The Vortex

Vorticism is something of a curio in art history; while the name still carries it with certain associations of notoriety and controversy, the actual paintings themselves are largely absent. As such, a Tate exhibition recreating much of the group’s exhibitions does arouse a certain hesitant curiosity; in Russia a synthesis of Cubism and Futurism became central to the avant garde, why not in England also? As it turns out, part of the reason lies in the group’s composition; figures like Etchells and Wadsworth are not without some merit but are hardly major figures. Artists like Bomberg and Epstein were never formal members, while figures like Nevinson had a more distanced relationship to it. Some figures who were members, like Gaudier-Brzeska, are distinctive in individual terms but hardly representative of the group; his work seems vastly more reminiscent of Modigliani with its emphasis on African and Maori influences. Some of the exhibits are quite exceptional; most obviously Epstein’s Rock Drill, Bomberg’s Mud Bath (which compares rather favourably to the various contributions from Lewis; his portraiture works better) and Brzeska’s Head of Ezra Pound. I also tend to think rather highly of Nevinson’s work, although it rarely seems to get the attention it deserves; works like Exploding Shell and Marching Men deserve more attention. Beyond that, one thing that was new to me was Coburn’s vortographs, an adaptation of the camera to take kaleidoscope style pictures, turning photography into an abstract medium, even as the futurists sought to relinquish realism to photography.

Lukacs once described conservative writers like Scott and Balzac as being the most acute critics of contemporary; reading Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle reads very much like a conservative attack on the modern media; "the spectacle whose function is to bury history in culture… to restructure society without community" even as elsewhere Debord sees the spectacle as inherently conservative; "behind the glitter of the spectacle’s distractions, modern society lies in thrall to a banalizing trend.. the vestiges of religion and the family (still the chief mechanism of the passing on of class power).. can now be seamlessly combined with the advocacy of pleasure."

One of the distinguishing traits of Bret Easton Ellis’s characters has always been their flatness ("Rain’s preferred image of herself; staring blankly at the camera, so that her perfect features speak for themselves, but there’s the beginning of a slight grin she almost manages to make suggestive of an intelligence that the cleavage and her career choice otherwise argue against. And it doesn’t matter if any intelligence really exists as it’s all about the look"); the extent to which they are shells driven by their external environment and little else. As such, Imperial Bedrooms presents something of a challenge. It is told in the first person with Clay looking back over half of his life, inviting a tendency towards introspection on two counts ("you discover new things about yourself that you never thought were possible."), with Clay coming to learn more about himself as the novel proceeds. Ellis tends to distance the narrative from this in postmodern terms, by seeing every character in the novel as if they were a film actor; "the fades, the dissolves, the rewritten scenes.. we’re both writing this movie together… this isn’t a script."

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.

In Defence of Sophism

Reading Plato’s The Republic it’s difficult not to come to the same conclusions previously reached by Popper in The Open Society:

"Now it is interesting that for Plato, and for most Platonists, an altruistic individualism (as for instance that of Dickens) cannot exist. According to Plato, the only alternative to collectivism is egoism; he simply identifies all altruism with collectivism, and all individualism with egoism.
Plato’s identification of individualism with egoism furnishes him with a powerful weapon for his defence of collectivism as well as for his attack upon individualism. In defending collectivism, he can appeal to our humanitarian feeling of unselfishness; in his attack, he can brand all individualists as selfish, as incapable of devotion to anything but themselves.

Inherent in Plato’s programme there is a certain approach towards politics which, I believe, is most dangerous. Its analysis is of great practical importance from the point of view of rational social engineering. The Platonic approach I have in mind can be described as that of Utopian engineering, as opposed to another kind of social engineering which I consider as the only rational one, and which may be described by the name of piecemeal engineering… And there can be no tolerance between these different Utopian religions…Thus the Utopian must win over, or else crush, his Utopianist competitors. But he has to do more…For the way to the Utopian goal is long. Thus the rationality of his political action demands constancy of aim for a long time ahead; and this can only be achieved if he not merely crushes competing Utopian religions, but also as far as possible stamps out all memory of them.

Plato’s theory of justice indicates very clearly that Plato saw the fundamental problem of politics in the question: Who shall rule the state? It is my conviction that by expressing the problem of politics in the form ‘Who should rule?’ or ‘Whose will should be supreme?’, etc., Plato created a lasting confusion in political philosophy… While piecemeal reform lends itself to democracy, Utopian reform lends itself to dictatorship. The Utopian attempt to realize an ideal state, using a blueprint of society as a whole, is one which demands a strong centralized rule of a few, and which therefore is likely to lead to a dictatorship."

I tend to regard Plato in the same manner as I do Paul or Augustine; a dreadful mistake. Through christianity, Plato produced a philosophical tradition that disdained empirical experimentation and observation in favour of a focus on the causes of causes (i.e. the forms), disdained the body as a prison and which distinguished itself in opposition to sophistry’s concern with descriptions of the world that meet our needs rather than conceptions of absolute truth. Socrates repeatedly scorns those who deal in paradox, viewing their arguments as being concerned with power rather than with truth, but is far from reluctant to marshal sophistical violence in his own arguments. Plato distinguishes between misleading rhetoric and dialectic as a means of reaching truth, but the text is riddled with rhetorical devices, such as the metaphor of the cave or ship of state. It’s difficult not to sympathise with the empirical view that dialectic doesn’t say anything about reality, only about the relations between words. Although cast as a dialogue, once the initial discussions with Thrasymachus and Glaucon have been dismissed, the text essentially becomes a monologue. Voices of dissent are simply silenced in favour of a repeated murmur of affirmation. The Platonic dialogue is ostensibly concerned with gaining consensus between parties, in contrast to the agonistic methods used by the sophists, which were not concerned with truth as an object; nonetheless Plato himself is quite concerned with suppressing other voices ("you think my questions were deliberately framed to distort your argument?… you know perfectly well that it’s easier to ask questions than to answer them"). For example, the dismissal of myth is related to others citation of it to disprove his arguments on divine morality – Plato’s prime means of argument is declaration by fiat. By contrast, Thrsaymachus has little wish to coerce others into his point of view; "and how am I to persuade you? If you don’t believe what I have just said, what more can I do?" Equally, that single monologic voice in The Republic is far from consistent; war is honourable in Plato’s own republic, deplorable in a tyranny. Art is of use as an instrument of propaganda or education in one instance ("we must.. require their stories and morals to have the opposite moral"), a dangerous and misleading conceit to be suppressed elsewhere ("we banished poetry from our state").

Part of this relates to Plato’s insistence on what Popper calls methodological essentialism; the view that it is the task of pure knowledge or ‘science’ to discover and to describe the true nature of things, i.e. their hidden reality or essence. It was Plato’s peculiar belief that the essence of sensible things can be found in other and more real things — in their primogenitors or Forms. In this sense, Plato can perhaps be better described as a theologian than a philosopher or scientist, in that he can always dismiss the results of empirical investigation as not according with his idea of higher forms that can only be discerned through his own processes of ratiocination; "If anyone tries to learn anything about the world of sense, whether by gaping upwards or blinking downwards, I don’t reckon that he really learns – there is no knowledge to be had of such things." Not only is Plato left as Philosopher King, he is also effectively anointed as prophet. Knowledge becomes something that can only be accessed by the few; "those whom the public call sophists.. in fact nothing but the conventional views held and expressed by the majority of the people they meet; and this they call a science." Plato uses the observation of an animal as an example; through study one could gain knowledge of its habits and behaviour but one would not know whether it is good or bad; phenomena are immaterial, mystical access to the noumenal is all. As a result, the only form of politics that is possible is dictatorship; "philosophy is impossible amongst the common people."

Plato’s theology is equally self defining, relying principally on a reported account of what life is like in the underworld; a description that bears more resemblance to the Bible than to Homer. Similarly, Plato simply censors the corpus of myths available to him as inconvenient to his conception of god; "misrepresenting the nature of the gods and heroes, like a portrait painter whose paintings bear no resemblance to their originals." Equally, Plato’s political ideology can also be described as having more in common with the doctrine of original sin or the christian idea of temptation and fall than with the political theory of Locke or Hobbes; "like a foreign seed sown in alien soil under whose influence it commonly degenerates into the local growth… his passion tyrannises him… unable to control the animal part of us" The result is effectively a form of theocracy; "wipe the slate of human society and human habits clean." Although Plato admits that societies are formed of individuals, he sees individual character as being formed by society; in short, there is only the state.

While I am on the topic of my particular dislikes, we can move on from Plato and enter the modern world of American literature. The likes of Mailer and Bellow are clearly skilled artists but that does little to prevent me from finding them utterly unlikeable for casual sexism and homophobia. If Dickens and Eliot as the leading voices of the British Empire expressed a concern for poverty and morality after god, Mailer and Bellow as the leading voices of the American Empire expressed little other than a rather neurotic fear of the feminine in a post-traditional society. Herzog is in many ways a great novel, dealing with the fate of a representative of the Jewish tradition when cast into a modern bourgeois civilisation ("a proud lazy civilisation that worships its own boorishness"), at once an outside and a product of that society; nonetheless the objective correlative chosen to denote this seem inadequate and rather paltry. The resulting effect is rather novel but not especially edifying. One the one hand, Herzog writes of "how life could be lived by renewing universal connexions, overturning the last of the Romantic errors of the uniqueness of the self." At the same time as rejecting the Western tradition, Herzog castigates Nietzsche for having a christian worldview predicated on seeing civilisation as having reached a point of crisis; "are all the traditions used up, the beliefs done for.. is this the full crisis of dissolution?.. the more individuality seems lost.. individuals are destroyed.. this is a doomed time". But equally Herzog decries modern society as coercive and collectivist; "his recent misfortunes might be seen as a collective project.. down in the mire of post-humanistic, post-Cartesian dissolution, next door to the void." It seems clear that the contradictions are deliberate and intending to render Herzog as an exemplar; "modern character is inconstant, divided, vacillating, lacking the stone-like certitude of archaic man." Herzog is able to delude himself into thinking that his work is the solution to the emptiness of modern life and that his opponents are endangering a great endeavour; but even even if he is a symptom of this rather than a cure it does little to make us feel any empathy for a project Bellow does appear to share with his protagonist.

Der Rosenkavalier is an oddity; a satire of marriage a’la mode that seems more in keeping with the age of Congreve or Hogarth and, along with, Orlando one of the last examples of the sort of comedy of gender confusion exemplified by Shakespeare’s comedies. Hofmannsthal’s surreal or gothic flourishes (as with the fake masked devils used to torment Lerchenau) also seem odd placed alongside the bawdy humour.

Single Form

I began by walking through Battersea Park, a beautiful place next to the ruined towers of the power station. The park has been richly planted with cycads, banana trees, tree-ferns, pampus grass and bamboo, which provide a suitably defamiliarised setting for Hepworth and Moore sculptures. A heron looked out over one of the lakes while coots nest next to the shorelines (and an odd pochard duck, with a brown head and deep red eyes). Apparently, the park is having a duck race tomorrow. In time, I arrive at the peace pagoda, a wonderful contrast of white Portland stone, gold Buddha statues and dark Canadian fir. Crossing back into North London via the Albert bridge, I pass by Chelsea Old Church (and Hans Sloane’s tomb) and Crosby Hall before walking up to the Albert Hall. Today’s Prom consists of Wagner’s Meistersingers, Barber’s lyrical Knoxville and Prokofiev’s music for Alexander Nevsky. As a piece, it seemed to me to illustrate some of the problems with Soviet realism; though this is clearly a composer of the same period as Weill and Bartok much of the tone is nonetheless familiar with Borodin and Mussorgsky.

Following a walk to watch the Pelicans in St James Park (descendents of a gift bequeathed by the Russian Ambassador to Charles the Second) around the Jewel Tower and a visit to the top of Westminster Cathedral’s bell tower (which did rather confirm many of my prejudices about London, with the most beautiful buildings obscured by modern office buildings; Nelson’s Column was barely visible, for example), I arrived at Cadogan Hall. Formerly a church (though its tower rather resembles a minaret), it combines gothic and celtic revival designs (especially in the stained glass) with art-deco sensibilities. The interior is beautifully light and airy and I settled down in the pews for a performance of two of Bach’s Brandenberg Concertos and some pieces by Mozart showing the influence of such ‘ancient music.’ The concert, performed by the Academy of Ancient Music, was extremely pleasant before leading up to an evening performance of Janacek’s Taras Bulba, Stravinsky’s Symphony in Three Movements (derived from his wartime film music) and some Sibelius (not to my taste though Pohjola’s Daughter had its moments). The following day saw more travels in London, from Temple to The Strand, before arrving at the Albert Hall for an organ recital. Mozart and Back again figured prominently, with the former represented by his Fantasy in F minor for mechanical organ. This is something of a curiosity, being written for a mechanical instrument that renders it impossible to be played as it was written (reminding me somewhat of Nyman’s sonata for six fingered hands from Gattaca); this version had been adapted. Another oddity was a quietly beautiful Shostakovtch piece from The Gadfly. A Bach chorale prelude was the foremost representative of liturgical organ music, while many of the other pieces typified its use in Romantic music, such as Glazunov’s Fantasy. However, the performance was very dominated by Liszt’s Fantasia and Fugue on ‘Ad nos, ad salutarem undam,’ combining both traditions in a piece that was originally written for an instrument that was a cross between a piano and organ.

One of the advantages of the Proms is the closeness that one has to the orchestra and conductor. When the conductor happens to be John Adams, one is left with the distinct feeling that this is what it must have been like to stand next to Wagner or Stravinsky when they conducted their own works; the comparison is perhaps a little precipitate and somewhat awe-struck, but it was nonetheless rather difficult to keep out of mind. Like Barber’s Knoxville, My Father Knew Charles Ives is a homage to smalltown America, pastiching the Ivesian style in its first part before proceeding to something closer to what we think of as minimalism. Pastiche also features in Harmonielehre, which draws on the romanticism of Mahler and Schoenberg, but draws it within the ambit of minimalism. Where the former normally has crescendos and glissandos while the latter only gradually and subtly varies its notes, Harmonielehre builds itself up to peak and simply remains there. The frenzied music simply holding itself at what should have been a point of climax reminded me oddly of the insistent thudding and Dionysiac quality of dance music. Finally, Adams’ setting of Whitman’s The Wound Dresser was especially beautiful, a poem that perfectly illustrates the gap between the homosexual and the homosocial.

The Kandinsky exhibition at the Tate proved unusual; while much modern art is centred on Western Europe, he is the only Russian representative of note. At first, the patterns in his work appear essentially chaotic, like a surrealist Rorschach test but stochastic is probably the better term as it becomes clear what the patterns represent (angels of judgement, icons, halos, crosses etc). Influenced by muscians like Wagner and Schoenberg, by ethnographic study of peasant art, like Blake, Kandinsky has constructed a private symbolic language in his work, introducing religious symbolism into an otherwise abstract form in an attempt to perceive the inscape of things (many of his paintings suggesting patterns like butterflies, birds or even musical notation). However, unlike abstract art, his work retains depth of field and perspective. Kandinsky’s opposite is the protestant, reductionist style of Modigliani, whose portraits, like those of Lempicka, are conventional in how they depict their subjects (though influenced by Cubism, he never fragmented his figures, merely distorted them). Unlike her, his work has a mask-like, impersonal, ritualistic quality to it, like the Benin bronzes. As in Byzantine art, the eyes are striking, often with the ‘windows to the soul’ blanked out, missing their pupils. Equally, they often retain a disturbing intensity, as the viewer is directly stared at.

Shostakovitch’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk makes subtle changes to the original novella that leave one wondering if Stalin’s verdict of ‘muddle, not music’ might not have been correct. To accommodate the ill-defined idea of Soviet realism, Shostakovitch satirises and dehumanises all the characters into contemptible vermin except the heroine, Katya. But he fails to turn Katya into a rebel against bourgeois society, fails to overturn her betrayal by her working-class lover, and his tendency to satirise authority figures cannot have endeared him to the totalitarian regime. Had Katya been beated and oppressed, she could have become a tragic heroine in the way Shostakovitch appears to have intended but without that the lack of sympathy for the other characters simply leaves the text unabalanced between tragedy and satire, a combination that works for the music but not the text. The opera was preceded by a screening of Kozintzev’s film of Hamlet (where the music was written by Shostakovitch to a screenplay by Pasternak), its black and white eloquently emphasising the melancholy of the play to the same sort of effect as Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood. Kozintzev fills the play with fire and water imagery, placing scenes from Ovid’s Metamorphoses on the castle walls. In tragedy, fate is normally an ineluctable entity; Oedipus and Orestes have already had their destiny cast for them; it only remains for them to fulfil it. For Shakespeare, living in an age whose metaphysical certainties had been upturned by state decree, no such conviction is possible. His characters instead defy augury, dramatising their consciousness and examining their own roles. Hamlet is the overreacher, the machiavel, the fool and the wronged hero, failing to become, as Eliot had it, a clear objective correlative for the events of the play.

Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther presents an interesting dialectic between Romantic ideas of nature and rationalist ideas. Werther speaks of "my resolve to keep to Nature alone in future. Only Nature has inexhaustible riches, and only Nature creates a great artist." Nonetheless he also later reverts to a less idealised conception of nature when he writes; "Nature, which has brought forth nothing that does not destroy both its neighbour and itself." Werther’s fall is characterised by his loss of feeling for nature (though the editor speaks of Werther’s ‘natural powers’ being confounded) but it equally suggests that Nature has a dual role within the novel. When debating with Albert he defends the Romantic individual against the contempt of the mundane masses, only to be told; "a man wholly under the influence of his passions has lost his ability to think rationally,"before Albert states that suicide is simply a display of weakness where fortitude was called for.

Rather perversely, La Dame Aux Camelias reminded me of Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of the Wildfell Hall, not in terms of any novel attitude towards gender but in terms of its belief that the sinner is inevitably brought back to the path of salvation, with Marguerite repeatedly being described as saint-like before her eventual martyrdom; "to any woman whose education has not imparted knowledge of goodness, god opens up two paths to it; these are suffering and love." Nonetheless, the novel denies the possibility of redemption within Marguerite’s life; she dies as surely as a sinner condemned to the fires of hell.

Thucydides’s The Pelopennesian War presents some interesting challenges to conventional views of the ancient world. Firstly, that for all of the antipathy towards Persia, the Spartans were as willing to ally themselves with Persia as they had been to ally themselves with Athens at Marathon. Secondly, that it was largely Athenian imperialism rather than Spartan militarism that led to the war.

In the case of a figure like Pythagoras it is comparatively easy to distinguish his theorems from the religious credo that were formulated to prove. In the case of Plato, whose thought uses the principles of logic in the service of a view that sees philosophy as an essentially ascetic and religious function (a means of purging onself of the corruptions of the body), the matter is not so easy. I tend to regard Plato in the same manner as I do Paul or Augustine; as a dreadful mistake. Through christianity, Plato produced a philosphical tradition that disdained empirical experimentation and observation in favour of a focus on the causes of causes (i.e. the forms), disdained the body as a prison and which distinguished itself in opposition to sophistry’s concern with descriptions of the world that meet our needs rather than conceptions of absolute truth. Socrates repeatedly scorns those who deal in paradox, viewing their arguments as being concerned with power rather than with truth, but is far from reluctant to marshall sophistical violence in his own arguments.

For example, within Euthyphyro, Socrates deconstructs good and evil into unknowable categories in order to lay blame on Euthyphyro for having laid a case against his own father for the death of a slave (an argument that leaves him open to the modern accusation that he is indifferent to the fate of anyone who was not a citizen. Conversely, in the Phaedo the claims of duty to the law and the state are absolute and transcend those of kin and friendship (equally, the product of a view that placed such emphasis on the role of the philosopher-king and none on the autonomous subject). Nonetheless, Plato regards philosophy as a process rather than a doctrine, suggesting in Phaedrus, that reading philosophy is a poor second to doing it; one can reject a conclusion, but it is much harder to reject a process of imaginative expansion.

Susan Sontag’s Against Interpretation is essentially predicated on the argument that "Western man may be said to have been undergoing a massive sensory anesthesia.. with modern art functining as a form of shock therapy for both confounding and closing our senses." Rejecting the idea of naturalism, Sontag sees art as a means of conveying sensation rather than of imparting information. Her Notes on Camp advocate stylised art as a means of obectifying content. Conversely, criticism should not concern itself with content and hermeneutics but with form and the erotics of art. In practice, what this aesthetic translates into varied considerably; the objectified films of Bresson and Goddard with their lack of concern for personality on the one hand and the more convulsive work of Artaud on the other. The difficulty with her work is that she had essentially minsinterpreted the spirit of her age, which was better described in Debord’s The Society of the Spectacle as not suffering from sensory deprivation but from a veritable surfeit of images; "the ever more triumphant values of consumer capitalism promote–indeed, impose–the cultural mixes and insolence and defense of pleasure that I was advocating for quite different reasons," as she wrote in a later preface.

Margaret Atwood’s Oryx and Crake posits a world where genetic engineering is used to root out the most aggressive aspects of human nature, creating a new species and leading to the extinction of the old. Michel Houellebecq’s The Possibility of an Island follows a similar path, though Houellebecq disdain’s Atwood’s ‘ecologism,’ seeing nature as a far more resilient force than human civilisation. Instead, he is concerned with what could be called the engineering of the psyche. Houellebecq cites Peirce in identifying personality and memory, identifying language as the conduit of memory, leaving open the issue of how language can be unbiased and objective (much of the text shows the cloned ancestors of the contemporary characters writing commentaries on their predecessors and attempting to cross-reference them to establish the truth; often failing totally to understand the inherently alien emotions being expressed). His ancestor is later to cite Godel in opposition to the rather mechanistic view of the self being developed. This immediately leads to the difficulty of establishing the unbiased conditons; the central character of Daniel begins the text by complaining of being mistaken for a humanist or a progressive (he later calls himself a rightwing anarchist, although in practice, much of what he achieves throughout the text is precisely that, the sort of progress familiar from Comte and positivism). Accordingly, Daniel spends much of the text advancing a cause that will lead to the extinction of desire in the interests of gaining a form of Buddhist serenity, whiel still fiercely pursuing both love and desire. Equally, Daniel follows his discourse on Peirce by noting that much of his memory, such as why he married his first wife, has simply been erased.

The Elohminite movement depicted in the novel itself rests upon a number of internal contradictions, particularly in the way it depends on a consumer society that turns youth into a commodity that can be indefinitely preserved only for this expectation to be inevitably disappointed. Its force depends entirely on what it opposes, just as Daniel’s career depends on the sensibilities it deliberately provokes and outrages; "if the fluidification of forms of behaviour required by a developed economy was incompatible with a normative catalogue of restrained conduct, it was perfectly suited to a celebration of the will and ego". The consequence of this ambiguity is that the new species of neohumans find themselves leaving the calm of their habitations and exploring a post-nuclear wasteland inhabited by savage humans for whom the collapse of civilisation has been total and complete. The neohumans are both revolted by these creatures (the culture of the mind being impossible in a society locked into struggles for existence) while remaining unsatisfied by their own lack of will and consequent stagnation. As a species they achieve nothing and their lack of suffering effectively leaves them as an evolutionary dead-end.

Orwell’s novels often depict the fall of a cause and the hero that propounded it, as in Burmese Days and 1984. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, Orwell appears to be attempting, like Forster in Howard’s End, to write a modern Victorian novel which values ideals of discipline and humility rather than individuality or non-comformism; "Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning anymore except failure and success." Gordon’s defeat is as total as Winston’s (especially given his comments about how it is women that force men to live by the money-code) but it would strain the novel to read it in the same terms as 1984 (as much as it would read to read The Taming of the Shrew as a parable of abuse or Shylock as a tragic victim). The same depiction of the udnerworld that animates Hamsun’s Hunger simply manifests itself as petulance here. It also casts an odd light on Orwell’s socialism, with him describing it as youthful fixation when "one can’t see the hook for the stodgy bait." The character of Ravelston, is depicted as using a vaguely defined socialism as a lifestyle (where Gordon describes socialism as Huxley’s Brave New World), something he can afford but others cannot; when matters are pressed his "class instinct" simply revert.

Mark Twain’s Roughing It is a revisionist account of the American Dream, covering all aspects of the mythology of westwards migration (Indians, outlaws and gold mining, for example) through to his travels to Hawaii. However, in spite of rejecting his own misspent youth and the romanticisation of the West (instead depicting it as uncomfortable, lawless, unstable and dangerous) he remains far from immune on that score; "we are descended from desert lounging Arabs and countless ages of growth towards civilisation have failed to root out of us the nomadic instinct. We all confess to a gratified thrill at the prospect of camping out." Equally, his account of one outlaw finds him admiring his "splendid courage" and "peerless bravery." Nonetheless, Twain’s astringent brand of realism is not without its attendant problems, particularly in his depiction of the Indians; "if perchance I had been over-estimating the Red-Man, while viewing him through the moonshine of romance… left him treacherous, filthy and repulsive." Twain has no time for the idea of the noble savage but is perhaps not entirely prejudiced in this regard. His account of the Mormons often treats them in the same terms, depicting them as "ignorant, simple, of an inferior order of intellect," and perfidious in their attempts to disguise the massacre of a hundred and twenty people as the work of Indians. Conversely, he praises the disenfranchised Chinese community for their industry and diligence. Nonetheless, his travels in the wake of Captain Cook form the greatest source of interest on this score. Describing the native transition from paganism and scarifice to christianity, Twain writes "the missionaries braved a thousand privations to come and makes them permanently miserable by telling them how beautiful and blissful a place Heaven is, and how nearly impossible it is to get there." Twain appears to be somewhat affected by romantic primitivism after all, in spite of an acute awareness of the previous practice of human sacrifice and his statement that "the benefit conferred upon this people by the missionaries is so prominent, so palpable," in recognition of their ending tyranny, sacrifice and war (while noting that the native population had plummeted since the introduction of christianity). Finally, Twain makes an especially interesting comment about Captain Cook; "plain unvarnished history takes the romance out of Captain Cook’s assassination and renders a deliberate verdict of justifiable homicide." Cook is seen as both treacherous and ruthless in his dealings with the natives.

Camus and Foucault

I‘ve just finished reading The Rebel by Albert Camus. It is in many ways a masterpiece of equivocation, devoted to finding a mediating principle between diametrically opposed positions. It is far from uncommon for Camus to strike a tentative tone as he writes, "as this double revolt is always contradictory… his reasoning is always … ambiguous." Camus seems uncertain as to whether "values are above history and its (Bourgeois and Jacobin society) formal virtues then lay the foundation of repugnant form of mystification… (whereas communist society) decrees that values are intermingled with the movement of history and that their historic foundations justify a new form of mystification." This is a contradiction that runs throughout the entire book, "revolution… supposes the absolute malleability of man and its possible reduction to the condition of a historic force. But rebellion… is the refusal to be treated as a subject and be reduced to simple historic terms."

This is not merely a question of ambivalence within the subject matter; it is also a matter of ambivalence in the entire thesis of the book, presupposing as it does fundamental changes in the psychology of society throughout history. In this he resembles no-one so much as Foucault. This is somewhat odd company to keep given how critical he is of Marxism; "if there is no human nature then the malleability of man is in fact infinite" writes Camus in condemnation of how the irrational is excluded from Communism. It is difficult to think of anything more opposed to the image of human nature as a footprint in the sand, that Foucault advanced. Camus could well have been thinking of Foucault when he writes "a few thoughtless marxists were rash enough to imagine that they could reconcile their doctrine with that of Freud." This was Foucault’s task in The Order of Things, but to Camus it is a doomed attempt to subject the unconscious to a historic ego, without which communism can never be complete.

However, as with Foucault, it is easy to be left feeling uneasy at the amount of generalisation contained within the thesis propounded by the book, as it traces a linear curve from a literature of social assent to one of dissent. For example, Camus says of Hegel that "he himself gave birth to another type of nihilist… it was at this point." Yet he also postulates that "if.. there had not existed, from the beginning of time, two kinds of consciousness." Camus flits between immutable and historicised models of consciousness, noting changes to historical consciousness while criticising Hegel, Marx and Nietzche for their own attempts to do so, by noting that both of them had substituted the idea of progress for the divine will; "the rebel whom Nietzche set on his knees before the cosmos will, from now on, kneel before history."

I’ve also just finished reading a collection of the writings of Thomas Carlyle, an experience that I cannot claim to have been anything other than unpleasant. His piece on modern prisons, where he speaks of prisoners being kept in better conditions than princes, is uncomfortably close to something from the Daily Mail. Much of the disquieting sensation comes from his prose, which, unlike that of Arnold (to take but one example) does not hold rational persuasion and debate as its main goal – Carlyle even denounces the precision that French has brought into the language. As Carlyle regards democracy with contempt persuasion has no particular value for him, and a such the appeal of his prose is much more visceral; to sensation. The concern with such a position is clear, with it being in many ways an appeal to demagoguery, as is demonstrable by Hitler’s reading of Carlyle (one does wish to avoid recourse to Godwin’s law at points such as these, but it nonetheless seems to me that the Nazi connection is much more close for Carlyle than it was for Nietzche), wherein Carlyle’s lauding of Frederick the Great closely mirrors Hitler’s moulding of himself in Frederick’s image.