Jim Aitken

Jim Aitken

Jim Aitken is a poet and dramatist living and working in Edinburgh. He is a tutor in Scottish Cultural Studies with Adult Education and he organises literary walks around the city.

Tackling the neoliberal, capitalist culture of Scotland: Review of 'A New Scotland: Building an equal, fair and sustainable society'
Monday, 27 June 2022 10:22

Tackling the neoliberal, capitalist culture of Scotland: Review of 'A New Scotland: Building an equal, fair and sustainable society'

Published in Cultural Commentary

This book, edited by Gregor Gall, is both a timely and ambitious work that seeks to take Scotland further forward along the road to self-determination. It is timely because it matches rather well Scotland’s First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, announcing recently that she plans to hold a second independence referendum later next year. Anyone interested in how Scotland could be as an independent nation should read this book, for its breadth of vision almost prefigures a new nation into being.

The ambition of the book is evident by the array of contributors to it. Gregor Gall has brought together nearly 60 academics and activists in various fields to consider three central areas of concern – Key Issues which deal with poverty, climate justice and economic concerns, Policy Areas which deal with housing, health, education, work, human rights, income and wealth inequality, gender justice, race and migration and the thorny issue of land ownership, and finally Political Practice that looks at culture, Scotland’s radical tradition, political classes today and community campaigns.

If all the analysis and calls to action were enacted upon then there would certainly be a newer and fairer Scotland. If everything suggested in this book came to fruition there would be nothing less than a paradigm shift in the political, economic and cultural condition of Scottish society. And it would lead to editors of every other nation commissioning their own versions of such a book.

What militates against this – and this is something most contributors agree upon – is the actual neoliberal condition in Scotland, in the UK and elsewhere in the world. Nearly every contributor deals with this, however without anyone actually defining what it is. It was interesting to see that Ellie Harrison is one of the contributors to this text and in her marvellous book The Glasgow Effect: A Tale of class, capitalism and carbon footprint (2019), she said that the word had a pervasive use in the world of culture and the arts and no-one ever bothered to define it. She referred to the book written by Alana Jelinck – This in Not Art: Activism & Other ‘Not-Art’- which suggested that neoliberalism has three main components, namely privatisation, deregulation and trade liberalisation.

This aggressive system of parasitic capitalism is clearly responsible for the world’s inequalities and for the climate emergency that it also fails to fully recognise. This economic culture holds Scotland back just as it holds back every other nation on earth. However, Scotland truly does have a special place in this debate since she last voted for the Conservative Party – a key driver of neoliberalism – in 1955. Undeniably, Scotland has suffered from a democratic deficit since then as a result of voting Labour up until 2010 at General Elections, and has subsequently voted SNP at General Elections since then as well as giving the SNP majorities in Holyrood since 2007 and at local elections too since then.

Just like Gall’s book the Scottish people have aspirations to improve. The preferred route was traditionally through Labour but with that Party’s incarnation into New Labour that continued the neoliberal nostrums enacted by Thatcher, they have now switched to the SNP, which claims to be social democratic. Initially, this party did some excellent things with free bus passes for pensioners – extended to young adults aged under 24 – free tuition fees, free prescriptions and, more recently, baby boxes for each new child born in Scotland.

Brexit certainly changes matters even more. Scotland voted to Remain in the EU in 2016 by some 62% and there is no special deal for Scotland as there is for Northern Ireland. The Brexit coup has pushed the whole polity of the UK further to the right and Scotland feels isolated by these events. While the contributors do applaud some of the SNP achievements, many also recognise how the party has stalled in recent times. The book, in a sense, seeks to push things forward.

Much of this stalling is due to what several contributors call the PMC – the professional and managerial class both within Holyrood, and the troupe of journalists, assorted media and business interests which surround the place. According to Morelli and Mooney this has been responsible for what they call the technocratic managerialism within a fixed budgetary framework. Scotland’s Barnett formula grant from Westminster has created a heavily centralised state under the SNP as it seeks to distance itself from an even more centralised post-Brexit Westminster under a right wing Conservative government.

Hassan and Graham suggest that the community around Holyrood and its professional politics is defined by the privileged white, middle-class, male gaze. In a marvellous phrase they speak of the choreographies of consultation that take place there while lamenting the missing voices of ordinary working-class people and their growing concerns.

Danson and Dalzell both castigate the two centuries of clearance, emigration and degradation of communities, land and culture have created imbalanced landscapes, economies and populations. Such sound historical knowledge of the contributors underpins the desire for social justice in a small nation that is genuinely in need of it.

The use of the word culture seems well chosen. In essays by Burnett and Chalmers and Scothorne and Gibbs, there is recognition given to the place of culture in Scotland. While Burnett and Chalmers view Scottish culture as an inherently national identifier and admit that culture is not about ‘additional benefit’ but is essential to our lives and wellbeing, Scothorne and Gibbs view Scottish culture as the most likely source of renewal for Scottish radicalism. However, this view also used the word perhaps and I must take issue with this choice of word here. Both writers point to the wonderfully radical play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, written by John McGrath in 1973, but seem to fail to understand that it is Scottish writers and artists since McGrath and Hamish Henderson, who also gets a mention, that have taken us to the demand for a second independence referendum.

Scotland’s first three Makars – Edwin Morgan, Liz Lochhead and Jackie Kay – all had their poems read out at the opening sessions of Holyrood. All three poems had a radical edge, demanding that the Scottish Parliament deliver for the people of Scotland. Alasdair Gray, as both writer, artist and individual was the very epitome of Scottish radicalism. In both Gaelic culture and in Scots there are many writers producing work that is radical. Scottish literature – and Scottish culture more generally – has been on the side of radical change for Scotland. And that change has been of a constitutional nature.

Jim Cuthbert refers to Lenin and the rentier states that Scotland and the UK have become but maybe – as opposed to perhaps – with independence the SNP could wither away like the state as envisioned by Lenin after revolution, and create an opening for more radical politics that could be filled by a Scottish Labour Party that is no longer a branch office’of London, as Johann Lamont once said?

Maybe or perhaps is all that can be said just now. On a broader level of cultural understanding there is the recognition that access to culture has a price tag attached and with so many people living in poverty there will clearly be an issue here. And big business, of course, sponsor so many events in the cultural sphere that seems to counter any radicalism ever coming into play. The same can be said of print houses that are foreign owned but Scothorne and Gibbs do point favourably to the website Bella Caledonia which, it must be stated, has been inspired by one of Alasdair Gray’s creations.

It was good to see some excellent input to the book by Rozanne Foyer, General Secretary of the STUC and Linda Somerville, the Deputy General Secretary. The STUC, we are told, was the first ever labour movement body to employ an arts officer. That is recognition of the radical importance of culture in Scottish society.

The final word should go to Gregor Gall, the editor of this fine collection of essays. He tells us in his introduction that Scotland is a wealthy country full of poor people. The whole point of this book is to try and change that.    

Britishness
Friday, 03 June 2022 20:31

Britishness

Published in Poetry

Britishness, or A Riposte To The Platinum Jubilee

by Jim Aitken

B – Backwardness, best exemplified by Brexit
R – Royalty, the pinnacle of a class-ridden society
I – Imperialism, intentionally not spoken about
T – Tory! Tory! Tory!
I – Intellectually immobile, incurably conservative
S – Sycophancy, servility, senility
H – Habitually aghast at anything remotely radical
N – Nostalgia for a blood-soaked past that forgets about the blood
E – Englishness, everlasting little version only
S – Subject subjects, never participatory citizens
S – Strata of archaically crafted class division

Now Ukraine
Tuesday, 19 April 2022 10:22

Now Ukraine

Published in Poetry

Now Ukraine

by Jim Aitken, with image by Martin Gollan

1.
Yes, it is absolutely ghastly and gruesome.
Yes, Putin is responsible for war crimes
because war itself is a crime, a failure.
I started marching during the Vietnam War
and have opposed every war since then.
Those demonising Putin are the same people
who supported the war in Afghanistan, Iraq,
the very same people who bombed Libya.
Their outrage has their arms manufacturers
rubbing their hands with all the new orders
coming their way. NATO says come on in to
Finland and Sweden. More bases, more orders
for more arms – and far less for welfare –
though silence from the armaments industry.

2.
Hegel once spoke of the slaughter bench of history
and that bench just gets longer and longer
each year that passes. Yesterday it was Syria,
Iraq and Afghanistan, today it is Ukraine
and who will it be tomorrow? It looks a bit like
Russia since sanctions are a form of warfare
just like benefit cuts are a war on the poor.
The same outraged faces and sanctimonious voices
want Russia on her knees. Ukraine is collateral damage
with Tigray and Yemen relegated from our screens.
Putin joins the elite club of Truman, Bush and Blair,
Nixon and Kissinger. Now it is Ukraine and who
will it be tomorrow? Where can the tensions get
stoked up next? What name next for Hegel’s bench?

3.
And as we rightly condemn Putin’s barbarism,
we note BAE System’s share price risen by 24%.
The world has always been at war since war
not only pays but it distracts as well, and Putin
can be blamed for all the ravages back home.
Luther King said, ‘We have guided missiles and
misguided men.’ The misguided men still guide
their people away from their social conditions,
away from their inequalities. And now Ukraine’s
name can be added to Hegel’s slaughter bench and
I will march again for an end to war and for peace.
And for the humanity that binds us all, regardless
of our nation, our race or colour, our gender or faith,
for all people over all the earth to wage peace instead.

This poem is taken from a forthcoming book of poetry by Jim Aitken, 'Declarations of Love', illustrated by Martin Gollan, to be published this summer by Culture Matters.

The purest light attracts the most impenetrable darkness: Hex, by Jenni Fagan
Sunday, 03 April 2022 09:42

The purest light attracts the most impenetrable darkness: Hex, by Jenni Fagan

Published in Fiction

Jim Aitken reviews Hex, by Jenni Fagan, published by Birlinn 

There can be little doubt that part of the success of Jenni Fagan’s previous novel, Luckenbooth (2021), can be attributed to the way she managed to evoke Edinburgh’s Old Town with its grey tenements, cobbles and closes. In her recent novel, Hex (2022), she has returned to the Old Town of the sixteenth century as well as taking us out to East Lothian and to the North Berwick witch trials of 1590-92.

The novel was written for Geillis Duncan and she is in fact the novel’s main character. Geillis was hanged as a witch when she was only 15 years old. Other characters mentioned in the novel were also real historical characters like Geillis – Doctor John Fian, Agnes Sampson, Barbara Napier and Euphame MacCalzean.

While the outing of witches had been going on for some considerable time, under both Catholicism and Protestantism throughout Europe, the rule of James V1 of Scotland, 1st of England, certainly contributed to the frenzied atmosphere. A storm had blown James’ wife to be, Anne of Denmark, off course and the ship was forced on to the Norwegian coast. James set sail from Leith to fetch Anne personally – although he had a retinue of some 300 men with him.

Witchcraft and torture

James and Anne were formally married in Oslo and as they travelled to Denmark it became apparent that here was a country familiar with witchcraft and this sparked James’ interest. Witches were blamed for creating the sea storm and James personally supervised the torture of women accused of witchcraft back home in Scotland. Fagan refers to James in her novel and castigates him accordingly and she gives us a portrait of him at the end of his life as ‘an incoherent slobberer, his tongue grown too big for his mouth.’

A pamphlet that was produced at the time of the North Berwick witch trials was titled Newes from Scotland and James used this pamphlet to conclude his work Daemonologie (1597) which was published again when he ascended the English throne in 1603. Jacobean England was home to Ben Johnson, Francis Bacon, John Donne and William Shakespeare and the concluding part of James’ work was used by Shakespeare to write Macbeth (1606).

Geillis Duncan, like all other women accused of witchcraft, was wholly innocent. Under torture she implicated other people who were also hanged. Fagan is totally sympathetic to Geillis – and to all women more generally who have had to endure centuries of misogyny and who have been scapegoated for the failings of men, particularly those men who have been in power.

While Hex enables a real historical character to have her voice back, Fagan also creates a fictionalised character to be with her in her cell as she awaits execution. This character is called Iris and she comes from our period. Iris was the Greek Goddess of the rainbow, something that symbolises hope and the flower Iris is also said to cleanse areas. Iris has come out of the ether, or Null as Fagan calls it. She brings comfort, support and understanding.

Iris is related to Geillis by being a woman herself who has also known misogyny and they share their stories. Iris tells Geillis about some of the awful things done to women today and she refers to the two Met officers who took photographs of two murdered sisters. These officers were meant to guard the murder scene but instead they took photos of the two ‘dead birds’ they circulated to friends on WhatsApp. This happened in 2021and such actions by such men have been going on during the time of Geillis Duncan – and before – and in our own time.

Iris later turns into a crow and this gives the novel an air of the supernatural that fits perfectly with the subject matter she is writing about. It works well and Iris is also said to be Geillis’ ‘familiar’, a clever device she may well have used from Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy from 1995-2000.

Fagan does try to offer some answers as to why men behave in this way. She seems to suggest that it is not just male-dominated power structures that are at fault but there seems a deeper existential element as to why many men behave the way they do. Fagan has Iris say that, ‘Men want to know how they got trapped on earth.’ The reason for being here is certainly something that many men have thought about – most of our greatest philosophers have been men who attempted to answer this question. However, as the questioning continues and men look around seeking answers Iris tells Geillis, ‘There is no man on earth who didn’t get here except by a woman parting her thighs.’

Geillis is housekeeper to David Seaton and she is a hard-working girl who knows her place. She causes no offence ever, averts her smile and her eyes and her lightness of being. She maintains that Seaton cannot deal with her ‘Light.’ Women from nothing can give birth to life and are so much more related to nature than men because of this. This light in their lives, in Geillis’ case, enables her to marvel at the moon and the stars, to listen to the sea and find joy in looking at a seashell and taking it home with her.

Seaton, according to Geillis, ‘started the North Berwick witch trials to get Euphame’s money.’ Disputes over inheritance, envies and jealousies, particularly of women of independent wealth and means, was responsible for many women being accused of witchcraft. Geillis liked to go out at night and look at the stars or go down to the beach on her own and this condemned her. Seaton also discovered her seashell and this somehow implied her pact with the Devil.

Geillis was brutally tortured and made to confess and as she says herself, under torture, ‘You will do anything.’ We know this from our own time with Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram, Northern Ireland and all the unknown sites of extraordinary rendition. Seaton had enabled Geillis to be tortured in a room she had previously cleaned for him and she says of her torturers, ‘So much fun laying into a girl, right? Exciting for them. It made them hard.’

Geillis also had the misfortune to be able to assist women in child-birth and she was ‘cursed with the ability to cure the ill’ by knowing which herbs and plants could be used to alleviate certain ailments. At the top of the Royal Mile, on Castlehill, there is a so called Witches’ Well which stands just opposite the site where women were once hanged for witchcraft. The well was commissioned by Patrick Geddes (1854- 1932) in 1894 and the artist John Duncan (1866-1945) was urged to produce a cast iron fountain to honour the people who were burned or hanged between the 15th and 18th centuries. During the 16th century more women were murdered at this site than anywhere else in Scotland.

Creating a fearful panic in society can aid the entrenchment of power and the witchcraft frenzy could also be used to settle old scores, enrich individuals at the expense of others and keep women subordinate to men. While men were also outed as sorcerers or magicians and burned and hanged, over 80% of those said to be in league with the Devil were women – more generally peasant women – and that was true throughout Europe of this period.

Iris speaks for Geillis and her outrage at the treatment being meted out to her sister, and she speaks to us with a contemporary voice. She is appalled at how people accepted this. She tries to analyse it by saying that although many must have known that Geillis was innocent ‘they want to believe the people in charge know what they are doing.’ This, for them, is a greater need. It brings to mind £350 million a week for the NHS painted on the side of a bus.

What price solidarity?

Iris also says that, ‘Silence is complicity. Non-action is a form of approval.’ Brecht would certainly agree with her but so too would Edmund Burke (1729-1797) when he said, ‘The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.’ The past that Fagan has so wonderfully evoked for us begs much the same questions of us all today. Will white people, realising that we are all one, stand shoulder to shoulder with Black Lives Matter activists? Will men stand shoulder to shoulder with women in supporting their demands for the murdering of their sisters to stop? Will Christians and non-Christians support Moslems from being scapegoated? Will we indigenous people stand firm against the scapegoating of immigrants? And will those of us who live comfortably come to the support of those being thrown deeper and deeper into poverty?

All questions like these ones – and more – are implied by Iris’ statement. Fagan raises many issues in Hex. She makes us think about all the injustices that are allowed to thrive and, more importantly, who benefits from those injustices. The witchcraft frenzy kept the churches full and their power was assured by the state-engendered climate that was created. In our world division of people simply ingrains the rich in their plunder for more riches.

Fagan tells us the witchcraft panic was ‘a plague… a thought plague.’ This certainly rings true and, of course, we must be on guard against all such ‘thought plagues’ that exist today. Fagan also speaks of ‘the delusions of others.’ These two comments could not exist without the organisational ability of the state to spread such disinformation and infect the minds of the populace. Every day the leading Tory papers – the Daily Mail, Telegraph and Express all have their campaigns against ‘wokery’ (the new witchery?) which has the effect of enabling readers of these papers to ridicule campaigns against racial injustice, climate change, our imperial past and the statuary associated with it, women campaigning against male violence and so much more besides. In other words, all thought and opinion that is not Tory is demonised. This too is a form of ‘thought plague.’

In one of the few studies of the witchcraft mania that spread in Europe, Norman Cohn in Europe’s Inner Demons (1975), argued that the entire period seemed to convulse in a particularly provocative set of delusions. His work examined the fake documents of the time and he showed how a dangerous irrationalism took hold of nations. There were no witches according to him. And we must not forget a similar psychological underpinning for the rise of fascism last century. Wilhelm Reich (1897-1957) in The Mass Psychology of Fascism (1946) argued that it was not solely economic and political factors that contributed to the rise of fascism. He also pointed to what he called ‘the collective expression of average human beings, whose primary biological needs have been ruthlessly crushed by an authoritarian and sexually inhibited society.’ Fascism seemed a way out because of its simple appeals but, of course, it led to even greater authoritarianism. The danger for us today is that similarly simple appeals are being made all over again.

In the US the conspiracy theorists of QAnon circulate the view that Washington is the seat of Satan-worshipping paedophiles and millions of Americans believe this. Some 21% of Americans also believe – according to a poll conducted in recent years – that witches are still around and brewing up their fiendish brews. During the 2016 Presidential election Hilary Clinton was demonised, particularly on social media, with images of her in a black hat riding a broom. She was also dubbed The Wicked Witch of the Left ( if only!) and in Australia the first woman Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, had protests against her with placards proclaiming, Ditch the Witch.

A revolutionary push towards communalism

Any woman in power seems fair game. Fagan says as much in Hex. Powerful women have simply got above their station and they have to be taught a lesson. This happened to Cleopatra and Anne Boleyn who was said to have three nipples implicating her allegiance with the Devil. Joan of Arc simply had to be a witch by being able to win battles against the English and she was burned at the stake. And if we think of the way our children can also be conditioned to think in this way then consider the tale of Hansel and Gretel or the Slavic tale of Baba Yaga.

Silvia Federici, in books like Caliban and the Witch (2018) and in other works by her, says that the attacks on women as witches came about as feudalism gave way to capitalism. The peasantry of feudal times had to be made to adapt to this new system. Interestingly, Federici argues that the witch hunts occurred around the same time as colonialism and the extermination of the populations of the New World, the English enclosures, the beginning of the slave trade and the laws against vagabonds and beggars. Witch- hunting, she says, peaked from 1580-1630 ‘when feudal relations were giving way to economic and political institutions typical of mercantile capitalism.’ Effectively, for Federici, the witch hunts represented ‘class war by other means.’

She also maintained that there was also what she calls ‘an intervening revolutionary push toward communalism.’ Men and women at this time grew their crops together and their homes and their work were much the same. They worked in both. However, under capitalism waged labourers had to work outside the home all the time. This left women to do what work was required in the home themselves. Witch-hunts pushed them into the home and brought into play a form of subjugation. There would be no move to any form of communalism.

And pregnancy and child-birth, once simply considered a natural function, became a job that women did for ‘their husband-bosses’. For Federici, this was essentially now a form of ‘alienated labour’. The realm of women who once were the midwives, abortionists and herbalists who provided contraception were demonised as witches to ‘cement patriarchal power.’  Intelligent women threaten men, powerful women threaten them even more and the female ‘body has been for women in capitalist society what the factory has been for male waged labour… the primary ground of their exploitation and resistance.’

The use of the word ‘resistance’ is crucial here. If women are not free then neither are men, according to Hegel’s master/slave dialectic. And since men and women are clearly in relation to one another and women make up half the human race, it should be abundantly obvious that any struggle by women should also be a struggle by men.

Geillis Duncan goes to her death with dignity proclaiming her innocence. Iris says she will ‘place a hex on every man, woman and child who takes pleasure in Geillis’ death.’ The locals of the Old Town, along with civic dignitaries and douce church-going folk all assemble to see Geillis hang. However, Iris has seemed to call forth – a bit like Hitchcock in The Birds (1963) –  birds ‘from all over the country to rest on rooftops and lintels and chimneys and windows.’

Edinburgh’s Old Town remains atmospheric to this day but this image of Geillis being hanged at Castlehill with all these birds watching is an incredibly compelling and eerie one. It has been achieved, like in other parts of the book, with a poetic style of writing. In fact Fagan has written a poem for her heroine at the end of the book called A Grey Rose fir Geillis Duncan.

The light of Geillis Duncan shines brightly in this book that is dedicated to her. Geillis is an Everywoman for Everytime. The injustice she suffered is the injustice all women have suffered and still continue to suffer. Their collective problem seems to be what Fagan calls, ‘The purest light’ attracting ‘the most impenetrable darkness.’ And that darkness is not simply down to toxic masculinity, it is also down to a toxic economic and political system that wants more and more from women as mothers, wives, lovers, workers, sex objects and figures to venerate. Men are coaxed into seeking pure Madonnas on the one hand and erotic La Belle Dame sans Merci figures on the other – a difficult business for any woman to achieve and a ludicrous dualism for any man to wish.

Fagan does recognise the ‘good men too’ and they simply have to grow in number so that all people of all nations, all races, all faiths, all men and all women can come to inherit the better world that is ‘Somewhere out there’ in ‘a different time.’ In the struggle ahead to get there the story of Geillis Duncan in Hex can surely be a guide.

A  Timeline of Women: Letting Go, by Gerda Stevenson
Saturday, 26 February 2022 21:48

A Timeline of Women: Letting Go, by Gerda Stevenson

Published in Fiction

A short story collection can, in certain respects, be seen as similar to a poetry collection. If the individual stories, like the individual poems, are well conceived and well written then they can stand alone. However, when they are considered in their entirety it only then becomes apparent what the collection is ultimately saying as a whole.

Gerda Stevenson’s poetry collection Quines (2018, Second Edition 2020) contained poems in tribute to Scottish women and each poem can stand alone. The effect of the collection as a whole, though, revealed the enormous impact Scottish women had made both nationally and internationally. Similarly, her recent short story collection Letting Go (2021) features women from different backgrounds and from different periods. The subtitle of the book is A Timeline of Tales and they begin in the 19th century with Graves, take us on to the Second World War with Bella Day, through recent times and on to the future with Skeleton Wumman. What these tales have in common is the struggle of women through history to affirm themselves.

Letting Go

The title story Letting Go features mum, Lily, and daughter, Jean, having a day out together. They have gone to view Neidpath Castle, once attacked by Cromwell’s troops in the 17th century. Stevenson gives us an intimate portrait of their close relationship. Lily reminisces about her past, growing up in Lancashire. As a young girl her expectations seemed limited to her helping run the family newsagents. Her father worked in the mill and his manner seemed a good bit softer than that of her mother. When Lily started going out with Harry Carter, a conscientious objector, her mum would have nothing to do with her any more. Lily and Harry were married and moved to the Scottish borders.

Lily wonders about her younger sister, Clara, and misses never having been able to talk to her all these years. Lily had adapted well to life in Scotland and loved the sound of Scots words and seemed to immerse herself in the culture of the place. Scotland was home and where her heart was, with Lancashire no more than a sad memory now. Jean, listening to her mum talk of her regrets over her estrangement with Clara, hands her Clara’s death notice. It said that she had worked all her days in the family shop and never married.

Lily drops the letter and Jean wishes to retrieve it but Lily says,’ Let it go… let the river take it.’  What Lily’s action says is leave the past now, let it go. But her resignation also suggests her feeling of regret about the wasted potential of Clara. Family pressure, convention and sense of duty have often held women back. Lily challenged this through an act of rebellion and went on to have a fulfilled life, whereas Clara must have succumbed to family pressure and accepted her lot running the family business.

Graves

The theme of letting go is also examined in a few other stories in the collection. In the opening story, Graves, we are taken back to the 19th century. A traveller approaches Sarah as she is working on a wood carving in her local church. The man says he is looking ‘for the man that killed ma mither.’ Sarah has no idea what that may have to do with her and changes the subject. He makes baskets and she says she will have a look at them. She chooses one and pays him with the few coppers she has in her skirt pocket. The man is engaged in seasonal work building a new reservoir and he is camped in the nearby hills. The work he later describes as ‘slave labour’ and the workforce is ‘Irish, maistly, an a hantle o us traivellers.’

The industrial revolution is underway at this time and a massive immigrant workforce from Ireland helped aid this development as a cheap source of labour. Sarah is intrigued by the man and he has aroused feelings in her. She later decides to pay him a visit at his encampment and discovers he is called Duncan. He had been hoping to confront her father, who is the Queen’s surgeon and based in London.

Sarah’s father, the traveller later tells her, had worked for Dr. Knox, the anatomist. As a respectable bourgeois daughter of the gentry, Sarah has been told to say her father is a baronet. She is an innocent party and has no real idea of what working with Dr. Knox would have entailed.

 This dread name evokes a ghastly trade in dead bodies – and in murder to obtain them. The names recall the infamous grave robbers Burke and Hare. They would steal bodies from their graves to sell to Dr. Knox who would buy them from between £7 to £10 a corpse, an enormous sum in those days. When the graves had metal bars installed over them, Burke and Hare would murder vulnerable individuals around Edinburgh’s Old Town.

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote the short story The Body Snatcher (1884) as a result of these events and Dylan Thomas wrote the play The Doctor and the Devils (1953) which presented many of the local people who fell victim to this unscrupulous and barbaric trade. Dr. Knox knew that his corpses were stolen or murdered and justified his anatomical research on the grounds that his scientific work would eventually save millions of lives. Today, there is a military expression that says much the same thing – it is collateral damage.

The great scientific, philosophical, literary and cultural developments that took place in Scotland from the latter half of the 18th century and into the 19th century are known as The Scottish Enlightenment. While this was a period in a ferment of ideas, it was also a period of essentially slave labour at home and quite literally slave labour abroad, and Dr. Knox built up his knowledge through this exploitative and reprehensible trade in murdered bodies. The comment once made by Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) that ‘every document of civilisation is also a record of barbarism’ certainly rings true here.

Duncan’s mother had fallen victim to the body snatchers and he had sought revenge but now lets it go. Sarah, a product of apparent bourgeois respectability, realises it is nothing more than bourgeois hypocrisy and she lets that go, and in an act of rebellion and self-definition she goes off with Duncan instead.

The Grail

Two of the stories – The Grail and A Day Off – share a similar thematic terrain. They both feature characters who have come to live and work in Scotland. In The Grail, the name of a former bookshop and coffee house, Rhona has returned to the place many years later to find that it has gone. It was there she first met Vitale, who once served her coffee. She and Vitale had become an item and she reminisces about their time together.

Rhona had to settle for a Starbucks instead this time round and felt she needed something to eat and spotted a trattoria across the road. Amazingly, all these years later she meets Vitale in there who is now ‘a chubby, middle-aged waiter.’ They talk about their respective pasts and Vitale, who once studied photography and had hoped to go on and be successful in this field, says he became ‘a cliché- an Italian waiter.’ It is clear that Vitale lacks a certain vitality in his life now with his marriage over and he seems deeply unsettled.

He had loved the landscape of Scotland but now, he says, ‘everything’s changing.’ This is now Brexit Britain and he says, ’I don’t know if I’ll be able to stay much longer – I’m not British.’ The great irony is that Vitale has lived two thirds of his life here whereas, Rhona, who was born here has lived a good part of her life abroad studying and working as an illustrator of children’s books.

When Rhona comes back to the trattoria some weeks later she discovers, like The Grail bookshop before, that it has now become The Albion, yet another corporate styled franchise. Vitale has gone, maybe to join his son in Germany.

Stevenson does not use the word ‘Brexit’ here but she shows nonetheless what some of its side-effects have been. Scotland has lost a valuable labour source in the hospitality sector and people who were once valued have been devalued and made to feel unwelcome. In a twist at the end of the story a man is standing up a ladder removing spray-painted letters above The Albion. What is being removed is the word Perfidious. The expression Perfidious Albion has an extremely long history and it has been directed at England and then Great Britain for centuries. Brexit and perfidy are clearly related here.

A Day Off

In A Day Off we are introduced to Anna, a worker from Poland. She is working in a chicken farm and Donald, a student at university, takes a fancy to her. They become friends but Anna has to endure the hostility of the temporary boss, Sheila, who is charge while Hendry, the actual boss, is on holiday. Sheila is merciless in her treatment of Anna yet Anna takes it with her customary politeness. This simply enrages Sheila even more.

The story is set in the run-up to Brexit. Sheila resents Anna and Donald because they have horizons, opportunities beyond the chicken farm where she has to remain. She is the main provider in her household where her son is unemployed, and her husband is in a wheelchair with his ‘benefits cut tae the bone.’ Sadly, Sheila fails to realise that such benefits were not cut by Brussels, but by London and people like Sheila who fell for the xenophobic Brexit message will now find their benefits cut even more and will have to make use of the ever- growing number of foodbanks that have arisen since Brexit.

Anna has had enough and decides to leave but in a wonderful act of rebellion she releases all the chickens before she goes. Like Vitale before her, Anna was to realise ‘We are needed, but not wanted.’ And letting go people like Vitale and Anna was not merely an act of folly, it was an act of perfidy.

 Another Italian character appears in the story Bella Day. This story is set during the Second World War at a prisoner of war camp in Robinsisland, West Linton, in the Scottish Borders. Local girl Mary Whyte falls in love with Raffaelo, who is imprisoned there. He has an exotic kind of appeal for Mary and he carves her ‘a bonny wee cross wi rosehips on it.’ He later carves her a boat and his craftsmanship brings to mind the Italian prisoners who left Orkney with a wonderful Chapel they created from scrap they found around them on the seashore.

Mary’s parents do not like having the enemy close at hand and describe the Italian POWs as ‘filthy Catholic foreigners’, confirming both their narrow insularity and their religious bigotry. When Mary tells Raffi that she is pregnant he cries and this is the first time Mary has ever seen a man cry. The reaction of her parents was predictable – ‘It’s no enough ye’re gonnae hae a Fascist bairn – ye’re turnin Catholic on us noo.’

This story has a certain echo of an earlier novel written by Jessie Kesson (1916- 1994). In her novel Another Time, Another Place (1983), a young woman similar to Mary has three Italian POWs billeted in the cottage next to where she stays with her husband, who is a farm worker fifteen years older than her.

Where Mary has a name in Bella Day, the anonymous young woman in Kesson’s novel is often called simply wifie. What Kesson and Stevenson share is the desire for their women to escape the trammels of narrow insularity that holds back both their passions and their need to seek liberation. Both tales end disastrously, however. Raffi left after the war ended. He had wanted to hold on at Robinsisland for as long as he could to wait for Mary to return with their baby. She was sent to a boarding house ‘near Lanark’ to have her child, and by the time she got back, Raffaelo had gone. It turned out that on route home to Italy he stopped to stretch his legs and stood on a land mine somewhere in France. In Kesson’s story the young woman who had an affair with Luigi was blackmailed by him and she then had to face the wrath of her narrow, unforgiving community.

Stevenson’s women crave a passionate intensity of feeling that is both sexual and spiritual. Narrow insularities of church and community make this difficult to achieve. Her women also have to work and do much of the caring in their families and this too holds back their dreams. The expectations placed on women can be too great for them to achieve fulfilment.

The Fiver

The story The Fiver offers the portrait of a harassed mother, wife and daughter in one hectic day seeing to the needs of her daughter, her husband and her mother. Flora has to take her mother to hospital while at the same time she worries about her daughter ‘who, due to an extra chromosome, found it difficult to count.’ She has to get back in time to give her daughter a five pound note before she leaves for college. Her husband, who is losing his memory, seems pretty incapable of helping out and Flora has essentially become his carer.  

What is also significant about the area Flora lives in is that the village no longer has a bank, has a dismal bus service and there is no longer any post office either. These are the sorts of cuts we see happening all over the country and, although they can impact on men, they can often have a more adverse effect on women.

While all turns out well in this story, Stevenson tells us in Chromosomes and Chocolate, another story in the collection that looks at the difficulties of a mother bringing up a child with one extra chromosome, that how she copes with all the demands placed upon her is to try and ‘shape the weeks ahead into some form, a structure to hang my anxieties on – a long rail of days like coat hangers.’ Women all over the world will surely recognise and appreciate the truth contained in such an image.

Stevenson’s stories deal with disability but do so without ever mentioning the word. The girl with the extra chromosome could well be a Down’s Syndrome girl, Lily from Letting Go is in a wheelchair, Flora’s husband may have some form of Alzheimer’s, the child born to Mary and Raffaelo was ‘no richt… no enough oxygen wi the cord roond her neck.’ For Mary, though, this seems unimportant as she says, ‘But, ye’re mine.’

Skeleton Wumman

For Stevenson all people are as they are and all are special because they are people. This is why she refuses to use medical terms for conditions because she clearly believes that all people are gifts to life. So-called disability is as arbitrary a condition as skin pigmentation – something she explores in the story Colour – and nowhere is this more heroically depicted as in the final story Skeleton Wumman. This story is set in a future where the world of climate change has well and truly come to pass. The skeleton woman was born with her ‘legs frozen at birth’ and she can’t speak either, so narrates the story internally to us. Even although she is dead and swirls along the sea bed, her voice is compelling, loving and tender. Her parents realised that she was of sound mind but found it difficult tending to her needs.

The coastal town she lives in finds itself in a precarious situation with rising sea levels. One of the great ironies – just like today – is that the TV is always showing programmes about nature and telling viewers there was little of it left. Another irony is that when the great waves come and sweep everything away all the cash comes ‘pourin oot the banks wi the flood, waves o gowd and siller.’ What use is money anymore, what use gold and silver in a world that we have allowed to let go? This is the ultimate sense of letting go in this collection. Ecocidal capitalism has always placed profit before people but the irrationality of such a system that it is clearly prepared to sacrifice the planet and all her peoples for more and more profit, shows us the need to hold our leaders to account and demand a world for our children and grandchildren to inherit.

It was fitting that the voice of this last story was a woman’s voice. Women wanted more from the world than its material benefits. They wanted a love that was not only passionate but one that was also nurturing and caring. And women have been prepared to do all they can in additional labour to help this come about. Stevenson’s stories are a Timeline of Women and they possess not only a literary artistry but a campaigning spirit that challenges how the entire world is. She is opposed not only to sexism but to racism, the labelling of people by their disabilities, narrow religious insularity and ecocidal capitalism.

And she manages to convey all this with a relative ease with the language she uses. She flits effortlessly from English into Scots and this is a true gift. Not only that but she also quotes from Gaelic, Italian, Polish and Afrikaans. She loves the shape, the sound and feel of languages and this gives the collection a strong international dimension. All our languages should bring us together, not separate us from one another. Language, after all, is the medium of all our stories.

One final word and it will be on the relationship between men and women. In the story A Botanical Curiosity for Eve, we are told ‘Adam was the gardener and Eve carried the trowel.’  In such a statement lies the unequal relationship between men and women – and this relationship has to change because men will actually be the beneficiaries of such a change as much as women will.

Letting Go is a fine collection of stories that deserve to be widely read. Stevenson has previously shown how good a poet she is and this collection shows how equally good she is at writing prose.   

Letting Go is published by Luath Press at £8.99. It is available here.

Philosophy, cultural relativism, anti-intellectualism and the far right
Sunday, 26 December 2021 13:04

Philosophy, cultural relativism, anti-intellectualism and the far right

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jim Aitken analyses the links between philosophical and cultural relativism, anti-intellectualism and far right politics, in a wide-ranging, discursive essay. The image above is of the Night of the Long Batons (29 July 1966), when the federal police physically purged politically incorrect academics who opposed the right-wing military dictatorship of Juan Carlos Onganía (1966–1970) in Argentina from five faculties of the University of Buenos Aires

The postmodernists would detest a title such as this one. They claim to be opposed to elites – who are seen as somehow remotely intellectual – while at the same time claiming a relativism in all artistic production which could rank the novels, say, of Nadine Dorries alongside the work of Dostoevsky. In all things, it seems, there is this relativism that seeks to bridge gaps between so called high and popular art forms and between thought and opinion; between all forms of discourse, even when there is very little of it about.

The deconstructiveness of their thought is also highly sceptical. While a healthy scepticism is certainly agreeable before making judgements and decisions, to continually vacillate is to create a vacuum which can be so easily filled by unwelcome forces. Today, these forces are the forces of the far right, both within the Tory Party and outside of it. And these forces are in power, or fighting for power, across Europe and the rest of the world.

Amazingly, these trenchant forces all claim they are challenging the elites that are holding back their bizarre vision of progress. These elites, they maintain, reside in universities, in the civil service (called ‘The Blob’ in The Daily Telegraph and Daily Mail), on the left (as always), in the scientific community, in literary, artistic and media circles, among academics and so-called experts, and in the actual vacuum that is social media. In America they are called liberal elites while here in the UK all opposition is derided as mere ‘wokery.’

The grand narrative of capitalism

And this state of affairs can be attributed, in part, to the woolly relativist thinking that says there is no such thing as class when there are billionaires and those living in dire poverty, and where the grand narratives of socialism and communism have been discarded while the other grand narrative of capitalism continues plundering the planet and its peoples.

In a sense the outrage at liberal elites and wokery; at Black Lives Matter and climate protests, and against anything remotely left, whether politically or culturally, shows the deep unease within the actual real elites who continue to run the affairs of state. These elites are the same ruling classes that have always been in power and their shift further to the right actually shows their unease. This is because these ruling classes realise there is a strong reaction against their divisiveness of people on the basis of class, race, religion, gender and sexual orientation. And they also realise the enormity of the forces gaining momentum against climate chaos, as well as those appalled at the corruption within the state. Before it was Jews and witchcraft as scapegoats, now it is migrants, Muslims and general wokery.

We have been here before. This classic anti-intellectualism is designed to divide people and blame others rather than the elite caretakers of the chaos that is capitalism. To divert attention, divide and rule. But throughout history there have been those who have consistently challenged how things were and sought radical change.

In the ancient world both Confucius (551-479 BC) and Socrates (469-399 BC) tried to achieve a higher level of good governance for their respective states by simply asking questions. Neither had a dogmatic manner but their aims were both the same – to educate by posing questions that can be enlarged upon and debated. Socrates was found guilty of corrupting the Athenian youth of his day and sentenced to death. Confucius never attained any high office of state though some of his former students did and made appeals on his behalf.

Around the time of Socrates there was a group of philosophers called the Sophists. While they did foster critical thinking, some like Protagoras and Hippias used logic simply as a suave exercise in cynical virtuosity to prove things like sin and virtue can be synonymous or that evil can be as desirable as good. Their logic simply led to an earlier form of relativism, negativism and a thorough lack of human values that Socrates believed would ultimately undermine Greek society.

Similarly, today’s anti-woke brigade of continually outraged Conservatives thrive in the absence of any socialist alternative offered. They are the adherents of political postmodernism which claims that class is dead despite Victorian levels of inequality. They applaud what they call good old fashioned common sense and rail – as Gove did during the Brexit campaign – against experts. This attitude took on deeply disturbing scenes at a Trump rally when he encouraged his audience in shouting ‘Fire Fauci’, the Chief Medical Officer in America, who was calling for measures to be taken against the rising cases of Covid.

History is littered with anti-intellectualism and it is clear that rich and powerful individuals do not wish scrutiny; do not wish to be intellectually or culturally challenged because their rule would be in jeopardy. However, the much-used phrase telling truth to power remains suspect for Chomsky. He maintains that the ruling classes are only too well aware of the truth and that they seek simply to conceal it and the people who should be told the truth are the masses oppressed by the rich and powerful.

Ancient Chinese and Roman emperors were constantly ill at ease with scholars and writers. It was said during the Dynasty of Qin Shi Huang (246-210 BC) that political power was consolidated by suppressing freedom of speech. Books like the Shi Jing (a poetry classic) and the Shujing (a history book from c.6th century BC) were ordered to be burned. Anyone refusing to give up their copies would be executed. The imperial library though still kept copies of such texts which confirms Chomsky’s view.

In imperial Rome too the Emperor Augustus (63 BC -14 AD) had his henchmen search houses for books he did not wish to be circulated. The poet Juvenal once said it is better to criticise emperors once they have died.

Rich, powerful, ignorant and stupid

The richest and most powerful capitalist economy on Earth has nurtured a culture of ignorance and stupidity. For decades now the United States has been well down the league table internationally for educational attainment. While Hollywood can show the luxurious living of the wealthy, along with the US media more generally, it seems there is little appetite to focus on the millions in jail, millions more homeless, and tens of millions living in poverty. In this mix could be added the extent of the drug problem, both legally prescribed by Big Pharma and drugs circulated by criminal cartels. There is also the incredible death toll annually caused through the domestic sale of weapons, running at 30,000 per year with some 11,000 deaths from this figure caused through suicide.

There is nothing to feel patriotic about with such figures, and those who would argue such a case would simply be labelled communists or socialists as if the use of those words brings to an end any more discussion. This is effectively saying that social conscience is both ludicrous and dangerous.

The show trials that took place in Soviet Moscow and the McCarthy trials that took place in Washington both revealed a sense of paranoia with alternative ideas. The left-wing ideas that were disseminating in the US would have improved the social conditions of the American masses and the ideas of many of those charged with being enemies of the State in the Soviet Union were highly intelligent and original thinkers. People like Kamenev, Zinoviev and Bukharin were leading Party figures and their loss robbed the revolution. As for Trotsky’s expulsion and eventual assassination, the international socialist and revolutionary movement would have a permanent split that could only aid the capitalist powers. Murdering opponents is stupid because it holds back progress by instilling fear, which works as a barrier to a better system being developed. Ideas should always have free rein, especially ones that are suspect so that they can be shown to be suspect. Discourse must always be seen as desirable because it can invariably lead to desirable conclusions.

While the bureaucracy of the USSR simply ossified the entire system without the vital intellectual input required in such a historical development, the actively encouraged ignorance in the West has given us Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro, Modi and others.

A Trump supporter being interviewed by Jordan Klepper replied to his questioning – ‘Do I have proof? No. Do I have articles? No. But my mind is made up.’ This kind of response is a fairly commonplace one precisely because it has been cultivated that way. Fox News and GB News both cultivate ignorance through demanding their views are the stuff of common-sense. The shock-Jockery of the hosts fill the airwaves with bile and legitimise draconian legislation like the Borders and Nationality Bill going through Parliament, as well as denying they hold any racist or sexist views.

In fact, most news media have become smiley and friendly forums for entertainment as much as informing viewers about our world. Since Brexit there is even less of a focus on the wider world with the result that even greater insularity prevails. That simply mirrors the media in the USA and fosters a culture of unquestioning acquiescence.

It was Oscar Wilde in his wonderfully satirical play The Importance of Being Earnest (1895) who captured exactly the point of not educating the populace. Lady Bracknell tells Earnest:

I do not approve of anything that tampers with natural ignorance. Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit; touch it and the bloom is gone. The whole theory of modern education is radically unsound. Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever. If it did, it would prove a serious danger to the upper classes, and probably lead to acts of violence in Grosvenor Square.

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Wilde is ridiculing the upper classes that Lady Bracknell is talking about. Exactly the same sense of satire took place in Parisian clubs like the Le Chat Noir around the same time when Aristide Bruant, made famous by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and his poster of him with his black cape and red scarf, would poke fun and insult his upper-class clientele. They would similarly be rolling in laughter like Wilde’s audiences. They control everything, after all, so why would they not feel safe?

It was Walter Bagehot (1826-1877) in his The English Constitution (1867) – clearly not the British one since that would include Celts - who seemed to grasp the essence of Conservatism:

The Conservative turn of mind denotes adhesiveness to the early and probably inherited ideas of childhood, and a very strong and practically effective distrust of novel intellectual suggestions which come unaccredited by any such influential connection.

 Psychologists would call such characteristics arrested development. To this day when Conservatives are ever challenged they claim their opponents are being political as if to imply that they are somehow not. It is politically infantile but when they find themselves in serious trouble in their Parliaments there is always the reserve teams on hand to help them out. They are the patriotic demagogues like Trump, clowns like Berlusconi and Johnson, the military and emerging Fascist parties.

It was the Italian philosopher Giovanni Gentile (1875-1944), the father figure of Fascism, who was responsible for a solution to guarantee capital’s security. Like Marx, he was much influenced by Hegel but arrived at totally different conclusions. He was proud to be called by Mussolini ‘the philosopher of Fascism’ and went on to co-write with Il Duce The Doctrine of Fascism (1932) as well as serving as Minister for Education in his Government and becoming a member of the powerful Fascist Grand Council.

For Gentile the idealism of Hegel had to have action and Gentile went on to develop his own brand of thought which he called actual idealism. One of his key texts gives a clear indication by its title what he was on about –Theory of Mind as Pure Act (1912). In order to move away from class conflict, from both liberalism and Marxism, Gentile offered up corporatism as his solution whereby there would be the collective management of the economy by employers, workers and state officials. Corporate groups would organise society through its various areas such as agriculture, military, business, science and so on. The already rich would be perfectly secure and the workers would be firmly in their place. Today’s giant corporation Amazon comes immediately to mind in this regard and its model would be applauded by Gentile.

Fascist dictatorships are the most stupid ones of all. The horror and the evil of Auschwitz was also absolutely insane. During the Spanish Civil War the Franquist General Astray confronted the Spanish writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno at the University of Salamanca with cries of Muera la inteligencia! Viva la Muerte! (Death to the intelligentsia! Long live death!) And during a burning of left-wing books in General Pinochet’s Chile, soldiers burned a book on Cubism believing it had something to do with Castro’s Cuba.

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It was the American science fiction writer Ray Bradbury (1920-2012) who wrote Fahrenheit 451(1953) and this novel came out of the McCarthy witch-hunt trials that also threatened to – and did – burn books. As an emerging writer this alarmed him. It has an Orwellian feel to it in that firemen exist not to put fires out but to start them. If books are found to be in anyone’s home then the fire brigade is on its way to burn them. The central character Montag becomes disillusioned with his job and goes over to the other side where a small group of book lovers seek to protect all literature for future generations. Though Bradbury was conservative himself, he was appalled by the anti-intellectualism of his nation and went on to say how he believed the emergence of the mass media was hampering reading and an interest in books.

As well as making sure education has little impact, the ruling classes also manage to trivialise what is genuinely important – like our social conditions, wages, prices, housing, alternative progressive politics - and make popular the vacuous cult of celebrity. Again, Wilde stated in an interview for the St. James Gazette concerning his play, that:

(The Importance of Being Earnest) is exquisitely trivial, a delicate bubble of fancy, and it has its philosophy…That we should treat all the trivial things of life very seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.

Trivial TV

This comment sums up much of the TV we watch and it is clearly designed that way. And it has been going on for an exceedingly long time. TV and radio hosts are adept at talking trivia and it was pointed out by Epictetus (c 56- c 135 AD):

When we blather about trivial things, we ourselves become trivial, for our attention gets taken up with trivialities. You become what you give your attention to.

Bombarded by trivia and with a clear control over any opposing ideas, so-called democracy seems a safe haven for capital to flourish. For another science fiction writer Isaac Asimov (1920-1992) this was the anti-intellectual basis of democracy:

Anti-intellectualism has been a constant thread winding its way through our political and cultural life, nurtured by the false notion that democracy means ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.

Such a statement is all too near today’s political and cultural malaise. Of course, the concept of truth itself is suspect for the postmodernists which merely enables more and more exploitation of various kinds – through the mass media, through attacks on trade unions, climate protestors, Black Lives Matter activists, women campaigning against domestic violence – to take place.

Ruling classes have a fear and loathing of history. Liz Truss, the new Foreign Secretary and Brexit Minister, recently lauded our wonderful nation as the greatest on earth and told her audience that all nations have warts in their pasts and that dwelling on the past is not what matters but creating a brighter future is what truly matters.

Harold Wilson, twice a Labour Prime Minister, was considered by his politics tutor at Oxford to be the finest student he had ever had. He received a triple first in Philosophy, Politics and Economics and became the youngest Oxford don of the century at age 21.  Before becoming MP for Ormskirk he had previously been a lecturer in Economic History at New College and a research fellow at University College. With such a brilliant academic pedigree it seems incredible that he would boast that he had never read Marx’s Das Kapital.

Francis Wheen tells us in Marx’s Das Kapital (2006) that Wilson claimed to have got as far as page two ‘and that’s where the footnote is nearly a page long. I felt two sentences of main text and a page of footnotes were too much.’ Any cursory look at the opening pages of this text would show that there are indeed footnotes in the opening pages, but none more than a few sentences. Such a comment is a clear case of anti-intellectualism.

Before the English socialist Henry Hyndman actually acknowledged his debt to Marx and his text, he had initially told Marx that he did not wish to mention him by name in his England for All (1881) – presumably, like Bagehot before him, using England to mean Scotland, Wales and Ireland as well he told Marx he could not do so because the English ‘had a horror of socialism’ and ‘a dread of being taught by a foreigner.’ Take Back Control, Get Brexit Done and Build Back Better are founded upon such xenophobic nonsense.

Marx’s book was never published in England during his lifetime. Activists, writers and academics had to rely on French and German editions until it was eventually published. The Irishman George Bernard Shaw found the book a marvellous read, having read the French edition in the British Library where much of Marx’s research had been done. For Shaw the book ‘revealed capitalism in all its atrocity’ and his passion for the text never dimmed. Not so Shaw’s fellow Fabian, HG Wells, who dismissed Marx as ‘a stuffy, ego-centred and malicious theorist.’

Yet, what took place was an enormous flowering of thought that came from Marx’s ideas. Of particular significance is also Marx’s Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844 which only appeared in English in 1959, having first been published in German in Moscow, 1932. These papers are also known as the Paris Manuscripts because the text was written there when the youthful Marx was a Left-Hegelian.

Refining Hegel’s concept of estrangement or alienation, Marx showed how such a concept has its origin in the exploitative economic system of capitalism. He also made clear the fateful consequences in the social formation of human individuals, and therefore in society as a whole.

Philosophers and writers found this a fertile analysis ripe for development. The notion of being alienated within society came to be explored in literature, literary theory, cultural theory, art, psychoanalysis, social sciences and in philosophy.

The existentialist philosophers, particularly in France, fused Marx’s ideas into their texts. Chief among them was Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980). He was much more than just a philosopher, he was also a dramatist, novelist, biographer, literary critic and a political activist. Sartre had read Heidegger and Husserl and their influence is clear in his work. In the 1960s he had said that Marxism was the spirit of the age.

It is sad to see that this flowering of intellectual ideas that took place in France is now a country where the dominant narrative is Islamophobia, with writers and journalist like Michel Houellebecq and Alain Finlielkraut among the most Islamophobic. The demise of France intellectually is traced in The End of the French Intellectual (2016) by Shlomo Sand. The rampant racism there – as here – can be attributed to the imperial past, but also to the thinkers who came after Sartre like the postmodernists.

According to Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), Marx is now no more than a spectre. All we have left of him is Spectres de Marx (1991) which claims to be a work of mourning. A debt to him had been paid but with the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, would anything of Marx remain? The capitalist triumphalism that greeted this collapse found its best expression in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man which came out in 1992. We are all liberal democrats now, he seemed to say, with liberal democracy the settled will of all people.

Only contemporary capitalism is becoming less liberal with attacks on wages, living standards, Muslims and migrants along with vapid anger directed at liberal elites – a group that had no mention whatsoever in Fukuyama’s book. And furthermore, just as Marx and his followers had claimed that capitalism, in its ravenous desire to seek more and more profit, would tumble under the weight of its own contradictions, this very system is seemingly prepared to ignore the warnings of climate catastrophe that awaits humanity unless we change tack. This is the logic, sadly, of where we are.

Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes The sleep of reason produces monsters No. 43 from Los Caprichos Google Art Project resized

There is a wonderful capricho (‘whim’ in English) etching by Goya (1746-1828) of a man who has fallen asleep at his writing desk.  Unknown to the man, various owls and bats fly above him as he sleeps. Goya called his piece El sueño de la razón produce monstruos (The sleep of reason brings forth monsters). In this etching Goya is reminding us that reason must be ever vigilant so that monsters do not reappear. The collapse of communism never created any peace dividend and never ushered in so-called liberal democracy, and is showing an extremely illiberal tendency with people like Trump, Johnson and Bolsonaro the clowns now taking over the asylum.

If the system of Capital is all about accumulating more Capital at whatever expense then the monsters are already on the loose. The victory over communism has been simply the opportunity for Capital’s monsters to fly wherever they want and create as much destruction as they can so long as profits are made. They even call it collateral damage.

Yes, we have been asleep. Our reason, our thinking has been defective, if not completely absent. Everything seems to point to our demise except for the groups mentioned earlier – climate protestors, Black Lives Matter activists, women’s groups along with all the community groups up and down the nation trying to keep the poor from sinking further. The challenge is to link all these groups and more to demand a world free from the greed that destroys us so that there can still be a world.

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Bertolt Brecht (1898 – 1856), in his play The Life of Galileo (1937), explores how truth can be problematic to those in power. They don’t want to face it because it changes their sense of themselves in the world, and therefore changes their relationship to everyone else. They would rather ignore truth completely. When Galileo asks them to look through the telescope and see for themselves the truth of how the cosmos is, they all refuse.

Galileo also says in the play:

Someone who doesn’t know the truth is merely a fool. But someone who does know it and calls it a lie is a criminal.

But lies and stupidity are still force-fed to us.  George Orwell (1903-1950), in his novel 1984, published in 1949, tells us that one of the three mottos supplied to the masses is IGNORANCE IS TRUTH. Ironically, a dumbed down reality TV show called Big Brother takes its title from the anonymous leader of Oceania featured in the novel. The warning Orwell was giving us in this novel simply has to make us question three-word slogans like Take Back Control and Get Brexit Done.

The pernicious anti-intellectualism that permeates contemporary capitalist countries also leads to a frightening level of political illiteracy. Brecht captured this sense particularly well in his era:

The worst illiterate is the political illiterate. He hears nothing, sees nothing, takes no part in political life. He doesn’t seem to know that the cost of living, the price of beans, of flour, of medicines all depend on political decisions. He then prides himself on his political ignorance, sticks out his chest and says he hates politics. He doesn’t know, the imbecile, that from his political non-participation comes the prostitute, the abandoned child, the robber and, worst of all, corrupt officials, the lackeys of exploitative multinational companies.

This pretty much sums up the state of the western, liberal democracies today. Ignorance is desirable for the ruling elites. Marx, studying the capitalism of his day, predicted the growth of such multinational companies. He followed the logic of capitalist competitiveness, accumulation and insatiable greed. It has brought us to where we are today.

Sophistry and postmodernism seem weak tools to deal with this impasse. Terry Eagleton, in his book The Illusions of Postmodernism, published in 1995, castigates it by saying that it ‘does not envision a future for us much different from the present.’ This statement remains a powerful indictment against it. Marx’s famous statement in his Theses on Feuerbach of 1845 said that philosophers had only ever interpreted the world, and if this can be updated for today we may be able to say something like this – that the postmodernists have only deconstructed the world. The point remains to change it.

Ghosts of the Early Morning Shift
Wednesday, 22 September 2021 08:30

Ghosts of the Early Morning Shift

Published in Books

Scotland’s radical credentials, past and present, are evident throughout the pages of this new anthology, the companion volume to the anthology of radical poetry, A Kist of Thistles, published in 2020. The first part of the anthology contains Memoirs, and the second part contains Flash Fiction with Short Stories.

In the Memoirs section we are introduced to some remarkable women – Màiri Mhòr, Helen Crawfurd, Mary Barbour and Mary Brooksbank – presented by Liz Macrae Shaw, Lesley Orr, Catriona Burness and Kate Armstrong respectively. The radicalism of these women is supplemented by essays on The John Maclean Society by Gerard Cairns, UCS at 50 by David Betteridge, and The Miners’ Strike in Scotland of 1984-85 by William Hershaw.

The Fiction section covers a varied field of themes – from the deaths of asylum seekers by both Andrew O’Hagan and Jean Rafferty, to alcoholism by Carol McKay, sectarianism by Brian Hamill and Peter Bennett, British imperial rule in India by Leela Soma, and women’s liberation in Gerda Stevenson’s memorable Cat Wumman.

A diverse and talented group of writers, academics and activists have contributed to this unique anthology of radical prose. It exudes a sense of concern for all, especially those who have struggled to make our world a better place, and it gives voice to a lively, engaged radicalism that suggests Scotland is indeed ‘a fascinating country to be living in at this moment’. Ghosts of the Early Morning Shift expresses and celebrates this mood.

There will be a launch and readings from the book on Saturday 16th October at 7pm, here is the link.....

https://us02web.zoom.us/j/88380870767?pwd=NlMvZVZvcGpleTBBckw0YkNQRURWdz09

Ghosts of the Early Morning Shift, edited by Jim Aitken, ISBN 978-1-912710-40-9, £12 inc. p. and p.

Popular culture, Brexit and One Nation Toryism
Monday, 14 December 2020 15:27

Popular culture, Brexit and One Nation Toryism

Published in Cultural Commentary

Jim Aitken describes how so much of popular culture reflects and legitimises the values of the Tories and the ruling class. Image above: Downton Abbey

There was a palpable sense of euphoria on the BBC during the morning after the night before of the General Election of December 12, 2019. It had a feeling of glee about it; a childish excitement that the un-English dragon of socialism – as represented by Jeremy Corbyn – had well and truly been defeated by the forces of St. George of England. These forces, amazingly, had included many of those who had been reduced to the level of serfdom by the political party they were now supporting. Dragon Jeremy had promised these serfs their rightful inheritance and instead they chose Boris, the court jester. England’s green and pleasant lands could remain forever precariously green – a bit like the serfs themselves.

In a sense the BBC was entitled to this gleefulness because it had helped to orchestrate a campaign that told the serfs of England’s former industrial areas that the court jester needed their seats to Get Brexit Done. Many duly obliged because they too wanted to Get Brexit Done. No-one asked them why they wanted it done and why Europe was so noxious to them. No-one asked them if they thought it was the EU that was responsible for the de-industrialisation of their areas; if the EU was responsible for the austerity they lived under; for the food banks they go to for food or for the zero hours and chronic low pay they receive. No-one asked them if all these adversities were made in the UK or in the EU. For the court jester, however, Europe was foreign and too left-wing with too many regulations for a free-marketeer like him. England did not need to be a vassal state any longer. She could be free from all the regulations that guaranteed the serfs minimal rights, and be great again.

The political media pundits though never spoke much about England at all. They spoke about Britain and the British election and about how the incoming British government would Get Brexit Done. England and Britain are clearly interchangeable words, for them. The reality, however, in this election was that of the 365 seats won by the Conservatives, an enormous 345 were secured in England. Scotland gave them 6 out of 59 and Wales gave them 14 out of 40. Northern Ireland gave them a Remain vote and a nationalist majority. The overwhelming mandate for Brexit came overwhelmingly from England as a result of the English nationalist genie that had been released from the Brexit bottle. What has to be examined is how this huge English mandate has come about.

Yes, of course, the TV channels and newspapers will support any form of Conservatism including the cabal currently associated with Johnson’s extreme right-wing coup leading his Party. It doesn’t matter how far right this Party goes because – so we are repeatedly informed – the Conservative Party is the natural party of government. Any cursory look at the record of who has been in power down the last 120 years will confirm this. What has to be considered is why this is the case and how has it been achieved.

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The latest sensation on Netfix is called The Crown and it traces the reign of the current monarch, Elizabeth. This series may soon have to compete with Andrew Marr’s new series Elizabethans telling the people of the UK how lucky they have been to be subjects of such an outstanding monarch. His book of the same name follows fairly fast from his The Diamond Queen: Elizabeth 2nd and her People which came out in 2012. TV schedules and daily news items abound about the monarchy. It is a bit like the logic of advertising whereby consumers will invariably buy what is most known to them. The more you are harangued the weaker your defence can become. Monarchy is certainly a product that is force-fed to the British people.

There are countless films and TV programmes dedicated to monarchs past and present. Some recent ones dealing with Queen Victoria, once Empress of India, include Young Victoria, Her Majesty Mrs Brown, Victoria and Abdul and Victoria. There has also been films further back on The Madness of George111, The King’s Speech (George V1), The Favourite (Queen Anne), Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age ( Elizabeth1), Henry V as well as The Queen about the current monarch. This is by no means an exhaustive list but these films do come immediately to mind. There has also been a rather morbid fascination in film with Henry VIII, the monster who gave England her first Brexit by breaking with Rome. Keith Michel played the tyrant in The Six Wives of Henry V111 as far back as 1970 but there has also been A Man for all Seasons (1966 &1988), Anne of the Thousand Days, The Other Boleyn Girl and several historical novels by Hilary Mantel which focus largely on the character Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s Machiavellian fixer, in Wolf Hall (2009), Bring up the Bodies (2012) and The Mirror and the Light (202

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Just below the level of monarchy we have Winston Churchill portrayed in films like Young Winston (1972), The Gathering Storm (2002), Into the Storm (2008), Churchill (2017) and Darkest Hour (2018) to name only a few. There have been countless biographies also written about him including one by Johnson in 2014. And like the monarch he turns up all the time in other TV programmes. The greatest offenders are programmes like Antiques Roadshow and Flog It. These programmes, while certainly interesting in terms of objects that have been superbly well made by magnificent craftsmen, often throw up pieces of Churchilliana along with the usual items associated with the reign of some monarch.

We are back to the effect of constant advertising again. While it has to be agreed that Churchill played a significant role during the Second World War, it should always be remembered that he was first and foremost a Tory and an imperialist with everything that usually goes along with that. Dundonians to this day continue to tell us that he was run out of Dundee after his comments on their drunkenness became widely known and another seat had to be found for him.

The use of monarchs past and present along with the figure of Churchill continues to be pervasive, permeating the public mind and perpetuating the values of Conservatism. This is how the masses are psychologically programmed to accept ruling class values – through these values being pervasive, through their permeation and perpetuation. In every city in the UK there are streets named after monarchs and aristocrats, hospitals, bridges, theatres, public buildings, coinage and stamps and countless mugs, tea-towels and all the rest

Even the anti-working class soap Eastenders where the characters are aggressive, violent, duplicitous and generally venal – and that’s just the female characters – all meet up in the pub called The Queen Victoria. The action also takes place in Albert Square. Monarchy can seem to be as natural as breathing if it is so pervasively used and being so pervasively used as it is in the UK means that the UK also has one of the most secure ruling classes in the world.

The aristocracy and landed gentry have also been rehabilitated and legitimised by TV. The Antiques Roadshow and Flog It again often either have their programmes set in stately homes or in the spacious grounds of such Palladian pads. The genial presenter Paul Martin will often have a chat with the owner about the wonderful, marvellous history of his house and marvel at how he has managed to keep it looking so spruce for another 500 years. Questions about how his ancestors acquired the wealth to build such palatial residences are seldom asked. Programmes such as these ones enable the success of long running series like Downton Abbey.

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And then there’s our armed forces. Sometimes these antique programmes can take place in buildings associated with the navy or in some armed forces museum and the memory of Abu Ghraib and what our soldiers did there can be conveniently forgotten. Dad’s Army has been running continuously since it first came out in 1968. When it did first come out it was funny with the memory of the war not too far distant. By running continuously there is the permeating agenda about how we won the war – which was all down, of course, to Churchill.

It seems that the further right the UK has gone politically, the larger and larger poppies have become. No other European country that took part in either of the two world wars commemorate these conflicts quite like the UK. It is now mandatory to have poppies emblazoned on football shirts from October to November. Football fans will stand quietly to remember the war dead so that the same ruling class can remain in power despite the fact that it was the same ruling classes that got us into such wars in the first place. Those who have died in war should be remembered but remembered in such a way that will prevent wars from happening ever again. With the arms industry the biggest one in Britain with exports around the world, conflicts have become inevitable. None of Her Majesty’s leading subjects standing proudly at the cenotaph wearing their poppies will ever mention this fact.

The poppy is also the ultimate item associated with charity, something the ruling classes worship because they lack any sense of generosity. Sales of the poppy are encouraged on TV and radio so that they can help the charities that help our retired and wounded ex-servicemen and women. Charity does not seem to have filtered down to many of the ex-soldiers currently begging on our streets who all went off to conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq as heroes and are now forgotten.

With Vera Lynn dead, the way the craven media has embraced Captain Tom Moore is quite incredible. Here we had a 99 year old ex-serviceman walking in his garden to raise a charitable donation to give to the NHS. While that is laudable given that the NHS has been underfunded by the Tories for the last ten years and the Covid crisis places huge demands on its services and staff, old Tom Moore did his walking dressed with all his military medals on his blazer. That was a moment the media loved because it played beautifully into the paradigm of our wonderful armed forces and charity at the same time.

The brutal British Empire

Captain Tom, just like Vera Lynn before him, was knighted for his services to charity. He became Sir as she became Dame. While citizens who have achieved great things and contributed to the welfare of others should be recognised by the state, the honours system in Britain does something else entirely. By calling people Sir or Dame or Lord or Baroness the British state separates people from others. To be in possession of an OBE, MBE or CBE is to be a recipient of the Order, Member and Commander of the British Empire. Such titles which Robert Burns derided as mere tinsel show, are seen as being the very epitome of respectability despite the fact that the words ‘British Empire’ refer to something that no longer exists and was brutal in the extreme when it was around.

Charity has become pervasive and its operation permeates minds just as monarchy does. The word comes from the Latin caritas meaning love and compassion. The word is also one of the seven Christian virtues but much of its practice is associated with the already rich becoming recognised and deemed respectable by receiving honours for charitable work. The same people have been silent on inequalities, food banks and zero-hour contracts.

Children in schools are conditioned to believe that social inequalities can effectively be ended by recourse to charity. There are countless charity days in schools to raise funds for various causes throughout the school year and you get to dress up in silly clothes or outfits from Harry Potter for the occasion. Teachers as well get down with the kids by dressing up. There are also the charity evenings on TV for Children in Need and Comic Relief. Here we can all see the latest celebrities doing their bit for charity and viewers are led into the belief that such celebrities are genuinely caring people. Some may well be. However, the fact that many of these celebrities bank their cash in offshore accounts is never raised. And the fact that such offshore accounts are facilitated by those in power who value charity so much is also never questioned. The question why one of the richest countries in the world has to have such recourse to charity is also a silent subject.

TV also seems to encourage tears. Chat show hosts, newsreaders and reporters seem to welcome tears from people who invariably say sorry as they dry their eyes and the interviewer says no, it’s fine. Sometimes this is done by people outside courts or people who have witnessed terrible events or, more generally, people who have come through adversities. Shows of emotion seem to be welcome. This has become particularly true on The Repair Shop, a programme that is a wonderful tribute to the highly skilled craftsmen and women who brilliantly repair objects brought in by members of the public. The programme is also a wonderful antidote to our throwaway society by getting skilled workers to repair a whole assortment of items.

Often when people come to see their items newly restored there will be tears of joy but often this can end up degenerating into sentimentality. And sentimentality is now part of a media dialectic which enjoys shows of sentiment and emotion while failing to adequately expose the actual brutality of the nation’s underlying economic base.

Marx once posited the base and superstructure theory. In this he noted the unequal economic base and how its relations are made manifest in a cultural superstructure which establishes its right to rule. In modern times, this happens through the people being told to believe in all the wrong things such as to love monarchy, Churchill, honours, widespread charity and shows of sentimentality. And the actual news programmes now treat viewers as idiots with graphics on screen to help them understand the simplest things. The Covid tier system recently announced by Johnson became a three-tiered wedding cake to help us understand what tier actually meant.

The last thing any capitalist state wishes is for is for its inhabitants to be well-educated. The £9,000 per year fees in England and Wales confirms this. Also the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations is a case in point. When statues of former slave owners were toppled or reactionary figures on plinths daubed with paint, the ruling class was temporarily shaken. But the idea that the Proms should abandon singing the imperialist ditties Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory and God save the Queen because they hark back to the days of slavery and empire was just too much for Johnson who insisted these traditional songs be sung out loud. Sadly, many ordinary people would have agreed with him.

For someone like Gramsci it is what the state and its media arms present to you all the time that gives the ruling class their ability to rule. The word hegemony meant for Gramsci an effective means of domination founded on acceptance. The dominated accept the rules of the social and political game, being convinced that such rules serve them well and form part of some kind of immutable order to which they are a part. The programme The Apprentice: You’re fired! is an example of this.

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This gigantic con-trick was in fact leaked by that grand old Victorian reactionary, the writer and journalist Walter Bagehot as far back as 1867 in his English Constitution. There is, of course, no English or British constitution written down anywhere. When Burke extolled its virtues to the republican Tom Paine it was Paine who asked Burke if he could furnish him with a copy so that he might read it for himself. The whole business of government is made up on the hoof. When the masses rebel sometimes they may win, but generally legislation will be brought in to keep them in their place like Thatcher’s anti-trade union legislation. At other times when there is serious pressure from below there can be legislation on race relations and sex discrimination. For Bagehot royalty functioned as a disguise. He elaborated further:

It enables our real rulers to change without heedless people knowing it. The masses of Englishmen are not fit for an elective government; if they knew how near they were to it, they would be surprised, and almost tremble.

In his customary invective against what the Queen Mother apparently called ‘the lower orders’, Bagehot went on to say that royalty ‘has a comprehensible element for the vacant many’ and in comments like these we can see how the ruling classes hide behind the monarchy, how it is used to keep us as subjects rather than as citizens. Bagehot again puts it so much better when he said ‘it is at the bottom of our people that we have done as well as we have.’

Johnson, Gove and all the clan from the 1922 Committee and the ERG could not have put it better themselves. Yet these people all claim that they are one nation Conservatives. This baloney is supposed to imply that they rule equally for everyone regardless of nation, region or class when their rule actually is designed to cater for the one class across the country who have all the wealth.

They have been using this term ever since it was coined by Disraeli in the 1870s. He used it to counter any expectations from the working classes after their agitation to further extend the franchise. His novel Sybil or the Two Nations came out in 1845 and the two nations of which he speaks are the rich and poor. His one nation term was coined to appeal to the masses that his brand of Conservative paternalism will look after them while not changing the structures and levers of the system that made them poor in the first place. Ironically, in the same year that Sybil was published Engels brought out his devastating critique on the two nations in his The Condition of the Working Class in England which avoided paternalistic solutions completely.

Bagehot described Wales as ‘a corner of England’ while deriding the Scots for their ‘intolerant common sense.’ As for the Irish he said predictably that ‘it is not so much the thing agitated for that they want, as the agitation itself.’ These attitudes are alive in today’s Conservative Party and this is best exemplified in the Internal Markets Bill that is strongly opposed by First Ministers Drakeford in Wales and Sturgeon in Scotland. The Tories were clear that they were taking back control and this Bill will certainly do that by centralising power away from devolved administrations.

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Brexit, we were told, was about taking back control but the question of who will be in control after Brexit was never asked. As far as I am aware there will still be a monarchy, an unelected second chamber in the House of Lords and the House of Commons will continue to function as an extension to the debating chamber of Eton, the place that has given us 20 Prime Ministers to date. The Church of England will continue to be established by the state and guarantee that no liberation theology will ever break out. And the Mother of Parliaments will continue to function without any written constitution and continue to make it all up as it goes along. Watch out on TV  for repeat viewings of The Dam Busters, Colditz, The Great Escape and more programmes on royalty along with as much dumbed-down reality TV as you can take.

Labour has been in existence for 120 years and her founder Keir Hardie loathed the privilege and hypocrisy associated with royalty. He described himself as an agitator who sought to ‘stir up a divine discontent with wrong.’ These are Labour’s roots and they have been steadfastly ignored even during the time of Corbyn. With Ireland gone, Northern Ireland with a changing demographic that could result in Irish unity, with Wales beginning to assert herself and Scotland with one independence referendum behind her and another looming, it is Labour too that will have to be taken to task for never having challenged the nature of a state that is designed to benefit the Tories. They created it, after all, to suit their needs. Maybe this has been inevitable considering for most of the last 120 years Labour has been happy with the nomenclature of being Her Majesty’s Opposition rather than being a socialist alternative.

The Radical Extension of Reality: Jorge Luis Borges
Thursday, 22 October 2020 08:59

The Radical Extension of Reality: Jorge Luis Borges

Published in Fiction

Jim Aitken unearths the radical and progressive meanings in Borges' writings

It was his fellow Argentinian writer and, like his mentor, a former Director of the National Library of Argentina, Alberto Manguel, who told us in Packing My Library (2018) that Borges, while trapped in Geneva during the Second World War, came across the story of the Golem. Borges was sixteen years old and reading Gustav Mehring’s book The Golem (1915), which totally captivated his mind and helped to form the writer he became.

The story of The Golem has quite a lineage. The word is first mentioned in Psalm 139: ‘Thine eyes did see my golem.’ In the 1st century C.E. it was Rabbi Eliezer who wrote that the golem was ‘an inarticulate lump.’ And in the fourth century C.E. the Babylonian teacher Rava created a creature out of clay and sent it to Rabbi Zera. The Rabbi attempted to speak with it and in anger at its refusal to reply, the Rabbi said ‘return to dust’ whereupon the creature crumbled into a shapeless heap.

Then in 16th century Prague another Rabbi, Rabbi Loew, the spiritual leader of the Jewish people in the Prague ghetto, divines from his astrological tables that a disaster is imminent. He decides to summon the dead spirit of Astaroth and build a clay figure of a Golem. This is built to serve him in this time of need. However, the creature escapes his master’s control and caused chaos in the ghetto. The Rabbi had then to turn it to dust by removing from its brow the first letter of emet – meaning truth – so that the word now read met meaning death.

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The Golem

The German film-makers Carl Boese and Paul Wegener brought out in 1920 one of the first horror films called Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (The Golem, how he came into the world) and this film is still popular with the more discerning film buffs around Halloween. In 1957 Borges, along with Margarita Guerroro, published the Book of Imaginary Beings which mentions the Golem and in 1969 Borges travelled to Israel to meet with the scholar of Jewish mysticism, Gershom Scholem. The scholar’s surname was used to rhyme with golem in Borges’s poem The Golem, chosen by Borges for inclusion in his Personal Anthology, published by Picador in 1972.

Scholem and Borges discussed issues on art. Borges wondered how a writer could ever achieve his purpose when all he has at his disposal is the imperfect tool of language. He asked the scholar what is created when an artist sets out to create and is the work of art a lasting reality or an imperfect lie. Effectively, he asked Scholem, is the work of art a living Golem or a handful of dust?

The politically liberating power of culture

All of this reads remarkably like one of Borges’ own stories. It is a description of links in a chain that go back through history and tradition and make us – as readers – marvel. And that is what great art should always do. It should create wonder but also apply it with warning. The Golem shows us how periodically the embodied hopes of individuals or the masses themselves can give birth to monsters that create disastrous consequences for us all. Or to put it more plainly we should sometimes be careful what we wish for. Borges had died long before Golem Trump came on the scene but Trump’s arrival, sanctioned by the vested interests of the few and supported by the basest of bases, has most certainly wrought havoc.

While Borges could clearly not make such an analogy, his work allows us as readers to do this because of its relevance regardless of era.  His stories take his readers on labyrinthine journeys with no discernible exits that could ordinarily be expected from more conventional fiction. It is in this way that Borges gives his readers a radical extension of reality. While a good story can transport the reader, under Borges’ direction you are transported further still.

It is by radically extending reality through the power of his creative vision that his art has to be seen ultimately in a progressive light. Culture more broadly, and great art forms more particularly, can be seen as a kind of imaginative liberation. And, of course, once the artist has created this leap there is the suggestion at play of a deeper, more material liberation that can be implied. While Borges may have called himself a Conservative in his politics, his art can nonetheless inspire the greatest of all possible worlds.

The Argentine critic Ana María Barrenechea called his method ‘irreality,’making such a pronouncement largely on account of the influence of Husserl’s phenomenology and Heidegger’s existentialism, which she detected in his writing. However, though the term ‘irreality’ may certainly have some mileage, Borges worked under many more influences.

In an interview given to Rita Guibert in Cambridge, Massachusetts in 1968 Borges was asked the following question:

If an intellectual shuts himself up in an ivory tower, and sometimes even ignores reality, can he contribute to solving the problems of society?

The reply by Borges was both perceptive and illuminating with regard to his own work:

Possibly shutting oneself up in an ivory tower and thinking about other things may be one way of modifying reality. I live in an ivory tower – as you call it – creating a poem or a book, and that can be just as real as anything else. People are generally wrong when they take reality as meaning daily life, and think of the rest as unreal. In the long run, emotions, ideas, and speculations are just as real as everyday events. I believe that all the dreamers and philosophers in the world are having an influence on our present-day life.

The notion of the ivory tower, of course, takes us back to Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592) who lived in a tower in Guyenne in Renaissance France. It was there that he wrote his famous collection of Essais (1580) giving us the first essays that would go on to influence countless writers from Francis Bacon and Shakespeare to Pascal, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Marx and Freud, Sartre, Camus and Foucault along with many others.

We want bread and roses, too

What Borges has in common with Montaigne is a scepticism about things. Montaigne had made a medal with the words Que sςay-je? meaning ‘what do I know?’ in Middle French, rendered as Que sais-je? in modern French. However, Montaigne’s scepticism seeks to deal with the human condition in all its multiplicity and complexity whereas Borges’ scepticism was grounded in his conservatism. While his imaginative stories can offer a radical extension to reality, he is not seeking to change actual lived reality in any way except by offering us intellectually illuminating diversions from reality. As the song goes, ‘yes we want bread, and roses too.’ Borges certainly provides roses, but his conservatism means that the bread will always be in short supply if actual reality does not change, with only the conservatives getting the bread since they own all the bakeries.

Not for Borges the Sartrean ‘literature engagée’ that sought to make the artist politically responsible and engaged within society. Not for him the notion of the committed artist except his commitment to his craft. And not for him any Gramscian sense of being an ‘organic intellectual’ on behalf of those desperate for bread. Conservatism has and always will be about seeing that you are well catered for and keeping it that way in order to maintain such privileged status. A case of ‘I’m alright, Jorge.’

Borges did speak out against both Nazism and communism as well as anti-Semitism but seemed to revile Peronism even more. This made him somewhat ambivalent about democracy. The Peronist government punished him  for not supporting it by ‘promoting’ him from his position at the Miguel Cané Library to inspector of poultry and rabbits at a market in a suburb of Buenos Aires. He resigned immediately from the position.

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Juan Perón

The figure of Juan Perón dominated Argentinian politics and Borges detested him. He was a populist politician who was much enamoured by Italian fascism and after the Second World War he enabled former Nazis like Eichmann and Mengele to escape to Argentina along with the Croatian fascist leader of the Ustaše, Ante Pavelić. Argentina also had a sizeable Jewish population - the largest in Latin America - which Perón supported being there. He appointed several Jews to advise him and he was also an early supporter of Israel – the first Latin American nation to recognise Israel.  He actually sent his wife Evita to meet with Golda Meir.

While he was outspoken against military dictatorships saying that they fostered oppression, servitude and cruelty, he also said that ‘more abominable is the fact that they foster idiocy.’  This comment was addressed to the Argentine Society of Letters in 1946 but he seemed somewhat quiet on the General Videla and General Galtieri dictatorships of the 1970s and early 80s. By this time Borges had become internationally renowned and words from him could have embarrassed the junta. He did, however, quite brilliantly quip to Time Magazine in 1983 that he thought the Falklands war was akin to ‘a fight between two bald men over a comb.’ And he did sign petitions and letters condemning the military once it had fallen – but he had also accepted honours from the regime of Augusto Pinochet in Chile.

This shows that conservatives will fall in line with military juntas if their wealth and position seems in any way threatened. This is precisely what military regimes feel empowered to do. For them the problem is always with the left and any plans they may have to redistribute wealth. In our own era the key supporters of Trump and Johnson remain traditional conservatives even if these more populist leaders go along the road of becoming the uglier brands of American and British nationalism respectively.  

It draws us from our hovels

Yet the influence of Borges on Latin American literature has been immense. He was one of the first to receive international acclaim for his unique art. As Carlos Fuentes put it in 1973:

The work of Borges is the first to put us in connection, to draw us from our hovels and throw us out into the world, to which it relates us without diminishing us. It gives us reality. For the final meaning of Borges’ prose – without which there would be no modern Spanish-American novel is that it bears witness that Latin America has no language and must create one.

This is telling praise and justified. Borges did put Latin American literature on the map and this was in part achieved by his incorporation of the world into his stories. His work is peppered with references from Chinese philosophy, Jewish and Islamic mysticism and philosophies and literatures from across the world. His realm is incredibly vast. The other part concerns his craft. He manages to make the incredible seem credible, and he achieves this through a style that is relaxed and at ease with his reader. For Borges a story has to be made as plausible as it can be, because if not, the reader’s imagination would surely reject it.

Borges is often credited as being the founder of the so-called school of ‘magical realism.’ While his influence is certainly clear there are other writers who can also be mentioned in this regard. The Mexican writer Juan Rulfo (1917-1986), more generally a short story writer, found acclaim with the novel Pedro Peramo which came out in 1955. The novel describes a man’s search for his unknown father, and it is written in a haunting way as if a recurrent nightmare. Time seems to shift in one state of consciousness after another, in an almost hypnotic flow of dreams, desires and memories, in a world populated by ghosts and dominated by the figure of Pedro Peramo himself. Susan Sontag described the book as ‘one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century world literature’ and one that could not ‘overestimate its impact on literature in Spanish.’ Both Miguel Asturias (1899-1974) and Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014) said it was the novel they would have loved to have written themselves.

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Alejo Carpentier

Asturias and Alejo Carpentier (1904-1980) have both had a major impact on the development of the Latin American novel and their association with magical realism. Miguel Angel Asturias was the Guatemalan Nobel laureate who, although he served his nation as foreign ambassador, wrote the trilogy El Senor Presidente (Mr President) which came out in 1946 and is a searing indictment of economic, social and political power and its privileges.

Alejo Carpentier was the living embodiment of internationalism. His father was French and his mother Russian and he was born in Switzerland. They moved to pre-revolutionary Cuba and Carpentier became involved in the Cuban Minority Group which was a forum for discussion on artistic and political matters. The group produced a manifesto which anticipated the revolution and Carpentier was briefly jailed for signing it. After moving to Europe and settling in Venezuela he returned to revolutionary Cuba and was appointed Vice-President of the National Council of Culture and Professor of the History of Culture at the University of Havana. He was also active in the National Campaign against Illiteracy and considered himself proudly Cuban.

The unexpected richness of reality

It was Carpentier who wrote the first major essay on what came to be known as magical realism. Carpentier’s term was lo real maravillosa (marvellous realism) and he wrote ‘On the Marvellous Real in Spanish America’ in 1949. In it he talks of:

an unexpected alteration of reality…an unaccustomed insight that is singularly favoured by the unexpected richness of reality.

Many of these great Latin American novelists had travelled in Europe. After Borges, Asturias and Carpentier came the likes of Fuentes, Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. They were all influenced by European, in particular Spanish literature and thought.. Carpentier was particularly attracted to surrealism and its influence can be seen in his own novels. It has been said that when Márquez was writing his landmark Cien anos de Soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude 1967) he ripped up his first draft after reading Carpentier.

Like Asturias’ great trilogy on the abuses of power, Carpentier also explores such themes in Caribbean-set novels like El Reino de Este Mundo (The Kingdom of this World) which came out in 1949 and in El Siglo de las Luces (Explosion in a Cathedral) which was first published in 1962. His novels show much the same literary inventiveness associated with all these writers along with startling imagery and vividly described scenes.

The other aspect that never seems to get too much of a mention when scholars discuss magical realism is the nature of Latin American landscapes. What is real and unreal or surreal can be occasioned by the sun, the shimmering heat, the abundance of colour that abounds in parts of this great continent. Carpentier, in his novel Los Pasos Perdidos (The Lost Steps) which came out in 1953 introduces us to a composer from New York who goes off to the jungles of Venezuela in search of primitive musical instruments. As his journey takes him to the upper reaches of the Orinoco he becomes overwhelmed by the primordial wonder of the place. His changing levels of consciousness and understanding brought on by the magnificence of the landscape make him question his whole sense of what it is that constitutes civilisation. His American sense of this is certainly challenged and ultimately denounced. One thinks of Gauguin seeking to leave his so-called civilised France behind him as he goes in search of a newer, less contaminated and more natural world in Tahiti.

All of this is important in order to place Borges not as the father of Latin American literature – as some do – but as one parent among others. His importance is clear but it is worth stressing that artists like Asturias and Carpentier were engaged writers with genuine political commitment; they were ‘organic intellectuals’ who used their craft in support of those who could not support themselves. 

It is worth looking at a couple of stories by Borges to test some of the claims already made about his work. In The Zahir we are initially told by Borges that ‘in Buenos Aires the Zahir is an ordinary coin worth twenty centavos.’ Long before this, however, towards the end of the 18th century:

the Zahir in Guzerat was a tiger…in Java it was a blind man from the Mosque of Sukarta…in Persia it was an astrolabe which Nadir Shah caused to be sunk to the bottom of the sea …in the Mosque of Córdoba, according to Zotenburg, it was a vein in the marble of one of the twelve hundred pillars.

Such a flight of the imagination is created by the word Zahir. Borges marvels at words. They are scrutinised like a scientist, their etymologies dissected. What happens now is a series of walks around Buenos Aires and by way of various encounters he pays for things with the Zahir and receives change in the Zahir. Now he digresses and expounds philosophically on the nature of money, claims to be obsessed by the Zahir and seeks psychiatric help for his obsession. He then discovers a copy of Julius Barlach’s Urkurden zur Geschichte der Zahirsage (Breslau, 1899) which diagnoses his disease. This rare book now opens up a whole series of ‘fictions’ concerning the disease and leads him to even more obscure sources such as the Asar Nama (Book of Things Unknown) where there is the verse ‘the Zahir is the shadow of the rose, and the rending of the Veil.’

The radical extension of reality

The mention of ‘the rose’ brings to mind that wonderful novel by Umberto Eco, The Name of the Rose (1980) which was also made into a film starring Sean Connery and released in 1986. In this novel the Franciscan friar William Baskerville is sent to a medieval abbey to solve a deadly mystery. There seems a play on the friar’s surname with a clear nod to the Sherlock Holmes stories.

What is so incredible about this novel is its Borgesian atmosphere. The library is a labyrinth full of learned texts and esoteric manuscripts and the librarian, like Borges, is blind and celibate. The Franciscan librarian is actually called Jorge de Burgos which sounds not too unlike Borges’ own name. Though Eco’s work shows a whole host of influences there are clear affinities in The Name of the Rose with the following three stories by Borges – The Library of Babel, The Secret Miracle and Death and the Compass. The Borgesian atmosphere of Eco’s text can clearly be attributed to them.

Such a digression as this one is in the very nature of Borges’ own method of writing. All of Borges’ stories refer constantly to other books and texts and the reader has no way of knowing if these texts are real or not. That is precisely the point, of course, for Borges. If they seem real or are presented as real then why should they not be taken for real? This is one way he radically extends reality.

At the end of The Zahir Borges suggests in an epiphanous moment that he will:

wear away the Zahir through thinking of it again and again. Perhaps behind the coin I shall find God.

In this ‘fiction’ Borges has managed to transform an everyday, a commonplace object – a coin – into something magically, marvellously real. He has radically extended the reality of an apparently inconsequential thing into something that points to God. It is the word Zahir that has enabled him to do this; it is his love of words that allows this to happen.

In a short piece called Borges and I the writer duels with his public and private personas. The private persona he describes as liking:

Hourglasses, maps, eighteenth century typography, etymologies, the taste of coffee.

This admission concerning ‘etymologies’ lies at the heart of The Zahir and many of his other stories. This ability that Borges has in transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary can remind us of Blake’s lines at the start of Auguries of Innocence:

To see a world in a Grain of Sand
And Heaven in a wild Flower
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. 

While Borges can radically extend reality by magnifying the mundane, it should be recalled that it is the mundane that finds us where we invariably are. A coin can take us in an elevated direction under Borges’ art but a pot can remind us where we really are, as in Beckett’s character Watt (1953):

It remained a pot, it was almost a pot, but it was not a pot of which you could say Pot, pot and be comforted.

Beckett’s art, in many ways as contracted as Borges’s, shows us the existential predicament we find ourselves in whereas Borges, who also knows this, seeks to redirect his reader into fictional flights of the imagination. The key point as far as art is concerned is that both have authenticity and both can offer great insight. For Beckett writing was a compulsion to describe the mess we find ourselves in whereas for Borges, as he says in the Preface to Dr Brodie’s Report:‘writing is nothing more than a guided dream.’

The Zahir has a certain resonance with The Aleph. The former was an actual object whereas the latter is a radiance perceived in a cellar, beneath a staircase:

On the underpart of the stairs I saw a small iridescent sphere of almost unbearable brightness. At first I thought it spun round; then I realised this was an illusion produced by the dizzying visions contained in it. The Aleph’s diameter might be two or three centimetres, but all cosmic space was within it, actual and undiminished. Everything (a mirror glass for example) was an infinity of things, for I clearly saw everything from every angle of the Universe. I saw the teeming sea, I saw dawn at night, I saw the hordes of America, I saw a silver cobweb in the centre of a black pyramid, I saw a broken labyrinth (in London). I saw endless eyes near to, watching themselves in me as in a mirror, I saw all the mirrors on earth and none of them reflected me…I felt infinite veneration, infinite compassion.

JA Aleph 

The Aleph

The Borges who saw this vision was the same Borges who, in The Zahir, took a small coin in his change and simply extended it into another realm of being. Then he had walked the streets of Buenos Aires mourning the death of Teodelina Vilar and now in The Aleph he mourns after Beatriz. Her name reminds us of the lost love Beatrice in Dante’s La Vita Nuova (1294) where the writer sought to incarnate his intellectual vision of the universe.

The Aleph now introduces us to a secondary character, one Carlos Argentino Daneri with a name clearly at play with the name of Dante Alighieri. This character seems to be psychologically related to Borges in that he is the first cousin of the lost Beatriz and is also a librarian and a poet. It is Daneri who discovers The Aleph and it is he who shows it to our narrator, Borges. Like The Zahir earlier, The Aleph becomes something obsessive but in this story it is easily got rid of as a team of demolition men come to knock down the house and the stone in which The Aleph is set will be destroyed. Rather than wishing to fight for the survival of this wondrous radiance set in a stone Borges instead muses that it may in fact have been ‘a false Aleph.’

Our narrator then simply conjures up another Aleph. He manages to do this through his usual device of etymological indulgence with the word Aleph itself.  Off the reader goes on another journey as Borges references a wide and varied selection of books which seek to locate the true Aleph. Borges seems at one with the ancient Chinese sage Lao Tzu who declared, ‘The Name that can be named is not the constant name.’

Just as in the tortuous prose of Beckett, Borges keeps on writing and keeps on inventing. Both writers have searched continuously in their writing after the Golden Fleece of illumination and exit from it, and because the Fleece of ultimate reality and meaning is never found they both have no choice but to keep on writing.

Borges became totally blind by the age of 55. This was a condition he inherited from his father and it is true to say that blindness was responsible for the imagined worlds he created. In Poem of the Gifts he tells us, ‘I have always imagined Paradise as a kind of library.’ Libraries enable dreams to take place and it is libraries along with dreams, mirrors, labyrinths, fictional writers, philosophers and myths that Borges has constructed his canon. Reading – when he was able to – and later being read to, allowed him to use his marvellous imagination to write his unique stories.

JA borges self portrait blind

The self-portrait Borges drew after going blind

Even his blindness was something to be incorporated into his realm of possibilities. He said of his blindness in Seven Nights, a series of lectures he gave and published in the year he died, that his blindness 'was not a complete misfortune. It is one more instrument among the many – all of them so strange that fate or chance provide.'

Many of Beckett’s characters have illnesses and infirmities and keep on going and there is a similar kind of heroism in the way that Borges kept going. To keep going is to continue the struggle and for him to have often said that he was ‘a Spencerian anarchist’ as well as being a conservative seems somewhat disappointing in such a brave and visionary individual. His Spencerian anarchism sounds a lot like many of today’s Conservatives, who claim that they believe in the individual and not the state. The Janus-headed conservatism of today with its authoritarianism on the one hand and its libertarianism on the other works only to enable those with wealth to enjoy freedom to the full. It is an exclusive ideology and Borges, who read and re-read Cervantes, should have noted the comments of Don Quixote when he said, ‘To change the world is neither a utopia nor an act of madness, it’s simply justice.’

JA Tlön Uqbar Orbis Tertius 

Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

And that is something that political conservatives simply fail to see. In the story Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius Borges is at his most indulgent. The story is essentially a piece of science fiction, in that it takes us to a completely different planet called Tlön. Borges has gone on this encyclopaedic journey with his collaborator Adolfo Bioy Casares and they discover that the inhabitants of this place believe in a form of subjective idealism that denies the existence of objects and they speak in a language without nouns. The people here also understand a totally different concept of time. Philosophical ideas are turned on their heads in this place and we find that Tlön, through a kind of wish-fulfilment of its inhabitants, has managed to supplant the earlier world of Uqbar and now Tlön is inflicting its alien ideas on planet Earth because our world is becoming idealistic and receptive to such alien ideas.

The backdrop to the story was obviously the Nazism and Stalinism of the 20th century but Borges, like so many conservatives before and after him, seems to possess the same affliction as the Tlönites themselves. He singularly failed to see that it is the idealism of market forces that gives rise to the chaos of our world. Conservatives like to imagine that it is forces on the left who are ideological and that they are not. Conservatives often claim that they are not even political and that to be political you must be on the left. We have all met people and engaged in discussion with them and when a political issue arises out of that discussion they invariably say something like, ’Well, I am not really political myself’ or ‘ I don’t really know very much about politics myself’ thus tacitly admitting to their unquestioning adherence to conservative thought. Borges certainly fell short in this area.

A final word on labyrinths. Queen Pasiphae, in the ancient Greek myth, slept with a bull sent by Zeus and she gave birth to Minotaur, a creature that was half-man and half-bull. King Minos, though deeply embarrassed, did not wish to kill the Minotaur so he hid it in a labyrinth that was constructed by Daedalus at the Minoan Palace of Knossos. It was Theseus who volunteered to kill the Minotaur and the woman he loved, Princess Ariadne, gave him a long thread to take with him so that he could exit the labyrinth if he did manage to kill the Minotaur. He was successful in both killing the monster and in finding love.

 JA nima abadeh 52

The Two Kings and the Two Labyrinths, by Nima Abadeh

We are all walking through a labyrinth called life and it constantly poses problems for us. We have often lost our way, but we keep going because we have to. Which direction should we take? Robert Frost’s The Road not Taken is a similar form of this metaphor. We could equally say that politically we need to find a way out of our troubles. Though this was not envisaged by Borges because, as a bourgeois conservative, his troubles were few economically speaking. However, it is an ingenious metaphor to use for his fictions because they take us on mysterious journeys that radically extend reality – and such stories are the welcome roses we all need.

His English collection of his stories was called Labyrinths and came out in 1962. The title was apt when we consider how often labyrinths are used in his work. In the story Ibn-Hakim Al- Bokhari, Murdered in his Labyrinth we are told:

There’s no need to build a labyrinth when the entire universe is one.

In Marquez’s novel El General en Su Laberinto (The General in his Labyrinth) the Great Liberator of the South American continent, Simón Bolívar, is facing death. He cuts a lonely, tragic figure as all his amazing triumphs lie in his past. He looks back while hearing news of the opportunist generals and emerging bourgeoisie who seek to carve out for themselves chunks of a continent he had hoped to unite into one great nation. Bolívar, knowing he is dying, dictates his last will and testament and then his doctor insists that he confess and receive the sacraments. Bolívar reportedly said ‘How will I ever get out of this labyrinth?’

Capitalism is never happy with the past

Right at the independent birth of this continent, its greatest leader Simón Bolívar uses the word labyrinth. The Mexican writer Octavio Paz (1914-1998) also uses the word in his deeply penetrating study of his nation’s psyche in the work called El Labertino de la Soledad (The Labyrinth of Solitude 1950, revised 1959). This radically humane and intellectually rich study of his nation concludes along the following lines:

Modern man likes to pretend that his thinking is wide-awake. But this wide-awake thinking has led us into the mazes of a nightmare in which the torture chambers are endlessly repeated in the mirrors of reason. When we emerge, perhaps we will realize that we have been dreaming with our eyes open, and that the dreams of reason are intolerable. And then, perhaps, we will begin to dream once more with our eyes closed.

In this essay Paz is attempting to unravel the internal solitude that seems to inhabit the everyday temperament of his fellow citizens, despite the lively siesta celebrations that may occur. His analysis could apply not just to Mexico but to the entire continent of South America and, indeed, to the rest of the world:

The past has left us as orphans, as it has the rest of the planet, and we must join together in inventing our common future. World history has become everyone’s task, and our own labyrinth is the labyrinth of all mankind.

Capitalism is never happy with the past and seeks to eradicate the historic memory of all peoples so that they can simply enjoy as many commodities as they can buy, such as Coca-Cola or Pepsi along with a bigger and bigger Big Mac. This is the freedom that Capital speaks of and if you cannot buy such commodities you are not a victim, but a loser.

Borges, who admired America, never dealt with the historic pain of his continent nor with the psyche that emerged from conquest, colonialism, national liberation and the neo-colonialism of giant conglomerates who continued the plunder and pillage. That was left to some of the writers already mentioned and also to two seminal works by the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda (1904-1973) in Canto General (1950) and by the Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano (1940-2015) in Las venas abiertas de América Latina (Open Veins of Latin America 1971).

JA pablo neruda 

Pablo Neruda 

What Neruda does in poetry Galeano writes in prose. Both works look at this magnificent continent before Columbus and before conquest, then during and after conquest and consider the ongoing exploitation of the lands that make up South America. Borges, while disagreeing with Neruda’s communism, was nonetheless generous enough to admit that Neruda was a better poet than himself and called him a great poet. Márquez went further and in The Fragrance of Guava, 1983 called him ‘the greatest poet of the twentieth century, in any language.’

The veins that Galeano refers to in his title are the veins of gold, silver, cocoa, cotton, rubber, coffee, fruit, sugar, oil, iron, tin, copper and nitrates that guaranteed the riches of the continent went elsewhere. The subtitle to Galeano’s book is Five Centuries of the Pillage of a Continent and it is that historic memory that writers have to address in order for any radical movement to emerge in the future.

Interestingly, Asturias, Fuentes, Paz and Neruda were all ambassadors in Paris at certain times. Paz had also been ambassador to India and Neruda had spent time as the Chilean ambassador in Burma and Indonesia. They were all international figures of world renown, yet it seems that the customary Eurocentrism seeks to see them simply as Latin American writers, when their influence has been global. The work of Borges has obviously been enormously significant in drawing attention to Latin American literature and along with the ‘magical realist’ writers already mentioned we would have to add Isabel Allende of Chile, Jorge Amado of Brazil, Hanuki Murakami of Japan, Umberto Eco and Italo Calvino of Italy, Toni Morrison of America, and Salman Rushdie of England together with a number of Bengali writers who all show an enormous debt to the magical realist style of writing.   

We can also find magical realism in the paintings of Frida Kahlo (1907-1954), Edward Hopper (1882- 1967) and Georgia O’Keefe (1887-1986). This is a major achievement for a subjugated continent, and it shows that all life wherever it is lived can be magical and strange, nightmarish and wonderful. In this regard it remains somehow magically real that the greatest export from Cuba is not tobacco but her doctors.

Borges died in Geneva in 1986. His funeral service was an ecumenical one presided over by a Catholic priest in memory of his mother, and a Protestant pastor in memory of his English grandmother. Father Jacquet spoke of a man ‘full of love, who received from the Church the forgiveness of his sins.’ Pastor de Montmollin took as his text St John’s Gospel. He said that no-one can reach that word through his own efforts and in trying becomes lost in a labyrinth. He concluded by saying ‘It is not man who discovers the word, it is the Word that comes to him.’

Borges could not have put it better himself.

A Fearless Gaze of Hope: Quines, by Gerda Stevenson
Thursday, 26 March 2020 13:46

A Fearless Gaze of Hope: Quines, by Gerda Stevenson

Published in Poetry

Jim Aitken reviews a book of radical women’s voices: Quines, by Gerda Stevenson. Accompanying illustrations of textiles are by artists from EDGE: Textile Artists Scotland.

The second edition of Gerda Stevenson’s ‘Quines’ came out with some fanfare as it was launched to coincide with International Women’s Day. The launch at the Central Library in Edinburgh was also accompanied by a unique exhibition in honour of some of the poems in the book by EDGE: Textile Artists Scotland.

The new front cover of this second edition arose out of the Scottish artist Helen Flockhart hearing Gerda read the poem ‘The Abdication of Mary Queen of Scots’ – a poem in the book – on Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour.’ Helen’s painting was part of her own exhibition ‘Linger Awhile’ based on the life of Scotland’s tragic queen in 2018-19. Gerda commended ‘the creative sisterhood’ that came with the launch of the second edition of her poetry collection.

A quine, it should be said, is the Scots word for a girl and it is being used to name all the women featured in the book. The first edition came out in 2018 and was reprinted in 2019. The new second edition of 2020 has four new poems along with a new introduction and is currently being translated into Italian by Laura Maniero with a grant from Publishing Scotland. ‘Quines’ is clearly a major work. It took Stevenson four years of research along with a few chance encounters that had entered her poetic imagination for this book to take shape.

Textile by Moira E. Dickson

The name Frances (Fanny) Wright is certainly one I was not familiar with. She was born in Dundee in 1795 and was very much a product of the Scottish Enlightenment despite that period not being particularly enlightened with regard to women. She was a writer, orator, feminist, abolitionist, champion of the rights of workers, a critic of the banks of her day and a critic of religious institutions. She spoke openly of the pleasures of sexual passion while also seeing marriage as a form of bondage, and campaigned for divorce, for birth control and for property rights for married women. She was also the first woman to edit a newspaper, ‘The Free Enquirer’.

She had gone to America and became hugely respected by Walt Whitman who said ‘she was a brilliant woman…who was never satisfied unless she was busy doing good – public good, private good.’ She had also been admired by Mary Shelley and they were close friends. Mary Shelley had died before Fanny Wright and this enabled Stevenson to call her poem ‘Fanny Wright Meditates on Mary Shelley’s Death.’

As she laments her death she recalls her own life and mentions some of the terms that had been labelled against her – she was ‘The Red Harlot of Liberty’ and ‘The High Priestess of Infidelity.’ In her sadness for Mary she reflects on their achievements:

Those I’ve loved are gone, and now you too,
who held your mother’s torch, the flame that grew
with every step we took to forge a world
pledged to the common good…

These touching lines show the debt that women of this era had to the ‘torch’ that was Mary Wollstonecraft, the mother of Mary Shelley. Her ‘Vindication of the Rights of Woman’ appeared in 1792, where Wollstonecraft sought to apply the egalitarian principles of the American and French revolutions to women.

Mary Wollstonecraft

Though the backwoodsman Walpole called her ‘a hyena in petticoats’ many modern feminists have returned to her hugely significant work for inspiration.

Stevenson had first come across Wright in Barbara Taylor’s ‘Eve and the New Jerusalem’ (1983) and in Celia Eckhardt Morris’s biography ‘Fanny Wright: Rebel in America’ (1984). While performing in New York in 2012 Stevenson visited the Walt Whitman Birthplace Historic Site at Long Island. On entering the building the first thing she noticed was a portrait of Fanny Wright placed between portraits of Whitman’s parents.

A year later, while working in Shetland, she had gone to Lerwick’s Shetland Museum and saw the reconstructed head of a young woman. There were, she says, ‘five thousand years between us’ in her Prologue poem ‘Reconstructed Head of a Young Woman.’ She begins to imagine what this young woman’s life had been like, as she observed the hair that ‘falls like mine,’ the ‘salt-washed cheeks’ and her ‘fearless gaze of hope.’ By the time Gerda had landed back on the Scottish mainland she had written the poem of her encounter with the young Shetlandic woman.

Scotland's Forgotten Women

We are often what we were before. The young woman in Lerwick Museum and all young women today hold much in common. They have shared hopes and dreams and know acutely what it means to be a woman. Like Fanny Wright the young woman with the reconstructed head had been forgotten about, relegated from history, their existences marginalised.

The encounter through a pane of glass in a museum has much in common with Seamus Heaney’s discovery of P.V. Glob’s ‘The Bog People,’ first published in English in 1969. In this book Heaney discovered that the bodies that had been preserved in the bogs of Jutland and elsewhere in northern Europe gave him a much-needed metaphor to compare what was happening in Northern Ireland during the so-called Troubles.

unnamed

Ritualised murders and scapegoating had taken place thousands of years ago and this enabled Heaney to relate this to the sectarian and community conflicts being waged in Northern Ireland, as the peaceful civil rights demonstrations began to be attacked and then descended into violence. Also, by referring to those ancient murders Heaney could allow his poetry – particularly his collection ‘North’ (1975) – to rise above any partiality on his part and to universalize the horrors that were playing out in his own North at the time. Similarly, Stevenson could see the affinity she had with the young woman of Shetland in that, like her, she was female and part of what Simone de Beauvoir labelled ‘The Second Sex’ (1949) in her ground-breaking study of women.

Visits to museums can crystallise ideas but what had to be done first was to do the background work, the reading and research into many of Scotland’s forgotten women. That research took four years and it was ‘The Biographical Dictionary of Scottish Women’ (2006), reprinted in 2018, which Stevenson has said was ‘an invaluable resource.’

‘Quines’ brings together a diverse array of Scottish women – politicians, queens, a salt seller, a half-hanged woman, scientists, writers and artists, singers, a dancer, a fish-gutter and others. They are all remarkably well studied, vital individuals who, like the young woman of Shetland, had fearless gazes of hope for all women and indeed for all. They also had fearless voices and an innate determination to be heard and seen. While not all men have been able to do this in class-ridden societies throughout history, it has been doubly difficult for women. As James Connolly succinctly put it when he first saw the poor women of Dublin, calling them ‘the slaves of slaves.’

Further back, nearly three thousand years ago, Homer told us in ‘The Odyssey’ that various groups of men had arrived at the home of Odysseus to hear if there was any news of his homecoming. His wife Penelope had been waiting for news herself and she is about to talk to the guests when her son Telemachus tells her –

Go back into your quarters and take up your work, on the loom…speech will be the business of men, all men, and of me most of all; for mine is the power of this household.

swh members 2

At the outbreak of the First World War the British Government’s War Office had told Elsie Inglis and her Scottish Women’s Hospitals – ‘Good lady, go home and sit down.’ Clearly, there had been no change in attitude to women since the days of Telemachus. Stevenson gives Elsie her voice back in ‘Elsie Inglis Prepares for her Last Journey’ in a sensitively written poem where Inglis, dying from cancer, considers the impact that she and her comrades of the Scottish Women’s Hospitals have made:

my women, saving lives, proved
what’s plain as day: that we are equal
daughters, sons, husbands, wives.

A Fearless Gaze of Hope

Mary Beard tells us in ‘Woman and Power’ (2017) that in classical times women were not allowed to talk in public unless they dealt with their own sectional interests or their victimhood. Yet today when women do talk in public they are viciously abused, with women MPs receiving more vitriolic and obscene abuse than their male counterparts. And as for social media the most common comment directed at women is ‘Shut up, you bitch.’ Stevenson knows all this but both she and her book have simply sailed through these rough seas without even getting wet. Her book of Quines rises above such negativity with ‘a fearless gaze of hope’ and optimism.

This poetry collection also features women who were not born in Scotland but came from other countries to live here. Some of her quines, though Scottish by birth, had emigrated from Scotland. What is significant about this is that her only criteria for women being included in ‘Quines’ is that those who were in Scotland and played their part here can be seen as Scottish, as Scottish as they ever wanted to be.

This chimes particularly well with the recent Scottish Independence Referendum of 2014. Eligibility to vote in that referendum was based simply on being in Scotland, living there and working there. This, of course, was in sharp contrast to the Brexit Referendum of 2016 that excluded EU citizens living and working in the UK. Gerda’s generosity with all those included in ‘Quines’ seems to mirror the current mood of openness that is being shown to migrant workers in Scotland, as there is the recognition that the economic contribution they make to Scottish society is extremely valuable.

The three languages of Scotland are all represented, with Stevenson showing that she is as skilled in Scots as she is in English. She also uses Gaelic words and phrases in poems where her women have come from that culture or have been referred to by that culture. She takes a chronological approach to all her women placing them in their own times and in so doing she brings the rich tapestry of Scottish history to life with its incursions from Ireland, from Viking lands like Norway and from elsewhere.

Nessie, the Original Sexy Beast

The collection begins with Nessie, the Loch Ness monster, who is indisputably female. Stevenson does not even mention that according to Adomnan, in his life of St Columba, believed to be written between 697 -700, that it was the saint who was supposed to have tamed the monster. Nessie was clearly not for taming as her ‘fearless gaze’ seems to ‘strike terror in your hearts.’ Yet this monster is much more than a figure of fear. Her ‘paps slope with the grace of Jura.’ Gerda uses the Old Norse word ‘paps’ meaning ‘breasts’ and the Paps of Jura were named by Norse settlers to describe the look of the three mountains on that island. This word, it has to be said, has also been used by many a Scottish schoolboy directed at his female class-mates. Gerda, however, reclaims the word for Nessie and then describes her ‘nipples bright as fresh water pearls, sleek hips fit for tender cargo.’ In this description she cleverly creates for us the original sexy beast.

However, her Nessie, though clearly happy in her own skin, also has a mind ‘broad as your kyles.’ She has been around ‘long before the Romans named the Picts.’ She has seen our entire history and will continue to ‘elude your sonar probes and camera clicks.’ Nessie possesses depth and will only reveal herself when we ‘can see beyond the surface.’ This is a playful poem on one level but deeply serious on another.

EDGEsue fraser

Textile by Sue Fraser

In ‘The Abdication of Mary Queen of Scots’ Stevenson informs us in the biographical note between the title and poem – a clever technique she uses throughout the collection – that Mary miscarried twins while imprisoned in Loch Leven Castle in 1567. Mary talks in Scots to her last lady-in-waiting, Mary Seton, who is tearful at her Queen losing her crown:

…..och, Mary, Mary Seton, last
o ma fower leal ladies, dinna waste yer tears
on gien up a bitte gowd an glister, haud ma airm
if it helps, but dinna, dinna greet fur this.

These lines are among the most emotionally charged ones in the collection. Mary is saying that a bit of gold and glitter (‘bitte gowd an glister’) is nothing compared to the lives of the twins she lost. Mary offers Seton her arm – ‘haud ma airm’ – rather than Seton offering Mary comfort. The repetition of ‘dinna’ is written as an exhortation that masks the utter desolation she actually feels. These feelings of sadness and loss, however, are not for the loss of her crown but for the ‘twa bairns….twa scraps o heivin.’

Sugar, slavery and exploitation

The poem ‘Demerara’ introduces us to Eliza Junor who was born in Demerara, now modern day Guyana, to Hugh Junor, a slave owner from the Black Isle, and an unknown mother who would have been a slave. Stevenson tries to imagine Eliza in her new land detecting the strange contradiction of where she now finds herself in ’the Black Isle of white people, where I’m glad no cane grows.’

Eliza had won a prize at Fortrose Academy for penmanship and Gerda cleverly uses the words of the ‘dominie’s wife’ (teacher’s wife) telling Eliza about all the other ‘tawny’ types like her who are appearing in Cromarty, Tain and Inverness. The teacher’s wife was pouring tea and when Eliza declines any sugar the wife exclaims: ‘But it’s Demerara…It’ll make you feel at home.’ Declining sugar is perfectly understandable for Eliza since it conjures up the horrors of the slavery that went into its production. Eliza watches ‘the gold beads…melt in the peat-brown pool’ of the cup.

This poem is incredibly important, because it deals with Scotland’s role in the slave trade. It is only in the last fifteen years that any serious academic research has gone into the role played by Scots in that ghastly trade. In one of Walter Scott’s novels, ‘Rob Roy’ (1817), there is a passage that shows how there was a refusal to adequately admit to that role:

When the cloth was removed, Mr Jarvie compounded with his own hands a very small bowl of brandy-punch, the first which I had ever the fortune to see. ‘The limes,’ he assured us, ‘were from his own little farm yonder-awa’ (indicating the West Indies with a knowing shrug of his shoulders).

What happened ‘yonder awa’ was brutal exploitation, and it should be remembered that Scotland’s greatest poet Robert Burns had at one time seriously considered becoming ‘a negro driver’ in Jamaica. Stevenson’s poem also mentions several Highland place names – Cromarty, Tain and Inverness – and these places seem at odds with the narrative that Scots have often nurtured about the brutality they suffered during the Highland Clearances when houses were burned and people forced to emigrate in large numbers to make way for the more profitable sheep that came with Union. While that episode can never be ignored, these place names in the poem show that many Scots, as well as being oppressed, were in fact oppressors themselves.

scotland and slavery

In ‘Reconsidering Scotland’s Slavery Past’ (2015) Tom Devine brought together various academics to seriously look at Scotland’s role in the slave trade associated with the Caribbean. Scots had been numerous in Demerara. The slaves, it was said, called prawns ‘Scotsmen’ not because their skin turned pink in the sun but because they all stuck together. Herring caught in the North Sea had been mixed with oats to provide meals for the slaves, and the canvas clothes they wore had also been manufactured in Scotland and sent out to Demerara. Slavery had a massive economic impact beyond institutionalising free labour.

This is uncomfortable history but it is a history that has to be told. David Hayman brought out the TV programmes ‘Slavery: Scotland’s Hidden Shame’ for BBC Scotland in 2018 and these programmes explored those uncomfortable truths particularly well. However, that was what Union was all about. Union with England was an imperial construct whereby Scotland gained access to England’s ‘overseas markets.’ – its colonies. Along with imperialism abroad there was the spin-off from industry at home as goods from those markets came back here to be manufactured.

The arch-imperialist Cecil Rhodes summed it up quite aptly when he said: ‘To avoid civil war at home, we must become imperialists abroad.’ He recognised the class divide and saw in Empire, with its crumbs thrown at the working classes, the solution to the maintenance of that divide. Today, however, with empire gone and large-scale industry also gone, the Union is decidedly shaky. All that seems to remain of that imperialist legacy are the awful ditties like ‘Rule Britannia’ (1740) and ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ (1901). The national anthem ‘God Save the Queen’ is also part of this imperialist legacy. These songs seek merely to perpetuate the national notions of former greatness.

So it was ludicrous to listen to Rees-Mogg and Widdicombe saying that they wanted Britain to break free from ‘the imperial yoke of the EU’ as if Britain had become enslaved, when it was Britain that had developed and sustained slavery on an industrial scale.

‘Demerara’ has much in common with Hamish Henderson’s famous song ‘Freedom Come All Ye’ (1960). Henderson’s song not only mentions the republican-socialist John MacLean but is in essence an internationalist song that urges Scotland to have nothing more to do with the British imperial construct that plunders abroad. Stevenson’s sympathies are similarly with Eliza Junor who is equally opposed to the imperial plunder abroad that makes her refuse the sugar in her tea. Her quine Eliza, therefore, has much in common with Henderson’s ‘black boy frae yont Nyanga’ in his stirring song.

Helen Crawfurd and liberation theology

John MacLean – who formed Scotland’s first pro-independence party, the Scottish Workers Republican Party in 1923 – and the Edinburgh-born James Connolly are both mentioned in the ‘Quines’ poem ‘Helen Crawfurd’s Memoirs in Seven Chapters.’ Crawfurd was a suffragette, a Red Clydesider, one of the founders of the Women’s Peace Crusade during World War 1 and a founding member of the CPGB. She had been involved in the window-smashing in one of the suffragette direct actions in London, and also planted a bomb in Glasgow’s Botanic Gardens. She had also sneaked into Moscow to meet Lenin and Krupskaya, Lenin’s wife, after the Russian Revolution. She had become the Secretary of the Workers Relief Organisation, working in the Highlands and in Donegal with Constance Markiewicz as well as supplying relief and support to miners during the General Strike of 1926.

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Crawfurd married ‘a man of the cloth, threefold my age’ and as a minister’s wife she would have visited the houses of the impoverished parishioners in the Anderston district of Glasgow, and seen the ‘bow-legged bairns’ in those houses suffering from malnourishment. This experience had radicalised her.

Like a number of Stevenson’s ‘Quines’ Crawfurd had been religious, but like them – particularly Mary Slessor in ‘Mary Slessor Takes St Paul to Task’ – she questioned the prevailing theologies and religious orthodoxies of her time. Crawfurd’s reverend husband had preached ‘care’ while Crawfurd said she took:

…St. John to heart:
may his truth be known that we must love
the brother we have seen as much as
God we have not seen, or else we lie.

Crawfurd’s Christ ‘could be militant…he whipped the moneylenders from the temple.’ Like Slessor before her Crawfurd was a liberation theologian before the advent of liberation theology proper in the second half of the 20th century.

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Textile by Yvonne Tweedie

Along with Mary Barbour and her army of women who fought the rogue landlords who increased rents while their men were fighting in the hell of the trenches, Crawfurd had joined the working-class women fighting the bailiffs. They would be pelted with bags of flour and with less savoury substances too. These women also joined ‘forces with MacLean’ in opposing the war. The war broke Keir Hardie’s heart, and Crawfurd castigated Christabel Pankhurst for supporting it: ‘Shame on you, I cry.’

Once dubbed ‘Queen of the Mob’, Miss Pankhurst has ‘changed her tune’ as she is:

...enlisting men, pinning their guilt with white feathers
stolen from our dove, impressing women to munitions,
Britannia’s clarion call stoking Europe’s fire
and denying equal pay…

All the indignation of the working-class women in Glasgow and beyond is found in these lines. Women made placards and placed them on their window sills at home looking out to the streets, reading ‘RENT STRIKE WE ARE NOT REMOVING.’ Like most oppressed people who come together in solidarity to fight injustice, these women won their heroic struggle as the Rent Restriction Act of 1915 made it illegal for landlords to increase rents while this war was being fought.

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Lift the Have-Nots From Obscurity

Helen Crawfurd and Mary Barbour had on occasion visited the Fife home of young Jennie Lee to meet with her parents. Lee went on to become a Labour MP and created the Open University which, along with the NHS – valiantly dealing with the coronavirus at present – and the welfare state, were among the best and most progressive achievements of the Labour Party.

In ‘I am Jennie Lee’s Open University’ Stevenson imagines that entity itself speaking in praise of its conception. Thomas Hardy’s ‘Jude the Obscure’ (1895) was one of Lee’s formative books when she was a student because Jude was denied the opportunity to go to university because of his social class. What Lee sought to do with the ‘wee bastard’ that was the White Paper she brought to the Commons was to:

…..lift the have-nots from obscurity
by releasing knowledge like caged birds into the open air.

Knowledge has always been power, and without it the powerless remain powerless.

Stevenson uses so many ingenious voices for her poems. If the actual character herself is not doing the speaking it is someone else – a couple of times Stevenson herself – or something associated with that character. It is a challenging task to do all the necessary research for ‘Quines’, and another challenge altogether then to write the actual poems. Stevenson’s method, she has said, is in ‘finding a hook’ with which to write the poem. This is where all the invention with voice, with who speaks, comes in. These are the actual hooks for her poems.

So for example, in ‘At Miss Eardley’s’ it is the street children of Glasgow’s Townhead district who give the poem its collective voice. The children would go into ‘the big room at Miss Eardley’s’ where the artist Joan Eardley would paint. She would paint these children or sometimes she would be ‘drawin us wi sticks o chalk on sandpaper.’

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Street Kids, by Joan Eardley, 1949

Eardley is recognised as one of Scotland’s premier artists and the fact that she was born in West Sussex seems totally irrelevant. She lived and worked in Scotland and Scotland has claimed her as her own. Interestingly, in ‘Catterline in Winter’ Stevenson wrote of Eardley’s painting of that name in her first poetry collection ‘If This Were Real’ (2013). In this poem she writes in English of the area Eardley also lived and worked in on the north-east coast of Scotland. Stevenson observes in Eardley’s painting how:

The homes are sledging
down the hill
in the blind gaze
of a pandrop moon.

This is an image in words every bit as good as the actual painting. The artist and the poet are viewing the same scene and seeing it in complementary ways.

One final poem – there are over 60 in the collection – that again shows Stevenson’s creative resourcefulness with voice is ‘The Living Mountain’ as it ‘Addresses a £5 Banknote.’ Less than half an hour’s journey from Catterline, the writer Nan Shepherd was born in Peterculter in 1893. ‘The Living Mountain’ is in fact the Cairngorms where Shepherd would often walk. She wrote of her walks there in ‘The Living Mountain’ in 1941 although the book was not published until 1977. Shepherd had been environmentally aware long before the rest of us were panicked into concern.

The Cairngorms speak to Shepherd as her image now adorns a Royal Bank of Scotland £5 note brought out in her honour. Like Shepherd the mountain loathes litter:

I dislike litter, especially your kind-polymer particles
that issue in blizzards from careless markets, slip
from pockets, won’t perish in rain or melt with snow.

‘The Living Mountain’ does, however, make an exception in the case of Shepherd because she was:

…the woman who never rushed
to my summits, but walked into me, took time to learn
my every line – schist, gneiss, granite – and heard
my braided voice.

‘Quines’ is a book of voices, a book of radical women’s voices. It is a celebration as much as a tribute to women, achieved by incredible skill and a great deal of hard work.

Gerda Stevenson has brought all her other artistic selves – as singer, songwriter, actor, dramatist, director – to aid her in this collection. The poems all possess an air of theatricality about them, as woman after woman takes to the stage to tell her tale and celebrate her life. ‘Quines’ is a triumph of voice as much as Beckett’s characters keep talking freely because women, denied the chance to speak in public for so long, say whatever they want here. And, of course, they are all well worth listening to and learning from.

Gerda’s language is rich, bold and, at times, playful. Her forms for her poems are inventive – there are haikus and villanelles here – and each poem is thoroughly thought through before it is presented on the page. Her voice demands to be heard, like the voices of the women who have now become part of her. She has much in common with two of these women in particular – Kantha Sari Heirloom and Tessa Ransford – because like them she is also a cultural activist. ‘Quines’ is as much a product of cultural activism as it is the product of an artistic intelligence.

All the women in ‘Quines’ look at us today with their ‘fearless gazes of hope’; their voices demanding better from a world that stupidly thought it could oppress, relegate or distance them from life and from the heady matters of the world. Maya Angelou would have called these ‘Quines’ ‘phenomenal women’ and would have hailed Gerda Stevenson’s achievement too as phenomenal. ‘Quines’ is a radical collection written by the radical poetic intellect that is the bonnie fechter (intrepid fighter) herself, Gerda Stevenson.

 GS

The bonnie fechter herself......

Quines: Poems in Tribute to Women of Scotland, by Gerda Stevenson is available from Luath Press at £9.99

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