Tony McKenna

Tony McKenna

Tony McKenna is a writer, his latest book is 'Angels and Demons: A Radical Anthology of Political Lives' (Zero Books).

Shakespeare’s Tempest and Capitalism: The Storm of History
Saturday, 01 February 2020 14:26

Shakespeare’s Tempest and Capitalism: The Storm of History

Published in Theatre

Tony McKenna reviews Shakespeare’s Tempest and Capitalism: The Storm of History, by Helen C. Scott, which is a fruitful and dialectical analysis revealing organically the aesthetic character of the play in the context of history

As well as being significant in terms of Shakespeare’ s own aesthetic output, The Tempest provides a vivid window into the tumultuous historical currents and contradictions of the epoch in which the great playwright lived, syphoning them into its ethereal and haunting poetry. Helen C. Scott’s excellent and timely study of the play is a book of two parts. Firstly, she endeavours to raise those historical contradictions to the light. To delineate in clear but profound terms how processes of primitive accumulation were working away, undermining and eroding the certainties of the old feudal world as the epoch of mercantile capitalism and global empire began to take shape – before revealing how these processes leave their mark on the play. Secondly, she provides a meticulous investigation of what has happened to the play since; i.e., the way in which it came to be a contested terrain – the site across which the ideological struggles of successive epochs were fought out in and through polarised interpretations of the work, both revolutionary and reactionary.

To fulfil the first of these tasks, to elaborate the historical necessity which is crystallised in the play, Scott quite naturally begins with an examination of the epoch more broadly:

The Tudor and Stuart state balanced between the old feudal lords and the rising capitalists; it had its basis in those rulers committed to maintaining the old order, but it also enabled the development of capitalism through state-sponsored enclosures of land, which offered some yeoman farmers and landlords the opportunity to develop agricultural capitalism. The state also facilitated the colonial expansion that enabled the rise of the new merchant capitalists… These developments were made possible by the ‘primitive accumulation’ of capital – labourers were separated from the land and the products of their own work and compelled to enter the wage labour market… As a corollary, the new triangular trade literally enslaved entire populations, denying them possession of even their own labour power… The naked contradiction between the ideology of bourgeois individualism and the fact of slavery was justified by the development of a systematic racism, which denied the enslaved human status. 

In her clear-eyed analysis the contradictions abound: the dichotomies between the old feudal order and the new capitalist epoch which is grafted onto the state, between ‘free’ labour and slavery, countryside and the town, domestic exploitation and colonial expansion, the rise of the merchant and upward mobility pressing tightly against the old ossified forms of title and aristocracy. Scott depicts a world in flux, a world quite literally subject to a historical tempest, whereby uprooted populations flow from the land to the city, whereby peoples from the most disparate of places across the globe are sucked into the maelstrom of the emerging capitalist order as paupers, proto-proletarians, slaves, entrepreneurs, investors, merchants and mariners. And where did this process reach its most concentrated expression?  In the city of London, answers Scott, for

London was the urban heart of England’s early capitalism and boasted conditions that stood in sharp contrast to the circumscribed environment of the previous era… The population of London is reckoned to have increased eightfold from the beginning of the sixteenth to the middle of the seventeenth century … Stephen Greenblatt describes it as a “city of newcomers” which was home to an “unprecedented concentration of bodies” 

Such a complex and contradictory demographic formed the rich soil from which Renaissance theatre bloomed, where the first public amphitheatre of modern times was set up in 1576, swiftly followed by dozens of others. These theatres marked a qualitative leap forward; in late medieval times troupes of travelling actors were starting to be replaced by actors repeatedly performing in the same site, usually an inn. But the amphitheatres provided ‘a purpose-built permanent venue for open-air performance’, a place where the diversity and richness of the London population could increasingly be concentrated into the single space; seamen, ironmongers, prostitutes, dock-workers standing on the ground level (yard) while the upper classes could be found in the more expensive gallery seats.

Likewise, the social background of the playwrights, actors and owners themselves was

richly illustrative of shifting class dynamics. John Brayne, the figure behind the Red Lion, was a successful London Grocer; James Burbage, leading player in the Queen’s Men, was a carpenter. Of the six shareholders of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, William Kempe had been a jester with the Earl of Leicester, and Thomas Pope was also part of the Earl’s retinue; John Hemmings was a wealthy London Grocer.

The theatre at this time was categorized by this mix of contradictory elements; the links to royal and aristocratic patronage were sustained but in the same moment theatres were established as ‘commercial joint stock companies with the central goal of making a profit’. 

In other words, the theatre itself had come to ‘register the upheavals, contradictions, conflicts, and immense energy associated with the broader period’. It was itself a social phenomenon which was caught between the old and the new, imbued with the contradictions and paradoxes of the conflict between one epoch and the next, and The Tempest, perhaps more than any other play, bears the weight of those historical contradictions. Indeed, as Scott eloquently reveals, such contradictions provide the fundamental tension and driving force of the play: there is, for example the fundamental opposition which opens up between Prospero and Caliban, whereby Caliban comes to signify the colonised ‘other’, a figure who is degraded, debased, deformed – partly as a result of the drudgery of the never-ending labour to which he is subjected in and through the dark magic of the coloniser of the island.

And yet, Caliban’s representation is contradictory, because

it is not restricted to abject other, but also allows for sympathy and agency, elicited through his exceptionally powerful and figuratively rich language, which has led generations of anti-colonial artists and writers to champion the character … His first beautiful soliloquy asserts his right to the land – on the grounds of his material inheritance – and presents a moving account of his generous treatment of Prospero that resonates with the historical conquest of Native Americans’.  In the looming presence of Sycorax (as described by some of the other characters) we have a mysterious female figure in possession of dangerous and destructive powers. For this, she is excoriated and demonized as a witch by the very people who have displaced her, and so, while on one level she is a malevolent and oppressive figure with sinister powers, on another she is ‘an Algerian woman who is scorned, demonized, and exiled … [someone ]… come to have considerable symbolic significance as a figure at the nexus of colonial, female and proletarian dispossession’. 

Likewise the character of Prospero is also fraught with contradiction. On the one hand, he is in possession of incredible magical powers. As Scott points out, at this point in time, such ‘magic’ can ‘represent technology and science or philosophy’ too, for this was the epoch of the Renaissance scientist, figures such as Francis Bacon who himself was sundered between epochs, on the one hand developing a more systematic and rational bourgeois science while at the same time still wedded to some level of supernatural mysticism in and through the study of alchemy. But behind the cultivation of bourgeois science, of course, there lies bourgeois production, and in this Prospero is very much a harbinger of the proto-capitalist, for what does his science/magic do besides set labour into motion in and through its oppression of a manual worker like Caliban? Of course, the monstrous effect of the unbridled application of bourgeois science to production described in terms of a metaphor of magic, is something another great writer would take up in the nineteenth century; consequently ‘Prospero is destined to be perennially associated with Marx’s capitalist sorcerer.’ 

But in the very moment that Prospero emerges as a cypher for bourgeois modernity this is undermined by the playwright in the role Shakespeare assigns to the character. For Prospero renounces his magic at the end; an ending which, ostensibly, sees Prospero reclaim his title as the Duke of Milan and successfully unite his daughter Miranda with the Crown Prince Ferdinand, thus securing Prospero’s land and political legacy in the classical feudal fashion. In this respect Prospero becomes a figure of feudal restoration. But the aesthetic power and heightened ambiguity of the play is, for Scott, the very point; the dialectical oppositions which the playwright constantly calls into being (much like the sorcerer’s apprentice) are always on the verge of melting into one another, a process Scott employs another Shakespearean concept to denote – that of ‘sea-change’.

The ambiguity of the play has proved frustrating for some; the ‘harmonious’ reconciliation of the conclusion is seemingly undercut by the sheer bitterness of Prospero’s words to his treacherous brother; can such fragile harmony sustain, or are the fissures and fault-lines which exist between the characters going to explode into life once more in another all-out war? On the one hand, then, the conclusion lends itself to a reading ‘celebrating the conservative restoration of order’ while at the same time others can argue that the ‘forced closure’ does not successfully erase ‘the enduring conflicts and systematic brutality’ which is at work underneath the surface. Such ambiguity, such duality, is far from accidental; it is in somewise built into the very fabric of the historical period itself, a period which brings the old epoch and the new into some kind of ‘dialectical constellation’ but at the same time it presents as a kind of limbo, neither one nor the other, caught ‘between things ended and things not yet begun’. In this context one can perceive the historical necessity which is at work in Shakespeare, ‘the unmoored beginnings and endings’ and the strange aroma of ambiguity and contradiction which arises from The Tempest like a hoary mist from a cold sea.

Such ambiguity, of course, helps lend to the play a variety of possible interpretations, and these Scott explores rigorously and systematically. She begins by focussing on the period of Restoration, half a century after Shakespeare’s death, when the ‘compromise of the restored monarchy provided an imprimatur for the newly ascendant bourgeoisie while curtailing further social upheaval; the radical questioning of society represented by the Diggers and Levellers was for now closed down.’ It was in such a context that the ‘royalist Davenant and the by now thoroughly counterrevolutionary John Dryden rewrote the play. Their Restoration version emphasized the failed rebellion from below in the subplot at the expense of the courtly usurpation it mirrors in Shakespeare’s play. The conservative dimensions … were emphasised but many of the discordant countervailing dynamics erased.’ But the radical parameters of The Tempest were naturally revived as we enter the age of the French Revolution. In this period ‘the play was evoked in myriad registers in a wide range of poetry and prose. The Prospero/Caliban relationship was roped into the Jacobin debates, variably representing the corrupt old regime and the democratic new, while Caliban acquired what was to be a lasting identification with the emergent proletariat.’

In addition, Scott provides a detailed analysis of the way in which the play was fused with the Romantic Movement, which established ‘The Tempest as the quintessential Shakespearean work and endowed it with those powerful qualities of heightened imagination and creativity that from this time on are indelibly associated with it.’ Of course, The Tempest with its storms and ‘sea change’ provided the perfect counterpart to romanticism and its use of pathetic fallacy in its literature and poetry; the tempest within The Tempest becomes an exceptional metaphor for both the explosive creativity of the Romantic imagination and the revolutionary explosions of the epoch.  In light of this Scott provides us with a detailed examination of the works of Keats, Shelley, Coleridge, Wordsworth and Blake in an extended and intriguing discussion which shows how the romantic imagination was indelibly shaped by its fecund encounter with Shakespeare’s great play.

Scott goes on to give a detailed account of the way in which the play was interpreted and performed in light of the First World War and the rise of modernism, among other things demonstrating how ‘The Tempest is central to [T.S.] Eliot’s dystopic vision of a shattered world’ (84) in the poet’s most famous work, ‘The Wasteland’. She shows how Caliban became a dystopic symbol of the downtrodden and the starving in depression-era USA through works such as Edwin Muir’s ‘Sick Caliban’. And she provides a particularly fascinating discussion on anti-colonialism and feminism, and the way in which these movements have been syphoned through the categories and characters of the play; in the late twentieth century there was developed the ‘Sycorax School’ which sought to rehabilitate the unseen character of Sycorax by decking it out in the colours of feminism and anti-colonialism, with thinkers like Silvia Federici providing accounts placing the dispossession of colonial subjects and ‘the global subordination of women , and specifically the persecution of witches, at the very centre of capitalism’s early development, therefore emphasising the symbolic centrality of the “witch”’.

Scott also looks at the way in which elements of the play have become staples of modern culture; many of us are probably aware that the title for Aldous Huxley’s dystopic novel comes from Miranda’s speech where she waxes lyrical about the wonder of those who have arrived to the island and the ‘brave new world’ they represent. But I’d wager fewer readers are familiar with the episode in Star Trek: The Next Generation which uses The Tempest as the underlying theme of one of its episodes or the Rob Newman 2003 comedy routine (From Caliban to the Taliban) which ‘places The Tempest in the context of the long history of capitalist imperialism … in fierce satirical mode.’

The concluding chapter provides an examination of the way the play has fared during the epoch of neoliberalism, and among many high spots, Scott provides – to my mind – a quite brilliant analysis of the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London, showing how ‘Tempest’ themes and characters were hitched to a triumphal sense of patriotism which ‘sanitized [Britain’s] long history of colonial plunder’ in and through a corporate event that typified the glitz and glamour of wealth and sponsorship while just outside the stadium ‘the ongoing economic and social hardships felt by London’s multiracial working class’ was still very much in evidence.

Scott’s book expresses both the passionate enthusiasm for the play which comes from being a life-long fan, and the ability to provide a lucid exposition of the fundamental themes, contradictions and idiosyncrasies which comes from decades of dialogue with the students she has taught on the subject of The Tempest.  The level of knowledge and research which Scott mobilizes is admirable, and it is delivered with the clarity of a teacher who seeks to delight the student with her subject matter. As well, it provides a profound example of classical Marxism. It is a fruitful and dialectical analysis – neither heavy-handed nor didactic – which reveals organically the aesthetic character of the play in the context of the history which sets the basis for it.

Helen C. Scott's Shakespeare’s Tempest and Capitalism: The Storm of History is published by Routledge, London and New York, 2019. 252pp., £120 hb
ISBN 9781409407263. This review is republished from Marx and Philosophy Review of Books.

Lively, incisive and erudite: Marxist Literary Criticism Today, by Barbara Foley
Wednesday, 30 October 2019 15:42

Lively, incisive and erudite: Marxist Literary Criticism Today, by Barbara Foley

Published in Cultural Commentary

Tony McKenna praises Marxist Literary Criticism Today (Pluto Press, £19.99) for its clarity, coherence, and insightfulness 

For the last few decades the world of ‘Marxist’ literary criticism has been dominated by a tiny coterie of elite thinkers, figures like Fredric Jameson and Terry Eagleton, ‘top-flight intellectuals’ whose tortuous, indecipherable language and pretentious linguistic philosophies often say a great deal about themselves but next to nothing about the literature they purport to analyse. For this reason I didn’t have high hopes for Barbara Foley’s new book, Marxist Literary Criticism Today, because I felt it might well be more of the same.

I couldn’t have been more wrong. Foley is what someone like Jameson will never be. She is an authentic teacher – genuinely concerned with the type of clear and patient explanation which is designed to uplift the student and allow them to delight in the quirks and idiosyncrasies of her subject matter.

For this reason, part one of the book does not explicitly address the field of literary criticism at all. What it does do, is to give a clear and coherent account of some of the central concepts in Marxist philosophy and economics – concepts which one has to get a handle on, as they provide the optics through which great works of literature can be read. Foley outlines clearly some of the fundamental ideas in the Marxist lexicon: Class, Commodities, Capital, Surplus Value, Alienation, Reification, Totality, Base and Superstructure, dialectics and so on. These are often the subjects of fascinating discussions which are gradually integrated into literary concerns throughout the course of the book.

In the discussion on class, for example, Foley mobilises a classically Marxist understanding of the proletariat as the ‘universal class’ and emphasises that because of its structural position – as a social relation of production – it is the ‘“primary” analytical category for explaining social inequality and leveraging revolutionary and social change’. (17)  Historically speaking, patriarchal relations and relations of racist oppression have grown out of the structural dimensions of class exploitation, and therefore resistance to and destruction of the latter is, ultimately, bound up with the dissolution of the former and the mission of the proletariat in the modern age.

This might seem a little removed from the subject of literary theory. But when you understand that texts by ‘Shakespeare, Shelley and Brecht’ create their characters and describe their relationships in the context of ‘social forces constraining freedom in class-based inequality’ (106) and awaken in the reader ‘a universal need for freedom from alienation and oppression’ (106) thereby – you also come to understand that the universality which great literature projects is the aesthetic echo of the universality which is crystallised in and through the struggle for freedom that is part and parcel of the broader historical unfolding of the class struggle. (106)

Understanding and accepting this approach provides a significant tonic to the more fashionable ‘intersectionalist’ approach which often ends up ‘segregating’ different groups into the boxes which accord with their oppression; i.e. the notion that only people from particularly groups, ethnicities and genders are qualified to write about those same groups, or that ‘a dead white male’ like William Shakespeare can have nothing to say to a young black man growing up in a Harlem project.

At the same time, however, Foley never falls into ‘economism’ – that is, the belief that every aspect of social life is determined directly and mechanically by a set of class forces, without mediation or qualification. In fact, Foley argues, racist and sexist forms of oppression can often gain a near ‘autonomous’ life which throws up a myriad of complex and contradictory set of behaviours – behaviours which don’t always correspond neatly to the class interests which are at work underneath the surface of society, and which are responsible for directly producing and reproducing the means of social existence.

tmck ap

That tension between the fundaments of class universality at the level of social being, and the richness and complexity of the myriad forms of cultural and political life, is one Foley brings out in a masterful analysis of the Ann Petry 1946 short story ‘Like a Winding Sheet’. This is the story of a black man (Johnson) living in same period, who is both economically exploited as a worker and racially oppressed as a person of colour. The story chronicles how he is racially abused at work by his boss, a white woman, and that the sense of such commonplace cruelty, along with the withering, debilitating physical conditions of his working existence, leaves him both smouldering and downtrodden. On arriving home one evening, an innocent remark from his wife (Mae) ‘causes’ him to beat her savagely. In one way, the action is baffling and nonsensical – he attacks his wife, another working-class person, another black person, and someone who has only shown to him affection and love. But Foley moves through the layers of society-wide oppression and exploitation in order to mine a deeper explanation:

As proximate causes, sexism and racism constitute the principal psychological motivators of the physical violence that Johnson enacts upon the body of Mae. Petry complicates her portrayal of causality, however, by supplying a further level of motivation to Johnson’s actions….Johnson’s lack of control over his hands, coupled with his lack of control over his conditions of work, signals a root cause of his anger in his alienation, construed in a classically Marxist sense, as the severing of mental from manual labor…his living labor is controlled by the dead labor embodied in the cart he pushes around, rendering him half-dead, indeed zombie-like all day long. The home, the site of the daily reproduction of labor power, is invaded by alienation; rather than functioning as a haven in a heartless world, it becomes the place where he can exercise the only freedom he has – the freedom to beat and kill, the freedom to reproduce in this own actions, in the seemingly private sphere of marriage and home, the dynamic of the intrinsically violent social relations of capitalism. (203-4)

Foley is able to show how the forces of sexism and racism interweave within the context of the broader class structures of capitalism. In other words she derives the ‘soul’ of the story from the forms and structures of social existence, but does so in a way which is neither mechanical or didactic, but clear and profound. Foley’s book is full of examples like this, meticulous fragments of analysis which capture the historical contradictions which abound in a given work of literature.

Thus Foley contrasts the medieval legends of King Arthur with the ‘rags to riches’ stories of young-adult author Horatio Alger as a means to elucidate ‘the supersession of feudal-era notions of obligations and dependency…by capitalist-era notions of individual freedom and autonomy’. (20) She employs a quirky and brilliant analysis in order so show how the English fairy-tale Jack and the Beanstalk hints at the specific and temporary nature of capitalism itself as a historical form: ‘Jack’s trading of the family’s sole cow for a handful of magic beans is a blatantly foolish act of exchange given the desperate poverty in which he lives with his mother. But the ability of the seeds to generate wealth far beyond the market value of the cow – through Jack’s ascending the giant bean stalk…testifies…also to the historical existence of markets where value and exchange value were not automatically seen as equivalent.’ From this one can derive the sense that our ‘present-day habit of quantifying exchange based upon the socially necessary labour time embodied in commodities is neither natural nor trans historical.’ (37)

Her analysis of the horrifically awful Fifty Shades of Grey is also rooted in the concept of Capital, only whereas Jack and The Beanstalk can be considered an expression of longing for pre-capitalist forms, Fifty Shades provide a paean to Capital. It is in many ways the idealised form in which Capital perceives itself – in as much as Capital is presented as a glittering, pristine creation entirely abstracted from the misery and suffering of the social exploitation which sets the basis for it:

There is no exploitation of labor in the world of Christian Grey, only capital willing to place itself on the market and, through creative application, expand itself indefinitely…The helicopter, the sheets, the glass-encased high-rise apartment: these commodities are so far removed from the labor processes generating them that capital cannot be thought of as a vampire sucking the blood out of living labor. (200)

And in the figure of dynamic billionaire Christian Grey, Capital as a charismatic force of progress abstracted from any social cost is personified:

Christian is himself Capital as pure money in seductive human form. And although…we are told he “works” so hard that he has little time for sleep – he is shown to be more concerned about the activities of his Gates-style philanthropic foundation, which is busy saving countless lives in Africa, than with overseeing the business empire which magically generates his wealth.’ (201)

Foley is also attuned to the silences between words, the invisible subtext, the things which are hinted at but not explicitly referenced in the gaps on the page. In an illuminating analysis of The Preamble to the US Constitution, Foley, in her rather Socratic manner, asks a series of pertinent questions. The document makes reference to ‘the People of the United States’ who are to ‘secure the Blessings of Liberty’, but ‘the people’ is a remarkably nebulous concept. Who are these people? Do they include the enslaved blacks? The women who didn’t have the vote? The poor white men, equally disenfranchised? ‘The people’ becomes a rather slippery stand-in for the real social group whose liberty and power the constitution enshrines, i.e. ‘white men possessing enough property to qualify them’. (171)  

The mirage being generated is that created by every ruling class which, ‘while promoting and articulating its own interests, proclaims its outlook to be a universal one.’ (172) At the same time, the cracks in the surface begin to poke through – the Constitution makes reference to the need to form ‘a more perfect Union’ (172) and thus implies the imperfections of the current arrangement while the exhortation to ‘insure domestic Tranquillity’ (172) obliquely hints at the political unrest of the vast majority of people who have been excluded from the remit of the Constitution – ‘there persists revolts of the less privileged like the recent Shays’s rebellion’. (172)  

Foley’s analysis of the Preamble to the Constitution is paired with an account of a 1987 poem by Gloria Anzaldúa, ‘We Call Them Greasers’ which offers the first-person perspective of an unnamed settler as he subjugates an indigenous group by means of rape and murder, ultimately driving them from the land:

I found them here when I came.
They were growing corn on their small ranchos…
smelling of woodsmoke and sweat…
Weren’t interested in bettering themselves,
why they didn’t even own the land but shared it
Wasn’t hard to drive them off,
cowards they were, no backbone…
And the women – well I remember one in particular.
She lay under me whimpering…
Afterward I sat on her face until her arms stopped flailing,
didn’t want to waste a bullet on her….
I walked up to where I had tied her man to the tree and spat his face.
Lynch him, I told the boys. (172-3)                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

It is a stark and harrowing poem which ‘encapsulates a genocidal narrative in which sexism, racism and contempt for indigenous peoples are shored up by the nationalist dogmas proclaiming the supremacy of individualism and private property…In this phase of primitive accumulation called pioneering, the state is defined by the naked power of wealth; violence is the principal historical and geographical presupposition of the expansion of capital.’ (174)  

What is particularly intriguing and provocative in the pairing of the Preamble to the Constitution and the poem, is that Foley is able to show how ‘a historically materialist understanding of the role of the state in capital accumulation invites us to link the eminently civilized and rational prose of the Founding Fathers with the crude brutality evinced by the speaker in Anzaldúa’s poem. The realities of slavery, class struggle, rape, and genocide are masked in the enlightened language of the Preamble: yet one “we” leads to the next “we”.’ (174)

There is the odd occasion when the reader is tempted to take issue with some of the analysis. For example, Foley’s analysis of the great William Butler Yeats’s poem ‘The Second Coming’ is intriguing and well-argued, but flawed in my view. Foley detects a certain aristocratic longing to the poem – ‘the falcon cannot hear the falconer’ – which alludes, in her words, to ‘the hierarchical order associated with feudalism’ (168) of the past, an order which has been overwhelmed by the chaos of the present. ‘The “best’ (presumably those responsible for maintaining order) have not risen to the occasion, while the “worst” (presumably those responsible for the “anarchy” have taken command, “loos[ing] the blood-dimmed tide” and drowning the innocent’. (168)

According to Foley, the use of phrases such as ‘blood-dimmed tide’ in conjunction with social ‘anarchy’ ‘links the purposiveness of destructive human agents with the uncontrollability of natural forces’. (168) For Foley, the poem provides a ‘naturalisation’ of the human essence which essentially ‘bypasses the necessity for historical analysis’ (168) and thus the poem presents us with an ahistorical depiction of a generic humanity which inevitably tilts toward barbarism.

Of course the aristocratic tenor of Yeats's own politics – a certain anti-democratic and even fascist inflection – has a bearing on some of the themes in the poem. And the way in which social and historical relations are naturalised; the way in which the specific character of the capitalist social order is transmuted into an eternal fetish of human nature impervious to historical change – is important not only to help comprehend the ideological mechanics of political philosophies which aim to defend the status-quo, but in the literary arena it can give you a sense of why a certain work is aesthetically poor.

Rather than living flesh-and-blood characters who have grown out of the social relations of a particular phase of history and are, therefore, in some way imbued with the contradictions of the age, literary characters in which some kind of generic, eternal human nature is posited (be it a good or evil one) are inevitably aesthetically poorer, because they remain unchanging archetypes which cannot develop in a realist fashion in response to the pressures and demands of the social world they inhabit. They cannot fundamentally change in historical time – or in the case of the novel, they cannot fundamentally change in the course of the plot. If Anna Karenina had been born fundamentally good or fundamentally evil, the mainspring of her personality would not flow from the social contradictions of the society she inhabited; her tragedy would not flow from being a woman whose burgeoning self-determination in the context of a rapidly changing social world was nevertheless thrown into contradiction with an ossified and feudal hierarchy specific to 19th century Russia.

Guernica canvas Pablo Picasso Madrid Museo Nacional 1937

The ‘naturalisation’ critique can’t be so easily applied to a poem because a poem does not describe events in historical time in any coherent or linear detail (epic poetry being one possible exception). The poem is rather more fleeting and fragmented. This is something poetry shares with painting. If, for example, you consider Picasso’s Guernica – the bombs dropping on the small Spanish town during the civil war and the cataclysmic fragmentation and destruction of civilian life which ensues – there is no progressive historical development. We don’t see the citizens of Guernica as they are in the aftermath of the event, rebuilding their lives. But even though we are not made witness to a living historical development which is in some way embodied in the painting’s aesthetic – even though all the painting does show us is fragmentation and implosion – would it be fair to conclude that Picasso’s freeze-frame of civil war destruction represents an eternalisation of human nature according to the principles of savagery and destruction? I would say not; the painting offers up a snapshot of reality which evokes the ‘mood’ of a specific epoch rather than elaborating several moments in the historical trajectory of a given character or period in the way a novel might.

The Picasso painting gives some sense of what it means to be an individual walking through the remnants of a twentieth-century world which has been smashed by global and civil wars, the disorienting feeling of moving through the ruins in the aftermath. In the same way, ‘The Second Coming’ uses archaic, apocalyptic language and imagery – ‘beast…slouches toward Bethlehem’ – as a way of capturing the almost apocalyptic power and inevitability of modernity – in the words of Marx, all that is solid melts into air. But rather than ‘bypass’ the necessity of history in favour of a principle of naturalisation, Yeats’s poem, with its grotesque and funereal grandeur, captures the moment of modernity in all its sweeping, disorientating violence.

So the question of abstraction – i.e. to what level of clarity and concreteness can different forms of literature address social and historical contradictions – is one that Foley fails to address, and it is important here. But even if one were to accept that ‘The Second Coming’ is, in the last analysis, a poem which offers up an ahistorical view of human nature which privileges aristocratic hierarchy and power, then one is at a loss to explain just why it has such a moving and dramatic charge.

Likewise, the poem which Foley contrasts the Yeats poem to – Claude McKay’s ‘If We Must Die’ – is a worthy and affecting piece which deals in a far more coherent, politically conscious and revolutionary way with the concrete forms of oppression which human beings face in the twentieth century. However, it does not have anything like the level of aesthetic truth and power of Yates’s poem.

Perhaps because the subject matter is so broad, the range of works and concepts that Foley covers so diverse, there is the odd occasion when she spreads herself a little thin. For example, her discussion of the great Hegelian-Marxist Georg Lukács is weak at certain points, especially her explanation (74) of the ‘identical subject-object of history’ concept which Lukács puts forward, and which is so integral to an understanding of the proletariat in Marxist terms as the ‘universal class’.  

As for her categorisation of one ‘Tony McKenna’ as somebody who believes that the essence of art lies in the ‘transcendence of its class origins’ (144) – well…ahem…as bizarre as the thinking of that particular individual sometimes is, I can quite categorically confirm this is not his perspective.

Needless to say, these are but minor points. The major one is simply this: Foley has produced a work of great erudition which spans a colourful and vast selection of examples from literature past and present. In addition, her analysis is informed by a strong understanding of Marxist philosophy and economics which shows how the works she explores are shaped by the necessity and the contradictions of their historical origins. Finally, all this is brought across in the lively and incisive style of a teacher who genuinely enjoys the ebb and flow of discussion and debate. I think it is fair to say ‘Marxist Literary Criticism Today’ is an excellent work of literature in its own right.

After Life
Monday, 08 July 2019 07:43

After Life

Tony McKenna reviews After Life, the new black comedy-drama written by Ricky Gervais for Netflix

Ricky Gervais has two seminal qualities which make him a wonderful writer.  One, he has a capacity for cruelty, a hangover from his background as comedian, for good comedy is often cruel. Gervais does not suffer fools lightly and often raises up the stupidities of others in terms of the most lacerating satire and critique.  The other is a great capacity for humanism; to see how, at their depths, even people who appear on the surface to be arrogant and toxic, are often just bumbling along, ineptly, hopefully and without any real malice.   These two moments – a lacerating cruelty and a more fallible humanity – reached a perfect comic fusion with Gervais' most iconic creation, the office manager David Brent. 

Brent was, for all intents and purposes, a complete arsehole.  He was the type of man who was capable of saying things like 'What is the single most important thing for a company? Is it the building? Is it the stock? Is it the turnover? It's the people, investment in people' – with a straight face.  He was this horrific whirlwind of mangled motivational soundbite along with the type of cod philosophy haphazardly snatched from the most ghastly and saccharine self-help manual.  He would subject the people under him to his god-awful comedy routines, labouring under the delusion that he was witty and charismatic, and bolstered by a sense that, as their boss, the subordinates in the office were compelled to listen to him – quite literally a captive audience.

And yet, the most remarkable thing about Brent was that you, the viewer, could never really despise him.  You winced, as he embarrassed himself, as his often rather sleazy attempts to ingratiate himself with others crashed and burned, and you squirmed as he lurched between platitude and prejudice – but you could never really hate him because there was nothing of cruelty in what he was.  Just the opposite in fact.  Underneath all the twattish management twaddle, there lurked a confused but fundamentally well-intentioned personality desperately seeking some kind of connection with others.

Creating a character so finally finessed between the ghastly and the generous exhibited the scalpel-like fineness of Gervais' writing and was one of the reasons why I was looking forward to his new Netflix series After Life.  But here, however, Gervais is unable to walk that same fine line; for his protagonist is much more ghastly but far less generous. Tony is a middle-aged man who has just lost his wife to cancer.   In the aftermath of that event, he is plunged into abject hopelessness and this takes the form of a comic nihilism whereby he abandons any politeness or pretence and says to others – both close friends and strangers – exactly what he thinks all of the time.

The idea is that although Tony is impossibly cruel, sarcastic and hurtful to virtually everyone who comes into his orbit, this is because he is because he is so grief-stricken and devastated – that behind the irate anger at the world lives a fundamentally kind and generous soul.  It's a good premise, but it doesn't work because Gervais is never able to evoke any genuine sense of kindness or generosity on Tony's part.  He assures us that Tony does have these qualities, over and over in fact.  Tony spends some of his time watching videos his wife recorded for him before she passed away.   Every now and then she will describe him with a stoical chuckle as a 'fat twat' thus allowing the writer to state in very bald terms that these scenes are earthy and real rather than trite and sentimental.  But once that is got out the way, she harps on ad infinitum about what a truly remarkable, special, good person he is and how she knew it from the very first moment she laid eyes on him, how much he has to offer the world, and so on.  She is quite literally on her deathbed, so you wouldn't reasonably expect her to start ragging maliciously on her beloved, but what you get from these snippets is almost nothing about her character, who she was, and very little about the actual details and events of the relationship between them.  Rather she simply reveres him.  She becomes little more than a prop for his grief, a device to throw into relief just how worthy he is and how much he is suffering.

Edgy or unkind?

And the same is true with every other character.  They all, every single one of them, spend time riffing on how great, how kind, how funny and how good the Gervais lead is while remaining largely indifferent to the sheer cruelty of what he says and does.  He treats his co-worker, the photographer Lenny, with visceral contempt, harping on about how physically repulsive he is, encouraging others to ridicule the disgusting image of him consuming food, pinching the fat at the back of his neck, publically interrogating Lenny's partner as to what she could possibly see in someone so ridiculous, lacking and ugly.  This kind of stuff is, I guess, supposed to be edgy, but really it just comes across as unkind.  Lenny does not just absorb the insults Tony heaps upon him with muted bemusement, he also looks at Tony with wide-eyed and gormless adoration for he too understands how privileged he is to be in the same space as this remarkable yet damaged human being.


Tony's elderly father is perhaps the most depressing of all the props.  He is suffering from dementia and is living in a care home. Tony comes to visit him.  The comedy is derived from the fact that Tony's ailing dad, being old and demented, is extremely 'politically incorrect'.  So he will suddenly say something racist or inappropriately sexual, and a good laugh will be had by all. Tony's father's entire raison d'être seems to consist in this alone. And the fact that he provides the prop by which the crotchety Gervais is able to get to know the hardworking, stoical but warm-hearted Emma, a carer at the home. 

Here the stage is set for the Gervais character to emerge from his winter hibernation of despair and disillusion, warmed by the benevolent and giving nature of Emma, the inevitable romantic foil, for she too senses the almost infinite hidden depths which lie behind the brusque exterior. Despite all the loss and suffering she has come into contact with in her job, Tony himself is the 'saddest man' she has ever seen.

Part of the problem with Tony's character, I think, is that he is a product of Gervais' own wish-fulfilment.  Tony is a bitter rebuke to the world, a rebuke addressed to all the asinine morons out there wandering about in their fog of stupidity having not yet arrived at Gervais' astute political and cultural values.  So, for instance, yet another one-dimensional character is another of Tony's colleagues, Kath.  She is particularly gormless, empty-headed and spaced out, given to mull aimlessly and endlessly over the most trivial and vapid of subjects. 

And she also happens to be religious.  Which sets the stage for the Gervais character to provide a contemptuous and 'incisive' critique of her beliefs, which essentially comes down to Tony squealing, 'yeah, well if God made everything right, then who made him, eh?'  A practical and commonsensical retort for sure, and one which perfectly expresses the crude literalism of the kind of 'New Atheism' which Gervais has so relentlessly campaigned for – a critique which remains oblivious to the profound philosophical and cosmological themes which infuse great religions and which make them resonate with so many millions of people.  And while the whole 'well who made him' charge provides a significant and perhaps insurmountable obstacle to the theorisation of any deity, those of us who are atheist proponents of the Big Bang theory (the current writer included) are ourselves subject to a similar and no less thorny dilemma (if the Big Bang created the universe what caused it?)

Character or caricature?

Kath is yet another foil, an empty and asinine caricature which exists only to be pounded by Gervais' rather vulgar anti-religious fervour.  Yet more secondary characters are called into being to perform the same banal function.  Tony is walking down the street, only to be accosted by a couple of would-be muggers.  The two teenage boys are leery, belligerent and aggressive, their accents are almost a caricature of the sneering, mindless and hate-filled 'chav'.  Cue the Gervais character, to take action. He does not cower before them, and with fearless abandonment he strikes one and berates the other in a soft, calm voice which leads them to understand that here is a man who is little concerned for his own safety and will not be intimidated. 

Disorientated and ashamed, they shrink from him.  In another lifetime perhaps Gervais might have been tempted to derive some humour from the scene, but apart from the idea of the skanky 'chavs' getting their just deserts, the exchange is humourless.   It's rather odd too, because the whole tone has more in common with something like Death Wish, the humane and humanistic middle-aged, middle-class individual with his back to the wall, finally pushed into action by the dark protean forces stirring in the impoverished mob – the chaos and menace of the streets offering up a deadly threat to the civilised and respectable nostrums of law and order.

The scene Gervais has created here verges on the ridiculous, but it also provides us a glimpse into what Tony really represents, i.e. he becomes the means by which Gervais is able to exorcise his frustrations. Tony provides an almost Nietzschean-like riposte to the social ills of the modern world, very much from the elevated perspective of a middle-class man who is now unfettered by the niceties of bourgeois respectability, and can unleash the full force of his superiority and contempt against the trudging imbeciles, non-entities and miscreants of the herd. 

The only character who is impoverished and at the bottom, who is painted sympathetically rather than with derision – a character who doesn't feel the full force of Tony's loathing and disdain – is the figure of Daphne (aka Roxy), a sex-worker.  She is intriguing, witty, damaged, brash and thoughtful.  It is a shame she doesn't have a little more screen time.  Alas, like all the women in the piece she is afflicted by a severe condition of 'Tony worship,' understanding just how remarkable he is and how much he has to give. So as he goes off to take his first tentative steps into the dating world, she pines away wistfully on just what a lucky woman his prospective date is.

After Life is not unwatchable, the dialogue is often lively and the scenes are occasionally funny.  A writer of Gervais' calibre is incapable of producing something utterly boring or utterly bad.  But in After Life he has created a fundamentally synthetic world – a rather flimsy, clichéd set of secondary characters who remain underdeveloped, and who float around the protagonist like rubber balloons, drawn by the gravity of his egoism. They are empty props which exist only to validate Tony's wit, virtue and travails, lacking any real character or content in their own right.  When the time comes, as it inevitably must, for Tony to realise that his hatred at the world is misplaced and it is really rather a jolly place after all, the shift occurs not as result of a genuine engagement with the people around him on equal terms but rather from a hastily contrived moral epiphany, a saccharine speech on the joys and wonders of the colleagues and 'friends' whom he has spent all the other episodes pitilessly humiliating.   The tone of the piece thus shifts, moving from sour and unpleasant to gushing and sentimental in its conclusion.  Given the character dynamic Gervais has created, this has the feel of inevitability.

Solidarity against everyday exploitation: Stephen King's IT
Tuesday, 25 June 2019 14:49

Solidarity against everyday exploitation: Stephen King's IT

Published in Fiction

Tony McKenna looks back at Stephen King's IT

Some years ago, a study was carried out into the fears of young children in the night. Just before the lights were turned off and the children were ready for sleep they were each asked where they thought the monster was. The majority of little boys said they believed it was hiding in the cupboard. The majority of little girls thought it was lurking under the bed. From this, the scientists derived a particularly provocative and exciting conclusion.  At the very dawn of our own pre-history, the females would have tended to be in the trees with the children; ergo they would expect any attack to come from below (underneath the bed). The males who were hunting on the ground would expect the danger to come from the side (the cupboard). The fears that very young children have at night, therefore, are the echoes of the distant primordial darkness of our most ancient origins somehow embedded in the shadowy recesses and deepest depths of our psyches.

This was, perhaps, more supposition than science. It certainly doesn't stand up as a coherent pre-historical or sociological depiction of the lives of early hominids, but at the same time it has a poetic and allegorical resonance which does register a certain type of truth. The truth being that young children are in some way closer to the type of elemental fears and instincts which, over time, we shed, as we move into adulthood, and the rules and norms of a more structured social existence take over. The fear of the monster under the bed, or the creature in the cupboard, is replaced by the rather more prosaic fears of things like unemployment, illness, poverty and old age.  

One of the strongest themes in Stephen King's IT is the recognition of this. The recognition that pre-pubescent children are in some way alive to a strange and topsy-turvy world of figures, spectres, rituals and terrors which remains invisible to adults and takes place largely under their radar. So in IT, it is 'the Losers' – the collective name for the gaggle of misfits and geeks bonded by the fact that they are all outsiders – who are able to detect that a supernatural evil is at work in their small rural town in a way in which their parents can't. It is the late 1950s and the town of Derry has seen a horrific series of deaths of young children; the adult population are bemused and benumbed by the shocking events but are unable to come to terms with what is really going on. 

The Losers Club2

The Losers, however, are able to see through the eyes of children, to gradually apprehend the supernatural reality of the threat which is confronting them. They are able to figure out the modus operandi of the sinister and murderous clown Pennywise, surely one of Kings most fantastical and terrifying creations. They come to understand that the entity which manifests as a creepy clown – or IT – exists in a subterranean realm, deep underground, lurking in the vents and the sewers, appearing to them on the periphery, in the forest, in an abandoned decaying house, on the edges of their known world.      

Like this, King is able to call into being a dualistic reality; the world of the adults over and against the world of the children: the world of the sun-drenched town centre and the library and the shops, the world of the ordinary – and then that other world, the word of the underground, of shadows and death, ancientness and decay. This is set against a rather finely wrought depiction of childhood and the way in which the Losers come together through their friendship. At first the evil shapeshifting entity appears to them individually in the guise of their worst childhood fears: for the germophobe and hypochondriac Eddie, IT appears as a leper, for Bill Desborough, the bright stuttering leader of the group, IT appears in the form of his murdered brother Georgie, and so on. These are kids who are particularly vulnerable, bullied and alienated by their peers, often ignored or mistreated by their parents – and so their connection with each other becomes quite literally a life-saving one; it becomes the way they can graduate the understanding of their own subjective fears and isolation into a broader and shared understanding of the evil which does exist, the spectre of Pennywise, and the realisation that they are the only ones who are capable of resisting it. IT is a horror story, for sure, but it is also that thing which King does so well, a coming of age tale in which the tentative friendships and puppy loves of a group of children on the cusp of adolescence bloom against a darker background of supernatural threat.       

But IT is more than a simple bogeyman.  Like the very greatest horror creations, IT in some way becomes a cipher for the ills of the historical past, a conduit through which very human evils are channelled.  At the start of the novel King describes a festival which took place in Derry, a fun, frolicking, light-hearted occasion. A gay couple are depicted holding hands. Later, as night falls, they are attacked, and one of them is murdered. The way King describes the political and spiritual psychologies of the homophobes who carry out this attack throws into relief his attention to the little, gentle details which underpin the affection and love of the two men. It is an acute, tragic and highly modern description of the way in which prejudice operates and the bleak anomie and hatred which lies behind it.

And, of course, when the homophobes toss the victim over the bridge, having very nearly beaten him to death, the spectre of the clown is waiting in the shadows underneath, like an awful troll in some medieval fairy tale. King's point, here and elsewhere, is that the adults in the town remain oblivious not only to the supernatural atrocities which IT carries out, but they are also capable of turning a blind eye to the run of the mill oppressions endured by those who somehow fall outside the political and cultural mainstream – the disempowered, the marginalised, the undesirables. IT draws fuel for its supernatural sadism from the everyday forms of cruelty which take place in and through very human relationships of power and exploitation. It is fitting, therefore, that the challenge to Pennywise's dark dominion over the town comes from the solidarity which forms through a group of children who are themselves exiles from the mainstream – misfits and oddballs, the objects of extreme bullying.  

King's wonderful novel pans several decades, flitting back and forth in time from the children the Losers were, to the adults approaching middle-age they are destined to become. And this, I think, allows for the novel's central conceit; as we become adults, we leave our most elemental and primitive fears behind – adulthood consists, in part, of precisely this. In IT, the Losers experience a form of collective amnesia; as they grow up and their battle with Pennywise is consigned to the past – they forget all about IT, they settle into their adult lives and they even forgo the memories of each other. 

What is truly provocative and terrifying is the moment when, from within the certainty and normality of adulthood, IT's malevolent evil begins to stir again, and the Losers are left with the harrowing realisation that their primitive childhood fears and superstitions were all too real. The monster never really left the cupboard, rather it remained, wreathed in darkness, waiting for its time to come. 

End of Thrones
Monday, 12 December 2016 15:09

End of Thrones

Published in Fiction

Tony McKenna argues that the historical necessity embedded in the story and characters of Game of Thrones means that there is only one way it can end.

Winter is coming, for Game of Thrones is now approaching its denouement with the penultimate series scheduled for next year and the final one arriving the year after that. Remarkable not only for its writing, depth of character, feudal brutality, blood-soaked magicking and otherworldly pathos, the novels and the show have bled into the fabric of the twenty-first century imagination, creating an independent industry of cosplay, fan-fiction and comic-book convention, and providing a whole literary genre with a new lease of life.   

A building discussion revolves around how the series/books will be concluded.   In the case of Game of Thrones this is a particularly interesting question.  One of author George RR Martin’s great strengths is the vastness and complexity of the fantasy world he has brought into being; not only in terms of its topography – the various kingdoms, the two continents, the myriad of hamlets and keeps and ports and temples – but also the sheer number of plotlines which operate coextensively at any given point.  And this is what makes bringing the books/series to a coherent resolution such a challenging task from the perspective of the writer.  How does one integrate Arya’s revenge plotline, with Daenerys’ tale of slave liberation coupled with dragons of mass destruction?  How can one blend the civil war which is taking place between the Lannisters, the Starks, the Tyrells, the Baratheons et al. – with the White Walkers whose undead legions are threatening to overwhelm the defences of the Nights Watch and storm the wall once and for all?  This article attempts to answer these questions.    

Weaker literary endeavours – from much of Modernist literature to a soap opera like EastEnders – are characterised by an abiding fact: they suffer, more broadly, from a lack of historical necessity.  What I mean by this becomes clear when we consider something like EastEnders.  Every so often, the writers of the soap bring a storyline to fruition by posing a cliff hanger.  So, for example, in 2001 they brought us the ‘Who shot Phil Mitchell?’ storyline which saw the brooding cockney villain almost dispatched by a mystery assailant on his doorstep.  Because the soap had been bedevilled by leaks, the press would often get the revelation - the solution to the ‘Whodunit?’ - before the episode itself had gone to air, thus depriving it of much of its dramatic impact.  At this point, the producers changed tack.   They realised they could film six or seven endings, in which a different character was revealed as the attempted murderer in each case, and then one character in particular would be selected, the episode aired, and the spoiler-press thwarted in its endeavours.

But the fact that they began to resort to such an ingenious tactic, on a regular basis, also revealed the paper thin level of characterisation the writers were employing.   There was no real underlying necessity by which an action a character took was grown out of a particular set of conditions and circumstances unique to that character.  Rather the murderer or the arsonist or the adulterer could be anyone and everyone.  The plot ‘twist’ could fall at random on any head.  And this is a sign of poor literature.  If one is keenly following a murder mystery, and the murderer is eventually unmasked by the detective as the postman who appeared fleetingly in a scene many pages before, then the reader feels thwarted and cheated, for the raison d'être of the character has by no means been developed and the necessity which underpins his or her action (the murder) has been by no means adduced.  In contrast the true plot twist, the finest form of dramatic revelation, is not simply one which comes out of the blue.  It comes as a surprise, yes – its power relies on the fact that it is unexpected.  But, as soon as the writer/viewer begins to think about it, he or she can see that the clues and signs were there all along – that the necessity and reason for the plot-twist/conclusion had been cultivated throughout the development of the plot, albeit invisibly and from behind the scenes.  Think of something like The Sixth Sense or The Usual Suspects.  Both films provide two of the greatest twists in history – and without going into the details and risking the possibility of spoilers – one is aware that both use the same technique: once the revelation has been announced the viewer is treated to a quick flashback of past scenes – scenes which at the time appeared entirely incidental – but which reveal their full meaning in light of the plot twist.  In other words, an ending with genuine aesthetic integrity has to already be present, latently, in the beginnings; the oak, to paraphrase Hegel, must be immanent in the acorn.  

I say this by way of consideration of Game of Thrones.  If one believes that Game of Thrones is great art (as I do) then it follows that the ending which has yet to be written, nevertheless still exists as a latent necessity, as a ghostly outline, in the characters and plot which have been unfurled thus far.  On the same note, when Michelangelo suggests that the statue is already inside the bloc of marble, the sculptor’s job is merely to carve away the residue material – it is to this type of aesthetic necessity that the great renaissance artist alludes.  In order to discover the ending of Game of Thrones we must peel away all the paraphernalia of the plot and locate the latent necessities which underpin it. We must reference the fundamental nature of the fantasy world which Game of Thrones calls into being. 

In essence it is a world that involves a predominantly feudal centre with various slave economies and nomadic societies at work on the periphery. Some of the feudal polities are decadent and corrupt – the Lannisters for instance, who come to control the Iron Throne – are ruthless, acquisitive and power-hungry; a clear nod toward the feudal absolutism of the Tudor age in which one dynasty was eventually able to submit a series of vassal lords to itself in and through the tax impositions of an increasingly unified state – but a state which was achieved at the price of civil war, mendaciousness, and increasing ties with the financial priests of a developing commercial bourgeoisie.  The Starks, on the other hand, represent a more benevolent vision of an earlier medievalism in which more parochial forms of kingship operated largely unmolested by the external stresses of an encroaching market economy and a centralized absolutism.  

The Lannisters, though they are of the high aristocracy, are nevertheless aware that much of their power is buttressed on a burgeoning market economy.  Witness Tywin’s (the head of the House) warning to his daughter Cersei:  ‘And that's what the Iron Bank is- a temple. We all live in its shadow, and almost none of us know it. You can't run from them, you can't cheat them, you can't sway them with excuses. If you owe them money, and you don't want to crumble yourself... you pay it back.’ ("First of His Name")  Although the Lannisters are profligate spenders and feast and revel in the debauched manner of the aristocrats of yore, although they are prey to the same religious superstitions, and privy to the same honours system of knightly ideals, nevertheless this veneer of ideology provides little more than the decaying facade of a once glittering exterior, for the Lannisters - and Tywin in particular - have understood that such values are being eroded inevitably by the logic and intrusions of a market economy.  For this reason despite all their aristocratic glamour and finery, the unofficial motto of House Lannister is rather more prosaic – ‘A Lannister always pays his debts.’

The essence of the Starks, on the other hand, is sundered in an earlier feudal archetype which precedes feudal absolutism and eventually discovers itself in contradiction to it.    Winterfell, the Starks' kingdom, is contrasted with the seat of the Lannisters, Kings Landing.   Winterfell is grey and provincial but homely; lanterns burn at night revealing the thick, dark forests beyond, and in the day, the main square is alive bustling with peasants and artisans, and it is here where the little lords and ladies of the Stark clan mix freely with the denizens of the castle keep.   In Kings landing, however, in the baking streets of the sun-soaked metropolis, the Lannisters and their consorts are rarely ever glimpsed, and when they do appear, they are surrounded by the circle of their lethal pretorian guard.  The Starks represent a more embryonic social form whereby the state has not yet fully abstracted itself from the community; the Lannisters, on the other hand, feel themselves to be a distinct and elevated social power, a qualitatively superior species from those they oppress.  Ned Stark believes fully in the religious and chivalric values of the knightly ideal for he is still bound to his community immanently and experiences an organic sense of duty and responsibility toward those he leads.  The Lannister’s pay lip-service to such values but in reality their ties to high finance and the commitment to the shoring up of a supra-state which has raised itself above a multitude of individual kingships and communities mean that the medieval values of honour and duty have ceased to correspond to the realities of their social position as rulers who are verging on some form of post-feudal absolutism.      

And it is this historical contrast which holds the key to the tragedy of the Starks and is evinced in the conflict between Ned Stark and Cersei Lannister.   When Ned Stark discovers that Cersei Lannister’s children are the product of incest and therefore not the legitimate future kings according to the sacred tenets of bloodline, he is appalled and realises it is his duty to reveal the truth; but at the same time he acts generously, forewarning his antagonist, giving Cersei Lannister time to evacuate her children, for Ned Stark feels that their slaughter would be a blemish on his honour and conscience.   In the moment when he displays such munificence, Cersei’s response comes as a soft, sibilant rebuke, for the ruthless Queen discerns the weakness which is latent in such generosity – ‘When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.’ ("You Win or You Die")  As a result, because of the fact that Cersei is given this window, she has time to manoeuvre, assassinate her husband, and ensure Ned’s downfall.   A similar development is played out in the case of Rob Stark, the young wolf, who wins battle after battle fighting with honour and humanity.    It is no coincidence, therefore, that when his demise finally comes, it takes place at a wedding feast where Rob Stark and his entourage are slaughtered in direct violation of the chivalric code by a pre-orchestrated plot which has seen the Lannisters use the power of the royal purse to buy off one of the Stark’s allies in the North.

But even though we, the audience, are desperate for the gruff, steadfast Starks to rout the slippery, corrupt, power-hungry Lannisters, the historical contradiction which drives the logic of the plot means that such a result simply can’t transpire.  The defeat of the Starks by the Lannisters is in some sense pre-ordained; it marks in a fantasy form the erosion of a more communal based form of kingship by the logic and the prerogatives of an encroaching moneyed economy.   The civil war of the five kings is still far from over; at the end of series six Cersei is herself ensconced in the Iron Throne, while it seems as though John Snow, although a ‘bastard’, is a likely candidate to carry on the Stark’s struggle.  Jon Snow is presented as the illegitimate son of Ned Stark; he is, therefore, an aristocratic outcast – but although he is ostracized by way of his lack of name - spiritually speaking, he is very much the inheritor of the Stark legacy and the set of familial values which go with it.  Snow is gruff but thoughtful, determined but compassionate, and feels a great sense of duty to those he is given to command.    He is a courageous warrior who leads his troops into battle, eats with them in the mess, and shares many of their experiences, remaining attuned to their thoughts and feelings, and often heeding their advice.

 At the end of series six, having been betrayed, stabbed and then brought back from the dead by the dark magic of a priestess representing a cult of fire – Snow ousts the evil Ramsay Bolton and looks on course to take control of the North.  An ending which sees Snow vanquish the Lannisters would be highly satisfying but again would violate the underlying historical logic of the piece which exhibits in its tragic arc the way in which the values of an honour, clan based system which grows out of a more organic community are destined to perish.   If one begins with Ned Stark as Lord of Winterfell and one concludes with a similar feudal archetype – Jon Snow winning the North (and later the whole of Westeros) – then the motif which really gives the series/novels their power; the sense that winter is coming, that an epoch is in the process of passing from the scene of necessity - that the shadows of a new reality are drawing close; if one returns to a sense of unmediated feudal harmony, then the underlying thrust and direction of the aesthetic is artificially spun into reverse.

Of course, it is at the end of the sixth series when it is revealed how Ned Stark has taken Jon Snow under his wing as a ‘bastard’ in order to cover up the child’s true identity as a Targaryen and thus keep him safe.   The Targaryen twist is important because as Jon Snow cements his power as the King of the North, to the Mystical East, the mother of dragons, Daenerys Targaryen, is also on the move.  Like Jon Snow, Daenerys Targaryen is a driven, powerful leader with a strong sense of compassion and the need to act honourably.  During her campaign she has allied herself with the Dothraki, a group of nomadic warriors who are again bound together in a more cohesive community which places critical emphasis on honour, bloodline and conquest.  Though it is a profoundly patriarchal society, Daenerys is able to overcome her innate disadvantage as a woman with the courage she displays, the force of her will, and also her compassion.   She fashions her own army made of Dothraki loyalists and the rebel slaves she has freed on the way.    Everything at this point suggests that Daenerys will link with her brother once she crosses the great sea, that she and Snow together will bring justice to the battle weary, war-riven Westeros and perhaps inaugurate a new epoch. 

But the idea of Daenerys pacifying Westeros would mean absolving the plot of the same social contradictions.  Daenerys, like Jon, is once again redolent of an older archetype – both are bound to their armies by their noble lineage but also by the fact and force of their personalities and their sense of a moral imperative grounded in tradition, duty and the wider community.  What becomes clear in the trajectory of the Khaleesi plotline is how difficult it is to impose these values from above on societies which have fundamentally different social structures.  When Daenerys liberates colonies which are predicated on slavery, she finds that the old mode of production begins to assert itself once more; her armies can subdue the former slave masters but are incapable of replacing them with a blueprint for a new social order.  Once her troops are forced to move on, the old social form reasserts itself, even if there are now a new set of masters at the top.  One should note, in passing, just how historically astute this is.  When slave rebellions did take place in the Ancient world, they were sometimes capable of inflicting great defeats on the old order, as was the case with Spartacus, but they were incapable of replacing it with a fundamentally new model of social organization.      

And this brings us to the crux of the matter.  Daenerys’ ambition is to sit on the Iron Throne – to place herself in the seat of feudal absolutism - is entirely at odds with the nature of her own historical role.  As a liberator, freedom fighter and rebel queen who stands at the head of a nomadic army which attains a certain democratic character precisely because of a highly undifferentiated social structure and primitive division of labour, Daenerys is bound to her troops for she moves among them and experiences them as the outcrops of a vast extended family with herself at the centre. Such a paradigm of leadership could only have grown out of a nomadic society welded together by bloodlines into a series of relatively homogeneous blocs or clans.  But such a model of leadership would be out of sync with the historical demands of the Iron Throne and the social structures which underpin it.  If Daenerys Targaryen were to defeat the Lannisters bringing the civil war which has inflicted Westeros to a close - she would not then be able to govern in and through a direct mediation with the vastly differentiated, highly stratified peoples whose towns and villages were scattered across a vast terrain of competing, often highly antagonistic fiefdoms. 

To power the centralized state would increasingly require the force of a professional standing army – a move which starts to take place in British history during the 100 Year War – in order to stabilize and facilitate a much wider and integrated system of bureaucracy by which tax could be syphoned from the peripheries to the centre.  In adopting the mantle of feudal absolutism, Daenerys Targaryen would be forced to shed the nomadic values which compel her to challenge the corruption and injustice of the Westerorosi political state; she would, of necessity, become abstracted from the populous by way of the absolutist machine; she would require the funding of the nascent bourgeoisie represented by the Iron Bank. To all intents and purposes then, she would be compelled to rule in Lannister-like fashion.    

So for a set of similar reasons, an ending which sees either Daenerys Targaryen or Jon Snow come to power in order to provide a more benevolent template of absolutist rule works against the grain of the historical process which is condensed into the logic of the plot.  And yet, it is clear that by the end of the sixth series, and by way of the Targaryen connection, the space has been created for Jon and Daenerys to be brought into alignment.  If they cannot consolidate some form of final victory, because they are both archetypes of a more primitive historical epoch, then what is the author’s purpose in bringing them together?  In my view, like many fantasy epics, the conclusion of Game of Thrones has to culminate with a great and mighty battle. 

This is particularly necessary for Game of Thrones because such a battle would provide a means of totalisation by which the various desperate plot threads could be woven into a higher resolution.  The Tyrells could conceivably ally with the Dornish who might well make a pact with Jon and Daenerys in order to finally settle accounts with the Lannisters and their forces.   But the backdrop to this would be the broader conflict posited between the forces of the living and the army of the dead.  And it is the implications of this broader battle which interest me.  My guess is that the Lannisters will be defeated by the Daenerys Targaryen-Jon Snow alliance because the latter have such superior forces, but my instinct is that they will be fighting a war on two fronts – that it will be in the last two series when the White Walkers begin to manifest their awesome power.  

The original set of novels is called The Song of Fire and Ice and this quite possibly hints at the way in which the two elements, of necessity, cancel one another out.   I think that beyond resolving the specific complex of storylines Game of Thrones has thrown up, the final battle with serve a more fundamental purpose.  That is, such a battle will see Daenerys’ dragon boosted army alongside Jon Snow and the forces he has marshalled thrown into collision with the White Walkers, the zombies from the frozen wastelands - and the cataclysmic impact will see both sides annihilated; both elements, fire and ice, to perish in their antipodes.  Such an ending might seem futile, even nihilistic, but again it is entirely in keeping with the aesthetic necessity which drives the piece.   Beyond everything Game of Thrones’ tragedy is one of Weberian ‘disenchantment’; it is about the way in which feudal values of honour, chivalry, tradition and familial code must inevitably disappear before the more impersonal calculations of a modern economy in which individuals are bound together solely by their position in the market and the vast cash nexus.  

An epoch replete with dragons, sorcerers, necromancers, tree sprites, giants, zombies, gods and demons must, quite literally, give up the ghost before a reality in which the more prosaic, grinding interminable forces of bureaucracy and the cold, rational calculations of the profit margin become the prime mover, the raison d'être, the moving spirit of the world.    The tragedy of Game of Thrones is nothing other than the death of magic.  And that is why both Jon and Daenerys must die, evincing the heroic qualities and aspects of the feudal age, which are nevertheless in interminable decline and about to pass from the scene.  Both Jon and Daenerys are imbued with magic; the mother of dragons able to command fire, the gallant nights watchman himself a revenant, returned from the shadowlands of the dead.    The great, apocalyptic final battle then is one in which magic is driven from the world once and for all.

But what pertains in the aftermath?  Throughout the series the elements of a new bourgeois age are alluded to.  The dour, severe directors of the Iron Bank who scribble their accounts from within grey spartan rooms are clearly the gloomy auguries of the epoch of investment and accumulation.   The puritanical and self-abasing religious sect of the Sparrows is a nod toward the Protestantism of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries out of whose strict, ascetic code of abstemious discipline ‘the spirit of capitalism’ was evolved.  But although the Iron Bank itself casts a shadow across the aesthetic realm of Game of Thrones, its central actors are rarely glimpsed, and the Sparrows are wiped out as the sixth series reaches a conclusion.  Nether element could plausibly fill the void which is to be opened up by the death of magic and the demise of the heroic epoch.  There is one character, however, who represents the logic of the new age, and has been central and fully present throughout.  This is, of course, Lord Peter Baelish – commonly known as ‘Littlefinger’. 

Baelish’s ‘House’ is of meagre origins and has no distinguished bloodlines; his great grandfather was a mercenary prepared to sell his sword to the highest bidder, and though ostensibly noble, Baelish’s journey is much more that of the self-made man, the aspirant plebeian who has little fortune, no connections, nothing to fall back on except his guile, resourcefulness and determination.  Baelish represents a new breed of men and with it a new breed of politicking; one in which the familial loyalties, personal enmities, blood feuds, arranged marriages and honorific titles are to be superseded by the cold, rational calculations of the economic individualist before whose egotistic ambition all other considerations are evaporated. A new form of ambition which encompasses the ghostly never-ending circuit of exchange value and capital expansion:  ‘Many who try to climb it fail and never get to try again. The fall breaks them. And some, who are given the chance to climb, they refuse. They cling to the realm. Or the gods. Or love. Illusions. Only the ladder is real. The climb is all there is.’ (“The Climb”)

Baelish is a man of the future and as such he dreams its dreams.  In the final episode of season six, he reveals to Sansa Stark the true extent and depth of the ambition which moves him: ‘Every time I’m faced with a decision, I close my eyes and see the same picture. Whenever I consider an action, I ask myself will this action help to make this picture a reality? Pull it out of my mind and into the world? And I only act if the answer is yes. A picture of me on the Iron Throne… and you by my side.’ (“The Winds of Winter”)  The fevered, fervent way in which he imparts to Sansa his vision has something of a mystical intensity, but its power is not one of prophecy in the supernatural sense.   When we consider the role that magical divination play in Game of Thrones it is often problematic and highly deceptive.  Consider Stannis Baratheon, for instance.  The Red Witch Melisandre, who is blessed with a formidable array of supernatural talents including reviving the dead, comes to predict Stannis inevitable ascension to the Iron Throne using her mystical powers.  Convinced that the sorceress is correct, Stannis prostrates himself before the Lord of Light – the deity whose power she claims to harness.  As part of this, he sacrifices human lives, even that of his own daughter, in order to pay homage to the god and ensure its favour. 

But eventually, and despite the fact of her magical power, Melisandre’s prophecy proves to be a false flag.  Stannis endures his corruption; he is compelled to murder his own daughter and his brother, but all to no avail.  In the event he is routed in two key battles, and finally slain; in the moments before his death, he is utterly despondent, bereft of any real emotion except a draining sense of disillusionment, for he finally realises that the magic he has put his faith in is nothing more than a chimera.   Again, the motif abides: magic, although a potent presence in this world, already contains within itself the germ of its own dissolution.  What makes Baelish’s vision of the future so much more potent is that it discerns a different type of preternatural power; the ghostly objectivity of a market economy which increasingly insinuates itself into the pores and pockets of all human life, warping and restructuring them from behind the scenes in accordance with its own iron like prerogatives.   What is the power of a wizard or a dragon compared with the invisible, inexorable objectivities of capital reproduction?

As the early harbinger of the new epoch Baelish’s prediction resonates with a historical power which puts the supernatural back into the box.   For this reason, once that final battle is being fought, once the old epoch and all its magical forces are teetering on the edge of extinction – it is Littlefinger, the self-made man, who will be able to manipulate the situation, to use his Machiavellian wiles in order to raise himself up onto the Iron Throne and take power in the aftermath.  And yet, this may not be the end of the story.   Revisiting Baelish’s prediction, we can see it involves two parties – himself and Sansa Stark.  This is critical.   For in a somewhat different fashion, Sansa Stark is as much a person of the new epoch as Peter Baelish himself.   Perhaps even more so.   In Sansa, the tragic trajectory of the series as a whole – the death of the feudal epoch and the prefiguration of a generalised market economy; in Sansa Stark this transition is exhibited at the level of individual destiny.  When we first meet Sansa, she is contrasted with her mischievous tomboy of a younger sister Aria.  While Aria is bold, inventive, courageous and high-spirited – from the very start cut from a heroic cloth – her older sister is naive, wet, superior and condescending.   While Aria despises the kind of life the feudal system has in store for a young noblewoman, Sansa gushingly embraces it, wanting nothing more than to drape herself in the flowing silks of an elegant princess, to enrapture her prince, and devote herself to raising highborn children. 

At this point, Sansa’s character is unsympathetic, and yet, when one sees what she has to then go through, how these rather guileless ideals are dashed on the rocks of her changing reality, the writer is able to elicit from the audience the most profound sense of pity.  For Sansa traverses the same ‘disenchantment’ which Westeros must past through as a whole; she finally meets her prince - the sadistic Joffrey - who executes her father and delights in tormenting her, before she is later palmed off on the equally horrific Ramsay Bolton who subjects her to a series of rapes.    The values of ‘romance’ and ‘magic’ in which the feudal epoch is cloaked are for Sansa the most devastating of illusions to be ripped away in the most brutal of fashions.  From her trauma, she emerges as a survivor; a quiet, melancholy but increasingly powerful presence shorn of all illusions; ever more calculating and pragmatic, she now begins to demonstrate the most steely sense of ruthlessness.  There is now something of iron in those soft, dove like eyes which sends a chill down the spine, as we watch, hypnotized, as she very patiently feeds her tormentor Ramsay Bolton to a group of starving hounds.

This kind of archetype is in many ways a very modern one.  Think Sarah Connor from The Terminator who is a gentle, unassuming waitress until the murderous realties of existence close in on her, and in the aftermath is created a lethal revolutionary fighter who lives off the grid in order to protect her son at all costs. Or Grace Mulligan in the excellent and powerful Dogville, who takes refuge in a small town and winsomely tries to win the bonhomie of the locals only to have those narrow minded citizens exploit and abuse her, to the point at which her kindness dies - and she treats them to a very different display of behaviour.   This way in which, to quote Yeats, a terrible beauty is born - from the most profound forms of oppression - gains a particular aesthetic resonance in what might loosely be termed the ‘proto-feminist’ hero of modernity, and despite all her aristocratic trappings, it is this remorseless, ruthless, revolutionary beauty which Sansa more and more comes to bear.  If one were to talk about the most powerful female character in Game of Thrones – or even the most powerful character per-se – one would certainly alight on the figure of Daenerys Targaryen, and yet, at a more profound level, the Dragon Queen might well prove to be something of a red herring in this regard, for it is the power of the future and the outline of modernity which Sansa Stark increasingly comes to posit, and no magic, no sorcery can stand against the tides of historical time.

The final issue on which to mull regarding the subject of the terrifying resonance of Sansa’s burgeoning power – is toward whom it will be directed?  There is already an early indication that Jon Snow, who has now been crowned King of the North – will be displaced by his onetime sibling; and this makes sense, for as we have seen, both Sansa and Snow represent archetypes of two conflicting historical periods.   But one should also take into account that one of Sansa’s central abusers, albeit largely unknown to her, has been Littlefinger himself.  It was Peter Baelish who betrayed her father, and thus precipitated his execution.  It was Baelish too who delivered her into the hands of Ramsay Bolton.   My prediction is that Baelish will succeed in his manipulations, once again he will be able to play off both sides and at the end of it all he will be perched atop the Iron Throne.  But having manipulated the trusting, naive and guileless Sansa so frequently and so easily, the true nature of her becoming - her ruthlessness, will and determination, the person she is morphing into – this is something Littlefinger will remain oblivious to, will overlook, until, at last, it is too late.

And then it is possible that in the game of thrones, Baelish will win the most gruesome, colourful death of all.   So the ultimate prophecy from this red wizard is as follows: when the dragon fire is extinguished, and the zombies have once again returned to the ground, it will be Sansa Stark, who is still standing.