The Natural History of Destruction

When visiting Coventry it’s rather difficult not to feel like English visitors to Rome in the eighteenth century, struck by the contrast between the ruined grandeur of the old and the premature decrepitude of the modern. Coventry is in many respects a metonym for many towns in the Midlands; a medieval city with gothic cathedrals, ruined monasteries, half-timbered houses and an early Twentieth century town hall in keeping with the Tudor style of the surrounding buildings. In parts, it reminds me of Lichfield, with the churches and cathedral spires being cast in the same sandstone. It’s also now home to dulled concrete and tarnished metal buildings that lack any form of ornamentation or continuity with the previous structures. Where gothic accrues patina over time, modernism simply becomes a decaying vision of the future. It has the feel of a place where civilisation collapsed. The most obvious expession of this is the difference between the city’s two cathedrals. I’ve heard people speak of the bombing of Coventry (conventration, as it was later to be known), of how the entire sky burned for miles around as a medieval city was reduced to cinders. As a ruin, St Michael’s cathedral with its tall spire and blasted arches, retains a great deal of melancholy dignity. It reminds like a David Friedrich painting, as I look at the remaining pieces of stained glass in the window arches and a funerary monument still handing on the wall with a skull and crossbones beneath it. A bronze effigy of the first Bishop of Coventry bears the reversed figure of a swastika on its mitre. Figures of squirrels can still be seen in the apse tracery alongside real ones chasing each one through the ruins and onto the grass outside. With the trees being out of leaf, both they and the cathedral look like skeletons of their former self, with the hope of the old stones putting forth some form of new leaf in spring. In practice, this spring never came. Nearby is Basil Spence’s new cathedral. Harshly modernist, it lacks spires, arches or buttresses and makes few concessions to ornamentation, save for a form of fan vaulting on the ceiling. John Piper’s stained glass and Graham Sutherland’s altar tapestry are both striking but seem imprisoned in darkened gloom. Outside a sign on one of the chapels warns visitors to beware falling masonry from the old cathedral. It’s difficult to resist imagining a future where the new cathedral has to be demolished while the ruins of the old still stand; though whether christianity remains in England by then is probably a moot point.

Nearby lie the ruins of Greyfriars, a church demolished during the reformation. A later church, Christchurch, was build around the surviving spire, only for it to fall again and once more leave the spire intact. The remains of the pre-Dissolution Priory have a good museum adjoined, showing displays of medieval tiling and some extraordinarily well preserved medieval painting from the book of revelations. A nearby park houses some Victorian churches and a somewhat unexpected monument to the inventor of the bicycle. Less striking is the church of St John the Baptist, a squat affair whose tower seems fortress-like; it served as a prison during the Civil War. Most impressive of all is Holy Trinity, the de facto cathedral of the city. The church is notable for its Victorian stained glass (as well as some rather garish modern stained glass), Minton tiling and beautiful bossed ceilings. George Eliot once worshipped here and it almost leads to appreciate her continued reverence for aspects of christianity, but the church’s most famous feature does nonetheless leave me room for pause; a doom painting of the last judgement, showing souls rising from the grave and the damned being lead to the mouth of hell as Jesus looks on. The artistry is cruder than that of Bosh and has an almost cartoonlike quality to it (certainly in comparison to the similar mosaic I saw at Torcello a few months ago). It’s a disturbing subject that summarises christianity at it worst, for all of the undeniable force inherent in the work. A modern gothic replica of the earlier Coventry cross stands nearby. The Herbert art gallery is mostly shut, save for Hepworth’s Figure (Walnut) and Cormac Faulkner’s sound installation, I am an Instrument, which plays different sounds depending on one’s position as one ascends a staircase; a sort of combination of Eno’s ambient music and Cage’s aleatoric music. Oh, and for some Peruvian stick insects, for reasons I couldn’t quite discern.

If I have been dismissive of the modern here (as is often my habit), I should mention the National Memorial Arboretum. England really has little tradition of collective memory. In the past churches and cathedrals would have been the primary vessel for mourning for the lost in wars, with some exceptions like the Crimean monument in Waterloo Place. After the First World War, crosses began to appear in village greens leading to monuments like Lutyens’ cenotaph. By contrast, America, with its former secular tradition does have national monuments to the fallen in Washington, and the new Memorial at Alrewas is in that vein. Carved from portland stone, it is comprised of two hemispheres on a raised tumulus; it rather resembles Stonehenge or Silbury Hill and has been designed so that London will steam through a gap in the walls on one day of the year and hit a bronze wreath on a central dais. Nearby is a gilded obelisk and bronze statues of soldiers, again in the American vein. It’s a surprisingly pagan structure.

The following day is to Lichfield Cathedral for a candlelight concert, which begins with Handel’s Messiah, followed by Corelli’s Christmas Concerto and John Tavener’s settings of The Lamb and The Tyger. These are particularly effective, with the nursery rhyme quality of The Lamb made sinister and sepulchral and The Tyger made dissonant and chaotic. I feel awkward when it comes to carols and demur from singing. The Victorian rood screen behind the choir is lit up during the performance, but there is darkness behind, only broken by the moonlight shining through the stained glass and making web-like patterns on the gothic arches.

Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy can probably be best described as a fallen summa theologica, an attempt to account for the lack of metaphysical certainty in a post-reformation world ("the superstition of our age, our religious madness"), cataloguing the myriad schisms undergone by the church and the number of fanatics that have founded new cults as "they drive out one superstition with another… how many silly souls have imposters deluded!". It incessantly probes the boundaries of the immaterial and the naturalistic, cataloguing anecdotes in an encyclopaedic manner (a painter who tortured a man in order to depict it, a Swiftian tale of medical treatment by applying bellows to the fundament). The summa encompasses both the christian and the pagan, leading Burton into some rather heterodox observations. For instance, his dismissal of asceticism; "a company of cynics… that contemn the world, contemn themselves… yet in that contempt are more proud than any man living whatsoever," his dismissal of the virtuous nature of poverty "there are those that approve of a mean estate but on condition that they never want themselves," or his appeal for understanding of suicides; "we ought not to be so rash and rigorous in our censures as some are." Whilst still avowing religious orthodoxy, the dialogic approach Burton adopts castigates other religions and christian sects as well as questioning some of the basic tenets of christianity; "why does he suffer so much mischief and evil to be done, if he is able to help, why doth he not assist good or resist bad?" Burton also decouples religion and morality, arguing that "the nature of injury" is sufficient to keep men obedient to the law. Finally, he also questions the validity of a universal religion, suggesting the need for infinite religions for infinute circumstances.

Reading Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women, I was struck by the extent that is in many respects a conservative, christian text. Whereas, figures like Godwin broadly argued that dramatic changes to the social context would have equally dramatic ramifications for human behaviour, Wollstonecraft is much more meliorist in her demands for social change, concedes to a large extent the fixed character of human nature (and therefore that women are inferior to men in some respects) and couches her arguments in terms of christian virtue, arguing that the current condition of women only fits them for the seraglio. Her radicalism essentially consists of the fact that her account of virtue is either neutral of gender (as with her argument that chastity is surely a virtue for men as well as women, although "women are more chaste than men") or swayed in favour of the masculine (reason in particular is seen as something women have been deprived of; "women at present are by ignorance rendered foolish or vicious"). These ambiguities are perhaps best typified by her description of ‘nature.’ In the one instance, she admits of some natural differences between the genders, on the other she sees modern women as needing to "bring women back to nature," as with her denunciation of Rousseau’s women as "unnatural."

Reading Woolf’s The Years, I found myself thinking of her statement in Character in Fiction that "on or about December 10 1910 human nature changed… The first signs of it are recorded in the books of Samuel Butler, in The Way of All Flesh in particular; the plays of Bernard Shaw continue to record it. In life one can see the change, if I may use a homely illustration, in the character of one’s cook. The Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths, formidable, silent, obscure, inscrutable; the Georgian cook is a creature of sunshine and fresh air; in and out of the drawing room, now to borrow the Daily Herald, now to ask advice about a hat… All human relations have shifted – those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics and literature. Let us agree to place one of these changes about the year 1910." Although I tended to mentally connect the well known quote in the first sentence with Freud, Woolf was more preoccupied at the time by social relations than by consciousness, in the vein of Lytton Strachey, who once wrote in a letter to Woolf that "Is it prejudice, do you think, that makes us hate the Victorians, or is it the truth of the case? They seem to me to be a set of mouthing bungling hypocrites; but perhaps really there is a baroque charm about them which will be discovered by our great-great-grandchildren as we have discovered the charm of Donne, who seemed intolerable to the 18th century. Only I don’t believe it." It’s an odd concept, since much of The Years is spent documenting the awkwardness of the characters in dealing with servants, feeling that one must prove oneself superior to them or be cheated; Woolf is nothing if not an arch snob. The Years is ostensibly concerned with documenting the damage wrought by the repressive character of Victorian society, citing the demise of Parnell as an example, but equally much of the narrative of the novel seem to work in exactly the opposite direction, describing a loss of collective identity as social roles become more reflexive ("What’s I?.. two sparks of life in two separate bodies.. what is this moment and what are we"), this time citing the Suffragettes as an example ("all their clothes are the same, she thought; all their lives are the same.. and which is right?.. which is wrong?"). The change to human nature seems something both liberating and traumatic for Woolf ("the old platitude about solitude in a crowd was true").

Whilst the fiction of Wyndham Lewis is perhaps one of the most philosophically fluent in English literature, with clear demonstrations of influence from Bergson, Frazier and Nietzsche, he also belongs to the rank of writers like Celine, Hamsun and Pound who remain tainted to some degree of their connections with Nazism; Lewis could be broadly described as anti-humanist, a stance that led him to contribute to Mosley’s publications as well as to his (later recanted) admiration of Hitler. Lewis believed that man could only rise above the beasts by classical detachment and control, and he followed Goethe in distinguishing between ‘natures’ (the natural men who achieved this; "the educated man like the true social revolutionary, does not accept life in this way. He is in revolt.") and the vast majority of people who were inevitably puppets or automata ("my puppets… the creaking men machines"). Dehumanisation is in other words a central characteristic of his aesthetics. This type of bastardised Nietzscheanism is very much in evidence throughout The Wild Body, a collection of stories set amongst the "primitive" peoples of Brittany. Whereas Balzac had lent something of the noble savage to the Bretons, Lewis has no truck with any romanticisation of the primitive, repeatedly describing his characters as animals (even characterising the art of novelist as being akin to that of an entomologist). The characters are accordingly frequently observed in forms of struggle for power with each other, as with Beau Sejour where a Polish cuckoo displaces a French couple from their home (this does rather lend his fiction a certain tedious masculinism that resembles Norman Mailer, alongside his frequent snide references to jews and homosexuals).

The depiction of these petty ubermensch is offset by the importance of laughter in Lewis and the influence of Bergson’s ideas on the subject. Bergson argues that the source of humour is the "mechanical encrusted upon the living" According to Bergson "the comic does not exist outside of what is strictly human." He thinks that humour involve an incongruous relationship between human intelligence and habitual or mechanical behaviours. As such, humour serves as a social corrective, helping people recognize behaviours that are inhospitable to human flourishing. As Lewis puts it; "the root of the comic is sought in the sensations resulting from the observations of a thing behaving like a person." However, in Lewis it is never entirely clear whether he is seeking to deride the "mechanical encrusted upon the living" or to degrade the living to the condition of the mechanical; as with the influence of Frazier, it can look remarkably like scapegoating. For example, he writes that "violence is the essence of laughter.. it is merely the failure or inversion of force." Some of this ambiguity especially occurs in the first story of the collection, A Soldier of Humour where he describes laughter as the foundation of his philosophy as sex was for Freud; "I am a large blonde clown… I am aware that I am a barbarian… I realise the uncivilised nature of this laughter." In what follows, humour is used to degrade the soldier’s mock opponent in the story but the idea of such a thing being uncivilised is one of the few hints of humanity that occur in the stories. Whereas Celine and Hamsun’s affiliation from Nazism grew to a large extent from their romanticism, their opposition to the dehumanised machine like existence of modern society and preference for gesellschaft rather than gemeinschaft, Lewis is rather more of an anomaly, embracing that dehumanisation instead.

Much later in his career, The Childermass demonstrates many of the same characteristics as The Wild Body. The novel combines two generic sources; one the Platonic dialogue (Lewis adhering to Platonic concepts in defiance of Bergson’s process philosophy) and the other Dante’s Divine Comedy. The novel counterpoints the classical and christian through the format of the dialogue. On the one hand is the puppetlike representative of the authoritarian deity, known as the Bailiff. On the other are Hyperides and Alectryon, who broadly represent the rebellion of the ubermensch against god (with Lewis balancing his interest in Nietzsche against his interest in Catholicism); "persons possessed of conspicuous undemocratic abilities… must become outcaste in the midst of the modernist class-conscious orthodoxy… these exceptional persons would be considered as too noble.". The latter is described as wearing; "a Bangkok Swastika temple design imposed upon a rough brooch.. his face has no feminine imperfections… some romantic postulant of a much tired order in a militant epoch." By this point Lewis had become interested in Hitler as creating a Pan-European racial and cultural brotherhood, the Blutsgefuhl of the northern Europeans. After the First War, Lewis believed the individual self to be under attack from various sources, liberalism, and communism amongst them, and particularly from a Jewish conspiracy. Nonetheless, the novel also complicates things with the Bailiff’s reaction to Alectryon; "have you no pure Anglo-Saxon.. I refuse to be dressed down by a dirty Dago." Nonetheless, the ‘dressing down’ that follows is essentially another instance of scapegoating. Alectryon’s dialogue does indeed seem quite compatible with Nazi rhetoric; "homosexuality is a branch of the feminist revolution." By as is often the case, the Bailiff’s rhetoric is quite similar; "the weak will not be encouraged to go on living and suppressing the strong." The text closes with the dissolution of the Court and Pullman’s bullying of Satters into the endless ritual of meaningless activity, leaving the verdict of the debate open (although the original text closed on the roar of acclamation given to Alectryon).

It’s a commonplace that the American novel tends to dwell on the individual in isolation, the pioneer and the rebel, whereas the European novel dwells on the individual as an unavoidably social animal. Melville simultaneously resides within both categories, siting his works away from society onboard ship whilst using that ship as a microcosm for society at large. In the case of Redburn there is also the presence of a more conventional social narrative, both in the details of Reburn’s fall from the middle classes (Redburn’s outsider status is conferred through his middle class status, in contrast to characters like Finn and Bumpo) and in its depiction of Liverpool society. The novel does also critique the notion of romanticising the outsider though, describing sailors as bearing the same relation to society as wheels to a coach (quot;deemed the refuse of the earth and the romantic view of them is principally held through romances" as well as uncoving inconsistencies in Larry’s dismissal of society in favour of primitive islands when he reaches London). As often in his work the encounter with foreign cultures is used as a critique of American society; Reburn’s initial prejudices (as with the anti-semitic description of the Jewish pawnbroker) are challenged by being treated"as if I were an African in Alabama," his horror at the treatment of Indian sailors (whose shipwrights had surpassed those of Europe) as if they were nothing more than sheep, and by his realisation that the thriving city of Liverpool once feared the economic damage from the curtailing of the slave trade; "I could never look at their swarthy limbs and manacles without being involuntarily reminded of four African slaves in the marketplace." Melville’s attitudes are ambivalent; on the one hand he celebrates the extinction of national prejudice in American society (questioning whether Turks might not get to heaven before christians) while noticing that black Americans can behave more freely in Liverpool than in New York. There is also the question of the homosocial aspects of the novel, with the emergence of homosexuality as a marker of difference; although never stated this would seem to lie at the basis of Harry Bolton’s escape ("feminine as a girl’s… a delicate exotic.")

Antonioni’s Blowup is something of an anomaly; ostensibly it inhabits the form of a detective film but lacks the assumptions that typically underlie this form of being able to precisely determine the truth behind events. Instead Antonioni’s assumptions are neorealist, a reluctance to make moral judgements ("we have examined those moral attitudes very carefully, we have dissected them and analyzed them to the point of exhaustion. We have been capable of all this, but we have not been capable of finding new ones.") and an avoidance of neatly plotted stories in favor of disconnected episodic structures. Paul Bowles complained to Antonioni that a speech in which is character provided the key to the events was cut, leading to the riposte; "If I leave the speech in, everyone will know what the film is about, but if I take the speech out, everyone will say it is about this, it is about that, it is about the other. It will be controversial." Instead, Paul Castle’s statement that he has no intent when he starts a painting, and that meaning only comes later becomes the key to the film. The film repeatedly denies the viewer access to the meaning behind events, forcing us to rely on the photographer’s perception of what she saw behind the lens, mistaken or otherwise. Art, whether photography or cinema, is described as a contrivance not a transparent window on the world, as with the mime act and the director’s erasure of his own character at the end. With that said, the film does allow its opacity to become slightly more transparent at points; it frequently invites the viewer to make judgements, as with its depiction of the misogynistic and lackadaisical protagonist, whose decadent existence lacks all convictions (as with the scene with him allowing a political placard to fall unhindered out of his car) and who inhabits a society whose Dionysianism seems mostly the product of boredom. Equally, the film does not leave the issue of whether a murder has taken place to chance; the photographer does find a body where his photographs had suggested it would be.