Things the mind already knows

Winter seems to have come early this year, as I find myself walking through drizzle at Piccadilly Circus. I’m mostly here to see the Jasper Johns exhibition at the Royal Academy and as I enter, the first thing I notice is how physical his work is, with oil thickly plastered onto the canvas, layers of encaustic and in later works in the exhibition, objects embedded into the canvas, from string, collaged newspaper, neon lights and brushes through to wax limbs. Much of his work plays with ideas of representation in this way, with images of numbers, the American flag, targets and maps turned into painting but also deconstructed, turn into monochrome representations of themselves. The nature of meaning is contested as numbers are super-imposed on one another, everyday objects like lightbulbs are replicated as sculptures and, in a reference to Wittgenstein, colour labels are written in a colour other than the one they refer to. Intertextual References abound to Holbein, Crane, Tennyson and Munch throughout. Like Warhol, he dwells on depicting a pair of ale cans as sculptures or creating a bronze sculpture of paint brushes in a coffee pot, questioning what is representing what.

The Academy is also running a smaller exhibition on the relationship between Dali and Duchamp. There are certainly similarities; both started in a cubist idiom (the exhibition includes a Cubist self portrait by Dali and a Duchamp portrait of a chess match in a Cubist style, The King and Queeen Surrounded by Swift Nudes) and both experimented with readymades (it includes Duchamp’s fountain and Dali’s lobster phone), both experimented with media (as with Dali’s Hitchcock collaboration or Duchamp’s rotoreliefs) and both shared a playful sense of humour (as with their joint rewriting of the Mona Lisa to include a moustache). But there are rather stark differences; Dali’s surrealism amounted to almost a private mythology (often borrowing extensively from Christian imagery, as with the painting of St John of the Cross, shown here) articulated largely through painting, neither of which are particularly true of Duchamp.

The following week I go to a showing of the 1920 version of The Golem, accompanied by a talk on how while this film was a dead-end in terms of later re-makes, its aesthetic proved influential on Universal’s version of Frankenstein; certainly the scene with the monster and the child reminds me of Frankenstein. But a lot of the visual trickery in the film is more Melies while the gothic set design (at least on the interior sets; the exterior is Ruritanian) is a sinuously organic counterpart to Dr Kaligari.

That weekend, I go to a showing of Blade Runner 2049. The main thing that occurs to me is how much of its dystopian future is already here, from a world dominated to corporations and artificial intelligence to climate failure. Even the brands referenced in the film, whether Atari, Pan-Am or Peugot have the nostalgic sense of belonging to yesteryear. As Fredric Jameson argued, science fiction does not offer us the future, but rather a transformed present. In this case, the Asian dystopia of the original film has given way to a multi-cultural world of Russian-speaking toughs and African merchants. The figure of K as a white, male victim-hero seems problematic against this background; like Ghost in the Shell, the main characters are all white in spite of the setting.

On other films, comparing Call Me By Your Name with God’s Own Country is an interesting exercise. Both deal with a foreigner awakening the main character but differ sharply beyond that. The former presents the unusual proposition of an adolescent gay romance; guilt and shame are essentially absent from the film. But equally, it far more coy over gay sex that it is with Elio’s straight sex. Nor does the conclusion seem satisfactory; Oliver’s declaration of marriage is retained while the section in which it is made clear that Elio remains gay is omitted. It makes the episode set in a summery past somewhere in the eighties seem like a transience. Conversely, the gay sex in God’s Own Country is pretty explicit and often both dirty and brutal; presented as an artefact of Johnny and Gheorghe’s lives as much as skinning a dead lamb. The film depicts repression as the dominant characteristic of English life; not solely in relation to sexuality but to the hardship of farming life and the Eastern European immigrant experience.

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Painting with Light

The first room in the Tate’s Painting with Light exhibition is dedicated to photographs and corresponding paintings by Robert Adamson and David Octavius Hill; unsurprisingly a lot of their subjects are familiar to me; views of Edinburgh from Calton Hill or from the castle. Hill’s picture of the founding of the Free Church of Scotland was based on photographs of individual subjects combined in the depiction of a single assembly. In the painting the light falls equally on each figure, each of whom looks rather like they have been cut out and overlaid above their neighbours.  Much of the exhibition dwells on the debate as to whether the accuracy of photography ended realist painting and opened the path of abstraction instead, but in reality much of the exhibition shows the two mirroring one another. Ruskin and other Pre-Raphaelites used photographs to record architectural details that would later be painted. Photographic replicas of paintings like The Death of Chatterton spawn court cases. Julia Margaret Cameron and William Peach Robinson’s Arthurian photographs precisely mirror their Victorian counterparts. Comparisons of portraits of the same female subject by Julia Margaret Cameron and Watts favour watts for his elimination of background in favour of the subject whereas Cameron is theatrical in her setting, but her portrait of him succeeds against his own self portrait for the same reasons. When it comes to Whistler’s indistinct nocturnes of Atkinson Grimshaw’s gaslight paintings, photography keeps space with equally numinous photographs of urban scenes by Alvin Langdon Coburn.

The following weekend, I go to the Wallace Collection. From my previous visit years ago, I recall the Vernet and Delaroche paintings, the medieval Europe and Oriental armouries and above all The Laughing Cavalier. The Hals masterpiece still sounds out amidst the surrounding ranks of Rembrandts, for its vibrancy and sense of joie de vivre.  I’d forgotten how much of an oddity it is; it feels a lot more like the Frick Collection or the Musée Jacquemart-André than most London museums. Most of the rooms feel like a time capsule from rococo Paris, with Sevres porcelain and Boulle marquetry displayed throughout. Other things that leap out; Limoges enamel work, allegorical Poussin paintings, maiolica ceramics, a mythological scene from Titian and a room filled with Canalettos. The next weekend, I go to Waddesdon Manor. I’d forgotten the tower room filled with Bakst’s paintings of the Sleeping beauty and items like the Indian elephant clock automata.

I finally got to see the Ben Wheatley film of High-Rise the other night. The novel’s themes of tower block class war degenerating into butchery and violence seem prescient at a time when oligarchic skyscrapers rise in Western cities as their banlieue breed fanatics and terrorists.   This is as it should be; for a novel written in the seventies, Ballard’s work always operates implicitly as science fiction. Which makes the setting of the novel at the time it was written something of an oddity as the film effectively turns into a period drama of a future that never happened in quite that form.  Unlike Cronenberg’s film version of Crash, it also imparts to the film a certain kitsch or even comic aspect absent from the novel, a sort of version of Abigail’s Party with added killings, which sits oddly alongside a novel concerned with the death of affect. Ballardian surrealism is rendered as English eccentricity.

Land of Darkness

It has been a characteristically English winter; gloomy, dark and drenched with rain. Many of the roads in the Midlands proved to have flooded and the only time I had to go out was a visit to Hanbury Hall and Little Malvern Priory. Back down south, I visit some of the churches at Highclere (Victorian, firmly locked), Padworth and Ashmansworth, the latter having a window designed and etched by Lawrence Whistler.

Snowdrops were starting to come out in Oxford, when I went on a tour of Stirling’s Florey Building. Like many buildings of this period, it’s easy to have mixed views of it. On the one hand, it does still look marvelously futuristic, like a cross between a spacecraft with its landing gear extended or as an inverted gothic cathedral supported by flying buttresses (even down to having a set of cloisters beneath the building). The red tiling stands out in contrast to the honey-coloured Bath stone used around it, while its panoramic internal courtyard looks out across the rivers to the meadows beyond in a particularly picturesque setting. On the other hand, the building has aged badly, with the tiling having fractured and concrete stalactites hanging down from it. The interior felt fairly cramped and claustrophobic. The glass used so extensively means that the building is extremely energy inefficient, with it being difficult to heat in winter and prone to overheating in summer.

Reading Film Theatre have had a very good season to open the year. I first went to see Berberian Sound Studio, Land and Freedom and Aelita, Queen of Mars. Berberian Sound Studio is a critique cum homage to Italian giallo films and their soundtracks in particular; it’s unusual for a film to concentrate so much on sound. Land and Freedom is Ken Loach’s account of the ideological conflicts within the Spanish left at the time of the civil war; particularly how Stalin’s hope that a moderate form of Republicanism would gain more support from the Spanish middle-class and make the Soviet Union more acceptable as an ally for Britain and France, thereby leading him to the suppression of the Revolutionary and Anarchist factions. For all the romanticisation of the Spanish civil war it brings out the aspects of communist that were to become familiar in Eastern Europe; the burning of paintings, summary executions and arrests, the forced expropriation of land and so on. It equally dwells on the revolutionary tendency to value ideological purity over pragmatism; but tin so far as it depicts the revolutionary brigades are characterised by idealism it would have been interesting if the film had included a counter-balancing depiction of fascism, which is essentially absent. Without a counterpoint, the film assumes that communism, for all its failures, was ideologically superior to its missing mirror image. Lastly, there’s Aelita, Queen of Mars. The Tolstoy novel this is based on is rather more straightforward than the film, depicting a communist uprising on Mars, part of the Soviet fascination with science fiction as they sought to reinvent society. The film is more complex; the Martian events are a fantasy on the part of the main character whose suspicion of his pure wife is contrasted to Aelita’s treachery. The gender politics with their virgin/whore dichotomies are accordingly rather crude and the film’s suggestion that dwelling on other modes of life (whether on other worlds or of a lost Imperial Russia) is counter-revolutionary is no better. What is positive about the film are its recordings of street scenes in Moscow from parades in Red Square contrasted to the constructivist set designs. The other thing I especially liked about the film was the electronics and guitar soundtrack performed in the theatre by Minima; I never attended a soundtrack performed as it would have been in the age of silent cinema.

The British Library are running an exhibition of Mughal art, predictably focusing on illuminated manuscripts. There are some objects though; the crown of the last emperor and a jade turtle, for example. The paintings and manuscripts often tend to dwell on landscapes populated with people and animals; in that sense they frequently remind me of Brueghel. The subjects often tend to be domestic; portraiture, court or hunting scenes rather than the mythic or epic; it also succeeds at noting a court that typically tended towards a pluralist viewpoint necessitated by the size of its empire, encompassing artistic influences from Persia and Europe as well as Christian, Sufi, Muslim and Hindu sources. Conversely, the Northern Renaissance exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery includes much that is familiar, such as Cranach’s paintings of Lucretia, Apollo & Diana and The Judgement of Paris or Holbein’s paintings of Erasmus and Henry the Eighth. It also has much that I’m less familiar with, such as Durer’s prints of the Book of Revelations and of a Rhinoceros, Memling’s portraiture, Clouet’s paintings of the French nobility. Rather oddly, it also has some Cellini sculptures. Finally, I went to the Tate to visit its Schwitters in Britain exhibition, encompassing his collages, sculptures and paintings from that period.

Food cooked: Lamb stroganoff, Chorizo and black pudding stew, Waterzooi de Volaille, Turkish menemen with sumac yoghurt, Chicken with chorizo and cider, Colombian pork with lime, Duck and prawn paella, Lamb Navarin, Steak with vegetables and almonds, Creme Brulee, Elizabethan pot-roast chicken with spiced plums, Chicken with dates and olives, Chicken with prawns, Chicken Paprikash, Chicken Marengo, Ghoulash, Alsatian meatballs and pasta, Lamb and prune tagine, Lemon and lavender chicken, Scotch egg with black pudding & chorizo, Swedish sausage hash, Partridge with sweetcorn mash, Tartiflette, Duck a’l Orangina, Paella with barley, Pork with prunes and hasselback potatoes, Columbian lamb and blueberries, Greek style chicken, Pheasant in cider, Bouillabaise, Jansson’s temptation, Cassoulet, Sumac roasted chicken.

Mythologies

When I read Gauguin’s Tahiti Journals earlier this year I didn’t know that the Tate were set to put on a large exhibition of his works. The exhibition is sufficiently popular that I have to wait a few hours to get in and go for a walk past Hopton’s Almshouses and the Oxo Tower. Once I’m inside, the exhibition is drawn up thematically (landscapes, portraits, still life, the feminine, narratives, religion) as well as two rooms dedicated to biography and social history. As an approach it works rather well, putting his Breton works alongside Tahiti and Martinique, while contrasting his early career as a bourgeois portrait painter with his later works.

As a painter, Gauguin is particularly writerly, in spite of his emphasis on ceramics and carving alongside painting. Where the impressionists dwelt on surface and effects of light, Gauguin’s primary colours point to an ambition to see the instress and inscape of things. Each painting seems like a fragment of a wider fresco, particularly with the way that so many of them depict wallpapers (or his own paintings) in the background in order to emphasise the reality of the foreground or even to suggest to blur the line between imagination and life, with the wallpaper being shown as a projection of a sleeper’s dreams, something that begins with paintings of his children and extends to his Tahitian paintings. By the same token, his still life paintings are often depicted through the gaze of an observer, as if the thing in itself could not be left unattended.

Nonetheless, my view of his journals was that his romanticisation of the noble savage was to a large extent superficial (given that missionaries had been active in Tahiti a hundred years before Gauguin’s arrival, which was essentially a product of the advent of mass tourism) and the paintings do go some way to confirming that. A painting of a woman holding a fruit as a representation of Eve at the tree of knowledge is painted a second time with her holding a fox, a folklore symbol of sexuality. Christian themes compete with pagan themes throughout; even as he rejects Christian theology he depicts Tahiti through its lens. Christ is frequently depicted in his paintings, but is often shown in the guise of Gauguin. Conversely, the idols in his paintings were often carved by himself while the Tahitian names are often chosen for their sounds rather than their means. Easter island glyphs included in his paintings remain untranslated today and are included solely as a form of exoticism.

The following week sees a visit to Oxford for the Ashmolean’s exhibition on the Pre-Raphaelites and Italy. It’s a somewhat thin pretext for an exhibition, which ranges from Ruskin’s detailed studies of Italian architecture and Burne-Jones church interior designs to Brett’s landscapes of Capri and Florence and to Rossetti’s somewhat fanciful interpretations of Dante. However, it does have some rather nice works by minor painters, like Dyce’s interpretation of Paolo and Francesca Da Rimini, Inchbold’s painting of the Venetian lagoon, Bell Scott’s painting of Keats and Shelley’s graves, Newman’s depiction of the Duomo in Florence and an extraordinary painting of the Maries at the Sepulchure after Mantegna by Howard. Some of the Etruscan group’s paintings are more interesting than the Pre-Raphaelites proper, with Howard’s ruin paintings and Richmond’s landscapes especially standing out. Afterwards, I visit the castle; I don’t particularly like tours but it was worth is to see the interior of St George’s chapel alone.

The British Museum’s Egyptian Book of the Dead exhibition leaves me feeling rather ambivalent, given that it does rather tend to drag Egyptian religion out of the exoticism of mythology down to the rather prosaic level of theology. The paraphernalia of a seraph-like soul being weighed and judged as to whether it shall gain eternal life and the promise of a physical resurrection all presumably found their way into christianity (sadly missing the Cerberus like Devourer), while the desperate ploys to persuade the heart not to testify against the soul in the final judgement seem like nothing so much as the Catholic confessional and selling of indulgences. The best exhibit is rather clearly the beautiful gilt cartonnage mask of Satdjehuty, the one item free of religious symbolism.

In a certain sense, literature is commonly associated with social order. In tragedy, the ambitions of the malcontent or overreacher are curtailed. In comedy, the perverse and vulgar are help up as objects of amusement, before the social order snaps back into its fixed position. Both descriptions are of course exaggerations, and often diametrically opposed to tragedy’s ability to highlight the plight of the powerless or comedy’s ability to mock the privileged. However, I did find myself thinking of those definitions as I read a collection of Ancient Egyptian writings. Many of them are explicitly cast as teachings, instructions on inherited tradition; “emulate your forefathers, your ancestors.” Stories, such as The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant dwells on social injustice, but only in the context of restoring social order; indeed, issues of order and kingship permeate many of the stories. The result often feels rather narrowly defined, in terms of everything being seen through a single lens to the exclusion of all else. The best story is clearly The Tale of the Shipwrecked Sailor, which is rather more reminiscent of the Odyssey in its delight at the fantastic and in its refusal to suggest that all will be re-ordered at its conclusion. Compare that to The Tale of Sinuhe, which dwells on travel to other lands but almost of the sole purpose of setting a scene for the return to Egypt in the manner of a prodigal son.

As in Coetzee’s Foe, White’s Voss can be regarded as a feminist critique of the European exploratory narrative. The parallels between the stories of Voss and Laura places both on an equal footing, implicitly serving to undermine the epic calibre of his narrative. However, it inevitably also partakes of the same sort of mythologising as Robinson Crusoe, hence the novel’s stress on the relativity of such accounts; "words were not the servants of life but life was the servant of words… all words must be deceitful… people have a habit of making truth suit the occasion.. all truths are particoloured."

Reading Adorno’s The Culture Industry I’m reminded of the way Lukacs paid homage to conservative writers like Scott and Balzac, noting that the Tory worldview dovetailed with a Marxist analysis, at least where it concerned the depiction of the middle class. Something similar applies to Adorno’s defence of a division between elitist high-culture and a carnivalesque popular culture in the face of a middle class culture industry exemplified by film and television. As such, his arguments against mass culture chime quite readily with a conservative viewpoint (I can easily imagine the likes of Roger Scruton secretly nodding in agreement with much of it); in fact, the historical genealogy he constructs that high and low art were last united by Mozart doesn’t really sound terribly different to Eliot’s dissociation of sensibility. Adorno’s theory rests on the presumption that consumers are simply passive recipients of mass cultural propaganda that induces a permanent state of false consciousness in its "blind and passive victims" a patrician idea of the working class that denies them any concept of agency.

Coetzee’s early novels could loosely be described as being in the mould of Kafka; allegorical novels told in the first person that sought to withhold their allegorical meaning. More recent novels have preceded from modernism to postmodernism and from a single narrator to multiple narrators, seeking to postulate a fictionalised version of the author while interrogating the realism of such a version. As one character in Summertime put it; "it would be very, very naive to conclude that because the theme was present in his writings it had to be present in his life…. what Coetzee writes there cannot be trusted, not as a factual record, not because he was a liar but because he was a fictioneer." Summertime interrogates that self by removing its presence entirely and reconstructing it through a set of narratives told to a biographer by several of his acquaintances. As one of them points out that they are all fictioneers, with one of them complaining about the biographers account of their conversation and all of them demanding editorial rights. However, although the picture they paint varies widely and is far from uncritical (as with a critique of the romantic primitivism in his work or his cousin’s criticism of his impracticality), it is not inconsistent. While a novel like Lessing’s The Golden Notebook suggests that the self is fractured, the fictionalised Coetzee is entirely recognisable between each narrative. Much the same applies to Diary of a Bad Year, a set of diaries split between an elderly author and one of the foreign woman whose recurrent presence as a trope in his work is noted in Summertime. The novel begins with a set of essays, much of which seem to imply a criticism of the author, which Anya and her libertarian boyfriend make explicit. However, the dialogic aspect of the narrative is undermined somewhat by a improbably melodramatic act by the boyfriend that decimates the force of his criticisms. Summertime is perhaps more at ease with polyphony than Diary of a Bad Year, but Coetzee seems to be split between withholding truth as a concept and presenting it as complex and fractured.

Much of satire resorts to simplification and objectification as a means of making its point. The travel metaphor in Gulliver’s Travels enables Swift to make his case with much greater ease than if he were operating in a realist vein. Similarly, Flatland reduces human society to a matter of geometry in order to make a series of disproportioned broadsides against the inequality of woman (especially the notion of the irrationality of women), Lombrosian criminology, eugenics and and social injustice. The later section, a sort of cross between A Christmas Carol and Gulliver’s description of the Houyhnhnms is more difficult to pinpoint, given that it relates to the protagonist’s perception of geometry, thereby relating more closely to the signifier structure in the novel than to what it generally signifies. Like Swift or Bellamy’s Looking Backward (which it anticipates), the pessimism in that conclusion does rather undermine the melioratory project otherwise at work in the novel.

When reading Zola’s The Ladies Paradise my main reaction as how extraordinary that such a hymn to progress and commerce could come from an author who’d written such vehement denunciations of capitalism as The Belly of Paris and Germinal. In the case of Pot Luck, although the novel forms a prequel to The Ladies Paradise, it has rather more in common with The Belly of Paris than its sequel. In particular, Pot Luck metes out to the bourgeoisie the same sort of treatment Zola has given the working class in L’Assommoir. However, in this context, much of the text is rather reminiscent of Civilisation and its Discontents; "covering the corrupt bourgeoisie with the cloak of religion." Nonetheless, the nature of vice is something Zola regards with ambivalence. Vice is often seen as an inherited condition "it;’s your mother all over again… all the unhappiness of his life was going to be repeated in his daughter!" which may be suppressed by which will nonetheless release itself; "checked at first by their good breeding the desire for the twenty francs got the better of them and all pretence was abandoned.. their lips quivering with the excitement of the fray." At other points, the characters vices are seen as something specific to their class (not that this idea had occurred to him when he was describing the lower classes ), with the servants either imitating or scorning them; "like master, like servant! When the landlords set the example, the flunkeys become immoral as well…how glad they were not to belong to the bourgeoisie when they saw their masters living in this flithy state." In order to explain middle class vice, Zola resorts to education and environment as factors, and the tendency to bring up girls in sexual ignorance with only idealised expectations; "it’s absolutely certain that if you’d brought me up differently… some of whom were brought up as dolls and were made crazy or corrupt thereby, while others had their feelings and passions corrupted by hereditary neurosis."

The Hunchback of Notre Dame reminded me of Dickens in several respects; both authors combine a rationalist outlook with a gothic sensibility. In the case of Hugo, he descriptions of medieval Paris are emphatically those of the gothic revival evangelist, with modern architecture viewed as a form of degeneration, but he is nonetheless constantly at pains to stress the barbarity of the medieval worldview. Bernhard’s Old Masters, follows the generic convention of every Bernhard novel I’ve ever read; a character incessantly fulminates against the repressive and philistine nature of his native Austria, from the Catholic church through to subjects that increasingly suggest the first person narration to be unreliable (the state of Vienna’s public toilets springs to mind) and the narrator unbalanced, a point confirmed when the narrative details the circumstances of his wife’s death. As usual. the reader is left working out how much of what they have read can be trusted and how much doubted.

It’s a cliche in literary criticism that the most powerful effects in literature can be attributed to an author showing something dramatically rather than describing it. Reading some of Lovecraft’s stories, I wondered about this. In horror fiction it is often vital to neither show nor describe the monster being depicted, but while Lovecraft rarely shows dramatically the beings in his stories, he often does describe (and indeed taxonomise) them in rather tedium detail. The story veers between the narrator resorting to vague adjectives to relate what he has seen (horrifying, dreadful etc) and speaking of their capacity for flying or the descent of some of the creatures from fungi. Houellebecq’s recent essay notwithstanding, it’s difficult to see this as being comparable to the likes of Blackwood or Derleth.

If Tom McCarthy’s previous novel Remainder was distinctly cast in the mould of Sartre and Robbe-Grillet, then his latest novel C is perhaps rather less predictable; perhaps being best described as a picaresque novel that combines Tristram Shandy with Ulysses. Where the futile attempts of the narrator in Remainder to re-capture a sense of the authenticity of past events could be as easily read as an essay on the death of affect as on the spuriousness of authenticity, C makes little attempt to hide the fact that it is depicting a linguistic world. The two novels arguably represent a transition from modernism to post-modernism, with part of its effect being derived from the narrator treating events with an air of surrealist whimsy (of jouissance at the sense of differance), ranging from parodies of first world war literature through Serge experiencing a Marinettiesque sense of enjoyment during his time at the front while reading Holderlin and denigrating Housman, to parodies of Mann’s Magic Mountain during his stay at a spa. Throughout McCarthy deploys realist tropes such as the bildungsroman or first person narration in order to parody them; for example, characters often simply repeat the same stock phrases in order to defuse any illusion of interiority (although the effect of that can often be rather Dickension) and anachronistic detail casually inserted into the text. The world is instead depicted as a confluence of signals and cryptonyms; a dummy-chamber in the sense the novel’s Egyptian’s section introduces or the various radio transmissions that form a leitmotif throughout it. While C relates to the protagonist’s surname, Carrefax, it also relates to carbon, the basic stuff of life reduced to the character of the textual.

The early section of the novel follows that of Freud’s Wolf Man, Sergei Pankejeff in terms of Serge’s incestuous relationship with his sister Sophie and resulting neurosis. Sophie is repeatedly encoded throughout the novel as a set of myths; that of Persephone, Isis ("the god’s dismemberment, his sisters Isis’s search for his parts.. forced to remake her self") or Philo’s Saint Sophia ("the Logos, dweller in the inmost… desiring too ardently to be united with God, she falls into matter and our universe is formed from her agony or remorse."). Death is certainly linked to sexuality in Freudian terms (as in the joke about the res-errection of Horus, in Serge’s death about having sex with Laura or Sophie’s suicide in response to her pregnancy) but is also coded as a form of signal; Sophie’s signal is disperse, Serge’s death is a call. The name of the family estate, Versoie, similar to Versailles, is more importantly a Derridean word, from his essay "Un Ver a soie" (A Silkworm of One’s Own; silkworms are indeed farmed on the estate), as the silkworm becomes a moth it is not what it was, but is now the opposite of a silkworm, and is therefore opposed to itself. As such, the novel veers between a concept of existence as somehow fallen, lacking in meaning that can only be regained in death and a concept of the world’s differance, producing jouissance, as with the parodies of Freud’s analysis of Pankejeff or the unmasking of a seance.

One particular thing stays with me after reading the novel; although McCarthy parodies realist tropes in the novel (effectively treating the period as a historical theme park), his choice of a period that witnessed the birth of modernism and of modern communications technology leaves me wondering how much C differs from AS Byatt having characters in Angels and Insects ponder Jungian archetypes long before Jung has invented them. Equally, for all of the intertextual references outlined above, there’s something remarkably flat about this novel, as with Serge’s inability to draw perspectives. I recall that when I first read Tristram Shandy, I felt that its auto-deconstruction was rather flat and predictable in comparison to the often accidental contradictions in Fielding; similarly beyond the facile pleasures of decoding, C seems a rather two-dimensional exercise in modernist pastiche.</p

Inception

My reactions to Inception were somewhat ambivalent. Like The Matrix, Existenz and Avatar it is premised on the idea of unreality, dreams in this case, as something seductive and addictive. Nonetheless, there’s something rather banal and mechanistic about the dreams in the film. Whereas Ariadne’s introduction to the dreams has her distorting and deranging the fabric of the dream city around her, the dreams that are central to the plot are rather generic (literally so, with action films and gangster heist films apparently forming the basis of the dreams within dreams). The only departures from realism in those films are mechanically attributed to the difference in the perception of time and the position of the body between the dreams (the latter being rather unusual; one is surely least aware of the body when dreaming). The action of the dreams is quite sequential; it is in point of detail, simply not especially dreamlike. Compare to Paprika where the dream sequences are laden with giant dolls and circuses and the idea of dreamer’s building a rather dreary concrete city for fifty years seems decidedly drab. Both Paprika and Inception place a Freudian stress on resolving repressed emotions (survivor’s guilt or unacknowledged sexual attraction in the former, lack of parental love or guilt in the latter), but where Paprika‘s characters are quirky and uniquely individual, Nolan’s characters suggest an interest in identity without an interest in character. His protagonists are shown introspecting but not living; in most other films Ariadne would have emerged as a love interest for Cobb, but not here. Nolan’s interest lies within the idea of a self that is increasingly mediated through virtual environments and are accordingly increasingly at risk of editing, masking and hacking; the internet and video games are more pertinent metaphors for the narrative than the dreams Nolan actually uses.

Avatar

Being always up to date with popular culture, it’s taken me this long to watch Avatar. This review seems to sum it up fairly well:

"The moral lesson that the Matrix purports to offer is that the glossy magic of life inside a simulation distracts from painful truth. But the moral problem faced by the Matrix is that this lesson is betrayed by the fun that the movie has in playing inside the simulation. A viewer enjoys the scenes of jumping over buildings, and of freezing explosions and fistfights in midair and then rotoscoping through them. In fact, the viewer enjoys them much more than the scenes of what, within the conceit of the movie, is considered reality….

The audacity of [Avatar] is to make believe that the artificial world of computer-generated graphics offers a truer realm of nature than our own. The compromised, damaged world we live in—the one with wars, wounds, and price-benefit calculations—can and should be abandoned… whereas Neo jacks into a simulation, Sully jacks into to a new, improved nature… In reality-in the reality outside the movie—the Na’vi, too, are a product of corporate America and are creatures of technology, not nature… But Avatar claims that there is something wrong with technology, and that the Na’vi of Pandora somehow represent opposition to it. "

There was something about Avatar’s oblivious techno-primitivism that left me reminded of Sagan’s foreboding of an America where "clutching our crystals and religiously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in steep decline, unable to distinguish between what’s true and what feels good, we slide, almost without noticing, into superstition and darkness." For all of the film’s reliance on technology to counterfeit nature, it seems genuinely oblivious as to the hypocrisy of its new age ideology. With that said, it may be charitable to give any credence to the film’s script at all; this is a film to be passively experienced rather than engaged with, which is why the entrance to the world of the Na’vi is through sleep and the unconscious.

The Kindly Ones

Jonathan Littell’s The Kindly Ones is not a novel short of meaning; quite the contrary, it surfeits and gorges itself on meaning. Its placement of its protagonist in the midst of the second world war and the final solution offers more than enough associations to begin with. During the course of the novel, various protagonist seek to interpret events through the aspect of Marxist theory or Jungian psychoanalysis. For example, Aue declares towards the start of the novel that "I had always wanted my thinking to be radical and now the state had also chosen the radical and absolute… how could I prefer the comfort of bourgeois laws?" Towards the end, the phantom of his sister declares that the German hatred of the Jews was a self-hatred of the aspects of the German psyche that assimilated Jews had most successfully imitated; "kill in us the potbellied bourgeois counting his pennies." In this case, Littell externalises this through Aue’s two fathers, one a German officer guilty of butchery in the first world war, the other, his step-father, a French bourgeois ("Our father was German. My future is with Germany, not with the corrupt bourgeoisie of France). The slaying of the step father has clear Freudian resonances, but the novel almost inverts the Oedipal narrative by having Aue desire his real father, assuming a passive feminine sexual role (either when he is fucked by his male lovers or when he imagines exchanging places with his sister and being fucked by her), and killing his mother along with his step-father. Equally, the novel casts Hitler as a father figure ("a neurotic, full of unresolved complexes" as Una describes Hitler); Max biting the Fuhrer’s Slavic nose at the end of the novel representing his final casting off of paternal authority. The novel also seems to echo Freud’s arguments in Civilisation and its Discontents, with the entirety of the war having become an example of the pleasure principle let loose at the expense of civilisation. As a child, Aue is accused by his mother of stealing for "pure pleasue of doing evil," while at the beginning of the war he speaks of those who killed the Jews out of a sense of sensual pleasure, making the battlefield into "a perverted fairyland, the playground of a demented child." It comes as little surprise that Aue’s last murder is committed in the Berlin Zoo, signifying a reversion to both the bestial and the infantile.

Finally, there is the mythic & literary aspect lent to events through the parallels invited to the Greek myth of Eumenides or Hartmann Von Aue’s narrative of courtly love, incest and warfare, Gregorius. The naming of Aue’s sister as Una, recalls Spenser’s Fairy Queene and implies that Aue himself serves as the novel’s false Duessa, with the implication that the two are severed parts of a whole (although Aue’s love for Una equally sits uneasily with his homosexuality or his father worship). Inevitably, the profusion of associations tend to contradict one another; Hartmann Von Aue’s protagonist atones for his incestuous sin by fighting in the crusades; his namesake admit no atonement when he is sent to Stalingrad. Equally, the Aeschylean account of the Eumenides emphasises the founding of the law as an alternative to blood-letting, while the novel’s descent of Aue into insanity only serves as a companion to the derangement of the German Reich and its destruction; Orestes did not follow the murder of Aegisthus and Klytemnestra with the death of Pylades or of the Eumenides themselves. In this respect, one thinks more of the Faust myth and Mann’s adaptation of it in particular. Aue may describe himself as beset by the kindly ones at the conclusion of the novel, but it is clear that he will not face punishment for either his own sins or those of his nation.

These sort of ruptures between the work and the myths it represents are of the same kind as that described by Maurice Blanchot in his account of Sartre’ retelling of the Oresteia. In Sartre’s version, Orestes finds freedom in the realisation of responsibility for his crimes, after having been under Electra’s sway, just as Aue sees each individual as being subordinate to the supreme value of Volk ("the will of this volk was embodied in a leader… it was still necessary to comprehend within oneself the necessity of the Fuhrer’s orders… we had to submit… act in such a way that if the Fuhrer knew of our action, he would approve of it… living out your own will as if it were the Fuhrer’s"). Even Eichman can see how such ideas violate Kant’s ethical imperatives and eventually Aue can as well; "I didn’t have remorse, I didn’t feel guilty.. yet I understood what it meant to hang a girl.. a girl like my sister." To Sartre this implies acceptance of the Furies, rather than denial of the horror through remorse.

"The meaning of the double murder is that he can only be truly free by the ordeal of an act whose unbearable consequences he accepts and bears…. The hero claims all the responsibility for what he has done; the act belongs to him absolutely; he is this act, which is also his existence and his freedom. Yet this freedom is not yet complete. One is not free if one is the only one free, for the fact of freedom is linked to the revelation of existence in the world. Orestes must then not only destroy the law of remorse for himself, but he must abolish it for others and through the unique manifestation of his freedom establish an order from which inner reprisals and the legions of terrifying justice have disappeared… It would be infantile to think that by his fearful murder he has rid himself of everything, that, free of remorse and continuing to want what he did even after having done it, he is finished with his act and outside of its consequences. On the contrary, it is now that he will sound the surprising abyss of horror and naked fear that dogmatic beliefs no longer veil, the abyss of naked, free existence, free of complacent superstitions…. He is free; reconciliation with forgetfulness and repose is no longer permitted him; from now on he can only be associated with despair"

One might think of a Faust who embraces his damnation. Nonetheless, Blanchot complains that Sartre’s play lacks ‘impiety against real piety’ in its depiction of the killing of Aegisthus; one rather wonders if Littell has not decided to posthumously furnish Blanchot with such an example; certainly the paradox of Aue declaring that he is beset by the Kindly Ones when he feels no remorse nor has anything to fear from the police or allies is a contradiction of the same kind Sartre offers; "I am not talking about remorse, or about guilt. These too exist, no doubt, I don’t want to deny it, but I think things are far more complex than that… What I did, I did with my eyes open, believing that it was my duty and that it had to be done, disagreeable or unpleasant as it may have been."

It also plays well to Blanchot’s aesthetic of the literary as "an object capable of rendering contradictory or meaningless any attempt to study it theoretically." At one point, Max quotes Blanchot on Moby Dick; "a work that presents the ironic quality of an enigma and reveals itself only the questions it raises." One does wonder if the Nazis are perhaps the most suitable subject for explorations of ambiguity, particularly so when quoting a theorist who had been sympathetic to fascism; nonetheless the impiety Littell requires can only come through denial of our principle taboo, the idea that after Auschwitz there can be no poetry. Certainly, the novel possesses a polyphonic aspect by virtue of the way its narrator is able to play against our conventional moral judgements, as when Nazi officers state they plan war crimes tribunals over the Soviet massacres in the Ukraine or against the British for their bombing of civilians in German citizens or when Aue compares the Reich’s methods to those used by the British and French in defending their empire or by the Americans in defending their commerical interests. Nonetheless, one wonders if this doesn’t undermine some of Littell’s ethical ideas; on the one hand Aue’s crimes have to plumb the depths of the abyss in order to complete his project, on the other Aue must also serve as an Everyman figure, as when Aue declares that "I am a man like other men, I am a man like you." One think of Simone Weill’s declaration that:

"Nothing is so beautiful and wonderful, nothing is so continually fresh and surprising, so full of sweet and perpetual ecstasy, as the good. No desert is as dreary, boring and monotonous as evil. This is the truth about good and evil. With fictional good and evil it is the other way round. Fictional good is boring and flat, while fictional evil is varied and intriguing, attractive, profound and full of charm."

Littell seems to have no wish to break the mould in this respect; the extremity of Aue’s actions inevitably distance him from being an exemplar of the banality of evil that he attributes to the assorted Nazi bureaucrats he meets. Max’s statement that military doctors find women’s underwear underneath the uniforms of the wounded more often than you’d think only serves to illustrate the contradiction. For example Aue’s narration speaks of a "good family man who wanted to feed his children and who obeyed his government, even though in his innermost being he didn’t entirely agree… free will has nothing to do with it" But in practice, Aue only ever disagrees with national socialism on practical or tactical matters; he remains a believer throughout and is rather less cynical about matters than many of the other characters. Littell advocates a Greek rather than Christian morality in response to this, just as Oedipus was guilty of slaying his mother even unknowingly (and as Aue cannot remember killing his mother and step-father), so too is an SS officer guilty when only obeying orders; "the link between will and crime is a christian notion" Nonetheless, the Sartrean project behind the novel still requires Aue to accept responsibility, not merely to state that punishment is independent of volition.

The White Ribbon

I went to see Haneke’s The White Ribbon last night. It’s fair to say I felt rather ambivalent about it. According to Haneke:

"In places where people are suffering, they become very receptive to ideology because they’re looking for something to clutch hold of, a straw that will take them out of that misery." Does ideological belief remove the need to ask questions? "Of course. The less intelligent I am, the more easily I follow someone who is going to give me the answers."

It is partly for this reason, one assumes, that Haneke’s work never offers one simple answer where several complicated enigmas will do. As a director, he believes firmly that a film should pose more problems than it solves; his ideal viewer is "one who leaves with questions". Does he find it irritating when people who have seen his films ask him what happened next? "It’s not at all irritating because it’s a normal question. I say: take a look at the film, let it go through your head, consider what you want to think about it. People always want answers, but only liars have the answers. Politicians have answers." Later, he confesses that the only thing he watches on television is the weather forecast, because "that’s the only thing that is not a lie".

It’s certainly true that The White Ribbon is far from being monologic as a film. The pastor’s authoritarian approach with his children results in one stabbing his pet bird, while another offers his father a tamed bird upon seeing how upset his father is. The pastor’s puritannical morality contrasts with the Doctor’s adultery and lust for his daughter. Both contrast to the somewhat sentimental story of the Teacher’s love for Eva. However, the fact remains that the film does have a central premise to it concerning the origins of violence. The film is not depicting events defy meaning, in the manner of Kafka. It is depicting a didactic view of German society, seen as authoritarian, brutal and repressive, whether in denying sexual pleasure, in beating and abusing children or in treating workers with callous disregard. The children depicted represent the generation that went onto become Nazis. The point is not especially subtle and contrary to Haneke’s view that the subject matter is universal it seems difficult to see the same script being filmed in contemporary Germany. The themes would simply not translate for the most part. In another interview, Haneke notes that:

"Automatically when you make a film you’re manipulating the spectator. If you place your camera here instead of there, you’re going to give a very different impression, so filmmaking always involves manipulation. The question is rather, to what end do you manipulate the spectator? I’ve often said that manipulation is a form of rape. The only acceptable form of rape is when you rape the spectator into autonomy, make the spectator aware of their role as a receptor, as a victim, so that they become autonomous or independent."

I am unsure a film can easily be both manipulative and open-ended.

I’ve also just finished reading Mishima’s Runaway Horses, a novel that does tend rather more towards the dialogic; "he has excluded a number of contradictions…he sacrifices all perspective.. what the book lacks is contrast". Based around the central thesis that its central character, Isao is the reincarnation of the protagonist of Spring Snow, I assumed that Mishima is alluding to Nietzsche’s idea of the external recurrence. As with Nietzsche, the idea is far from being without problems. Just as the idea of the superman and the eternal recurrence seem to alternate and compete in Thus Sprach Zarathustra (since the eternal recurrence is a nihilistic concept wherein existence is simply a chaotic flux that is far from being susceptible to the individual will) so they do here. Where Kiyoaki in Spring Snow was destroyed by his Schopenhauerian willlessness, his inability to master and shape his desires, Isao is a model of the superman with all its fascistic implications made overt. Nonetheless, both return to the same fate ("the irony of the human will’s relationship to history.. every strong willed person was in the last analysis frustrated"), in spite of Honda’s attempts to save them in both novels.

Over the years I’ve found myself increasingly unenthused by Orwell’s writings and The Road to Wigan Pier has not proved to offer any startling exception to this. Orwell begins with a description of a working class guest house that caricatures its owners as dirty and disgusting stereotypes; "it gives you the feeling that they are not real people at all… they exist in tens and hundreds of thousands; they are one of the characteristic by-products of the modern world." Later in the same text, after complaining of black thumbprints left by the guest house owners on food, Orwell has the temerity to speak of the middle-class delusion that the working classes are dirty; "dirtiness is healthy and natural and cleanliness is a mere fad or at best a luxury." Orwell then claims to have overcome his own middle-class revulsion without any apparent trace of irony. In part, much of this appears attributable to the fact the guest house owners simply aren’t the right sort of working class people a good communist was apparently supposed to feel solidarity with, unlike the hagiographic (Stakhanovite ?) description of the miners that follows, in contrast to other figures like ‘Nancy poets.’ Northern working class heterosexuality is elevated above Southern middle class homosexuality. Middle class life is ‘sickly’, ‘debilitating’, ‘soft’ and ‘repulsive.’ But again, Orwell goes on to suggest that such ideas are pure mythology; "that the North is inhabited by real people, the South merely by rentiers and their parasites." In fairness, Orwell’s views on this subject are admitted to be ambivalent; "soembody who grasps that what is usually called progress entails degeneracy and who nevertheless is in favour of progress." I’m not sure that this does much to mitigate the view though. The final closing peroration is perhaps the part I mostly intensely disliked; with the war with the fascist states imminent what is uppermost in Orwell’s mind is to "attract the man who means business and you have got to drive away the mealy mouthed liberal who wants foreign fascism destroyed in order that he may go on drawing his dividends peacefully." In one line, you can see clearly how communism did so much in ensuring the hegemony of fascism in much of Europe, but the idea that fascism was in many respects a reaction against communism or that liberalism would survive either of them, was not one that you’d find entertained here.

The recent novels of JM Coetzee operate on a relatively simple premise, taking a scenario that deals with the life of a character deliberately framed to resemble the author, only for the autobiographical aspects to be deconstructed as fiction. In the case of Foe, the principal works in reverse, with Defoe’s narration of Robinson Crusoe, itself a text that sought to depict itself as being a literal account, being deconstructed as a work of artifice that did not correspond to Coetzee’s account of events; one work of fiction being unmasked by another. For example, Foe tells Susan that while she wants the narration to only dwell on the island "it is thus that we make up a book: loss, then quest, then recovery; beginning, then middle, then end," thus showing how artifice is imposed on a mundane reality. The voiceless Friday epitomises how narrative and meaning can be imposed; "Friday has no command of words and therefore no defence against being rehsaped day by day in conformance with the desires of others. I say he is a cannibal and he becomes a cannibal." By contrast, Susan says that "I am a free woman who asserts her freedom by telling her story according to her desire." Of course, as Susan has to rely on her male ‘muse’ to tell her story, the novel has the paradox that Friday’s silence is better resistant to having his story imposed than her tale; "but noe all my life grows to be story and there is nothing of my own left." Coetzee’s device of deconstructing Defoe’s text allows him to pose the question of what happens to the text if the author has been removed in true Barthesian style; "have we thereby lost our freedoms?…do we of necessity become puppets… do not suppose that because I am not substantial these tears you behold are not the tears of a true grief."

Vergangenheitsbewaltigung

Unlike Bernd Eichinger’s earlier Downfall, which depicted events around one central figure over a relatively short period of time and an extremely confined space, The Baader-Meinhof Complex takes place over the course of the ‘red decade’ from the 1967 killing of Benno Ohnesorg by the West Berlin police (recently re-evaluated as inflammatory act by the Stasi) to the RAF’s plane hijacking and kidnapping spree that later became known as the ‘German autumn’ of 1977. The events proceed across the entirety of West Germany, with excursions to Jordan and Iraq, and include a large cast of the gang’s central figures. Like Downfall, The Baader-Meinhof Complex works by presenting events as reportage, intercutting the narrative with scenes with contemporary television footage (rather oddly showing the crushing of the Prague spring alongside student riots in Paris). One of its particular strengths is its observation that this particular revolution was remorselessly televised, with the protagonists repeatedly captured on film throughout and spending much of their time watching the reporting of their actions on television.

Inevitably, this opens the question of whether the film glamourises the terrorists, making them heroes in an action movie filled with glamorous locations. If one compares the film posters to the wanted posters that could be found on nearly every street in West Germany, then it is difficult not to notice that the modern actors are rather better looking compared to many of the bespectacled faces on the original. Nonetheless, if the characters are shown driving fast (stolen) cars, wearing leather jackets and raybans, much of this is simply because the characterisation of the originals as rebels without a cause is not entirely unreasonable; Baader did model himself in figures like Marlon Brando. Baader always wanted to be a leader, but as a young man he had little success inspiring others to follow him. When he was a teenager, he was sent to a new boarding school near Munich. In a attempt to draw interest Baader began periodically coughing into a handkerchief, while dropping hints that he had some incurable lung ailment. The other students noticed that his handkerchief never showed blood. Most students saw his sad attempts to generate interest exactly for what they were, and they ignored him. Later Baader would adopt a swaggering style. In new situations he often talked aggressively, trying to establish early that he was the toughest in the room. His act never really worked with some of the crowds he mixed with, like the Rockers — who saw through Baader immediately. But within the burgeoning student movement he found that his tough-man routine was accepted unquestioningly. Baader’s life as a terrorist was as much the story of a dedicated violent poseur as the story of a Marxist Revolutionary.

The film is thus rather acute when it comes to depicting the gang as intellectually vacuous, their actions borne out of sociopathic delinquency rather than conviction. Confronted by an Italian third making of with their stolen car, Baader is outraged, just after he has incited Mahler to steal a woman’s wallet. Ensslin’s hysterical rants about the immorality of standing by in inaction is counterpointed by the wailing of her ignored children. The policy to only attack representatives of the state and not workers does not last long, from the security guard in the department store they burn down, a librarian they shoot or the typesetters at Springer publishing.

Conversely, the film is not as good at pinpointing the group’s ideological underpinnings. If Baader was simply a thug, Ensslin and, to a lesser extent Meinhof, were ideologues. One would not be aware from the film that the gang were used as an instrument by the Stasi, from whom they received funding. German universities were awash in what would now seem to be radical Marxist thought, filtered through Fanon, and parsed by Marcuse, Horkheimer, and the other titans of the Frankfurt school. Students learned that German society, like all western society, was in the throws of late Capitalism, eventually to be replaced by true Democratic Socialism. While it does acknowledge the RAF’s connections with Palestinian terror organizations in both Jordan and Iraq, it does not have Ulrike Meinhof’s character recite the diatribe she wrote justifying what she called the Munich “aktion” – the 1972 murder of Israel’s Olympic wrestling team. It also does not feature the earlier new-left bombing of a Jewish Community Centre in West Berlin on November 9th 1969, the anniversary of Kristallnacht. This left-wing anti-semitism culminated in the Entebbe hijacking in 1976, in which two German members of the Revolutionary Cells — another terrorist group to emerge out of the West German student movement — and two members of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine hijacked an Air France jet, flew it to Entebbe and separated the Jewish passengers and the non-Jewish passengers before Israeli commandos stormed the aircraft. The cells had also planned to assassinate Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal. This from a student movement that began as a rebellion against the ‘Auschwitz generation.’ Horst Mahler, the actual founder of the gang is now a neo-Nazi.

In some respects, the converse also applies. The film is strong when it comes to depicting police brutality during the visit of the Iranian Shah to West Berlin or the police state tactics used by the authorities to locate the gang. Less is made of the continued presence of Nazi party members in the administration at the time. The Wanted poster itself had originally acted to glamourise the gang, showing that half of the gang as female. German society was still characterised by the tripartite ideal of Kinder, Kuche, Kirche (Children, Kitchen, Church), where it was still technically illegal to co-habit with a man who was not your husband, where all abortion was outlawed, and where men were legally recognized as the head of the household. To men and women alike, the posters made the gang appear both liberating and chic. Even the police seemed to be tacitly accepting the Baader-Meinhof Gang’s premise of gender equality by equally spacing the women and men throughout the poster; few would have noticed had the poster lined all the of the men along the top rows and the women along the bottom, indicating men’s traditional dominant role and women’s traditional auxiliary role. If anything, police chief Horst Herold is used as a means of authorial commentary, (inbetween plying his colleagues with lobster soup), regularly stating that the group are protesting against political problems which objectively exist and which must be addressed in order to resolve the conflict – in practice, it took the fall of the Berlin wall to dissipate the violence. The result may simply be that film is not as well equipped to deal with subjects of this kind as the novel is.

Not entirely unrelated themes emerged in the rather more traditional setting of the Old Vic, with a performance of Joe Sutton’s Complicit. The interior of the building had been extensively remodelled to replace the conventional stage with a circular dais at the centre of the theatre. The result is rather like the Globe, allowing for a rather more intimate performance where the actors are not quarantined from the audience. With only a few props and three actors (David Suchet’s performance being particularly good), the play is a rather intense piece although a little unsatisfying: it feels like a vehicle to explore political ideas around torture rather than a character piece.

The Tate’s Rodchenko and Popova exhibition leaves me feeling a little depressed; ane arlier exhibition last year had captured Rodchenko’s decline into a propagandist on a par with Leni Reifenstahl. This exhibition covers an earlier period and demonstrates how great the fall was. The early work of both artists is easily comparable to that of artists in Western Europe. The texture on many of Popova’s works recalls Kandinsky, while her use of wood as a canvas and wood dust to add texture to the paint anticipates Duchamp’s readymades. Rodchenko’s focus on the geometrical recalls Mondrian, Braque and Malevich, while a painting of two layers of black anticipates Rothko’s version of abstract expressionism. Nonetheless, their social context created difficulties their Western counterparts lacked. Like the Futurists, the Russian constructivists embraced the machine age, dwelling on the dynamic and geometric. The discarding of representational models seemed to chime with the Bolshevik policy to discard the traditional elements of society. In practice though, the attempt to reconcile avant garde art with politics was an uncomfortable one. Assigning a utilitarian purpose to artforms lacking representational content proved difficult at best, with attempts to replace subjective artistic creation with objective construction of forms doing little other than to obfuscate the problem with terminology. A point of crisis comes as Rodchenko paints three solid blocks of red, yellow and blue and declares it the end for painting. Hereafter, art must be aligned to industry, and a turn to architecture, textiles, set design and advertising (under Lenin’s new economic policy) follows. This isn’t entirely unusual in art; the Arts & Crafts movement was closely related to the Pre-Raphaelites. Figures like Lautrec, Millais and Mucha produced adverts. The difference between high and low art is certainly an arbitrary one, as examples like Chinese ceramics show. Nonetheless, it’s difficult not to be relieved that Millais didn’t base a career on his Pears soap work and it’s equally hard not to be dismayed at seeing Rodchenko and Popova throw themselves into often rather bad posters for Red October biscuits and rubber boots. This seem particularly so when one considers that their design work was not greatly more purposeful than their artwork; Popova might have thought seeing a peasant woman wearing one of her designs the highpoint of her career but in practice the peasant’s need for clothes was not overly dependent on Popova’s designs. While the suppression of constructivism in favour of socialist realism was certainly done by Stalin’s fiat, it also seems surprising that it was not done earlier; as an artistic project it was simply rendered superfluous by the the same October Revolution it had embraced. Before leaving I revisit the Soviet School room – a collection of Soviet propaganda posters. None are overly constructivist in style but they do represent a better view of what popular style in the Soviet Union was than the work of Rodchenko and Popova.

Zola’s Germinal and The Belly of Paris both betray a visceral hatred of the Second French Empire, to the point of siding with the assorted communists who wished to see it annihilated. By contrast, the novel that depicts that annihilation, The Debacle takes a surprisingly moderate. The novel is balanced between the views of two characters, Jean and Maurice. The latter is depicted as intelligent and unstable, accordingly sides with the commune. The former is portrayed as stolid but dependable, and accordingly sides with the government. The relationship between the two is oddly homoerotic, with them kissing; “no woman’s arm had held him as close and warm as this.” Dead soliders are frequently depicted locking in dying embraces of hatred or love. When Jean kills his friend the act is described as being akin to the removal of an infected organ. At the same time, the novel dwells on the possibility of the creation of a ‘new France’ by Jean, even after he has said that “it was destruction for destruction’s sake so as to bury the ancient, rotten, society beneath the ashes of the earth in the hope that a new society might spring up.” The novel endless debates these points, beginning and ending with the observation that “Is not life a state of war every second? Is not the very condition of nature a continuous struggle?… war if life and it cannot exist without death.” The evolution analogy is explicit with the soldiers compared to wild beasts or to black ants on the march. While here, as in Germinal, Zola advances the idea of a new dawn (typified in Jean and Maurice’s love; ” in the midst of the savage egotism around him… this total self abnegation”), the novel stresses the “self centered rage of the individual” and a relapse into savagery. Unlike in Stendhal, there is no sense of glory in the fighting and no sense of a guiding hand, with Napoleon being depicted as weak and powerless.

I often have reservations about reading much postwar American literature, much of which seems imbued with a sense of machismo and a fear of emasculation by women. Where nineteenth century American literature foregrounded pioneer mythologies of the lone hero, its later counterparts centre on the irrelevance of such figures cast into the enfolding social structures of a commercial, bourgeois, society. Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates is perhaps less bad than examples like Hemingway and Bellow, but it still seems present. The plot rather reminds me of Orwell’s Keep the Aspidistra Flying: but whereas Orwell is sceptical of romantics seeking to shun mundane existences of work and family, Yates leaves little doubt that he subscribes to them. As such, when Frank seems to avoid a bohemian life in Paris in favour of public relations, his animosity to April’s sponsorship of these ideas manifests itself as misogyny, citing Freud’s ideas of penis-envy or characterising abortion as a ‘denial of womanhood,’ later admitting that his masculinity had felt threatened. Shep Campbell imagines April after years of being the breadwinner as having become like a man. Frank denounces a woman who criticises his affairs with a secretary as a ‘latent lesbian.’ When it comes to the final tragedy, the voice of the chorus represented by John Givings denounces Frank as a coward but rather than praising April he also denounces her as a tough shrew who gave Frank a hard time. Frank is allowed to step outside prescribed social structures, April is not, meaning that she must be punished.

The authorship of A General History of the Robberies and Murders of the most notorious Pyrates is often disputed, with the text attributed to Defoe rather than the eponymous Charles Johnson. Like Defoe, the text presents moral fables that undermine that basic premise with an emphasis on the contingent nature of vice (“in the beginning he was very averse to this sort of life.. yet afterwards he changed his principles”). AS in Defoe ‘sudden changes of conduct’ are far from uncommon. In many cases, crews of attacked vessels are forced into service on the pirate ships, making difficult to determine whether their service was voluntary or not. The author notes at one point that the only difference between a sailor on a pirate ship and a government man of war is circumstance; &quo; who might have passed in the world for a hero had he been employed in a good cause”. As in Defoe, poverty is often cited as a key motivation for vice. However, in a vein that is less characteristic of Defoe, the author often cites little cause for a life of piracy other than piracy: “it is surprising that men of a good understanding should engage ina course of life that so debases human nature and sets them on a level with the wild beasts of the forest.” If Defoe is often Lockean, this is rather more Hobbesian; “nature seems to have designed him for a pirate from childhood”. In some of the tales, the pirates simply end up dispersing back into society, in others they revert to their old ways even when offered repentance.

It’s been a while since I looked round the permanent collections at the V&A and there were more things that I recognised than on my previous visit: the statue of Perseus from Munich in the Cast Court or the three silver lions from Rosenborg Castle in the silver galleries, for example. But there were many other exhibits I didn’t recall; three ivory dragons fighting over a crystal globe in the Chinese section, an articulated metal snake in the same area, Celadon pottery from Korea, Chinese funerary art such as ancestor painting or ceramic horses and camels. In the Islamic section there’s the large Iznik tile frieze, the Ardabil Carpet, Rock crystal ewers and marble window screens. In the European section, I’m quite struck by Leighton’s frescos and a ceiling in the vein of the Great Exhbition that is only visible through a small window, as it has only since been blocked up with the construction of a smaller roof beneath to block out the light. The section on the Great Exhibition itself is quite striking, noting that similar buildings were planned for New York and Munich. The contents of the exhibition included a German style tankard with a byzantine mosaic and gothic planters by Pugin. The Victorian section also includes furniture from Webb, Voysey, Burges (especially ornate cabinets and glassware) and Wyburd through to Mackintosh and art nouveau. The origins of the Gothic revival are traced in Beckford’s Holbein furniture and in the Walpole collection. An entire fake Monk’s cell is included from a house designed in imitation of Strawberry Hill. Imperial influences also abound – Japanese influences on Godwin’s furniture or porcelain clocks, Islamic influences on Owen Jones and Morgan’s ceramics. The section of stained glass proceeds directly from the medieval period to Rossetti, Burne Jones and Piper. The sculpture section contrasts Canova with Thorvaldsen, the paintings section comprising Blake, Martin, Roberts, Rossetti, Alma Tadema and Turner. Last but not least is a small picture of a church reflected in a pond taken by the Victorian photographer Benjamin Brecknell Turner.

Food cooked: Sicilian spaghetti, Peking duck, Balti pasanda, Chicken and papaya soup, Salmagundi, Turkish chicken with walnuts, Calderette of rice with allioli, Flamenco eggs, Steak with anchovy sauce, Duck liver pilaf, Scallop and potato soup, Steak with anchovy sauce, Chocolate cake, Morroccan chicken with pears and honey, Lychee curry, Paprika Hendl, Spaghetti Carbonara, Prok Stroganoff, Portuguese Jugged Duck and Orange, Chicken with Tamarind and Turmeric, Vietnamese seafood with lime and coconut, Apple and Coconut cake, Poacher’s pie, Georgian chicken, Louisiana paella, Crab bisque, Greek prawns with feta and peppers, Pecan pie, Fish with Harissa and Tahini, Bobotie, Spanish pork and chocolate stew, Sri Lankan cashew and chicken curry, Kidneys with Mustard, Guinea Fowl with Pomegranate and Cherry, Chicken with Sumac and Lemon, Poussins with dirty rice, Mediterranean Baked Fish, Polish pork with juniper, Carbonnade Flamande.

The Crystal World

I‘m not often inclined to visit art installations, but Seizure by Roger Hiorns struck me as quite unusual. We’re often taken with aspects of the chnaging seasons because of how they rewrite the world and change our vision of it; the land encased in snow, tree leaves becoming inflamed with burgundy and gold, the same trees bereft of those leaves and left skeletal. Something similar but rather more unnatural, is at work with Seizure; a derelict block of low-rise flats was filled with a heated solution of Copper Sulphate, drained, and then allowed to cool. The outcome of this process was to leave the walls, floor and ceiling encrusted with these crystals; a form of aleatoric art. On the outside, the houses are boarded up, paint peeling off their walls. Hiorns is interested in brutalist architecture, failed visions of a utopian future that carry ‘the stain of life.’ Entering inside, the crystals have covered almost everything, with mounds, troughs and puddles of copper sulphate solution forming a miniature terrain across the floor. In the darkness, the crystals covering the walls glitter. It all leaves me reminded of Ballard’s The Crystal World.

Walking back, I notice Rodney Gordon’s Faraday Memorial. I must have walked past this spot several times now without ever noticing it, which is odd as it is quite striking; a stainless steel exterior without windows that is identical on all four sides, only interrupted by a single door. The object houses a substation for the London Underground and is accordingly functional but does not obviously correlate to any established architectural norm. It must have looked quite futuristic when constructed in the sixties; but now its fate would seem to have become nondescript. Further to the south, I visit West Norwood cemetery on a frosty and cold day. It seems noteworthy for two particular reasons: firstly, its Greek orthodox section (mosaics are an especial feature here) and secondly, its terracotta tombs designed by Harold Peto for Doulton and Tate, with Venetian glass and elaborate corbels. Many of the tombs are rather ornate to the point of being rather kitsch in their demonstration of Victorian sentimentality. Nonetheless, much of the cemetery seems in rather poor repair; several of the tombs are broken, leaving the vaults beneath exposed. Equally, much of the place seems overgrown and wild; at one point I’m confronted by a fox who seems largely unconcerned by my presence. The entire remembrance garden is enclosed in scaffolding. Like Highgate, the Cemetery is on a hill from where the skyscrapers of the city can be seen glinting in the distance. Back in the city, the Guildhall has a small exhibition of GF Watt paintings from the closure of the Watts gallery for restoration. While much of Pre-Raphaelite art was meticulous in its presentation of detail, Watts tends to predate impressionist or even abstract modern art. Much of this stems from an idiosyncratic interpretation of Darwinism; like Pater, Watts was interested in flux and chaos and opposed religion to it as an idea of the transcendent rather than a dogma. As such, much of his work is allegorical but stemming from what is effectively a private mythology. Looking at some of the other paintings, I’m struck by the resemblance borne by one of Poynter’s paintings of ancient Egypt to the Klenze paintings of Athens I saw in Munich.

I haven’t visited Tate Modern’s galleries since the collection was rehung according to artistic genre rather than theme, so I decided it would be worth completing the day by doing so. The first section is dedicated to abstract and expressionist art; I find myself especially impressed by the contrast between the likes of Rothko (a wonderful golden painting), Pollock and even Monet on the one hand, and a section dedicated to Viennese Actionism on the other, as with Hermann Nitsch’s Poured Painting or Arnulf Rainer’s Wine Crucifix where red paint like blood runs down the canvas. Lee Krasner’s Gothic Landscape rather more resembles the Viennese paintings than the American ones. There was also an interesting contrast between Giacometti’s statues with their Egyptian and African influences and David Smith’s sculptures, welded farm art made from disused farm machinery. I’m also interested in the expressionist Brucke group and am somewhat surprised at having missed any of Karl Schmidt-Rottluff’s paintings during my visits to Germany. The final room of interest contains Matissse’s The Snail, Picasso’s Goat’s Skull, Bottle and Candle and Hepworth’s Orpheus. The next collection of interest is surrealism. I can’t deny that surrealism is by far and away the most interesting to me, presumably due to its close linkages with psychoanalysis and literature (although much of it is also concerned with painting as an equivalent to automatic writing, as with Miro or Calder’s mobiles). The first room contains De Chirico’s Uncertainty of the Poet before paintings by Magritte, Dali, Ernst, Tanguy and Tanning, but there are some unfamiliar works like Landscape from a Dream by Nash, Ibdes in Aragon by Masson, A Naturalist’s Study by Roy, Variation on the Form of an Anchor by Hillier, Black Virtue by Matta or Fini’s Little Hermit Sphinx. I pause for a while to watch Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon and proceed upstairs to the next collection.

The next collection is Futurism, Cubism and Vorticism, beginning with Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space. Unsurprisingly, much of this collection is taken up with Picasso, Severini, Balla, Lewis and Braque, but there are some surprising inclusions from Vanessa Bell, Christopher Richard Wynne Nevinson’s A Star Shell and Fernand Leger. Much of this section is given up to more generally post-impressionist art; Mondrian’s Sun, Church in Zeeland; Zoutelande Church Facade, Picasso’s early Girl in a Chemise, Munch’s The Sick Child, Matisse’s Trivaux Pond as well as works by Cezanne and Bonnard. There’s also a section on realist art; Meredith Frampton, Chagall and Derain. The final part is dedicated, rather oddly, to Soviet propaganda. Characterised by hero-worship and militarism it’s not overly pleasant. The final collection is given up to abstract art and minimalism; Mondrian, Gabo, Brancusi, Helion, Malevich, and Kandinsky.

Travelling north, I go for a walk in the National Memorial Arboretum. I notice a nearby cottage with sheep and goats grazing in front of it as I walk alongside the river. There’s a section I haven’t seen before featuring replicas of various historical memorials; cairns, menhirs, roman gravestones, medieval memento mori, baroque cherubs, victorian angels and modern designs. The following day is taken up with a visit to Croxden Abbey, a ruin dissolved in the reformation. The building survives quite well; elaborate capitals remain on arches and tiles can still be seen on the floor. The line of the building is quite visible for the most part, such as the multiple side chapels on the main church building. I then make a return visit to Pugin’s church at Cheadle, with its angels and seraphim on the altars, its encaustic floor tiles, and polychromatic tiles lining the walls. The day after that is mostly taken up with a visit to Ashby castle. The nearby church has an elaborate Elizabethan alabaster tomb from its founding family; part of it is still painted. The ruins themselves retain traces of the original ostentation, especially above the fireplaces. I recall the civil war tunnels from a childhood visit but am also impressed with the remains of the chapel, a set of iron gates barricading off the empty arches. Further down south, I visit Minster Lovell, another ruined mansion near Oxford, with a rather macabre ‘Musgrave Ritual’ story attached to it. The walls seem generally rather better preserved than those at Ashby, having been destroyed by entropy rather than by gunpowder; gargoyles and decorated arches survive. It’s another rather dark day and the Windrush has flooded much of the ground.

Reading The Arabian Nights, it’s easy to see why romantic writers were so taken with it; most obvious is the sense of irrational exoticism that appealed to the likes of Walpole and Beckford but also the sense of threat from forces beyond human comprehension that pervades the tales and the gothic novel alike. In a more philosophical context, romanticism fitful relationship with the transcendent dovetails neatly with the fatalism of the tales, whereby everything happens by the will of the divine. The tales are framed with a device of Scheherazade using her narration as a means of influence but frequently contain stories where the hero’s fate has little to do with self determination and where the malfeasant are often rewarded as much as the virtuous. The tales have been made Muslim, but not with complete success, and not to the extent of excluding all the jinn, ghouls and other popular superstitions that canonical Islam disdains. They are localised in the great cities of the Arab golden age, fascinated by commodities and coined money, fabrics, scents, confectionery, guilds and crafts, but uncomfortable in the countryside and terrified of the open sea. The prudery and solemnity of Arab merchant life, the stately procession from shop to mosque to bath and back again, is subject to violent disruption by a flash of black eyes from behind a lattice or the sudden appearance of a demon. Reading Herodotus’s Histories, I was struck that whereas much of Greek historical writing tends to centre around the Hellenic world and a Persian other (with open admiration for Sparta in the case of writers like Xenophon), Herodotus is as much an anthropologist as a historian and is as interested in foreign cultures as he is in events. If anything, Persia receives more attention that Greece even if events are told from a Hellenic perspective (as with the Persian debate over whether to accept democracy or autocracy).

Reading Willa Cather’s The Troll Garden and Selected Stories is to proceed down a path that initially seems well travelled. The stories concern unfulfilled lives dwindling in the backwaters of the American mid west. In many respects, they resemble Hardy with their convergence of heredity and environment to crush their characters, especially in a story like Eric Hermannson’s Soul: "a face that bore the stamp of Nature’s eternal injustice… Cheat nature? Bah! One generation may do it, perhaps two, but the third.." The early stories accordingly make much of the Norwegian ancestry of many of the characters as much as the hardship of their existence eking a living out of the soil. Nonetheless, Cather is not much of either a pessimist or a moralist; her Emma Bovary in The Bohemian Girl or her Trenchard in On the Divide are able to find happiness while other characters in Eric Hermannson’s Soul blame the "evil spirit" of the local gospel sect for condemning people to misery rather than any sense of ineluctable metaphysics doing so.

In the stories that make up The Troll Garden itself, matters prove more complicated, with the mismatch between the individual and the environment manifesting itself in more complicated ways; While some characters like Merrick thrive away from the Midwest, others like Katharine are only tormented by the memories of other places they are returned to it. A story like The Garden Lodge offers a parable of profligacy and prudence as equivalent roads to suffering. Nonetheless, many of which are not fully explained; for a realist writer Cather often tends to leave matters unsaid, to leave a figure in the carpet. The Sculptor’s Funeral and A Death in the Desert furnish good examples, with the relationship between the sculptor and the lawyer left undefined, as is the nature of Roux’s disgrace or the absent figure of Adriance Hilgarde for whom his brother serves as a proxy in Katharine’s love (a modern sensibility would presume, not unreasonably, a homosexual interpretation in each of these cases, although the stories benefit from this lacuna). Other stories are more ineffable still; the epicentre of The Marriage of Phaedra is located in the speechless canvas of a painting while Paul’s Case and A Wagner Matinee both dwell on the ineffable longings created from exposure of music, ranging from desire for a road not taken to crime and death. In Eliot’s phrasing, Cather has withheld an objective correlative for these stories.

Reading Heidegger’s Being and Time, I find myself most troubled by his continual emphasis on the importance of authenticity. Much of the text can be described as a phenomenological argument with Kant, replacing Kant’s metaphysics with a materialist outlook derived from romantic thinking, stripping out the cartesian emphasis on the soul or the transcendential and replacing it with an emphasis on the throwness of being and the inseparability of being from the world. With that said, Heidegger’s terminology often seems more religiose than Kant’s, particularly so with the emphasis on the fallen nature of existence. Although Heidegger is clear that he is not equating inauthenticity with sinfulness, it seems difficult to avoid the equation, leaving the impression of secular theology rather than existentialism. Certainly, the use of the term differs greatly from equivalent concepts in other existentialist thinking, seeming to conflate Nietzsche’s ressentiment (a critique of slave morality) and what Sartre would term bad faith (a refusal to accept freedom or moral agency). Heidegger both characterises being as being governed by care of conscience, thereby guesturing towards a Sartrean notion of social commitment, and as being at risk of falling into being overwhelmed by the the mass of humanity, thereby echoing Nietzschean concepts (e.g. "in utilising public means of transport and in making use of public sources of information such as the newspaper, every other is like the next…the real dictatorship of the ‘they’ is unfolded"). It’s characteristic of Heidegger to collapse distinctions between opposing tendencies and to treat them as parts of a broader dialectic. Nonetheless, it still leaves me wondering how theese theories could be put into practice; many of Heidegger’s philosophical themes—the overcoming of nihilism, the importance of rootedness, the need for decisive action—found vulgar echoes in Nazi thought. Faced with choices between the mass democracy of America and the collectivism of the Soviet Union, it seems little surprising that he found the Nazi emphasis on hero worship conducive to this thought. As he put it in his rectoral address: "the relentlessness of that spiritual mission that forces the destiny of the German people into the shape of its history… Does this essence have genuine strength to shape our existence?" The spiritual mission of the German people (again, note the reconstitution of religious terminology) under Nazism distinguished itself from the subjugation of Dasein under the domination of technology in communism or democracy, a process he termed ‘forgetfulness of being’ (Seinsvergessenheitct) in The Question Concerning Technology. One can, of course, read Heidegger’s text more sympathetically than the biographical emphasis would seem to warrant; his comments on technology have an obvious force regarding the industrial nature of the holocaust and his criticism of inauthenticity could conceivably be applied to Nazism amongst other mass movements. Nonetheless, he seems a markedly more difficult figure to rehabilitate than Nietzsche.

The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass is one of the very few works of the modern era that could be labelled carnivalesque. In the Bakhtinian sense, the term denotes the anarchic and comic: fools become wise, kings become beggars; opposites are mingled. Throughout the novel, Grass establishes dichotomies only to overturn them: Oskar is identified first with Satan and then with Jesus, with Rasputin and Goethe as the twin poles of his reading matter. The narrator frequently refers to himself in the third person, further establishing a split within himself. Polyphony abounds, with the alternate narrators giving slightly different accounts of events to Oskar. It also dwells on the body and the material, as does Grass in his scatological descriptions of the infant christ’s anatomy, in Oskar’s deformity, in Oskar’s refusal to believe in Jesus unless it can come alive and drum ("either he drums or is he is not a real jesus") or even in the horse’s head filled with eels. The same applies to The Dog Years where one student of Heidegger buries "a real mount made of human bones under medieval allegories." With that said, Grass uses magical realism as a means of producing concrete synbols: the deformed dwarf, the black dog, worms, scarecrows (themselves emblematic of the Heideggerian distinction of being and emptiness at the same time they satirise Heidegger’s endless metaphysical neologisms). Like Hasek’s The Good Soldier Schweik, The Tin Drum also a picaresque novel, episodic and peripatetic by nature. The comparison with Hasek is a rather apt one: that novel is perhaps the closest to the The Tin Drum in many respects, with the exception that the humour of the earlier novel is univocal in its targets. Oskar almost epitomises the object of Nazi eugenics: deformed, Polish and an artist. His anarchism can also easily be construed as a form of resistance to fascist ideology, as with his disruption of a Nazi rally and equal disgust with the socialists and communists. Vaclav Havel once observed that; "We are the seekers of truth who fear those who claim to have found it." Similarly, the dichotomies of the novel represent a rejection of ideas of the absolute notions of truth that typically form the bedrock of totalitarianism; where "there is politics there is violence." Oskar is presented as free to "harmonize chaos and intoxicate reason," where the dichotomy of hero and villain is itself rejected. Where Schweik constantly acts to undermine authority, Oskar is the willing servant of the Nazis for much of the novel and leaves a trail of blood and destruction in his wake (the author’s recently disclosed SS membership is rather obviously suggestive here). His drumming seems the perfect allegory of a world where all values had already been inverted and insanity reigned. It does raise the question as to whether carnival is an entirely effective mode of opposing totalitarianism; it may not be enough to overturn all values when the oppressors have already done that.

The addition of a modern soundtrack by Michael Nyman does little to efface the comparison, but I couldn’t help comparing Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera to Koyaanisqatsi; both eschew narrative in favour of disconnected images, both are concerned with the relation of man and technology, albeit the former glorifies it as the latter reviles it. In both cases, the absence of a controlling structure leaves the interpretation decidedly open ended. Reggio’s cinematography of gleaming skyscrapers is quite beautiful, Vertov’s vision of dehumanised man as a machine (with factory workers showed beaming in the midst of their drudgery) is rather horrifying. Inevitably, Vertov’s depiction of everydaylife dwells on certain aspects; the interest in speed and technology (cars, planes, motorbikes, trains and trams all feature) recalls while Marinetti while the interest in the athletic physique recalls Reifenstahl. The scenes in the beerhall introduce the only permissible element of decadence amongst the rather interminable wholesomeness of the images of work and play. The composite of scenes from Moscow, Kiev and Odessa forges the idea of a single Soviet identity. What’s most interesting about Vertov is the rather postmodern self-referentiality of the film – the framing of it within a cinema, the repeated shots of the lens or of the cameraman; this diary of a cameraman is a film about the making of a film.