian novels of Margaret Atwood, no link is made between the regime and powerful corporations, no link between money and power, no link between money and wars. Readers are asked simply to accept that a police state has sprung up for no apparent reason, which now controls the population through a political party, its Gestapo-like secret police, and the ever-obliging and increasingly gagged media. The judiciary too is Government-controlled. Anne Devlin, whose name brings to mind the United Irishmen, is a pro bono solicitor for the imprisoned: “she says the government has taken control of the judiciary by putting their own people in”. It would have been interesting to develop this line of rebel tradition in the novel.

Pastor Martin Niemöller famously stated “When the Nazis came for the communists,/ I remained silent;/ I was not a communist” – going on in this vein through social democrats, trade unionists, Jews, and then ends: “When they came for me,/ there was no one left to speak out.” Prophet Song opens with the targeting of trade unionists and although there is a clandestine and growing resistance movement, we hear little of its character. In fact, as the novel’s events descend into chaos, it is suggested, that the resistance movement is “making up the rules as they go along, they’re just as bad as the regime”.

Indeed, developments towards the end of the novel bear this out. The civilian population in Lynch’s novel are the victims in a scenario that is informed by the lives of refugees. There is no real indication that these things can be understood – people are simply presented as powerless victims of unfathomable forces.

That such wars, such regimes arise from quite specific, mostly Western-created circumstances, is not Lynch’s subject. He possibly creates more empathy for the afflicted by suggesting what is happening to them could happen in Ireland, but redress is to be found exclusively in the West – people who can afford to, flee to Canada, Northern Ireland (!), England, the US, Australia.

How credible is the Irish setting? Ireland has had associations with fascism in its history, censorship, emergency legislation and the banning of political parties from the media with Section 31. Today, there is great unease about increasingly authoritarian developments around the world, and Europe is no exception. In Germany, for example, the defence minister recently stated “We must become fit for war”, while the state is becoming more and more restrictive towards its own people.

Ireland, too, has had instances of harassing and threatening employees in the university sector, for example, who opposed EU treaties. Then there is the blanket censorship of any voices that dare to question NATO’s stance on the Ukrainian conflict, the imposition of new intrusive “hate crime” laws to police all of this, and similar contentious issues.

Towards the novel’s end, Eilish realizes: “I can see now that what I thought of as freedom was really just struggle and that there was no freedom all along”. The civic space is narrowing here as elsewhere in Europe, and a work like Prophet Song underlines how this trajectory might unfold. Referring to the novel’s title, Lynch writes in its concluding section:

The prophet sings not of the end of the world but of what has been done and what will be done and what is being done to some but not others, that the world is always ending over and over again in one place but not another and that the end of the world is always a local event, it comes to your country and visits your town and knocks on the door of your house and becomes to others but some distant warning, a brief report on the news, an echo of events that has passed into folklore.

In contrast, Queen’s “The Prophet’s Song” anticipates a global apocalypse:

The earth will shake, in two will break
And death all round will be your dowry
Ah, ah, people of the earth
Listen to the warning, the seer he said.

Paul Lynch’s Cassandra Call has touched a nerve among the middle classes. May it be a wake-up call!

Art enters the age of imperialism: The Scream, by Edvard Munch
Wednesday, 06 December 2023 10:58

Art enters the age of imperialism: The Scream, by Edvard Munch

Published in Visual Arts

It’s the 160th anniversary of Edvard Munch’s birth on 12 December, and the 80th anniversary of his death in January. Munch’s The Scream (1893) speaks to us again today with great intensity. How did this painting come about? In September 1892, in Kristiana (Oslo), Munch recorded a harrowing experience in his diary:

One evening I was walking out on a hilly path near Kristiania —with two comrades. It was a time when life had ripped my soul open. The sun was going down — had dipped in flames below the horizon. It was like a flaming sword of blood slicing through the concave of heaven. The sky was like blood — sliced with strips of fire — the hills turned deep blue the fjord—cut in cold blue, yellow, and red colors — The exploding bloody red — on the path and hand railing —my friends turned glaring yellow white — I felt a great scream — and I heard, yes, a great scream — the colors in nature — broke the lines of nature — the lines and colors vibrated with motion —these oscillations of life brought not only my eye into oscillations, it brought also my ears into oscillations — so I actually heard a scream — I painted the picture The Scream then.

Munch’s world-famous painting is based on this experience. His iconic figure hears a searing scream. But why has this painting become so indelibly engraved in the collective memory of the human community? How exactly is the horror captured in the painting?

It is unclear whether the figure only hears the scream or is also screaming in despair, but this seems likely. The hands cover the ears to protect them from the scream, but this gesture also manifests his own horror. As the artist states, this scream originates in nature; it is therefore something profoundly elemental.

The description in Munch’s diary is vivid and already contains aspects of the painting. Red and blood are mentioned several times – there are also references to flames, fire, even the fjord and the mountains are bathed in “the exploding bloody red”. The sky, dripping with blood, fire and violence, takes up a third of the picture and radiates onto the dark mountains and the fjord, which primarily reflects the yellow colour of the flaming sky and is framed by the mountains and the town of Kristiana in reddish brown and blue tones. The city itself is only hinted at.

The clearly recognisable, curved lines of the brushstrokes in oil and tempera as well as highlights in pastel chalk, applied directly to the brown, unprimed cardboard, capture the movement and sound waves of the scream. This effect is reinforced by the contrasts of glaring yellow with crimson and dark. This clash of bright with broken colours infuses nature with a simultaneously horrific and ominous, impenetrable character.

The painful nature of the scream is emphasised by colliding forms: vibrations, curves and abysses dominate two thirds of the picture; one third is filled by the dead straight lines of the bridge and the horizontal struts of the railing. The picture is thus divided into two large, contrasting triangles: one belongs to the outcry of nature, which still also harbours people with its soft, flowing lines. The smaller triangle to the left of the horizontal struts of the bridge railing is characterized by taut, hard diagonals that run through the picture like an arrow. This collision between the softly curved waves and the hard diagonals makes the vibrations that the painter talks about in his diary almost audible.

A funnel shape of dark blue, within nature, whose tip runs towards the head of the screaming character, creates the sense of inescapable suction, like a black hole, of which only the horror-struck person is aware. The movement of the suction towards the skull suggests that the catastrophe is perceived by his consciousness alone, not by the other people in the picture, although the city of Kristiana is also caught up in the all-engulfing maelstrom. The barrier between the bridge and the abyss is quite open and offers no fall protection.

The skeletal head is in the centre of the picture. Munch barely uses any colour to create this face, leaving a large part of it simply on the unpainted brown ground. The mouth, wide open in horror, dominates the face, the nose and eyes are only indicated, white pastel chalk strokes trace the contours of the skull, the eye sockets, the jaws, and deepen the impression of a skeleton. The hands are also reminiscent of bones.

The rest of the body is sketchy – the figure’s jacket reflects the colours of the devouring funnel and becomes shapeless, disembodied from the chest down. The skull seems a little too large for the body, almost too heavy. While the head protrudes into the dark triangle above the railing, the body is located under the bridge railing with its straight lines into the upper third of the left edge of the picture.

The triple struts of the railing thus connect the figure in the foreground directly with the two dark, walking figures a short distance away. Top hats point to two conventionally dressed, faceless men. It is unclear whether they are walking away from the viewers or one of them is coming towards them. These two men, towards whom the diagonal is pointing, are thus given an impulse to help the martyred person and are thereby included in the action. They, however, do not hear the scream - neither the despair of nature nor the shriek of their fellow human being. No help or empathy is forthcoming.

Another doubling, contrasting with the screaming individual, are the two boats seen on the fjord:  seemingly peaceful enjoyment of the evening, perhaps late fishing. Nature is not deserted, but includes human activity.  Only the person screaming in deepest distress senses the impending apocalypse. So while fellow human beings are quite immune to the blood-soaked sky, for the tormented creature the world is in flames. Horror reigns beneath the surface of a peaceful world.

Familiar signs can no longer be relied on: red, the colour of love and warmth, now transports fire and blood. The sky is not a comforting sight, but deeply threatening. But only the artist realises this. Munch wrote in pencil in a red stripe in the sky: “kan kun være malet af en gal mand” (“can only have been painted by a madman”). The painter worried all his life about losing his mind and also spent time undergoing psychiatric treatment. But the horror to which he sensitizes the eyes and ears of the viewer with this picture reflects the fears of the individual and at the same time captures the madness of an era that was heading for the abyss.

The Scream and the onset of imperialism

In his diary, Edvard Munch records a personal experience that deeply disturbed him. The painting has appealed to viewers on this private level also ever since. However, from our historical vantage point, a further dimension emerges that Munch and his contemporaries certainly did not realise and could only guess at. The Scream was created at the onset of the imperialist era, with its accompanying profound social and political upheavals. This is another reason why this work of art speaks to us with such poignancy today.

In the late nineteenth century, a new, more international, more aggressive stage of capitalism emerged. The world was being redivided, with rapidly growing technological progress and simultaneously increasing urban impoverishment, the First World War cast its shadow long before. Munch lived in Berlin between 1892 and 1894. It is conceivable that his stay in this metropolis not long after the formation of the Reich under Bismarck, when German imperialism was also rapidly gaining strength, intensified the painter’s perception of a disquieting time.

Everything seemed to be spiralling out of control. Nihilism, which also affected Munch, gained new fertile ground with its anti-humanist idea of the meaninglessness of life. It suited the ruling class of the era that the world no longer seemed comprehensible. As Yeats reflected in 1919:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

When Yeats wrote these lines, imperialism had already wreaked the first great world war. Munch experienced the emergence of this new, imperialist stage of capitalism as a young adult. Simplified, Lenin wrote that imperialism could be defined as follows:

Imperialism is capitalism at that stage of development at which the dominance of monopolies and finance capital is established; in which the export of capital has acquired pronounced importance; in which the division of the world among the international trusts has begun, in which the division of all territories of the globe among the biggest capitalist powers has been completed.

Lenin defines imperialism emerged as a specific phase of capitalism between 1873 (not yet established) and 1900 (established):

After the crisis of 1873, a lengthy period of development of cartels; but they are still the exception. They are not yet durable. They are still a transitory phenomenon. The boom at the end of the nineteenth century and the crisis of 1900-03. Cartels become one of the foundations of the whole of economic life. Capitalism has been transformed into imperialism.

Based on these corner dates, it can be assumed that Munch’s world-famous painting from 1893 artistically captures this transition to imperialism. This is not to claim that the painter himself was aware of such a thing, but rather that Munch’s great sensitivity achieved what Shakespeare expected of true art, and Hamlet tells the players in Act II, scene 2 : “to show … the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”

Naturally, personal sensibilities inform a work of art, but its paramount importance lies in the fact that Munch – by facing his own fears, his own pain – was able to express this scream of the tortured creature as a defining moment of the age in such a way that people all over the world are still moved today.

So while the subject matter of the painting depicts exactly what most establishment art critics describe, namely a person standing on a bridge near Oslo and hearing a scream that affects him existentially (and shrieking himself), the time of the painting’s creation contributes decisively to its significance. The scream as an essential part of the subject therefore logically shapes the colours, the composition, the structure, the tensions, which heighten it and move it towards horror and despair. In the form of his painting, Munch breaks away from Impressionism and describes a world torn apart, from the perspective of personal perception. Art enters the age of imperialism.

The artist created four further versions of the painting, as well as a lithograph. Since its creation 130 years ago, Munch’s picture, like the Mona Lisa or Guernica, has been engraved in the visual memory of humankind. Munch’s painting vividly evokes in us an empathy that defines our humanity, which we feel when we hear about natural disasters and personal tragedies, but above all about the immense suffering and terror of martyred people in war zones.

Munch’s desperate, screaming face is captured three times in Picasso’s Guernica (1937) – in the mother with the dead baby, the person in flames, the tortured horse, scenes that continue to be caused by imperialist violence and wars today. Munch gave artistic expression to this horror. We see ourselves in this picture and at the same time recognise the humanist feeling that unites us all in humanity – solidarity and compassion. The Scream expresses deep emotionality and humanity that define its greatness.

I would like to thank Friederike Riese and Erwin Ritzer for their valuable advice in the preparation of this article.

Hans Holbein the Younger
Tuesday, 14 November 2023 13:01

Hans Holbein the Younger

Published in Visual Arts

Hans Holbein the Younger was born in Augsburg in the winter of 1497/98 and died 480 years ago, in October or November 1543. He was one of the most important German painters of Renaissance humanism. He grew up in the free imperial city of Augsburg, a northern gateway to the Italian Renaissance, and learned the painter’s craft in his father’s workshop.

It was a golden age of art – Leonardo, Michelangelo, Titian, Raphael, Riemenschneider, Cranach, Grünewald, Dürer, Paracelsus and Hans Sachs were all contemporaries, as were Erasmus, Thomas More, Machiavelli and Henry VIII. Holbein became personally acquainted with some of these personalities, and painted portraits of a few of them.

As a young man, Holbein lived through the time that led to the Reformation and the Peasant War; Vasco da Gama discovered the sea route to the East Indies via South Africa; Magallan’s circumnavigation of the globe provided definitive proof that the earth is round; Spain bloodily destroyed the Aztec Empire in Mexico, and Switzerland broke away from the German Empire. The New Testament was published in Luther’s translation and the chapbook Till Eulenspiegel was printed in Strasbourg.

Augsburg was the seat of the Fugger family, trading magnates and bankers who amassed enormous wealth. The Fuggers held a near-monopoly on the European copper market. Jakob Fugger “the Rich” was elevated into the nobility of the Holy Roman Empire in 1511 and is still considered one of the richest people who ever lived.

In 1514/15 Holbein migrated to Basel with his brother Ambrosius, joined a renowned workshop, and settled here. Basel was a flourishing city of book printers. During this period of revolutionary change in book design, Holbein created illustrations for the leading Basel publisher Johann Froben, the editor of Erasmus of Rotterdam’s writings. As early as 1516, Holbein produced marginal drawings for Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly, a sharp critique of scholasticism. In the same year, More’s seminal work Utopia was published, which Holbein also illustrated. In 1517, Luther initiated the Reformation. The first building of the German Renaissance, the Fugger Chapel, was erected in Augsburg.

In 1519 Holbein married Elsbeth Binsenstock, widow of a Basel tanner, which allowed him to become a citizen of Basel and a member of the city’s painters’ guild. He created portraits, religious paintings and book illustrations. In 1523 Holbein painted his first portraits of Erasmus, then a resident of Basel, who needed these illustrations for his friends and admirers throughout Europe. These works made Holbein internationally known.

Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants

In the early 1520s, Zwingli initiated the Reformation in Switzerland. In 1524, Holbein began working on the The Dance of Death images and fundamentally redesigned an old theme in 40 variations. During this time, the Peasants' War broke out, led by Florian Geyer in Franconia, Thomas Müntzer in Thuringia, and Michael Gaismair in Tyrol. Luther betrayed the peasants ( eg see Against the Murderous, Thieving Hordes of Peasants), and the peasants, demanding relief from their servitude in twelve articles, were devastatingly defeated by the princes at Frankenhausen, strengthening the nobility’s power.

In 1526, through Erasmus’ mediation, Holbein traveled to England and spent nearly two years in the home of Thomas More and his humanist circles, where he gained a reputation. Numerous portraits of English personalities of the time were created, including More himself and the Archbishop of Canterbury.

At the same time, Dürer sided with the revolutionary peasants and embraced the Reformation. Paracelsus burned books of scholastic medicine at the University of Basel and proclaimed his new curriculum. In 1528, Holbein returned to a turbulent Basel, engulfed by the Reformation, where many old patricians left the city, churches were left to the Protestants, and there was a fierce wave of iconoclasm. As one of the first representations of an artist’s own household, Holbein painted in 1528 The Artist’s Family. In 1529, Erasmus moved from Basel to Freiburg. In 1532, Holbein left Basel for good and settled in London, where in 1536, he became the court painter to Henry VIII and passed away in 1543 at the age of 45.

Holbein’s early work shows a strong anti-Roman tendency. Like other humanists in Basel, he felt ambivalent towards the Reformation. While they desired church reform, they hesitated to fully break away from the traditional faith because they feared the Reformation could promote popular opposition. However, until the Peasant War, Holbein can be seen as supportive of the reformist movement. He created woodcuts that denounced the papacy and the sale of indulgences and depicted fighting peasants. Most notably, his cycle The Dance of Death, created during the Peasant War, contains profoundly anti-clerical and democratic statements. The Dance of Death genre of images had been passed down since the 14th century, but Holbein infused his depictions with the spirit of the Reformation. His drawings designed for woodcuts were executed by Hans Lützelburger.

It is striking how many clergy – from pope to nun – and secular authorities – from emperor to judge to merchant – are claimed by Death here. They are typically portrayed as well-fed and indifferent to the suffering of the people. The impoverished common people are visited by Death while working. The Duke is captured by Death at the moment he rejects a starving woman with her child; the Senator pays no attention to the beggar; the devil of pride sits on his shoulder. The Judge is bribed by the rich, while a poor man stands helplessly at the edge of the image. The judge’s staff is in the hand of Death. The Lawyer too is bribed by a wealthy citizen, while the poor man watches powerlessly with his hat in hand. The Rich Man, with the features of Jakob Fugger, sits over his treasures in the cellar with heavily barred windows, where Death finds him.

On another sheet, the Merchant’s splendid trading ships lie in the harbour, their flags flying in the wind, favouring trade. Goods from all over the world are unloaded, securely packed, soon to be turned into profit. But here too, Death pulls at the merchant’s coat while he vainly clings to the packaging ropes. Death takes the Nun in her cell in front of the altar as she looks around at her lover, seated on her bed. Did this young woman enter the convent voluntarily? In the image The Young Child a woman with children in a miserable hut prepares soup over an open fire – Death takes her youngest.

Der Ackermann resized

Hans Holbein the Younger, The Plowman from Dance of Death, c.1524-1526

The Ploughman, barefoot and ragged behind the plough, is too weak to dig deep furrows. Death drives the horses, and the peasant works until his end. For him, a peaceful, sunny landscape with a village on the horizon appears, quite unlike any seen in the other sheets of The Dance of Death. At this time, landscape painting was gaining new significance with the work of Albrecht Altdorfer. In Holbein’s painting, paradise is perhaps joined with Thomas More’s earthly utopia – the island where there is no place for the wealthy, and private property is abolished.

The expressive and realistic style of Holbein’s early work reflects the spirit of the early bourgeois revolution. His portraits also demonstrate tremendous characterisation. Holbein painted his models in a cool and objective manner, emphasising the essence of the depicted person. Significant examples include the portraits of Erasmus and The Artist’s Family.

Screenshot 2023 09 20 at 20.39.43 1

Hans Holbein the Younger, Portrait of the Artist's Family, c. 1528

In his final years in London, Holbein, as a court painter, became a celebrated artist who portrayed the rich and powerful, designed decorations for court festivities, and created jewellery, plates, and other valuable objects. His paintings of the royal family and the nobility testify to the royal court during the time when Henry solidified his control over the Church of England, separating it from the Roman Church and the papacy. The political and religious climate in England had drastically changed. In 1532, Henry VIII challenged the authority of the Pope when he annulled his marriage to Catherine of Aragon to marry Anne Boleyn. More opposed this move and resigned from his office as Lord Chancellor (supreme judge and adviser to the monarch) in May 1532. In 1535, More was beheaded.

To Erasmus' great disappointment, Holbein distanced himself from More's humanist circles and found patrons among the new circles of political power. He betrayed his erstwhile ideals about reform of Church and society, ended his close association with Renaissance humanists, and drew back from critical depiction of the wealthy and powerful. He thus became an ironic comment on his own 'The Dance of Death' sequence, and passed away in 1543 at the age of 45.

Sean O'Casey, Ireland's greatest working-class playwright
Monday, 30 October 2023 10:45

Sean O'Casey, Ireland's greatest working-class playwright

Published in Theatre

Paul O'Brien, the first Irish critic to publish a full-length political biography of Sean O’Casey from a left-wing perspective, talks to Jenny Farrell about some largely unknown aspects of the first proletarian dramatist of international significance writing in English.

Despite four major biographies in existence, O’Brien felt that “they offered no real examination explaining O’Casey’s development in terms of his political route from a young man involved with the Gaelic League and the IRB, and later the ICA, the socialist and then the communist movement. This background made O’Casey one of the most political writers of his generation.”

However, as O’Brien insists, while politics were central to O’Casey’s life, equally important was the artistic craft of writing drama. As a young man, he absorbed the works of Shakespeare and Boucicault. Alongside such significant influences as Jim Larkin and Charles Darwin, his fellow Dubliner Bernard Shaw made a lifelong impact: “Shaw transformed his view of drama and politics.”

Initially, it was Shaw’s extensive prefaces that interested O’Casey, and later the plays themselves. While O’Casey’s first unproduced dramas were Shaw-inspired discussion plays, it is only in his later work that he achieves the Shavian fusion of forceful intelligence and comic invention that was to become a hallmark of his own writing.

The Plough and the Stars is indebted to Shaw’s Saint Joan in the way it artistically fuses the drama and the politics. Shaw had stood with the locked-out workers in 1913, and underwent a significant change in 1916, overcoming his reservations about republicanism and demanding that Britain end the executions of the leaders of the rebellion. O’Casey later remarked “that it was Shaw and Larkin who swung him to the left more than any other single influence.”

Exploring why O’Casey, despite his prolific output, is almost exclusively known for his Dublin trilogy, O’Brien points first to the hostile reception in Dublin of The Plough and the Stars, and in particular to the rejection by Yeats in 1928 of The Silver Tassie, although O’Casey’s plays had saved The Abbey from financial ruin earlier in the decade.

However, “the Establishment resented the themes of O’Casey’s post-Dublin plays, their open and satirical representation of the Church-state relationship in the Irish Free State in Cock-a-Doodle Dandy or The Bishop’s Bonfire, the expressionist treatment of the 1929 economic crisis in The Gates Flew Open, his support for the Spanish Republic in The Star Turns Red, with its exploration of the relationship between the Church and fascism — all of which were an anathema to the Irish Establishment.

“They turned their back on O’Casey and despite the occasional staging of plays other than the Dublin trilogy, such as the celebrated production of The Drums of Father Ned, at the Gaiety Theatre (1955), these later plays are rarely produced.”

This was in stark contrast to the socialist countries. “The USSR published the first bibliography of his work (1964) and his plays were widely performed there. O’Casey was in contact with the Soviet cultural establishment as early as 1925, through the Soviet emissary Raissa Lomonovska; he also met and admired the Soviet film-maker Sergei Eisenstein. His support for the Soviet Union strengthened during and after World War II. His plays were staged there not only in mainstream theatres but also by working-class theatre groups across the country.”

The roots of his popularity in East Germany in particular go back to the 1920s, to the influence of the communist dramatists and innovators such as Brecht, Toller and Piscator.

“Toller’s Transformations influenced The Silver Tassie, and generally these playwrights inspired O’Casey’s own experimentation with dramatic form.” After 1945, this radical theatre tradition was one of the reasons why O’Casey was performed in both German states. In West Germany, despite being championed by the acclaimed director Peter Zadek, disturbances took place during the performance of The Silver Tassie in 1953 and in 1968, when the audiences rioted and walked out of The Star Turns Red.

In the GDR, on the other hand, Brecht’s Berliner Ensemble or Langhoff’s Deutsches Theater, but also many theatres throughout the Republic were receptive to his work. “Purple Dust ran in repertoire for 12 years,” and is still available on film from the Berliner Ensemble production.

O’Casey was one of the most widely performed Western dramatists in the GDR. “His work enjoyed similar popularity across the Soviet Bloc, while Dublin, London and New York stages turned their backs on him.” Partly, O’Brien explains, this was “due to the challenges of integrating the tragic and comic expressionist techniques, as envisioned by O’Casey. But also, his critics felt that O’Casey had ‘lost his way,’ was no longer in touch with mainstream theatre.”

On the other hand, the working-class theatre companies were much more open to O’Casey’s plays. Nevertheless, “their own tradition of and focus on agit-prop theatre and the realist tradition did not lend itself very well to O’Casey’s lyrical, imaginative and non-realist style.”

When the Abbey turned down The Star Turns Red in 1939, and the play was banned in Britain by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office, Unity Theatre put on a production that ran for 12 weeks.” O’Brien explains, “O’Casey enjoyed a good relationship with Unity Theatre in their common pursuit to bring drama to the working class. The example of Unity Theatre inspired the foundation of The New Theatre Group in Dublin and the Left Book Club Dramatic Group Belfast in 1937. They were also influenced by the New York Group Theatre, perhaps the most innovative ensemble in the Western world at that time.”

However, “the repertoire of these working-class-based companies were largely directly political in their purpose, favouring the Living Newspaper style of theatre, chants, loudhailers and other forms associated with agitprop.”

Asked about O’Casey and the working-class cultural tradition today, O’Brien says “O’Casey’s shorter one and two-act plays, such as Hall of Healing would be highly suited to amateur working-class theatre groups who are in a unique position to highlight the contemporary relevance of O’Casey’s work. Some attempts have been made in Dublin by the ÁNU Theatre Group, and the East Wall History Group in conjunction with the Seán O’Casey Centre.”

But we await a full retrospective of his entire work, “O’Casey was the Abbey’s most successful playwright — they owe him that.”

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