Fran Lock writes about poetry and class, in the latest in the series of jointly published Morning Star/Culture Matters articles on the effects of the pandemic on cultural activities
During this Covid crisis, poetry is being asked to do a lot of good: to offer consolation and catharsis, to carry some kind of vague universal experience, to speak truth to power. But whose experiences, and whose truth? These are pressing questions.
Everyone, from practitioners to pundits, has an opinion, the same opinion: poetry is a 'contemplative' form, productive of comfort and of empathy; what poetry does singularly well is negotiate between subjective feeling and mass social concern. True, but whether contemplation is likely to provide solace or to further empathy rather depends on what you're being asked to contemplate, doesn't it? And we might be equally involved in global events, but we are not all equally affected by them. The virus does not discriminate. Humans do.
This is where our current definitions of poetry fail, at a disparity so great it can never quite be broached; at the edge of an ONS report that says there are fifty-five deaths for every one-hundred-thousand people in the poorest parts of England compared with twenty-five in the wealthier areas. For BAME communities the situation is even bleaker. Class dictates which of us will feel the effects of coronavirus the deepest, and who will be left to endure its legacy the longest. Under such conditions what should poetry do or be?
Poetry doesn't stand outside of capitalism's brutalising power structures speaking in. It is enmeshed and beholden to those structures; subject to and scarred by them. Artists are also workers: art is work, and the large majority of us do other jobs to support ourselves and our families. When the welfare state is failed by government, it fails us too, when jobs are cut, they're our jobs too.
The idea that art is an adequate salve to these wounds is ludicrous. 'Feeling better' should not replace collective, active and organised social change. This is the limit and the danger of 'consolation': we shouldn't have to find ways to 'cope' with an unacceptable situation; pressure should be applied to those who engineered it.
Catharsis is ripe for exploitation. The deep swell of feeling a poem prompts may seem profound, momentous even, but it is interior, entirely subjective, the oppositeof true sympathy, true solidarity. This kind of poetry, and the idea that it connects people through some golden thread of fellow feeling conceals the fatal extent of the inequality existing between us.
Catharsis makes a fetish of working-class resilience; it ties that suffering to a marketable performance of identity, where your pain has meaning and value only in so far as it elicits a profound emotional response in your audience. Writing the poem may help us, but its efficacy in challenging the attitudes and conditions that produce those feelings is limited.
I live – we live – a continual, exhausting negotiation with and within language; with and within capitalism. Our use of language is both an organic response and a purposeful riposte to the non-language of bureaucracy, the populist sloganeering of governments, and the reductive stereotyping of the mainstream media.
I want to fight back against the misuse of lyric; against the easy absorption it sometimes fosters. Capitalism uses ease of assimilation to slide its most toxic messages past us on the sly. Those are the enemy's tactics. Our poetry must do more. If the state were a body, then poetry should tell us where it hurts; to keep pointing to the sites of failure and neglect and saying 'Look! Listen!'
They don't listen. If they did funding bodies and publishers would have already moved past the tokenistic representational model of working-class inclusion to make real changes to the way in which financial support for artists is allocated and accessed.
Applying for assistance - before coronavirus and during - is a bewildering process. Many give up. In poverty you're asked to account for yourself in a variety of ways every day, just to access what you need to survive. We live with a level of scrutiny and required 'proof' that is intrusive and stressful. Impenetrable bureaucratic processes are not helpful. Funding bodies frequently assume a familiarity with their processes, but often people are unaware of what's out there, what they're 'entitled' to. And there are talented artists who don't have the vocabulary to present the 'best case' for their vibrant and necessary work. Who, among the working classes, can afford to expend time and attention on a process they feel sure will fail?
Attention to diversity means reaching out, talking about the opportunities for disadvantaged artists with those artists. Regularly. Systematically. People new to funding processes may have no previous experience navigating these systems. It is about making space for them, even if their work does not conform to some preconceived idea of how a working-class person writes or sounds. It means recognising that a middle-class audience is not the default. It means making money available to forms of art that the working class can actually practice.
To occupy the same spaces as our middle-class peers we are performing a phenomenal amount of extra labour; it's labour we shouldn't have to perform. But if we do, if this is really the best system our cultural gatekeepers can come up with, then we should be allowed to be angry. The idea that art should or indeed can be apolitical is patently ridiculous, and it's a fiction that serves those already comfortably ensconced in places of privilege.
Dave Lordan, in the first of a three part series, explores creativity, the arts and cultural activities before the development of class-based societies.
Poetry is indispensable - if only we knew what it was for. - Jean Cocteau
Before any major hunt the women of the Baka family group will sing "yelli". This they will do in the early morning before dawn and while the men and children are in their huts. One voice starts - a beautiful, haunting melody reverberating through the trees. After a few minutes another voice joins in, then another. Each voice will sing their own repeating melody, each one with its own rhythm and cycle, and yet all of them sitting together as one song composed of magical polyphonic harmonies that carry far into the forest, blending in with the unending night-time songs of the insects.
To paraphrase the Nobel literature laureate Orhan Pamuk, creativity is putting things together to make new things. It is the modality by which humans shape the material world to meet their various needs and serve their various purposes. In the broadest sense then, it is similar to the Marxist conceptions of labour or work. Creativity is work and work is creativity.
The nature and conditions of work change over time and according to the dominant system of production. Factories, call centres, and now ‘working from home’ - alongside commodity production and the profit motive - are all extremely recent phenomena. For most of humanity’s time here on Earth (300000 years of Sapiens and millions more years if we include predecessor creative/labouring hominids) work (of hunting, gathering, sheltering, and tool production) was entirely dedicated to meeting basic survival needs. It was undertaken in common, and benefited all who participated. Things could not have been otherwise - in a hostile environment humans had no option but to work together on a more or less egalitarian basis to survive.
The efforts of each member of the nomadic band were required to keep all others safe and alive. No doubt petty rivalries and intra-group tensions existed, but, in the absence of significant surplus wealth for one faction to hoard, these tensions did not solidify into permanent hierarchical divisions or structural inequalities. Humans were chained to each other for good or for ill, and everything they had to do to stay alive, they had to do together.
The subset of creativity which we think of as artistic creativity evolved in this Palaeolithic context of endless struggle and scarcity and throughout the prehistoric period is also entirely dedicated to meeting the survival needs of the primal group. ‘Art’ is not in any way a distinct or indeed superior form of work to any other. Songs, for example, may have arisen as part of the work process, co-ordinating activity through call and response structures, as well as uplifting morale and increasing stamina during hard tasks and long treks.
Cave paintings undoubtedly contributed in some way to hunting culture and activities, perhaps to magically increase the chances of hunting party success, or to conjure into being herds of large mammals during times of scarcity or declining herds, or as a way of ‘contacting’ or honouring the souls of dead animals by way of apology for killing them. The very first statues we find in the archaeological record mostly appear to be fertility or female-worshipping icons dedicated to the generative power of women and The Earth - they too were aids to reproduction and would have had no meaning or purpose outside of such putative magical aid.
Only with the emergence of class societies does art become distinct from other kinds of work and become subject, overall, to the dictates of class power, inter-imperial competition, and commodity production - against which of course many kinds of art and artist from the very beginning struggle and contradict. Only in the contexts of class and commodity does the artist eventually become a mystical figure unlike other kinds of workers, with insights and abilities inaccessible to most, interdependent not with society as a whole but with the profit motive and/or bureaucratic state patronage.
This epochal shift from the art of common purpose to mystified and commodified art can still be traced in the etymology of later ages. The Latin Creare, ancient root of the the English word Creativity, means ‘to make or to produce or to grow’ - the artist is like a farmer or craftsperson who makes socially useful things. By the late Middle Ages, however, when artists were firmly attached to aristocratic courts, the english word create had come to mean ‘form out of nothing’ and is ‘used of a divine and spiritual being’. The artist as demigod, beyond the apprehension of the commoner, aligned with and determined by those similarly heavenly things such as kings and queens and popes - and som-time later, the market.
Creation and creativity
Humans emerge from nature and consist of combined elements drawn from the natural world, in which creation and creatures exist, but not creativity. Nature is the process whereby, within geological time frames, things blindly combine with other things to make new things. The tendency of natural things is to gravitate out of chaos and towards form and equilibrium. But, due to the cosmic law of entropy, all material forms and cosmic equilibriums are temporary and subject to decay and reformation into fresh new things. In nature each creation is a temporary node in an always unfolding metamorphic chain. Thus atoms become elements, elements become stars and stars become galaxies. Tree-rats become monkeys become hominids become homo sapiens become....
Creatures, themselves new things unwittingly created by nature out of combinations of other things, create many new things out of other, pre-existing things. All of these creature-created things - consider nests, webs, burrows, anthills, hives - are purposeful and answer a direct question with regard to survival and reproduction. Some of them, from the human perspective are also beautiful and aesthetically pleasing: consider birdsong and the symphonic effect of a dawn chorus in woodland.
But this is not creativity or work in the human sense, but blind instinct at play, however impressive it is. Animals do not know what they are doing, cannot describe or analyse what they are doing, cannot imagine in advance what they are about to do, cannot in real time alter their plans or intentions to meet new needs or changing circumstances. For sure, the designs of nests, or the hunting behaviours of hyenas, change through time and metamorphosing environments, but this is a result of chance forces operating over hundreds of thousands of generations. Creativity on the other hand, introduced to the universe by the hominid genus of which Homo Sapiens is the latest and sole surviving iteration, is not blind but visionary - working towards a goal imagined in advance. It is not accidental but intentional.
Marx puts it succinctly:
A spider conducts operations that resemble those of a weaver, and a bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells. But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality. - Capital, Vol. I, Chap. 7, Pt. 1
Somewhere between the higher primates and the early hominids consciousness - another word for imagination, or, indeed, for language - emerges and is added to creation. Thus is creativity created and invention invented, out of which spills everything from epic poetry to poison gas, from Beethoven’s symphonies to the Big Brother household. But hundreds of thousands of years elapse in the era of creative Homo before the need arises for any of these civilised creations.
For the vast majority of the human story, our creativity has been employed to serve fundamental natural needs that are distinct in degree, but not in kind, to those of other mammals. The key difference between us and other higher animals lies in our sophisticated generation of tools. The transformation of natural objects into tools with which nature is purposefully and intentionally shaped to suit our needs is the great leap forward from nature into culture, initiated by higher primates, and refined by a metamorphic hominid succession including Erectus, Australopithecus and Neanderthal, and lately accelerated into the space age by Homo Sapiens.
Humans are no different to animals in that our primary purpose is to cheat death in the short term as individuals and in the long term as a species, to survive against each and every obstacle and threat. To succeed in this never-ending challenge, certain fundamental needs have to be constantly provided for. Food and shelter are fundamental needs without which we die. Our food sources and our shelters need to be protected from environmental threats, therefore protection is another fundamental human need. None of these needs can be met by individuals alone - only cohesive groups working together can feed, shelter, and protect both individual and group. Therefore group cohesion is also a fundamental need.
Language is the principal means by which group cohesion is achieved by humans. It tells us who we are and what we must do. It is the tool par excellence, the mother tool without which no other sophisticated tool could exist. The development of language by (at least) Neanderthals and Sapiens allowed for de-grees of collective labour and knowledge transfer previously unimaginable, enabling humans to accelerate development at an exponential speed. With the acquisition of language, humanity emerges from its pre-linguistic infancy into something like its childhood. Now all the members of a community, and all its succeeding generations can be taught the elements of hunting, cooking, shelter-building and group preservation.
This supreme tool of language allows us not only to repeat a-quired knowledge formulae, but also to build upon the already-acquired knowledge of the past by adding new layers of adaptability and innovation. Tools and techniques can be improved and new tools and techniques invented in real time for the first time. Thus, fuelled by the infinite adaptability of the word, the evolutionary processes of nature enter hyperdrive - within a geological instant the earth is cleared of forest and covered in cities and roads. Language speaks us, as the philosopher Heidegger puts it. Our societies and everything in them are created by language, our greatest creation, which creates us.
As Ernst Fischer puts it:
It was not only a question of prehistoric man believing that words were a powerful tool - they actually did increase his control over reality. Language not only made it possible to coordinate human activity in an intelligent way and to describe and transmit experience and, therefore, to improve working efficiency, it also made it possible to single out objects attaching particular words to them, thus snatching them out of the protective anonymity of nature and bringing them under man’s (sic) control. - Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art, Lawrence and Wishart, 1959
Individual human beings graduate from nature to culture, from animal being to human being, through primal acts of creativity enabled by language. Each infant that (finally and after an im-mense struggle) manages to combine meaningless noises into a word, and soon after a sentence, directed at the attention and for the instruction of another human being, is demonstrating incredible genius unknown on earth for its first five billion years. The first and best poem is was and always will be Ma-Ma!
The forms of work we know as the arts emerge from nature too, and, as in all other spheres, humans repurpose the natural inheritance to suit a fundamental need of their own. In the case of the arts, this fundamental need the arts satisfy in these prehistoric times is group cohesion, both in real time (synchronically) and down through the generations (diachronically). The ritually inter-related and overlapping arts of music, song, chant, dance and poetry base their varying and modifiable rhythms and melodies on those of the human body and of the surrounding elements - the footstep, the heartbeat, the breath, the beating or crashing of the sea against the shoreline, birdsong, wind noises, mammalian mating cries, and so on.
Chants, songs and dances synchronise group activities and annihilate the alienation of the individual from the group, increasing stamina and raising morale for the urgent tasks of gathering, hunting, food preparation, shelter building, and simple manufacture of tools, weapons, clothing - keeping spirits up and minds off the pain of, for example, long treks or climbs.
A collective working process requires a coordinating working rhythm. This working rhythm is supported by a more. or less articulate unison chant...The first word-signs for working processes - chanted sounds providing a uniform rhythm for the collective - were probably, at the same time, command signals intended to arouse the collective to action (in the same way as a warning cry produces an immediate passive reaction, e.g. the flight of the herd). Thus there was power stored up in every linguistic means of expression - power over both man and nature. - Ernst Fischer, The Necessity of Art, Lawrence and Wishart, 1959
Songs and chants retain this original group cohesion purpose into the modern era, most obviously in hard manual work and military settings - think of the worksongs of African-American Slaves, such as Swing Low Sweet Chariot. Think of the marching songs common to all infantries. The primeval structure of the participatory, unifying chant - call and response - is also fossilised in the verse chorus structure of most songs, in religious ceremonies such as the Catholic mass, in some participatory live poetry cultures in the Middle East, and so on.
Scottish Island women ‘Walking The Tweed’ while singing an old worksong.
The story has a different original purpose, which is present in the role stories play in the lives of infant humans today. Those of us who are lucky enough to have been born into a situation of love and care will universally have been told our first story by a guardian who is trying to calm us down at bedtime, to assuage our abandonment anxiety, to put us to sleep. This will be the case whether we are born in Tokyo or Tipperary, Timbuktu or Toronto.
The story, in other words, is a natural tranquilliser - Valium in a wordy form. For this original purpose, its content is far less important than its form - the pre-linguistic infant has no idea what any of the story means, it’s simply that the presence of familiar, uninterrupted voice-in-flow is calming and reassuring. Nonsense rhymes exist because sense is not a requirement for the job they are doing.
In a hostile natural environment, as darkness fell and the presence of potential predators in the surrounding landscape is felt more keenly and more terrifyingly with every passing instant, the enunciation of a story by a leading tribe member calms and reassures, allowing children and others to relax into a night’s shut-eye knowing someone is awake and keeping guard:
And then that sweet, heart-piercing melody He drew out from the rigid-seeming lyre, And made the circle round the winter fire More like to heaven than gardens of the May. So many a heavy thought he chased away
- William Morris, The Earthly Paradise, 1881)
All of the arts share this distractive and soothing function in common. Participation in them - and everyone in the primal group participated - requires all our individual attention, or, to put it scientifically, uses up all our neurological capacity. When we are immersed in singing, dancing, music-making and so on, our individual worries recede and we feel connected to and part of something greater than ourselves.
Primal societies viewed this something greater as divine or ancestral in nature, and accessed it through total collective immersion in ritual practices. The closest a contemporary human can come to such totally immersive collective rituals, which likely varied in scale from band-size - a couple of dozen - to far larger events at intertribal gatherings, is the way we might feel while dancing intoxicatedly at a rave, especially an ‘illegal’ outdoor one, our minds emptied of anything but the overwhelming music and our bodies locked into the collective rhythm provided by the bass. But anytime we escape into a film or a book we get an echo of the ancient immersion. Our minds are primed by evolution to take the escape routes offered to us by artistic experience, which all ultimately derives from these Palaeolithic rituals within which artistic practices originally evolved and were put to work for the collective good.
Many artists refer to the totally immersive and mentally/spiritually rewarding nature of creativity in one way or another. Composer Galen Mac Cába writes in the Irish Times that “composition is addictive. When a composer earns that feeling once, he or she wants to repeat it.”
How often do we hear rock bands talk of ‘the chemistry’ between them? The more we do art - once we find an art that suits us, be it make-up artistry, origami, poetry, or whatever - the more we want to do it. Again, this is because our creativity is an embodied adaptive ability which develops in humans in response to basic, pressing survival needs of small nomadic groups. It is a development on the higher level of human consciousness of adaptive capacities present in the animal order.
‘Early’ or as I prefer to say ‘classic’ humans lived at more or less constant threat of annihilation. They had to rely completely on their own resources, their own ability to adapt and overcome. Their greatest resource was their own creativity i.e the ability to quickly generate ideas that can help overcome environmental challenges and lead to group survival.
Creativity and health
Creativity gives us an evolutionary advantage, and therefore becomes a species trait hardwired into our DNA. Over time, due to natural selection, the pleasure circuit associated with creativity becomes an internal chemical reward system. The brain encour-ages us to be creative by combining a boost to our arousal levels and our goal-oriented concentration with a reduction in inhibition. When we are being creative and enjoying it we feel happy, engaged, relaxed, immersed. When we finish a creative project to the best of our ability, we feel a a sense of pride and achievement. Because of its origins in evolutionary struggle and overcoming we receive a positive and productive high from engaging in creativity. This is the origin of what is referred to in the psychology of creativity by theorists such as the Bolshevik Vygotsky as the flow state:
the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. in essence, flow is character-ized by complete absorption in what one does.
While we are involved in the flow of creativity we forget our troubles. This is because being creative, a marshalling of all our internal forces for the purposes of group cohesion and or immediate survival needs, takes so much focus that it prevents us from thinking about or acting upon anything but the creative task before us. Then we get an organic chemical reward when our creative efforts are judged a success - echoing the ancient feelings of relief when our creative efforts enabled us to ward off an animal attack or erect a shelter that protected us from dangerous weather or produce a tool which enabled quicker skinning of animal carcases.
All of this explains why creativity is such a powerful healing tool, being the evolved capacity that kept and keeps us alive as it enables us to pro-actively shape our environment with our survival and satisfaction in mind. The individual mental health benefits to creativity are obvious, and are the reason why arts-in-health is such an important and expanding part of contemporary arts practice, one that every socialist should support.
Primal groups needed to respond quickly to all manner of situations, and they needed healthy, upbeat, connected and communally minded individuals - otherwise group cohesion broke down and, well, everyone died. That is why we have creativity and why the arts have therefore played and will continue to play an irreplaceable role in the communal health and prospects for survival of any human group struggling to survive in a hostile world - the vast majority of us.
Creativity, cohesion and solidarity
We have dealt with the synchronising role the arts played in group cohesion during the Palaeolithic period. But what about the role played by the arts in maintaining group cohesion across time, down through the generations? This, if anything, is even more vital, even more obvious. For knowledge to travel efficiently through long distances of time, humanity invented the time machine of poetry.
When the racist imperialist John Milton wrote in the introduction to his great blank verse poemParadise Lost that ‘rhyme is the relic of a barbarous age’ he was inadvertently alerting us to the effect that formal elements of art are determined by the needs, structures, and capacities of the era in which they emerge.
In Milton’s day, now that the printing press had been invented and the age of mechanical reproduction had begun, poetry could potentially dispense with any formal elements whose primary purpose was the aiding of human memory for real recall - thus Milton dispenses with end-rhyme and makes such a fuss about it.
Yet poetry remains fundamentally and originally the art of collective remembrance through oral recall. Most of the formal apparatus with which we still generally associate poetry even half a millennium post-printing press - rhyme, alliteration, assonance, regularity of metre and verse structure, choric and trope repetition and much much more - are techniques invented by ‘illiterate’ and ‘barbaric’ peoples thousands of generations ago which modern poets have in no way managed to supersede.
Before the internet, before the phonograph, before the book, before papyrus and vellum, long before even ogham and runes, the oral artform of poetry, imprinted upon nature’s greatest recording device, the human brain, was the ark and fount of all useful knowledge - the original knowledge store or ‘cloud’.
Oral traditions and lyric poetry
In terms of efficiency and suitability to the task at hand - remembering what’s important to survive - oral poetry/song surpasses books or the internet. The oral traditions of the San People of South Africa and of Indigenous Australians, for example, have been proven to accurately recall events from up to 25000 years ago. Throughout such cosmic lengths of time, the members of such hunter-gatherer communities could rely on poetic recall for every manner of information, but especially for practical information such as how and where to find food and water in a desert, or even how to navigate at night:
“The sounds of the environment can be conveyed very easily in song. As any birdwatcher will know, trying to identify bird so, from a writ-ten description in a field guide is close to impossible. By encoding the call of birds in song, a particular bird can be identified. Accurate iden-tification of the birdsong can often mean the difference between life and death The aquatic diving bird, known as loons or divers, have a pierc-ing call which is used to detect land when a sailor is lost at sea by the Tlingit and Inuit, as no doubt it will have been by other cultures across its wide northern range. The red throated loon (Goviastellata), for ex-ample. is a fairly non-descript bird, espe-cially without its red breeding plumage, but its call is distinctive and this warrants its significant role in oral tradition. Being lost at sea at nightfall in the cold northern cli-mate, in weather conditions which block visibility to land-marks or stars, can be fatal. Loons, unlike many other aquatic birds, reliably re-turn to land each night. Survival can depend on being able to identify the call of the loon among all the bird calls at sea, in order to follow that call to land. Songs encode the call, and are the best way to constantly reinforce the sound into memory. “ - Kelly, L. (2015). Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory and the Transmission of Culture. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
The poetry that we are in general used to encountering today is called lyric poetry, and is usually to do with expressing individual feelings, opinions, and experiences, with only a tangential re-ation to collective purpose or identity. The oft-remarked tendency towards obscure, self-referential, exclusive language in much contemporary poetry is a symptom of this fatal break with collective relevance and purpose - an analogue in the cultural realm to the ‘metabolic rift’ with which the birth of class society and settled urbanity broke the human race away from a direct and organic link to the natural world. Referring to the encoded eli-ism of much of contemporary poetry, Adrian Mitchell quipped ‘most people ignore most poetry because most poetry ignores most peo-ple’.
The poets of earlier ages could not afford to be misunderstood or only understood by code-talking academic networks. On the contrary, they had to recite in a language and with a method that everyone could understand. So at the dawn of historical record during the bronze age, what we find emerging from prehistory are often very long poems, containing everything from thousand-generation genealogies to entire mythological cycles to encyclopaedias of natural medicine. Poets were capable of extreme acts of recall, right up until the early modern era.
It is thought, for example, that the Iliad took three days to perform in its entirety, and many societies have similar lengthy epic poems that are central to their culture and which were widely performed at everything from royal courts to cattle fairs. Epic performers probably adapted their performances to suit the tastes and needs of different audiences, so that epics could be entertainments for the people as much as flattery for the noble warriors and lords who populate them.
The poet-ritualist in prehistoric societies was therefore a very important figure upon whom the memory, identity, and spiritual well-being of the group depended. They were composite figures who were also healers and shamans, looking after the mind, body, and soul of the small group of which they were an integral part and apart from which they had no separate motives or interests.
Poetry, song, music, performance, self-decoration: all of these early arts combine into ritual and magic ceremonies in which the identity of the tribe is performed and remembered, and spells are cast to protect the tribe from predators, increase hunting success, guarantee food supply. The rudiments of science, religion, and political ideology, before these split into different modes of knowing and doing, can all be deduced from early artistic practices.
In these societies preceding class and commodity production, in which all the fundaments of human being and artistic form and function evolved in tandem with each other, arts and the artist were part of a seamless flow of communal living. This was all smashed to smithereens by the asteroidal impact of the rise of class-based societies.
In the next article in this series we will discuss the appropriation of age-old commonly held artistic techniques by the new elites and the repurposing of the arts as instruments of class rule back at the dawn of ‘civilisation’ in Sumeria, Egypt and elsewhere. In part three, we will look at how this appropriation was resisted and questioned from the very beginning, and tell the story of Thersites, literature’s first communist.
This is the third of Tony McKenna’s collections of essays in which he aspires to demonstrate that a Marxist framework is the best way of comprehending the cultural and political challenges being generated in the era of late capitalism. Like his previous two similar volumes, Toward Forever is a dazzling display of erudition and insight that never fails to offer stimulating lines of thought on a remarkable breadth of topics.
McKenna has also usefully revisited more traditional subjects that have received attention from other Marxist commentators such as the Greek myths, the novels of Balzac and Hugo, and the art of Rembrandt and Blake. In addition, McKenna has supplied valuable analyses of some of the key political personalities that have shaped 21st century politics so far such as Chavez, Corbyn and Trump.
The most striking quality of McKenna’s overall approach is the ability to contextualise this remarkable variety of subjects within the prevailing relations of production of a particular era without undermining the crucial role of human agency.
He should also be commended for a willingness ‘to boldly go’ into areas of concern that more hidebound analysts on the left might regard as unworthy of attention. Whatever we might subjectively think about the comedy of Ricky Gervais or film versions of Batman, they are hugely popular cultural artefacts that evidently tap into some element of the zeitgeist that a coherent Marxist world-view should feel obligated to explain. McKenna’s mentality is an appropriate adaptation of Gramsci’s famous exhortation that the left should consider ‘everything that concerns people’ if it wishes to retain relevance in the crowded digital marketplace of theoretical paradigms that compete for our attention.
Toward Forever replicates the tried and tested formula that McKenna utilised in his first two collections. He covers a stunning diversity of topics including The Sopranos, The Wizard of Oz, the art of Goya and the epidemic of suicides in contemporary Japan! There is also a sympathetic and moving account of the rise and fall of the Syrian Revolution that, for a time, looked like it might able uproot the callous brutality of the Assad regime before being overwhelmed by the intervention of regional and global players with their own opportunistic agendas.
A historical materialist approach to culture
The breadth of McKenna’s range in no way affects the depth of his analyses of these subjects; in fact, the cumulative effect is to powerfully show that a non-reductionist version of Marxism is unrivalled in terms of explanatory power by any other theoretical framework. In a piece on contemporary art in this volume, he touches on this unique capacity of historical materialism, in the right hands, to illuminate the scope of human activities:
The truth which resonates in this type of art is the same truth which lives in the pages of Marx’s Capital and Lenin’s The State and Revolution. The difference is that the truth of art in an emotive and intuitive manner; a semi-conscious and fantastical way which reduces the forms of social reality to the interplay of imaginary characters in a novel or colours on a canvas. (179)
McKenna’s conception of the role of culture within historical materialism is a compelling reformulation of Kantian aesthetic theory. The great German philosopher of the Enlightenment theorised the power of art as its ability to take us tantalisingly close to the noumenal realm, or those aspects of the universe such as God or the infinite which we can sense but never truly access.
In McKenna’s more grounded version, cultural products of the highest calibre help us tune into the subterranean dynamics of the historical process which are often clouded by our quotidian concerns but which can be discerned with a wider perspective. In his characteristically elegant words:
Art is the expression of the truth of the political consciousness which has not, yet, descended from heaven to earth; it contains the truth of the social world but only through the distorting prism of its fantasy. (180)
The other refreshing quality of McKenna’s output is a writing style that is a sheer pleasure to read even if the subject is not necessarily what a reader may be interested in. He unpacks ideas with a crystalline clarity and fluency that puts to shame other Marxist cultural commentators who appear to think cluttering up their text with academic jargon is an indicator of merit. McKenna is one of the best writers on the British left today as he makes the effort to understand why certain cultural products are popular and then communicates his analysis in a way that any reasonably educated person could comprehend.
The need to make sense of history and the hope of changing it
Dan Brown’s best-selling 2004 novel The Da Vinci Code may seem like an unlikely choice for such an exploration of the utopian undercurrents in contemporary capitalist culture. However McKenna’s analysis of the book here is the perfect illustration of his ability to analyse examples of popular culture in a way that sheds light on the historical process and explains why a book about Christianity could have such a huge impact in our long-established secular society.
Of course, most Marxist aestheticians would probably dismiss the novel as throwaway trash to be picked up in airport terminal to kill a few hours on holiday and nothing more. McKenna is not blind to Brown’s notorious literary limitations and he effortlessly skewers the wafer-thin characterisations and plodding style of the prose. Nevertheless, The Da Vinci Code sold millions, has been translated into forty languages and spawned a booming sub-genre of semiotic mysteries set in a shadowy world of cryptology, religious cults and charismatic historical personalities.
So why would a poorly written potboiler with two-dimensional characters about the early history of Christianity become a smash hit in the first decade of the 21st century? McKenna’s persuasive answer is that the book provides putative answers in a world that appears to be spiralling out of control, run by politicians who are pitifully short of solutions to its multiple problems. Those answers in DVC may be untenable and little short of ridiculous to many, but at least they provide a narratalogical coherence to thousand years of history.
The notion that the Catholic Church and the Priory of Zion have been fighting out an ideological contest for hegemony within Christianity is based on the flimsiest of historical evidence, but for millions of readers it allows for the apparent carnage and chaos of world history to be reconfigured and made comprehensible.
The postmodern aversion to grand narratives that has permeated our discourse since the 1980s has created a vacuum in the heart of Western culture that leaves many people longing for an over-arching understanding of a world that appears to be accelerating towards the precipice. The Vatican might not be everyone’s choice for the guiding brain of two millennia of history but it is easy to see why any form of purposeful intelligence could be more comforting than the uncontrolled playing out of blind historical forces. The Da Vinci Code cleverly manipulates not just this elemental need to make sense of the past but also our hope that human beings in the present have the ability to alter the trajectory of events.
At the climax of the story, the character of Sophie Nevue comes to a realisation that her estrangement from her grandfather is linked to a conflict which has been taking place on an ideological plane for centuries. McKenna argues this conjoining of the micro and macro levels of analyses is profoundly affecting and chimes with a longing for an understanding of our place in history that all human beings feel. The fact that this device occurs in an apparently disposable piece of pulp fiction only adds to the book’s underrated achievement.
McKenna sums up the appeal of DVC:
It contains within its aesthetic a profound truth about the reality of history and ourselves as historical beings-immersed in its flux, shaped by its rhythms and yet often unaware of its elemental pulse and presence in the backdrop of our lives, until suddenly the stability of the present seems to fissure and crack.ashistory erupts once more, and new epochs, new adventures and new freedoms are born. (136)
This linking of the personal and the political is what McKenna finds to be decisively absent from the critically acclaimed and multi-Oscar winning 2017 film, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Directed by Irish filmmaker Martin McDonagh, the movie centres around a quest for justice by bereaved mother Mildred Hayes, played with searing power by Frances McDormand.
After her daughter is raped and murdered, Hayes launches an uncompromising attack on the defective local police department which has conspicuously failed to make progress in the identification of the culprit. This brings her into conflict with the cancer-ridden Chief of Police Willoughby, portrayed movingly by Woody Harrelson.
McKenna insightfully contends that although the premise and the collision of wills between the two protagonists are intringuiling poised, the film’s potential cinematic greatness is squandered as Willoughby’s unexpected demise before the halfway point robs the storyline of a level of complexity that it might have attained if their relationship had played out fully. The police chief takes his own life, unwilling to endure the crumbling of his physical and mental powers as the cancer spreads within his body.
Inevitably, Willoughby is posthumously sanctified in the story and the opportunity is lost for his character to confront the misogyny and racism of the institution he has represented for decades. McKenna uses this misstep on the part of McDonagh to argue an essentially dialectical process of interpersonal and intrapersonal conflict is the root of great stories in any medium:
This film throws light on the most fundamental task for any writer; that is, to unspool the thread of necessity which runs through both character and plot. Aesthetic skill lies in the ability to create characters which are grounded in fundamental social-historical contradictions and whose lives attain a richness such that, after a while, it feels as though you-the writer-are simply a passive observer, merely recording the details of those lives as they unfold out in front of you in the form of an independent existence. (190)
Arguably the greatest stories ever produced by the human race are the cycle of mythological adventures based around the gods and heroes of ancient Greece. Our appetite for re-enactments and updates of the dramatic lives of characters such as Oedipus, Achilles, Jason and Helen of Troy is seemingly never-ending and has produced some creative iterations in the 21st century already.
In an essay on the novels of Madeline Miller, McKenna perceptively notes how fourth wave feminism, expressed in the global MeToo movement, provides the essential ideological context for the success of recent fictional recreations of female Greek protagonists such as Penelope and Briseis, by authors such as Emily Wilson and Pat Barker.
Miller has added to this distinguished sub-genre with two books, Song ofAchilles and Circe. In the latter, published in 2018, she takes a relatively marginal character from Homer’s Odyssey and re-imagines Circe’s backstory and life after her encounter with the famed king of Ithaca, Odysseus. The key to Miller’s evident resonance with millions of readers, McKenna argues, is a nuanced exploration of the dialectical conflicts that occur within the psyche of every human being. In Circe’s case, she is psychologically torn between the world of the immortals that she is raised in, and the world of mortals such as Odysseus that she encounters as she grows up. In McKenna’s words:
Miller carefully cultivates an ideological opposition between the manual labour of the oppressed and the pronounced aristocratic parasitism of the oppressor-an opposition which opens up between the human world and the world of the divine. Such an opposition, in fantasy form, has a real and historical resonance in the ancient Greek world. (148)
Such an opposition is no longer central in our era but an alternative clash between the prevailing patriarchal capitalism and the liberated sexuality of an embryonic postcapitalist society is evident on a regular basis in the news headlines. As an American author, Miller has spoken explicitly of how she was traumatised by the elevation to the White House of a crassly racist and sexist President in 2016; but also how she has been inspired by the political resistance that Trump has provoked in the forms of Bernie Sanders, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and other figures of a rejuvenated US left.
McKenna justifiably explains that these expressions of anti-capitalist insurgency are the context to the powerful impact of Miller’s evocative renditions of archaic Greece:
Looking at the American political landscape, the MeToo movement, Black Lives Matter, the Slut Walks, Occupy Wall Street, it is difficult, for me at least, not to feel in Circe’s ancient, epic struggle something of the form and the impetus of these broader political movements which were also shaped by those who have been in some way exiled from the political mainstream and who begin to develop their own powers of freedom and self-determination in response. (159)
In his closing chapter on the art of Goya, the author optimistically describes a detail from a painting from the 1820s called The Milkmaid of Bordeaux, the Spaniard’s last masterpiece:
…in the far-right corner there is a retreating patch of shadowy cloud, but directly outlining the young woman’s head – creating a halo-like effect – is a burgeoning blue fissured with delicate white light. It feels as though a night-time storm has come and gone and now, breaking through, comes the silvery, morning light of a brand new day. (236)
As the world continues to groan under the dark shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, it is to be hoped that McKenna’s thesis that great cultural products presage the coming of a more enlightened social order turns out to be valid. Even without viral threats, climate change and global immiseration mean that the mass of humanity is becoming increasingly desperate to see that silvery, morning light breaking through.
Jack Newsinger continues the series, jointly published on Culture Matters and the Morning Star, on the effects of the Covid-19 crisis on culture, sketching out what needs to change and why. Can artists, writers and other creatives form closer alliances with the labour movement? The accompanying image is by Jonpaul Kirvan.
Culture matters more than ever, as Mike Quille pointed out in the introduction to this series of articles. Yet pandemic has completely shut down public arts and culture in the UK. Theatres, cinemas, libraries, music venues (including Glastonbury Festival’s 50th anniversary) – all closed until further notice, and likely to be some of the last to be allowed to reopen, with enormous impacts on the people whose livelihoods depend upon functioning cultural and creative industries.
We are all used to the glamour of the film and television industries, or the pomp of the theatre and opera, but it is worth emphasising that many of these workers are precariously employed on short term contracts often with little security or savings – the arts and creative industries are disproportionately reliant on a highly skilled, dedicated and passionate, but precarious workforce.
The people who serve coffee in the cafes are very often also the people on the stages; the guitarist in the band has also lost her other income teaching music lessons in a school. This ability to quickly contract when income disappears is how cultural organisations have learnt to keep functioning in Britain’s competitive cultural economy, but it can be brutal for many of the people who actually make culture, just like the stresses and strains faced by workers in the NHS, care homes and other public services which have suffered years of exposure to austerity economics and the imposition of capitalist rationality.
As in the rest of society, the COVID-19 crisis has made visible the weaknesses and inequalities in the arts and creative industries that were already present under the surface if anyone cared to look hard enough. Unsurprisingly, the way that the crisis has so far played out has mirrored these inequalities. There is increasing evidence that Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic people are suffering a disproportionate financial and employment penalty due to the lockdown. These inequalities will intersect with class, age, disability and region to compound and deepen the already significant disparities that exist in access to the arts and culture, for both producers and audiences. The danger is that commissioners used to seeing ‘minority arts’ and working-class participation as something of a side endeavour will retreat into the ‘safe’ zone of the ‘old boys’ network’ with a resulting narrowing of participation, vitality and cultural diversity.
The COVID-19 crisis has shown the cracks and weaknesses in the system. But it also might reveal ways to overcome them. ‘Lockdown culture’ is forcing makers and audiences to find new ways to connect with each other. Some of these seek to reproduce existing capitalist relationships of production remotely. For example, the Artists' Support Pledge, in which artists sell their work through Instagram, promising that once they reach £1000 of sales they will spend £200 on another artist’s work.
The crisis pushes to the forefront new ideas about how we should fund the arts. Do we want a precarious commercial model that mirrors the inequalities of the market, or can we find more egalitarian ways of providing stability for cultural producers? Can this be an opportunity to overcome the pathological elitism and lack of diversity of the arts and cultural establishment? The Arts Council moved relatively quickly to announce a package of £160m to support cultural organisations and individuals. This is an essential lifeline but it appears to be targeted at maintaining the existing cultural landscape, with larger, prestigious organisations that serve metropolitan middle-class tastes taking priority (as they always have).
In this vacuum of new ideas, it is the spirit of self-help and community organisation that offers the way forward. Debates around Universal Basic Income have become more relevant. As noted by the artist and activist Stephen Pritchard, “Is the time coming when art will finally embrace self-organised alternatives rooted in ethical practice, equitable living, commoning, fair pay, openness and hope? Can art help rebuild our lives and our communities? Can it reimagine ways of being and living together after a global pandemic that surely changes everything?”
Three things emerge from all this so far. Firstly, professional artists, filmmakers, writers, makers, and all cultural practitioners are also workers, ultimately, and need collective representation and a strong welfare state. There must surely be potential for closer links and mutual support between cultural practitioners and the labour movement, given their shared values and belief that the arts and culture generally can be a liberating force.
Secondly, the importance of looking to the people about how the arts and culture can change. People are showing that they will still put their creativity out there whether they get paid or not, which says something about the importance of the human capacity for connecting through culture beyond commercial relationships.
Finally, quarantine has demonstrated the importance of internet connectivity, and culture is flourishing online, whether it be watching a concert on Instagram live, learning how to paint on Facebook, or home art-schooling your children using the Tate’s online galleries. This is surely to be celebrated. If only we had a government that would guarantee free broadband for all…..
Lyndsey Ayre reflects on common ground, coronavirus, and the values of the labour movement. The image is of a piece of embroidery by Melanie Kyles
This must be the beginning of change. Whenever we reach the other side of this crisis – whenever and whatever that might look like - we must begin to plan immediately for a better future. We must count the dead and hold those to account who failed them. And we must stand together and say: enough. Things cannot be allowed to return to the way that they were. The way that they were was the problem.
We must remember the people who worked tirelessly when so many of us stayed indoors: the checkout workers, the nurses, the refuse collectors, the teachers, the doctors, the librarians, the postal workers and delivery drivers. These are the people that we should value the most. These are the people who should be honoured, and whose salaries should reflect our gratitude.
We have lived in a culture of endless greed: of belligerent hedge fund managers, grubby-fingered billionaires and sneering, public schoolboy politicians. Though we dress it in the lineaments of modernity, beneath our filters and slick user interfaces is the same system: moth-eaten, broken, old.
The way that things were was the problem. This must be the beginning of change.
It is 8.30am and I am walking down silent suburban streets towards Newcastle’s Town Moor. The morning is bright and cool like a whistle. The main road that runs in front of my flat is usually thronged with cars and busses, commuters rushing for early shifts and hectic parents on the school run. For several weeks now, it has been empty. Sunlight shines on red brick and daffodils, on faded chalk hopscotch daubed on cracked paving stones. Rainbows beam from high windows. Curtains are drawn. English Ivy reaches above garden walls, trailing wistful fingers towards the cherry blossom.
There is nothing. There is no one. The day is draped in a veil of yellow and blue. I’m looking for common ground.
It has been over 100 days since the Chinese government declared an unknown pneumonia had been detected in the area around a wet market in Wuhan. In the weeks and months that followed, the world has been brought to its knees by what we now know to be the coronavirus named Covid-19. Previously titanic industries – oil, air travel – are at the edge of collapse. Businesses, large and small, have been forced to close their doors, with thousands of people furloughed. Arts organisations – scoring low on the list of public sympathy - face turbulent and uncertain futures. At the forefront, of course, the human cost: the days tick by with little to differentiate them other than the bleak death toll. 759, 823, 449. Every one a person. Every one a history: a favourite song, a favourite scent, a way of smiling.
At present in the UK, we are still allowed to go out for one walk a day. I’m grateful for these trips outdoors that afford respite from the trek between bedroom to the dining room table, where my work computer looms over the room. In many other countries, access to the outdoors was cut much earlier on. People across the globe find themselves legally confined to their own homes. We’re a world under house arrest.
Still, well-meaning Instagram videos tell us, that doesn’t have to be so bad. We may not have freedom to do as we please, but there’s one thing that we do have an abundance of: time. Finally, we can take up baking, learn a new language, plant strawberry bushes and tomatoes in our gardens and yards. There are worse things, after all, than to find yourself confined to the safety of home.
Newcastle's Town Moor. Photo: Chi Onwurah MP
Yet home is the first frontier against inequality. Contrary to the wartime rhetoric adopted by some commentators, this is a virus that discriminates – both in the pre-existing conditions and geographical factors which can make a person more vulnerable to serious illness and in the impact of self-isolation on a person’s physical and emotional health. Poorly-maintained, privately-rented property; anti-social neighbours; small, cramped living conditions and blocks of flats still wrapped in lethal cladding. It is a mental health timebomb, and with every day that passes the problem intensifies, threatening to swamp the already submerged NHS even further.
Access to the outdoors is a lifeline to so many people – people living alone, people who do not have backyards or gardens, people who need to exercise for their mental or physical health and those who face the danger of domestic violence. Since lockdown began, Refuge reported a 700% increase in calls to its helplines in a single day. Hotels across the UK wrote to the government to offer their rooms to victims of domestic abuse. At the time of writing, the government had not taken them up on their offer.
Few could dispute that we must all stay at home as much as possible and do our part in slowing the transmission of Covid-19. But the existing conditions in which so many people now find themselves prisoner cannot be allowed to go unaddressed.
In the coming months and years, as we attempt to rebuild our societies across the world, we must make this a priority. ‘Home’ should not be a word that means safety for some, danger for others. Home should be a place of solace for everyone.
People coming together
When I reach the edge of the Town Moor, the gate closes behind me with a heavy, metallic sound. Here there are no cars, no closed-up cafes or small shops with printed statements pinned to their doors. Here there are none of the houses of surrounding affluent Gosforth, each of them a display of wealth and security. The vast expanse of the moor – larger, Wikipedia tells me, than both Hyde Park and Hampstead Heath combined – opens up around me, flat, parallel, the pages of a book cracked open. On the horizon, the buildings of the city are held at a distance: the lone chimney of the RVI, the pale skeleton of St James’ Park.
The Town Moor has been a largely unchanging green space on the fringe of the city centre for many centuries. Not landscaped, not neatly ordered with child’s play park and paving stones and smart displays of Spring flowers, but something bleak, desolate and disordered, instead. It is an enduring landscape somewhere between a rural and urban space: a sort of ancient edgeland, connecting the different suburbs of the city like an immeasurable village green. A place of vast emptiness, it echoes, paradoxically, with years of people coming together.
In 1873, the moor hosted a demonstration in favour of universal male suffrage. Some 200,000 people attended. From 1721 until 1881, horse racing was held at the Town Moor. When the racing was moved to Gosforth Park – a location difficult for many of the poorer people living in the city centre to get to - the North East Temperance League stepped in and organised a week-long fair, instead. 1,000 of the poorest children in the city were given food. 150,000 people attended the fair and the event was deemed to be such a success that it continued as the Hoppings to this day. The Town Moor has many other uses as a public gathering place: as the host of the Northern Pride Festival, the weekly Park Run, the August bank holiday mela. Over the past couple of years, it has been host to the This Is Tomorrow festival, headlined in 2019 by Johnny Marr, whose melancholic guitars drenched the distant city streets with poetry and longing.
The Town Moor is – and has been, since it hosted the horse races of the 1700s – a highly accessible place for the people of Newcastle to visit. The importance of this cannot be overstated. By contrast, the countryside can often feel like a distant and alien place to many of us without our own means of transport. A DEFRA review, in 2019, highlighted that the National Parks were failing to attract people from working class and minority ethnic backgrounds. And yet the obvious benefits of access to the outdoors have been thrown into sharp relief by this crisis. The ‘right’ to air and exercise was enshrined in law in the Law of Property Act 1925. We have to do more to make these spaces work for everyone. School trips should encourage children to think of our National Parks as their own to explore. The benefits of the rural environment need to continue into our city centres, too: as the impact of the closures of our urban centres seems likely to topple the already precarious High Street, we have to rethink what we use our cities for, and come up with ways to make them greener.
Rebuilding the commons after the coronavirus crisis
On the moor, on an April morning, there are people: all of us drawn here by the will to see something other than the inside of our own homes. The path is wide – wide enough for two people to pass safely, but many people walk by as normal, perhaps uncertain of the safe distance, perhaps absent-minded, perhaps, even, in blatant denial that there’s any need to stay apart. I leave the path and walk across the grass, instead. The land is uneven and difficult to walk across. There are ditches and clumps of compacted grass: scars on the land from its yearly events. I head towards two large hills at the West of the moor, where a tiny figure stands silhouetted against a blossoming sky.
Halfway across, I realise I’ve gone the wrong way. The tiny figure has descended the hill and is walking briskly towards a gate onto Grandstand Road. There is a much simpler route, here, with a well-trodden gravel path ascending the lowest slope of the hill. In contrast, I find myself picking slowly though long grass and nettles, surrounded by cows. I wonder, briefly, how often cows kill humans and then reassure myself that these cows must be safe: the Freemen have grazed cattle on this land for centuries. Later, I google this and learn that, in fact, if there are calves present – there are not on the Town Moor, thankfully - herds of cattle do kill people. In fact, the Independent says, they are the most deadly large mammal in the UK. I don’t know this at the time, and I walk straight through them, smiling as they chew mouthfuls of grass laconically, flicking tails against flies. Somehow, this feels right: the point of walking on land like the Town Moor isn’t to go the easiest or simplest way – it’s to immerse yourself in the stretch of the land around you.
Near the foot of the largest of these hills – the imaginatively named ‘Cow Hill’ - I stop and take a swig of water from the bottle in my backpack. There’s a chilling moment as I realise where I’m standing: I’ve been reading about the history of the moor, and have learnt that in the thickness of these trees, still circled by a fence, there was once an isolation hospital for Small Pox. Grainy black and white photos on Google from 1898 show a man lying in a hospital bed in a dark room, and the horse drawn ambulance cart that would have taken patients there. It’s difficult to believe that this is the site. The buildings were demolished in 1958 and there is nothing to commemorate it. No plaque, no statue: only the trees. I stand there for a while, thinking about that hospital, thinking about those people.
Then I begin to climb the hill.
It’s hard to know how to write about this time. Online, people scramble to make sense of a crisis of global proportions unseen in our lifetimes. There are videos and lists, hints and tips and tricks and hashtags. We are a world that cannot stop talking. And yet how should we navigate discussion around a time of so much pain and suffering?
The city stretches out around me. Chimneys and trees and distant high rises. The Byker Wall squats like an alien spaceship. Rows of miniscule terraces branch away, their windows glinting in the morning sun. In every one of those buildings, a person.
There will be time and space for us to come together again. I know this, standing on the top of the hill, overlooking the city. The Town Moor invites us to think about it: about space and community, about the past and the future, about the things that are possible and the things that have been. The commons has always been a key tenet of the labour movement. Now, more than ever, their significance is vital as we look to rebuild our societies in the wake of Covid-19.
Fran Lock continues with the second part of her reflection on working-class resistance and beauty, caring and grieving, struggle and solidarity.
I shaved my hair off yesterday. Our clippers are old and pretty knackered, and the process was hardly as seamless as film and television might have led you to believe, but still, I managed it, in my own typically shambolic way. Newly shorn, I joked with friends and family that my decision was taken in homage to the imaginative sorority of anchorites around whom much of my recent reading and thinking has centred, but in truth it’s not even as complicated as that. At various times in my life I have worn either punk’s aggressively dorsal ‘Mohawk’ or chosen to go full skinhead. It’s simultaneously ‘not that big a deal’ and critically important to me.
I shaved my head for the first time at thirteen. I won’t dwell, but psychologically I wasn’t ‘in a good place’, largely because I wasn’t in a good place in a literal sense either. Since that time both individuals and institutions have insisted on seeing my shaving my head as a sign of instability, a kind of crude barometer of emotional distress. Why else, after all, would a woman or girl choose to do that to herself? This was irksome and outdated even then, but on some level broadly correct: I wasn’t happy.
However, the act was absolutely reasoned and volitional. It was also resistive. It was also joyful. Being passing-pretty in the tedious conventional sense had led to no good place for me, or the other women and girls around me, so my shaving my head was, in the first instance, defensive, my armour against the objectifying gaze of predatory men. More than this, it was a renunciation of the worldview to which that gaze and its crass aesthetic judgements belonged. I didn’t value ‘pretty’, it seemed a shallow metric for self-worth to me. I wanted to publicaly and irreversibly denounce that value system, and everything it wanted or expected me to be. It remains one of the things in my life I am most proud of.
Care for yourself
I bring this up now only because I want to stress and affirm the importance of autonomy and self-care as the necessary precursor to any kind of collective and radical action. When asking what we can do to bring about change, an important step for any woman, but for working-class women, and for working-class queer women in particular, is to begin to unpick the self-strangling, effacement and abnegation of decades.
I’m not talking here about the docile self-coddling of Instagram influencers, I’m talking about Audre Lorde, writing in A Burst of Light that: ‘Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.’ It’s about survival. It’s about preserving yourself in a world that is hostile to your existence, your identity, and by extension, to your communities. In these circumstances honouring your autonomy is also about remembering that not every woman has that opportunity or freedom.
And that’s a beginning, as grieving and carving out the space in which to grieve is a beginning, but it isn’t enough. It’s hard to imagine what is. Every time I try to write intelligently about a way forward, I find myself recapitulating the old prescriptive dictates of ‘should’ and ‘shouldn’t’, circling a narrow and instrumentalised vision of art and culture that is every bit as monolithic and blinkered as that of the capitalist patriarchy.
I certainly have very strong feelings about the kind of art I want to engage with and produce at the present time: art that isn’t merely ‘about’ our besetting crises; art that moves beyond coronavirus, climate, or capitalism as subject and into a profound textual reckoning with their rhetorics and aesthetics. I want more than the purely topical. I don’t want poems that hoover up our daily pain as imaginative fodder in reactive or exploitative ways. I want stress and rupture on the level of language. I want damage done to theme and form. I want difficulty and discomfort.
But I also want beauty. I want John Clare and Jane Burn offering pyrotechnic prayers to nature. I want Maxo Vanka’s Pieta, and Keats’ ‘Ode to a Grecian Urn’. I want Szilvia Bognar singing ‘Lily of the Valley’, and Natalia Goncharova’s Liturgy six winged Seraph. I want dancing in my socks to Billie Idol with my brother. I don’t believe art is less worthy or authentic for being beautiful. And beauty, however seemingly superficial, can kindle hope, can offer us an ‘otherwise’, can say ‘it doesn’t have to be like this’, can lend us strength when everything around us feels abject, lost, or ugly. It preserves and strengthens the spirit, and I wouldn’t wish that portal shut for anyone.
What I don’t want is to temper historical injustice or present crisis with aesthetic pleasure. What I don’t want is to be beholden to some power elite’s defanged idea of beauty, beauty as palliative, as distraction, as a papering of cracks. I want art and poetry whose seeing and saying stimulates; whose seeing and saying is sharpened by experience. I want working-class beauty, beauty with the stakes raised, beauty that feels – and is – hard won. I want moments of ecstasy, flashes of brilliance. I want to read, see, hear, and feel changed.
This is something we can do in our daily lives as artists, sure; these are the issues we can choose to live in sensitised daily communion with, but the burden to produce change, to make space for these voices, shouldn’t be placed on the backs of individual creators. Working-class creators are already overburdened, and our art is integral to the machinery of our survival. You inhibit and homogenise art when you start talking about what people can and can’t make; what their responsibilities are, their sanctioned forms and subjects, the correct way to approach them. You diminish art, and you also – more importantly – damage people. Working-class women in particular have seen enough violence and silencing as it is. How then, do we drive change and speak to crisis effectively? How do we move from mere catharsis into meaningful resistance, collective dissent?
Rise with your class
Obviously, I don’t have all the answers. I’m not sure I have any, and that can be frankly terrifying. If the responsibility for change lies with the seemingly impenetrable systems that administer us – the publishing cohorts, the academies, the funding bodies, etc. – then we can feel overwhelmed, impotent, powerless to act, but we are not. There is always something we can do. I’ve been thinking about that a lot these last few months. Even before coronavirus, my own life had changed in a variety of ways, good and bad, and I’d been thrown into a period of profound reflection about what comes next for me. In poetry and in the academy I have a sneaking suspicion that I’ve come as far as I’ll ever be allowed to go.
This is infinitely frustrating, and there are days I feel like a failure. It helps to understand the dynamics of the system that has put me and keeps me ‘in my place’, but it is nonetheless a struggle to maintain any sense of self-worth of forward motion within a culture that seems explicitly designed to exclude me. I know I’m not the only one who feels like this because a large part of working on Witches, Warriors, Workers with Jane Burn has been about fostering networks of solidarity with women from all walks of life, many with stories to tell about their experiences of exclusion and erasure inside of cultural space. The most important lesson for me from all of those conversations has been: rise with your class, not above it.
Doing for your community raises you. It is succour and soul food in and of itself. It gives you back a sense of agency and control. Truly, this is Lorde’s vision of self-care: an outward-reaching and embracive act of love for your comrades. In practical terms this act of love can look – has looked – like: editorial attention to polyphony and difference; an active seeking out of stories and voices beyond our comfort zones and cohorts. It has been encouraging, including and furthering voices that might not otherwise have been given space. It has been reviewing each other’s work, recommending each other for prizes. It has been taking that work out into the world in unexpected ways: pushing it into elite cultural spaces, and the hearts and hubs of local communities alike.
Struggle for your community
We can do this. Even now, even from our separate anchorite cells, we can connect to the world in ways that bring these voices into focus. We can say ‘hey, this is worthy of attention’ and ‘hey, this demands space.’ This can – and has – looked like specifically foregrounding working-class women’s voices at online festivals, making working-class artistic production the subject of academic essays and conference papers. It has looked like a persistent obtruding onto the notice of publishers, magazine editors, and event organisers. It is not waiting to be invited, not asking to be included, not fretting about looking needy or stupid, but continually stating ‘here I am’ and ‘here we are’ and ‘this deserves to take up space’. It is publicaly questioning ‘why not?’ when they shut the door on you.
Never doubt this process is exhausting. It is a struggle. And here I find my attention returned to the edicts of the anchorites: to suffer without love is a waste of pain, but to understand your struggle as one in common with and on behalf of your community is to give it back purpose and dignity. This is not to make a fetish out of struggle, or working-class resilience, or to lionise it for its own sake, but to remind ourselves that we are not passive, that this pushing forward is work, a political mission.
The Ancerne Wisse (a 13th century guide for anchorites) tells the would-be ascetic to ‘gather into your heart all those who are ill or wretched’ and to remember that the privations and perturbations of secluded life are undertaken on behalf of the community, that you ‘hold up’, others through your sacrifice. This injunction had made the rounds a few times since lockdown started, and it’s easy to see its particular relevance to coronavirus and the practice of self-isolation, but it’s also a useful mantra for any of us, as activists and artists, as women in the world,Any time we’re kettled, arrested, detained without charge; any time our work is rejected, or ignored, or ridiculed; any time we are denied funding, when we are spoken over or shut out; any time we are threatened and bullied legally or physically, we are persisting, we are manifesting resistance, not just for ourselves, but for all of us.
You close the door, I open a window
And once you grasp this thought, you realise that there is so much you can do, a thousand tiny acts of everyday solidarity. My favourite of these has to do with access. By making work available for free; by disseminating art and poetry widely online, we can tip the balance of power away from the old publishing elites. Obviously, not everybody has access to the internet, and I don’t want to uncritically trumpet technology as the saviour of working-class art and literature, but it does open up possibilities. It changes what’s available to us in terms of form, what we can technically achieve. Colour can be present to a greater degree; the spatial relationships between text and image can diverge in extreme and surprising ways, and most of all, our ability to collaborate with and choreograph a variety of voices expands ten-fold.
Our implied audience changes too, because we are removing artistic production from its usual elite haunts. We are connecting to each other, we are talking to each other, deciding and refining our own tastes and ideas, not relying upon on some middle-class editorial filter to tell us what is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ art. When cultural elites close a door, we can repurpose a window. And isolation might provide the impetus to these projects, but their staying power is potentially limitless.
When we decide we no longer need the permission of cultural gatekeepers to publish or to mediate between ourselves and our audiences, then the conversions about issues that matter to us can be kept alive long after their fads for our tokenistic inclusion have faded. This doesn’t mean we stop trying to breach their protected enclaves, but there is tremendous value in carving out space for ourselves on our own terms. Peter Raynard’s Proletarian Poetry has been offering one such invaluable space for years, and it’s time for more.
These thoughts keep me energised at a time when it’s tempting to sink into the lethargy of depression. Trapped in the house for hours every day, with the literal reminders of my failure to escape the economic and social precarity into which I was born, has been wearing. More wearing is that I have no real outlet for these thoughts and feelings. It isn’t that I’ve not been given the opportunity to celebrate my achievements, but I’ve found that those celebrations tend to minimise or outright invisiblise the unequal effort involved, in favour of some endlessly tiresome version of the self-transcending narrative: that my achievements as a working-class person are the result of exceptional individual talent or skill. And that’s wrong. If I rise at all I do so with the help of or at the expense of other working-class people. The space I occupy I had to compete with others for, and the place I attained has been granted to me through a combination of hard work, insanely good luck, and the almost extravagant kindness of those who went before me, leaning down and giving me a hand up.
This is something else that it is important to acknowledge at every opportunity. When you’re given a platform, talk about where you came from, and how lucky you are; honour those who helped you on the way, and remind your listeners how unfair it is that luck has to come into it at all. Tell the truth, even when they call you militant and shrill, even when you make them palpably uncomfortable. Know where and to whom your gratitude belongs, and know what and who has kept you back.
Without my dear friend and mentor, Roddy Lumsden, I wouldn’t be about to complete my Ph.D. I wouldn’t be publishing poetry at all. Roddy was a tireless champion not just of my work, but of any work he believed in, irrespective of aesthetic disposition, irrespective of where it came from. Roddy wasn’t narrowly political, he just wanted exciting and vibrant work to be heard because it mattered to him, he really cared, and in caring he gouged out cultural space for queer poets, BAME poets, working-class poets and Traveller poets. He furthered our reach and he taught many of us how to respect ourselves as creators, even when the outside world doesn’t want to.
Which is where, I think, I came in, with the importance of grieving, of honouring our dead. Isolation affords us this opportunity, to think about who we are and the kind of work we want to do in the world; to remember that we are not really alone, but part of a long continuity of mutual care, links in the chain.
Dennis Broe traces the links between class and the coronavirus, and parallels in cultural works. Plus ca change........
In many ways the rearrangement of life in the wake of the global impact of the Cornoavirus has created a brave new world. And in other ways, the arrangement has reinforced the cowardly old one.
Class differences during widespread global lockdowns and quarantines have in some ways hardened. There is a small minority of a rich class which passes this temporary isolation in comfort, having quickly evacuated the contagion of the city centres for sometimes palatial estates in the countryside. There is a sheltered middle class, many of whom are able to continue to work and earn online, though often at a diminished capacity. And finally there is an unsheltered working class, who must risk their lives in order to earn their daily bread.
Here in Europe and particularly in France these distinctions are as profound as elsewhere, with perhaps a million people fleeing the high-contagion centre of Paris for their country homes, with new middle-class family subscribers flocking to the just opened Disney+ streaming service while cheering on medical workers each night at 8pm from their balconies.
Finally, there are not only working-class nurses but also cashiers, that most unsung group of workers, 90 percent of whom are women and many of whom are from minority ethnic groups. They go to work each day and come home to crowded apartments in the Parisian suburbs, where the police are using the excuse of not having proper quarantine papers to assault these women’s children.
Europe, with its well-developed welfare state, might seem to be better equipped to combat the virus than the U.S., with its hollowed-out state folowing the Reagan-Bush-Clinton neoliberal attack. However, Europe also has experienced wave after wave of shocks and attacks on its social compact. For example, a French cashier noted that while doctors and nurses are being cheered today by both the people and the state, “Only a few months ago,” in the wake of a protest against the cutting of hospital budgets by the Macron government, “They were teargassed for daring to rally in the streets”.
The impact of the virus echoes Daniel Defoe’s historical novel Journal of the Plague Year, written after the deadly assault of an earlier virus on 17th century London, where nearly 15 percent of the city perished. In observing the parallels, one wonders if these are because of the similar nature of each disease or because this new era of greed-take-all capitalism has hurtled us back to the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, where protections for workers were almost nonexistent.
Upper-Class Quarantine: Flight to the Country and Wide Open Spaces
In Defoe’s account when the plague first appeared, “nothing was to be seen but wagons and carts, with goods, women, servants, children…; coaches filled with people of the better sort, and horsemen attending them, and all hurrying away.” His comment on this exodus of the rich from the city to escape the disease is that “they spread it in the country” and had they not fled, the plague would not have “been carried into so many country towns and houses as it was, to the great damage, and indeed to the ruin, of [an] abundance of people.”
Likewise, in France, where there are three million second homes, just before the Macron lockdown, Paris trains and highways were jammed with those exiting the city. After the lockdown the health minister had to beg Parisians to stay at home, rather than fleeing to the rural areas and especially to Normandy which was relatively untouched by the virus. One Brittany resident then saw these urban visitors on the beaches “in cool outfits as if they were on holiday,” adding “Quarantine is always for other people”.
Meanwhile Monaco, surrounded by the European virus epicentre countries of France, Italy and Spain, had (as of recently) only 60 cases total and 4 deaths. This country is the wealthiest in the world, with 30 percent of the population made up of millionaires and with a state that could afford to close the casinos, turn away cruise ships, and furlough for 90 days all its employees.
Elsewhere the French online “faschosphere” was instead quick to blame immigrants for the virus. While others across the world noticed the similarities of the situation with this year’s Academy Award-winner Parasite, with its lower-class family living in a flooded basement, “stealing” internet reception and its upper class, corporate family living in a spacious mansion surrounded by acres of green lawns.
Middle-Class Quarantine: Sheltered in Place and Working Online
The disappearing middle class is sheltered at home, many able to at least pursue some semblance of their business through Zoom, the online meeting app. The company has thrived, going from 10 million to 200 million users as have many online businesses and this has no doubt improved the connectivity of the world. However, as Shoshana Zuboff claims in her monumental work The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, the secret of the internet is that its “evil design aims to exploit human weakness” by creating interfaces that “‘make users emotionally involved in doing something that benefits the designer more than them.’”
Zoom has already been accused of selling data to Facebook and recently hired a Facebook executive as an outsider advisor. The mass use of Zoom is the Holy Grail of selling user data to advertisers. For a long time, there has not been enough data on user’s emotions to match with their words to create more detailed profiles. The Zoom meetings supply that data in abundance, and will increase the quality of data sold or rented that can be used to supply more detailed consumer profiles. As Zuboff says, we grow ever closer to a B.F. Skinner-type “technology of behavior” that would “enable the application of …[surveillance] methods across entire populations.”
It doesn’t have to be this way. Chinese monetization of internet traffic, for example, doesn’t just package data to advertisers. The online service Lizhi creates its revenue stream by offering users the option of buying virtual gifts in which to shower their podcast favorites, as was the case with the Japanese girl group AKB48. Ironically it is China, which does not try to match the US in the efficiency of its consumer surveillance, which is constantly accused of being a thought-control, totalitarian society.
Working-Class Quarantine: Working and At Risk
While wealthy Parisians were fleeing the city, in poor banlieus across the Peripherique such as Saint Denis, where the cashiers, sanitation workers, and health care workers live, there is “an exceptional excess” of deaths from the virus.This is similar to the disproportionate deaths in heavily African-American populated places in the U.S., such as areas of The Bronx and in the immigrant communities of Queens.
Defoe described a similar situation where servants who “were obliged to send up and down the streets for necessaries” contracted the disease. Similarly, restaurant workers along with the delivery service carriers put their lives in danger each day to bring food to those economically above them. Just as in the present pandemic, where in the French supermarkets new recruits from the suburbs abound, so too Defoe detailed a situation where “though the plague was chiefly among the poor, yet were the poor the most venturous and fearless of it, and went about their employment with a sort of brutal courage; ran into any business which they could get employment in, though it was the most hazardous.”
Meanwhile, the police, whose often casual brutality is detailed in this year’s Caesar winner for best French film Les Miserables, have been cited by Human Rights Watch for “unacceptable and illegal” behavior for several beatings of young men from this polyglot area. These victims were accosted because they did or did not have their “attestation,” the legal paper required for leaving the home. The middle class face a fine of 138 euros for not having their papers – the working class face state violence.
In Marseilles, McDonald’s workers, led by the local union, the Force Ouvriere, decided to distribute the company’s food to the poorest districts of that city and to use the closed-down restaurant as a central site for collecting and preparing food. McDonald’s issued a statement opposing the measure.
Similarly, at a Crenshaw McDonald’s in South Central Los Angeles – one of the poorest districts in the US – when the workers staged a spontaneous action demanding they be sent home for a two-week quarantine, the protest was broken up by the police.
Amazon, one of the companies most extravagantly profiting from the quarantine, was temporarily forced to halt its operations in France when a court ruled the company had failed to adequately protect workers. The case was heard because several employees walked off the job, citing a law that allows workers to leave an unsafe workplace and receive full pay. In response, the company criticized the union that brought the case.
What could be more prescient in the light of these protests by a most exploited workforce than Ken Loach’s latest film Sorry We Missed You, about how a delivery driver for an Amazon-type firm is being driven to despair because of the inhuman pressure put on him and his family to produce.
The quarantine also called attention to the importance of seasonal workers in Europe in terms of harvesting crops. In France, with an embargo against non-Europeans coming into the country, 200,000 workers are needed to replace this seasonal workforce to harvest fruit and vegetables in places like the Loire and Alsace to feed the urban population. These workers come from central and eastern Europe as well as from Tunisia and Morocco and most labor under impoverished conditions and leave after the harvest. Jean Renoir’s 1935 film Toni which recounts the tragic life and fate of one of these workers coming across the Pyrenees from Spain is unfortunately still relevant today.
Germany uses 300,000 day-labourers a year to harvest its crops, mostly from Romania, Poland, Ukraine, Bulgaria and Hungary. One of the films that most accurately tracks this discrepancy in income and the disdain of more affluent Germans for these easterners is Western which recounts the prejudice of a group of German workers building a power plant in Bulgaria.
To combat this problem, Portugal granted temporary citizenship status to immigrants while in the US, where the federal government is floating a measure to detain undocumented immigrants indefinitely during “emergencies,” Americans bought almost 2 million guns in March, their own Wild West solution to what they view as the immigrant problem and the anarchy they are afraid will come. The Trump administration seconded this solution, declaring weapons stores to be an essential business that should stay open during the quarantine.
Readers might eerily have confused Roy’s description for Defoe’s, since they were so similar. Defoe says:
The constables everywhere were upon their guard not so much, it seems, to stop people passing by as to stop them from taking up their abode in their towns…[because of the “improbable” possibility] that the poor people in London, being distressed and starved for want of work, and want for bread, were up in arms and had raised a tumult, and that they would come out to all the towns round to plunder for bread.
Recurring class tensions have also broken out between states. Before it finally passed a European relief bill, the hardest-hit countries – Spain and Italy – were proposing that the EU issue joint bonds, called Eurobonds or Coronabonds, which would spread the cost of the economic damage caused by the virus among at least the 19 countries of the common currency. The wealthier northern countries, led by Austria, Germany and The Netherlands, refused. It was similar to these countries’ refusal to cancel the debt and instead impose austerity budgets on the countries of the south, after the 2008 crisis.
This disparity on a personal level is well documented in Oleg, one of last year’s best films. The film recounts the story of a butcher from Latvia who emigrates to Brussels, the EU capital and centre of its wealth and affluence, quickly loses his job, and is bullied to join the criminal underground in order to survive. Oleg’s individual path is similar to the national path of countries such as Greece.
Finally, to return to Defoe’s description of the plague, the virulence of that disease hastened the appearances of all kinds of charlatans coming out of the woodwork. Because of fear, working people ran to “fortune tellers, cunning-men and astrologers” and London swarmed with “a wicked generation of pretenders to magic, to the black art… and “to a thousand worse dealings with the devil.”
The difference in this stage of neoliberalism, where the state exists to serve the interests of financial capital – the banks, the real estate and insurance industries who the US government bailed out – is that the con-men are running the show.
Thus Trump, snake-oil salesman and charlatan-in-chief, suggested that people take hydroxychloroquine, an untested drug that could produce fatal heart arrhythmia and that one report claimed Trump had invested in. Trump called the drug a “game changer,” and told his viewers to “Take it. What do you have to lose?”
In Defoe’s time, the King’s court fled the city and allowed lower civil servants to bear the brunt of dealing with the plague. Unfortunately, in our time, the court remains in the White House, and continues the dangerous and deadly process of urging the country to quickly re-open so that the state does not have to subsidize the people, and can continue to ignore worker unemployment and misery.
David Betteridge takes us along Glasgow’s Byres Road, enjoying several works of public art by the late Alasdair Gray, who died on 29 December, 2019, the day after his 85th birthday
Perhaps the best thing I could do is write a story in which adjectives like commonplace and ordinary have the significance which glorious and divine carried in earlier comedies. What do you think? - Alisdair Gray, Lanark
This is a stub. Many more hands and minds besides my own would have to be set to work, to write a piece giving proper value to Alasdair Gray’s achievements. Like his admired William Blake, he was an artist as well as a writer, a lover of both the epic and the miniature, a deviser of both encyclopedias and minute particulars. He ranged over many genres, deploying details from his own life (a long one) and his own city (Glasgow), but at the same time he regarded the whole world with its many cultures and many histories as his oyster (not forgetting the cosmos in which the world has its unique place). He was, as Ali Smith wrote in an eloquent short obituary, “a renaissance man”. He was, she judged, the very heart of that revival in Scottish life to which he contributed, and from which he drew strength.
A walk of a few hundred yards along Byres Road, in Glasgow’s West End, affords a good introduction to the man and his work.
On the corner overlooking the Botanic Gardens, there is a former church, now converted to a bar, restaurant and performance area called the Oran Mor, which in Gaelic means “big song” or even, some would have it, “great melody of life”. That epithet describes Gray pretty well.
As you enter the Oran Mor from Byres Road, look down at the white and grey marble floor of the porch. There, carved into the tiles, you will see “WELCOME”, in 32 languages. Gray took great care with the lettering of this message, as with every aspect of every part of his quite substantial contribution to the Oran Mor’s conversion. For all those words of greeting that were in the Roman alphabet, he designed his own lettering, using sans serif block capitals that slightly taper away from you as you read them. This lettering he called Oran Mor Monumental.
Go to the third floor. There, extending across the breadth and length of the ceiling, you will see one of Gray’s largest and most ambitious works: a painting that combines myth and legend, Biblical reference and astronomical lore. “It’s a song of praise to the colour blue,” wrote Figgy Guyver, after a visit she paid to view it, and also “a heartfelt, humanist plea for people to come together for a better future.” This plea is directly expressed in words, as well as art. In gold lettering, across the roof beams, we read: “Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation.” This motto, borrowed from the Canadian author Dennis Lee, has been widely adopted as a motto for modern progressive Scottish politics, thanks to Gray’s use of it.
Looking up, you will see a cross-section of Creation boldly and beautifully represented. As in Gauguin’s famous Tahitian triptych, big questions are asked: “Where are we from? What are we? Where are we going?” and answers are given, if we search for them. The planets and the Milky Way give us a sense of Time and Space. The Tree of Life drives its roots into fossils and skeletons. A varied fauna and flora inhabit land, sea and air. A naked Adam and Eve kneel, entwined in one another’s arms. A phoenix rises.
The present day and the present city are not forgotten, either. Contemporary citizens, including folk who worked on, and work in, the Oran Mor have their likenesses portrayed here, honouring their labour. Gray’s is a democratic intellect, and a democratic aesthetic, and a democratic structure of feeling.
As you leave, as a companion piece to the “WELCOME” on the way in, you will see, and walk on, a set of 32 carved tiles bidding you “GOODBYE”. Many of Gray’s books end on a similarly friendly note, from his early masterpiece Lanark onwards, as if he wanted you to feel that reading the books was akin to visiting him, maybe at home, maybe in a shared public space, and he was your host. “Goodbye,” he says, as you turn the last page. I see him as a latter-day Interpreter, as in Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. In his House, we are shown “excellent things, such as would be helpful to [us]”.
In fact, the more you immerse yourself in the print-world of Gray’s published works, the more parallels you discover between them and buildings. As you make your way through them, the books seem to have doors and windows, and rooms and corridors, and stairs and landings, with good labelling and sign-posting so you do not get lost, all in Gray’s distinctively bold, clear style.
Gray was fortunate in having Canongate as his publisher for Lanark, as for many subsequent books, as its owner Stephanie Wolfe-Murray gave him creative control over all aspects of its look, from the grand plan of the art-work to the details of line-spacing and indentation. Like William Blake or William Morris before him, Gray was enabled to work in the combined roles of artist, artisan and author.
After leaving the Oran Mor, turn left along Byres Road, and very soon you come to Hillhead Public Library. It was much used by Gray in the second half of his life, when he lived at various addresses in the West End, just as, in his earlier years in the East End, Riddrie Public Library had been a favourite haunt, being almost a home from home for the inveterate bibliophile.
In his retrospective memoir, A Life in Pictures, Gray tells of an occasion when one of his teachers at Whitehill Senior Secondary School invited him to give a lecture to the school’s Literary and Debating Society. This he did, with specially drawn illustrations projected on an epidiascope. These illustrations are recognisably by the same hand, and from the same mind, as all his later art-work, including the Oran Mor ceiling. Gray appears to have developed his skill and found his genius very young. His chosen subject for the lecture was “A Personal View of History”, no less, typically encyclopaedic. He started with The Ice Age and The Stone Age, and ended with The Industrial City and The Triumph of Socialism.
Along this onward march, full of epic horrors, two sunnier episodes are celebrated. Babylonian priests are pictured “recording an eclipse, having devised an alphabet and calendar that made writing history possible”. Later, the schoolboy lecturer showed his audience The Sermon on the Mount, when Jesus tells the people of the slave-based empires of the world that “every human soul was equally valued by God”. Regrettably, his art-work for that episode was mislaid, as he explains in A Life in Pictures.
For the end-point of History, The Triumph of Socialism, he chose as example and symbol the nearby Riddrie Public Library. “I thought,” he tells us, “this well-planned, well-stocked public library was a triumphant example of local egalitarian democracy.” Here we find the bedrock of Gray’s later more developed politics. He never lost his youthful Spirit of Forty-Five. Again, as with The Sermon on the Mount, we only have his word for it, as, for some reason, the drawing of the Library “was to be”, but was in fact never actually drawn.
I started writing this short guide to Gray’s visible legacy in Glasgow’s West End shortly after his death at the very end of 2019. For inspiration, and for refreshing my memory, I followed the route that I am here recommending. Arriving at the wide inviting entrance of Hillhead Public Library, I found that I could not pass it without going in.
There, next to the librarians’ issue desk, was a display of all Gray’s books that they had in stock, and a table set aside where his fellow-readers were invited to sign a book - not so much a Book of Condolences, more a Book of Celebrations. Already, after only a few days of the library and the book being open after the New Year holiday, page upon page of entries had been written. As I read through them, I became aware that “Alasdair” had been well-loved as a local worthy, a kindly man, and a great conversationalist, as interested in his interlocutors as in himself; but, at the same time, “Gray” was well-regarded as an important author-cum-artist, who had put his native Glasgow and Scotland on a world map, and also brought the world to the very streets of this city. This “fat, spectacled, balding, increasingly old Glasgow pedestrian”, as he once described himself, had made his mark, a large and indelible one.
There is a point of correction to be made regarding Gray’s self-description as a “pedestrian”. For his final few years, after a fall that nearly killed him, he was a wheelchair user. Undaunted, after seven months in hospital, he was to be seen again, visiting his favourite places, going about his many ploys, and continuing his last great project, his re-telling of Dante’s Divine Comedy. How like Blake, who also immersed himself in the old Tuscan’s Hell, Purgatory and Paradise!
After Hillhead Library, proceed further along Byres Road to another place where Gray’s presence is felt, namely Hillhead Subway Station.
Look across the entrance hall, beyond the turnstiles that lead to the platforms and trains. There, confronting you, is Gray’s final work of public art, a mural made of ceramic tiles, two metres high and twelve metres wide. “All Kinds of Folk” it is called, and so it is identified in elegant lettering to the left. Alternatively, it is called “Folk of All Kinds”, to the right. In the middle is a panoramic view of the streets and buildings of Hillhead, the busiest part of the West End. The panorama is so boldly three-dimensional that you can imagine yourself walking there. It is flanked on both sides by panels of equally bold drawings of the very kinds of folk whom Gray imagined using the subway.
He gives us Lucky Dogs and Financial Wizards, Hard Workers and Brain Babies, Lovely Mums and Bonny Fechters, Lassies and Lads, Cocky Chaps, and others. A|few beasts and fairy-tale figures are thrown in for good measure, including Urban Foxes, Fiery Dragons, Birds of Paradise, and Unicorns. The effect is to make you smile, and that was Gray’s intention, as he indicates in a bit of verse inscribed on the wall:
Do not let daily to-ing and fro-ing To earn what you need to keep going Prevent what you once felt when wee Hopeful and free.
Now look below the station’s “Exit” sign. There, in black block capitals, you will read that same motto that you saw in gold on the Oran Mor ceiling, regarding early days, a better nation, and working. Those block capitals, by the way, like all the lettering here, were specially designed for this project. They are based on Gray’s own handwritten letterforms, for that reason being known as Gray Display.
I had got this far into writing my piece, when Covid-19 closed down everyday life as we are used to living it. The three places that I have described above - the Oran Mor, the Library, and the Station - are now in lockdown, as is a fourth place that I would have directed you to, namely a restaurant and bar in a lane off Byres Road, the Ubiquitous Chip, the decor of which, on a lavish scale, was Gray’s work. (He was paid for doing it, it is said, by the promise of free dinners for ever.)
It was my intention to illustrate my conducted tour with photographs taken specially for it, but that cannot now be done until Glasgow and the world return to the old normal, for good and ill, supposing that is possible. What with “self-isolating” and “social-distancing”, and shutters being up, it is as if we are suddenly inhabiting a nightmarish or dystopian or purgatorial or infernal scene of a kind that Gray might have included in the “Unthank” chapters of Lanark. You can, however, find plenty of already existing photographs online, and so compose your own visual commentary for the itinerary. You might well begin here and then progress to Gray’s official website, and then delve into his publisher’s website.
My thanks are due to Canongate for giving me permission to enliven my text (above and below) with illustrative material from their files. Maybe, post-Covid-lockdown, I will be able to return to my tour of Gray venues and take photos of my own, for splicing in.
How, then, are we to leave this inconclusive ramble? There is no better way than in Gray’s own words. In an interview that he gave in the year before he died, to Gutter magazine (Spring, 2018), he remarked on the pleasure he took from being able to work and create, even in old age and ill health; in fact, especially in old age and ill health. At the time, he was putting the finishing touches to the “Heaven” part of his Divine Comedy, “Englished in prosaic verse”, as he put it, after Dante. In words that reveal a great deal about himself, Gray concluded the interview as follows:
Everyone who makes something that survives them has overcome death to that extent: especially if it is another human being. It may also be a well-built wall or other work of art.
ENOUGH TO LIFT MY EYES TO
An imagined meeting with Alasdair Gray, in a Glasgow street
“There’s not a street in Glasgow, Anyplace, or Purgatory that I don’t know. I’ve sojourned here for all my years, studying the root and consequence of the world’s good and the world’s ill, watching both succeed, pondering how the one can let the other grow.” Looking up intently from his wheelchair, like a tree’s last stubborn leaf lit by a late sun, in a winter’s wind, not torn, not shaken even, he held my attention as he spoke. I thought of the Ancient Mariner, as for a long moment he had me in his close focus there. We were like two islands in a flow and counter-flow of passing folk.
“For self-protection,” he explained, “or, if hurt, self-heal, I carry with me images and words that speak truths, some from the past, some being formed. Reviewing them can feed them present life, and make them for a moment real. “Whoever harrows any kind of Hell must do the same. But…” - he cautioned with a work-worn hand - “know this: there is no certain Paradise at journey’s end, perhaps no journey’s end; but I have seen, for sure, occasional glimpses of a far-off hill, part-grey, part-green, chequered bright.
“It is not the steep slope that Dante wrote of in his Purgatorio. Rather, it is some high point, beyond our city’s boundary, that catches now and then whatever rays there are of the day’s light. It is enough for me to lift my eyes to.” Then, "Look!" he cried, and gave a sudden whoop of joy, pointing across the street to where, in a park, a chestnut tree stood tall. “Imagine,” he said, “imagine playing there, swinging on a knotted rope, collecting conkers, being Tarzan, being a dryad, trying not to fall.” Studying that tree, we saw - he made me see - a rain of golden orioles. As if so many falling meteors, as if directed by a hidden hand, in a swoop, they cascaded to the tips of the bare boughs. There they perched for a short while, overlooking the neighbouring ground. Talismans, they flashed forth against the evening’s blue. I see them now, transfiguring the landscape of my mind’s-eye view.
John Green discusses the obliteration of GDR culture since reunification. The mosaic is in Eisenhüttenstadt, and is by Walter Womacka
This month sees the 30th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, leading a year later to the annexation of the former German Democratic Republic by the Federal Republic. I use the term ‘annexation’ intentionally because despite the people of the former GDR voting in their majority for a unified Germany, what they got was a de facto takeover by the west.
In his recent book ‘The New Faces of Fascism’, Professor Enzo Traverso of Cornell University uses this term unequivocally. He writes that ‘The annexation of the former German Democratic Republic was conceived of as a political, economic and cultural process that inevitably implied the demolition of antifascism …’ Despite the passage of three decades, the territory of the former GDR is in many ways still very different from the former Federal Republic.
One might have the impression from the numerous depictions of the GDR in the western media that it was a country characterised by oppression, lack of freedom and a grey, monotonous daily life for its citizens. That it was in fact a country with a relatively high standard of living, with a flourishing industry and a vibrant cultural environment is redacted from the mainstream narrative.
Despite the fact that both postwar German republics were formed as a result of the partition by the Second World War Allies of a unified German nation, there developed in the eastern part a specific and separate culture and way of life, based on socialist principles, even if the system could be characterised as ‘state socialism’ and authoritarian in many of its aspects. Against all the odds the GDR – based on only a third of Germany as a whole and the least industrially developed part, with very few raw materials – managed to build a second German culture based on a clear break with the country’s fascist past and firmly rooted in Germany’s communist and internationalist traditions.
In any state there will always be a tension and sometimes conflict between artists and state institutions and official ideology. And in this the GDR was no different from most other countries, but art and culture were taken seriously by everyone; they were not marginal to people’s lives. The country had a lively book publishing industry, there were theatres and concert halls in even smaller towns, there was a thriving film industry and art scene. Financial support and encouragement were given to amateur art groups, often located in or near people’s workplaces.
The four-yearly GDR art exhibition in Dresden, at which a huge array of contemporary art works were exhibited, was a great draw for visitors from all over the country. There were often animated and fiery discussions about certain of the works exhibited. ‘Socialist realist’ art was the form that was officially sanctioned and encouraged but this was a somewhat elastic concept. Most artists were happy to paint and sculpt in a realist manner but interpreted the world in their own unique way. There were those who preferred to explore abstraction and they got a raw deal in terms of being able to exhibit and survive economically. It is only now, belatedly, that GDR art is slowly being recognised as interesting in its own right and worth exhibiting, even if most selections dwell overmuch on the so-called ‘dissident’ aspect.
The GDR produced its own home-grown song movement with a whole number of groups and individual singers who developed a recognisable ‘GDR style’: socially engaged, internationalist and also critical. Sometimes, as with Wolf Biermann, the critical element went too far for the powers that be and he was banned from publicly performing, before being expelled from the country, but most managed to find a niche and steer clear of official sanction. There was a large annual festival of political song which brought together musicians from around the world, like Pete Seeger from the USA, Inti Illimani and Quilapayun from Chile, Leon Gieco from Argentina and the Sands Family from Ireland, among many others.
What overwhelmingly characterised GDR art and culture was that it was viewed by everyone as an integral part of society, and for artists being engaged as well as critical were taken as given. Broad sections of the population were actively engaged in the arts, either as participants or as audiences and readers. Schools and workplaces organised regular trips to the theatre, concerts, cultural events and exhibitions and these were invariably subsidised by the state.
This unique integration of art, artists and society which is only really possible under a socialist system, came to an end with the demise of the GDR. And although the Federal Republic provides generous support for the arts – in contrast to the UK – they are very much linked to the capitalist structures within which they operate and are often very elitist.
Fear and Misery of the Third Reich, by Bertolt Brecht
While the ruling SED party and GDR government were certainly over-controlling in terms of their cultural policies and over-fearful of what they viewed as potentially negative western influences and anti-socialist activity, they did actively and generously encourage and support the development of an artistic environment that was socially engaged, integrated and committed to humanitarian aims. That legacy has been lost.
Following unification in 1990, almost all GDR industries were very quickly dismantled or taken over by West German firms, and all GDR institutions (e.g. universities, theatres, museums etc.), if not closed, had new managers imposed on them. Most of the staff in GDR universities, colleges and schools, as well as in local and national government, found themselves out of a job or demoted.
The GDR’s media – television, radio and publishing houses – were all closed. Former co-operative and state farms were also closed down. With this total dismantling of the GDR’s infrastructure, people were obliged to migrate to the west to find work, particularly younger people. This left whole areas of the territory virtually devoid of a younger generation. Still today, wages are still lower in the east, as are pensions. The promised affluence has benefited very few and the wealth gap between the population in the former GDR and that of the Federal Republic remains large.
Werner Tübke, History of the German labour movement II, 1961
The imposition of the federal German system on the East has also meant the obliteration of a specific GDR culture. Since unification, the German Federal government and media have attempted to deny anything positive about the GDR, and have deliberately conflated what they call ‘the two totalitarianisms’ i.e. nazism and communism. In doing so, they avow that this time they are determined to undertake a proper reckoning with the GDR and expose its totalitarian essence (implicitly recognising that they had not done this properly with Germany’s Nazi past). Most cultural representations of the GDR have also been eradicated or hidden.
In the concerted attempt to demonise the system and life in the GDR, there have been a plethora of horror stories – virtually all written by western pundits who never experienced the GDR first hand. The most notorious is the much-hyped book ‘Stasiland’ by the Australian Anna Funder, who visited the GDR for a few days as a tourist and returned there after unification to interview people who were ‘victims’ of the regime. Her book is littered with factual inaccuracie,s and reveals an abysmal ignorance of what life was really like in the country, but it is widely seen as the must-read book about the GDR.
In the cinema, the much-lauded ‘The Life of Others’ by the West German aristocrat, Florian Henckel von Donnersmark was a well-crafted thriller – but a total caricature. His portrayal of GDR artists as subject to Stasi control and at the mercy of arbitrary state coercion was a fantasy, but it perfectly fitted the narrative that the West German elite wished to promote. He spoke to Christoph Hein before making the film, wanting to utilise his experience as a writer who had certainly had his run-ins with GDR state censorship – but Hein himself later distanced himself from the film, and said it bore little relationship to reality.
GDR writers, film-makers and theatre directors have almost all been blacklisted, and have not been given the opportunity of reflecting their own assessments of GDR reality. This is all part of a concerted campaign to erase any positive vestige of GDR culture from the historical narrative.
The most egregious example of the destruction of GDR culture was the controversial demolition of the Palace of the Republic in the centre of Berlin. This modern building symbolised more than any other the confidence, forward-looking attitude and strength of the GDR. The building not only housed the GDR parliament but contained a theatre, concert halls, cafes and restaurants which were much used by the city’s population.
Of course, the two parts of the formerly divided Germany will eventually coalesce, and memories of the GDR are already fading as new generations come along. However, it would be a historical travesty if the many positive sides of the GDR experience and the contribution it made to the world were to be totally obliterated. It would be even worse if this experience and contribution were equated with the Nazi atrocities of genocide and fomenting world war, as part of the same ‘totalitarianism’.
Stasi State or Socialist Paradise? The German Democratic Republic and What Became of Itby John Green and Brunhild de la Motte is available from Artery Publications at £10.
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.
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.
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.